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On Being A Daydreamer

by Michelle Melles

It’s a lazy-hazy August day and, despite my best intentions, I can’t stop my mind from wandering. I’m not worried, I’m not planning, I’m just freely thinking. My thoughts bounce from idea to idea like multi-coloured pebbles skipping on the water of consciousness.

As a child, I was sometimes teased for being a ‘dreamer’. “Stop spacing out!” “Pay attention!” “Snap out of it!” I’ve been told. The ‘it’, in “snap out of IT”, was never defined. The bullies seemed to have predicted that I’d later work for the Space Channel. Today, we know that daydreaming and imaginative play are associated with greater creativity in children – but not when I was a kid.

I also worried about my daydreaming mind. As someone who wanted some degree of success, I thought “go getters” were definitely not dreamers. I admire the type of brain that is extremely focused and present-minded. I’m in awe of the ways a good lawyer argues so elegantly and categorically. And so, at some point in my late teens, I made it my solemn duty to try to be more attentive, awake and aware – in the here and now – with two feet on the ground. I reigned in the wild horses of my imaginings, corralled my free thoughts and applied my brain to work and school. I switched from transcendental meditation to mindfulness-based meditation and I began to practice yoga almost every day.

Studies now show that mind-wandering is a sign of intelligence and creativity.

But should I feel badly about letting my mind wander? Studies now show that mind-wandering is a sign of intelligence and creativity and practicing both mindfulness and ‘structured daydreaming’ could help us live our happiest lives. Daydreaming is good for your mental health and your memory. It helps you relax and it’s pleasurable!

Daydreaming is essential to finding inspiration and sparking new ideas. People often have their best ideas – their ‘aha moments’ – when they are simply doing nothing.  Some of the most important scientific breakthroughs ever made – by everyone from Einstein to Newton – came about from daydreaming. Newton developed his theory of gravity after he happened to see an apple fall from a tree in his mother’s garden in Lincolnshire. Albert Einstein celebrated what he called Gedankenexperimente, a thought experiment that allows you to twirl ideas around in your head rather than in a lab. He believed that the daydreaming mind’s ability to connect things is, in fact, our only path toward fresh ideas. As Einstein later put it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

The rush of pleasure we get from an “aha moment” is the equivalent of an orgasm for the thinking mind.

The rush of pleasure we get from an “aha moment” is the equivalent of an orgasm for the thinking mind, says Alison Gopnik, who is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The pleasure of an orgasm, can be seen as the motivation our bodies use to make sure we procreate – similarly, the pleasure of an “aha” may be built into our DNA to ensure that we learn more about the world. If we’ve evolved to get great pleasure from that wonderful moment when breakthrough ideas come together in an orgasmic way, then letting our mind wander is no longer a guilty indulgence — it is crucial to our success and survival.

I’m finding though, it’s becoming more and more difficult to be a daydreamer. We are living in such a fast-paced, technology-addicted world, that more and more people can’t seem to ‘pass the time’ without being on their smart phones or from going to one Instagram post to the next. They have become so scared of ‘boredom’ that they would rather give themselves electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts.  In a 2014 study at the University of Virginia, sixty seven percent of male students and twenty-five percent of female students chose to be shocked with electricity than sit there quietly and think.

There’s a Boredom Lab at York University in Toronto that is exploring the benefits and value of the unengaged mind. Dr. John Eastwood, the Director of The Boredom Lab stresses that it’s important that we don’t freak out when we are ‘bored’ because we also learn about ourselves in the process of being alone with our thoughts. “I think as individuals and as a society we really have to focus on developing this capacity for constructive internal reflection and that may not be very possible if we are constantly being bombarded with stimulation from the outside,” Eastwood says. We need to take time to look inward – away from technology.

I’m going to turn off my screen, put away my phone and let the wild horses of my mind go free.

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