Daydream believer

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken.
I did a lot of aqua-jogging many years ago when I damaged several discs in my back, writes Jan Aitken.

It was the only form of exercise I could partake in and initially it bored me rigid. I was extremely resentful of not being able to run or have a weights session and do the things I loved doing. However, over time that changed and I came to love the pool and the wonderful "Zen" place my mind went to when I was there.

I had forgotten all about that until a couple of months ago when I returned for a regular aqua-jogging session in a bid to vary my exercise routine.

As I was "jogging" my way around the pool, I would try to plan my day and sort out any problems that were playing on my mind. One morning, I had an absolute light-bulb moment. It didn’t come while I was in full-on "sort out the world" mode, but in one of the moments when my mind slipped its lead and gambolled off by itself! That is when it hit me: why don’t I just let my mind wander? Why am I trying so hard to keep it focused and working? Why can’t my mind just do its own thing and relax a bit? If I "mindlessly" pottered around the pool I wasn’t in any danger of getting lost. What’s more I was supported by a big foam belt, so I wasn’t about to drown either. Why not just let it go, let it wander and explore, the brain equivalent of taking your dog to the dog park to play! It suddenly seemed so obvious to me that in a world where we are so connected, so tuned in and so busy that some downtime might just be fun and useful. Let’s get back to some good old-fashioned daydreaming!

Why? Because a wandering mind is a creative mind, a problem-solving mind. When the mind wanders, it’s trawling  through memories, experiences, emotions and random bits of knowledge that may have been long forgotten or not even consciously acknowledged. The wandering mind allows us to access our "big picture" or "helicopter view" state of mind rather than focusing on only one or two things. Daydreaming, or being in that big picture state of mind, allows us to visualise and stimulate creative thinking. That, in turn, can help us see things in a new light, link previously unconnected things  and come up with new solutions and original ideas.

Daydreaming can be fun! Remember as a child when you daydreamed. You could be anyone, anywhere and doing anything! Why do we have to give that up once we grow up? Sure, there’s an appropriate time and place for daydreaming. I’m not sure I want the air traffic controller in charge of my plane imagining they are bush-whacking through unexplored jungle, or a surgeon hovering over me with the scalpel drifting off on a swashbuckling swordfight. However, in their downtime they can go for it.

These days, all our spare time seems to be filled using our smartphones or other devices scrolling through social media, listening to podcasts, responding to emails or watching TV, leaving us little time to let our minds wander. This may seem a small change, but its effect on the way our minds work and on our collective creativity, could be far-reaching. In fact, it could be hindering our ability to come up with fresh, innovative ideas. For humanity that could be very limiting long term.

Cognitive scientists have concluded we have incorrigibly distracted minds. The wandering mind is our brain’s default mode, not the driven, linear, singularly focused mind we have come to think of as so productive and useful.

Most often, creative solutions are not wrestled from your mind through sheer force of will. "Light-bulb moments" tend to occur spontaneously, almost always when the conscious mind is thinking of something else, or nothing at all; when it is in its default mode. Albert Einstein said of the theory of relativity, "I thought of it while riding my bicycle."

There is no doubt some of our most visionary people have been daydreamers, for example Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Air, is a self-confessed daydreamer. He said the secret of his spectacular entrepreneurial success was that "I’m ADD [has attention deficit disorder]. I kept being distracted by ideas for making money that nobody else would waste time on."

What about our own home-grown creativity? The Otago Daily Times reported in 2015 that "the world-famous ‘Kiwi ingenuity’ has been recognised in a global creativity index that ranks economic growth and sustainable prosperity. New Zealand has been ranked third in the Global Creativity Index 2015, following closely behind top-ranked Australia and the United States".

Not bad for a little powerhouse of a country! You don’t have to look far to find examples of Kiwis who thought outside the box. Some were probably told they were mad and couldn’t do it e.g. Sir Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics; Jean Batten, who challenged the traditions of flying; Bill Hamilton and his revolutionary Hamilton jetboat engine; Janet Frame and her extraordinary writing;  Colin Murdoch, a pharmacist and a veterinarian, who invented the disposable hypodermic syringe; and Ethel Benjamin, the first female lawyer in New Zealand. We also have an amazing number of contemporary writers, film-makers, musicians, designers, architects, entrepreneurs, business people, scientists ... and the list goes on.

Disturbingly though, a Roy Morgan survey in 2013 found that Kiwis spent 7 hours 54 minutes a day consuming traditional and digital "media’, while Australians spent 7 hours 15 minutes.

I recently read a Nielsen report that stated in 2016 in the United Kingdom and the United States, people spend, on average, 10 hours a day connected to something! Wouldn’t some of that time be better spent daydreaming? Apart from restricting our thinking down  very focused and uncreative pathways, there is plenty of evidence that tells us that increasing screen time interferes with our sleep patterns, is making us more sedentary and possibly hinders our ability to engage with others in any meaningful and caring way. Will such uncreative living begin to erode social bonds and stifle our individual and collective creativity?

I’m all for a bit of mind wandering. If you see me in the pool I could be anywhere. I might be skiing in the French alps, paddle boarding in Hawaii, sitting in my garden looking at the view or just pottering around the pool.

Giving yourself the time and permission to daydream is easier said than done, but the rewards might astound you. At the very least, you’ll have enjoyed yourself.

There you go Fido ... run free!

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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