Loading…
0:00
13:14

There’s no escaping childhood. I mean that in the literal sense — to be a child is to wake up each day with people you didn’t choose, in a place you didn’t choose, in a time you didn’t choose. Maybe you were lucky, or maybe you were very unlucky, but there is no picking up and moving to a new hometown, or a new family. If you grew up like I did, in a Northeastern suburb carved out of farms, there was nowhere to go, period, unless you could drive there. I was brought to places, or I stayed home, surrounded by an acre of grass, mowed once a week in the summer, which I remember felt as uncrossable as the ocean. I yearned for escape, by any avenue, though it was only much later that I understood why.

But if I couldn’t walk to freedom, or bike — unless I wanted to risk the oblivious drivers on Route 413 — then I could dream. At any moment of the day, if I was anywhere I didn’t want to be, if I were lonely or sad or bored or anxious, if I was breathing, I would slip away inside my mind, giving myself over to daydreams and reveries.

If I was anywhere I didn’t want to be, if I was lonely or sad or bored or anxious, if I was breathing, I would slip away inside my mind.

One moment I would be there, and the next moment I would have fallen away to somewhere half-conscious, a single-occupancy twilight where I was fully protected and safe and free. Free most of all, free from worry, free from boredom, free from anything that could threaten me. I would fall into a daydream, and barely noticing as the time passed, back when there was so much time, a desert’s worth of time. Daydreams were the surest escape, and they were just what I needed. Until they weren’t.


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.


Wandering minds are hardly unusual — in fact, they may be the norm. Singer considered daydreaming part of what he called the default network mode, the aspect of the brain that is most active when we aren’t thinking or doing anything in particular — the screensaver settings of our minds. One study a few years ago by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that people’s minds wandered a full 47 percent of the time they’re awake.

The study was done via an iPhone app that the researchers developed. The app buzzed more than 2,000 volunteers at random times during the day, and then the subjects would report whether they had been daydreaming.

In truth, their minds were at least a bit untethered nearly all of the time. The only activity where daydreaming definitely didn’t occur was sex — at least according to the respondents, though if they paused in their exertions to answer the buzz of an iPhone, they clearly had bigger problems.

Killingsworth and Gilbert also connected daydreaming, or least wandering minds, to unhappiness. “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” they wrote in the Science article that described their findings.

Daydreaming is correlated with higher levels of working memory — the ability of the brain to recall information despite distractions.

If that sounds Zen, well, that’s the point. Thousands of years before the work of Jerome Singer, the Buddha told us that the default mode of the human brain is to wander, as we skip from past to present, reality to fantasy, only rarely settling on where we are and what we are doing, unless we’re engaged in an activity that engulfs the conscious mind. (Such as sex, researchers say, though anything that requires sustained focus, a sense of flow, can do it.)

Left to our default mode, we ruminate, we worry, we fantasize about the future and replay the past. We are anywhere but where we are.

Many times in my life, I have been told — sometimes in anger, sometimes in love — that I am insufficiently present. I was told it in school, when I was reading under my desk and ignoring the teacher, and sometimes I’m told it now, by my wife, across the dining room table, or in the therapist’s office. I used to resist the charge. It used to make me angry. “I’m right here,” I would protest. “I’m nowhere else.” But now I plead guilty. Anywhere but where I am.


The Israeli clinical psychologist Eli Somer treated a series of patients who had daydreams so richly developed, so all-encompassing that they found themselves escaping from real life. Their relationships suffered because their fantasies were so much more compelling and didn’t carry the risk of hurt and disappointment that is an inevitable part of being present in your actual life in the actual world.

Somer’s patients weren’t crazy. They knew the difference between the daydream and reality — they just found the daydream impossible to let go. Somer came up with a name for the condition in a 2002 paper: “maladaptive daydreaming.” In the years since his paper was published, hundreds of people have contacted Somer, claiming that they suffer from maladaptive daydreaming. There are maladaptive daydreaming online support groups, including the Wild Minds Network, which hosts thousands of members.

I’m no maladaptive daydreamer. Even years ago, when my daydreams were at their most vivid and I could lose time in them, I wouldn’t have fit the clinical diagnosis. True maladaptive daydreamers can fall into fantasies that last for hours, and the compulsion continues well into adulthood.

But what I’ve come to understand is that my childhood daydreaming was so often an adaptation to loneliness and anxiety, to fears I couldn’t really name. And that habit of mind stayed with me, even as the daydreaming itself fell away: the inclination to avoidance, a mind that in certain situations searches the corners for an escape route, like a burglar casing a score. Except that I was planning to get out, not in.

Freud was wrong to say that the daydreamer is always unsatisfied. But dreams can offer consolation, the way drugs and alcohol provide a short-term escape from the pressures of the self and the circumstances we find ourselves in. And when I was young — too young to seek relief by any other method — daydreaming was the only consolation on offer.

Adaptation has a way of twisting you to fit the shape you’ve been presented. It becomes maladaptation when the shape changes but you don’t. Daydreaming inculcated a passivity in me that must have been maddening to those who wanted to get close. But what was true in childhood for me isn’t true anymore, though it took me a long time to realize that.

The life I live now — the real one — is one I have chosen. It is not a life that I want to escape, even if I’m doing it standing still. I want to be present every moment of every day, for my wife and my son and my work.

I don’t always succeed. The dreams we dreamed as children beat down certain paths in our minds, and the old pressures can pull me toward the old escape routes. But with practice and with help, I can make conscious what once was unconscious, and remind myself that I don’t want to be anywhere but where I am.