One of the most visited posts in this blog is the “25 Ideas for Daydreaming” (https://tropicaltheartist.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/25-ideas-for-daydreaming/) piece that I wrote quite some time ago. I remember I was feeling quite under the weather when I wrote it, nursing a heavy cold. It’s gratifying that something I wrote just to achieve a writing goal has resonated so strongly with my readers.
It seems there is an enormous amount of interest in daydreaming, if my readership is in any way representative of the rest of the world. Since I wrote that piece, I have done a little more research into daydreaming. Whereas some people believe that it is the refuge of time wasters and dreamers, it turns out to be essential for mental health. Indeed, to not daydream is to experience less than optimal mental health.
People who regularly daydream are not lazy or vague and do not live their lives with their heads in the clouds. They are basically adjusting for survival and to prosper, using one of the most powerful abilities we have; our imaginations. Contemplation, it seems, is the antidote to constant distraction – an increasingly common feature of modern life. Our so called “Default Mode” of thought, where we are not focused, but rather resting and idling, plays an important role in cognition, the ability to engage in diverse thinking and for feeling social emotions with a moral dimension. Constructive internal reflection is good for your mind.
Open ended reflection is essential to developing personal reasoning and social and emotional well being. It can help us synthesize learning and experience. As creative individuals, the ability to learn and take on new stimuli is greatly enhanced by contemplation and daydreaming. It helps make memory and meaning out of these external events. Fantasy can blunt or mitigate the emotional pain of frustration or any deeply disturbing circumstances that might happen in your day. Daydreaming is not only productive, it’s also protective.
When we’re resting of idle, but engaged in daydreaming, it turns out that the mind is actually very dynamic, according to MRI scans. We often use our executive functions to solve complex problems. Ironically, the less aware subjects studied were of their daydreaming, the more activated was their brain’s executive network.
Research into daydreaming has turned up some astonishing results. We spend roughly a third to a half of our waking hours in daydreaming. Add that to the time we spend in dream sleep and you begin to conclude that daydreaming must serve some vitally important evolutionary function. We wouldn’t do it, after all these millennia of evolution, if it wasn’t good for us. Is it morally right to deny people sleep or to keep interrupting them with distractions?
People who daydream demonstrate more creativity, in study measures. Those allowed to daydream outperformed other control groups, in a creativity focused test, by more than 40%. While some mental wanderings are undoubtedly more fruitful and productive than others, the process itself seems to matter just as much as the products.
Daydreaming and play are intimately related, as is imagination, leading to the notion that much creativity is actually dependent on the interplay between imagination, daydreaming, visualisation and playful activity. Daydreaming sharpens our cognitive and emotional dexterity. Walter Mitty was actually an important role model. A little fantasy can make you feel better or at least amused with yourself, leading to self actualisation and greater authenticity as a person. Some of humanity’s greatest inventions, most beautiful creations and most profound thoughts and ideas have their genesis in a bare-faced lack of attention and intention. Sometimes that moment of inspiration is actually just a scene in a daydream.
Daydreaming exercises your mind, making it more agile and capable of thinking. It might even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It hones our critical and creative thinking. It prepares us and leaves us open to the chance for random connections or associations of ideas, or the turn of the seemingly irrelevant correlation to a critical and novel insight. It sows the seeds of self development. In evolutionary terms, this is what has lead to our survival and success, as a species. Acknowledging and taking ownership of your cerebral potential and its privilege is a more primal act than you might think. Losing yourself in thought is your evolutionary birthright.
Here are just some of the things that daydreaming can help you do (along with some suggestions about how to access that):
- Relax – this is using daydreams like a mini break or short mental vacation. It’s also useful for confronting and conquering phobias. Here are some suggested daydreams:
1. You’re alone on a beach. The breeze is blowing. It’s just after sunset. What can you sense? What can you hear and smell. How does the sand feel between your toes? Who would you love to be with at this moment?
