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Conversation on Daydreaming with Jerome L. Singer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Jerome L. Singer is the father of daydreaming. His seminal research over the past 50+ years with his colleagues (including John Antrobus and Eric Klinger) has laid the foundations for virtually all current investigations of the costs and benefits of daydreaming and mind wandering (see “The Origins of Positive-Constructive Daydreaming” and “Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming“). As a graduate student in his clinical psychology class, I felt an instant connection with Jerry. Based on my final paper, I had the great pleasure of collaborating with him on applying imagination and creativity to psychotherapy training and practice. This collaboration resulted in my first publication. To this day, Jerry remains a very important mentor and friend. His openness, warmth, and keen sense of humor is appreciated by his colleagues, friends, and family. A few years ago, I had the chance to have an extensive chat with Jerry about his life and work.

Scott: What do you think is the link between night dreams and day dreams?

Jerome:  I think that they’re both features of what is now called the “default system.” That term didn’t exist when I started out in psychology, and it certainly wasn’t linked to the brain, because no‑one could look into a brain. EEG was just beginning in those days. I got interested in human imagination in all of its various forms.

Part of it was of course, the fact that I myself had strong images and fantasies about alternative egos. I’ve written about that in my very first book, “Daydreaming,” which was published in 1966. I begin by talking about some of my teenage or even earlier daydreams, and the various alter egos I created for myself. If I was somewhat crazy, I would have perhaps been multiple personality. [laughs] But I wasn’t. I knew all the time that these were just figments of my imagination. But I made up various different characters, including one of myself as a great composer. That was tied back to those operas that I had been writing.

Scott:  What do you think is the line between healthy and adaptive fantasy, and pathology?

Jerome: In the subsequent research that we did, we found that the more pathological person or individuals tended to have a very limited range of fantasy. It was usually a limited fantasy of a paranoid kind, of some megalomaniac kind, that they repeated over and over again. They didn’t have the wide range of fantasy that the average person has.

They became caught up in just one set of things. I realized later in the course of my research, that fantasies are really precursors to action. Just as our plans will lead us to try to act in certain ways, our fantasies are. But that also brought out the fact that our night dreams are simply continuations of the daytime fantasy, except that the night dreams, because you’re not having to process input from the outside world, are a little more strange and bizarre. They’re more purely associative, whereas in day dreams, you might have some of the same associations, but you are reality oriented, so that you quickly dismiss those. Or, you play with them, recognizing that they’re just imaginative productions. You use it to pass the time.

Scott: How does the content and style of fantasy and make believe change across the lifespan, for most people?

Jerome: I think everybody has daydreams all the time about unfulfilled intentions, and about escapes from the routine of daytime activity. I think the brain is constantly active, and this we know is further supported now by the research on the default system in the brain. But the brain is practically always active. It continues in the day and in the night, particularly under the circumstances where you’re getting minimal input from the outside world.

As a result, everyone is having the fantasies. But in the context of the busyness that we experience in daytime and are having to process so much material, we quickly forget the day dreams and don’t realize how many of them we are having. When we ask people if they’re in research studies to carry around a paging device, and interrupt them unexpectedly throughout the day, we find they’re having an awful lot of day dreams.

They might have answered on a test they didn’t daydream much, but then they’re surprised when they actually carry around the pager, how much time they were engaged in some fantasy. Most of the fantasies are pretty mundane. They are really a creation temporarily of a virtual reality that you can manipulate. It’s really one of the gifts of being human, that you can do that.

Scott: Clearly, there are linkages to creativity?

Jerome: Yeah. Well, it depends. I think that there are many aspects to creativity, one of which is, you can’t be very creative unless you have to some degree, an expert knowledge of a particular area, whether it’s any place from poetry to science and mathematics. Creativity is enhanced when you begin to recognize that many of your fantasies may have relevance to some of the kinds of things that you are interested in doing.

Some of those are more likely to end up being creative products if you recognize that, and are willing to spend the time. Good writers often carry notebooks around with them, and write down examples of incidents that they observed or that they read about, to save those and then from time to time re‑look at their notebooks. Just the same way as composers would write down a melody that they are thinking of, or a harmony to go with a particular melody and write it down quickly.

They always say that Schubert used to do it on napkins in a restaurant. Once you have that orientation, I think it was Sternberg who talked about “an investment approach,” that you are willing to invest some of your time and energy in playing with these things. Then it becomes a way of life for you, and it’s not something you think is crazy or intimidating. You see it is as something you can use.

