Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Daydream believer

I’ve been reflecting on a news item last week, reporting that people are easily distracted. With wonderful pseudo-scientific accuracy, the research population in question ‘spent 46.9% of their time awake with their minds wandering’. The headline called this ‘daydreaming’, although it appears to actually mean thinking about something other than the task in hand. A psychologist friend tells me daydreaming is when the mind wanders of its own accord and is subject to random thoughts, whereas more systematic thinking about something else, such as what to have for supper, is just ‘thinking about something else’. Anyway, for me they both come into the general category of ‘not paying attention’.

At first I wasn’t prepared to take the research at all seriously, as it was carried out on possibly the least scientifically credible sample population ever: volunteer iPhone users. But apparently other research has also found high levels of mind-wandering. Surely this doesn’t surprise anyone – iPhone user or not.

I find both daydreaming and ‘thinking about something else’ to be extremely beneficial. I’ve had some of my best ideas through staring into space at conferences and meetings, or on public transport. It’s also true that problems get solved by allowing ideas to develop when doing something else. Perhaps this happens more than it used to and perhaps my attention span is being shortened by the internet and modern life in general, but the results are not necessarily bad. In fact, the ability to switch off when something is of little interest is good time management, surely.

I’d be interested to know who indulges most in mental multi-tasking. Men or women? Young or old? Richer or poorer? Busy or idle? Single or not? And what are the subjects of daydreaming? Is it more common to be distracted by thoughts of what has happened in the past, or by plans for the future?

One distinction was reported. Apparently, people who don’t pay attention are unhappier than people who do. This puzzles me. Surely mind-wandering is a great opportunity for both creativity and self-preservation. One of the researchers says ‘our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present’. That statement opens up fascinating new possibilities for understanding how we make sense of the world and how we cope with it.

Update: The Abandoned Bicycle has reflected further on this topic

7 comments:

Rob said...

Interesting post Jenny and glad you didn't jump to conclusions about iPhone users - though having said that Mrs AB might have her own comments on that particular topic. I know I suffer from/indulge in/benefit from 'daydreaming' and have never quite managed to understand why I do it with such regularity. But then I often think it is because I'm not happy doing the task in hand. And maybe that's the more important lesson, that instead of scolding those who daydream we should encourage them and benefit from the more productive thinking. It may just save us from some of the problems of modern life.

nick said...

It makes me wonder what is the more natural mental state, daydreaming or concentrating. Do children naturally daydream and have to be taught to concentrate on a particular thing?

As you say, daydreaming can be highly creative as the random associations it generates can result in important insights and ideas. Brainstorming is really just organised daydreaming.

Jenny Muir said...

Rob - I agree, and I do think that in our line of work we can harness daydreaming pretty well. But the idea that you daydream more if you don't enjoy what you're doing is interesting, I hadn't thought of that. I suppose it's the opposite of that 'flow' you're meant to get when you lose yourself in work. Also re smartphone users, I do think the issue of attention deficit is going to be big in the next decade. Will we see everything divided into 5 minute chunks?

Nick - I think we concentrate on the things that interest us or on the things we have to do to survive, but whether it's a natural state.... hmmm.... Love the idea of brainstorming as 'organised daydreaming' - or shared daydreaming, perhaps? Good idea for a research team to pursue, I think.

Rob Rowlands said...

5 minute chunks? What is this, a US sitcom?

As for the "opposite flow" that is precisley the energy and resource we need to tap into. I for one am doing just that and can highly recommend it.

Jenny Muir said...

Rob I agree! 5 minute chunk would be a disaster for humanity. I am now thinking about 'opposite flow' - but have a peer review to finish!

Rabelais said...

That's interesting, the division of everything into 5 minute chunks, which I agree would be awful.

I had an enthusiastic student explain to me once that the future lay in such McNuggetts of information and entertainment. That we would be soooo busy that we would have time for nothing but a quick glance at out mobile phones, where we would watch 'mobisodes' of ouy favourite programmes and news.

'People neither want nor have the time for anything that'll take more than 3 to 5 minutes, tops', he told me confidently.

So I asked him how he accounted for the incredible increase in TV box set sales and the phenomena of people sitting at home watching The Wire and Mad Med and Lost etc, three hour, four hour sittings at a time.

He thought for a a moment and then said: 'Yeah, but that's for dumb, older people.'

I don't think he'd ever had a day dream in his life....

Jenny Muir said...

Rab - love that story. I think there's a class exercise in there though - ask them to develop that thought and describe a world of 3 - 5 min episodes (e.g. bus stops after 5 mins so that the driver can do something else).....