By Maayan Ashkenazi
By Maayan Ashkenazi
Public enemy no.1 to road-safety, classrooms and small-talk, daydreaming has never had the easiest of rides. But like all other things caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time, is it just misunderstood?
A recent study led by Schooler and Christoff on mind-wandering confirms something that has been known about daydreaming for the last decade or so – that quite the opposite of switching off, the brain is whirring away, resolving internal issues, rehearsing situations, making unexpected connections – the legwork of creativity.
It’s a question of giving the mind time to indulge in forms of thinking which are ordinarily hushed when it has to engage with its external surroundings. As the researchers comment, “The observed parallel recruitment of executive and default network regions—two brain systems that so far have been assumed to work in opposition—suggests that mind wandering may evoke a unique mental state that may allow otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation.” And here we get to the nugget of the thing.
For the real conundrum of the brain isn’t just where among the billions of connections different things happen but how all those things coordinate to form consciousness.
In this regard, what needs to be remembered when reconsidering daydreaming and mind-wandering is that the amount of time we allow for things has a bearing on the kinds of thinking we allow to happen. A study by the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC College highlighted that certain emotions such as empathy for others’ psychological states, indeed those things which so strongly define our humanity, take much longer to be realised than recognition of physical states. So we’ll react to someone in slight physical pain long before we recognise quiet despair. The link here is that if we don’t allow some down-time, if our attention is constantly at full-throttle, jumping from one thing to the other, we not only bias the kinds of judgements we make but also the behaviours that subsequently follow.
I’m not suggesting we elevate staring out the window as the lost art of the modern age (though worse things have happened), rather that paying attention to different forms of thinking, allows a more nuanced self-reflexivity, so that when we do think “what’s the best way to think about this”, we’re better able to choose. So it’s a question of control as much as relaxation. The best daydreamer after all, will be the one who has the control to come out of the dream once they’ve found an answer.