Daydreaming has a dark side – is your fantasising holding you back?

Mind wandering can boost creativity and memory, but it can also damage your mental health. Now we are learning to recognise the dangers of maladaptive daydreaming

Mind 26 July 2022

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Patryk Hardziej

JAYNE BIGELSEN was always a daydreamer. As a young child, TV fuelled her imagination. “I would watch certain shows over and over… and I would create my own episodes,” she says. She found daydreaming an effective way to dispel boredom. However, by her teens, Bigelsen’s fantasy world had become more all-consuming. “The first thing I would do when I woke up in the morning is continue one of my stories,” she says. “I remember being frustrated when I ran into a friend because I had to stop my story and talk to them.”

Everyone knows the pleasures of daydreaming. Whether envisioning your next vacation or an ideal romantic partner, it is enjoyable to let your mind drift into a stream of consciousness where aspirations come alive. Better yet, research shows that, far from being a waste of time, daydreaming has all sorts of benefits and is particularly important for developing brains. That’s just as well, because we spend lots of time doing it. Two-thirds of children have imaginary friends. One in 10 invent fantasy worlds, or “paracosms”. And when psychologists tracked the mental states of 15,000 volunteers, they found that adults spend around half their waking hours daydreaming.

Nevertheless, you can have too much of a good thing. As Bigelsen discovered, excessive daydreaming can undermine one’s ability to cope with everyday life. Psychologists call this maladaptive daydreaming. They believe it can be addictive and its prevalence increased during the covid-19 pandemic. Much about this condition remains a mystery, but we are starting to discover who is prone to it, what causes it and how it can be …

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