Daydreaming—my brain didn’t get that module

Until I read an article in Scientific Mind this month about daydreaming (“Living in a Dream World” by Josie Glausiusz; not available for free as far as I can find), I wasn’t aware that I lack this mental activity. Definitions vary; one used in the article is that daydreams are “an inner world where we can rehearse the future and imagine new adventures without risk“. Another is “imagining situations in the future that are largely positive in tone”. I would add something to differentiate daydreaming from planning—perhaps that daydreaming includes emotional reactions.

It’s not clear in the article whether research results apply only to positive fictional imaginings or to routine planning and review, as well. The latter is much more common. Also the author conflates daydreaming and the mind’s use of off-task time to solve problems non-consciously.

People can daydream in extravagant adventures à la Walter Mitty, or more mundane imaginings of how good that hot bath will feel after work, or how happy one’s child will be when she receives her Christmas present. Most people, the author says, “spend about 30 percent of their waking hours spacing out, drifting off, lost in thought, woolgathering, in a brown study, or building castles in the air.” And it’s important to our sense of self, our creativity, “and how we integrate the outside world into our inner lives”.

I remember, as a solitary child, pretending to be Superman or Tarzan, but not often; I read, instead. After the age of 10 or 12, I don’t think I had imaginary adventures at all. Not surprisingly, I’m also unable to visualize scenes: “Imagine yourself on a tropical beach” is impossible for me to do. I can think, okay, I’m on a tropical breach, it is warm and sunny, and so on, but there’s no sensory aspect to it, just words. Similarly, my memories of the past (mostly gone now due to fibromyalgia cognitive damage) are all just words, as if someone had described a scene to me rather than my having experienced it. There’s no “mind’s eye” in my mind. In novels I usually tune out while reading the descriptions of landscapes and people; no corresponding mental pictures rise in my mind.

Daydreaming can be escapism but it can also be a way of trying out different futures, and experiencing the associated emotions. I think this could also help motivate a person toward a chosen or hoped-for future, by allowing advance tastes of its rewards or of the misery of its alternative. I make decisions about future choices and I make plans but I don’t try them out mentally in advance, and I also (in jobs, for example) tend to stay where I am rather than striving for something different. I’ve thought of myself as lacking in ambition, but maybe it’s more that I don’t have a way of modelling the future choices with emotional content. Mostly I’ve stayed in jobs until they became intolerable, then moved on, sometimes with no replacement in mind. I can’t even really visualize ideas for a vacation or a trip, especially to someplace I’ve never been.

So, what do I do with that 30% of my waking hours that other people use for daydreaming? Not enough. Sometimes, for a couple of minutes, it seems nothing is going on in my mind, or merely observation, without commentary, of what’s happening around me; I have no idea how typical that is. But mostly the engine’s running, chewing over what’s in front of it. Why are things this way, how could this activity be done better, how does this work, that sort of thing. I used to do a lot of sequential thinking, as if working through thoughts with pen and paper, exploring ideas and putting things together, taking them apart, finding correlations and causes. I could continue working on different mental projects during intervals across days and days, and sometimes wrote that way—at the end of the mental work I’d have an outline and some exact wording to put down on paper. Then I’d revise and expand, but I could work out a lot of it mentally and recall it. No more, since fibromyalgia. Thinking is often slow and I can’t remember from one day to the next what I came up with. Sometimes thoughts flit through and are gone before I can even try to remember them. This is one of FM’s major losses, for me, both a loss of pleasure and a loss of what I can accomplish.

Maybe reading fills the role of daydreaming for me. I read a lot, about equal amounts fiction and non-, and if circumstances prevent me from reading for a couple of days I feel the deprivation. The article mentions non-daydreamers only in passing: “Cognitive psychologists are now also examining how brain disease may impair our ability to meander mentally”. If my impairment is due to a brain disease, it’s one I’ve had since early on.

