Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do I daydream?”
It may seem like a strange question, one that’s no more meaningful than asking, “Why do I breathe air?” or “Why do I sleep?” We commonly take for granted that daydreaming is just something we do – a mere oddity of the human experience.
But perhaps we should re-examine this attitude. When we think about it, how much do we really know about daydreaming? What are the biological causes behind it? Why do we dream the things that we do? Are these images in our minds just a meaningless byproduct of our conscious awareness, or do our brains actually use them for a greater purpose?
As maladaptive daydreamers, we should take an interest in these questions. After all, our fantasies have been our constant companions wherever we go. But often, the most we understand about daydreaming is the way it makes us feel – joyful when we’re doing it, frustrated when we can’t stop.
How ironic it is that the one thing we do so much of is the one thing we know almost nothing about. Yet the price we pay for our ignorance can be more significant than we realize.
Why We Need to Understand Daydreaming
If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.
– Robert Orben
Imagine you have a broken computer. You know that it’s broken because the screen won’t light up and you hear strange noises whenever you turn it on. While you’d like to fix it yourself, you have no repair experience.
Worse still, you’ve never even seen the inside of your computer. You have no idea which part does what, or how to find the source of the problem. It’s possible to guess your way through, and you might make it out OK. But without at least a basic understanding of computers, you can risk making things worse.
In the same way, trying to cure maladaptive daydreaming is like fixing a computer. We know we have a problem, but before we can fix it, we need to know what “normal” looks like. Without a point of reference, we’ll have a hard time finding the solution to our problem.
For this reason, we must understand how daydreaming works in the human mind. Despite what is commonly believed, daydreaming is not a trivial phenomenon. Like any cognitive process, it serves a function in preserving our mental well-being.
In the last article, I discussed how overcoming maladaptive daydreaming requires having the right mindset. A critical part of this is recognizing that your daydreaming can be a tool for personal growth instead of a stumbling block. But to use daydreaming effectively, we must understand how it works and the role it play in our lives.
What Exactly is a Daydream?
Daydreaming, like sleeping, is considered to be an altered state of consciousness – a change from our usual waking state. When we daydream, we block out our surroundings and focus inwardly, entering a fantasy created by our minds. These fantasies can be anything from the mundane (thinking about what to eat for lunch) to the fantastical (imagining what it’s like to have a superpower). The content of daydreams can be highly vivid, enabling us to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste things almost the same way we would in real life.
Daydreams are typically thought of as the reflections of a person’s inner thoughts and feelings, an idea that is not new. In fact, in the late 1800s, Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud proposed that all dreams begin from the unconscious mind, the inaccessible part of the psyche that contains thoughts, feelings, memories, and motivations hidden from a person’s awareness. It is this unconscious mind, he reasoned, that produces dreams which express an individual’s deepest desires. These repressed feelings are disguised in the form of symbols to make it easier for the conscious mind to accept.1
The Science Behind the Fantasy
Although it is tempting to believe that our minds control our daydreaming, the brain is the true mastermind of the show. Like any organ in the body, the brain is never static – it is always growing, repairing, and changing throughout our lives. The intricate connections between our nerve cells can alter from one moment to the next. These day-to-day fluctuations are what determine the daydream fantasies that we have.2
Despite its association with idleness, daydreaming keeps our brains busy. When we allow our minds to wander, we activate specific brain regions in a series of processes known as the default mode network (DMN). Although the DMN is associated with daydreaming, it is also active when we are thinking about ourselves and other people, or when we’re musing about the past or the future.3 Essentially, whenever our minds are not focused on solving a problem or completing a task, the default mode network kicks in.
Through extensive research, scientists have discovered five main reasons why we daydream.
1. Daydreaming Tells Us Who We Are.
If you’ve ever wanted to answer the question, “Who am I?”, then perhaps you need not look further than your own imagination. One reason we fantasize is to better understand ourselves.
