published: 02 February 2016
Northwestern University, USA
University of British Columbia,
Université Paris Descartes, France
Claire M. Zedelius
This article was submitted to
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 21 August 2015
Accepted: 31 December 2015
Published: 02 February 2016
Zedelius CM and Schooler JW (2016)
The Richness of Inner Experience:
Relating Styles of Daydreaming
to Creative Processes.
Front. Psychol. 6:2063.
The Richness of Inner Experience:
Relating Styles of Daydreaming to
Claire M. Zedelius*and Jonathan W. Schooler
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Psychologists have long hypothesized that daydreaming (i.e., engaging in stimulus-
independent, task-unrelated thoughts and images) may facilitate creativity, but evidence
for this hypothesis has been mixed. We propose that, to fully understand the relationship
between daydreaming and creativity, it is essential to distinguish between different
creative processes as well as between alternative styles of daydreaming. A prominent
distinction in creativity research is that between analytic problem solving, which involves
incremental and largely conscious processes, and insight, which is characterized by
the spontaneity with which an idea springs to mind. In this aspect, insight resembles
daydreaming. Indeed, recent evidence has linked daydreaming to creative performance.
But like creativity, daydreaming is a multifaceted concept. Daydreams vary in style and
content, a fact that is receiving little attention in contemporary research. Not all kinds of
daydreaming are likely to have the same effects on creativity. We discuss different factors
prevalent in people’s daydreaming, such as mood, attentional focus, and intentionality,
and consider how these factors may be related to creative processes. We further
discuss implications for ways to enhance creativity through deliberate daydreaming
Keywords: daydreaming, mind wandering, imagination, creativity, insight
Creativity and mental imagery are closely entwined. Creative ideas and individuals are often
described as “imaginative,” perhaps based on the popular notion that coming up with novel
ideas relies on the ability to mentally simulate things that are not (yet) present—we imagine
potential futures and explore “what if ” questions (Moulton and Kosslyn, 2009;Dietrich
and Haider, 2014). Common forms of imagination are daydreaming and mind wandering.
Daydreaming entails engaging in spontaneous thoughts unrelated to one’s current context
(i.e., stimulus-independent), and mind wandering has been deﬁned as daydreaming occuring
while performing another task (Singer and Schonbar, 1961;Smallwood and Schooler, 2006).
It is compelling that daydreaming may facilitate creativity, and there are countless anecdotes
of ideas having emerged from daydreams. However, one can easily come up with many
examples of creative ideas that resulted from task-focused thought. In the present article,
we explore the relationship between daydreaming and creativity, and formulate hypotheses
about the mechanisms through which diﬀerent types of daydreaming facilitate creative
Psychologists have long speculated about the role of daydreaming in creativity. Singer and
Schonbar (1961;alsoSinger and Antrobus, 1963) proposed that daydreaming is associated
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Zedelius and Schooler Styles of Daydreaming
with creative exploration and expression. Shepard (1978) and
Flowers and Garbin (1989) postulated that daydreaming
facilitates the formation of novel associations and the
recombination of mental images, which can be a source of
creative ideas. They attributed this to the fact that during
daydreaming one’s imagination is relatively undisturbed by
stimulation from the environment. Other perspectives suggest
a diﬀerent way in which daydreaming may beneﬁt creativity.
Daydreams typically revolve around current goals (Klinger and
Cox, 1987;Klinger, 2009, 2013;Smallwood et al., 2009;Baird
et al., 2011;Poerio et al., 2015). When confronted with a problem
or obstacle to a goal, daydreaming might help generate creative
Research has supported the theorized beneﬁt of stimulus-
independent thought for creativity. It was found that taking
a break from consciously working on a creative problem and
engaging in an unrelated task improves subsequent creativity, a
phenomenon termed incubation (see Sio and Ormerod, 2009).
