When was the last time you talked to yourself? For most of us, talking to ourselves when no one is around is fairly normal. We’ve all sworn after dropping a phone or breaking a nail, we’ve all jumped and shouted at good news. But what if you suddenly begin to catch yourself responding to your thoughts out loud in public when you didn’t mean to? This is less about reacting verbally to a face-palm situation, and more about being so lost in your own thoughts that, for just a moment, you actually forget where you are and whether there are people around you.
For the most part, there’s a pretty obvious line between normal self-talk and plain old crazy, but what we’re talking about here is the grey area in between. We’re talking about daydreaming so hard, your imagination begins to overlap with reality. When you find yourself so lost in thought you start to overlook bus stops, or have trouble remembering the drive home, and react either verbally or physically to your thoughts. This is an extreme kind of “head in the clouds” disorder known as maladaptive daydreaming.
The Alice in Wonderland Disorder
The very idea of daydreaming naturally carries a warm and nostalgic glow about it. Daydreaming, after all, is the stuff our childhoods are made of, the very thing that pulled us through countless hours at school in between recess and the final bell. Daydreaming is an undeniably magical byproduct of an overactive imagination, and it is that very warm and magical quality that makes daydreaming an amazing way of coping with stress and anxiety. You come hardwired with the ability to tap out of reality altogether, and remove yourself from anything scary or traumatic. Maladaptive daydreamers are thus able to quite literally dream their whole life away.
What would happen if you started daydreaming so hard, your imagination began to overlap with reality? When you find yourself so lost in thought you start to overlook bus stops, have trouble remembering the drive home, or reacting verbally to your thoughts.
The brain is wired to reward us for the things that make us feel good and relieve anxiety – it’s the reason we drink or overeat after a breakup. The brain’s natural reward system encourages us to continue to do anything that relieves the tension inside us, even if it means turning to compulsive behaviors like obsessively washing your hands, smoking or biting your nails. If your imagination has the power to relieve your stress in this way, it may very well turn into a compulsive behavior. Studies of maladaptive daydreaming suggest that trauma and abuse are major triggers for this excessive form of daydreaming.
Maladaptive daydreaming causes people to retreat into their own minds so much that their daydreams begin to interfere with reality. This is the proverbial rabbit hole disorder, when the line between what’s real and what isn’t begins to blur. For most “normal” people, the thoughts we have throughout the day largely serve a practical purpose, guiding, instructing and clarifying the information coming through our five senses. For maladaptive daydreamers however, the impressions coming from the internal world get confused with the external world. Thoughts and fantasies becomes as real, and as important, as external reality.
People who are overcome by their daydreams in this way (known as MDers) create a fantasy life that is extremely different from their real lives (if you’ve ever seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you’ll get a really solid idea of what this means). Maladaptive daydreamers tend to create a myriad of characters who play out fantastical scenes that are usually not immediately possible for the MDer in reality. Others simply daydream of a life similar to their own that is accompanied by several improvements, i.e. a better relationship, a better job, more money, less weight.
So how do you know if your daydreams have crossed that line? For one thing, you’ll find yourself missing hours out of your day lost in elaborate fantasies that play out like novels or movies. These self-created narratives can make it extremely difficult to fall asleep. Even when you’re sitting alone, as a maladaptive daydreamer, you may laugh out loud or make facial expressions in response to these internal narratives. Obviously it will look extremely odd to others, but people suffering from this disorder are fully aware of the difference between daydreaming and reality. They’re always able to discern the time they’ve spend daydreaming, and the time they’ve spent in real life – which is the whole point to begin with. Unlike schizophrenia for example, maladaptive daydreaming is a form of self-soothing, it’s something we choose to do, even if subconsciously.
The Power of an Overactive Mind
The concept of maladaptive daydreaming was first coined in 2002 by Dr. Eli Sómer in 2002, an Israeli Professor of Clinical Psychology, but the condition has not yet been recognized by the medical community at large. Which makes you wonder, is maladaptive daydreaming a real disorder? Is this a problem to be corrected or simply part of our unique personalities? Is there a way to control our racing minds, and if so, would I prefer to live without them?
The real challenge to answering these questions is the fact that there are so many undeniably positive aspects of getting stuck in your head. This is especially true in moments of extreme pain or isolation when an overactive imagination would feel like a shelter from the storm. Although it’s true that taken to an extreme, maladaptive daydreaming interferes with regular life, but there’s also no doubt that it has its benefits. MDers are like cognitive bodybuilders, flexing their creativity muscles to the absolute limit.
The term “maladaptive daydreaming” in and of itself suggests a negative tone. Most references to experiencing maladaptive daydreaming refer to the experience as “suffering” from MD. However there are psychological and biological benefits to daydreaming. There is research that suggests that daydreaming can improve your ability to empathize, to create, to retain memory and even boost your spirits. Depending on your disposition, daydreaming could even have the potential to draw toward you situations, people, places and things that you desire. Some would argue that focusing positively on that which you most deeply desire could attract that energy to you, allowing the Universe to work mysteriously to aid you in your quest.