We have the examples, Einstein gave a lot of examples of his own fantasies and imagery, and how he then got curious about a particular area in physics, which he would then explore using his more systematic, rational approach to thinking. But most people can’t sustain such a form of thinking for a long time, whereas someone who’s already gifted and oriented towards science or writing novels or plays, will stay with it and take the time and enjoy doing it.

Scott: What do you see as some important areas for further research study…to all the young researchers out there?

Jerome:  Well, I think there’s more work to be done on the brain. We’ve done a lot of research on the origins of daydreaming, and early childhood, imaginative play. I think we need to see how that is developing, particularly today, with the influence of all of the electronic media.

Are they being carried over into private thought, or are they interfering with private thought, to some extent? We need a lot of other studies to determine to what extent, daydreaming may be useful. One of the things that came out of my research was the whole idea of using one’s imaginative processes as part of psychotherapy, or as part of effective daily living.

Scott: Do you think schools treat daydreaming as a negative distraction?

Jerome: Actually, I think that teachers need to recognize that often, the daydreaming is because some of the kids are bored, they’re really ahead of the rest of the class. I’ve had so many parents, well‑educated parents, whose kids are being accused of “mind wandering” in school, come and ask me about this.

It often turns out the kid, because of family influences and reading background, is placed below his or her skill level. I used to sit there in classes, and make up little series of cartoons, different heroic characters, like you read in the comics. Or else draw pictures of various imaginary characters that I had. That passed the time, but I also was quick enough to shift back and forth, so that I still was a good student. It never really got in my way, significantly.

Scott: What do you think about the application of daydreaming to psychotherapy– I know we worked on that a little bit together. I want to keep working in that area because it seems really important.

Jerome: Yeah. You should take a look at the book ”Imagery, and Daydream Methods in Psychotherapy and Behavior Modifications,” 1974, I think it was Academic Press.

[Editor's note: Also see Jerry's more recent book on the topic: "Imagery in Psychotherapy".]

Scott: What are some personal goals for you, for the future?

Jerome: I would like to continue trying to put together…at least integrate articles looking at…since, so many people are still suspicious of daydreaming and think it’s a human failing. My argument would be that daydreaming can be a human failing for some people. But for many others it plays a positive role in human…it’s a natural phenomenon that occurs.

If you can read some of my earliest writings on the subject, you’ll see that I emphasize the fact that when there is a reduced input, or a very habitually learned input, which doesn’t take up too much of your time, you can continue to function effectively in some tasks, but also, switch quickly back and forth into fantasies. Some of which, may enhance the task ultimately, if it’s art or science, or some of which may simply, help you make you plans about what do you want for lunch for tomorrow.

Or, who are you going to meet when you go to the new job, or something like that. It’s part of the whole planning system of the human being, and it’s because the brain is constantly processing and re‑processing the learned material. Think of all the information you take in, in a given day, and not just from your outside physical environment, but from your reading the papers, or now watching television, or playing video games, or something.

You’re storing tremendous amounts of material. The brain just reprocesses of some of it. Much of it doesn’t get rehearsed and replayed, and so it’s essentially lost. But, there’s an awful lot of it that you do find relevant and important. Klinger’s work points out the fact that a lot of it involves, you know, gets tied in with intentions that you may have not fulfilled.

They don’t have to be Freudian wishes, not necessarily. There are all kinds of unfulfilled intentions. Actually, that’s one of the first things that Kurt Lewin studied in his research was unfulfilled intentions and how we’re motivated eventually, to carry them out, when we have a chance. He did that work in 1915, or so.

Scott: You know, I really should read his stuff.

Jerome: You got to read German. [laughs] Most of that I know was written…there was a German journal that a lot of his stuff was published in. Of course, some of it has been translated, and he has a number of significant books that he’s written in. Some of it, for all I know, may still be in print. The book that I especially like, is not that big a book, it’s called “A Dynamic Theory of Personality.”

Scott: Can you read German?

Jerome: Well, you had to pass a test in German to get a PhD, both in French and German.

Scott: How many languages can you speak?

Jerome: Speak? Mainly English. It’s one thing to know [laughs] how to read a language, and another to know how to speak it naturally.

Scott: Well, how many can you read?

Jerome: Well, I can read especially French and English, some German, Hebrew. I used to be able to read Chinese but I’ve let that drift away. I used to be able to read a little Japanese and that’s…I’ve lost most of that, although I can read phrases. I think that’s maybe it.

