I recently listened to a report on NPR that challenged people to disconnect from their smartphones.
The basic gist of the argument – and I’m paraphrasing, so you might consider listening to the full report – is that “daydreaming” is your brain’s default state. When it’s not otherwise engaged, it flits off on its own, a process that helps organize memory, set internal short-term goals, and other supposedly beneficial stuff.
Trust me, I’m all about “beneficial to my brain” stuff. I don’t have enough background to know if these benefits are real, but they certainly seem plausible. In the report, they talk to some folks on a subway platform. A decade ago, those people were presumably staring at the empty track, at each other, at the nearby vending machine, or at an ad, daydreaming. Some few of them may have been reading a book or a newspaper. There’s no doubt that many of them had brains in “daydreaming” mode.
It’s certainly plausible to suggest that a brain needs its daydreaming time. It’s reasonably well-documented that people need real REM-style sleep-dreaming time, which is one reason sleep deprivation is so unhealthy. It seems reasonable to suggest that the odd bits of midday “dreaming” serve beneficial purposes, too.
But I certainly don’t feel brain-deprived. Maybe it depends on what you’re doing with your smartphone. Playing “Bejeweled” should certainly leave some time for background daydreaming, I think. I don’t even feel mentally stressed when playing little games like that, at least. I guess if you’re spending that idle time working on email and whatnot, then your brain never gets a rest. I do know some people who seem to be addicted to what I call brain-drenaline, a constant state of thinking. They can’t stand to not be thinking every minute of the day, and get really irritable when there’s nothing to think about.
But most of my idle smartphone time is spent doing want I call “random exploration.” I spent an hour one time, sitting in an airport, learning about how macaroni is made, because I’d seen an ad for mac & cheese and idly wondered how big-scale food companies make millions of little pasta pieces. There was no applied use for the information, but I know it now. I’m fascinating at cocktail parties, by the way, once everyone’s had just enough to drink that they care about an endless stream of entirely random facts. Sometimes that’s a lot of drinking. Anyway.
It’s possible that my “random exploration” time, probably a compulsive response to the obsessive desire to not be bored, is achieving what the report talks about when it mentions the benefits of boredom. I hate being bored, so maybe this is the boredom-response they’re talking about.
I know there’s value in unstructured brain-play time. I sometimes get great ideas when I’m just waiting to doze off on an airplane. But even before smartphones, I’m not sure I ever had the kind of daydreaming time that this report suggests I might need. I always had a book with me. My peers all had Gameboys. There was always something to do. Otherwise, as one person in the report said, I’d be terribly bored, and I hate being bored.
Give the report a listen – it’s only about 6 minutes long. What do you think? Has your smartphone left you less time for daydreaming? Are you going to disconnect and see if you can survive?