Scientiic AmericAn mind mah/Ap 2011
ing another antidepressant, Luvox,which, like Prozac, is also a selective se-rotonin reuptake inhibitor but is usuallyprescribed or obsessive-compulsive dis-order. Gradually she brought her day-dreaming under control. Now age 37,she is a successul lawyer, still nervouslyguarding her secret world.The scientic study o people such asStein is helping researchers better under-stand the role o daydreaming in normalconsciousness
and what can happenwhen this process becomes unhealthy.For most o us, daydreaming is a virtualworld where we can rehearse the uture,explore earul scenarios or imagine newadventures without risk. It can help us de-vise creative solutions to problems orprompt us, while immersed in one task,with reminders o other important goals.For others, however, the draw o an alter-native reality borders on addiction, chok-ing o other aspects o everyday lie, in-cluding relationships and work. Starringas idealized versions o themselves
asroyalty, raconteurs and saviors in a com-plex, ever changing cast o characters
addictive daydreamers may eel en-hanced condence and validation. Theirantasies may be ollowed by eelings o dread and shame, and they may comparethe habit to a drug or describe an experi-ence akin to drowning in honey.The recent discovery o a network inthe brain dedicated to autobiographicalmental imagery is helping researchers un-derstand the multiple purposes that day-dreaming serves in our lives. They havedubbed this web o neurons “the deaultnetwork,” because when we are not ab-sorbed in more ocused tasks, the networkres up. The deault network appears tobe essential to generating our sense o sel,suggesting that daydreaming plays a cru-cial role in who we are and how we inte-grate the outside world into our inner lives.Cognitive psychologists are now also ex-amining how brain disease may impairour ability to meander mentally and whatthe consequences are when we just spendtoo much time, well, out to lunch.
Vs h m’s ey
Most people spend about 30 percento their waking hours spacing out, drit-ing o, lost in thought, woolgathering,in a brown study or building castles inthe air. Yale University emeritus psychol-ogy proessor Jerome L. Singer denesdaydreaming as shiting attention “awayrom some primary physical or mentaltask toward an unolding sequence o private responses” or, more simply,“watching your own mental videos.”The 86-year-old Singer, who published alyrical account o his decades o researchon daydreams in his 1975 book,
The In-ner World of Daydreaming
(Harper &Row), divides daydreaming styles intotwo main categories: “positive-construc-tive,” which includes upbeat and imagi-native thoughts, and “dysphoric,” whichencompasses visions o ailure or punish-ment. Most people experience both kindsto a small or large degree.Other scientists distinguish betweenmundane musings and extravagant an-tasies. Michael Kane, a cognitive psy-chologist at the University o North Car-olina at Greensboro, considers “mindwandering” to be “any thoughts that areunrelated to one’s task at hand.” In hisview, mind wandering is a broad catego-ry that may include everything rom pon-dering ingredients or a dinner recipe tosaving the planet rom alien invasion.Most o the time when people all intomind wandering, they are thinking abouteveryday concerns, such as recent en-counters and items on their to-do list.More exotic daydreams in the style o James Thurber’s grandiose ctional an-tasist Walter Mitty
such as Mitty’sdream o piloting an eight-engine hydro-plane through a hurricane
are rare.Humdrum concerns gured promi-nently in one study that rigorously mea-sured how much time we spend mindwandering in daily lie. In a 2009 studyKane and his colleague Jennier McVayasked 72 U.N.C. students to carryPalmPilots that beeped at random inter-vals eight times a day or a week. Thesubjects then recorded their thoughts atthat moment on a questionnaire. About
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Most people spend about 30 percent o their waking hoursspacing out, driting o, lost in thought, woolgathering
or,as one scientist put it, “watching your own mental videos.”
© 2011 Scientific American