May 22, 2016

Everyone daydreams sometimes, but obsessive daydreaming is a psychological disorder recently identified by an international team of scientists.

Researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel, Fordham University in New York City and University of Lausanne, Switzerland, published studies in several leading journals showing that people with maladaptive daydreaming disorder spend an average of 60 percent of their waking time in an imaginary world of their own creation, without losing contact with the real world.

“Daydreaming usually starts as a small fantasy that makes people feel good, but over time the process becomes addictive until it takes over their lives,” said Prof. Eli Somer of the University of Haifa, the first to identify and name the phenomenon.

“At this stage the disorder is accompanied by feelings of shame and a sense of lack of fulfillment, but because till now the disorder has been unknown, when they come to receive treatment, therapists usually dismissed their complaints,” said Somer.

Prof. Eli Somer. Photo courtesy of University of Haifa
Prof. Eli Somer. Photo courtesy of University of Haifa

Scientists never before examined the pathological aspects of the normal mental activities of wandering thoughts, fantasies and daydreams.

In 2002, when Somer was treating adults who had been sexually abused as children, six of the survivors said they used to escape regularly into an imaginary world where they felt empowered by traits and life experiences they didn’t actually possess in real life.

He published a paper about it at that time, did not investigate further until seeing the results of a 2011 study by Jayne Bigelsen and Cynthia Schupak from Fordham, which showed excessive daydreaming is also reported by many people who did not experienced childhood trauma.

Somer then collaborated on two qualitative studies with Prof. Daniela Jopp from the University of Lausanne and Liora Somer from the Multidisciplinary Center for the Treatment of Victims of Sexual Abuse at the B’nai Zion Medical Center in Haifa.

Their interviews with dozens of individuals revealed recurring themes. For example, although maladaptive daydreaming started as a positive experience providing pleasure and relaxation, it quickly developed into an addictive habit that took over lives and impaired everyday functioning.

“Maladaptive daydreaming naturally necessitates isolation from others and is almost always accompanied by repetitive body motions, such as pacing or rocking. About a quarter of these individuals had endured childhood trauma and many suffered from social anxiety,” said Somer.

Obsessive imaginings

He and Jopp were recently joined by Fordham University’s Bigelsen and Jonathan Lehrfeld in publishing two extensive studies in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. They also published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease and the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation

The first study reported the development and validation of a maladaptive daydreaming scale (MDS) that differentiates between normal and maladaptive daydreaming and offers the first diagnostic and research instrument for the newly discovered disorder.

The second study involved 340 participants from ages 13 to 78 from 45 countries. The data showed that individuals affected by the disorder spent about 60% of their waking time in daydreaming, and more than half said that the disorder disrupted their sleep and that the first thing they are aware of when they wake up in the morning is their urge to daydream.

Respondents reported having rich fantasy worlds with complex storylines. They tended to daydream significantly more about fictional tales and characters. In contrast, daydreaming among the control group was usually anchored in reality, such as the desire to earn more money or find an attractive partner.

“One woman told us about the 35 characters ‘starring’ in the plots she imagines in her mind. She related how these characters have been with her since childhood, and she doesn’t recall a moment when her mind was clear of them,” said Bigelman.

“Another woman told of how for 30 years she has continued imagining in her mind the plot of a series that she saw when she was 10 years old, but the plot is constantly changing and evolving. She related that there were entire days in which all her time was spent imagining, and how she even fought off sleep so that she could continue imagining.”

Almost all of the subjects developed a love/hate relationship with their fantasy world, and 97% reported different levels of distress as a result.

“When people spend about 60% of their waking time daydreaming, it’s no wonder that they feel frustrated that they can’t achieve their goals in life. The next step in our research should focus on developing an effective treatment for sufferers,” Somer concluded.

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Jason Harris

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