Moreover, Baird et al. (2012) found that incubation is enhanced
by engaging in undemanding tasks that leave room for mind
wandering. Baird et al. (2012) had participants generate unusual
uses for common objects. Participants assigned to perform an
undemanding (vs. demanding) task during a break subsequently
generated more, and more unique uses. (They also reported
greater mind wandering). Importantly, the eﬀect was speciﬁc
to objects encountered before the break, suggesting, in line
with Flowers and Garbin (1989), that mind wandering had a
transformative impact on participants’ representations of task-
Additional ﬁndings suggested that frequent mind wandering
is associated with increased creativity (Baird et al., 2012)and
greater engagement in creative activities (Baas, 2015). Other
research suggested that individuals higher in fantasy proneness,
a tendency toward long and intense involvement in fantasies
(Singer and Antrobus, 1972;Singer, 1975;Lynn and Rhue,
1986), are also more creative (Lynn and Rhue, 1986). While the
processes underlying these trait-level correlations are somewhat
unclear, they lend support to the idea that imagination and
creativity are related.
In contrast, other research suggests an advantage of controlled
and focused thought. For instance, Ostaﬁn and Kassman (2012)
found a positive relationship between creativity and mindful
awareness, which they operationalized in opposition to mind
wandering (Mrazek et al., 2012). According to Ostaﬁn and
Kassman (2012), a mindful focus on present moment experience
enables individuals to suppress habitual associations, which
often are not particularly creative (Ostaﬁn and Kassman, 2012).
Even Flowers and Garbin (1989) reserved a role for controlled,
externally focused thought for creativity, arguing that it could aid
in the strategic transformation of unconsciously generated ideas.
DIFFERENT CREATIVE PROCESSES
In trying to reconcile these seemingly contradicting perspectives,
we (Zedelius and Schooler, 2015) have argued that creativity
should be understood as encompassing several distinct processes.
A prominent division between creative processes is that between
insight and analytic problem solving. In the literature, various
aspects of insight have been highlighted, including a state of
understanding (Smith, 1995), as well as cognitive processes
such as the selective encoding, combination, or restructuring
of information, which typically precede insights (Sternberg and
Davidson, 1983;Metcalfe and Wiebe, 1987;Davidson, 1995).
Another important aspect is the experience of having an insight.
Insights are characterized by the spontaneity with which an
idea or solution comes to mind, seemingly out of nowhere, and
accompanied by an “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moment (Mednick, 1962;
Beeman et al., 1994;Schooler and Melcher, 1995;Kounios et al.,
2008). Research suggests that insight experiences are the result
of unconscious associative processing (e.g., Fiore and Schooler,
2001;Bolte and Goschke, 2005;Bowden et al., 2005).
In contrast, analytic thought involves consciously and
systematically searching for an idea or solution and rejecting
inadequate ideas (Ericsson and Simon, 1993;Kounios et al.,
2008). This process progresses incrementally, with continuous
awareness of the steps in the search process that lead to a
solution (Metcalfe, 1986;Schooler and Melcher, 1995;Weisberg,
1995). Insight and non-insight processes also diﬀer in their
verbalizability, the former being less readily communicated in
words (Schooler and Melcher, 1995) and consequently more
vulnerable to verbal overshadowing by thinking out loud
(Schooler et al., 1993).
Researchers have sometimes studied insight and analytic
thought by comparing the processes involved in solving so-
called “insight problems” to those involved in non-creative tasks
(e.g., Ansburg and Hill, 2003;Ostaﬁn and Kassman, 2012). This
conveys the implicit assumption that only processes that lead
to insights are creative. However, while analytic thought can be
useful for non-creative tasks, it is also often used to solve insight
problems, to generate novel and useful ideas or ﬁnd uncommon
solutions to creative problems (e.g., Weisberg, 1986;MacGregor
et al., 2001;Bowden et al., 2005). The same could be argued for
insight. While insight is typically studied in creative tasks, the
experience of a solution suddenly bursting into consciousness
may also occur in non-creative tasks, such as searching for a
speciﬁc target in the environment (see Snodgrass et al., 1995;
Smilek et al., 2006a,b). Thus, while analytic thought, and perhaps
also insight, can be used for non-creative problem solving, they
both can be used for attaining creative ideas or solutions. For
this reason, we think that insight and analytic thought can be
compared and contrasted as alternative creative processes.
