What Is Daydream?

Daydreaming is the stream of consciousness that detaches from current, external tasks when attention drifts to a more personal and internal direction. This phenomenon is common in people’s daily life shown by a large-scale study in which participants spend 47% of their waking time on average on daydreaming. There are various names of this phenomenon including mind wandering, fantasy, spontaneous thoughts, etc. Daydreaming is the term used by Jerome L. Singer whose research programs laid the foundation for nearly all the subsequent research in this area today. The list of terminologies assigned by researchers today puts challenges on identifying the common features of the phenomenon, in this case daydreaming, and on building collective work among researchers.

There are many types of daydreams, and there is no consistent definition among psychologists. However, the characteristic that is common to all forms of daydreaming meets the criteria for mild dissociation. Also, the impacts of different types of daydreams are not identical. While some are disruptive and deleterious, others may be beneficial in some way.



Society and the negative vs. positive aspects

Daydream by Paul César Helleu

Daydream by Paul César Helleu

In the recent research, identified costs of daydreaming outnumber the potential benefits. Mooneyham and Schooler reviewed studies published from 1995 and found 29 studies related to costs compared to only 6 recent studies arguing functional benefits of daydreaming. Some of the major costs of daydreaming summarized by the review are associated with performances such as reading, sustained attention, mood, etc.

The negative associations of daydreaming on reading performance have been studied the most thoroughly. Research shows that there is a negative correlation between daydreaming frequency and reading comprehension performance. To be specific, there are costs associated with daydreaming during reading and the costs include deficits of item-specific comprehension and model-building ability.

Disruptive daydreams, or spontaneous daydreaming is also characteristic of people with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, and can be viewed in a negative light as children with ADHD tend to have a more difficult time concentrating on their surroundings and being mindful of current tasks.

Negative mood is another association of daydreaming. Research finds people generally report a lower happiness rating when they are daydreaming than when they are not. Even during activities they otherwise would enjoy. For the positive daydreaming, people report the same happiness rating between current tasks and pleasant things they are more likely to daydream about. This finding remains true across all activities. The important relationship between mood and daydreaming from time-lag analysis is that the latter comes first, not the other way round.

For more examples, in the late 19th century, Toni Nelson argued that some daydreams with grandiose fantasies are self-gratifying attempts at “wish fulfillment”. Still in the 1950s, some educational psychologists warned parents not to let their children daydream, for fear that the children may be sucked into “neurosis and even psychosis”.

While the cost of daydreaming is more thoroughly discussed, the associated benefit is understudied. One potential reason is the payoff of daydreaming is usually private and hidden compared to the measurable cost from external goal-directed tasks. It is hard to know and record people’s private thoughts such as personal goals and dreams, so whether daydreaming supports these thoughts is difficult to discuss.

In recent studies, Immordino et al. identified a seemingly hidden but important benefit of daydreaming. They argued that the mind is not idle during daydreaming, though it is at rest when not attentively engaging in external tasks. Rather, during this process, people indulge themselves in and reflect on fantasies, memories, future goals and psychological selves while still being able to control enough attention to keep easy tasks going and monitor the external environment. Thus, the potential benefits are the skills of internal reflection developed in daydreaming to connect emotional implication of daily life experience with personal meaning building process.

Despite the deleterious impact of daydreaming on aptitude tests which most educational institutions put heavy emphasis on, Immrdino et al. argued that it is important for children to get the internal reflection skills from daydreaming. Research shows that children equipped with these skills have higher academic ability and are socially and emotionally better off. Also, when the external environment demands overly high attention from children, it is reasonable to believe these useful skills are underdeveloped.

Functions of daydreaming

Since daydreaming is disruptive in external tasks and its potential benefits are quite private and subtle, it is worth discussing the reason why daydreaming exists and occupies a large amount of people’s waking time.

Mooneyham and Schooler summarized five potential functions daydreaming serves: future thinking, creative thinking, attentional cycling, dishabituation and relief from boredom.