Others, it turns out, suffer from the opposite disorder, daydreaming that is a compulsion or simply so enjoyable that real life takes a back seat. Some have a second life in an alternate world where continuing characters age just like people in the world the rest of us live in. They may fit this narrative into available mental down-time in their lives, or spend up to 90% of their time “away”.

I find it strange that it took me so long to discover that other people spend a third of their waking hours on a mental activity which I lack entirely. It goes to show how little exchange there is among us humans regarding how we think, how our individual minds work. Humans yo-yo between xenophobia—members of other groups are different, dangerous— and “we’re all really just alike”, but a study of psychological research found “significant psychological and behavioral differences between what the researchers call Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies and their non-WEIRD counterparts across a spectrum of key areas, including visual perception, fairness, spatial and moral reasoning, memory and conformity.“ Maybe in daydreaming as well. But nearly all psychological research is done on WEIRD subjects, for both practical and ethnocentric reasons, so who knows? Same for neuroscience; who’s going to airlift fMRI equipment to the lands of the Yanomamo and then persuade them to lie down with their heads inside?


Still, the article raised in my mind some questions we could look at right here in the post-industrial West. If people were prevented from daydreaming, by some technological device probably not yet invented, how would they feel? (Recalling the familiar ‘fact’ about deprivation of night-time dreaming making people hallucinate, I looked to see if it was true, and apparently not.) What proportion of people don’t have imaginative daydreams, and is this always a sign of brain disease or dysfunction or just a normal mental variation? We characterize one sort of excessive negative daydreaming as “catastrophizing”; what about individuals making deliberate use of negative or positive futures, to influence their behavior? And how can “daydreaming” be more precisely separated out from other mental processes such as planning, brooding, brainstorming, and worrying?

Muse on it all, and see what your daydreaming mind comes up with.

King vulture

King vulture photo by Tambako the Jaguar, flickr.

Let’s be niggardly with the n-word, but…

but…sometimes it can and should be said.

stingy, sparing, parsimonious, e.g. “serving out the rations with a niggardly hand”.

from niggard
mid-14c., nygart, of uncertain origin. The suffix suggests French origin (cf. -ard), but the root word is probably related to O.N. hnøggr “stingy,” from P.Gmc. *khnauwjaz (cf. Swed. njugg “close, careful,” Ger. genau “precise, exact”), and to O.E. hneaw “stingy, niggardly,” which did not survive in M.E. []

1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from Fr. nègre, from Sp. negro (see Negro, from Latin nigrum (nominative form niger) “black,” of unknown origin (perhaps from Proto Indo European *nekw-t- “night,”). From the earliest usage it was “the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks” [cited in Gowers, 1965]. But as black inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult. More sympathetic writers late 18c. and early 19c. seem to have used black (n.) and, after the American Civil War, colored person. Also applied by English settlers to dark-skinned native peoples in India, Australia, Polynesia. The reclamation of the word as a neutral or positive term in black culture (not universally regarded as a worthwhile enterprise), often with a suggestion of “soul” or “style,” is attested first in the Amer. South, later (1968) in the Northern, urban-based Black Power movement. [”You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you,” said Scarlett slowly. … There, she thought, I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.” [Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind,” 1936] []

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, radio dispenser of advice and moral judgments, is taking considerable heat for her response to a call involving the word nigger. I don’t even know if WordPress will allow me to spell that word out—and that is what I want to talk about. If you would like to see a transcript of the call and Dr. Laura’s remarks immediately after the call, it is here.

