Daydreaming Can Be Good for You

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Dr. Nathanson often prompts patients to take this technique further by engaging with metaphors and visual symbolism. If her patients feel stuck, they might create a scene where they’re standing behind a brick wall that represents their impasse. She helps them interpret the symbol and can also use it as a tool. “I will say: ‘What are you wearing in front of the brick wall? What is underneath your feet? What is around you? What do you see? What do you smell?’” she said.

When purposefully engaging with your daydreams, the more senses you can call into action, the more real you can make the scene feel in your mind.

Dr. Nathanson then prods them to take action, “actively engaging in their spontaneous metaphor,” as she puts it. They could climb over the wall, knock it down or do whatever suits their imagination.

Although overcoming past trauma isn’t as easy as knocking down an imaginary wall, that action can have real, tangible effects. While reveling in the moment of success might actually de-motivate us from reaching future goals, visualizing the actions you take along the way can be powerful. Screening this movie in your head will make you more likely to follow through, and because you’ve imagined these scenarios before, you’ll be calm as they play out in real life.

Athletes like rugby players, golfers and martial artists who deliberately daydream about their techniques, using imagery and narrative, have found it can improve their performance. Studies of surgeons and musicians have found similar results. Yet, some have trouble engaging with their imaginative creative sides.

As Dr. Westgate’s study showed, volitional daydreaming is especially hard without inspiration. Cognitive flexibility and creativity peak in childhood and decline with age. That creativity is still there, but it might need prompting. So, when T.M. Robinson-Mosley, a consulting psychologist for the National Basketball Association, counsels players on how to harness the power of their daydreams, she first helps them break down their mental blocks and brainstorms ideas to focus on.

To help players lose their inhibitions, Dr. Robinson-Mosley starts them off by free writing, drawing or using whatever medium suits them. This “allows them to reconnect to some of the kind of creativity that we really enjoy as children,” she said.