I can read Spanish in a sense that it’s an easy language. I can read a Spanish newspaper, certain words will get me. It’s not that hard. I don’t think I could read Quixote, a work of such complex literary text. I can read a little Italian from loving the Opera.

Scott: Is there anything you can think of that you want to add?

Jerome: I think that we grossly underestimate the importance of our imaginative capacities as human beings and our ability to use those for practical creativity in our day to day lives. As well as, in the case of people in particular fields, for more creative approaches.

Scott: Well I completely agree and I truly thank you for being such a strong influence on my career and of being such a supportive caring friend.

Jerome:  Well thank you. That made me feel good.

 

Personal

Scott: What are some of your earliest, happiest childhood memories?

Jerome: Oh, gee, all kinds of things. I very much enjoyed, when I was very young, playing imaginative games based on characters like, “Tarzan of the Apes,” or “Sherlock Holmes,” that sort of thing.

Then when I was a little older, we lived near the Atlantic Ocean, just a block away from the ocean, and I used to love swimming. I could swim far out into the ocean, never experienced any tides. I think that may have changed now.

I had lots of fun. I have always had a group of friends. We would play everything from sports in empty lots, places like that, or on the beach. We also played all kinds of other games. There’s just a lot of such memories. It was probably because it was the depression and my parents were going through rough times.

But for me, I did well. I enjoyed school and I had a lot of success in school. During elementary school, I used to write plays and they would be put on before the whole school, so that was nice.

Scott: Do you still have any of them?

Jerome: No. I don’t remember what I did with them.

Scott: You always had a musical ear, right?

Jerome: Yes.

Scott: Can you still play songs by ear on the piano?

Jerome: Yeah, I can play the piano. I improvise and make up my own pieces or I can take a well‑known piece and play it, but I can’t do the harmony so well. I can play its harmony, but it’s nothing like what the composer did. I enjoy music tremendously to this day. There were many times. Some of the nice times I remember were with some of my friends.

When I was about 11 or 12, we used to take the train from Brighton Beach, where I lived, to Prospect Park, which is a big park like Central Park in Manhattan. Prospect Park is a big park in Brooklyn and they used to have outdoor concerts at night for free. You just came and found a seat. It was a band called The Goldman Band and I enjoyed those concerts very much.

He played mostly light classical music sometimes a little more a little heavier, but mostly relatively lighter classical music. Everybody enjoyed it and there were certain things the whole audience would hum along with or whistle along with certain melodies and so on. That was an important part of my childhood. I had many happy days reading. I loved to read and those are the kinds of things that I would mention.

Scott: Have you ever played in a band?

Jerome: I couldn’t play. I never studied music.

My mother, at one point she got an old Russian man in our building to give me a few lessons so that I could recognize what the notes were. She paid him $.50 an hour. He seemed grateful for that, and so he’d point me to…he’d say read a…music is an exaggeration because I could tell what the notes were, but I couldn’t possibly play from that. He tried to teach me to do that a little bit. I remember learning how to play “Turkish March” by Beethoven, but not very well.

I just couldn’t. Since I had been improvising and playing on my own, I had no patience with trying to play from music. I made up operas and I had my own notation system. I enjoyed banging away on the piano. I made up opera on “Evangeline” which was a poem we studied in school by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I made up an opera on “MacBeth” which we studied in school.

I never heard that someone had actually written an opera on that. I made up an opera, which I think would’ve been a good opera, on the play by Aeschylus, “Prometheus Bound.” I don’t know if you’ve ever read it.

It goes back to almost 500 B.C., but it lends itself to an opera.

Stuff like that. But to what I did, I couldn’t write notes or anything. I made up a way of just…I knew what the keys were called, so I could say C plus E minus D plus F or F sharp [laughs] and I would put down the main themes of my operas to remember them. Of course, I have no idea where all that is now.

Scott: What family member do you think you got your musical talents from?

Jerome: Well, the only person I knew in the family who ever played was my mother. But she did the same things as I did, she played mostly by ear. I don’t think she could read notes either.

Scott: You wrote poetry as well. When was the last time you wrote a poem?

Jerome: I think the first semester of college. I wrote a poem. It would be now considered very old‑fashioned. It was in iambic pentameter rather than… Nowadays people don’t rhyme poems anymore but I did it. It’s not rhymed, but it’s definitely in iambic pentameter like Shakespeare and Milton used in their poems, and were in the plays.

