Put Your Daydreams to Work
By Jerome L. Singer
LET’S PEEK inside the minds of the busy Johnson family after breakfast on a balmy April day. Mr. Johnson is on the bus heading for work, but in his thoughts he is sailing a yacht. White-capped waves splash about him, canvas flutters in the wind. “Must come about!” he thinks, and leans on the tiller only to find that the bus has stopped and people are pushing to the exit.
Terry, the Johnsons’ five-year-old, is on his way to school. As he walks he stretches out his arms, makes airplane sounds and zigzags along hedges shouting, “curse you, Red baron!” Mrs. Johnson is clearing up breakfast dishes. Suddenly she is standing on a moo-drenched patio beneath tall coconut palms, her body swaying to the rhythm of a Haitian meringue. A tall, lithe stranger leans close and whispers, “Mademoiselle would care to dance?” then the telephone rings, and it’s the plumber to say he can’t make it to fix the leaky faucet today.
In the past, many behavioral scientists considered such day-dreams as these to be unimportant, time-wasting, even symptoms of emotional distress. Sigmund Freud wrote: “Happy people never make fantasies, only unsatisfied ones do.” Now psychologists have learned from clinical and experimental research that daydreams are normal to all active minds. Through daydreams our brains put us through mental rehearsals and keep us aware of the unfinished business in our lives. They are a very real part of our growth and self-development-an asset we can make use of to help us modify a dull situation, plan for the future, or try out new ways of relating to the people around us.
Volunteers in one set of laboratory experiments, for example listened to a series of signals-with tones sounding as often as once every second-and were told to press buttons to indicate whether each tone was higher or lower than the preceding one. Every 15 seconds the volunteers were interrupted and asked if they had had any thoughts or fantasies unrelated to the task of correctly detecting signals. Even though adults averaged about 90-percent accuracy in this attention demanding task, most were found to have frequently drifted into daydreams.
In another study, scientists delved into children’s make-believe games. They concluded that all children use fantasy play to explore their environment and to make sense of the many new experiences that confront them. One five-year-old, for example visited his grandparents and saw the ocean for the first time. At Sunday school a few days later he heard the story of Jonah and the whale. For the next few weeks he played make-believe games about adventures with sea monster-to translate his new experiences into terms he could grasp and to deal with the anxiety generated by the swallowing up of Jonah.
Prof. Brian Sutton-Smith, University of Pennsylvania expert on children’s play, has coined a term to describe what day-dreams do for us: “vivification.” Daydreams add color and intrigue to our lives, make them more exciting-provided, of course, that we do not escape at inappropriate times such as during an important business conference or when driving in heavy traffic. Consider these specific advantages and uses of daydreams. With them you can:
* Help your life more creative and original. Research by psychologists has explored the work and thought patterns of creative scientists, artists and writers. These talented individuals indicated that they are much given to indulging their fantasies and engaging in playful mental explorations of the most odd and outlandish possibilities that come to mind.
Some of our greatest scientific discoveries arose from the willingness to daydream. Michael Faraday, one of the founders of electromagnetic theory, used to picture himself as an atom under pressure and gained insight into the electrolyte. Einstein daydreamed about what would happen if a man could fly out into space at the speed of light. From this image he developed some important features of his theory of relativity. Engineer Charles Kettering, trying to determine why kerosene “knocked” more than gasoline, had a visual image of a flower, the trailing arbutus, which blooms early in spring even beneath snow. Its red coloration, which absorbs heat faster than other hues, gave him the idea for tetraethyl lead.
* Use the past to explore the future. An example of this is a middle-aged an who sought psychotherapy because of increasing tension and self-doubt. During the course of reporting his daydreams he frequently found himself recalling with great vividness and warmth a childhood visit to his uncle’s farm. Perhaps, the therapist suggested, the recurrent daydream was telling him something about the way he wanted to go in his future. He began re-examining his own life as a big-city businessman. Practical reality prevented his throwing up his job to become a farmer, but he did purchase land in a rural area where he could build a vacation home and contemplate eventual retirement. By paying attention to his daydreams he changed the pattern of his life for the better.
* Help develop your personality. Say to yourself, “Suppose I were president of the company, or boss of the section, or chairman of a particular committee.” Play each of these “as if “Behaviors out in your mind as vividly as possible. By doing so you may actually detect overlooked strengths in your personality, ambitions that are worth developing further, and many of life’s options that you may have prematurely foreclosed. You may also recognize the things that are not practical.
* Calm and soothe yourself. Research on brain waves, in particular on the alpha rhythm associated with periods of relaxed quiet prior to sleep, suggests that some people can learn to control this rhythm through pleasant daydreams. Some individuals have actually been able thus to control their heart rate and blood pressure.
In moments of extreme tension and fretfulness, allowing yourself to drift into a daydream may help you to identify some of the underlying conflicts or areas of difficulty. Even when the problem can’t be identified the use of positive imagery of nature scenes can at least calm you temporarily and prevent rash action. Thus we can see in purely psychological terms some of the advantages of prayer and meditation. Think of the calming, gentle imagery of a psalm such as “The Lord is my shepherd.”
* Help to overcome your loneliness. In moments of isolation you can conjure up companions with who you can have interesting silent conversations. Some people enjoy a kind of private dialogue with an imaginary visitor from their past, a beloved grandfather or teacher, or a famous person. Others enjoy describing the details of a modern city to an imaginary visitor who has returned from the past, an ancient Roman, perhaps. Such playful exercises in daydreaming not only compensate for mild loneliness but can distract you from nervousness and fear when traveling in strange places.
Provide useful insights into your behavior. Research including my own at Yale-has pointed to many ways in which awareness of your recurrent daydreams can provide clues to different facets of your motives and personality. David McClelland, professor of psychology at Harvard, has shown that daydreams of achievement will be reflected in a person’s actual striving to get ahead. A young man from my clinical practice had a recurrent daydream of himself as a boy with his gang of friends. Thinking about it, he recognized that in recent years he had been concentrating on developing his capacities in physics and mathematics while denying the side of his personality which was extremely social and friendly. He saw now that emphasizing this sociability would be an important asset in his career, and that it could be done without giving up intellectual growth.
Strengthen yourself during adversity. Urban planner Herman Field recounted his life as a prisoner in communist Poland. A suspected American spy, he was imprisoned for more than five years. During that time, he and a fellow prisoner sustained themselves by relating their elaborate fantasies to each other. Field began writing these down in the form of a novel which they found so absorbing they could resist the psychological torture. Indeed, while in isolation, Field developed fantasies about how to outwit his jailers and, by putting them into practice, actually forced them to provide him with some simple necessities.
Of course, many people are afraid that indulging in elaborate fantasy may make it difficult to return to reality or make practical judgments about situations. Most studies of fantasy behavior do not support this fear. The average person can usually estimate reasonably well what is really possible. Rather, the danger is that we will too soon dismiss out daydreams and plunge into other activities that preclude imagination. Too often we engage in empty and inane conversations, or sit staring vacantly at television programs. If we will just take time every day for quiet meditation and playful fantasy, we may begin to get the true benefit from the great capacity for imagination with which we all have been endowed.