The New Science of Daydreaming

Michael Harris in Discover:

Day“I’m sorry, Julie, but it’s just a fact — people are terrified of being in their heads,” I say. “I read this study where subjects chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than be alone with their own thoughts.” It’s the summer of 2015 and the University of British Columbia’s half-vacated grounds droop with bloom. Julie — an old friend I’ve run into on campus — gives me a skeptical side-eye and says she’s perfectly capable of being alone with her thoughts. Proving her point, she wanders out of the rose garden in search of caffeine. I glower at the plants. The study was a real one. It was published in 2014 in Science and was authored by University of Virginia professor Timothy D. Wilson and his team. Their research revealed that, left in our own company, most of us start to lose it after six to 15 minutes. The shocks are preferable, despite the pain, because anything — anything — is better than what the human brain starts getting up to when left to its own devices.

Or so we assume.

What the brain in fact gets up to in the absence of antagonizing external stimuli (buzzing phones, chirping people) is daydreaming. I am purposefully making it sound benign. Daydreaming is such a soft term. And yet it refers to a state of mind that most of us — myself included — have learned to suppress like a dirty thought. Perhaps we suppress it out of fear that daydreaming is related to the sin of idle hands. From at least medieval times onward, there’s been a steady campaign against idleness, that instigator of evil. Today, in the spaces where I used to daydream, those interstitial moments on a bus, in the shower, or out on a walk, I’m hounded by a guilt and quiet desperation — a panicked need to block my mind from wandering too long on its own. The mind must be put to use.

More here.