Complex problems have simple easy to understand wrong answers.
I have recently been very interested in what it is that makes mindfulness feel quite difficult at times.
Up to 96% of adults daydream every day.
I am using the term daydreaming in the broadest possible way. There are ways in which it is positive (visualisation, rehearsal, creativity), but we all know that it can get out of hand very easily. These so called self-generated thoughts (SGTs) interfere with external task performance and can signal unhappiness and even mental health issues. They also occupy our thoughts for upwards of half of the time. In appropriate contexts, SGTs
- allow us to connect our past and future selves together,
- help us make successful long-term plans and
- can provide a source of creative inspiration.
Given the time dedicated to the task, it seems natural to suggest that there must be an evolutionary advantage to being preoccupied with a daydream.
Contrary to the mindfulness rhetoric, daydreams can be seen as a mechanism for the consciousness gain freedom from the here and now – reflecting a key evolutionary adaptation for the mind.
There is evidence that SGTs are normal and may even be beneficial, so our natural inclination to dismiss mind-wandering – and recent odes to the benefits mindfulness – are perhaps oversimplifying the problem.
For the moment, however, I will focus on the negative aspects of daydreaming. In 2016, the Journal of Conscious Cognition did a study on self-identified “maladaptive daydreamers”. These guys had more daydreams that involved fictional characters and elaborate plots and spent 56% of their waking hours fantasising.
Maladaptive daydreaming caused significant distress to the affected and was associated with higher rates of ADHD and OCD.
Another study echoed the findings and showed that the daydreams were typified by complex fantasised mental scenarios that were often laced with emotionally compensatory themes involving competency, social recognition, and support.
Of note, solitude is required for elaborate daydreams – worsening any existing social dysfunction.
Mind-wandering is situations when attention is required is obviously negative: it can signify performance disruptions, cognitive problems, risk taking or low motivation to perform a task. At the same time, the question arises: how do we define a situation that requires attention? The resolution here is obvious. The capacity to regulate the occurrence of SGTs so as to reduce the risk of derailing on-going task performance is a marker of properly functioning, well-adjusted cognition. It is context-dependent – and requires self-awareness. Indeed, a brain trained with the practice of mindfulness would seem better equipped to recognise appropriate situations and adapt more quickly.
On a more philosophical note, however, what’s to say one isn’t missing out on some important unknown unknown in an apparent “safe-to-daydream zone”?
Based on some research and a preliminary Twitter poll, I have come up with 4 main feelings that trigger daydreams. If none of the four describe what it is like for you, please do comment, I am very keen to find out!