Let Daydreaming Daydream

11

Painting: “11” by Karen Kaapcke, an entry in the 2016 Atlas Art Contest.

I have written about daydreaming numerous times (see here, here, here, here, and here in the blog, see here in Republic of Noise, and see my story “The Diagnosis“). I have daydreamed all my life; since infancy I was able to absorb myself in something simple for hours. I was kicked out of ballet class at age six because I would dance around the room instead of following directions (and was completely unaware that I wasn’t following directions). I was terrible at sports involving quick reactions, because my mind was on other things.

Generally I like being this way. It slows me down but also allows me to play with ideas, words, sounds, images. I am usually working on a story in my head over a period of months. It may not be anything I write down; I simply enjoy working out the details and carrying it in my mind. At other times, I work on projects or just let the thoughts wander.

All of this goes to say that I have some experience with daydreaming. Usually, when I read discussions of it, I find that they are slightly on the wrong track. They seem to focus on how daydreaming helps or hinders productivity (or so-called “creativity,” which is usually meant as corporate creativity). This carries two questionable assumptions: (a) that mental processes are valuable only insofar as they serve productivity (and so-called “creativity”), and that if we just found that key to productivity and creativity, people would be ever so much more productive and creative.

So it was somewhat refreshing to see Emily Reynolds’s New York Magazine piece “Everyone Should Make More Time for Daydreaming.” After that iffy title, the piece hit some good subtleties. Challenging the assumption that daydreaming is “a waste of time,” Reynolds cites some research and commentary suggesting otherwise, and goes on to say that daydreaming takes different forms, some helpful, some not. But not all daydreaming has to boost your output, she notes:

But this isn’t to say that you should reframe daydreaming as a “productive” activity, one aimed at particular or favorable outcomes. “Positive constructive daydreaming need not have a goal,” Kaufman agrees. Whether you do it mindfully or mindlessly, it’s worth spending a little time each day imagining the world beyond the present moment.

All fine and well, except for two things. First, there was really no need to cite Kaufman here; is the idea to give her statement a kind of scientific glow? Something from Dante or Emerson (for instance) might have worked better.

Second, I am not sure that daydreaming should be practiced deliberately. That seems to turn it into something else. Reynolds advocates some kind of “mindful daydreaming”–a combination of whimsy and awareness–but isn’t that already second nature to some people? If people set out to do this for the sake of becoming more creative, wouldn’t that corrupt the endeavor?

There is something wrong with the search for a “key” to creativity (or productivity). The people clamoring for it are not typically yearning for more poetry; no, they want more creativity on the job, in the service of profit. It is creativity on someone else’s terms. Also, they neglect the interaction of subject matter and creativity. Creativity exists only in relation to something. The best way to increase your creativity is to immerse yourself in that subject. You will start thinking about it, playing with it, imagining its possibilities, daydreaming about it. You won’t get there by trying to become more creative.

In his scathing (and brilliant) article “Ted Talks Are Lying to You,” Thomas Frank writes that “the literature of creativity [is] a genre of surpassing banality” in that it exemplifies conformity, not creativity, and is directed not at artists, musicians, actors, and writers, but at the professional-managerial class. Reynolds’ piece certainly doesn’t fall in this category, but it could step more boldly outside the trend.

In short: It’s good to recognize that daydream is not just a waste of time–that it is essential to some natures and endeavors. But there’s no need for daydreamer-chic, daydreamer mindfulness training,  or Amazon (Inc.) treehouse daydreaming sessions. Let daydreaming do what it does best: take its own way.

What Would Become of Walter Mitty and Fern?

There’s a new medical term for excessive daydreaming: Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. This is not a joke; research into this possible condition has been in progress for thirty years or so. Although it has yet to be recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it has conferences and articles in its name.Some supporters of the new diagnosis wax exuberant over the supposed clarity it brings to the ADHD question (since it overlaps with what has been known as ADHD).

Before discussing the problems with such a diagnosis, I will give it its due. “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo” (SCT) is the term for a cluster of symptoms: daydreaming, mental fog, confusion, frequent staring, and others. Researchers have been looking into the possibility that this cluster exists apart from ADHD. If this were so, and if treatment were found for the condition, many children and adults could be spared the pain and risks of misdiagnosis–and might have access to effective treatment. For those whose condition prevents them from functioning from day to day, this could be a godsend (or a science-send).

So, why fret over this? I worry for Walter Mitty, the protagonist of James Thurber’s story and the film based on it (the one starring Danny Kaye; I was unable to bring myself to see the more recent one). Walter Mitty would have been diagnosed with SCT, and then we would not have had him. There would be no “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” Mitty would be “on task.”

In fact, many a wandering mind would be herded back onto the task at hand. But maybe some of those wanderings are more interesting than the task. Maybe we attach too much value to task performance. (I bring this up–in relation to solitude, not SCT–on BBC World Service’s program The Forum.)

I have had students who had difficulty staying on task because they were thinking about the subject in an interesting way–as well as students who seemed “off-task” because they were actually concentrating hard (and not taking notes as the others were). I myself tended not to take notes in school; I preferred to listen and think. Fortunately my teachers let me be; today, I would be considered off-task.