To examine how insight and analytic thought relate to mind
wandering (or its opposing construct mindful awareness), we
performed two studies (Zedelius and Schooler, 2015)inwhich
participants solved remote associate problems (verbal puzzles
which require combining words to form compound words
or phrases; Mednick, 1962;Bowden and Jung-Beeman, 2003;
Kounios and Beeman, 2009). To diﬀerentiate between creative
processes, participants were asked to report if they had solved
each problem through insight or analytically (Study 1), or were
instructed to approach problems with an insightful or analytic
strategy (Study 2). To assess diﬀerences in mind wandering or
mindful awareness (treated as opposite ends of a continuum),
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Zedelius and Schooler Styles of Daydreaming
we used the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (Brown and
Ryan, 2003), which measures the tendency for attentional lapses.
The results showed that a greater disposition toward mind
wandering was associated with increased insight solving, while a
greater tendency toward mindful awareness was associated with
increased analytic solving.
We speculated that individuals high in mindful awareness
may not rely as much on unconscious associative processes
when attempting to solve creative problems, but more on
conscious, controlled thought (see also Remmers et al., 2014).
This account is consistent with Flowers and Garbin’s (1989)
notion that daydreaming beneﬁts creativity through associative
thought. Another possibility is that the very process of directing
attention inwardly and blending out external information, a
process characteristic of mind wandering (Smallwood et al., 2008,
2011), is itself facilitative of creative insights. Research has found
that, just prior to attaining a solution through insight, individuals
show increased brain activity in the midfrontal and anterior
cingulate cortex, areas associated with the ability to block out
task-irrelevant information. In contrast, analytic solutions are
preceded by heightened activity in the visual cortex (Kounios
et al., 2006;seealsoJung-Beeman et al., 2004). These ﬁndings may
suggest that blocking out input from the environment facilitates
insight. Corroborating evidence for this comes from a recent
study by Salvi et al. (2015) showing that frequent eye-blinking,
which had previously been linked to creative idea generation
(Chermahini and Hommel, 2010;Ueda et al., 2015)aswellas
mind wandering (Smilek et al., 2010) was associated with solving
creative problems with insight. Speciﬁcally, it was found that
more frequent blinking while problems were visually displayed to
participants predicted insight solutions as compared to analytic
solutions. Participants also looked away from the problems more
before insight compared to analytic solusions. Thus, there is
evidence that shifting to an internal focus of attention, such as
during daydreaming, increases the likelihood of insights.
Admittedly, insight and analytic thought are only two among
many creative thought processes, and future research needs to
relate daydreaming to other processes that play a role in creative
performance and artistic creativity.
DIFFERENT STYLES OF DAYDREAMING
As with creativity, daydreaming, too, is not a unitary concept.
Daydreams can diﬀer in thought content, aﬀective tone, and style
of thinking. Therefore, to understand the relationship between
daydreaming and creativity, it is essential to diﬀerentiate between
styles of daydreaming. Pioneering work by Singer and Schonbar
(1961),Singer and Antrobus (1963, 1970),Huba et al. (1981)
and later Giambra (1980, 1989, 1995) laid the groundwork for
discerning diﬀerent daydreaming styles. They identiﬁed three
broad styles: (1) positive-constructive daydreaming,whichis
characterized by pleasant thoughts, vivid imagery, planning,
and interpersonal curiosity, (2) guilty-dysphoric daydreaming,
which is characterized by unpleasant emotions such as guilt,
fear of failure, and aggressive inclinations, and ﬁnally (3) poor
attentional control, which is characterized by ﬂeeting daydreams
and general diﬃculty focusing attention on internal or external
events (Singer and Antrobus, 1963;Singer, 1975).
