- Michael Michalko, "Thinkertoys"
Have you ever been caught daydreaming or doodling in class, during a lecture or at a business meeting? While others could interpret it as a sign that your mind was meandering aimlessly instead of paying attention, neuroscientists now provide us with the evidence to the contrary. It turns out that the daydreaming mind continues to solve problems, and doodling actually helps remember things better. The advice to 'sleep on it' isn't a bad idea either.
According to a recent University of British Columbia study, activity in numerous brain regions increases when our minds wander. Daydreaming activates both the brain's "default network," which is linked to easy, routine mental activity and the "executive network" - the brain areas associated with high-level, complex problem-solving. The findings support the notion that daydreaming, which can occupy as much as one third of our waking lives, allows us to shift our attention from routine tasks to work through more important problems in our lives. You may not be able to accomplish an immediate goal if you daydream, but you can come up with a creative solution to a life challenge.
If you feel the urge to daydream during a boring presentation and want to improve your concentration, try doodling. It may seem contradictory to the common perceptions, but doodling while listening can keep you on track with a boring task and help you remember details better. In a recently published study, subjects given a doodling task while listening to a dull phone message had a 29% improved recall compared to their non-doodling counterparts.
In addition, nighttime dreams can also help you solve problems. A study conducted by the University of Alberta and the University of Montreal of 470 psychology students revealed that dreams that occurred six to seven days after the remembered event often reflected "interpersonal interactions, problem resolution and positive emotions." These findings suggest that people continue to work through personal difficulties in dreams.
Sleep psychologists claim we have about six dreams each night during rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). We often forget our dreams, but there are things we can do to recall dreams better and capture any creative ideas that emerged in the dream state:
- If you've been working on a problem for a while, bring it back into focus right before you fall asleep. Think about a question related to your problem that you'd like to get an answer to in your sleep.
- When you awake, don't get up immediately. Instead, lie quietly as you reflect on your dream. If you have trouble remembering your dreams, try waking up thirty minutes earlier.
- Have a dream journal next to you bed so that you could promptly record any thoughts that came to you after you woke up. Don't censor, just write down anything that comes to mind. Your ideas are often triggered by your dream even if you can't remember the dream exactly. After all, the contemporary scientific method was first reveled to René Descartes in his dream, which he promptly recorded in his dream journal.
- You can later go over your dream journal again to see if any patterns, ideas, or insights emerge from your dream entries.
Finally, if you want your dreams to be more positive, try smelling something pleasant while you sleep. German researchers used specific volatile odorants with a negative or a positive smell ("rotten eggs" versus "roses") to stimulate subjects during sleep. When the unpleasant odor was used, the subjects reported that the emotional coloration of the dream was predominantly negative. When they smelled the pleasant odor, their dreams had a positive coloration.
Related post: Take a nap