What Role Does Fantasy Play in Human Performance?

What Role Does Fantasy Play in Human Performance?

Dreams are strange phenomenon. We can see things that are physically impossible, they can jolt us awake in terror and they can excite us to no end. But what role does the waking dream play in the way we are able achieve results in our lives? I argue that it’s a pivotal one.

You see, daydreaming is something that happens when the mind is unfocused and not being controlled by “executive functions” (the part of you that tells you to pay attention or be on your best behaviour). It tends to happen in the car, shower or any other period when no particular control needs to be placed on your behaviour.

During our daydreams, we go to different places. Now, obviously your body occupies a certain place in time and space but that by no means suggests that your mind is integrated into that function. Our minds and bodies struggle to be integrated together into one coherent functioning being. In those rare moments when they are fully integrated, we find ourselves in an ultra-focused and productive state psychologists call “flow”.

Most of us have had those brief experiences of “flow” whereby we lose track of time and space as we are pulled deeper into the task at hand. Often, our best work is done during these experiences. Scientists studying flow are currently trying to figure out how to trigger flow states reliably in people. However, sports psychologists have been using many techniques for decades to initiate top performance reliably. Perhaps the most reliable tool in their toolbox is visualization which I believe plays a vital role in the initiation of a flow state.

Now, this post is not trying to make a case for the usefulness of visualization, instead, I want to propose a mechanism at play during visualization that may help to trigger that experience of flow. So, what happens when you visualize yourself doing something? What faculties of the brain are you calling forth to execute that ability? The answer is your imagination.

Your imagination is a bizarre ability of the brain to picture something that isn’t happening at present time. Philosophers call this ability the “a priori abstraction”. This is part of our intelligence but also part of the endless mystery of consciousness. The imagination, daydreaming and dreaming all share a same element which is that they can conjure up images of things that aren’t happening to you right now. In the case of dreaming these images are involuntary so you’re pretty much stuck on that joyride until something jolts you to wakeful awareness. For daydreaming, these images are half voluntary half involuntary. It is as if day dreaming happens when you let go of control over your mind and then your head involuntarily gets filled with day dreams. The imagination, conversely, is part of your a priori abstraction that can be used voluntarily and doing so has some pretty interesting utility.

When we typically think about top performance, we think of someone who is fully focused on what they need to do and mentally prepared to do so. But if we drill down on that picture a bit, what does it mean to be fully focused on what you need to do? I argue that when we are performing, our minds are oscillating between imagination and action at a rapid pace. Think about when you experience hunger. Perhaps it manifests in the form of a craving for a particular food. On a mechanistic level, the hunger triggers the imagination of the taste of that food. This is what makes dogs salivate in relation to the smell of foods. Similarly, when we are operating at our best, we are not “thinking” in the traditional sense of working through complex strings of lists and words. Instead, we are conjuring up an image what needs to be done and how you want that thing to be done. Then, the imagination of that outcome creates the desire for that outcome which leads to the generation of motivation followed by action. Usually, this whole process operates on an unconscious level. We don’t tell ourselves to think of what we’d like to do – we kind of just do it.

I once heard a Navy SEAL describe this same idea, albeit, in a more straightforward way. When he was asked how he managed to make it through hell week, he responded, “I just switched off my mind and did what I had to do”. That “switching off” idea intrigued me. Intuitively, we can understand what he was saying but when we stop to think about it – what does that really mean? Obviously, he didn’t actually switch off his mind and he was often engaged in problem solving and intense physical exertion. What I think he meant is that he switched off the part of him that was thinking in words. When you do this, your mind continues to think, but instead of in words, it thinks in images in the form of imagination.

In a previous post, I described (briefly) the evolution of our brains and how the part of our brain that is responsible for our human intelligence is the newest and therefore weakest part of our brains in terms of its ability to command resources and influence the rest of our brains. This is why willpower fails. Willpower is the act of our logical/rational mind trying to force our unconscious, emotional and intuitive mind into alignment through rational justification. The problem is that this part of our brain does not speak our language – in fact, it doesn’t process language at all. This is why willpower often fails. The message we’re trying to send to the most powerful part of our brain that’s responsible for how we feel isn’t going to get through. The result? Willpower drains our resources, leads to stress when low and we end up burning out.

Does this mean that you can’t ever accomplish logical goals you set for yourself? Not at all. What it does mean is that you have to learn how to communicate to your mind so that you have your entire self behind you as you try to accomplish your goals. From my experience, the single best way to do this is not by reminding yourself to visualize before everything you do but to instead work to remove language from your inner dialogue. What tends to happen is that your mind will automatically begin to think in images in relation to what you are trying to do and you’re off to the races.

One caveat to this theory though is that it presupposes that you have something you’re trying to do. If you are trying to figure out what you should do, it is far better to use language. This is true for articulating goals, organizing your schedule and lining up your tasks for the day.

But just how does one turn off the language in their mind? Well often the way people articulate this concept is by telling you to “quiet your mind”. This is basically what you need to do but it’s not exactly right. Quieting your mind often carries with it the implicit instruction to calm down and remove yourself from your experience. This is especially true in meditative exercises. But when you are seeking performance in a given endeavour, withdrawing is not the answer.

The best way to switch off the language in your mind is to stop consuming information for a short period of time. You might put your phone on “do not disturb” and then stare at the wall for 2 minutes to calm your mind down enough so that the droning voice in your head begins to taper off. Information consumption has a lasting effect on your minds ability to rely on imagination. Part of this effect is due to the fact that information consumption in the form of social media, news articles and funny cat videos stops us from experiencing boredom which is a precursor to imaginative activity.

Once you have taken a break from information consumption. Look at your to do list and settle on what you need do. Then, as calmly as you can without allowing your mind to start screaming instructions in one direction or another you “switch off” your mind and get started. Once you do the first 1-3 things in that tasks, you’ll begin to speed up as your mind becomes more engaged with the task at hand and you’re off to the races.

Thanks for reading!