Daydreaming is the stuff our childhoods are made of, the very thing that pulled us through the long hours between recess and the final bell. Daydreaming is an undeniably magical byproduct of an overactive imagination, and it is that very warm and magical quality that makes daydreaming an amazing way of coping with stress and anxiety.
The entire frontal region of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, is solely responsible for creating these kind of mental maps. In fact, it’s this part of the brain that makes us uniquely human. No other animal on the planet has it, making maladaptive daydreaming a uniquely human problem. The prefrontal cortex is the reason we can plan for anything at all – birthday parties, a career change, a wedding, weight loss, you name it. It’s the thing that literally allows us to bring what we imagine into reality. In this way maladaptive daydreaming could help prepare you for certain life situations. Your imagination is able to draw up mental maps and models towards bringing your fantasies to life.
According to a study done by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, the “default mode network,” is an area of the brain wherein brain function and brain structure seem to be at their most agreeable, and is associated with imagination, daydreaming and self-referential thought. Using the largest amount of direct anatomical connections, it seems the brain creates neuronal activity where no external stimuli are present. The brain appears to go into an auto-pilot state in the absence of outer activity. However, the study suggests that these are considered complex tasks for the brain, as if to keep the brain working and improving when its’ attention is not necessary elsewhere.
Maladaptive daydreamers easily lose themselves in elaborate fantasies that play out like movies in their heads. These narratives can be so vivid, maladaptive daydreamers have a hard time turning off their imaginations, even to get some sleep.
This study shows a positive aspect of MD. Extensive daydreaming may prove to strengthen the brain and improve working memory function. However, in the midst of a day packed full of fantasizing and imagining, it can sometimes feel frustrating when you want desperately to concentrate on one subject and find your mind wandering again and again. In what ways can we treat or attempt to correct the overuse of daydreaming, or living in our heads? Some studies have shown that the majority of MDers have experienced some sort of childhood trauma or abuse, leading us to believe that maladaptive daydreaming is a coping mechanism to deal with loss, stress and even daily life. If this is true, we might draw the conclusion that it is a harmless defense mechanism used to help us manage the stress in our lives, perhaps caused by neglect that we felt as children or abuse we may have suffered. How can we consider MD to be a source of harm in this case?
Making Dreams a Reality
One reason maladaptive daydreaming is considered harmful is the aspect of dissociation. Dissociation is an extremely common side-effect of nearly all anxiety disorders. If you’ve ever had that feeling of mentally “tapping out” after a really bad fight with your girl/boyfriend, had a sense of being outside of your body during a particularly stressful time, or suddenly had an eerie feeling like you were watching reality unfold in front of you in 2D, as if on a TV screen, then you’ve felt disassociation.
Another likely negative facet of maladaptive daydreaming is settling for our fantasy life rather than acting on our desires, drives and ambition to bring those fantasies into reality. This is where a clinical approach becomes essential. In other words, if you find that your daydreaming is interfering with your life you’ve got to get some help. The most popular treatment for maladaptive daydreaming (as well as other anxiety disorders) is cognitive behavioral therapy, a way of staving off negative thoughts by replacing them with an equal and opposite positive thought. If every daydream we had was met with an action to bring us closer to our goals, we might find a shift in our consciousness, allowing us the freedom to daydream when we choose, and focus when we need to.
The amount of focus necessary to create elaborate scenarios in your mind is exactly the means by which our minds are strengthened and able to achieve our goals. Daydreaming is thought of as the mind wandering, which is inexplicably linked to laziness. However, as the study carried out by the Max Planck Institute for human development discovered, the means by which our daydreams occur in our brains is one of the most complex systems we have neurologically.
Can we then accept our inner world as part of who we are, allowing our daydreams to flourish and perhaps positively affect our realities? Your fantasies belong to you and they are a part of who you are. There is an incredible power to being able to imagine exactly what you want, where you want it and how. It gives you a creative foundation to concoct real life solutions in your inner world, to plan and prepare for the future you wish to create.
Our daydreams can take us on journeys across space and time, a limitless never ending universe of possibilities. How lovely to be able to step into another world entirely using only the power of imagination. Daydreams can help you feel confident enough to step up to the plate merely because you have imagined doing so in every possible scenario. An athlete will perform better after first visualizing their performance in the mental realm. How then do we deny that mental preparation and fantasizing are not inextricably linked, and useful in allowing oneself to accomplish the task before it has been made available?
Anyone experiencing maladaptive daydreaming can choose to look at the positive effects of their limitless minds. If we can accomplish so much simply in our fantasies, imagine what limits our mind is capable of pushing us toward. By embracing our unique outlook we might just find a vast set of skills awaiting our acknowledgment. By tapping into the creative process via our imaginations we can uncover hidden talents lying dormant within our spirits. If we choose to direct our fantastical energy toward a dazzling reality, we have the potential to create our world as we choose. Some may consider maladaptive daydreaming to be a disorder from which we suffer, but as long as it doesn’t keep you from living your life, your overactive imagination can also be an incredible super power.