Daydreaming is one of the most common things we do, and also one of the most private – in a survey carried out at the University of Minnesota, 80 per cent of people said they would rather admit to an embarrassing experience than reveal their daydreams.
But is daydreaming a waste of time, as we’re often told, or the doorway to creativity?
According to psychologists, we spend up to half of our mental activity on daydreams. They help us realise our goals, and reveal our innermost hopes, desires and fears. ‘Paradoxical though it sounds, daydreaming is what makes us organised,’says Eric Klinger, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. ‘We think of daydreams as scatterbrained and unfocused, but one of the functions of daydreaming is to keep your life’s agenda in front of you; it reminds you of what’s coming up, it rehearses new situations, plans the future and scans past experiences so you can learn from them.’
As daydreams leap about dramatically, with the average thought lasting just 14 seconds, is there a common content to daydreams? ‘Because daydreams concern our personal goals, there’s no such thing as a classic daydream, they differ with each individual,’ says Klinger. ‘They tend to confirm what people already know about themselves, rather than providing new information. But you need to pay attention to them; daydreaming is a valuable self-to-self channel of communication.’
During daydreams, we are slightly detached from our immediate situation. That can mean we are more receptive to ideas generated within our subconscious. But we shouldn’t take daydreams at face value. Their real meaning is often cryptic and has more to do with ‘trying out’ various courses of action than wanting to be a film star or a neurosurgeon. Although the content of daydreams varies hugely, two common themes are the ‘conquering hero’ and the ‘suffering martyr’.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that men tend towards the former, women towards the latter, because they generally tend to ruminate about emotions more. In a conquering hero plot, the daydreamer is successful or powerful, perhaps a gifted musician or pioneering scientist. It can also be a scenario where a person overcomes a personal fear, such as flying or climbing, and receives glowing feedback from others.
Fantasies of this type reflect a need to be in control and to rise above life’s petty frustrations. The second type is tied up with feelings of being unappreciated and misunderstood, and so the daydreamer imagines situations where other people come to regret their selfishness and acknowledge what a wonderful person the daydreamer really is. Typically this might involve a former lover who finished a relationship begging for a reconciliation, or family members clamouring for forgiveness for having excluded the daydreamer.
‘Escapist daydreaming occurs at times of stress, frustration or boredom, when we feel thwarted in the real world, and so remove ourselves to another, idealised, situation,’ says Cliff Arnall, a psychologist who runs the No Pills practice in Wales. ‘Daydreams that recur, particularly escapist ones, can mean you need to change something in your life. It doesn’t have to be something dramatic; it could just be taking up an activity or hobby, to give you stimulation or the recognition you feel you lack.’ Sometimes the daydream itself can be therapeutic. Like playing a film in our heads, daydreams can change our mood – they can relax or entertain us. Being able to revi-sit a daydream that makes us feel safe or happy can help us endure a situation that may be difficult to change in reality.
We all daydream in different ways. Children and teenagers daydream more than adults. For them, daydreaming is a crucial way of trying out different identities and exploring life’s possibilities in a safe environment. As we get older, our goals are generally more fixed and achievable, so we muse over them less, although we still daydream about the future. Generally, as we get older, we daydream less about sex and romance, or about heroic scenarios. We also have fewer hostile or aggressive daydreams. As for violent daydreams – most of us have them, but it’s estimated that these account for less than one per cent of our thoughts. While some daydream more than others, this doesn’t necessarily indicate a personality that’s detached from reality.
Research by psychologists Steven Lynn and Judith Rhue has found that heavy daydreamers are no less successful or well-adjusted than the less fantasy-prone and, in fact, they may have a slight creative edge over others. Yale psychologist Jerome Singer has found that imaginative children are less aggressive, have more control over their emotions and actions, and have more empathy than other children. Some people, of course, will deny they daydream at all. They tend to be pragmatists, who can do such systematic forward planning in their heads that they don’t classify it as daydreaming, a concept they may regard as frivolous.
Is day dreaming good for you?
Although we’re often told that having our head in the clouds is a waste of time, daydreaming has many benefits. According to Klinger, ‘Daydreams help us to get the most out of our brain power, and are an essential personal resource for coping with life.’ Sounds like something we should all be doing more of. Trevor Baylis, inventor of the clockwork radio: 'Daydreaming allows the mind to come up with ideas and modify them like the most wonderful computer. My radio idea was prompted by a television programme about HIV and AIDS in Africa, which said that disease could only be prevented by the spread of information, but there was no electricity or batteries. I started daydreaming about the way old-fashioned wind-up gramophones worked and it all went from there.'