In Praise of the Wandering Mind

Daydreaming as play

Posted Nov 05, 2014

With smart phones as a constant companion, we rarely find ourselves out of touch. With television switched on for five hours per day in the average American household, breaking news follows us around at home. Friends will also send us links to must-see YouTube videos of a skateboarding dog or a sneezing panda. On-board communication systems patch phone calls through, interrupting us even while we’re behind the wheel. I’m not the first to call this avalanche an “information overload,” nor the first to feel bombarded.

It’s not just that television watching and Internet surfing preempts playful physical activity, the communications revolution elbows out another kind of play, the daydream.

But when we’re left alone with our stream of consciousness, away from distraction and multi-tasking, daydreaming is close to a default state for the idling mind. Whenever I pass the Powerball lottery billboard, for example, I will abandon myself to a pleasant reverie—allocating the winning megamillions to good causes. Before not too many miles have passed under the tires, I’ve set up a foundation to teach the world the difference between “less” and “fewer,” eradicated poison sumac and the passive voice, and outfitted a palatial grass hut on a Melanesian atoll. This despite 200 million-to-one odds against and the small detail that I’ve never actually bought a ticket... Most daydreaming is harmless grandiosity and pure play.

If harmless grandiosity of daydreaming is pure play, creativity is the payoff. Unlike dreaming at night when sleep paralyzes us and swirls us away involuntarily, (except for those lucky few who can dream lucidly) it’s possible to carry on everyday activities while daydreaming. Daydreams are partly under our voluntary control, though distantly.

In a recent article in the American Journal of Play, the psychoanalyst Victoria Stevens details this distant attention that daydreams promote, and she links this exploring state of mind closely to inspiration and discovery. She calls daydreaming “thinking without thinking.”

Daydreaming Gentleman

In fact some of the world’s most famous thinkers owed their paradigm shaking leaps to daydreams. The history of science is replete with eureka moments. After a pot of coffee one sleepless night the French polymath Henri Poincaré sent his thoughts aloft. His ideas “rose in crowds.” And he felt them “collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.” The next morning he awoke and fluently wrote out the mathematics of Fucsian functions that revolutionized aspects of trigonometry. Linus Pauling, a Nobel laureate, described how the flash of insight that illuminated chemical bonding came to him not in the laboratory or his university office, but unbidden as he lay in bed with a bad cold, teasing apart the fibers of a chunk of asbestos. (Don’t try that at home!) During his famous thought experiments, Albert Einstein daydreamed he rode a beam of light and imagined light-speed locomotives to help him unravel the structure of space and time.

Many problems yield to solution only with dogged work and careful attention to routine, sitting in a cold, hard chair, getting down to business. Proofreading, balancing a checkbook, drilling with scales on the piano, and other similar routines fall into this category as do the more routine exercises in mathematics, chemistry, or physics. But some more complicated and less clear cut challenges, like the ones Poincaré, Pauling, and Einstein faced and surmounted, require pondering, doodling, marinating, and incubating, perhaps while hiking or biking, or showering, or even staring, slack-jawed into the unfocused middle distance.

Spouses of poets, painters, and mathematicians will know this spacey, preoccupied look, the outward sign of an inner state, the mind at play, turning things over. And brain science now confirms the impression. Neuroscientists at Stanford University have separated the two kinds of thinking into the “task-positive” and the “task-negative” systems, and they describe how the brain region called the “insula” switches between circuitry that enables decisiveness or rumination—one or the other and not both at once.

Thomas Henricks, the thoughtful sociologist of play, notes that while night dreams can be marked by chaos and anxiety as the mind unhinges, daydreams are usually pleasant musings where consciousness is more clearly in charge but set free of care. This is a fortunate state. “Unhindered,” he wrote me recently, “the ego can direct and regulate the sources of its own pleasurable stimulation.” Daydreaming,” he concluded, “doses us with pleasant visions of successful actions.” With the mind on a long leash but still at play, daydreaming gives us the permission to be creative and the courage to create.