POST BY GUEST BLOGGER
This is a post from Del Shannon, a civil engineer who also writes books for children. His full bio is down below.
Here he muses on the joys and benefits of daydreaming, for grown-ups and kids.
Hope you enjoy it!
BY DEL SHANNON
My wife, when she’s not infuriated by the behavior, calmly points out to nearly everyone she meets that I disappear sometimes. I’ve tried to politely point out that this most often happens when she’s making a very important point about one of her sisters, but I’ve learned this isn’t a viable defense and so now I just keep my mouth shut.
Fascinating conversations about my wife’s sisters aside, I’ve been doing this – call it daydreaming, escaping, out-to-lunch, zoning out – all my life. When I first read the “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” I thought James Thurber had somehow crawled inside my head, taken a few notes, and changed my name to Walter before writing his short story.
Even amongst the frustrations this causes to those around me I’ve never tried to seriously rein in this little quirk about my personality. Being able to let my mind wander to distant lands while someone raged for 15 minutes about the misuse of assigned parking spaces during a work meeting was a pretty handy little skill. Why would I mess with that?
While it is tempting to offer up this behavior as irresponsible or even immature, recent research is pointing to the very tangible benefits of daydreaming and exploring your imagination. A March 2012 study in the online journal Psychological Science found a direct correlation between the amount of daydreaming a person does and their working memory capacity. In general terms, the higher an individual’s working memory capacity the higher their reading comprehension, IQ score and other measures of intelligence.
It turns out we all get distracted, but the authors found that those with the highest working memory capacity were those who let their mind wander and daydream the most. On the surface, that can appear counterintuitive. The smartest people are also those who can’t stay focused on a single task? But when you dig into it a bit you start to see the logic. Levinson and Davidson found that your working memory also works to prioritize the most pressing problems from the also-rans. It’s as if the brain, all on its own, bypasses the boring parking space meeting and gets back to the real problems at hand.
Creatively solving these problems is also directly impacted by daydreaming. In a 2009 Psychology Today article about the benefits of daydreaming, Columbia University cognitive psychologist Malia Fox Mason reinforced this idea. “By allowing your mind the freedom to roam, the chances that you’re going to have an insight are much higher. It’s likely that you are going to recombine pieces of information in a novel way.”
All of this brings us to a paradox. I would argue that most of us want to better ourselves, our lives, our position in this world, and to do this we are often shown the template of working harder, learning more, cramming more into your day as the path to achieve these things. It would be folly to try and disagree that this path has led many to better financial lives.
But there might be another, less obvious path to consider as well. By slowing down and allowing more time to let our minds wander, daydream, and revel in the deliciousness of unscheduled hours, you may actually be accomplishing more than the person who schedules their day into 15 minute increments. Very few will argue with the physical benefits of slowing down your life, and now there appears to be tangible productive benefits as well to slowness. By slowing down, our minds are allowed more freedom to daydream, sort through the long list of priorities we all carry around, and approach problems from unique perspectives. Conversations with your spouse’s/partner’s/roommate’s/co-worker’s siblings is a highly recommended place to start.
The same holds for our children. From over-scheduling in the name of cramming as much knowledge as possible into their heads, to stifling their daydreaming by labeling it unproductive, many of our children have been boxed into unimaginative and monochromatic lives. Providing our kids the time and freedom to daydream, explore and imagine on their own is a vital part of their development and we should be encouraging they do more of it…preferably while wearing a cape and a mask.
Del Shannon is a civil engineer who designs and constructs (and sometimes even deconstucts) dams around the world. When not damming, he has written award-winning essays and children’s stories. His first children’s book was the serialized novella The Map, published in several newspapers. Captain Disaster is his second, a novel. Del lives with his family in Colorado and always seems to be daydreaming of Captain Disaster (which you can order here!).