Future thinking, also known as autobiographical thinking, serves as a way to speculate and anticipate future events. Daydreaming can disrupt external activities, but the benefit of future thinking can be paid off later, as it allows better planning and preparation of future goals. People are more likely to have future-focused daydreams than present-focused and past-focused. Daydreaming can be a useful tool to help keep people mindful of their relevant goals, such as imagining future success of a goal to motivate accomplishing a difficult or uninteresting task.

Creative thinking is another function of daydreaming associated with increased creativity. When tackling unsolved problems, the most productive incubation periods in terms of creative solutions are those in undemanding conditions rather than attention-demanding conditions. Moreover, the frequency of daydreaming is the highest during undemanding and easy tasks. Thus, it is reasonable to hypothesize that daydreaming plays an important role in generating creative problem-solving processes. Studies have also found that intentional daydreaming is more effective when focused on creative thought processing, rather than spontaneous or disruptive daydreams.

Attentional cycling is an adaptive function of daydreaming in that it helps to keep people’s behaviors relatively optimal when there are multiple target problems at the same time. When people have many goals, daydreaming provides an opportunity for people to switch among different streams of information and thoughts. Thus, this ability allows people to choose appropriate behaviors to deal with multiple situations.

Dishabituation is beneficial in the situation when the internal response to the external stimulus decreases as the external stimulus repeats during learning process. One research identified this effect in learning and showed that learning is more effective with distributed practices rather than massed practices. Daydreaming can provide the opportunity to allow thoughts to drift away from intensive learning temporarily and to focus again with the refreshed capability to continue focusing on attention-demanding tasks.

Relief from boredom is an obvious and adaptive function of daydreaming. When people are doing boring tasks, daydreaming allows their thoughts to detach from current external tasks to relieve boredom. At the same time, this temporary detachment will not stop external activities completely when these activities are necessary. Also, daydreaming can cause the perception that time moves more quickly.

Daydreaming can also be used to imagine Social Situations. Humans are naturally oriented to be social in behavior and actively seek the approval and company of others. Social daydreaming occurs as past social occurrences and future outcomes of anticipated events and conversations are imagined. According to research, daydreaming and social cognition have strong overlapping similarities when activated portions of the brain are observed These findings indicate that daydreaming is an extension of the brain’s experience of social cognition. This is likely because daydreams are often focused on the mental representations of social events, experiences, and people. It was also observed that a large portion of implicitly occurring daydreams, approximately 71%, were social. According to recent research, it was also found that positive rumination (deep thought) caused increases in the imagining of positive future events, even in depressed people. On the opposite end of the spectrum, negative rumination caused an increase in thoughts of negative future events in depressed individuals but did not cause a significant increase in thoughts of negative future events in those who were not depressed.

Default mode network

Main article: Default mode network

According to several studies, daydreaming appears to be the brain’s default setting when no other external task is occupying its attention. A group of regions in the brain called the default mode network is lit up only when the brain is left in a sort of ‘idle’ state. These areas of the brain light up in sequence only while daydreaming is commencing.

In one study, it was observed that up to 60–80% of brain energy was consumed while the brain was not actively engaged in any external task. In other words, daydreaming consumes as much brain energy as other complex external tasks. Daydreaming is not the only form of ways in which the brain consumes energy due to thought. The human brain consumes over 20% of the energy in the human body. Thus, a two hour chess match may burn over 560 calories, and reading for 30 minutes may burn around 42 calories.

Functional theories

Despite the evidence suggesting daydreaming/ mind wandering involves the disengagement of the mind on a present task, there has yet to be a complete consensus on how the process of mind wandering occurs. Three theories have been devised to explain the occurrences and reasons behind why people daydream. Although each theory is unique, each portrays information that is true and observable. These theories are the distractibility account, executive-function account, and the decoupling account.

The distractibility account theorizes that distracting stimulus, whether internal or external, reflects a failure to disregard or control distractions in the mind. According to this theory, the brain activity increases in response to an increase in attention to mind-wandering and the mind tends to dwell on task unrelated thoughts (TUT’s).

The executive-function account theorizes that the mind fails to correctly process task relevant events. This theory is based on the observation of TUT causes an increase in errors regarding task focused thinking, especially tasks requiring executive control.