I will say that I think Dr. Laura should apologize, but not for saying a bad word on the radio. For whatever reason, she abandoned her professional role and lost the distance and composure essential to that role. Instead of asking elucidating questions and listening to the caller’s answers, she went off on a rant of her own. As Dear Abby and Ann Landers and others have often decreed, when a spouse hears relatives or friends insulting or taunting his or her spouse, spouse1 must let the relatives/friends know that this is not acceptable, that neither member of the couple will stay to hear such insults and taunts. There are good practical reasons for this, and there is even Biblical justification: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. New American Standard Bible (©1995)

When a black woman married to a white man complained that the word nigger was being used, the therapist-of-the-air should have asked: “How is it being used? Give us an example.” Probably the example will not be a disquisition having to do with Mark Twain’s use of the word in Huckleberry Finn, or the word’s etymology, or a quotation from a black comic using the word. Most likely the remarks are of this nature: “You know niggers, they always/never…” or “Some nigger robbed the convenience store over by where I work…”

These uses are insulting, hostile, and demeaning, like all the other dehumanizing terms used to set some group apart from the rest of us. English has terms like that for Arabs, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, fat people, smart people, stupid people, white people, Hispanic people, gay people, men, women, and people whose ancestors were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Scandinavia, and so on. Other languages have similar terms for the same list, subtracting the words for the speaker’s religion, gender, sexual preference, appearance, and ethnic origin, and adding ones for us Americans. Sometimes there’s intra-group use of such terms; Dr. Laura went off on that tangent but I will not, it’s irrelevant. When outsiders use the term it is almost exclusively insulting and demeaning. Worst of all, these dehumanizing terms are the mental preparation for pogroms, lynchings, beatings, bombings, murders, war, and ethnic cleansing (a shocking euphemism which deserves its own examination, but not here).

No question, nigger is not a word for everyday use by non-blacks, same as the other group-based terms alluded to above.

But when someone wants to excise words from our language, all of us should resist.

When we begin killing words, where will it end?

Some may say, Better words than people! My reply is that manipulating language is the same as manipulating thought, which in turn changes how we act. Dehumanizing the Other is a preparation for war, violence and mistreatment, whether organized or individual. What’s necessary and positive is to continue to educate people not to use these category-based insulting demeaning words to other people. If you want to call someone lazy then do that, but don’t couple it with an insult to the person’s innate or historic self. I can argue with you about whether I am lazy or not, and if convinced that I am, I can choose to change it, but I will always be a black Scandinavian Catholic gay smart woman, if that is what I am.

If we must substitute the ridiculous circumlocution “the N-word” for nigger, then how do we discuss historical documents that used it? How do we read literature that used it? How do we talk about the word itself and its history that renders it sharp as a sword, clanking with manacles, reeking of hatred and suffering?

James Baldwin used nigger, and not just in the vocative sense (e.g., my example, as some use “man”, “Man, you know I’m…”, “Nigger, you know I’m…”) In fact he and Dick Gregory made a serious movie by that title, and it’s the title of Dick Gregory’s 1990 autobiography. Baldwin and Gregory believed that the word and its various meanings needed to be thought about, talked about, by whites and blacks.

Apparently “the N-word” attained popularity during the OJ Simpson trial, in talking about recorded statements by Mark Fuhrman. Chris Darden, black prosecutor, tried to save Fuhrman’s credibility by letting everyone know how awful he, Darden, thought the word was: “The prosecutor [Christopher Darden], his voice trembling, added that the “N-word” was so vile that he would not utter it. “It’s the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.”

But the Bowdlers who gave us first “the F-word” and then “the N-word” won’t stop there. Broadcasters aid and abet them, probably feeling a little frisson of guilty pleasure at being able to allude unmistakably to words the FCC won’t permit them to utter. And some people make up new “[letter] – words” to dramatize their remarks or because they feel victimized. So we have “the B-word”, and words for C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K and on through the alphabet. Some of the words so represented are offensive, others are as inoffensive as “green”.

Let’s let this “N-word” thing stop and fade away. Many times it will be sufficient to say that a person used a “racial slur referring to black people”. If not, then just say the word. “Candidate Joe Smith singled out a black man in the audience for insult, calling him a nigger and a ‘mono’, Spanish for monkey.” Let’s be grown-ups about language and about how we treat others. Hiding behind alphabetical euphemisms makes us sound like giggling 8 year olds, and prevents us from thinking and talking about the issues that euphemisms cover up.