Dream On

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Summer.

Vacation.

Two of the best words in our language, which, when married, make a most delicious sound, sending a flood of memories whooshing out of storage, projected onto my inner I-Max.

For me and my little brother, those long summer days were empty of all obligations and appointments. No progress was expected in academics or athletics, and we were sent off with those holy words, “Go outside and don’t let me see you kids till the sun goes down!”

For the majority of us, long days filled with nothing are a distant memory. Of course, when I say, “nothing,” I really mean “everything” because unscheduled time is the fertile ground where daydreams take root. Whether you are young with a long summer vacation that comes with the cost of tuition, or grown up and making do with those few weeks a year, daydreaming is essential to a good life.

Daydreaming is looked upon negatively in our society because it is non-doing, and we get rewarded and regarded more highly when we are productive. In school, we may have been dazzled by the trembling of a leaf just outside the window and been snapped out of our reverie by a teacher who wanted our full attention. But there are important functions of daydreaming that may have escaped that teacher who caught us gazing someplace far away.

When we daydream – and we do it a lot, with half of our mental activity spent in reverie – we are helping ourselves to realize goals and to reveal to ourselves our innermost desires. Humanistic psychologists find that successful people, from Einstein to Beethoven shared the similarity of daydreaming about their areas of success. There are numerous examples of creative people from novelists to filmmakers who develop new ideas via daydreams.

We now know that the body-mind cannot distinguish between real and imagined events. Olympic athletes describe a similar kind of daydream, or visualization, which has been shown to help their performance in the same way that actual practice does. Daydreams help us to relax by simply creating a visualization of a soothing scene. Through a brief un-coupling from reality, we solve problems and become creative in ways we could never do through conscious will.

In marital therapy, daydreaming and visualization literally transform a relationship from tumultuous to smooth. I ask my patients to imagine their spouses, exactly as they would want them to be. To explicitly visualize a scene in which their partner says the words they long to hear, and to “paint” that daydream as vividly as they can. After a daydream of love and acceptance, the patient ‘s entire body looks different, and there is a positive anticipation in seeing their spouse again. This is in contrast to “daymares,” a term Charles Dickens used for negative visualizations we engage in when we mentally re-play scenes in which we are the suffering martyr.

Reverie, daydreams, positive visualizations – these don’t happen while focused on a conversation or the complex issues facing us at work. Even without the pleasure of those long summer days when we could lie and imagine shapes in clouds, we can still let our minds go out to play. When the commute is accompanied by NPR or Rush, our minds get locked on to the issues, with too much distraction to just wander around, in the same way we can’t see the stars because of daylight. But when we are allowed to lapse into reverie, the stars come out and we get a glimpse of a whole lot that normally escapes us.

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