Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

Is Daydreaming Pathological?

Recent research reexamines the link between fantasy and psychopathology.

Daydreaming has a bad reputation. At best, daydreamers are considered lazy. At worst, they are treated as pathological. Sigmund Freud called daydreamers infantile and neurotic. Educational psychology textbooks in the 60's warned teachers that their student's daydreams could lead to psychosis. Research doesn't help, showing that people who are prone to fantasy do tend to also have psychopathology.

Reexaming the issue, Eric Klinger and his colleagues adminstered a bunch of tests including a commonly administered measure of "fantasy-proness" (The Inventory of Childhood Memories and Imaginings or ICMI for short), daydreaming style, abnormal perceptual experiences, and the existence of mental illness.

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Turns out, the main measure of "fantasy-proness" that has been used in prior studies on this topic is not actually measuring a single dimension, but instead consists of multiple dimensions. The first component reflects vivid, compelling mental imagery, weakened boundaries between fantasy and reality, and parapsychological beliefs. This component was indeed correlated (although weakly) with nearly ever kind of psychopathological.

The second component, however, was mostly unrelated to psychopathology. Guess what this component was? Enjoyment of imagination and daydreaming. As the researchers note, "fantasy-proneness" is a misleading label for the most widely administered measure (the ICMI) used to investigate the link between fantasy and psychopathology.

They also found that personality plays a role:

"There are different styles of daydreaming or fantasy that reflect the personalities of the respective daydreamers. People who daydream more than others but in a largely positive way with ample positive affect are unlikely to exhibit more psychopathology than those who daydream little, whereas people whose daydreams are characterized by frequent negative affect are somewhat likelier to display psychopathological tendences."

For nearly his entire career, Jerome L. Singer has argued for the normality, universality, and adaptive value of what he calls "Positive-Constructive Daydreaming". In future research, hopefully researchers can avoid their bias against daydreaming and imagination. In society, we should all appreciate the importance of Positive-Constructive Daydreaming for creativity, imagination, and many of the things that make life meaningful.

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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Image: Daydreaming Painting by Sue Darius.

Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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