[Wherein our Hero explores his daydreaming behaviour, and just how it might impact upon his marginally more objective reality.]
Someone once told me that a study concluded that students who daydream often in class actually do better than students who daydream less frequently. He argued that this is because those who daydream in class aren’t challenged by the material and disengage. It has a kind of twisted, believable logic, though it flies in the face of the accepted wisdom. It would be great if that were true, but I’ve never been able to find the reference.
A lecturer of mine told his class today that the ‘default’ setting of the brain is to daydream about social interactions. Of course I do his class and that particular topic no justice by that one, short sentence. It’s an exceedingly more complicated topic than expressed here. However, I will admit, my first reaction was to balk at it. I would swear I day dream more about goals and objectives, and problems I need to solve than people and interactions. He then asked for suggestions of non-social daydream content and proceeded to shoot down nearly all suggestions in one or two steps. An example might be – I was thinking of a t-shirt design; a response might be – Who’s going to wear it? Is it being designed to be seen? It’s a shirt, it has an inherent social aspect. That was not an example in class, it’s one I just generated, but it’s very easy to find a social element to the content of daydream. The best answer we got was if one was musing of an abstract concept such as beauty. I still feel an aversion to that concept though. Even though after a step or two of reasoning one can find a social dimension, the explicit purpose of the thought might not necessarily be so. For instance, I sometime zone out and consider future directions for this blog- not for the benefit of the readers, but for my own benefit in gaining knowledge. Yes, blogging is inherently social but I disagree that that’s my motivation. I’m daydreaming about future goals.
I had a look through the literature and this appears to be extremely common. An interesting study was published by Langes (2002/2003) which looked at motivation to achieve a non-social goal (an academic goal) and a social goal, and examined the relationship between daydreaming content, motivation to complete the goal, and goal attainment. It was found that the more motivated one was to achieve a goal, the more daydreams they had relating to that goal. Interestingly, daydreaming was related level of satisfaction in achieving that goal measured some weeks later – but only among the highly motivated. Those who were poorly motivated expressed similar results for satisfaction at goal attainment, but number of daydreams regarding the goal was unrelated to their success. Lange (2002/2003) suggests that among the highly motivated daydreaming does act as a kind of reinforcer for the goal, thus maintaining the motivation to achieve. Now that’s an interesting thought – in some sense a daydream about a goal might actually help one achieve the goal, but that sounds a little to close to ‘The Secret’ for my liking; more research required.
As mentioned at the top, daydreaming is more commonly accepted to impair academic performance than suggest overcompetence. Indeed Smallwood, Fishman & Schooler (2007) found the opposite. Daydreaming is bad – it impairs the ability of an individual to encode information – they suggest. They argue it impedes the building of a narrative model and restricts one’s ability to later draw inferences from memory. That’s a neat thought, but I found a more interesting perspective…
The larger the contextual shift in daydream content (in dimensions of time, distance or context) the greater the decreased recall of the current event/task. Delaney, Sahakyan, Kelley & Zimmerman (2010) ran a very clever experiment [which is excellent, given that most research on daydreams is Psychoanalytic jibberish - Hooray for the scientific method!]. Unfortunately the one failing in an experiment such as this is that the daydream is not necessarily what we could consider a daydream, per se. They asked subjects to learn a list of words then engage in a memory and then learn a second list of words. They measured how many words from the first list were recalled after all three tasks. The nature of the memory (the daydream) they were asked to engage in was a thought about their parent’s home, or their own home; and an international vacation or a domestic vacation. They found people forgot more words when thinking about their parents house then their current home (greater ‘time’ displacement), and when they thought about an international vacation compared to a domestic vacation (greater ‘distance’ displacement).
The first thing that jumps to mind is out ability to engage in Mental Time Travel (MTT) and the quirk that thinking into the deep future is similiar as thinking into the deep past – in both cases richness, texture, detail and other factors are lost or more ambiguous than near future or near past events. I probably would have liked to have seen more stringent content on their thoughts – such as controlling what they were actually thinking about. If I were to do this study tomorrow I would do the following:
In the Time variable get the subjects to engage in a particularly memorable experience at one week (T1) and one day (T2) prior to testing.
In the distance variable get subjects to engage in said task at location distant from testing, say, across campus (D1) and in the room next door to testing (D2).
Then engage in the word-list + memory + word-list task then measure memory.
In this manner you could control the content of the memory (the task), the distance and the time displacement of the memory.
Nevertheless, their finding is fascinating. If you catch yourself in class daydreaming about a time long ago, or a place far away, try to catch yourself. You might be seriously impeding your coding of the current information. Try to fantasize about boring, down to earth things. Try to imagine what the walls would be like if they were a different colour, perhaps.
Unfortunately this defeats everything that is good and enjoyable about daydreaming. I’ll post myself to the Moons of Jupiter in the year 3258 AD if it means I don’t have to ever again experience Hierarchical Multiple Regressions… unfortunately reality is patient and I still have an exam in 6 weeks. I guess I have to come down sometime…
Delaney PF, Sahakyan L, Kelley CM, & Zimmerman CA (2010). Remembering to forget: the amnesic effect of daydreaming. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (7), 1036-42 PMID: 20548055
Smallwood J, Fishman DJ, & Schooler JW (2007). Counting the cost of an absent mind: mind wandering as an underrecognized influence on educational performance. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 14 (2), 230-6 PMID: 17694906
LANGENS, T. (2003). DAYDREAMING MEDIATES BETWEEN GOAL COMMITMENT AND GOAL ATTAINMENT IN INDIVIDUALS HIGH IN ACHIEVEMENT MOTIVATION. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 22 (2), 103-115 DOI: 10.2190/TL8L-MXKE-68E6-UAVB
Tags: attention, Cognition, Daydreaming, dreams, Engagement, Motivation, Psychology, studies