Whenever I have a few downtimes – every day of the week, for example, when I’m waiting in line to carpool my kids to camp – I pick up my phone and check to see if anything interesting happened on Instagram. The thing is, I don’t particularly like Instagram. Social media usually makes me uncomfortable, but somehow it’s better to be left alone with my thoughts.
I’m certainly not the only person who would rather do something than engage in introspection. In research published in 2014, adults had the option of entertaining themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes or giving themselves painful electric shocks. Sixty-seven percent of men and 25 percent of women chose shocks.
A study published last week suggests that our tendency to avoid being alone with our thoughts is partly due to the fact that “we tend to underestimate the value of thought”, said one of the authors of the study. study, Kou Murayama, a psychologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany. . Dr. Murayama and his colleagues first asked adults to predict how much they would like to sit alone in a quiet room, then had them sit for 20 minutes. To their surprise, the attendees enjoyed the experience more than they expected.
To be fair, pass the time thinking box being unpleasant — for example if you’re worrying about all the things you need to do before the end of the day, or ruminating on past mistakes, said Erin Westgate, a psychologist who studies daydreaming and boredom at the University of Florida. And if we let our minds wander when we should be concentrating — while performing an important work task, for example, or driving — we can get ourselves into trouble and even put lives at risk. But research shows that letting our minds wander and engaging in certain types of daydreams can bring us joy, serenity, and even make us more creative.
Here’s how to start making the most of those rare moments of solitude and daydreaming.
Find the right time and place to get lost in thought.
Daydreaming – when our attention turns to thoughts unrelated to our surroundings and experience – may seem like an easy escape from the here and now, but it can be a complicated mental task. “You’re basically the actor, director, writer and audience of this whole mental performance,” Dr Westgate said. Sometimes we start dreaming without even realizing it, but if you’re doing it intentionally, it’s best not to dream while you’re distracted or tired, as it may make it less enjoyable (and less safe), a- she declared.
A great time to fall asleep is when you’re doing something that doesn’t require a lot of mental attention: waiting for the bus, gardening, cleaning, showering, taking a walk, or even brushing your teeth. You want to have “the cognitive resources available to withdraw into yourself and focus on your own thoughts,” Dr. Westgate said. But that doesn’t mean you should sit on the couch and decide to do nothing but dream; it may be easier to daydream when you’re engaged in a menial task than when you’re doing nothing at all, said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies human cognition.
Focus on positive, interesting, and meaningful thoughts.
When people don’t like spending time alone with their thoughts, it’s often because they’re focusing on the wrong things, Dr. Westgate said. For example, she doesn’t suggest using your free time to try to plan your day — she’s studied what happens when people do this, and it tends to stress them out and upset them.
Dr. Westgate’s research found that “thinking for fun” works well when people are given prompts in advance, such as focusing on a favorite memory, fantasizing about an event they’re looking forward to, or imagining a future accomplishment. . She also suggested including those you care about in your daydreams; think about going on vacation with good friends or family.
To fuel creativity, focus on interesting ideas.
If you want your thoughts to spark creativity, you might want to take a slightly different approach and instead focus on ideas that you find curious and interesting, Dr. Schooler said. He calls this practice “the wondering mind”. Think about ideas presented in a book or article you’ve read or a podcast you’ve listened to, he said.
Dr. Schooler and his colleagues found that people found more creative solutions to problems after taking a break from trying to solve them and performing an undemanding task while daydreaming. When they did other things during that break – either sitting quietly or concentrating on some other difficult task – or when they didn’t take a break at all, problem solving was harder.
“Wonder of the mind can be an opportunity to come up with new, different approaches that you haven’t thought of before,” he said.
If your mind is going to the wrong places, try mindfulness.
However, some problems won’t be solved by daydreaming — and you may find that daydreaming brings you back there and stresses you out, says Jonathan Smallwood, a psychologist at Queen’s University in Ontario. For example, ruminating on things your annoying co-worker has been doing probably won’t solve anything because the situation is out of your control, he said. In these cases, daydreaming can “become a bit more like a curse, because you can’t escape the problem your brain is constantly trying to solve,” he said.
In this situation, practicing mindfulness — a mental state in which you focus on the present moment — might “help tame the incessant chatter,” Dr. Schooler said. As soon as you notice that your thoughts have become stressful or depressing, pause and try to focus on the present moment. Think about your breathing and the sensations you feel. Then take your daydreams in a more positive direction, he said — think of a happy memory, for example, or a TV show you found provocative.
This afternoon, when I arrived at the camp queue, I instinctively reached for my phone – but remembered that I didn’t want to scroll. “The main thing is to learn that you can control your attention,” Dr. Schooler told me. “A lot of people don’t appreciate that.” In other words, I can start prioritizing my own thoughts. So I put my phone down and started daydreaming. I remembered singing in an a cappella group when I was in college – a time before smartphones and social media even existed.
An unwelcome legacy?
Alzheimer’s disease affects some 6.5 million older American adults, and the number is expected to double by 2050. Considering that it is one of the most feared diseases and that it can be hereditary , loved ones of people with Alzheimer’s often fear they may also be affected. . But most people with a family history of Alzheimer’s will not develop the disease.