The decoupling account suggests that attention becomes removed, or decoupled, from perceptual information involving an external task, and couples to an internal process. In this process, TUT is enhanced as internal thoughts are disengaged from surrounding distractions as the participant ‘tunes out’ the surrounding environment.

Psychological studies

Freudian psychology interpreted daydreaming as expression of the repressed instincts similarly to those revealing themselves in nighttime dreams. Like nighttime dreams, daydreams, also, are an example of wish-fulfillment (based on infantile experiences), and are allowed to surface because of relaxed censorship. He pointed out that, in contrast to nighttime dreams, which are often confusing and incoherent, there seems to be a process of “secondary revision” in fantasies that makes them more lucid, like daydreaming. The state of daydreaming is a kind of liminal state between waking (with the ability to think rationally and logically) and sleeping. They stand in much the same relation to the childhood memories from which they are derived as do some of the Baroque palaces of Rome to the ancient ruins whose pavements and columns have provided the material for the more recent structures.

In the late 1960s, cognitive psychologists Jerome L. Singer of Yale University and John S. Antrobus of the City College of New York, created a daydream questionnaire. The questionnaire, called the Imaginal Processes Inventory (IPI), has been used to investigate daydreams. Psychologists Leonard Giambra and George Huba used the IPI and found that daydreamers’ imaginary images vary in three ways: how vivid or enjoyable the daydreams are, how many guilt- or fear-filled daydreams they have, and how “deeply” into the daydream people go.

Humanistic psychology on other hand, found numerous examples of people in creative or artistic careers, such as composers, novelists and filmmakers, developing new ideas through daydreaming. Similarly, research scientists, mathematicians and artists have developed new ideas by daydreaming about their subject areas.


Daydreaming gentleman in 1912

Daydreaming gentleman in 1912

Daydreaming can also be used to reveal personal aspects about an individual. In an experiment called “the Directed Daydream”(Desoille, Robert, 1965) Desoille had a subject rest on a couch and then invited them to daydream about a series of objects and events. These daydreams can reveal implicit personality traits of the person based on the details imagined. The subjects are asked to imagine a sword or vase first, then to imagine climbing a mountain, and then ascending into space. The subject is then asked to visualize a wizard, a witch, and a dragon. Subjects who imagine more details and sleek objects often see themselves as more useful and hold a belief they are capable of growth. Through the daydream, which can involve many fantastical elements, characteristics such as a fear of men or a desire to subdue a selfish personality trait can be revealed.

Self-reflection is when an individual’s actions or thoughts are replayed or rehearsed in the mind.  Reflective daydreaming can be both beneficial and detrimental. Over focusing on negative experiences from the past and potential negative future events caused an increase in negativity and a temporary reduction in positive mood. Self-reflection can also have anti-depressant effects and an increase in planning for the future, creativity, and positivism. Whether a person will experience a positive or negative response from self-reflection depends on thought content and the individual’s current mood. It is hypothesized that frequent negative reflection is strongly associated with an individual’s feelings of guilt and fear, and a history of poor attention control.

Recent research

Eric Klinger’s research in the 1980s showed that most daydreams are about ordinary, everyday events and help to remind us of mundane tasks. Klinger’s research also showed that over 75% of workers in “boring jobs”, such as lifeguards and truck drivers, use vivid daydreams to “ease the boredom” of their routine tasks. Klinger found that fewer than 5% of the workers’ daydreams involved explicitly sexual thoughts and that violent daydreams were also uncommon.

Israeli high school students who scored high on the Daydreaming Scale of the IPI had more empathy than students who scored low. Some psychologists use the mental imagery created during their clients’ daydreaming to help gain insight into their mental state and make diagnoses.

Other recent research has also shown that daydreaming, much like nighttime dreaming, is a time when the brain consolidates learning. Daydreaming may also help people to sort through problems and achieve success. Research with fMRI shows that brain areas associated with complex problem-solving become activated during daydreaming episodes.

Research by Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett has found that people who experience vivid dream-like mental images reserve the word for these, whereas many other people when they talk about “daydreaming” refer to milder imagery, realistic future planning, review of past memories, or just “spacing out”.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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