A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Daydream for Creativity
“I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.”—Steven Wright
Go into your memory bank and recall a time in school when you were daydreaming. Perhaps it was during a particularly boring lecture in a history class. Or, maybe you were drifting off while your teacher shared some incomprehensible information about photosynthesis. Or perhaps your mind wandered all over the place during a required school assembly.
Maybe you recall an incident or two as an adult when you daydreamed during a “necessary” and “very important” staff meeting (and you drifted off to a tropical island). Or, what about that time you were sorting through some mundane paperwork at your office desk (and you began thinking about an expensive sports car). Or how about the time when you were sitting by yourself in your department’s conference room, aimlessly toying with a container of Greek yogurt (and thinking about winning the Powerball lottery and moving to a tropical island with your new sports car).
All too often we think of daydreaming as something negative. (“Young lady, isn’t it about time you rejoined our little discussion here?”) The thinking is that people who daydream aren’t paying attention, they aren’t mentally engaged, and they aren’t processing any of the “required” information. But, what if I told you that frequent daydreaming may be a sign of creativity . . . authorial creativity?
When kids daydream, they conjure up imaginary plots that have them sailing pirates ships across uncharted seas, galloping over a frozen tundra to challenge an evil ruler, piloting a rocket ship to a distant world populated by pulsating blobs of purple protoplasm, or assuming some incredible super power. When adults daydream, we often think about escapes to faraway places.
But, how does daydreaming aid our creative impulses? According to psychologist Eric Klinger, it may be because the waking brain is never really at rest. Klinger posits that floating in unfocused mental states serves an evolutionary purpose. That is, when we are engaged with one task, mind wandering can trigger reminders of other, concurrent, goals so that we do not lose sight of them. Other researchers suggest that increasing the amount of imaginative daydreaming we do (or replaying variants of the millions of events we store in our brain) can be creatively beneficial simply because it allows our minds to wander across imaginative landscapes not normally a part of our logic or normal habits of convergent thinking. In short, daydreaming expands our horizons.
Daydreaming is an important mental activity, especially if we pay attention to it. In one study, researchers asked 122 students to read a children’s story and press a button each time they caught themselves tuning out. The researchers periodically interrupted the students as they were reading and asked them if they were “zoning out” or drifting off without being aware of it. They concluded that “. . . people who regularly catch themselves—who notice when they are doing it—seem to be the most creative.” The results also demonstrated that individuals scored higher on a test of creativity in which they were asked to describe all the uses of a common object, such as a brick. Daydreamers were able to compile longer and more creative lists. “You need to have the mind-wandering process. But, you also need to have the meta-awareness to say, ‘That’s a creative idea that popped into my head.’”
But, there’s a cautionary note here. Research demonstrates a significant correlation between our daydreaming and creativity, not a cause and effect. There may well be other variables at work. However, it’s fair to assume that daydreaming, from a creativity standpoint, is a good thing. It’s not something we should exclude from our authorial pursuits. Having our heads in the clouds is an opportunity to let our creative powers develop and flourish. This is mental play at its finest—a potent exercise in which innovative thinking is supported and celebrated.
Raised in an environment of “Stop daydreaming and get back to work,” we often get the message that we shouldn’t be using our minds to think creative things. Thus, daydreaming is frequently viewed as something to be avoided; something that has little place in a writer’s repertoire. The implication is that it’s something bad for your brain. The message is clear: When you’re not paying attention, you’re not . . . well . . . you’re not paying attention! How can you possibly write? How can you possibly engage in any productive and meaningful work?
Think about it. Or, perhaps, you might want to daydream about it.
Tony is the author of 10,000 Writing Ideas: Essential Strategies for Every Writer (https://amzn.to/3o1vEgP) [“The title is no lie. This book truly will help you get 10,000 writing ideas. Each chapter is dedicated to . . . generating ideas to help writers expand their minds and exercise their brains.” —5-star Amazon review]