A Look On The Lighter Side: I’ve become a daydream believer

Judy Epstein

I was reading a review the other day of the very latest in electronic watches. Apparently, these gizmos do way more than tell you the time. They can receive the latest text alerts just like a cell phone or weather forecasts or anything else small enough to fit on a watch face. There’s just one thing to beware of: “People don’t take it kindly when you look away from them to check your watch,” warned the article. “It’s considered even ruder than looking at your phone…a word to the wise!”

You’d better believe it. That’s one of the things that hurt President George H.W. Bush the most when he lost his bid for re-election to newcomer Bill Clinton in 1992. During one of the presidential debates that year, Bush was caught looking at his watch in the middle of the debate — just as he was about to answer a citizen’s question, actually — and nothing pisses people off faster than someone who clearly, literally, doesn’t have time for them.

I think we waste enough of our lives already, looking at our phones, without turning them into watches. Even worse: Our kids are wasting their lives, and ours, checking their phones all the time instead of what they should be doing — namely, listening to us.

Everyone is so submerged in their phones these days. If they’re not composing literary masterpieces entirely from emojis, then they’re catching up on the latest podcast or — if they’re truly degenerate — playing solitaire. Whatever happened to the good old days of daydreaming? Doodling in the margins of your textbooks? Staring slack-jawed into space?

In fact, it turns out that daydreaming can be good for us all.

Back in 2012, psychologists Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted an experiment with 145 undergraduates. First, each student was given two minutes to list as many uses as they could think of for such everyday objects as bricks, toothpicks or clothes hangers.

Then the students were randomly assigned to four groups. Three of the groups got a 12-minute break before returning to the original task. One of those groups rested in a quiet room, one was given a difficult task involving short-term memory, and one was given a task so boring that the experimenters were sure it would result in daydreaming instead. The fourth group, as a control, got no break at all.

Only the group with the boring task improved their performance when they returned to the original test— by a whopping 41 percent.

The experimenters explained that for this to work you need a “foreground” task requiring just enough thought to let the rest of the mind wander productively. Without any task at all, we seem to go negative, dwelling on worries instead.

This might explain my own surprising results with trivial tasks during the pandemic. Faced with a To-Do list full of spiky, unpleasant chores, I found it surprisingly restful to just sit and wrap presents that we hadn’t been able to give relatives in the past year. It got to the point that I almost unwrapped and rewrapped them, just for the relief it gave me from pandemic worries.

If daydreaming is so productive, where would we be, I wonder, without it? What if cell-phone Candy Crush had been available in 1666, when Isaac Newton was lounging in that fateful apple orchard? Apples might have fallen all around him, like a fruity blizzard, and he would never have noticed — let alone pondered sufficiently about their trajectories to eventually come up with his Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation.

And where would we be if there had been cell phone watches in Switzerland in 1905 with a young Albert Einstein immersed in one on a streetcar instead of watching as Berne’s famous clock tower receded in the streetcar’s rear window? It might never have occurred to him to wonder what an observer might see in a similar streetcar if it were traveling away from that clock but at the speed of light. Indeed, Einstein might never have come up with any of his theories of Special or General Relativity, or anything else, if he’d had any distractions from his now-famous “Gedankenexperimente,” or Thought Experiments.

So please, when next you see me, don’t ask me the time. It may look as if I’m getting nothing done — doodling, dawdling, looking out the window — but please know that really, I’m preparing to think great thoughts. Or so I’m prepared to claim!

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