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Daydreaming is a Sign of Productivity, Not Procrastination

May 19, 2009

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Never stop wandering.

The irony does not escape me that the day after I graduate from college, a new PNAS study is released stating that mind-wandering is actually beneficial to brain activity. I could have definitely used this excuse for the first 22 years of my academic career or when trying to convince my parents that “off the beaten path” does not necessarily mean “off the rails.”  Alas, I’ve got at least 30 years of the work world ahead of me – so I guess for me and you both, research showing the daydreaming and mind-wandering are actually beneficial to your health comes better late than never.

Scientists Kalina Christoff of UBC and Jonathon Schooler of UCSB both created a project based on “experience sampling” to capture daydreaming through the use of an fMRI machine. Participants in the study were given an extremely tedious task to complete and when their minds began to wander, fluctuations in their brain activity were monitored. The results show that mind-wandering actually institutes a unique mental state that allows for other parts of your brain to work in more tight-knit cooperation, thus making you more productive. This level of productivity is most pronounced when you are not even aware that you are daydreaming. Not bad.

Jonah Lehrer is an important contributer to the daydreaming=productivity scene. On his blog, he notes that daydreaming actually helps us with problem-solving because were are allowed to hypothesize “what-ifs” and engage to “mental time travel” in search of solutions. Lehrer condemns the association of procrastination and daydreaming with laziness, arguing that abstract thought is often the way that many great inventions are made. (He cites the Minnesota born Post-It note as an example).  “The hard part is maintaining enough awareness to catch your creative insight when it happens [and change it into something productive]”, he states.

The PNAS study also reflected that while for years, daydreaming was thought to be a “resting state” and a distraction to our day-to-day thoughts and tasks, it is actually one of the more predominant and productive modes of the human mind. This makes me feel a bit better about the time I just spent staring out the window while trying to write this blog. Sigh.

Even more intriguing – the brain doesn’t stop at daydreaming either. Take a look at Jill Bolte Taylor’s story if you really want to push your boundaries. She is a brain scientist who was able to experience her own stroke and live to tell about it. Her talk gets a little kooky when she attempts to describe what it’s like to no longer be able to define the boundaries of her own human body and her subsequent time spent disconnected from her left brain chatter, a state of mind which she refers to as “la-la-land,” but her insights are incredibly valuable. There is still so much we don’t know about the brain so it’s silly we’ve attached a stigma to daydreaming.  It’s ability to  unwittingly spark imagination and innovation on an abstract plain makes daydreaming one of our most crucial tools for creativity.

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A Picture of Sustainability

May 17, 2009

This is John Paget‘s award-winning video for the Congress for New Urbanism. Paget lays out his argument that while urban sprawl is designed to fail, new urbanism is a model that is built to last. In addition to his suggestion to keep our personal living spaces condensed, Paget should also recognize that it is important to look at our building methods on a large scale. Aside from the housing market,  businesses can begin to set the example by requesting sustainably designed structures for their companies. They may not be able to cut corners on the size of their manufacturing plants, but they can definitely cut social and environmental costs.

My dad is the owner of Sage Structures, a sustainable construction company in Madison, WI, and he has made a career  in tilt-up concrete construction. Consequently, I have been receiving environmental build lectures since I was a little kid. Especially in a climate like the Midwest, where winters can reign brutally cold and summers are unbearably humid, the quick heating and cooling capabilities of a concrete building can make a huge difference for a large building. Green Concrete, a division of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, also highlights the many other sustainable aspects of concrete buildings. They are much more durable than metal manufacturing buildings, they reduce energy costs by as much as forty percent, and concrete is made of air, cement, water, sand, and gravel – elements that are available locally most everywhere.

Due to its accessibility in the construction realm, a push towards concrete builds seems would be an easy first step in sustainability for larger businesses. For even more architectural ideas, check out Blaine Brownell’s publication, Transmaterial: A Catalog of Materials That Redefine Our Physical Environment. He takes an innovative approach to design-build by using an array of unorthodox materials from coconut palm to” sonic fabric.” Pretty cool stuff!

Cookies for Concrete

May 15, 2009

Yesterday, I was walking a beat through downtown Minneapolis when I stopped to observe a road construction crew that was in the process of re-paving 2nd Avenue. The huge concrete paver crawled down the road. Hard-hatted men worked to scrape off the manholes and move the concrete to areas in need and the sun beat down. I was in awe at the scope and efficiency of their endeavor. They worked without sweat, complaint, or intimidation at the enormity of their task and I felt as though I were in the presence of superheroes…Mankind is capable of creating some truly awesome structures to behold. I took a step back to marvel at the skyscrapers that surrounded me. Their stiletto silhouettes glittered in the sunlight, serving as further affirmation of all that we can accomplish when we put our minds to it. I smiled.

Just as suddenly as I was admiring our man-made ingenuity, I became exposed to another beautiful element of reality: human solidarity. In a matter of minutes, the workers from a local bakery shop had poured out into the street, side-stepped the wet concrete, and presented the road crew with upwards of seven different platters of cookies. It was an absurd scene. Cookies for concrete?! I watched as the road crew fumbled to handle these chocolate frosted delicacies with their concrete-caked, sun-baked hands and laughed. They were laughing too. In fact, in that moment, I felt like the whole city of Minneapolis was engulfed in glee.

