A basic definition of "daydreaming" is "engaging in stimulus-independent, task-unrelated thoughts and images." A simple daydream usually lasts only a few minutes. It is estimated we spend one-third to one-half of our waking hours daydreaming, yet this behavior is looked upon negatively because it represents "non-doing" when productivity is expected.
During daydreams, the mind isn't resting but is very active. Children may find daydreaming comforting since research indicates that daydreams are social, making the participant feel more socially connected and less lonely.
Daydreaming or mind wandering is like watching your own mental videos. Imaginative daydreaming can be beneficial for creative people. Mind wandering could be useful for creative thought and can result in our most inventive and creative moments.
When our minds wander, it is a means of eavesdropping on those novel thoughts generated by the unconscious. It is like a fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts from unconsciousness to consciousness.
Neuroscience is making progress in explaining how daydreaming works, and researchers have identified an area of the brain they've termed the default mode network (DMN). This network of interacting brain regions is active when the child is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest. The DMN is loaded with information regarding self, thinking about others, remembering the past and imagining the future. It becomes activated within a fraction of a second after completing a task. It deactivates when an external goal-oriented task is started and switches to the task-positive network (TPN).
In the classroom, a teacher may wonder if a child is a daydreamer or has ADHD. We know that all children daydream, so the concern to be addressed is whether there is something going on that is more than typical daydreaming and is interfering with a child's ability to learn in the classroom.
There are some differences between the creative thinker who daydreams and an ADHD student. When you don't have ADHD, you are able to snap yourself out of a daydream state fairly easily.
With ADHD, daydreaming is intensified. Brain self-regulation is impaired. With ADHD, the student cannot start and stop tasks easily. ADHD children may not be aware they are daydreaming. Their daydreams are more intense and they may not respond or hear you if you call their name. The ADHD child does not switch off the DMN and go to the task-positive network (TPN) when they see an item requiring attention.
Parents and teachers of ADHD children may complain that the child can concentrate and be in control when they want to. This leads to the conclusion the child is naughty or misbehaving. Actually, the child is giving a clue to treating their problem when improvement results from making the required task more interesting or in an area of their talent.
When the brain is supposedly doing nothing and daydreaming, it's really doing a tremendous amount. We may call it "resting state" but the brain isn't resting at all.
Children should enjoy and learn from their daydreams. Parents only need to discuss or speak to their children about their daydreams when the child asks them to. If daydreaming is thought to be problematic for the child, strategies to improve the problem can be put in place. When ADHD is an issue, the treatment will also address the daydreaming situation.
Joseph A. Girone, MD, is a retired developmental pediatrician.