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.[1] 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.[2]

There are many types of daydreams, and there is no consistent definition amongst psychologists. However, the characteristic that is common to all forms of daydreaming meets the criteria for mild dissociation.[3] Also, the impacts of different types of daydreams are not identical. While some are disruptive and deleterious, others may be beneficial in some way.[4]

Society and the negative vs. positive aspects

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.[4]

The negative effects 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.[4]

Negative mood is another consequence of daydreaming. Research finds people generally report to be less happy when they are daydreaming than when they are not even the activities they otherwise do are the least enjoyed by them. 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.[4]

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".[3]

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's 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.[2]

In recent studies, Immordino et al. identified a seemingly hidden but important benefits of daydreaming. They argued that mind is not idle during daydreaming though it's 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.[5]

Despite the deleterious impact of daydreaming on aptitude tests which most educational institutions put heavy emphasis on, Immrdino et al. argued that it's actually important for children to get the internal reflection skills from daydreaming. Research shows that children quipped with theses skills have higher academic ability and are socioemotionally better off. Also, when the external environment demands overly high attention from children, it's reasonable to believe these useful skills are underdeveloped.[5]

Functions of daydreaming

Since daydreaming is disruptive in external tasks and its potential benefits are quite private and subtle, it's 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. Though it's costly for current external activities performances, the benefit will be paid off later since future thinking allows better plan and preparation of the future goals. Actually people are more likely to have future-focused daydreams than present-focused and past-focused ones.[4]

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.[6] Moreover, the frequency of daydreaming is the highest during undemanding easy tasks.[7] Thus, it's reasonable to hypothesize that daydreaming plays an important role in generating creative problem-solving process.[4]

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 goals situations.[4]

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 massive practices.[8] 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 attention-demanding tasks.[4]

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 make the time doing boring tasks go faster in people's perception.[4]

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-fulfilment (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.[9]

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.[3]

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 and mathematicians have developed new ideas by daydreaming about their subject areas.

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.[3]

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.[10][11]

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.[12][13]

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".[14][15][16]

See also


  1. Gilbert, Daniel T.; Killingsworth, Matthew A. (2010-11-12). "A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind" (PDF). Science. 330 (6006): 932. Bibcode:2010Sci...330..932K. doi:10.1126/science.1192439. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 21071660.
  2. Singer, Jerome L.; Kaufman, Scott Barry; McMillan, Rebecca (2013). "Ode to positive constructive daydreaming". Frontiers in Psychology. 4: 626. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00626. ISSN 1664-1078. PMC 3779797. PMID 24065936.
  3. Klinger, Eric (October 1987). Psychology Today.
  4. Mooneyham, Benjamin W.; Schooler, Jonathan W. (March 2013). "The costs and benefits of mind-wandering: a review". Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology. 67 (1): 11–18. doi:10.1037/a0031569. ISSN 1878-7290. PMID 23458547.
  5. Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen; Christodoulou, Joanna A.; Singh, Vanessa (July 2012). "Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain's Default Mode for Human Development and Education". Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science. 7 (4): 352–364. doi:10.1177/1745691612447308. ISSN 1745-6916. PMID 26168472.
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  7. Smallwood, Jonathan; Schooler, Jonathan W. (November 2006). "The restless mind". Psychological Bulletin. 132 (6): 946–958. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.946. ISSN 1939-1455. PMID 17073528.
  8. Underwood, Benton J.; Ekstrand, Bruce R. (1967). "Effect of distributed practice on paired-associate learning". Journal of Experimental Psychology. 73 (4, Pt.2): 1–21. doi:10.1037/h0024341. ISSN 0022-1015.
  9. Strachey, J. (1953). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume V (1900-1901): The Interpretation of Dreams (Second Part) and On Dreams. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis. p. 492.
  10. D. Vaitl, J. Gruzelier, D. Lehmann et al., "Psychobiology of Altered States of Consciousness," Psychological Bulletin, vol. 131, no. 1, 2005, pp. 98–127.
  11. Warren, Jeff (2007). "The Daydream". The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness. Toronto: Random House Canada. ISBN 978-0-679-31408-0.
  12. "Brain's Problem-solving Function At Work When We Daydream". ScienceDaily. 2009-05-12. Retrieved 2009-05-19.
  13. Christoff, Kalina; Alan M. Gordon; Jonathan Smallwood; Rachelle Smith; Jonathan W. Schooler (2009-05-11). "Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106 (21): 8719–24. doi:10.1073/pnas.0900234106. PMC 2689035. PMID 19433790.
  14. Barrett, D. L. (1979). "The Hypnotic Dream: Its Content in Comparison to Nocturnal Dreams and Waking Fantasy". Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 88: 584–591. doi:10.1037/0021-843x.88.5.584.
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