Some of you might imply that I was witnessing a phenomenon known as “Minnesota Nice” but I know for a fact that this kind of sincerity and compassion is not a strictly Midwestern gene. We only have to take a step back and open our eyes a little wider to see that every day, everywhere, good people are coming together to solve a problem, support one another, and make a difference. Whether its food for peace, cookies for concrete, or locks for love, we’re pushing the future in a positive way. Dear Minneapolis, thanks for reminding me of that. 🙂

My Search Engine Special Requests

May 13, 2009

Wolfram Alpha is the talk of the town in the online world. There are whispers that it may be Google’s usurper or at least, it’s number one contender. Set to launch this month, the Wolfram Alpha search engine strives to compute any kind of question you throw at it in a matter of moments. Instead of offering suggested web pages for further browsing, as Google does, it simply gives you the answer. Like that. The presence of British mathetmetician Stephen Wolfram as the brains behind the design of this super-powered calculator is fitting. A peek at his website will show you that he is the epitome of overachievement.  [Spoiler alert: He joined the ranks of Oxford University at the age of 17!]

Anyway, although I am curious to see if Google has finally met its match, I’m really not that impressed. There is still a lot of ground that needs to be covered in search engine progress and quite frankly, I’m waiting. Just for sport, here are two suggestions for new search engine development that once implemented, could easily rival Google by sheer necessity.

1. SongSluta search engine that enables you to find out the artist and title of that song that has been stuck in your head since fifth grade. The one that continues to haunt you in your sleep…you know what I’m talking about. If you hear it, you never catch the artist or the song title on the radio – something always happens – you go through a tunnel, your mother calls, or the DJ doesn’t indulge. You Google the few lyrics you know, but they’re so non-specific that the results always prove fruitless. You query your friends and relatives, but you’re all in the same boat. Nobody knows. By the time you’re twenty two, you’ve heard it 357 times and you’re convinced that if you don’t find out soon, you may slowly go insane.  For me, it was this song…

All I knew for fifteen years of my life is “do do do da da” part. Ahhh – can you imagine my agony?! With SongSlut, everything would’ve been okay. There’s my testimonial.

2. KeyJanglera search engine for locating your keys. Like Google Earth, but instead of locating your house, it would find your keys. Of course, this would require GPS in all of our keys, a slightly more expensive investment, but considering how much time it would save you – I think well worth it.

If you can think of more annoying knowledge gaps that need to be filled, by all means, let me know!

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Business Cards for Jerks

May 12, 2009

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Do you want to add a little more meat to your resume? Try handing out your business cards in beef jerky. A carnivore’s delight to networking, MeatCards provides custom made beef jerky business cards via a 150 Watt CO2 Laser Beam. No joke. Their website simply states, “these business cards have two ingredients: Meat and Lasers“, with the added disclaimer that “MeatCards do not fit in a Rolodex because their deliciousness cannot be contained by a Rolodex.” Is this for real? Yes. Can you eat the business cards of your competitors? Not recommended. The guys behind MeatCards assure that their product is edible, but they make no promise of it being palatable; due to legal implications, they don’t plan to market it as such.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting concept. I feel like their target market may be somewhere between the avid outdoorsmen and the die-hard rodeo rider, but anyone keen on standing out from the rest could probably be served well by a MeatCard. Who cares if you get a call back for an interview because your contact information smells like Mesquite BBQ? You still made it to round two!

And why do I get the feeling these cards were designed by a bunch of stoners? The conversation probably started with, “Dude, what if the whole world was made of beef jerky?” Upon agreeing this would be a good idea, they decided to start small – with the business card,but full-blown hickory-smoked venison resumes are likely what’s next. (Or maybe that’s just the Wisconsinite salivating in me).  I can just hear PETA starting up their cannons for this campaign, but I got to give props to MeatCards for adding some flavor to the workplace.

Richard Branson Goes Hungry for Darfur

May 11, 2009

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Richard Branson explains in a video blog why he has chosen to take up Mia Farrow’s fast for Darfur:

“We fast in solidarity with the people of Darfur because they do not have a choice. We fast as a personal expression of outrage at a world that has allowed the suffering of millions of innocent people. We fast because as we simply watched, Darfur’s defenceless people were forced into wretched camps where today they are facing starvation and disease. We fast because those in positions of authority who know what is right and just, could and should do more to alleviate their suffering and bring peace, protection, and justice to the people of Sudan.

We fast for Darfur’s courageous people —because we yearn for a world where human rights are respected and a life of dignity is the legacy for every man, woman and child.

Please join us and get involved in supporting the people of Darfur by going to www.fastdarfur.org and taking action.”

Branson told Entertainment Weekly that his decision to take up a three day fast for Darfur in the aftermath of the Sudanese government’s decision to expel 16 international aid organizations is “the first time I’ve deprived my stomach to get political change.” I commend his efforts and view his support of Darfur as a powerful move. I recently wrote an article on the sway of the hunger strike in response to Evo Morales’ six-day hunger strike for election reform. People often brush aside the efforts of famous people in working for social action – like its some kind of sideshow to their otherwise luxurious lifestyle, but I will not condemn anyone who cares in any capacity that they can. Branson’s three-day hunger strike is a commitment that encourages so many others because his influence is so widespread.

[Sidenote: Shame on you, journalists, for introducing Mia Farrow as “the former wife of Frank Sinatra and the ex-girlfriend of Woody Allen” in nearly every article written on Farrow’s handing over of the hunger strike to Richard Branson. Aside from her former career as an actress, singer, and model, she should be recognized first and foremost by her status as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and her tireless work in the conflict-stricken regions of Sudan and Chad. If I find it annoying that she’s still being introduced by her former love life, I can’t imagine how she feels. Give the woman some due credit!]

Wisecracks from the White House

May 10, 2009

The annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner could have been another platform for Obama to stay somber and serious about our current state of affairs, but instead, he chose to take a lighter note and unexpectedly crack a lot of jokes.  If anyone is going to abuse a position of power, this is how it should be done – with humor! Thank you, President Obama for some much needed comic relief!