Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dreaming Our Lives Away

Sandra Parshall

How much time do you spend daydreaming?

Probably more than you think. According to a study in which subjects reported what they were thinking about at random intervals, the average person’s mind wanders from the task or subject at hand about 30% of the time. Often people aren’t even aware they’re daydreaming until they realize they’ve read several pages of a book without absorbing any of it or participated in a conversation for five minutes without hearing a word the other person spoke.

Although children are often discouraged from nonproductive fantasizing, daydreaming was a vital part of childhood for a lot of artists and scientists, from Tim Burton to Einstein. And the fantasizing doesn't stop with adulthood. In an article by Josie Glausiusz in Scientific American Mind, psychologist Jonathan Schooler points out what any writer knows instinctively: letting the mind roam can unlock creativity in a way that intense focus might not. Daydreaming is an essential tool for fiction writers, and we may do as much of our creative work when we’re away from the keyboard as when we’re sitting there typing.

Daydreams can also help us get through bad experiences by taking us to a more pleasant time and place. Some motivational coaches teach people to imagine themselves acing an interview or breezing through a dreaded public speaking engagement. That’s a kind of targeted daydreaming that can bolster confidence.

For some people, though, daydreaming can become an obsessive-compulsive disorder and interfere with real life. The Scientific American Mind article describes a young woman who could hardly bear to be away from her fantasy life. When she was socializing with real people, all she wanted to do was go home and settle back into the elaborate world she had created in her daydreams. She isn’t unique. Compulsive daydreamers even have an online forum of their own:

Where do daydreams come from? Scientists believe the human brain has a “dedicated daydreaming network” that is filled with memories and images and is essential to our sense of self. Brain scans have demonstrated which parts of the brain “light up” when the mind wanders or engages in conscious  daydreaming. These are also the areas that become active when we obsess about a bad past experience or worry about awful things that might happen in the future. A number of mental disorders, including schizophrenia, have recently been linked to malfunctions in those brain regions.

While some people may dismiss all daydreaming as a waste of time, you can bet they do quite a bit of it themselves. It’s part of being human. And in most cases, it’s not only beneficial but necessary.

How often do you daydream? Have you ever had a creative breakthrough while letting your mind wander? Have you ever calmed your nerves with an ego-boosting fantasy? Do you think it’s good or bad for children to fantasize?


Alan Orloff said...

I daydream...all...the...time. It's what keeps me sane.

Amy said...

I daydream constantly--always have! It's the best way I know to relax and forget about work.

My mind is always working, so if I don't want to think about computers (i.e. work) then I have to think about something else. Generally, it's nicer to daydream than to think about all the chores that have to get done...LOL

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I can't think of a creative breakthrough that happened when I wasn't daydreaming. My characters speak and my plot points come when I'm in bed just after waking, running, in the car, and in the shower. Poetry happens the same way. And let's not forget guided visualization as a meditation and healing technique. Trauma survivors, for example, may be encouraged to relieve anxiety and intrusive memories by putting themselves in a safe place, whether it's lying on a beach or being held by a nurturing figure.

Brenda said...

Hi, Sandra. Great blog. You write great books, too. Maybe writers, artists, and brilliant scientists have found a consructive way to use constant daydreaming. Reading, or even watching television, might fall into that label. I've always worked very hard and take my responsibilities seriously, so reading, and now writing has been a great escape. I do feel grateful to all our daydreaming scientists, artists, and writers. A lot of my funnest ideas have come through dreams at night or in the morning when I'm daydreaming in the shower. I decided that the reason I get these big breakthroughs in the shower is that is one of the few times I'm alone, lol. Thanks for the fascinating blog. You got me thinking.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks, Brenda. The article in Scientific American Mind is fascinating, and I hope a lot of people will click through and read it.

Julia Buckley said...

I've always been a big daydreamer, but I think another important part of the equation is being relaxed. My best ideas have come to me either when I'm on vacation or when I've just had some down time away from work.

But I do love to daydream, and I can still kill hours at a time doing it. :)

Lynn M said...

I think day dreaming is essential and I have tried to encourage my kids to do the same. My son (almost 11) has no problem running off to his room with his portable word processor and dreaming up the next scene of his play; however my daughter (just turned 9) says she has no imagination and can't day dream. If I do a "guided meditation" with them my son can ... my daughter can't. I am about ready to call a doctor, but then again she says she wants to be one!

JJM said...

Daydreams are the only time I get to be me -- all the mes I could have been, or should have been, or might have been, had not Real Life ™ interfered. And, yes, it can interfere with work, both the paid sort and the "spring cleaning is five years overdue!!" sort. And, yes, that's when inspiration comes. Although a bottle of scotch can help too, occasionally. [wry grin]

--Mario Rups

Jean said...

Good subject! I heard somewhere that we writers have to take time to "fuel our imaginations" by letting the mind wander where it will, collecting/assimilating all those random bits and pieces in our consciousness, or we end up writing the same thing over and over--a main reason why many of my own words disappear with the "Delete" key. Hmmm. . maybe now I have an excuse to do more of it.

Anonymous said...

I agree that daydreaming is essential to keeping one young. It's also imperative if we want to grow as people, whether in our personal or professional life.

While I don't think it's healthy to constantly live in our daydreams, I think it would be a sad world if everyone stopped doing it altogether.

Great post, Sandra!