Singer and Schonbar (1961) and Singer (1975) speculated that
these daydreaming styles might be diﬀerentially related creativity,
and indeed a study by Zhiyan and Singer (1996) showed that
positive-constructive daydreaming was related to openness to
experience, a trait associated with creativity. However, this
ﬁnding is indirect at best. Moreover, the research classiﬁed
daydreaming styles purely based on thought content.Wethink
that it is fruitful to examine other aspects that may deﬁne styles
of daydreaming and are known or speculated to be related to
An aspect extensively studied in relation to creativity is mood
(see Baas et al., 2008). There is evidence that positive mood
enhances cognitive ﬂexibility, and thereby beneﬁts creativity (e.g.,
Isen et al., 1987;Isen, 1990;Murray et al., 1990;Ashby et al.,
1999;Dreisbach and Goschke, 2004;De Dreu et al., 2008). Based
on this literature, daydreaming styles associated with positive
mood should beneﬁt creativity. However, a more nuanced picture
emerges when diﬀerentiating between creative processes. Studies
have shown that positive mood speciﬁcally beneﬁts insight, but
not necessarily analytic problem solving (Subramaniam et al.,
2009). Moreover, there is evidence that negative mood can
increase creativity through a diﬀerent route. Negative mood is
often interpreted as a signal that one’s current state is discrepant
from one’s desired state. This promotes an analytic information
processing style and increased eﬀort recruitment (Schwarz and
Bless, 1991;Bolte et al., 2003). Persistent systematic eﬀort, in turn,
can yield highly creative output (De Dreu et al., 2008). Thus,
while positive mood facilitates creativity by increasing insight,
negative mood can enhance creativity through analytic thought
Findings from experience sampling studies suggest that
daydreaming, compared to being focused on the present, is often
associated with negative mood (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010).
This was true when participants reported negative or neutral
thoughts, and even when they reported positive thoughts their
mood was no better than when they were on-task. There are,
however, exceptions to this ﬁnding. Daydreams experienced as
highly interesting (Franklin et al., 2013), and positive mind
wandering during unpleasant activities (Spronken et al., 2015)
have been associated with positive mood. Moreover, daydreams
with social content and involving close others are associated
with increased happiness (Poerio et al., 2015). Thus, we expect
that interesting or positive daydreams (especially when they take
the mind oﬀ unpleasant activities) and daydreams about social
relationships should facilitating creative insights.
Next to thought content and valence, daydreaming is deﬁned
by styles of thinking. One well-studied style of thinking that
tends to occupy some people’s daydreams is rumination, or
repetitive, self-referential thought. A consequence of rumination
is a narrowed focus of attention (Whitmer and Gotlib, 2013;Grol
et al., 2015). Research has associated a narrow focus of attention
with reduced creativity (e.g., Kasof, 1997). More recent studies
suggest that this applies particularly when creative problems
are approached insightfully, not when approached analytically.
For instance, Wegbreit et al. (2014) manipulated participants’
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Zedelius and Schooler Styles of Daydreaming
attentional focus by having them perform a task that either
required attending to a broad space, or to focus attention
narrowly. The broad focus task led to increased insight solutions
in a subsequent creativity task, while the narrow focus task led to
more analytic solutions. Based on this research, we predict that a
ruminative daydreaming style with a narrow focus of attention
impedes creative insights, but may improve creativity through
Another factor that may moderate the relationship between
daydreaming and creativity is intentionality (see also Forster
and Lavie, 2009;McMillan et al., 2013;Dorsch, 2014;Seli
et al., 2014). Spontaneous stimulus-independent thoughts often
arise unintentionally and without awareness (e.g., Schooler,
2002;Schooler and Schreiber, 2004;Schooler et al., 2011;Baird
et al., 2013). However, creative individuals sometimes deliberately
engage in daydreaming, because they believe their daydreams
to be a source of inspiration. Few studies directly speak to
this hypothesis, but it is reasonable to expect that unintentional
and deliberate daydreaming are dominated by diﬀerent types
of thought. For instance, deliberate daydreaming may be more
structured than unintentional daydreaming and more narrowly
focused on personal goals (including creative goals), which
should associate it with an analytic thinking style. In contrast,
unintentional daydreaming may be characterized more by the
kind of associative processing thought to facilitate insight.
