In Defence of Daydreams
I’m waiting in line for a coffee and I’ve already whipped out my smartphone- scanning, swiping and sending- simply to fill time. Or perhaps I should say to save time because I use the 30-second wait to send an email and post ‘Happy Birthday!’ on a friend’s Facebook wall. My coffee comes and I leave walking and writing, now on a mission to clear my WhatsApp inbox. I’m scrolling the screen, slurping coffee whilst simultaneously trying to weave my way through the early morning Oxford Street crowds. My masterful multitasking involves a meerkat-esque move, moving head up and down, from street to screen. I run through a red light, spill coffee on my coat, but somehow, I come out unscathed.
The commute has become an extension of the office ensuring that we can simultaneously travel and tick off the to-do list. Whether we use this time for productive work, playing a game or planning a night out with friends, our smartphones keep us constantly busy and never bored. But in eradicating boredom have we short circuited the mind’s capacity for creative thinking? Simple swipes and scrolls are innocent in isolation but when they fill up every crack and crevasse in a day, do they leave any room for anything else?
In eradicating boredom have we short circuited the mind’s capacity for creative thinking? The poet Joseph Brodsky saw boredom as a catalysis for creativity: “Boredom is your window…Once this window opens, don't try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.” He’s not praising boredom per se: he’s celebrating how boredom makes us think. Because monotony stimulates a very interesting type of brain activity: mind-wandering. In a culture characterised by constant acceleration, mind-wandering might be considered lazy, distracted and unfocused (Freud went so far as to call it ‘infantile thinking.’) So why would we ever favour procrastination over productivity? Here are 6 reasons why:
1. Memory consolidation
Wakeful resting can significantly improve memories. In a 2012 study, two groups of participants had to listen to a 10-minute story, followed by either 10-minutes of ‘restful waking’ or 10-minutes of spot-the-difference games. The results showed that wakeful resting led to significant enhancement of memory after a 15 to 30-min period and also after 7 days. So if you’re trying to learn lines for a presentation or memorise facts for an upcoming test, then why not take advantage of the “memory consolidating” effect of mind-wandering.
2. Inspired thinking
Answers to creative problems are much more likely to arise during mind-wandering. A study tested the effects of engaging in a demanding task or an undemanding- mind-wandering inducing- task when trying to solve a problem. The results showed that mind-wandering led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems. Psychoanalyst Victoria Stevens calls mind-wandering “thinking without thinking” and believes it is “critical to creativity in both art and science” because it enables you “to think playfully about how something might be different from how it is or has been” : the power of daydreaming is in its openness to everything and censorship of nothing. This is why some of world’s most celebrated thinkers- including Newton, Einstein and Paul McCartney- attribute their greatest ‘Aha!’ moments to daydreaming. So if you’re stuck on a problem, stop googling for the answers and indulge in some absent minded musing, whilst walking the dog or baking a cake (#procrastabaking!)
3. Increased productivity
Procrastination can lead to increased productivity and shorter working hours. In spite of our societal obsession with being busy, we aren’t necessarily achieving more. Psychology Professor Alejandro Lleras’ 2011 study on ‘vigilance decrement’ showed that constant stimulation not only leads to a reduction in sensory awareness, it also decreases mental focus. The research suggests that if you are faced with a long task, you will work more effectively and efficiently, if you allow the mind to wander from time to time. Perhaps Robert Browning was on to something when we coined the phrase ‘less is more’ because as Lleras states, “brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on a task!”
4. Exercises the brain
Whilst we often refer to daydreaming as a ‘resting state’ the brain isn’t actually resting at all. Neuroscientist Dr Muireann Irish sums it up: “I think there is a misperception that we're actually being lazy and turning our brains off when we daydream but this isn't true, the research is actually pointing to the fact that when you're daydreaming, your brain is actually really hard at work.” Daydreaming activates something called the default mode network (DMN), which is essentially humanity’s ‘factory setting.’ New research has found that a particular type of neural processing- suppressed during focused attention- is exercised when the brain switches to the default mode network. So we should consider daydreaming as more than just a default mode of operating: it is a foundationalstate, processing memories and leading to the formation of identity. In fact, Irish goes so far to say that it is this type of “sophisticated thinking” that elevates us above other primates.
5. Uses different parts of the brain
Mind-wandering ‘co-creates’ daydreams using separate systems in the brain. Recent studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that the brain becomes highly stimulated during mind-wandering and actually activates more parts of the brain. In addition to default network activation, mind-wandering was associated with executive network recruitment. It has been assumed that the brain’s two main operating systems- the analytical brain and the empathetic brain- work in opposition: when confronted with a cognitive task the brain requires the other system to turn off. As cognitive scientist Anthony Jack notes, “If you are engaged in a demanding analytic task, it doesn't leave any room for empathy.” However, these recent findings suggest that mind-wandering allows these two systems to work in cooperation, creating spontaneous, fluid movement between different kinds of thinking.
6. Shift from ‘doing’ to ‘being’
Doing nothing gives us an opportunity to practice and improve our overall mindfulness. With so much external distraction it can be hard to hear your inner thoughts and feelings. So instead of using the lunch line for diary management, why not use it for self-reflection: disconnect from your device in order to reconnect with yourself. During daydreaming your mind- and not your brain- is in the driving seat. But when we micromanage our every moment, we suppress spontaneous thought and stop listening to the ‘body brain’, or our gut instinct as it’s sometimes called. Perhaps we should take inspiration from Pico Iyer’s TED talk in which he celebrates stillness: “in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. ”
After all, we’re human beings, not human doings.
When we daydream we allow thoughts to flow freely, sparking new ideas and inciting fresh ways of thinking. By giving the mind permission to play, unpredicted possibilities arise out of what might seem to be silly, senseless ramblings. Whilst the name alludes to a sleep-like state, daydreams are still under our voluntary control, albeit distantly. And it is in this liminal space- between sleep and focus- where creativity is free to explore, fuelled by boredom and bounded by the limits of your everyday life (e.g. reaching your stop on the train).
So whilst I’m not suggesting that you daydream 24/7, I’d encourage you to make more room for mind-wandering in your day-to-day. During life’s little pauses, when we- almost automatically- reach for our phones, we are cheating ourselves of free thoughts and doodle-like daydreams. Constant stimulation crushes creativity because it relies on external resources. Whereas boredom brings the brain a cognitive challenge: it has to create for itself.
Don't quit your daydream!!