I could do that, but when I took it to the poetry club they were all writing TS Elliott kind of stuff, and they just laughed at me, so that was the end of my poetry career.

Scott: Yeah, I know that at the eighth grade your teachers thought you plagiarized a poem because it was so good.

Jerome: Oh yeah that was in the… Seventh or eighth grade. I have written a poem which was in free verse, on Damon and Pythias. A Greek legend about two good friends and then they end up on opposite sides in a battle, something like that. They really like each other. I can’t remember the rest of what happens.

I wrote a poem about that, which I thought was pretty good. I took it to the teacher and he liked it extremely and thought, “This is terrific,” and he took it to the principal of the elementary school and showed it to him. The principal said “Oh come on. He copied this from someone. He couldn’t possibly have written this.”

The teacher became enraged and said “I’ll prove that he can write.” He had me sit in class and he was teaching me. He said, “Have you ever heard of a sonnet?” I said, “No. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said “Well, sonnet is a particular poem with 14 lines” and so on.

He told me what the forms were. Then he had me read sonnets by Keats and Shelley and of course Shakespeare’s sonnets. He stopped the whole class, while I was sitting in class reading over all this stuff and studying it, trying to get the hang of the form, and the class was all muttering and annoyed.

Then they picked up the volume of Shakespeare he has left and looked in the back, just thumbing through it, and in the back they found poems like “The Venus and Adonis” by Shakespeare, or “The Rape Of Lucrece,” which have in those days that was considered very sexy, so the whole class was passing around these poems by Shakespeare laughing.

[laughter]

So they let me alone. They didn’t heckle me and I eventually did write a sonnet which, while I didn’t think it was so great, they thought it proved that I could do that, so the principle was convinced.

Scott: [laughs] That’s such a great story. Can you remember when you first got interested in psychology?

Jerome: Yeah, I knew what a term “psychological” meant, but I didn’t know there was a field called psychology. I never heard of Sigmund Freud. It was only in the first year of college, that was in 1940, Freud had died in 1938, or 39, I don’t remember now, but I never heard of him.

I didn’t read the New York Times and I guess there was an article on the front page when he died but I didn’t know about then, so I had never heard of him. During that first year of college a number of my friends were all excited they have taken a psychology course with a particular professor who later became a good friend of mine, many years later.

Although his work was in a physiological psych, he was very interested in Freudian theories and so on. A lot of these other friends of mine were talking about Freud and Freud’s theories and how interesting it was. Of course you have to think of that again in terms of, the word sex was still something one didn’t really say in public, [laughs] and here was this guy talking all about it, right? I had a read, a basic writings of Sigmund Freud, which is a huge volume in modern library series.

If the series still exist, it may be one of their bestsellers, it always was. When I read that, I got tremendously interested. I took an introductory course in psychology. While the introductory course didn’t really mention Freud, it was a more general introductory course. I really enjoyed it and gave up all my other plans for majors and ended up in psychology. In a sense I never looked back, I really was sold on it.

Scott: What do you think particularly drew you to psychology?

Jerome: Well, I read very widely. I was interested in the characters, in stories and in relationships. They came out in stories or Shakespeare’s plays, things like that. I found that I liked movies that had…rather than shoot‑them‑up movies, I tended to like movies that had some kind of plot line about relationships. I think that was rather natural for me. It also influenced my thoughts about religion a great deal.

I took a course in the history of science, and put that together with Freud’s notion of how the parental figures that we grow up with influence our beliefs about God and that sort of thing. I realized that there’s no way we can prove there’s a God, but what we do know is that people do actually build up God‑like images, based on their parents or other significant figures in their childhood. That’s what I still believe.

Scott: When did you first meet your wife Dorothy?

Jerome: I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. It was about 1948. I came back to New York where my parents lived, for a weekend. It was around Easter time. I decided I would like to buy some records. In those days, they only had vinyl records.

I was in Manhattan and I went to a record shop on Madison Avenue. It was just a record shop. I went in to see if I could find a particular thing I was looking for, which was the “Well‑Tempered Clavichord” by Bach. Which I had heard about, but I only heard a few excerpts of it, and I thought it would be nice to have the whole thing. I found a version of it, played on a harpsichord, by a famous performer.

In those days, the record shops had booths in them where you could go in and listen to the piece of music, if you wanted to buy it. I was looking for an empty booth. They were all filled. Then suddenly, a young woman leaned out of her booth and said, “I’m almost finished in here. If you want, you could come in and wait.”

