The funny thing about daydreaming is that when you have time to do it, to really let go and lose yourself in some magical forest of discovery, somehow the paths into the forest lead to dead-ends. It is when daydreaming diverts from something that really must be done that the paths open to a mystical tour and you never know where you will end up. Those commas in the text you are trying so hard to edit become tadpoles swimming in the bucket that you once put them in after fishing them from a canal. The canal becomes a lake, there are boats on it. There are boats too off the Maltese islands where the sun is shining and you are lying on a deck, glass of champagne in your hand. Bubbles rise in the glass and you remember the Bermuda triangle where ships sink because of bubbles rising in the water and lots of tiny bubbles decrease buoyancy. But that doesn’t explain planes falling out of the sky or does it? So you just have to look up wiki and on the way you find an article on the universe and download some pictures from the Hubble because they are so beautiful and relaxing, and evocative of something but what? Hey this one reminds you of jellyfish, stained glass colours in indigo oceans and what was that tune about indigo skies, and suddenly it is lunchtime and where has the morning gone?
Daydreaming is about your inner stream of consciousness where your mind of its own accord wanders from thought to thought, memory to memory making connections and associations that allow us to see things in novel ways. Daydreaming underpins creativity but is not in itself productive. Creative people are those who are able to harness their daydreaming, and steer it towards a tangible outcome, or snatch ideas in passing like forest fruits from the meandering pathways of fertile imagination. Creative people follow roaming thoughts to see where they lead but creativity comes not so much by accident as by design. Invention results from creative and experimental thinking. If rising bubbles sink ships, what happens in the air that sinks planes? If I change the character in my story from a girl to a boy would he think differently? Will my house be warmer if I grow a garden on my roof? How will smoked fish taste if I eat it with my fruit salad (the canteen had run out of plates, and yes it was delicious). Was salty caramel a lucky accident, and did that blogger who enjoyed cheese sauce on his apple pie discover it by design or error?
The difference between daydreaming your way passively through life and being productively creative is knowing when to let your thoughts wander, and when to switch off the dreaming channel and focus on the task at hand. Creative people are dreamers, true, but creative people are also task oriented, motivated to get things done and see the results of their creativity. Creative people are able to balance their dreaming with focused activity, harness ideas from their dreams and make something of them. I wonder why these lessons are so hard to learn. There I go again, off at another tangent.
This month has not been very dreamy for me as you can probably see from the lack of new posts. This has been a month of focused, task oriented activity. Reporting, marking, processing, form-filling, and solving everyone else’s problems. Daydreaming does not pay the mortgage. Not Yet.
I have always been a dreamer. Mind like a butterfly my mother used to say. Flitting from one thing to another. Asking seemingly random questions – in the midst of arithmetic – why do tadpoles become frogs? Why did I ask at that precise point? Perhaps because the commas between the integers looked like tadpoles, and the next lesson, my favourite, would be about nature.
And so I have spent my life thinking about the next thing, or the last thing, or things that connect with other things but not about this thing that I should be concentrating on at this moment in time. My teacher was not happy with the daydreaming. She is depressed, she wrote on my report one year. So everyone tried to make me focus, keep my mind on the task, keep eating until my dinner was finished, keep on with the homework. Eventually and thankfully they gave up. Daydreaming makes life so much more colourful, but I have always tried to switch it off when I find myself squandering away my time, or forget what it is I am supposed to be doing, or what our conversation is about.
It was during a guilty moment, when I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing, that Scott Barry Kaufman’s (2011) article snared me and pulled me back into focus. His research found that daydreamers are more creative, and able to keep nightdreaming running while at the same time concentrating [of a fashion] on various tasks. People with this ability are less able to resist distraction, but are able to keep their internal stream of consciousness (dreaming state) running whilst doing relatively complex things. This enables them to make connections between objects, processes, thoughts and tasks that would not be possible if the dreaming state was completely switched off. Creativity therefore seems to rely on the brain’s internal dialogue making connections between normally unrelated things in novel and interesting ways. So the next time you catch me daydreaming, please don’t distract me, I am mentally composing my next masterpiece. If only it could find its way onto a page.
A colleague remarked that a student’s PhD abstract read like theory soup. I thought immediately of minestrone, thick and hearty, bright and colourful, tasty and wholesome. I know exactly what he meant though, and see it often in articles I am asked to review for journals. Usually the authors claim to draw on one or two key theories that underpin their conceptual approach, then throw in a handful of this, that and the other for effect, hoping perhaps to enhance the culinary delight of the concoction. As most chefs will tell you, Minestrone has a tomato base to which complementary ingredients add piquancy, spiciness and aroma, then cooked gently to allow flavours to infuse. In the best minestrone the texture and flavour of each ingredient is preserved within a wonderfully blended flavour that is the broth. Its taste and aroma will live in your memory forever. Get it wrong, it is just soup, and potentially unpleasant like the version in a local, since gone out of business, restaurant in which the most memorable flavour in their minestrone was turnip. It should come as no surprise then that “theory blending” is the name of the game. A few months later my student submitted his PhD. I am happy to report that the final version was blended to perfection, the theories infused throughout, but each retaining its own piquancy. On the day of the defence the critics did their best, but his courses were impeccably presented. It ended with the sweet; anticipated with excitement, as this was where it could all come to a sticky end. But he handled it with a flourish as the maître d’ handles a flambé for the top table, with quiet confidence and understatement, delivering the crêpe with a burst of flame and quick flick of the wrist.
Then the twit forgot to register for graduation! What can I say? Is this a case of early-onset, absent-minded professorism?
Karl, I despair.
Congratulations Dr Warner.
Paula, you did a grand job.
“The writer has something to say – the academic is an apologist”
I identified closely with many of the sentiments and observations in Chris Walsh’s recent article in the Times Higher Education (THE) promoting his work on cowardice. Academic work is constantly scrutinised for relevance, rigour, quality and contribution to knowledge. There are conventions in publishing that encourage particular writing styles and of course all previous relevant knowledge must be cited. The publish or perish culture also forces us down a route of safe and sure publication, and the prevailing emphasis on objectivity renders the academic voice near silent. This week, for the first time in a long time, I dug out and re-read some of my earliest papers. Two things struck me. The first was how rough they seemed in writing style, and how much they would benefit from further editing, even although the editors at the time thought them good enough to publish. The second was the confidence with which I expressed myself in those early papers, which puts my more recent (yet more skilfully written) work to shame. In those early papers I had a voice, I was a writer with something to say and it came over strong and clear despite other shortcomings. My most recent academic work is more refined, more accurate in its positioning in the body of literature, and follows the publishing conventions in our field, but it has no voice, or at least not one that I recognise as my own. Has the academic world gone too far in silencing the subjective, sometimes quirky, but well-informed voices of the academic community? Have we, as Walsh suggests, become apologists for our own craft? Or is it just me?
Intellectual cowardice | Features | Times Higher Education.