I believe that there’s a reason why people phase out and daydream at work: it’s that their work is utterly tedious and offers them little reward besides the paycheck.
If their work doesn’t require any personal input or even rudimentary thought, it’s no wonder that employees become disengaged from it.
But dreaming – either daydreaming or while sleeping at night – can be a valuable creative state, if we harness it. This is one of the reasons why I’ll often fit a nap into my work day.
Not convinced? Let’s examine the power of dreams. Just try not to drift off while you’re reading.
The genius of the dreaming mind
Much of Salvador Dali’s unworldly surrealism was inspired by his dreams – so much so that he referred to many of his paintings as “dream photographs”.
Similarly, the most covered song of all time, Yesterday by The Beatles, apparently came to Paul McCartney in a dream. The story goes that he woke up with the full melody in his head and immediately went to his piano to work out the chords.
Over the next few weeks, he played it to lots of people to see if they recognised it because it had felt so familiar to him. After no one could place it, he decided that it must belong to him after all.
Obviously, not everyone has genius ideas like these in their slumber. Even those who keep a notepad by their bed in case of a stroke of somnambulant genius will tell you that most of what they scribble down in the dark turns out to be useless.
But when inspiration does strike while resting, it feels marvelous.
The power of chilling out
The technical term for this kind of mental breakthrough is an “insight solution”. It’s characterised by the idea striking us suddenly, often accompanied by an emotional response – potentially strong enough for you to run down the street naked shouting “Eureka” at the top of your lungs.
While insight solutions are not a necessary step of any problem-solving process, it feels fantastic when you have one. And neuroscientists appear to have isolated the exact part of your brain that’s responsible for this kind of thinking.
Test subjects were given problems to solve while wired up to an EEG or placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner. If they successfully solved the problem, the subjects indicated whether the solution came to them in a moment of insight or in some other way.
It was found that insight solutions corresponded with a burst of gamma activity in a region just above the right ear, called the anterior superior temporal gyrus. It seemed to be a moment when knowledge was being transferred from the unconscious to the conscious parts of the brain.
Interestingly, the activity only seemed to happen after a period of alpha activity – the brain frequency that’s associated with relaxation. It’s an idling state where certain areas of the brain have inhibited activity, including the visual cortex.
It’s what happens to our brains when we daydream.
What does this mean for the daydreamers in the office? Now, those people who just seem to have their head in the clouds are generally seen as being pretty disengaged, and therefore are passed over for the important (and probably more engaging) jobs. They end up being given a workload of low-grade clerical drudgery that ensures that they never get the chance to use their real abilities.
This is a mistake. These dreamers may be an untapped business resource. After all, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to stop thinking about it, take some deep breaths, and let your mind wander.