Sweet dreams

In 1637 Rene Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am” – and although the French philosopher was referring to scientific, calculating, philosophical thought, science suggests those moments when you’re zoned out are just as important. Jai Breitnauer rides a zephyr into the world of daydreams 

Walter Mitty was a disillusioned, semi-retired gentleman who – despite a need to please his wife and complete his chores – could not help his brain from escaping into a fictional world. In short, Walter was a day dreamer, and his tendency to drift off had real-time repercussions. 

Walter first appeared in an original short story by James Thurber, published in The New Yorker in 1939, more recently in the 2013 movie ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’. Michael C Corballis’ book The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking also starts with the short story about Walter – and it seems as good a place as any to begin when I meet Corballis in his office at Auckland University of Technology. 

“The day dreamer label has some quite negative connotations,” says Corballis. Now an emeritus psychology professor and author, Corballis’ interests have moved away from neuroscience and into a more philosophical mode of thought. “Children are taught to sit up, pay attention, not dawdle, but I think that’s more about control in the classroom than education. Trouble is, those memories of being told off for daydreaming continue into adulthood,” he says.

As much as we try to curtail and disguise those moments when we drift away, we are all guilty of mental escapism – especially if the task (or meeting) at hand is somewhat taxing. A Californian study that asked students to read War and Peace for 45 minutes calculated they zoned out more than six times on average. 

This universal human trait to drift off is at the core of Descartes’ conjecture on what it means to be conscious, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of either. Daydreaming isn’t about boredom, disrespect or low intelligence; it plays a central evolutionary function in allowing us to develop creativity, which has ultimately kept us alive.

“Picture the hunter-gatherers, out on the prairie, chasing a buffalo,” says Corballis. “Now picture that buffalo turning on them, running at them … they barely escape with their lives.” 

So what do the hunter-gatherers do later? 

They think about it. They replay it in their mind over and over, and they not only learn what they did wrong, but they imagine different ways the situation could have played out. Next time they                test the theories of their daydreams, and perhaps achieve better results. 

“Daydreams are a device for mental time travel,” explains Corballis. “They allow us to travel back and forwards in time, perhaps even in someone else’s body or to a different place, and that experience gives us the ability to plan. It gives us the tools we need to make choices about our future.”

Imagination is a capacity we use daily, and something our brain is capable of actioning very quickly. Within milliseconds of reaching the roadside, you will have imagined countless different scenarios based on when it is safe to cross. You open the fridge and a lifetime of food experience goes into the decision about what to eat. Meanwhile, the President of the USA is using his daydreaming skills to weigh up whether to challenge the decision on healthcare or send his troops to war. Our capacity to reason is built on creativity and imagination.

Over time our ability to daydream has widened and improved. Travel, for instance, means we can now send our imaginations outside our own village or even our own country. Literature and film have given us access to experiences such as skydiving, performing on stage or even having an illicit liaison that may not have been part of our mental vernacular in the past. And what of those who lack the skill of conjecture? Corballis recounts the story of Kim Peek, known to his friends as ‘Kimputer’, the inspiration for the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man

“He began memorising books when he was 18 months old, and had committed around 9000 to the storehouse of his mind by his mid-fifties. He was a savant, with exceptional knowledge of sports, movies, music and the classics.” 

What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you remember and how you remember it – Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

Yet Kim scored well below average on a standard intelligence test, and could not button his clothes or handle abstract ideas. He had a seemingly unlimited memory, but no creativity. What Kim seemed to lack was the  power to daydream.

Without the ability to set up scenarios and weigh their outcomes, the history of humanity could be very different indeed. Especially when you take into account all the important by-products of creativity – art, music, architecture. These are tools that help us consider possibilities, and also make life beautiful and diverse. Without the power to dream, it’s unlikely humanity would have achieved so much. But while daydreams are a vehicle for personal and societal success, they can be a hindrance too. 

A 2010 study entitled A wandering mind is an unhappy mind used a smartphone app to ‘interrupt’ more than 5000 people from 83 countries at specific points during their day to see if they were daydreaming or on task. In 46.9 percent of cases, the subject was daydreaming, also reporting they were, on average, less happy than when they were not. “Perhaps they just didn’t like being interrupted,” laughs Corballis.

