OhOften ridiculed and the subject of comments on teacher report cards, truancy or mind-wandering is generally seen as an undesirable activity, especially among school-age children, from whom the education system demands unrelenting concentration. “Monica likes to dream,” my mother’s notes at home read. “I wonder what he’s thinking.” And yet, on average, we spend nearly 47% of our waking hours dreaming. If our brains spend almost half of our waking hours doing this, there’s probably a good reason.
The term “dream” was coined by Julien Varendonck in 1921 in his book: Psychology of daydreaming (With a foreword by Sigmund Freud, it’s such a big deal.) Although Warendonck and Freud saw the benefits of imagination, the last 20 years have produced research that reflects dreaming as a “failure of cognitive control,” and some Harvard researchers recently stated that “a wandering mind is not a happy mind.” An exception to that opinion was the late eminent psychologist Jerome Singer, who spent much of his professional life studying daydreams (he preferred the term “mind wandering”). The singer identified three types of dreams, and although two can have negative effects, one is quite beneficial.
The first is “guilt dysphoric,” or fearful dreaming of the future, when we either dwell on the past by dwelling on a negative experience (such as reliving a harsh phone call over and over) or catastrophize the future (such as imagining: spectacularly failing an upcoming job presentation). Then there is “poor attention control,” where a person has difficulty focusing on a particular thought or task, especially troubling for those with attention deficit disorder. These two types of dreaming do not have identical benefits. But the third type, “positive constructive desire (PCD), where we push our minds forward and imagine future possibilities in a creative, positive way, can be quite rewarding. Useful for planning and creativity, PCD is the bridge that connects our internal observations with the predictions needed for future research.
Read more: How to stop catastrophic thinking before bed
Philosophers have long emphasized the importance of a type of internal reflection in relation to PCD. Many philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Diderot, Locke and Kant, believed that it was internal reflection, not external driving forces, that allowed mankind to direct their lives and guide them. In his work of 1690. Essay on Human Understanding, John Locke ponders the term “consciousness,” describing it as “the apprehension of what passes in a man’s own mind.” For Locke, consciousness was “inseparable from thinking” and represented the inseparable awareness of the workings of our own minds. For him, the open observation of our inner consciousness paved the way for a fascinating exploration of our outer world.
The part of our brain most commonly associated with dreaming is called the default mode network (DMN). The term “default mode” refers to the part of our brain that is associated with our resting state and is responsible for our own awareness and our ability to reflect on our inner narrative. The DMN is an anticorrelation system that is activated during contemplation, such as dreaming and silence, when our working memory engages. The DMN is also something of a hub, with many connections passing through it that affect other forms of activity. But more interestingly and somewhat mysteriously, the DMN is responsible for much of our abstract conceptual thought—the introspective, self-referential kind that separates us from primates—and it recalls and constructs social scripts to help us make sense of our lives.
While the DMN can be disrupted in cognitive decline like dementia, PCD can actually thicken the cerebral cortex, or what’s known as our brain’s gray matter, the thinning of which is associated with cognitive decline in aging. Although this link is not yet fully understood, we know that a well-functioning default mode network, where we look ahead or reflect on our past experiences (as in positive constructive imagination), plays a key role in our lives. healthy mental functioning in areas such as memory consolidation, planning, and impulse control.
Despite the benefits, we condition our children to dream, and in turn, our adult lives. Daydreaming is strictly prohibited in most traditional learning environments. Most schools are so focused on the high demand for attention that they have failed to balance the potential benefit of PCD’s ‘constructive self-reflection’. When we consider daydreaming to be a hallmark of ADD/ADHD, one must question whether neurodivergent children are being labeled as “underachievers” or “troublemakers” simply for engaging in activities that we all do with frequency, but the one that doesn’t match. within the rigid strictures of the modern education system.
Instead of demonizing the dream, we should protect it, nurture it, honor it, if not for its physiological and psychological benefits, then for its potential societal benefits. People who dream are more reflective, have a deeper sense of empathy and make more moral decisions. And ultimately, more thoughtful, empathetic, and moral children grow up to become adults who build a more just society.
More must-reads from TIME