Other diﬀerences between deliberate and unintentional
daydreaming may lead to diﬀerent predictions. It seems probable
that unintentional daydreaming is more likely to involve
negative, ruminative thought, while deliberate daydreaming
involves more positive thoughts. If this were the case, we
would predict deliberate daydreaming to spark creative insights
more than unintentional daydreaming, a prediction that runs
counter to the one discussed before. More research is needed to
examine this possibility. This research should take into account
people’s motives, which may moderate the eﬀects of deliberate
daydreaming. For instance, chronic ruminators often report that
they deliberately engage in ruminative thought, because they
believe it to be helpful for gaining self-knowledge (Lyubomirsky
and Nolen-Hoeksema, 1993;Papageorgiou and Wells, 2003;
Smallwood et al., 2003;Simpson and Papageorgiou, 2004). For
them, deliberate daydreaming may be structured, goal-directed,
and negative, and hence associated with analytic thinking.
Individuals with a stronger motive for mood-repair, on the other
hand, may deliberately wander oﬀ to pleasant daydreams that put
them in a good mood, and facilitate creative insight.
BENEFITS OF DELIBERATE DAYDREAMING
PRACTICE FOR CREATIVITY
The issue of intentional daydreaming raises an interesting
question: if some styles of daydreaming are more conducive
to creativity than others, can we improve creative performance
by deliberately engaging in those styles of imagination? A few
studies have used instructed imagination in interventions for
increasing creativity, speciﬁcally creative writing. Long and
Hiebert (1985) developed visualization exercises encouraging
students to vividly imagine memories and current experiences
and let these images “trigger” further images. After three weekly
sessions of such training (compared to a control training in
which students listened to and wrote stories), students’ creative
writing improved. Jampole et al. (1994;seealsoJampole et al.,
1991) developed a similar intervention, which included speciﬁc
instructions such as mentally manipulating the appearance of
objects and imagining traveling to diﬀerent locations. Again,
compared to students in a control condition who only engaged
in reading and writing exercises, students who participated in the
imagination intervention wrote more original stories.
Following a similar approach, future studies could compare
creativity-related eﬀects of instructions encouraging diﬀerent
types of daydreaming. Do instructions that promote positive
or interesting daydreams lead to greater creativity? How
about instructions that invoke a broad versus narrow focus
of attention? Can people learn to invoke diﬀerent types of
daydreaming dependent on the creative task? Perhaps broad
positive daydreams are more helpful for tasks that require
reconceptualization, whereas narrowly deﬁned critical reﬂection
facilitates ﬂeshing out details of ideas. To date, little attention
has been paid to distinguishing daydreaming styles at the state
level. Given that creativity can be achieved through distinct
routes, ﬂexibly invoking the daydreaming style that ﬁts the
situation seems a fruitful approach for enhancing creative
To summarize, our goal was to illuminate the relationship
between daydreaming and creativity by considering the diﬀerent
creative processes that beneﬁt from daydreaming and the
daydreaming styles that may be conducive to creativity.
The ﬁrst part of the article provided a foundation for
understanding how daydreaming can facilitate creativity. We
distinguished two distinct creative processes: insight, which
appears to beneﬁt from daydreaming, and analytic thought,
which is hampered by daydreaming. In the second part, we
oﬀered a similarly nuanced approach for understanding the
heterogeneous phenomenon of daydreaming itself. Although
the empirical work on the eﬀects of diﬀerent daydream styles
is underdeveloped, we speculated about a number of factors
prevalent in people’s daydreaming that may contribute to
creativity. We closed by considering how future research might
lead to practical interventions for improving creativity and
theoretical advancements in understanding the ways in which
people daydream and generate new ideas. Although much
remains to be done, we hope that these speculations will provide
some fodder for researchers to daydream about, and ultimately
This research was supported by grant RFP-15-09 from the
Imagination Institute (www.imagination-institute.org), funded
by the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in
this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily
reﬂect the views of the Imagination Institute or the John
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Conﬂict of Interest Statement: The authors declare that the research was
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