Daydream Believer

Today’s NY Times describes research (funded by Eli Lilly of course) that identifies a condition called Sluggish Cognitive Tempo.  SCT is supposedly characterized by “lethargy, daydreaming, and slow mental processing.” The research suggests (no surprise) that drugs might be useful in treating this condition.  The Lilly-funded researchers are publishing papers, giving talks on SCT to professional groups, and even editing the Wikipedia page on the topic.

So, here we have yet another effort by drug companies to find a new nail for one of their chemical hammers.  My worry is that treating daydreamers promises to stifle human creativity, not only in geniuses who (like Albert Einstein) follow daydreams to new realms of insight into the nature of things, but also in ordinary people who use daydreams simply to explore the paths that life offers them in a highly complex world.

Consider how different the spin is in a different newspaper’s account of efforts to drug daydreamers into compliance with a rigid notion of how children should be spending their time.  From the Sydney Morning Herald, August 2, 2010:

The young Albert Einstein was more likely to have been the child staring out of the window in class than the one bent over his books. Einstein, like many great scientists, thinkers and intellectuals, was also a documented daydreamer in the classroom. But what if he had gone to school today? Would he have had the chance to muse on the big scientific questions, or would he have been put on a drug such as Ritalin to aid his concentration?


Today, children’s days tend to be highly structured and daydreaming in school is seen as time wasting and indicative of poor self-control. It is a problem which needs to be labelled and ”fixed”, sometimes medically.

Although this approach is enabling many students to focus, there are fears we may also be dulling creativity – even greatness – in the process. There is mounting research that shows the idle, ”resting” mind is doing everything but resting, perhaps even making us smarter.


Note the list of “symptoms” of SCT:  “lethargy, daydreaming, and slow mental processing.”  The term “daydreaming” often does have a pejorative connotation of distractedness all by itself, but consider how much worse it sounds when paired with “lethargy” and “slow mental processing.”  But if daydreaming actually serves a useful function, and if any effortful cognitive function, including daydreaming, trades off against other things the brain could be doing (e.g. focusing on boring classroom work), then it is necessarily going to be accompanied by the appearance of lethargy and maybe even slow mental processing of the task at hand.  The emphasis is on the wrong problem.  What we need is not treatment of the daydreamers, but treatment of the environment so that people’s daydreams can lead them to happiness and success.



About ethologist

Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University
This entry was posted in Cognitive Science, Education, Evidence they think we're stupid, General, Medicine, Mental health, Science and public discourse. Bookmark the permalink.

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