Do We Control Our Daydreams?

I’ve been reading Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2010), and ran across the arresting statement that “in a daydream you have perfect control” (p. 200).

Readers of Your Brain and You will recognize that this claim goes against the grain of chapter 5. But quite independently of the reasons given there, daydreaming seems a poor candidate for something we control. After all, daydreaming is supposed to be relaxing and pleasant. When we’re daydreaming we are not trying to do much of anything – we are taking a break from our effortful projects. In daydreaming, as Bloom also says (p. 198), our “minds are wandering”. But wandering – as we might do, for example, in a park – is exactly not trying to get anywhere in particular. If we are not aiming at some particular result, or series of actions, or series of mental images, it seems odd to think of ourselves as in control of what images come to mind. 

The puzzle I want to address today, however, is that what Bloom says seems initially plausible, even to me. Why should that be? Why should it seem natural to say we are in control of our daydreams when, on reflection, that does not seem to be so?

Part of the explanation is that Bloom describes daydreaming as involving “the creation of imaginary worlds” and portrays us as designers, casting directors, and screenwriters of these worlds and of the “imaginary beings [that we create] to populate” them (p. 198). But these descriptions actually apply to creators of fiction, i.e., writers of stories, novels, and plays. Such writers are not daydreaming: they are trying to do something, namely, to write a story that will be dramatic, convey a moral, tell us something about ourselves, and so on. They may have many ideas cross their minds, and they exercise control when they reject most of them as not contributing to the drama or atmosphere at which they are aiming. But trying to write a good story is not what we’re doing when we are daydreaming, or letting our minds wander.

A deeper clue comes from a contrast that Bloom draws between normal daydreaming and some cases of schizophrenia, “in which this other-self creation is involuntary and the victim of the disease believes that these selves are actual external agents such as demons, or aliens, or the CIA” (p. 198).

This contrast seems real. But “involuntary” does not seem to be the best description of it, since what occurs to us in normal daydreaming does not seem rightly described as “voluntary”. “Voluntary” actions are actions you consider beforehand and decide to do. But we do not set about trying to bring certain images to mind when we daydream – we relax and they come to us unbidden.

A better description of the contrast is that when we daydream, we have a palpable sense that the images we entertain are ours. This is not control, but something more like ownership. We do not control what comes into our minds, but we do have a sense that we are actively picturing to ourselves, and this is not just like passively perceiving something in the world outside our bodies.

This kind of active involvement seems similar to what happens in our inner speech. When we talk to ourselves, we have auditory imagery that is like hearing what we say to ourselves. But we also have a palpable sense that we are saying something to ourselves, and not merely hearing something being said. To lose this sense would be to “hear voices” – which would be disturbing, and a sign of illness.

The resolution of my puzzlement, then, is this. In daydreaming, we have a sense of active involvement in picturing to ourselves. We feel that our images are our images, something we produce. In many other cases, when we produce something, we have control over the character of what gets produced. So, our active involvement in picturing to ourselves is easy to confuse with control. But “producing” our images in this sense is not the same thing as controlling which images are popping up in our mind’s eye. Projectionists at your local theater are actively involved in producing the images on the screen, but they do not control the character of those images.

3 Responses to Do We Control Our Daydreams?

  1. siddu says:

    Meditating is the only way to control mind, daydreaming. i had a problem of excessive daydreaming over past 5 years could not concentrate on studies at that time, I used to daydream nearly6 to 7hrs per day ,I had no control over that one, i had used many methods to control daydream but failed .so i started meditating earlier it is difficult to sit for long time but now I am comfortable .i used this method hope it will useful for you 1.meditation for at least 30 mins otherwise it is not helpful (please do meditation at same place with same posture ) 2. Consciously tell yourself that “i should not daydream at any condition”. try to focus on work that you are doing now, the more you focus on work the least you will daydream. Because mind can think only one thoughts at a time

    • wsrob says:

      Thank you for this comment. I’m glad to learn that you’ve found a solution to a problem, and I hope others will benefit from what you say about it.

      It may be helpful here to distinguish between two issues. The one the article was concerned with was our (low) degree of control of *what particular ideas* or images come to mind during periods when we are daydreaming. The issue featured in your comment concerns *whether* one is daydreaming (which is closely related to control of attention).

      On this latter issue, your comment suggests the following general point. Except for some simple cases of perceptual attention, it is not easy to control what we attend to. To the extent that we can do so, it usually requires a careful strategy that starts with small steps and builds habits over an extended period of time. (There is more about attention and a little about meditation in Your Brain and You.)

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