While it may seem like fiction, mental time travel into the past and future is as real as the dreams we dare to dream by day. And it’s perfectly normal. But there’s a growing movement claiming daydreams are dysfunctional. Beware!
He often was found daydreaming in school, was very forgetful, had problems with social interaction and exhibited repetitive patterns of behavior. A loner, he repeated sentences, hated the strict protocols and rote learning demanded by teachers, but would become a very good musician. Were he a student today he might be diagnosed with ADHD or autism.
Later he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” emphasizing, “knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
In what may have started with a daydream, he theorized the existence of gravitational waves emanating from black holes in space. He was not able to actually detect them, but instead used his brain to translate mental representations, and express it through mathematical equations to come up with a solid scientific explanation.
Scientists have only recently announced they’ve actually detected gravitational waves from two merging black holes in space far, far away, confirming Albert Einstein’s century-old General Theory of Relativity.
I Had a Dream
Daydreaming. No doubt Einstein did it often. Michelangelo too. And most others who have contributed original ideas, discoveries and just didn’t follow the herd in their process of seeking the truth.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud first introduced his theory of the unconscious with respect to nighttime dream interpretation in his 1899 book, The Interpretation of Dreams.
What distinguishes our mental state as conscious and unconscious (subconscious)? It’s complicated. Simply put, we’re conscious if we know we are in it; unconscious if we don’t. It has to do with awareness.
Becoming aware of ourselves and our surroundings (near and far) is an important feature of a healthy brain, something that evolves with experience and intellect, including when we draw thoughts out of our subconscious inner self to become rationally aware of them, and express them through self-ascription. It’s self-knowledge, the best kind. This is a goal of psychoanalysis and other talk therapies, as well as meditation, psychedelics, and other means of self-knowledge. It also could include daydreaming.
Philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that self-knowledge is a matter of getting acquainted with and listening to our inner self — one or typically more of these “crazy quasi people” who share our brains. In a sense, we agree to disagree with ourselves as is often the case. Most importantly, we consciously learn something from the process, and ultimately alter our behavior for the better. This distinguishes a healthy brain from a seriously dysfunctional or mentally ill one. The latter can often lead to unhealthy actions.
Daydreaming may be an important mechanism for this process. Here, we can converse with the other person(s) within, and expand our minds.
As a desirable human trait, daydreaming helped us survive for thousands of generations, a common thread to our unique, favorable features of being highly creative creatures. We daydream naturally from the earliest age, probably even before birth. As young children, we do it so well we get lost in our minds for hours (unless interfered by screen time).
We get really good at it. It helps us multitask, like viewing a great movie inside us. We daydream stories, games, and journeys that lead to philosophy, inventions, music, paintings and multibillion dollar businesses. It’s no surprise that young students who struggle in school can become successful because they’re highly creative adults schooled through daydreams.
Scientists say we spend 30-50 percent of our daydreaming. These daydreams are often stories social in nature, which may help regulate healthy emotions, increase positive feelings towards ourselves and those in our daydreams; yes, we often dream about each other.
Unfortunately, when entering school, children find daydreaming is disdained. Instead, they must pay attention to single details rather than the big picture, memorize, and, when minds wander off, it’s grounds for scolding (focusing on topics is, at times, very important; it’s all about balance). Yet, creative curriculums such as music and art are the first ones trashed by budget cuts.
The notion that daydreaming is dangerous is dysfunctional itself. Don’t look now but the concept of maladaptive daydreaming is about to hit the mental health world in a way that multitudes of people will mistakenly embrace. It is defined as daydreaming so intense it distracts a person from their real life.
Daydreaming could get a very bad name, as conversing within ourselves will equate to turmoil and failure rather than productivity.
Like a nightmare, maladaptive daydreaming is a daymare, a terrifying experience found in a very small number of unhealthy patients. Clearly, a dysfunctional brain is at the heart of abnormal daydreaming — depression, dysphoria, anxiety or other symptoms of mental illness could lead to unhealthy daydreams that no longer serve adaptive functions. Brain dysfunction, then, is the cause, maladaptive daydreaming the symptom. No doubt these patients require treatment, but stopping their daydreams is probably not one of them. We could say that daydreaming, not unlike mental imagery, could actually serve as an important therapy in these patients when properly guided.
Unfortunately, a mass focus on maladaptive dreamers could lead to millions of people with healthy brains to feel maladapted, which is not the case. There’s the potential of requiring medication or other treatments, not unlike the movement that put millions on ADHD meds.
It’s worth warning about this trend now.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Daydreaming
If there is maladaptive daydreaming, there must be adaptive daydreaming — in other words, what humans have been doing from the beginning.
If some of us daydream a lot, use it to create good things, then it’s not a condition, it’s a normal human brain activity. Conversely, those with brain dysfunction may interpret or drive their daydreams in an unhealthy way, so it’s not the dreaming that’s the disorder.
Yes, a mind really is a terrible thing to waste without healthy daydreaming. And if we can’t adapt a healthy, daydreaming brain to a distorted society, who’s to blame?
Like most dysfunction, unhealthy daydreaming happens when we feed our brain bad food, toxic chemicals, and harmful sensory inputs. Instead, a healthy lifestyle, including a variety of sensory inputs such as sounds (music), visions (art), tastes, smells and touch should be everyday habits. The alternative is garbage in, garbage out.
We’re meant to dream, so keep on dreaming on. And we belong in each other’s dreams. As Bob Dylan said, “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.”
Klinger E, Cox WM. Dimensions of thought flow in everyday life. Imagination, Cognition and Personality. 1987; 7:105-128
Mar RA, et al. How daydreaming relates to life satisfaction, loneliness, and social support: The importance of gender and daydream content. Conscious Cogn. 2012; 21: 401-407.
Richard Rorty, “Freud and Moral Reflection” in Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Finkelstein, DH. On the distinction between conscious and unconscious states of mind. American Philosophical Quarterly. 1999; 36(2): 79-100.
Somer E. Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry. J Contemporary Psychotherapy. 2002; 32(2/3): 197-212.
Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science. 2010; 330: 932.