Sunday, October 25, 2009

Living In La-La Land

Sit in reverie and watch the changing color
of the waves that break upon
the idle seashore of the mind.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—

If all humans daydream, why is it seen in such a negative light? Why is something so easy and natural seen as a waste of time? How can something so universal to the average human be considered pathological?

It appears that daydreaming can have real benefits:

  • It can make us feel active and energetic by relieving boredom.
  • It can be similar to meditation by activating our parasympathetic nervous system.
  • It might help us be more aware of who we are.
  • It may be a key for researchers in understanding consciousness.
  • It can organize our conflicts into meaningful solutions.
  • It helps to enhance social skills and relationships.
  • It appears to be a wellspring for creativity.

I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.
—Steven Wright—

One of the first psychologists to scientifically study daydreaming is a retired Yale professor. Dr. Jerome Singer surveyed many different groups of people and found that most people’s daydreams are quite ordinary and not at all unusual. Dr. Singer’s book, The Inner World of Daydreaming, discovered that often daydreaming was a way for the brain to map out goals and doubts. Daydreaming as mental rehearsal can actually help you to be more effective in dealing with what is to come in the days ahead.

I remember years ago working with a woman whose husband was an NFL quarterback playing for a team that had surprisingly made it to the Superbowl. The other team was odds on to win the game easily. However, just the opposite happened. The underdog won the Superbowl game much to everyone’s amazement. Much of the credit went to this quarterback who had the best game of his career. He later told me that he had spent about twenty-four hours prior to the game thinking about nothing but throwing perfect passes. His "perfect" passing, which was not one of his strong points, carried his team to victory.

Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my
accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway
from sunrise till noon, rapt in reverie.
—Henry David Thoreau—

The amount of daydreaming varies a lot from person to person. Some people daydream as seldom as 5 times a day while others might daydream over 175 times a day. One finding of researchers is that people who daydream more than the average person tend to remember more content from their dreams at night.

Creative people also tend to daydream more than the average person. Daydreaming is usually a stream of consciousness that randomly moves from topic to topic. This randomness combined with high frequency is one of the determinants of creativity.

Every child knows how to daydream.
But many, perhaps most,
lose the capacity as they grow up.
—Dov Frohman—

It seems that daydreaming happens more often when we are bored or have no need to focus on the task at hand. How does this information apply to the real world? Some psychologists believe that we might be stifling creativity in our children by over programming their time. One study found that children who watch television at least three hours a day are less imaginative than children who watch only one hour a day. Of course, this study does not tell us which is the chicken and which is the egg.

The increasing use of drugs for children decreases daydreaming. For example, children with ADHD who are taking Ritalin are less creative than ADHD children who are not taking Ritalin. On the other hand, people with severe ADHD may daydream so much that they cannot focus on simple but necessary tasks.

"If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician.
I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music.
I see my life in terms of music.
... I get most joy in life out of music."
—Albert Einstein—

What drives the brain to daydream. It seems that daydreaming and night dreaming have something in common. It is a time when the brain assimilates the millions of data bits it continually receives. It must make sense of this chaotic, rambling information and does so during sleep and daydreaming. As with night dreaming, daydreaming helps the brain to solve problems and connect seemingly unconnected pieces of information. This latter function is what creativity is all about — finding the new by connecting pieces of the old. Various studies have shown that highly creative people from Albert Einstein to Walt Disney spent a lot of time daydreaming.

Active daydreaming can help us overcome personal problems. I had a therapy client who came to me because he had become sexually impotent in his marriage. This was before Viagra so we had to find a non-medical solution to his problem. His job was demanding and also involved a lot of daily driving. We found that during these drives, he spent a lot of time daydreaming about this problem and the negative effect it was having on his marriage. Wondering if changing the focus of his daydreaming would work, I asked him if he would like to spend his mental down time daydreaming about seducing and making love to his wife. His answer was not surprising. After doing this assignment not only faithfully but with gusto, he called me back in two weeks and told me he and his wife were having the best sex of their lives.

Reverie is not a mind vacuum.
It is rather the gift of an hour
which knows the plenitude of the soul.
—Gaston Bachelard—

It appears that there is a place in the brain called the "executive network." This area of the brain acts like a switchboard by combining the activity of different brain structures. This network is more sophisticated in adults than in children because it is not fully formed and operational until the early to mid-twenties. Neuropsychologist Dr. Karen Spangenberg Postal claims that we now know enough about this area of the brain so that parents can actually learn how to increase their children’s academic performance.

You can also use daydreaming to help yourself. Since you may already daydream, on average, about one-third of your waking day, why not use it to your advantage? The first step is to reinterpret the value of daydreaming. Instead of seeing it as a sign of laziness or time-wasting, view it as a way to enhance the quality of your life. Once you have given yourself permission to daydream, you no longer have to feel guilty for doing so. After this, you can anticipate and look forward to times of daydreaming. Some people actually schedule daydreaming times – these times can be as short as a few minutes to as long as you want. One final word. Let yourself get lost in your daydreams so that you are the passenger, not the driver. Some research has found that people who are not aware of the daydreaming content can be more creative than people who actively monitor their daydreams.

Thought is the labor of the intellect,
reverie is its pleasure.
—Victor Hugo—

Happy dreaming.

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