At school letting your mind wander was sure to mean trouble, but Sue Conley suggests giving your imagination a free rein
I spent so much time daydreaming about writing this piece on daydreaming that I kept putting off the part where I had to sit down to actually write it.
See, I had all these ideas, right, about the things I wanted to say, and did some research and let those ideas join the others, and I thought about how I'd maybe like to begin it, and how I'd maybe like to end it, and there were all these bits in the middle that I wasn't too sure about, so I skipped those, and then went on and imagined the layout the designer might do, and how well it looked, and there was my name at the top of the thing . . . and then all of a sudden I felt like Ally McBeal.
Remember her? Calista Flockhart, plucked from the obscurity that is New York's off-off-off Broadway, became famous overnight playing the eponymous character of the 1997 television show. Remember the dancing baby? Creepy! But that sequence is indicative of the show's use of daydreaming and fantasising in order to develop Ally's character. Sure, it was TV, they went to extremes, but don't we all have the capacity to think up things vividly that aren't there, and to develop scenaria that have no basis in reality?
That's just crazy, isn't it? What a waste of time! Look at Ally -- total headcase! How many times as a child were you told to 'snap out of it', sitting around gazing aimlessly ahead of yourself, when you could have been doing something fruitful such as ironing the sheets or doing your maths homework? How many times as an adult have you 'come to' guiltily, after having spent precious moments pretending that you were about to receive a Grammy award, be made chief of staff in a hospital (and you aren't even a surgeon) or of finding, hanging on a rail in a charity shop, a vintage Dior ballgown for a fiver?
Well, guess what? You needn't feel guilty: daydreaming can actually be good for you. Are you stressed out? You can daydream yourself into serenity. When you're allowing your mind to wander, it takes you momentarily out of your current situation, with all its attendant problems and stresses.
You can return from your mental excursion refreshed and calm. And as the mind goes, so goes the body: the pleasure you get out of your visualisation may also contribute to the release of endorphins into the blood stream; while most likely not released with the same force that vigorous exercise encourages, nevertheless, the presence of these endogenous opiates also help reinforce the sense of well-being that a good daydream can inspire.
Daydreaming can also make you smarter. Researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada have found that letting mental images develop into narratives may encourage you to improve your problem-solving abilities in real life, as well as improve your ability to 'brainstorm'. This last idea is extremely interesting as daydreaming is a solitary pursuit, but seems to be able to increase your ability to think actively with others.
It also increases your own creativity. Speaking personally, most of the work that I do when I'm writing a new novel is done while staring out of a window of a bus. I quite literally daydream the story into existence, and then when it's ready, I get it all down on paper, and off we go.
I can't imagine being able to create anything without daydreaming about it first -- that's why it's called 'imagination', isn't it? The image has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere looks to be the land of the daydream.
Fantasising can be seen as an even more important aspect of our psychological make-up. Get your mind out of the gutter: it's not just about sex.
In her book, By Force of Fantasy: How We Make Our Lives (Basic Books), Dr Ethel S Person writes about ways in which our fantasies are actually integral to our psychological development, and how they change as we develop and age. She makes an interesting distinction between daydreaming and fantasising.
While the term 'sexual fantasy' is the norm in the parlance, that particular process is more akin to daydreaming. Dr Person considers our fantasies to have a practical use, in that they help us to set and achieve goals. Yes, these fantasies can be romantic, but they can also be professional, or physical, like, oh, I don't know . . . imagining yourself showjumping in the RDS at the Dublin Horse Show. And while fantasies are often perceived as being isolating -- there's no one else in your head with you, is there? -- they actually help us to connect with people subconsciously. If a man fantasises about being the protector in his romantic relationships, he may find himself drawn to women who, on their side of the coin, daydream about being 'rescued'. "Many men and women have formed deep relationships because of reciprocal fantasies," says Person, "and may never discuss or even be aware of this subliminal connection."
As with much else in life, there's a limit to the amount of daydreaming that's good for you. The phrase 'getting lost in your thoughts' can be taken quite literally, and if your daydreaming is preventing you from functioning properly, ie, seeing to your responsibilities and perhaps putting you in dangerous situations, then you may be suffering from Maladaptive Daydreaming. People who suffer from this are not psychotic, and are almost painfully aware of the difference between fiction and reality. It's more akin to an addiction, or to obsessive compulsive disorder; in this case, the external compulsions of the body stay entirely in the mind.
In fact, it may be safe to diagnose everyone in Ally McBeal's world with this disorder. While entertaining enough to watch, it's got to be painful to experience.
Ultimately, most daydreaming is not the harmful sort. So the next time you think to berate yourself for 'being away with the fairies', don't -- you never know, you may come up with a big idea that might make all your dreams come true.