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Suzanne Perez Tobias: Could daydreaming be an endangered activity?

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at 3:31 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, at 6:28 a.m.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

– Neil Gaiman

I noticed something the other day as I waited for my son to finish swim practice.

Nearly everyone seated around me on the bleachers – adults, teenagers, even very young children, likely the little siblings of kids in the water – was staring at some electronic device.

All of us, myself included, cradled cellphones and gaped at screens. We thumbed text messages and finger-scrolled websites. We played Pokemon or Words with Friends. We were busy, leashed, happily distracted. We looked not at our children or at one another but down at our laps, as if observing a collective moment of silence.

We were silent, perhaps, but not reflective.

I wondered what we all did before smartphones, which allow us to text friends or check e-mails as much out of boredom as any genuine need to communicate or conduct business.

The answer: We chatted. We flipped through magazines or books. Maybe best of all, we sat there and stared into space, daydreaming.

Some psychologists and neuroscientists say our constant plugging-in to electronic devices means daydreaming – the creative, reflective, wandering of the mind that has bred some of the world’s most brilliant ideas – is becoming an endangered activity.

“We’re potentially growing a generation of children who aren’t really as capable, neurologically speaking, of daydreaming as is normal for the human brain,” psychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang said during a recent episode of NPR’s “Radio Times.”

“That could potentially have a big impact on the kind of mind that these children have,” she said. “On their ability to reflect on the meaning of things, on their ability to have personally relevant, meaningful memories, on their ability to have a deep sense of morality and of justice and of their own futures … and the future of the world.”

Deep thoughts on daydreaming, I thought, as I listened to the story during a recent drive home. Could the future of mankind really depend on our ability to watch leaves swirl or clouds dance? To stare out a car window and let our minds drift? To think about the past and fantasize about the future?

Then I thought about times when I finally was able to untangle some knotty problem. Those epiphanies – psychologists call them “moments of conceptual reorganization” – usually occur when I’m driving down the highway, walking the dogs, folding laundry or lathering my hair in the shower. They don’t happen when I’m texting, tweeting or checking Facebook.

The next time I picked up my son from swim practice, I made a point to keep my phone in my purse. Instead, I watched Jack and his teammates glide across the water, back and forth, back and forth, lap after lap after lap.

Jack once told me swimming feels a little like meditation. Staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool, arms and legs in constant motion, you think about things, he said. Sometimes it’s silly stuff, like where you might find the elusive orange beanie hat in his “Pokemon Y” video game. Other times it’s a math or science problem.

I can see that, I told him. Even just watching the swimmers is delightful reverie, once you get past the guilt of just sitting there, doing nothing, staring into space, daydreaming.

It’s not a waste of time, in fact. It’s important work. Try it sometime. You could change the world.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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