Scientists have long been conflicted on the meaning and value of daydreams. Sigmund Freud considered daydreams infantile, the consolation of the frustrated and the unfulfilled. “A happy person never fantasizes,” Freud wrote with his customary authority, “only an unsatisfied one.”
In the 1950s, educational psychologists saw daydreams as an obstacle to development and urged parents to be vigilant against any tendency in their children to drift off. In an era that often relied on rote education, daydreaming was seen as a waste of time at best and a possible gateway to neurosis and psychosis at worst.
More recently, though, psychologists have begun to celebrate daydreaming as a sign of creativity, a trait to be encouraged. The late Yale psychologist Jerome Singer coined the term “positive constructive daydreaming” to describe what he saw as the benefits of active mental wandering. In Singer’s view, daydreaming children were exploring the virgin territory of their own minds, and the rewards included enhanced self-awareness, creative improvisation, memory consolidation, and even greater compassion.
Singer provided some of the earliest evidence connecting frequency of daydreaming to measures of creativity and storytelling activity. This was daydreaming as psychological exercise, a run around the mental park to keep limber.
Singer wrote charmingly about his own daydreaming and believed it provided a valuable outlet when he was bored or uncomfortable — including, as he described in his 1976 book, Daydreaming and Fantasy, “blocking out rock-and-roll music when I have been a captive audience.” He had a recurring childhood fantasy of an alter ego he called “Singer the Composer,” a great musician who wrote operas and symphonies. I can relate — I had a fantasy life running for years that had me responsible for every grunge album of the 1990s, which now feels as embarrassing as it reads. Although Singer at least could actually play piano and even wrote operas using a musical notation system of his own devising. My musical experience ended, with total finality, in the middle school jazz band.
Left to our default mode, we ruminate, we worry, we fantasize about the future and replay the past.
The old Freudian view of daydreams seems absurd now, like so much else of Freud’s psychology. You can point to recent studies, like one in Psychological Science by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science that suggests daydreaming is correlated with higher levels of working memory — the ability of the brain to recall information despite distractions. (Take Singer’s view too far, though, and you end up with daydreaming as life-hacking, complete with stories like “This Is the Correct Way to Daydream, According to a Harvard Psychiatrist.”)
I can see how a wandering mind can be a more creative one, but that doesn’t quite capture what daydreaming was or meant to me as a child. And I mean daydreaming as separate from fantasizing. My fantasies — like the one about being a rock star — acted as a negative image of my real life. Where I felt weak, there I was strong. Where I was isolated, there I could populate a city of steadfast friends. If I experienced rejection — and rejection to me was never a sting, as it’s often described, but a hard slap across the face — there I could manufacture solace through fantasies of success or revenge. But those fantasies were just my attempt to rewrite life, an early example perhaps that I would end up as a writer, and a nonfiction one at that: Whole-cloth invention was never my thing.
And invariably I failed, because there is no rewriting life, which was a lesson I would learn repeatedly.
But daydreams were something different, less voluntary, more reactive. Singer has a phrase that captures the way a daydream can seem to bloom autonomously: “the image evoked by an image.” It was less the content of the daydreams that mattered than the surrender of dreaming itself, an escape into waking life.
Sometimes my daydreams — like a recurring one I had about a futuristic world where machines had mostly replaced human beings — arose as an autonomic response to boredom. And there could be so much boredom! We forget this about childhood, how boring it could be, how long time could feel when time was still new. I remember Sunday afternoons that stretched all the way to the horizon and car rides that felt as though they lasted years. So I resorted to daydreams to relieve a bored mind, just as I resorted to them when I felt conflict at home or at school, less from a desire to be somewhere than a desire to be anywhere else.