The daydreamer may actually be highly attentive–absorbed in the matter at hand and unwilling or unable to move on to the next thing. The one who stares into space may be listening closely to something.

Granted, some people’s daydreaming and other SCT-associated symptoms prevent them from doing what they themselves want to do. But when it comes to diagnosing children, it is adults who decide whether there’s a problem. They might not see the rewards of daydreaming; they might only see the low grade on the homework assignment. “Why didn’t you start each paragraph with a topic sentence? Why do you have only one supporting detail here instead of two?” Wandering minds such as Mitty, Tristram Shandy, and many an actual person would get faulted, diagnosed, and fixed. The world would fill up with dreary essays that never departed from the rubric.

In Charlotte’s Web, Fern’s mother pays a visit to the family doctor, Dr. Dorian, in order to seek his advice about Fern, who, in her view, spends far too much time alone with the animals, just sitting and listening to them. Dr. Dorian leans back, closes his eyes, and says, “How enchanting!”

I do not mean to romanticize a serious condition–but I suspect that if SCT had been a diagnosis in Fern’s day, and if Dr. Dorian had not been so wise, Fern might well have ended up on medication.

Daydreams, Lectures, and Helices

What do daydreams, lectures, and helices have to do with each other? Quite a bit.

One of my favorite parts of Dante’s Purgatorio is at the end of Canto XVIII, when Dante starts dozing off. Here is Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of those lines:

aaaThen, when those shades were so far off from us
that seeing them became impossible,
a new thought rose inside of me and, from
aaathat thought, still others–many and diverse–
were born: I was so drawn from random thought
to thought, that, wandering in mind, I shut
aaamy eyes, transforming thought on thought to dream.

I read this as a tribute to daydreaming (though Dante is on the verge of sleep and a nightmare). To be “so drawn from random thought / to thought” (in the original: “e tanto d’uno in altro vaneggiai”) is to have an expanse and few restrictions; I love this kind of expanse, though of course I can’t have it all the time.

As I have said elsewhere, that is one thing I enjoy about lectures: they not only take my mind to unexpected places, but they send it wandering off to the side and back, or backwards and forwards. While listening to a lecture, I may do with my mind what I please; if the lecture is good, then my mind dances with it, sometimes spinning away, sometimes drawing close. If the lecture is bad (or dreadfully dull, as lectures sometimes can be), then my mind can go off on its own. This, too, has its benefits.

Lecture or no lecture, I need time to let my mind go where it wishes. A few days ago I took out a textbook of three-dimensional calculus and started reading the chapter on vectors. The vector equation for a helix immediately made sense:

helixr(t) = cos t i + sin t j + t k

where i = , j = , and k = . (These are unit vectors along the x-, y-, and z-axes, respectively.)

If you omit the z-axis, you can see that you have the vector equation for circular counterclockwise motion:

r(t) = cos t i + sin t j

Adding the component t k turns the circle into an upward spiral.

I toyed with this in my mind for a while. The next day, I encountered a helix again, when reading Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by the astrophysicist Thomas Gold (1920–2004). Before the helix passage, there was a wonderful comment on the possibilities for thought during a dull lecture:

A dull lecture is like an experiment in sensory deprivation. You are sitting in your seat, you can’t leave the room because that would be too rude, you are carefully shutting out the incoming information because you have decided you don’t want to hear it, and your mind is now completely free from external disturbances. It was during this lecture that I suddenly saw how all the facts of the case would fall together.

Yes, during this dull lecture he figured out why a sound entering the cochlea produces a “microphonic potential”–an electric potential that both amplifies the sound and mimics its waveform. He took his theory to Richard Pumphrey, with whom he had been investigating this matter; they published their papers in 1948. But that’s an aside here (though interesting in itself). I bring this up because his words about the lecture rang true, so to speak, in my mind. Then, a few pages later, I came upon his description of an experiment with a helix and an eel.

The eel can move forward along a sinusoidal curve, both horizontally and vertically. Thomas Gold and the zoologist Sir James Gray found that it could move swiftly and easily through a sinusoidal tube. Sir James Gray posited that the eel could therefore move through a helical tube; a helix, after all, is the addition of the vertical sinusoid to the horizontal sinusoid in three-dimensional space. Thomas Gold disagreed; he was convinced that the eel could not move through the helical tube. He was right.

Very well. But I was momentarily intrigued with the problem that would be elementary to mathematicians: is the vector equation

r(t) = cos t i + sin t j + t k

equivalent to the addition of two traveling sinusoidal waves, one horizontal, one vertical, in three-dimensional space? I grasped that it was but spent a little time explaining it to myself. Yes, and the two sinusoids must be a quarter-cycle out of phase with each other.

The first traveling sinusoidal wave has the equation r(t) = cos t i + t/2 k.

The second traveling sinusoidal wave has the equation r(t) = sin t j + t/2 k.

So, unless I’m missing something, these sinusoids are twice as scrunched as the resultant helix, their sum.

These have been my daydreams, or a fraction of them, over the past week or so. There were no lectures involved, but there were memories of lectures and the liberty I found in them.

