Guest Blog: the power of Daydreaming


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!



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!).

The first rule of Test Club is…

What are the two most depressing words in the English language?This week, my vote goes to “test club.”That’s where my daughter is this afternoon. She’s at her school’s “test club.” Instead of running around outside chasing a ball, or dreaming up a dance routine with a friend, she’s burnishing her exam-taking skills for the upcoming test that will determine what secondary school she goes to.

This is what education has come to in Britain and so many other countries. Exam scores are now more important than learning itself. Mastering the art of taking tests has become a central part of the school experience.This is absurd. But it’s also part of a broader obsession with targets and metrics.Measuring progress can be useful, of course, but too often the metrics become an end in themselves.When Sears set quotas for its auto repair teams, staff began overcharging customers and inventing faults.In the public sector, a fixation on targets has led to police forces redeploying detectives to easier cases to meet arrest quotas and to doctors moving patients who are less ill to the front of the queue to keep down waiting times.In 2011, investigators uncovered the largest cheating scandal in the history of the public school system in the US. Nearly 180 teachers and principals across 44 schools in Atlanta, Georgia, were accused of routinely correcting their pupils’ answers on standardized tests. Whistleblowers were bullied, hit with professional sanctions or fired. Meeting those short-term targets, and harvesting the concomitant kudos and cash, had become more important than the long-term goal of giving children a solid education.

Trapped inside the current system, parents have little choice but to prepare their kids for exams. That’s why my daughter is at test club today.

But how useful is all this testing? What do exams really tell us about children?

What they mainly tell us is how good they are at sitting exams. And how useful is that in the real world?

The good news is that pressure for change is building, at last. And not just from frazzled parents and dispirited teachers.

Today, the Chamber of British Industry released a report today hammering Britain for turning its schools into exam factories.

Bottom line: we need a Slow Education movement now more than ever.

Tech for kids?

Two new studies on the effect that the new technologies are having on children. As always, the picture is mixed and a bit contradictory.

Yes, the new gadgets can help with learning. But only if used wisely.

If technology is good, many children are getting too much of a good thing. All those hours spent in front of screens are conditioning them (and the rest of us, for that matter) to expect everything to happen at the speed of software.

Result: shorter attention spans; lack of focus and concentration; a tendency to give up when an easy answer does not present itself at the click of a button.

What’s the take-home? Like most things, technology is good – in the right dosage.

Fast teachers

News of more acceleration in schools – only this time it’s the teachers who are being sped up. The British government today announced that in future “able candidates” can train to become teachers in just six months instead of the traditional one year.

The aim is to attract clever people who have lost their jobs in the economic downturn, especially in the financial sector. Said one government minister: “We know there are a lot of fantastic mathematicians, for example, who would have once perhaps gone into the City but now actually might be more interested in a career in teaching.”

But is this the right way to beef up the teaching ranks? I’m not so sure. Teaching is a hard job and the best teachers have a real vocation: that’s why they put up with low salaries, pushy parents and red tape.

Can we expect the same from those who colonize the classroom because they can no longer make absurdly inflated wages in the financial sector? And what happens when the economy rebounds and the City starts hiring again? How many of the fast-tracked teachers will choose to stay in the classroom?

Even if they do stay, I’m not convinced that halving the time devoted to teacher training is a good thing, even for bright candidates with lots of life experience. Just imagine if we did the same for surgeons, pilots or dentists. Learning a craft takes time. If anything, countries like Britain should be investing more energy in teacher training.

Just look at Finland. By any yardstick, it has one of most successful education systems in the world. Competition for teacher training is fierce in Finland, and those who make the cut study for five years before qualifying. Yes, five years.

Finnish teachers are so well trained that the nation holds them in high regard and trusts them to do well by its children. That means instead of dealing with endless inspections, assessments and bureaucracy, they can get down to the most important job of all: teaching.

I suppose the one benefit of speed-training teachers is that we’ll know very soon whether it works or not. My guess is that it proves to be another false economy.

Jobs for the boys (and girls)

I’ve just returned from a speaking tour of the US and Canada (more on that to come), and someone at a talk/workshop I gave in Edmonton sent me this snippet from a blog. It’s amusing in a sardonic way. And maybe the punch line can be read in more ways than one.

Anyway, here it is:

If you think the coming nuclear winter will make the job market tough for employees, you need to hear about the job offer my daughter got recently.
The job has:
  • $0 salary and no equity (you’re supposed to be compensated in experience)
  • no benefits other than vacation and sick time – no insurance, for example
  • no possibility of promotion or raise, ever
  • no job description – just do what you’re told
  • micromanaging boss asks about project status every hour
  • strict hours, starting at 8:30AM sharp
  • if you’re late even a few minutes, your boss sends you to her boss
  • rigid workweek, but then you’re expected to work from home a ton
  • open-desk seating, not even a cube, with a hard chair
  • the work is boring and demeaning, like adding digits and copying text
  • all your useless work gets thrown away
  • if you want to use a computer, you can buy one or just scribble on paper
  • no supplies room
  • my daughter can’t drive so commute was complicated
  • can’t even put the job on your resume until you work there for a decade
I wish this was a joke or I was making it up.
Having consulted with me, my daughter of course rejected this ridiculous offer and is now just working on side projects while looking for a better opportunity.
But millions of other 7-year olds accepted identical offers.

