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What is Daydreaming in Psychology? - Definition & Disorder

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  • 0:01 Altered Consciousness
  • 1:31 What Causes Daydreaming?
  • 3:24 Effects of Daydreaming
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lawrence Jones

Lawrence "LoJo" Jones teaches Psychology, Sociology, Ethics and Critical Thinking

We all experience altered states of consciousness throughout our lives. The most common everyday altered state of consciousness is the act of daydreaming, which may actually be a healthy thing you can do for your mind.

Altered Consciousness

Have you ever fantasized about being the hero or heroine of your own story? When bored, does your mind wander off into fields of fancy filled with imagery and experiences you can't possibly have in real life? Do you take a break from the everyday life around you in order to plan for your future? If you have, then you are as normal as all other human beings. We all daydream.

Daydreams are the most common form of altered consciousness. Consciousness is simply our level of awareness of what's going on around us and in us at all times. It is a level of our alertness. However, our levels of consciousness are often changing throughout the day, most often without us even having a choice in the matter. The brain likes to do things on its own quite often.

Sleeping is an altered state of this alertness, and thus an altered state of consciousness. Whenever we enjoy an alcoholic beverage—yes, even just one—we have altered our consciousness. If we are addicted to nicotine in any of its forms (smoking, chew, vaporizing), we are altering our perceptions, and thus our consciousness, each time we use it or any mind-altering drug, for that matter.

It is our daydreams, though, that enable us to quickly move into an altered state at almost any time. As a matter of fact, we can quickly shift from alert consciousness to wandering daydream in the blink of an eye. All we have to do is remove some of our alert attention from the outside world and sail away into daydream and fantasy.

What Causes Daydreaming?

Psychology has many ways of defining human experience. When we developed the proper tools for imaging the brain while it functioned, scientists discovered that certain parts of the brain kicked in when the subject of the experiment was not focused, or concentrating, on the tasks required. It didn't take long for it to be recognized that certain parts of the brain (limbic system, frontal cortex, and sensory cortexes) lit up like holiday lights when the subject was allowed time to let his mind wander. In other words, scientists identified the default network that kicks in when the brain is not required to focus and concentrate on a task. This allows us to focus on internal factors such as planning and escaping pressures and stress.

So daydreaming has a biological component, as psychological elements seem to do, but there is also the mental component that defines it. Daydreams are not typically a complete exclusion from the outside world but are a focus inward on our thoughts and imagined experiences. They are an altered state of alertness/consciousness that takes us away from pressures and stress; some would call this escapism. Studies have determined that prisoners in penitentiaries and jails often use daydreaming as a means to retreat from the reality of prison life. Sometimes they do this willfully, and at other times, the mind just seems to want to wander away from reality all on its own.

Daydreams can incorporate sensory information as well. We can imagine how food smells and tastes, the sounds of our favorite band, or images of whatever fantasy we find suitable to the purpose of the daydream. A psychological term for this effect of detachment, of turning away from reality in favor of a daydream, is dissociation. Well-known psychologist Sigmund Freud referred to daydreams as a tool to experience repressed desires and instincts that weren't acceptable in our waking world.

Effects of Daydreaming

While there are those who may become fantasy prone, unable to stay away from the temptations of daydreams and fantasies to the detriment of regular life, the overwhelming majority of us find daydreaming a normal, relaxing, and actually helpful part of our mental life. To be fantasy prone is to be trapped in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty and find ourselves constantly losing track of what we were doing and what we should be doing. The attraction of being able to immerse ourselves in fantasy becomes so strong that real life concerns and issues become ignored and more stressful, thus encouraging us to escape more and more until real life falls apart in a shamble. Many have worried that immersive virtual realities such as those found in games like 'The Sims,' 'Second Life,' and 'World of Warcraft' may be detrimental to those who are by nature fantasy prone.

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