One of the reasons we can get away with daydreaming so frequently in life and experience its many benefits—creative problem solving, idea generation, conceptualizing—is because the mind has a great capacity for interruption. Generally, we can snap quickly out of daydreams as some external event punctures the dream. In other words, we can respond to what we need to and move in and out of daydreams at lightning speed.
It’s as if the brain has made some bargain— the possibility of an occasional missed cue (i.e., a missed exit sign) for the extra brain power we get via daydreaming. On the whole, it’s a process that seems to work well—with some exceptions as pointed out in new study from my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh.
When drunk, not only are we more likely to slip into a daydreaming/mind wandering state, we are less likely to be aware that we’re daydreaming and thus unable or unwilling to snap out of it quickly.
“Some part of the brain has to know what we can get away with” in terms of daydreaming vs. real-world attention, researcher Malia Mason, PhD, told me when I interviewed her for Daydreams at Work, and it looks like this study is getting us closer to that answer.
Jonah Lehrer writes in his science blog about another downside of being unaware that we’re daydreaming—people who are unaware that they’re daydreaming, whether they’re drunk or simply out-of-touch with their daydreaming nature, are less likely to notice when they’ve come up with some kind of creative insight or association, according to researcher Jonathan Schooler. “Letting your mind drift off is the easy part,” says Schooler. “The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative thought.”