Go ahead, daydream!

Maria Isabel Garcia
Go ahead, daydream!
[Science Solitaire] 'Do we remember less if we daydream more? The answers are not so simple.'

If we were defined by what we did the most, then the average human should carry a card that says “dreamer”.  That occurred to me after realizing that a person generally spends a third of her life asleep (and presumably, dreaming in good measure), and daydreaming almost half (47%) of her waking life.

Since the industrial revolution laid down the ethic of working all the time and focusing on the task at hand, daydreaming has been both a bane and boon for humans. “Bane” because in a culture where efficiency for the task at hand is prime, daydreaming will cause you to slide on your expected productivity. Carry that over to our modern working society and daydreaming is still generally looked at as a waste of time. But it is also a boon because daydreaming allows you to mentally escape from the trap of that kind of work and thus, keep you sane.

But is that all there is about “mind-wandering” – the term that scientists use for it? Is it just mere blank “time-out” from the present?

You yourself know it is not. It is far from blank. Not rarely, the content of your daydreams is richer than the task at hand.  Daydreaming is like another state of being, but you are really not aware of yourself being there or that your mind has gone off the present groove. You only know you have been daydreaming when you have snapped out of it.

What scientists know is that daydreaming is like a lace stitch pattern where your mind cycles from analytic and empathetic states without you knowing it.

I was above the Grand Canyons last week and about 15 minutes after the initial scare of being like a puny dragonfly flying over a grandeur that stretched 446 km long, and 29 km wide and 1,857 meters deep, I started to daydream. This was my daydream lace pattern: I thought about the rage of the Colorado river and how amazing it was that natural rage could carve mighty mountains and magnificent crevices. I also thought about the 1.8 billion-year-old layers of rocks discovered there. But I also visualized fond and loving memories, carved more than twenty years ago, as a young bride, out on an adventure in this same place. Then somehow, the theme running along the short stories by Alice Munro that I was reading – of how one seemingly unimportant event can change one’s life forever – snagged the sway of my daydream.  Then I snapped out of it to check on how my Dad was dealing with the height we were in. Then I know now that at some point, I was at it again – my mind in flight while I was in flight. Daydreaming is free-wheeling sort of ride through those patterns.

So if that is the nature of daydreaming, how does it impact the present? Do we remember less if we daydream more? The answers are not so simple.

In an experiment, they found that the farther in space your daydream is from your current situation, the more likely you will forget details about what you are really supposed to do before you started daydreaming. I think this explains why people I know whose minds are always drifting to other planets or to innermost space – like the inside of the nucleus of an atom – are the most absent-minded people I know. It takes them a while to go back to earth, so to speak, tripping on those levels. Einstein was known to be very absent-minded, often sinking his own little boat, while wandering through spacetime in his head. The lesson here is, daydreaming can make you forget what you are currently doing and if what you are currently doing is important or crucial – like if you were an engineer laying down construction materials or a doctor doing surgery – focus is what you want and should have the most.

But while that was so, another experiment also found that those who daydreamed more had a more robust working memory. This was actually not what the scientists expected. They thought that daydreaming would distract the working memory from what it is supposed to do – which is to make you attend to the task at hand, even if you have been sidelined by unrelated thoughts. The scientists think then that daydreaming, working memory and intelligence work together which means that maybe your daydreaming friend is not as absent-minded as you thought she was. Maybe the key is to know how much your current task at hand demands from your working memory so that safety or the integrity of your work is not breached by risks posed by daydreaming.

An even more interesting discovery was if you were allowed to daydream before you do a creative task, you will be more creative (about 41% more!) than those who had to do directed tasks before doing the creative task. What got more interested in this study is how the scientists elicited daydreaming. Apparently, if you make people do boring tasks, eventually their minds would wander. Another way but please don’t do this at home is by zapping your frontal lobes with low-level electrical activity (the technical term for it is transcranial direct current stimulation of tDCS).

So in those long childhood summers when your young energy cannot find a running match among things to do (no computers), daydreaming was guaranteed to take place! Then what about now when people, especially children, do not even have time to be bored as they could always look at their tablets or phones to do something. Are we daydreaming less now and thus, less creative? I think there is something to be learned if Steve Jobs and Apple designer Jonathan Ive and many Silicon Valley executives consciously limit screen time for their kids and send them to schools that prioritize play, imagination and engaging in the world over screen time. Daydreaming is a crucial part of the learning experience.

So if your mind has not gone off yet, time to do so now. Let your mind wander and discover yourself as you map things you thought was out of your reach. – Rappler.com

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