• Mac Ling

Daydreaming & Creativity

How might we benefit from daily allotments of imagination-time?

"Our imagination flieswe are its shadow on the earth."

- Vladimir Nabokov

In the popular children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, little onesie-clad Harold faces the formidable exigencies of the blank page—but he does not tremble before it. Instead, he plunges ahead with his single purple crayon as his tool, literally drawing his world into existence: He draws a moon as a fixture by which to find his way; he becomes hungry, and so he draws himself a picnic with a multitude of pies; he begins to drown in the ocean he himself has drawn, so he sketches himself a boat. His fantasies tend to feel complete to us, the audience (and to more than 50 years of young readers!), because his world contains a full gamut of emotions—he feels scared, he feels lost, he feels satiated, he feels excited. What Harold does, however, with something so seemingly meagre as a crayon, is indeed nothing short of magical: he conceives into possibility that which does not yet exist.

This trait, so doggedly encouraged in children, is often discouraged in adults; or worse, commodified or compartmentalized into those professions in which creativity and imagination (i.e. focusing on realities that could, but do not yet, exist) are definitional components. It is somehow seen as unquestionably "productive" for a painter to spend an afternoon imagining, while this time may be classified as "leisure" for someone else (compare this to attitudes surrounding physical exercise, which is promoted as a universal necessity). Limiting the benefits of imagination to certain groups of people ultimately damages both parties—it leaves artists ("professional" imaginers) in a space of leisure and indulgence, and it suggests that the balance between imagination and reality should not be equally present and constantly negotiated for every human being; this sort of thinking obscures the fact that imagination serves us all. Writer Ursula K. Le Guin expresses this well, when she writes:

"Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive."

As long as the mind is alive, indeed! A study published in Neurology suggests that people who engage in activities involving the imagination during middle and old age were 73% less likely to experience age-related decline in memory and cognition later in life. Many neuroscientists insist that creativity (all kinds, including that which helps you think of new solutions to old problems) becomes the brain's default more easily when one is presented with an unfamiliar situation rather than a familiar one.

I believe integrating imagination into adult culture—as it is in child culture—will have positive personal, social, moral, and technological repercussions for individuals and society as a whole. And I don't mean the kind of imagination that is tied to a quantifiable "productivity"; rather, I refer to an imagination that is simply the exercise of creation and synthesis of thought by the mind, let loose with certain spades and shovels in a mental sandbox, with no pre-determined purpose or conclusion.

Given the technological gadgets and the general monolith of chaotic distraction that we all grapple with on a daily basis, the cultural antidote seems to center around the clearing of the mind, the development of razor-sharp focus, and the need to generally lower mental stimulation for a certain amount of time each day. These are all useful and admirable goals that will provide great benefit; still, in my opinion, one daily activity should be added to this list: the filling of the mind with fanciful things in order to stimulate it in a different way. In this month's newsletter, I provide some ideas as to how you can set aside a 30-minute chunk of each day as your "imagination-time" and suggest mental exercises and games you might play to help your mind venture into the not-yet-known.

YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)


When you sit down to your 30-minute block of imagination-time (and yes, I recommend you actually set a timer), you must strike the right amount of balance between restriction and freedom—you still want pieces of the real world, but you don't want to arrange them in the usual way (essentially, you are seeking to dampen some executive function portions of your brain, pushing you to create unusual solutions). Imagine this as a sort of immersive theatre created by and for and within your own mind—you are both the play and the player, as it were! Hopefully, you will find that this besets your mind with a dazzling fire; for 30 minutes a day, you will have utterly cut out passivity.


The first is an activity that I myself have found to be a fascinating exercise in possibility. This game, originally developed by Robert Evans Wilkins to demonstrate the create process to elementary school children, has been usefully applied by companies who wish to stimulate innovation in the business world. This game is designed to be played with a group of people, each of whom can pose "What if" questions to continue a narrative and see where it leads; with each "what if" comes an unexpected twist to a situation, prompting the storyteller to adjust to an unfamiliar environment and draw upon the creative instinct for a new solution. Take a look at this article by the author for examples!

"SLUMBER WITH A KEY" (by Salvador Dali)

This exercise, recorded in Dali's 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, allows one to draw upon the creative pool of thoughts that emerge in the hypnagogic state—that is, the disorientation that you feel upon first waking up from a state of dreamlike sleep, when you may have thoughts and impressions and images and feelings that do not adhere to a practical frame of reference. Dali recommended that a person seeking such creative output should fall sleep sitting upright in a chair holding a key with an outstretched arm, a metal pot stationed at their feet; then, once you begin to nod off, your fingers loosen, the key falls—and crash!—the key hitting the pot wakes you up. In this moment, before you have time to second-guess yourself or immerse yourself into the familiarly organized world around you, you should pick up your brush and start painting, or pick up your pen and start writing, or simply sit and start wondering.


