What’s the difference between healthy daydreaming about one’s meaning in the world and a homeless person who believes that he’s Jesus Christ? As is apparent in the homeless population, there is a line between detrimental mental dissociation from reality and an adaptive ability to check out of painful situations. Mental illness is often at play in the case of homeless individuals. However, what is a “healthy” level of mentally leaving the present to spend time in one’s own mind? And, beyond that, when is it useful for adults to engage in; and, for what intended outcome?
Researchers have recently started trying to answer those questions by studying the healthier side of human imagination—otherwise known as mental simulation. Specifically, a group of social psychologists recently published exciting new findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology delineating the relationship between mental simulation and life meaning.
Mental simulation is a form of self-projection that requires one to mentally transcend the here-and-now to psychologically occupy a different place, time (past or future), event, or hypothetical reality. In other words, mental simulation involves conjuring up the experience of something other than what one is objectively experiencing in the present.
In their article, the authors argued that, in general, individuals process life events that are temporally more distant in different ways than they do events that are closer to the present moment. For example, they use more abstract terms as opposed to using more concrete detail and language for events closer in time. In part, the more abstract examination of one’s past or distant future is in itself a psychological defense mechanism that functions to help people cope with threats to their sense of meaning and purpose in the world.
What’s more, the authors stated that although this link between abstract thought and life meaning has indeed been supported by prior studies, no existing research has tested the notion that mental simulation may impact individuals’ self-reported life meaning. Thus, these scholars set out to test this relationship and fill in the research gap in a series of six studies using various experimental manipulations.
In the first study, researchers used neuro-imaging to examine differential brain stimulation when participants engaged in temporal and spatial mental simulation exercises. The second study used similar imaging while asking individuals to think about their past or future. Results from the second study suggested that mental simulation exercises enhance how meaningful individuals rated their lives. The third study went a step further and demonstrated that when people were asked to think more specifically (versus more generally) about their lives, this also led to increased self-assessments of life meaning.
The final three studies bolstered the results of the first three, and also found that engaging in spatial simulation exercises led to higher self-reported levels of life meaning in individuals compared to participants who did not engage in these mental exercises.
Taken as a whole, the researchers preliminary concluded that mental simulation benefits psychological well-being. And I will add the caveat that mentally exiting the present can be useful within reason. The take-away being that when daydreaming, you should stay long enough to reap the benefits of looking at a past well-lived and a future well-planned, but stop before you convince yourself that you’re the son of God.
Waytz A, Hershfield HE and Tamir DI. Mental simulation and meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015); 108: 336–355.