What is the function of daydreaming? Researchers don’t really know its purpose. Whether we are awake or asleep, dreaming is a behavior about which scientists can only guess.
In 2004, American screenwriter Josh Schwartz, creator of the dramatic television series The O.C, helped me understand the concept of a wandering mind. In season two of The O.C. (Episode 5, “The Sno.C”), a young, troubled teen named Ryan Atwood shows up to the doorstep of his then-romantic interest, Lindsay Gardner. Ryan and Lindsay are in the earliest stages of teenage infatuation. They’ve yet to discover that Lindsay is the illegitimate love child of Ryan’s adoptive mother’s dad, so for now life as these lovebirds know it is all good. Lindsay is so overcome with daydreams about Ryan that she has a hard time concentrating on her homework.
Wearing cartoon slippers of Sigmund Freud, Lindsay is attempting to concentrate on schoolwork when Ryan arrives. Lindsay was measuring her reading comprehension productivity by putting a single, red dot at the bottom of each page she read. If she read a page once, there would be one red dot at the page’s end. If she read it twice, there would be two, and so on and so forth Lindsay would mark up her reading material. If she discovers, at the end of each page, that her mind had wandered away from the words right in front of her eyes, she’d mark another red dot and begin the page again. Essentially, Lindsay tallies how many red dots it takes her to absorb a single page of information. With Ryan on her mind, she accumulated far more red dots than her average count. Lindsay shares this fun fact with Ryan, revealing her vulnerability, making a connection between the two lovebirds more stimulating. Romance and neuroscience combine in this episode to make primetime gold.
While this example may seem like a shallow attempt to convey a scientific fact (and it absolutely is), it also puts a complex human phenomenon into simple terms. Humans will wander into mentally unmapped territory while performing other unrelated tasks (reading, conversing, driving) only to snap back into the present moment after an immeasurable time away. In these moments, we are awake, but we are also dreaming.
This phenomenon travels far past the blanket diagnosis of “Attention Deficit Disorder.” One could even argue that blaming ADD as causation of mental wandering is an antiquated understanding of the behavior. There is no deficit of attention when our minds wander, there is simply more attention given to the daydream than to external stimulus. A more accurate description would be “Misappropriation Attention Disorder.” That’s what’s happening- humans abandon present time awareness in favor of imagined mental scenarios. Without proper control over the impulse to stray from the present, we misappropriate our attention.
We all daydream, some more than others. Sometimes the dreams are boring. When we’re driving and simultaneously pondering what our boss said to us several hours earlier, isn’t this daydreaming? If we’re not in the present moment, where are we?
The Temptations said it best, our imaginations run away with us. This is where practices like meditation become so useful. If we notice where our attention goes and when, we can start to take back control of how present we are at work, in personal relationships, and performing task-oriented activities.
In Scientific American Magazine’s 2013 article, “Living in an Imaginary World,” writer Josie Glasiusz states, “Mind wandering [increases] with stress, boredom or sleepiness or in chaotic environments and [decreases] with enjoyable tasks. That may be because enjoyable activities tend to grab our attention.” So, our minds wander when we are stressed, bored, or tired (and we’re often stressed, bored, or tired). Unless we’ve over-stimulated our senses to the point of no return, or we need to discover a way of living and working that keeps us fully engaged.
Bosses experience the mind wandering of their employees constantly. Budget meetings can be dull. Boredom breeds daydreams. This is an argument for finding new and innovative ways to get your staff actively involved in the work of the company. If your staff is inherently unenthusiastic, perhaps you’ve hired people who’d rather be somewhere else. Perhaps its time to reevaluate your hiring practices.
The ability to mentally disassociate is, in many ways, beautiful. Imagine being held against your will. The only freedom remaining is your freedom to find peace of mind. And, if the present moment is too terrifying to experience fully, you can simply take your mind to a more pleasant place and feel a biochemical relaxation response ensue.
In a last-stitch effort to maintain some semblance of control over our realities, humans will go anywhere else we need to, because we can. When reality fails us, we go to the dreams in our minds.
For one entire day, try paying attention to how often your mind wanders. Every time it does, bring yourself back to present-moment awareness. It requires discipline and energy. This is meditation. And, if your mind is always going somewhere else, ask yourself if you could change your life circumstances to better reflect the ideal scenarios you’ve created in your head.
Moment-to-moment, uninterrupted awareness is the stuff of legends- the ancient yogis, the enlightened ones. Presence of mind allows you to be fully present with earth beneath your feet, the sky above your head, and the living world in which you find yourself every day.
Let’s go even further down the metaphysical rabbit hole. If we can dream while we are awake as well as when we are asleep, when does reality occur or not occur? If the only scientists we can consult about brain mapping, sleep/wake cycles, and other states of consciousness are also human (like us), how can we ever come to an objective conclusion? Is an objective reality possible? While I ponder these thoughts, I sit at a wooden table on a wooden chair, in a well-lit room. Where am I when the analysis process occurs? Am I still at the wooden table, or have I abandoned my present-moment awareness in favor of a more complex reality only available in my head?
For the time being, there is no scientific method to objectively determine a sound argument about a drifting mind. Even if I let a doctor study my brain, the doctor is another human being using his human brain to come to a conclusion. Without thoughts, we’re just two people together in a building, one observing the other.
There is no way to know where “I” go when my mind wanders just as there is no way to know where “you” go when yours does. I can’t see the world from your point of view and you can’t see it from mine. Perspective is unique to each of us, and therefore it makes complete logical sense to have a wide range of political, religious, and socioeconomic viewpoints about how best to handle our affairs in this lifetime. The more we attempt to homogenize thought-patterns, the less likely we are to evolve as the varied-thinking organisms that we are.
Amidst all the perceived political and social turmoil of the world at-large, I think the most appropriate step between world leaders and individual citizens of the United States would be to discuss our wandering thoughts. Discussing them openly, honestly, and respectfully should be a duty of any voting adult (my reality, maybe not yours). If we can all accept that we each experience life differently, perhaps we can begin to learn how to respect our lives and the lives of those who think differently than we do. Let’s try to make the best of it while we’re here. Because, daydreaming or not, it’ll be over before we know it.
© 2017 Shawna Marie Rodgers
All Rights Reserved.