Welcome to 2024: The only thing you have to lose is your mind

What we’ve learned about how mice daydream, how stress affects us and the science of holding it together

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published January 9, 2024 5:30AM (EST)

Emotional Distress (Getty Images/golubovy)
Emotional Distress (Getty Images/golubovy)

As we’re again shoved face-first into another year of surveillance capitalism, climate change, imperial decline and nuclear tensions, America's mental health epidemic isn’t exactly getting better. In my completely non-expert opinion, I recommend that you take every available opportunity to do the most important thing a person can do in such times: lose your mind. 

I’m not talking about tucking into a tasty psychotic break or indulging in a drug-fueled bender on someone else’s dime (though who am I to judge). I’m not even talking about adopting some stringent 5 a.m. meditation routine and a diet of overpriced whole-grain food. I’m talking about giving your brain some time to screw around without all your guilty productivity-gouging, giving it a break from your constant money-panic and letting it chill in the peaceful abyss of a non-scrollable daydream — even if just for a little while — every single day. 

Daydreaming could be just the thing to save your sanity in all this mess ahead. Even if it’s not, I can hardly think of a better way to reclaim a chunk of your mind meat from the digital addiction dealers of the world. 

“Daydreaming is not a pointless and idle activity. It has great impact on how all the things we have perceived before are organized and made sense of,” writes Cambridge University professor Bence Nanay for Psychology Today. “In the last decade or so, the time we spend daydreaming or mind-wandering has seriously diminished, mainly because of the use of smartphones …. which — if it is true that daydreaming plays an important role in the organization of perceptual stimuli — could have serious consequences for our mental life.”

Cambridge professor Bence Nanay: "In the last decade or so, the time we spend daydreaming or mind-wandering has seriously diminished."

Nanay’s analysis follows recent findings from Harvard Medical School on the fascinating new neuroscience data we’re discovering about daydreaming. Most recently, studies found that when mice daydream, brain activity signals can be seen in the visual cortex that indicate that the critters are replaying an image previously shown to them by scientists. The animals were, essentially, processing what just happened, allowing their tiny nuggets of gray matter to drift along and make sense of these curious humans’ images. 

It may seem a far cry from the human world, but it’s just the latest piece of evidence on daydreaming that’s been mounting steadily across studies of mice and men. 

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“We feel pretty confident that if you never give yourself any awake downtime, you’re not going to have as many of these daydream events, which may be important for brain plasticity,” researchers said, adding that for humans this could mean taking a break from scrolling on a smartphone.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the problem is more than just smartphones. 

In March last year, the Biden administration threw $123 million at community behavioral health clinics to tackle addiction disorders and the sprawling mental health crisis. With one in five adolescents estimated to have a major depressive disorder, the youth mental health crisis alone was enough to make the Biden administration direct another $88 million in August toward school-based mental health programs and overdose prevention. 

The thing about smart people and mental illness is that they tend to think through suffering rather than feel it.

The same month, the Centers for Disease Control marked another 2.6% increase in suicide among Americans in 2022 — accounting for 49,449 deaths — following a 5% increase in 2021. The upticks may seem small, but they amount to a roughly 30% increase since 2000, with a third or more of U.S. adults reporting symptoms of either depression or anxiety, according to the latest numbers. 

Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association recorded a rise in adult mental illness diagnosis from 31% in 2019 to 45% in 2023, U.S. mayors cited the “unprecedented” mental health crisis as their top concern last year, and the disputed link between social media use and mental health got louder and clearer. Amid all this, however, the concern over collective stress and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic loomed — as did more physicians’ worries about the longer-term neurological damage of the inflammatory illness. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic created a collective experience among Americans,” the APA said at the time. “We cannot ignore the fact that we have been significantly changed by the loss of more than one million Americans … To move toward post-traumatic growth, we must first identify and understand the psychological wounds that remain.”

Prone as I am to indulging our audience, it’s not just flattery to suggest that Salon readers, considered as a whole, are likely to be on the sharper side. And the thing about smart people and mental illness is that they tend to think through suffering rather than feel it. There’s always some childhood root cause of the psychodrama (let’s rationalize). There’s always a reason you can tolerate more than other mere mortals (let’s reassure). Besides, someone’s always got it worse somewhere in the world (let’s minimize). 

“The majority of adults also downplayed their stress; 67% said their problems aren’t ‘bad enough’ to be stressed about, knowing that others have it worse,” wrote the APA. 

Oof. They got us, folks. 

But even smart people can’t fool themselves forever. A broken leg is a broken leg — whether it was sustained tripping over the red carpet on awards night, or dodging gunfire in a war zone — and legs are no less prone to breaking for the valor or shame of their injuries. Depression, anxiety, trauma and stress are the same. Your brain hurts no less from them based on whether or not you believe it’s allowed to. So if you’ve been waiting for permission, let me be the first: The suffering Olympics is over, no one wins, and your consolation prize is that you’re allowed to point to where it hurts. 

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Everyone’s cope is going to look different after the last three years of death and hunger. We’re all seeing the stress manifest as breakdowns in different parts of our lives. If you’re Black or Latino, if you’re gay or otherwise not heteronormative, if you have disabilities, if you’re a woman — the APA notes you’re not alone in feeling a heavier burden of chronic stress. And among all groups, money was the biggest stressor. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed pointed to their struggle for basic necessities as a root cause.

My breakdown point, and the place I had to make the most changes for my sanity, was in my work — the thing I love more than myself and slightly less than God. I spent a decade thinking about journalism around the clock, always on call in my desperate bid to stay afloat amid so many sinking industry ships. All I got to show for it was alcoholism and an identity crisis, a lesson learned the hardest way. 

So these days I no longer have a choice: I have to stay out of work-think when I’m off the clock. No brainstorming, no whiteboarding, no mulling over pitches, no books about journalism and — God willing and the creek don’t rise — as little news consumption as humanly possible. Just peaceful dawdling. Just poetic drifting wherever I can steal it. Just me, a purring housecat and the little mice scurrying around in my daydreams.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Salon's Lab Notes, a weekly newsletter from our Science & Health team.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


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