Or perhaps our usual perception of daydreamers as frivolous procrastinators hiding in a joyous world of their own making fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of a wandering mind. “The function of a daydream is to try and figure out what you could have done better,” explains Corballis. 

“There is a tendency to brood over past events, replaying the negative time and again. Happiness is not the only pursuit when you daydream; it’s about making your future better. You might feel sad reliving a bad situation, but you probably won’t make the same mistake again.”

The first step to harnessing creativity through daydreams, it would seem, is to change your expectation. Success is not born from a happy hour whiled away in a fantasy world, but by using your mind to evaluate your actions and future goals. The key is not to get caught in a loop of negativity, though, or fall foul to fantastic delusions of grandeur.

“Studies have shown that the optimum time for quality daydreams are periods of undemanding activity,” explains Corballis. Doing something like folding the washing, peeling potatoes or walking to work gives your mind the freedom to wander, but regulates its trajectory with a certain amount of rhythm and a need to stay present.

“Sensory deprivation leads to hallucinations, which are often too bizarre to be useful,” says Corballis. “The best example of that would be sleep: total sensory deprivation that allows your mind to wander without control.” 

You need to have enough control to harness creativity, and enough randomness to inspire it. Remember to be flexible – let your subconscious lead the way, allow things to bubble up. You never know what original idea or spark of ingenuity might come out of even the most mundane musings.

“Language does not have the monopoly on creativity,” says Corballis, when I suggest we need good vocabulary to express our dreams effectively. “Language and thought are not the same thing and many people think very creatively without words. Einstein is a good example. His insights were often entirely visual, such as his dream about travelling on the end of
a light beam.”

Mind the creativity gap 

While allowing your mind to wander unbridled helps develop creativity, you can also use mindfulness as a tool to focus it.

“Mindfulness changes how your brain works,” says clinical psychologist Chantal Hofstee, one half of the team behind the Auckland-based ‘Maximise Your Creative Flow’ workshops. “Mindfulness changes your awareness, emotions and thoughts. Being non-judgmental and present has a huge impact on creativity.”

Practising mindfulness is scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and increase empathy, helping you to be more flexible and creative. Hofstee’s workshop partner, screenwriter Kathryn Burnett, has experienced this first hand. 

“I went through a rough time a few years ago, and used mindfulness to help. I began to see quite quickly, in my own life, evidence of how I’d changed the way my brain was working. I was still creative, but more focused,” explains Burnett.

In their workshops, Hofstee and Burnett encourage people to be creative for the sake of it.

“I spent years being creative to deadline,” says Kathryn. “Your brain is plastic, and your thought patterns mold pathways – you get stuck in a rut producing work within time limits rather than creative limits. Being creative for the hell of it grows your neural pathways, breaks you out of old habits and thought patterns. I have more ideas now, and I can develop them into something extraordinary.”

At the core of mindfulness is reducing the effects of stress response. This is a primitive function, triggered by an immediate threat, that narrows your thought processes, discards empathy and fixes you on a goal. If that goal is escaping from a rampaging woolly mammoth, then this is helpful. But the threat in a modern-day environment is more likely to be a lack of money or fear of being laughed at. In this case, the stress response doesn’t help at all.

“When you practise mindfulness you activate the safe brain, which is kinder, non-judgmental and calm,” says Chantal. “This gives you the freedom to be creative without limitations. You can just see what bubbles up without being critical or self-conscious. Once you have a pot of ideas, you can analyse them and see what works.”

In a world where we are taught to come up with the ‘right’ thing, where the deadline becomes the focus and not the creation itself, mindfulness allows us to find some free-flowing space, so our minds can wander in a safe environment. Even just five minutes of unnecessary creating each day, done mindfully, will begin to change your underlying brain structure, moving you from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘focused and secure’.

“I call it brain hygiene,” says Hofstee. “We clean our teeth each day; we should cleanse our brain as well. Many large businesses like Apple and Google are embracing mindfulness in the workplace. I’d like to think this trend will gain momentum.”

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