Despite it’s association with being stuck in the clouds, daydreaming can help ground us in understanding our place in the world. Through daydreaming, we learn how to distinguish ourselves from other people by reflecting on the personal traits that make us unique. We can also become aware of our own thoughts and feelings, enabling us to judge the health of our emotional state. Daydreaming also gives us access to our memories, whether its about events that have happened recently or many years in the past. All of these abilities help us establish a strong sense of self.4
2. Daydreaming Flexes Our Problem-Solving Muscles.
Struggling to solve a problem? Try daydreaming about it.
When your mind wanders, the action lights up parts of the brain associated with complex-processing. Our brain is able to recall specific information that would have been difficult to access in our normal waking state. This means that we can gain tremendous insights into our problems and think of creative solutions.2
The benefits extend even when we’re not thinking about the problem, especially when it comes to the major concerns in our lives. In fact, according to one University of British Columbia study, the more difficult the issue, the more we benefit from mind wandering.5 So, the next time you’re contemplating your next career move or what college major to choose, use daydreaming to help you arrive at the best decision.
3. Daydreaming Gives Us a Birds-Eye View of a Situation.
The natural creativity that stems from daydreaming gives us the ability to take bits of information and connect them to form a entirely different perspective. This means that your daydreams can help you understand a situation from multiple angles.
This skill is useful if you need clarity in your current circumstances, especially in social contexts. According to Dr. Muireann Irish of the Neuroscience Research Australia, “We can think about the feelings, the intentions and the thoughts that other people may have. We can work through if a colleague seemed dismissive towards us, that maybe it’s nothing to do with us but we can put it into context of extra things that are going on in their lives.”4
4. Daydreaming Provides Relief in Tough Times.
It’s no secret that daydreams possess the profound ability to alleviate boredom. In one study, daydream researcher Eric Klinger of the University of Minnesota found that 75 percent of workers employed in mundane jobs, such as lifeguards and truck drivers, used daydreaming to get themselves through the day.6
But daydreaming helps with more than just muddling through the minor humdrums of life. People also fantasize to cope with traumatic experiences. Research has shown that children often use daydreaming to escape from the pain of their circumstances.7
5. Daydreaming Gives Us A Glimpse Into the Future.
German physicist Albert Einstein is credited for saying, “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” While fantasizing may not make you a clairvoyant, it can still give you a peek into what’s to come.
How? Meditating on short and long term goals, which can range from the next shopping trip to a future life partner, helps the mind to prepare for what’s down the road.
Professor Klinger believes that the brain uses daydreaming as a type of “rehearsal mechanism” in order to anticipate future events.”It’s spontaneous,” he states, “it’s not a deliberate rehearsal, but it plays a role of priming us.”4 In other words, if you’re facing a difficult situation at school or work, imagining possible outcomes can help you expect the unexpected, and respond accordingly.
In essence, our daydreams play a critical role in keeping our minds healthy, yet some of their functions we are still just beginning to understand. Although as maladaptive daydreamers, we’re sometimes frustrated by how intrusive our fantasies can be, it’s also important not to underestimate them. As we’ve just explored, daydreaming is not nearly as unproductive as it seems. In fact, its value may be more far reaching than we realize.
Out of these five reasons for daydreaming, which one shows up the most prominent in your life?
 Strachey, James, ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume I (1886-1899): Pre-Psycho-Analytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts. London: Hogarth, 1956-1974. Print.
 Dell’Amore, Christine. “Five Surprising Facts About Daydreaming.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 16 July 2013. Web. 20 June 2016.
 Buckner RL, Andrews-Hanna JR, Schacter DL. The Brain’s Default Network: Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2008; (1124) :1-38.
 Lewis, Dyani. “Why Do We Daydream?“ ABC Health & Wellbeing. N.p., 5 June 2014. Web. 20 June 2016.
 University of British Columbia. “Brain’s Problem-solving Function At Work When We Daydream.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 May 2009.
 Klinger, Eric. “The Power of Daydreams.” Psychology Today (1987): n. pag. Web.
 Ardino, Vittoria. Post-traumatic Syndromes in Childhood and Adolescence: A Handbook of Research and Practice. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 162. Print.