2. Choose a phobia (if you have one). If it’s flying, or heights, imagine going through the steps to facing and confronting that phobia, calmly, deliberately, at your own pace, with your hand held by somebody you trust implicitly. They keep you safe and reassured as you take small steps toward facing your fear. You face your phobia and find that it wasn’t so bad after all. You are rewarded for your courage.
- Manage conflict – this lets you rewind the tape and replay confrontational situations that have either occurred in the past, but which you do not wish to repeat, or in preparation for a confrontation that you fear. Here are some ideas you might want to try:
3. You’re always arguing with your spouse about money, for example. You wind the tape back to the beginning of the conflict, but this time you make sure you talk about why the money and how it is spent matters to you. Is it really about the money or about feeling trapped, or stifled, or that your goals and needs are not being met. Speak about your frustrations. Explain to your partner, in your mind, how the way money is handled between you affects you and what it means to you. Imagine how the conversation goes when you talk about what you want to be doing, if money were no object, instead of raising your voices about the money, because it is the obstacle.
4. The annual review is tomorrow. Let’s say you fear that the boss will pick up on your erratic time keeping. Rehearse the conversation, giving the reasons why your timekeeping might not have been as pristine as they would have liked. Open your heart and explain to your boss why some flexibility is being requested. Ask, confidently, why five minutes matters so much to your boss and what the firm might do in return for your increased dedication to their business cause. Imagine challenging the boss’s loyalty and fairness to you and having him accept his part in your plight. Visualize yourself calmly discussing the matter and leaving the meeting with your head held high and no regrets about things left unsaid.
- Maintain relationships – we daydream about the people we love and in so doing, we cement our bonds with them. Try these ideas:
5. You’ve just had exceptionally good news. You decide to announce this to your partner in a special and memorable way. Go through the planning and steps you take to make the announcement. Imagine their delight when you tell them. See their face and their smile. Remember this place and this moment vividly.
6. You’re travelling on business and missing your family. Even a phone call seems sterile and distant and focuses on the things that are falling apart, domestically, because of your extended absence. Instead, visualize a future joint goal with your family. It could be an around the world holiday, a new house or quitting the rat race and going off grid, secure in your financial independence. Plan the steps to achieving the goal. See how your family react when the goal is realised. Experience the feeling of rest and security that accompanies the joint accomplishment of a significant life goal.
- Boost productivity – clearing your mind of the feelings of overwhelm can help you move forward in your day, rather than letting you become mired in the feelings of the futile impossibility of your ever-lengthening to-do list. How about these exercises?
7. The list of chores is long. There are mountains of bills to pay, dishes to wash and clothes to launder. The garden is a mess and the kids need to be at three different places this afternoon. Instead, imagine the place where you felt the happiest and most peaceful. Hear the sounds in your mind. Smell the smells. Feel the sensations. Is it sunny? Notice the colours of the place and the textures. Touch the surfaces in your most pleasant refuge. Nobody can interrupt you. The phone cannot ring. You have your favourite book and time to read it. You go back to your list and the tasks are done in less time than you thought.
8. It’s broken and you don’t really know how to fix it. You don’t even know what’s wrong with it. You aren’t trained in this. You don’t have the money to call in a man. Instead of panicking or imagining life without this thing working, or phoning for a professional, calmly rehears the small steps you can take to take a look at where the problem might be. Dismantle the broken thing, noting how all the parts come out and which order you took them out in. You have taken a video of the dismantling and have put the parts into little numbered boxes, representing the disassembly steps. You have all the right tools. Imagine researching the issue on the internet and finding just the right advice. Discover the faulty part. It’s obvious now that you have uncovered it and can see it with your own eyes. You find you can order it online. It arrives next day and it fits perfectly. You reverse your disassembly procedures with reference to your video and parts bins. The thing goes together perfectly and works first time. Savour the sense of achievement at having made it work again, without having to call somebody in.