Note: I corrected one term and made a minor revision after the initial posting.

The Biometric Bracelet and the End of Daydreaming

Children won’t be able to get away with daydreaming much longer. If their mind wanders “off task,” a sensor will catch them.

News broke recently that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $1.4 million in grants to researchers who will experiment with “biometric” bracelets in middle schools around the country. (These bracelets send a small electrical current across the skin and then measure the electrical changes as the wearer responds to stimuli.)  The researchers intend to use them to measure student “engagement” and to determine which parts of a lesson (or reading or other activity) show higher engagement levels than others. Supposedly, through analyzing engagement levels in this manner, the researchers can deliver recommendations for raising engagement overall. The Reuters article explains:

Teachers could, for instance, use the bracelets to monitor student response to a video or a reading, then use that data to spark a lively discussion by zeroing in on the most engaging points, said Rosalind Picard, a computer scientist at MIT and a co-founder of Affectiva, which makes the sensors.

Such use of sensors in educational experiments is by no means new. Researchers at MIT, Arizona State University, and UMass Amherst have been developing “affect-aware tutors”—cartoon characters that respond to the students’ moods. Various sensors (including a mental state camera, posture analysis seat sensor, pressure mouse sensor, and skin conductance bracelet) detect the user’s state of mind; the cartoon character then responds. If a student shows frustration with a math problem, for instance, a cartoon might pop up with an expression of concern and say, “Gee, that was difficult. Would you like to try something easier?” (I discuss this in the eighth chapter of my book.)

Now, something is deeply wrong with all of this—in fact, there’s so much wrong with it that it’s difficult to get it all into a short space. But I’ll give it a try. Many more responses can be found on Diane Ravitch’s blog (for instance, here and here).

First of all, these bracelet sensors are invasive. Students (and people in general) have a right to their own thoughts and thought patterns. Yes, a teacher may demand attention in the classroom, but what goes on inside a student’s head remains his or her own business. Yes, sometimes doctors use sensors to test us, but they do this with our consent, for medical reasons. Privacy is a complex subject; what belongs to each of us alone, and what belongs to society? The answer cannot be determined through science; it is an ethical and philosophical matter. We must use our best judgment and conscience when drawing the line.

Second, engagement in itself is not necessarily a good in the classroom; higher levels do not necessarily mean more learning. Engagement comes in many forms and has complex rhythms. There is fleeting engagement—entertainment—that fades as soon as object moves away. There are behaviors that do not look like engagement but actually are (a student may look off to the side in order to think about something the teacher just said). A student working at home on a difficult problem will have ups and downs of engagement—puzzling over the problem, trying this approach, ending up in a rut, shaking the head, getting up and walking around, sitting down again and trying another approach, and finally figuring it out. All in all, engagement is secondary to what’s actually going on (which we must interpret with full mind).

Boosting engagement could even degrade instruction. Rosalind Picard (mentioned in the quote above) imagines teachers using the bracelets to determine the most “engaging” points of a reading. They can then zero in on these points in class discussion. Have the researchers spoken with teachers and professors of literature? Do they know how literature works? The most engaging points are not necessarily the most important ones. Sometimes subtle details prove essential to the story. Sometimes the ending confuses the reader at first and then suddenly makes sense. When selecting points of a story (or essay or other work) for discussion, one should think about the story itself, not the engagement levels. A “lively” discussion driven by “engagement data” could be supremely shallow.

Finally (for now), these efforts to neasure and boost engagment may rip up the last remnants of daydreaming. Some might say, “so what?” but there’s a lot at stake here. Many of us need to daydream in order to solve problems, try out possibilities, imagine scenarios, puzzle over words, or even just be by ourselves now and then. Much pedagogy discussion assumes that students should always be “on task,” that they should be hard at work toward a specified goal. When I was in school, this wasn’t so; for one thing, there weren’t so many tasks. You came into class to listen to the teacher and take part in discussion. Your mind could drift now and then. Sometimes the teacher would say, “What’s on your mind?” and you could say, “oh, nothing” or else divulge your thoughts.

One of my favorite daydreaming scenes occurs at the end of the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

The children ran out to the road and climbed into the bus. Fern took no notice of the others in the bus. She just sat and stared out of the window, thinking what a blissful world it was and how lucky she was to have entire charge of a pig. By the time the bus reached school, Fern had named her pet, selecting the most beautiful name she could think of.“Its name is Wilbur,” she whispered to herself.

She was still thinking about the pig when the teacher said, “Fern, what is the capital of Pennsylvania?”

“Wilbur,” replied Fern dreamily. The pupils giggled. Fern blushed.

The researchers and their funders may have forgotten the gentle wisdom of this story. We need to defend such wisdom against all things that push it away. Researcher or salesperson, if you come to my classroom with a biometric bracelet, I will invite you to read Charlotte’s Web with me. Or Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life,” which is about “idle busyness”—that is, empty engagement. Or Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” (“Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?”). As we read, neither of us will wear a bracelet or make graphs of our engagement levels. That shrill, simplistic science will stay out of the room.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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