There is good news for those of us who like to spend our free time letting our minds wander — it turns out that quiet reflection might actually be beneficial to our health. That is because daydreaming, which is often simply a form of introspection, can assist individuals to become more self-aware while helping their ability to learn and remember.
The findings, published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, are important given the fast-paced and hectic world that we live in, where being idle and “un-productive” are seen in a negative light and even lazy. Now, researchers believe that there is some value of giving our brains a chance to be “at rest.”
There is a growing body of information that suggests that certain important neural pathways are actually active when we focus our attention inward. These pathways are believed to play a role social and emotional functioning, including awareness and morality, not to mention learning and memory. As a consequence, introspection may play an important role in the way the brain creates and stores memories, and how it applies those memories in a new context.
Research suggests that the processes that allow the brain to focus either inward or outward are in fact interdependent, such that time to reflect and ponder are just as important as learning in the classroom because it encourages healthier development in the long term. There is reason to believe that when children are encouraged to quietly reflect, they display greater motivation, appear less anxious, perform better on tests, and can plan more effectively for future events.
Experts believe taking the time to let the mind wander, reflect, and imagine could help the quality of our outward attention, and that the ability to accomplish both improves with maturity and practice. Unfortunately, in the modern world that we live in, there is not as much time and effort dedicated to sitting and thinking alone. From the busy classroom to the multitude of distractions that fill our every waking moment, our focus on the outside world often take precedence over inward reflection. This in turn may have a negative impact on our ability to foster healthy mental development and make sense of the world around us.
Maybe the most important take-home message from the findings is that resting our brains is not the same as being idle. While some may interpret quiet contemplation as a lost opportunity to be productive, it may in truth be an important time for cognitive development and learning, helping us to appreciate past experiences in the context of future choices, while ultimately helping us to make sense of the world around us.