When I was an undergraduate, there was a cartoon posted on the wall of a student computing cluster in Swain East at Indiana University that I really liked. (The room was full of VT100 terminals that we used to connect to the university’s VAXes, just to give you an idea how long ago this was.) In the first panel of the cartoon, a man was sitting at a desk working away with paper and pencil, and a thought balloon over his head was filled with equations. Second panel, same thing. The third panel showed his thought balloon filled with the image of a voluptuous reclining woman, and he was smiling. In the fourth, it was back to the equations. I thought this was hilarious; the value of little mental vacations in the middle of a physics problem set, for example, was obvious.
Some recent research suggests that the type of daydreaming you do could affect your capacity for creative or analytical thought. Groups of subjects were asked to think about either spending quality time with their partner or having casual sex with someone they didn’t love; other groups were subliminally primed to think about either love or sex. Then all the groups were given both creative tasks to complete and questions to answer that tested their analytical thinking skills. Those whose thoughts had turned to romance did better at the tasks requiring creativity, and those who thought about sex were better at the tasks requiring analytical thinking.
This supports the hypothesis that thinking of love broadens the mind’s focus and is associated with seeing the big picture and connecting diverse ideas, whereas thinking of sex appears to be a more concrete, in-the-minute kind of thing that is linked to a focus on details. I’m kind of curious about what happens when you think about sex with someone you love, and I’m not sure I entirely grasp the reasoning behind this hypothesis, but it’s interesting at any rate.
The research is reported briefly in Scientific American. The paper that this article refers to (citation below) is based on construal level theory, which I knew nothing about, so I looked up some information about that. In a nutshell, this theory suggests a link between how distant in space or time a person, thing, or event is from us and how concretely or abstractly we think about it, and predicts the different effects of thinking concretely or abstractly (e.g., the difference in cognitive performance reported here). This Psychlopedia page on construal level theory has a “love versus sex” section that briefly describes the paper; the page also gives some other examples of how the theory is used.
Why Love Has Wings and Sex Has Not: How Reminders of Love and Sex Influence Creative and Analytic Thinking, by Jens Förster, Kai Epstude, and Amina Özelsel. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 35, No. 11, 1479-1491 (2009). (abstract)