in defense of daydreaming

One morning, while munching on toast with Nutella, I found myself chewing on something else: reports that psychiatrists are now zeroing in on a new way to categorize, diagnose and (possibly) further medicate children. Specifically, daydreaming children. Because, this was news to me, these very children apparently suffer from something called “sluggish cognitive tempo.”

As I am not myself the speediest of thinkers, this took me a while to process. Sluggishness set in post-haste. But once my lollygagging intellect helpfully kicked into gear, my first response was:

Crap! No? Really?

My second response was: Of course! Why not! Let’s just medicate people right out of the womb! Psych diagnoses for EVERYBODY! HURRAH!

Finally, the plodding lump of soft tissue known as my brain noted the pairing of “sluggish” and “tempo,” which suggests a sheet-music designation for agonizingly slow symphonic music. As in: Adagio, Largo, Lento, Larghissimo and Sluggish. Can’t you just hear Toscanini’s angry direction to the woodwinds on this one? “Oboes! Stupidos! Slower, slower! That passage is tempo sluggishimo!”

As I (slowly) read more about this, I (slowly) became more confused. “They’re the daydreamy ones,” explains an expert-ish-y person to The New York Times, “the ones with work that’s not turned in, leaving names off of papers or skipping questions, things like that, that impinge on grades or performance. So anything we can do to understand what’s going on with these kids is a good thing.”

Wow. Great. You want to know what’s going on? SO ASK THEM. Ask “these kids” what they’re thinking about, where they are, when they’re daydreaming. Because I’m here to tell you they’re somewhere. What looks like nowhere to everybody else is actually a place of rich and idiosyncratic cognition; I say this as a person who’s spent 50 years in a semi-permanent space-out, elbow on desk, chin on hand, drool snaking down the side of my mouth. But the time spent in that airless, drooling vacuum isn’t all bad.

Slow thinking isn’t wrong thinking, ineffective thinking or counter-productive thinking. It’s oblique and improvisational thinking — thinking that goes on a cavernous detour and then returns into the daylight with some newfound chunk of understanding (often accompanied by a hypoxic gasping for air). It’s mental spelunking.

I do this all the time and always have. I tune out; sometimes I tune out so far that people are forced to wave their arms and bleat AMY AMY AMY AMY AMY or MOM MOM MOM MOM MOM until I blink awake, muttering a slurred Whaaaaaaaapplllll? And I have a tape delay: Sometimes I need a second or two for things to register. My mom used to call this “coming in slow freight.” She also used to say, “Sometimes it takes a while for the stone to reach the bottom of the well.” What’s more, she often said “people’s ears keep growing throughout their lives,” and maybe she was right (when I’m 90, will my lobes be slapping against my thighs?), although this has nothing to do with cognition.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is this: my first-gear cognition hasn’t ruined my life. True, I spaced on my GRE’s, ignoring an entire page of bubble questions, but I didn’t need them to apply to J-school, anyway. Columbia took me anyway. I made deadlines anyway. Life unfolded anyway. And now and then, in the midst of my mental meandering, I go somewhere interesting or useful. I stumble across some revelatory nugget of truth that helps me out, or inspires me to write, or pushes me forward. But this landscape can’t be traveled quickly. It takes time, and that’s okay.

9 thoughts on “in defense of daydreaming

  1. Love you! I saw that article and muttered snarky stuff but then got distracted by…who knows and who cares? I’d settled back into my sluggish cognitive tempo, aka, the thrum of creativity.

  2. Amy, I’m another Amy who writes on “mental disorders,” and I have Roger Green to thank for linking me to your site. I always daydreamed, even in school… a leaf would catch my eye, a bird’s flight would crisscross as a blue jay divebombed the bird feeder. Today I would be called Asperger’s, like my daughter. But no, got stuck with bipolar/PTSD?OCD, plus a little bulimia just to spice things up.

    I’ll defend daydreaming ’til I die. Without daydreamers, we would not have writers, poets, artists, dancers, songs… thanks for this! “Other Amy”

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