- Solidify your beliefs and values – sometimes, rehearsing how you would convince somebody else of your point of view is a useful daydream. It can help you get to know yourself better and understand more lucidly what you stand for. Here’s some ideas to try:
9. You’re in the minority. Everybody is chatting and they are saying things that you simply do not agree with. In fact, the ideas are abhorrent to you. Normally you would keep your mouth shut and keep your head down low, so as not to offend or confront, but today, your beliefs are clear and the unacceptability of what you have been listening to is profound. Calmly, in a measured voice, you ask a killer question – one that forces the banter to stop and for each person to think about their own position a little more carefully. What was that killer question? What was the one salient idea or challenge that forced the rest to acknowledge that they hadn’t thought it through?
10. Nobody usually listens to you and you think you don’t have anything worth saying, as a result. Today, however, you are the world expert on the matter. Today, you have been asked to broadcast to the nation, with a “Thought for the Day”, to say what’s on your mind and cause people to reflect on the matter. Is it global warming, or the economy that exercises you? Is it war, corporatism or human rights? You’ve just been on the radio show “Desert Island Disks”, playing your favourite records (what were they?) and now you get to say which luxury and book you would take with you on your desert island and why. All of a sudden, you are able to encapsulate your dearest, most profound concern in a single sound bite, so clear and powerful, that the announcer quickly queues the titles and end of show music, without a further word. You’ve left them all open mouthed. What did you say?
- Boost creativity and achieve your goals – nothing helps achieve a big life goal more than rehearsing its achievement in your daydreams. Try these:
11. You’ve always wanted to see your book in print. Today is its release day. You got the book written, you found a publisher and now the books are hitting the shelves. You go online and see that the book is selling well. You read the reviews. They’re positive. You are climbing the best seller list. You amble down to the local bookstore after lunch. You can see your book flying off the shelves and people asking for it, by name, at the counter. Suddenly, you are recognised as the author. People gather around you. What do you say? Do you read from your book or sign some? What questions are people asking you about your book and your life as an author?
12. You have a music recital and you are trying to learn a piece that is almost impossible to play. Rehearse in your mind. Read the notes, bar by bar and play each phrase, slowly at first, then at speed. Concatenate two bars together and get those up to speed too. Eventually, you can play every bar, in its proper place in the piece, playing the piece without error, from end to end, but slowly. Now you pick up the pace, raising the speed by a few beats per minute on your metronome, until you can play it. You raise the speed by increments until you are playing the piece much faster than you need to at the recital. Now you slow down to the correct pace, but work on the nuances – the vibrato and expression, the tiny little delays and accents that put an emotional power into what you play. You’re ready. At the recital, you are note perfect, but you notice there is not a dry eye in the house. You finish to utter silence, but after a short delay, there is thunderous applause and a standing ovation. People are coming to you to congratulate you. They are all smiling. Some still have tears in their eyes. You are presented with flowers. You take a deep bow and audience demands an encore, which you play even more perfectly than the first time.
- Relieve Boredom – there are monotonous jobs, like assembly work on a production line, or jobs that demand vigilance and patience, like being a guard, where you need to daydream just to remain safe and effective. Otherwise, your senses dull and you make mistakes or miss important things. Here are some daydreams you might engage in:
13. You’re organising a wedding. You have made all of the preparations, sent out the invitations and now you are enjoying the day. Which loved ones have attended? Who is getting married? Are you walking them down the aisle? Which irreverent tales of their past are the source of laughs and embarrassed tittering at the reception? What colour are the bridesmaids wearing? Where are the happy couple going to honeymoon?
14. You can see a better way to do this job. You’ve thought of an improvement. You take the idea to your manager and they are wholly supportive of you. You evangelise the idea and it works, transforming the way the work goes and the quality of the product. You are recognised for your contribution at the annual dinner by the CEO, who hands you a large bonus. You look at the figure on the cheque and you plan how to spend your reward.
There are infinite ways to daydream and reasons to daydream, but the act itself is very important. I hope you find some time today to exercise your mind, leave your immediate surroundings in your imagination and indulge in some constructive cognitive recreation.