Daydreaming is normal. Most of us spend between 10 and 15 percent of our days lost in fantasy. But some undetermined sliver of people spend more than half their time playing out the imagined scenarios in their heads. An all-consuming drive to daydream is known as "maladaptive daydreaming," or MD. As of now, MD isn't a diagnosable disorder. It's an informal condition that became a "thing" through online forums, where escapism junkies came together. One such forum visitor was Jayne Bigelsen, a lawyer who subsequently became an MD researcher and research subject, and wrote about her work and experience for The Atlantic in 2015.
Without any formal criteria for exploring MD, a handful of researchers including Bigelsen have collected and dissected the experiences of self-identified MD-ers and come up with a blueprint for the condition. One behavior common among MD-ers, according to a study published earlier this year, is foregoing sleep to daydream. Nearly half of study participants said they couldn't stop daydreaming long enough to catch a good night's rest. "We do know that MD can become so compulsive," said Bigelsen, "that it interferes with overall life functioning and things that they should be doing in their daily life to keep them healthy, including sleep."
Eli Somer, an Israeli psychologist, first recognized MD in 2002, defining the squishy, internet-born term as "extensive fanstasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal or vocational functioning." The "fantasy" element is crucial, as a means of distinguishing daydreaming from types of spacing out that don't involve a narrative. Initially, Somer proposed MD as a possible coping mechanism for childhood trauma. But trauma hasn't surfaced in enough cases to uphold the hypothesis.
The 2016 study, which involved 340 self-identified MD-ers and 107 other people, showed how ordinary daydreaming and MD differ in scope and nature. MD-ers reported most often fantasizing about relationships with celebrities (and non-famous people) and idealized versions of themselves. MD fantasies also tended to feature elaborate plots and recurring characters; historical and fictional figures showed up in more than 70 percent of their daydreams. By comparison, ordinary daydreamers were unlikely to visit bygone centuries or fictional lands. Instead, they described daydreams as simpler instances of wish-fulfillment. So, ordinary daydreamers might fantasize about getting the promotion or second date they've been vying for, whereas MD-ers might envision themselves winning the gold medal in wizardry or finding lifelong bliss with Zack Morris.
Powerless against the urge to daydream, MD-ers slip into fantasies when they should be working, socializing, catching the right bus — vehicles emerged as a bastion for daydreaming — or sleeping. Amost 50 percent of participants reported sacrificing sleep to "daydream all day including at night, thereby compromising quality of sleep (and in the long-run their health)," ast study authors wrote. "Over half of the MDers reported a strong urge to immediately start daydreaming upon waking up or to immediately return to a daydream after being interrupted by an event in the real world."
For example, one participant wrote:
My daydreams are based on a TV show I saw when I was 10. Imagine a television show that kept getting renewed year after year for 30 years. Think of all the experiences you would have watched the characters go through. That is what my mind has been doing for over 30 years...There have been times I have been caught up in the daydream for entire days. Many nights, I force myself to stay awake and get no sleep so that I can have my ‘daydreaming’ time.
Is putting off sleep to daydream a quirk to note in passing, or could it be a hallmark feature of what researchers regard as an under-researched and distinct disorder? Bigelsen isn't sure how MD and sleep interplay, as she explained over email, noting that sleep isn't her area of expertise. But, she did offer two different examples of how people daydream by night. "I know some people who have these elaborate fantasies who don't consider themselves to have MD because they can control it," says Bigelsen, "who actually use the daydreams to help them go to sleep and will enter their fantasy worlds before bed and it will relax them so they can sleep. That would be a healthy way to daydream."
People with MD, however, can't control daydreaming enough to use the habit as a sleep aid. "For those with MD, the daydreams go on continuously and keep them awake," Bigelsen said. "And when they wake up briefly in the middle of the night, their mind immediately reverts to their daydream worlds and keeps them up further. It leads to those with MD often being exhausted."
The latest research says that deep sleep and REM sleep play vital roles in memory processing and creative problem-solving. Studies may hammer home the benefits of mindfulness, mind-wandering and other betwixt stages of consciousness, but daydreaming cannot replace sleeping or dreaming. We need to nod off, not just wander off, to lock in experiences in information. At this point, it's not clear whether or not MD is something to treat. MD-ers don't appear to confuse reality and fantasy, but they do exhibit obsessive behavior and symptoms of attention-deficiencies. And then there's the sleep loss, which may merit treatment on its own, or as part of another disorder.
MD could mature into a real disorder or remain an affliction that lives in online support groups and academic footnotes. Either way, MD-ers don't need an MD diagnosis to address associated sleeplessness. The 2016 study found that, while MD-ers reported feeling powerless over their condition, they also reported some ability to temper daydreaming tendencies in the presence of other people. And a treatment method like CBT-i, which combats insomnia by improving bedtime behavior and correcting "disordered" beliefs around the genesis and proliferation of sleep struggles, might help someone with MD challenge notions of powerlessness.