In Praise of Snow…

Talk about climate change. Britain is grappling with the largest snowfall in nearly 20 years. London is buried under seven inches of the white stuff – and there are still flurries blowing around outside my window. The country has ground to a halt. In London, there are nobuses, no Tube, no school, nothing.

This is a huge inconvenience for many, but there is also a silver lining. To begin with, children are over the moon to have the day off school. Mine dashed outside in just their pajamas and boots this morning before breakfast. My son declared it the “best day of his life.”

Many Londoners know how he feels. The absence of traffic has changed the whole mood and feel of the city. Streets normally clogged with cars and buses are now full of children (and adults) building snowmen, throwing snowballs and even tobogganing. Neighbours who usually avoid eye-contact are stopping to chat about the weather. This is hardly surprising:Studies around the world show a direct correlation between cars and community: the less traffic that flows through an area (and the more slowly it flows) the more social contact among the residents.

I do not mean to demonize cars. I drive one myself. The trouble is that driving has gained too much ascendancy over walking. For decades, urban life has been haunted by the words of Georges Pompidou, a former president of France: We must adapt the city to the car, and not the other way round.

How wrong can someone be? The city of the future – a truly Slow city – must take a different tack. It must adapt not to the car but to the citizen, to the pedestrian, to human beings. And it shouldn’t wait around for a snowstorm to do so.

By coincidence, this snowfall has hit Britain on the day that alandmark studyon the statechildhood hit the headlines. The report sounds fascinating and flawed, and I will blog on it later once I’ve actually read it. But a quick comment now.

On the BBC this morning, one of the report’s authors blamed the unhappiness of modern British children on career-obsessed parents, competitive schooling, broken families, excessive consumerism etc. But he failed to mention our collective reluctance to let them run around and play outside on their own. If we want happy, healthy kids, then we need to redesign and rethink our cities so that they have plenty of outdoor space for play. And surely reclaiming the streets from traffic must be a first step to achieving that.

Big Brother watch?

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, a company unveiled a digital watch fitted with a GPS tracker device. Very James Bond. But the device was not designed for English spies with a penchant for Maseratis and martinis. No, the GPS watch its official name isNum8– is aimed at parents who want to keep track of their children.

The company that makes the watch insists that it is not just another nail in the coffin of children’s right to roam. “Only 20% of children are now allowed to go out and play, says the chief executive of Lok8u (get it?). It’s my profound hope that Num8 will help parents feel more comfortable about letting their children go out to play.”

But will it?

I’m not so sure. Maybe it will encourage some parents to let their children play more freely outside – though you might ask what kind of freedom involves constantly updating mum and dad with your exact location to within three metres. But I suspect the watch will just crank up the anxiety for others. For a start, it reinforces the feeling that the world is a horribly dangerous place full of kidnappers, paedophiles and child slavery rings when it is not.

Technology designed to bring peace of mind also has a tendency to do the very opposite. Just look at what happened with the mobile phone, aka the longest umbilical cord in history. Because we can reach our children anytime, anywhere, we do. And if the phone is switched off, or out of range, for a moment, we panic – our child must be in danger, something must be wrong. Then there is the peer pressure: if everyone else is in 24/7 phone contact with their kids, then I must be a bad parent for failing to do the same.

But can we really guarantee round-the-clock electronic monitoring of our children? The makers of Num8 think so. The watch uses satellite and mobile phone networks to track kids indoors and outdoors. It also sends alerts if the Num8 is removed without permission. But what if a child wanders into a black zone where coverage is blocked or weak? Or the network crashes? What happens then to the peace of mind promised in the Num8 advertising?

And even if we could guarantee constant GPS monitoring of our children, is that really a good thing? I don’t think so. Thanks to the modern obsession with eliminating all doubt and danger from our kids’ lives, something important is getting lost the time and space for children to explore the world on their own terms, to take risks, to be completely alone sometimes, to break away gradually from the mother ship. There is nothing quite like the rush of pride a child feels when taking his first steps out into the world on his own walking alone to a friend’s house, or cycling to school by himself. Yet that accomplishment is diminished when you know your parents are anxiously tracking your every move on the home computer. The Num8 also makes it harder to let children go in stages because it is an all-or-nothing device: you either know exactly where your kid is at all times, or you don’t. This presents parents with an agonizing decision: at what age do you allow your child to leave home alone without the Num8? At 10? 15? Or maybe 25?

The bottom line is that the world is nowhere near as dangerous as we think, or as the overheated media portrays it. Children do not need to be electronically tagged like criminals. We could all be a lot less anxious if we ditched the electronic leashes and let kids roam freely as they have throughout history.

A final thought: My guess is that the Num8 will lead to an epidemic of false alarms. It is just such a tempting target for pranksters and bullies just yank it off a child’s wrist in the playground and wait for his hysterical parents (followed by a SWAT team) to come charging to the rescue….

What about Santa?

I wrote a column in yesterday’s Washington Post about the Great Santa Debate and how it shines a light on the anxieties of modern parenting.