Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the power of thought on our mental state, and the idea that I could think or daydream myself better. This recent obsession came up after my therapist suggested I try visualization meditations for sleep. I am a night owl, and rarely productive until about 9 pm. With my schedule, this often meant I’d get 5-6 hours of sleep if I wanted to write. Although I was willing to admit this was not a sustainable strategy, I still was unenthused about the idea of meditation. I think ALL day while I’m doing other things, why would I dedicate any time to just thinking? Meditating just seemed like a waste if I wasn’t multitasking. (We can talk about toxic productivity later.) After I told my therapist that there was NO WAY I would willingly meditate, she recommended Yoga Nidra.
Since then, it’s become almost impossible for me to go to sleep without the calming voice of some unknown Australian woman coaxing me into a deep rest. (I use Insight Timer. It is free. Sometimes you come across very weird things- as a general rule, avoid anything by French men that is ASMR related and you’ll probably eliminate 40% of the bad ones.)
Yoga Nidra is just one of many different types of meditations and visualizations reported to improve stress and manage insomnia. After noticing the benefit of Yoga Nidra on my general ability to fall asleep as well as sleep quality, I became interested in exploring the benefits of visualization meditation and mindfulness as it applies to other aspects of my life. I’ve always been a visual thinker. Rarely do I have a thought that isn’t accompanied by a mental image, be it words on a page, or a favorite place. If I could think of myself to sleep, could I think myself better and improve my mood or energy levels?
This idea has become increasingly pertinent in a pandemic. In the last few months, I’ve become increasingly dependent on my visual memory to transport myself elsewhere. I find myself reminiscing about the bread smells from my favorite street in Montpellier, or soaking up the sun with friends outside. Knowing that visualization had such a positive impact on my sleep, I wanted to know if I could apply the same tactics to daydream better, and think myself better.
Can daydreaming be a valid psychological tool?
Despite my desire to think that reminiscing on positive memories was basically therapy, I knew that there had to be some type of catch. I remembered something I had heard a few years ago: the more often we remember something, the more likely we are to twist and distort those memories into something they aren’t. I hoped that I was just remembering incorrectly, and maybe this was a distortion of my memory.
Unfortunately in this instance, I had remembered fairly correctly. Humans can (and do) create cognitive distortions of certain memories. This is called the misinformation effect. Elizabeth Loftus is a cognitive psychologist and memory scientist who studies the malleability and power of suggestion in memory.
Her research suggests that we create distortions that render our memories relatively unreliable. This is especially true in instances of trauma. Her research has been used in the fascinating world of forensic science and has been used to shed light on the validity of eyewitness testimonies in criminal cases.
The idea that we remember things differently than they happened depends on the concept of retroactive interference, in which information we receive after the fact changes our ability to continue to think about the things we’ve already stored away.
This research is admittedly more pertinent to the concept of creating memories that we never actually had. But what about the wonderful memories we have had and want to relive? Can we create images to get ourselves through rough patches?
Guided imagery meditation is utilized in the treatment of a variety of health problems. It’s been used to modulate chronic pain, alleviate depression and anxiety, manage stress, and modify food consumption.
I found a study that compiles the outcomes of RCTs on guided imagery. In grouping the results from 18,000 adult participants, 76.9% found significant changes in observed outcomes- from perceptions of chronic pain and depression to anxiety and stress management. Other studies have looked at the potential of guided visualization meditation and its ability to reduce insomnia, promote physical activity, and even reduce re-injury in patients post-ACL reconstruction.
Unlike the gold standard of double-blinded studies, these studies do have a potential source of bias that isn’t seen where there is a clear placebo/treatment difference. It’s pretty hard to blind subjects to the treatment they’re being given when the option is doing guided mediation or… not doing guided meditation.
While this all seems positive, Elizabeth Loftus and Co. have something to say about the perils of guided meditation. In the study, participants were asked to provide a ranking of certainty of whether or not a situation happened. Half of the tested situations were subjected to a guided visualization, the other half were discussed in a session with a psychologist. People were more likely to rate things as having happened if they visualized them, and also more likely to say something happened that didn’t happen at all in the visualization cases.
This explains why we may sometimes vividly remember the wonderful (or miserable) moments of our lives in retrospect. As we remember and reminisce, we reinforce the biases we already had in our minds about these situations.
If we reinforce these biases often, whether positive or negative, this can become maladaptive daydreaming: we daydream to avoid or to cope. With the current state of affairs, this isn’t hard to do. When the day-to-day monotony of spending our time moving from bed to desk and back gets fatiguing, who wouldn’t want to think a little more?
The key is managing how we daydream.
Daydreaming can be negative if it is filled with too much self-focus and rumination. If you’re like me, and spend 90% of the day in your own head, sometimes it’s hard to get off the “thinking too much about X thing” hamster wheel.
If you’re wondering how “rumination” differs from thinking, I think this is a good way to determine which it is: if your thoughts became the monologue for a character, would it be someone you’d describe as brooding? Rumination explains worsening mood, especially in people who are already at-risk for depression.
Sad affect is defined as ‘high negative affect and low positive affect’, or lots of 🙁 and not a lot of 🙂 . High positive affect works to stop the formation of negative thought, whereas high negative affect triggers more negative thoughts. This means that the way we react to sadness creates a loop where sad happens (cause it does), this impacts mood negatively, and because the positive affect isn’t there to stop the formation of negative thoughts, the cycle continues*.
*caveat- there is absolutely a genetic component to affect, so I’m not insinuating that it’s all a matter of how we think, but regardless of the inherited aspects, our behavior partially depends on how we process*
This cycle analogy isn’t empirically tested, but there’s some sense beyond my n=1 experience. Few would deny that there’s something to be said for how we think about and react to experiences. I’m not recommending forced positivity by any means, but it does mean that we might need to start thinking about how we think.
Can we daydream ourselves better?
From what I’ve gathered so far, yes. It depends on how we approach daydreaming and the role we let it play. If you imagine daydreams as a kind of guided visualization meditation through your own past, it could be a great tool to visualize and escape the quarantine monotony. Although the more often we recall and romanticize a memory, we tend to change the validity of said memory, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. If it is being used as a way to visualize positive memories and tune out situations that bring us down, it may lead to being more in-tune with ourselves.
If daydreams are a negative (i.e. sadness-producing) experience of forlorn longing for other moments, it might only increase negative thoughts and your negative reactions to said negative thoughts. I’ve seen what positively visualizing and dialing in on my own thoughts has done for my sleep, and while I’m writing this on a cool 5 hours of it, I believe that the practice extends much further than falling asleep faster.
Visualization meditation has given me tools to calm down and find contentment at present. The more of these positive experiences I have, the more I am reinforcing a better mood. Applying this type of mindfulness to our daydreams, I think it’s quite possible that we can daydream ourselves better. And there’s no sifting through weird French man ASMR required. Unless, of course, that was in your positive daydream. Not here to judge.