I came in, and she said, “What are you carrying?” I said, “Bach’s Well‑Tempered Clavichord.” She said, “Well, I’m listening to Bach’s Bluffton Cantata.” That’s how we met. We had a nice chat…

Scott: That’s funny. A lot of other people would be envious of your relationship, which was love‑inspired, as well as science‑collaborative.

Jerome: Yeah.

Scott: When did you guys start scientifically collaborating with each other? How did you two start working together scientifically?

Jerome: Oh. Well, when we first met and then we’re married, I guess, about a year and half later, Dorothy had an interest in Art History, and things of that sort, was considering going into that field, but once we were married, she got interested in psychology, and she began investigating ways in which she could begin to take some psychology courses, or get at least a master’s degree to start with. I was supportive of that.

She went on, even when we had children. She’d already acquired the master’s degree. She got very interested, excited by, research which I also liked, by Kurt Lewin, and other stuff. She continued in that, did well enough with the master’s, so that, even when we had very young children, she was able to get a job doing testing at places for the mornings.

Let’s say, when someone was available to watch the younger children, or when they were in school, in the early days. She became…in the town we lived in, she was the only woman who had anything like a career at that time. Other women then, began to follow that up, once they saw that she could do it. In the meantime, she decided to go back and get her doctorate at Columbia.

Which she did, but she was working more with children and in other areas, and she was teaching. She became, eventually, the Chair of the Psychology Department at Manhattanville College, a sort of posh private college, where all the Kennedy women used to go, in the New York suburbs. We hadn’t ever thought of working together, really. About the time I got the offer to come to Yale, she and I were asked to write an article on personality for the “Annual Review of Psychology.”

We worked together on that, and found that we worked congenially. Then, we began to talk about doing research more on children. I had done a little of that earlier, but my grants were really for adult research. So, we decided we would, on our own, start doing research on children.

At that point, I came to Yale, she became a professor at the University of Bridgeport, but we continued to do the child research through Yale. She had an office with a lab, at Yale and worked with me from about 1970 to ’73 on, and then, we began to get some big grants.

Scott: You mention the researcher that inspired you both was Kurt Lewin.

Jerome: He really started in Germany, during the so‑called Weimar Period, He was a psychologist. He eventually became a professor at the University of Berlin, which was the top university in Germany, had an office down the hall, probably from Einstein, who was there, also. He introduced the whole idea of doing experimental work in Child Psychology, Personality Psychology, and Social Psychology.

Practically all of the research you read about in the journals now, is traceable to the research that he did with his students in the 1920′s.

Including, very good work on imaginativeness. He was one of the first people who took that seriously.

Scott: At the time you met Dorothy what was she doing in her life?

Jerome: At the time I met her…well, when I first met her, she was just finishing college. Then, she worked in advertising for a while. If you could see the show called “Mad Men,” big hit.

You’ll see the kind of atmospheres that she found herself in, which she hated.

Scott: Do you watch “Mad Men”?

Jerome: Yeah.

Scott: What do you think of the “Draper” character?

Jerome: Well, he’s just a made up, mysterious hero.

Scott: Anti‑hero. [laughs]

Jerome:  Yeah. It’s a mixture of men. He represents a lot of the people who were in advertising, and that was one of the reasons, I think, she didn’t like it.

Scott: Your life thus far, has been extremely successful, full of love, close relationships, good colleagues, and fine scholarship. I was wondering if you had any more general reflections of your life so far?

Jerome: Oh, come on. [laughs] I’ve been writing letters to one of my granddaughters, just describing…She was interested in my experiences in World War II, when I was a special agent in the Counterintelligence, in the Pacific Theater during the war, fighting against the Japanese. I’ve been filling up pages with that.

Scott: What do you hope for the future of your children?

Jerome: Right now, I just hope my children continue to prosper in what they’re doing, my sons and their families. I’m more concerned about my granddaughters and their education. They’re all of them, in one way or another, still in college. The youngest is just entering college, is going to Franklin and Marshall, which is in Pennsylvania in Lancaster, you familiar with that?

Scott: I am, yeah.

Jerome: She particularly liked it. They offered her almost a full scholarship, and gave her all kinds of inducements. It was the only school she applied to, and she got in.

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 8:50 pm 12/10/2013

    Imagination is intelligence having fun. This is hate language directed at the diverse. The diverse deserve all boons because they are diverse. Imagine that.

    Link to this

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