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“What a day for a day dream.
What a day for a daydreaming boy,
I’m lost in a daydream”

The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1968 said it all.

Do you ever find yourself doodling squares, patterns of lines or squiggles while in a meeting or lecture? Have you ever wondered why you do that and whether it is of any relevance at all?
Chances are that your doodling is helping your brain in the task of listening and paying attention. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in March 2009. People were asked to either doodle and listen to a tape or just listen. Those who doodled had a better recall (roughly 30%) of the information played. So doodling actually helps keep our focus. rather than let our mind wander completely off topic.

Have you also noticed that we all have our certain patterns of doodling? Whether it be flowers or squiggles or stickmen. And they tend to be repeated over and over. What sort of doodler are you?

Doodling may help prevent us from daydreaming. However our brain really isn’t much good at paying attention at the best of times. Our attention span is quite short, around 10 minutes. Though this does vary from person to person and it also changes with age.

One study in 2005 reported that university students were likely to be daydreaming around 5.4 times during a 45-minute presentation. If you are a presenter you need to be doing something different every 10 minutes to keep your audience’s attention. The good news, especially if you are a student who has a lot of boring lecturers, is that we can improve our attention span, with practice. Your mood will also determine your likely attention span. If you are feeling sad or blue, it’s a lot harder to focus. Being in a positive frame of mind makes it far easier to stay on topic and even to have an “A-ha” moment.

We have two types of daydreaming. In the first sort, we are aware that our mind has wandered off and we know what it is that we are thinking about instead. It could be what we need to buy on the way home or a mental note to contact a friend. The second type is called being zoned out. Here you are daydreaming without awareness ie your mind is blank not thinking about anything in particular and we can spend up to 13% of our time in this state.

The value in daydreaming.

In schools it used to be thought that those kids who were always daydreaming were lazy or academically a bit dull. In fact when we daydream our brain becomes quite active in two distinct areas. The first area is our executive suite in our frontal lobes. This area is associated with decision making, planning and organising. The other area is associated with reflection and future visualisation. So daydreaming can be an active creative time for our brain, where we are looking at the bigger picture.

If Archimedes hadn’t decided to take a bath we wouldn’t have had his “Eureka” moment. Without Sir Isaac Newton being in an orchard watching an apple fall, we wouldn’t have had his theory of gravity. Thinking about things without necessarily concentrating, can allow a sudden moment of insight and find an obvious solution to a previously difficult or unsolved problem.

Brain scanning and EEG’s have allowed researchers to watch what actually takes place in the brain at the moment of insight. Analysing a problem methodically may in fact hinder our ability to come up with a creative answer. We use a different set of neural mechanisms and this shows up as a different set of brain wave patterns on EEG.
Just before a moment of insight there is a surge in gamma brain waves in the right hemisphere of our brain. And just prior to that, the alpha brain waves associated with our visual cortex become quiet, as if allowing the other parts of the brain to concentrate better.
In a study published in the Journal of Cognitive science, Dr Bhattacharya showed that the right frontal cortex becomes very active a number of seconds prior to a person becoming aware of the insight. Our brain knows the answer before it reaches our conscious awareness.

So daydreaming is probably a crucial part of creative thought and allows us to enjoy insights, which enhance our general intellect.
Now I won’t need to feel guilty next time I catch myself daydreaming, and I shall be encouraged in my artistic dabbles or doodles, knowing they are helping me to keep on task.

Association for Psychological Science (2007, March 22). Study Focuses On Wandering Minds.
Wiley-Blackwell (2009, March 5). Do Doodle: Doodling Can Help Memory Recall.
University of British Columbia (2009, May 12). Brain’s Problem-solving Function At Work When We Daydream

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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