7 Jun 2017

The power of daydreaming

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:09 pm on 7 June 2017

Daydreaming, doodling and napping can increase your creativity and productivity, says neuroscientist Dr Srini Pillay.

In general, we're taught focus is always best, but our brains benefit most from a combination of focus and "intelligent unfocus", he says.

Too much focus drains the brain of energy to the point where you no longer care about what you're doing and can make you blinkered.

But doodling, tinkering and dabbling can help.

If we 'tinker' with our goals to make them fit who we really are, they become easier to achieve.

"Studies show your initial impression of what the goal is may not be refined as it needs to be to give enough information to your brain's navigator to get you to your goal."

"I, for example, am probably not going to eliminate bacon from my diet forever. So as I'm tinkering with [a goal of future weight loss] I'm probably going to keep the bacon in."

Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso are great examples of dabblers, he says.

Einstein was not a mathematician but was inspired to develop the Theory of Relativity after dabbling in the theories of Henri Poincaré.

Picasso discussed Poincaré's notion of a fourth dimension with friends, then went off to paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, thereby kicking off the Cubist movement.

Doodling is proven to help focus, he says.

A study had people listen to a really boring telephone message and at the end remember names and places mentioned. It was found that the recall of the group who had doodled was 29 percent superior to that of the group that didn't.

When doodling your brain is something like a loose sponge, more absorbent but when you're strictly focused it's more like a stiff sponge, Pillay says.

Pillay has an app called Tinker on his website which can be used to schedule in unfocused time.

He says the slumps in your day – for most people mid-morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon and end of day for a lot of people – are the best time to do it.

Two of the best ways to get into an unfocused state are napping and daydreaming, but not just any daydreaming.

If you feel like you're worn out and can't concentrate, simply take a nap, he says.

"Ten minutes of napping improves clarity, 90 minutes of napping improves creativity."

Pillay also recommends is called positive constructive daydreaming, which is quite distinct from two types of daydreaming which are unhelpful for focus – the kind where you drift off completely and the guilty-ish hungover kind.

Positive constructive daydreaming is best done simultaneously with a low-key activity – such as knitting, gardening or going for a walk – rather than no activity.

Other ways to defocus include talking to yourself, but only in the second person.

Calling yourself by name and saying 'you' (rather than 'I') decreases stress and allows you to focus better, he says.

But while you're chatting away, avoid using the word 'not'.

Under stress the brain does not hear the word 'not', he says, giving the example 'I will not drop this glass of red wine on the white couch'.

"[The brain] is primed by the thing it wants to avoid, and as a result, it will do the exact opposite of what you want."

Finally, name the emotion you're feeling – if you're freaked out, say to yourself 'You're freaked out'.

"What this does is it drives the blood away from the anxiety centre so that there's more blood available in the thinking brain for your neurons to work effectively."

"Most of us think we're fatigued due to work overload, not realising that fatigue is actually due to not being engaged. If you're going to only engage with a little bit of who you are – which is what focus will do – then you're going to get burnt out.'

Srini Pillay's book is Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind.

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