Go to a place you wouldn't usually go, and give yourself a strange task or goal; then, imagine yourself doing it. For example, go to the local museum and pretend that someone has replaced an artifact in one of the cases with a fake, and it is your job to sleuth out which; attune yourself to the guards, their movements—are they onto the heist? Is one of them in on it? What knowledge of Mesopotamia will help you analyze the engravings on the vase? Or, alternately, find a seemingly mundane item on the side of the road and construct a story in which that item IS, in truth, a mysterious artifact! For this activity, it is important that your body is engaged in movement, constantly exposed to different stimuli (as during a walk, especially in an unknown place).


In this case, think about your own life, but give yourself ONE ability that you would not otherwise have had. All other things remaining the same, imagine how this would play out. Remember, the goal is not simply wish fulfilment. In your daydream, you will encounter challenges, conflicts, heartache, insecurity—but you will also be visited by triumph, illumination, inventiveness, and curiosity.


Imagining can be exhausting! Because these exercises activate so many types of thought and rely on your creating thoughts you have never had before, you may find it to be quite the opposite of relaxing. If you push through the feeling of wanting to fall back on old patterns of thinking, though—for just 30 minutes—you may find that you feel more mentally energized for a long while afterwards.


“The brain is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat,” writes Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics and director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University. “It doesn’t want to waste energy.”

That is, once the brain has perceived or experienced something in a sensory capacity, it will rely on the past knowledge of that event rather than search for new mental pathways—it will, as a result, be less likely to come up with the creative thought; the brain will resist the more challenging route of innovation while the easier pathway of memory exists. According to Berns, this brings us to one of the easiest methods of stoking the imagination: immerse yourself in a new environment—the less already known about it, the better. And what could be more new than an environment that does not yet exist?

In his essay "Imagination is ancient", Stephen T. Asma explains a possible evolutionary basis for this divergence of experience and imagination:

"Lions on the savanna, for example, learn and make predictions because experience forges strong associations between perception and feeling. Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response—a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it—we began to create representations of things that never were but might be."

This "inner space in our minds" continues to call for our conscious hand in its cultivation. In fact, though imagination is actively encouraged in children, it somehow needn't be—not having had so many experiences in the first place, children must be creative; they must imagine. As adults, we are less and less called upon to come up with new responses in our daily lives (we can fall back upon our old responses, tried and honed), having fallen into routines and amassed so much second-hand knowledge of this world's happenings through personal interactions, stories, and media. In "The Science of the Daydreaming Paradox for Innovation", Jeffrey Davis writes of the unexpected pitfalls of resting upon our knowledge of known reality:

"Hyper-focus strategically leads to selective attention, which can hinder your ability to generate fresh solutions and ideas. Selective attention means your mind omits stray thoughts and outside stimuli. Such top-down focus helps you execute and complete tasks, yet by its very nature it’s not the frame of mind for generating novel, useful, innovative solutions to perplexing problems. In fact, one study published in Neuropsychologia (2015) correlates the inability to filter out external distractions with the ability to generate novel solutions and execute them."

Here, as cited by Davis, the blight of distraction may not in fact be a blight at all—distractable people may be naturally prone to devising innovative ideas. While you may find many tools these days purporting to help keep you from distraction, you may find fewer tools readily available to provide you with distraction. The creative fruits of these flights of fancy, however, are often those things that excite us most viscerally and which we are quite happy to have in existence (stories, films, new gadgets, etc.). According to Asma:

"Fantasy that really moves us—whether it is high or low culture—tends to resonate with our ancient fears and hopes. The associational mind of hot cognition—located more in the limbic system—acts as a reservoir for imaginative artists. Artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and H R Giger can take controlled voyages to their primitive brain (an uncontrolled voyage is madness), and then bring these unconscious forces into their subsequent images or stories."

With age, "unfamiliarity" becomes a precious commodity. The spark of delight delivered by the prospect of a new universe is less easy to come by, and we are more difficult to surprise. This is natural and necessary to some extent, of course—a world full of constantly surprised adults would be quite chaotic indeed! What it also means, though, is that we must consciously understand our brain's natural ability and desire to imagine and then create a space in our lives to practice this very important faculty. Asma writes of this faculty, both in terms of utility and of its exalted beauty:

"In The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin says: ‘The Imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty, he unites former images and ideas, independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results … Dreaming gives us the best notion of this power; as [the poet] Jean Paul Richter says: 'The dream is an involuntary art of poetry.'"

The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination by Jean Paul Sartre

For a dense, philosophical discussion of the imagination, you may consult this extensive treatise on the topic by Sartre. Perhaps more than insight into imagination itself, it may give you an idea of how imagination has been conceptualized by artists (by the man who wrote No Exit, no less!).

"Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves" by Maria Popova (Brain Pickings)

"In America, the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order," Le Guin wrote. In this article, Maria Popova discusses Le Guin's disdain for the lack of attention paid by society to the inherent benefits of the imagination, beyond the new "creative culture" for profit model.

The Evolution of Imagination by Stephen T. Asma

In this anthropological work, Asma discusses the evolutionary origins of the imagination; his proposed theory spans the fields of animal behavior, psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience.

Book Module for Harold and the Purple Crayon (The Prindle Institute For Ethics)

This web page contains a surprisingly robust analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of the popular children's book, along with a book module and questions that are worthy of discussion among both kids and adults.

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