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A temporary escape from daily reality by forming mental pictures, usually in spontaneous, brief episodes, of other experiences.

Daydreams are a form of imagination. In daydreams, the person forms a mental image of a past experience or of a situation that he or she has never actually experienced. Some psychologists use the acronym TUIT (Task-Unrelated Images and Thoughts) to describe episodes of daydreaming. A daydream may be triggered by a situation, a memory, or a sensory input (sight, taste, smell, sound, touch).

The daydreamer may use these mental pictures to escape from reality temporarily, to overcome a frustrating situation, or to satisfy hidden wishes. Almost all people daydream, although the frequency of daydreaming varies considerably from individual to individual. Psychologists estimate that one-third to one-half of a person's thoughts while awake are daydreams, although a single daydream rarely last more than a few minutes.

When the daydreamer begins to confuse the mental images with reality, the daydream is called an hallucination. Daydreaming is generally not harmful, unless the daydreaming episodes interfere with activities of daily living. When the daydreamer's daily routine is disrupted—a driver misses an exit on the freeway continuously, or a student does not hear the teacher assigning homework—he or she may want to consider whether the daydreams are a symptom of a psychological problem.

Although most psychologists view daydreams as generally healthy and natural, this was not always the case. In the 1960s, for example, textbooks used for training teachers provided strategies for combating daydreaming, using language similar to that used in describing drug use. Sigmund Freud felt that only unfulfilled individuals created fantasies, and that daydreaming and fantasy were early signs of mental illness. By the late 1980s, most psychologists considered daydreams a natural component of the mental process for most individuals.

Similar to dreams experienced during sleep, daydreams occur in cycles set by biological cycles of temperature and hormone levels (psychologists estimate that the average person daydreams about every 90 minutes), and peak around the lunch hour (noon to 2 p.m.). Daydreaming first occurs for most people during childhood, sometime before age three, and these early daydreams set the pattern for adult daydreaming. Children who have positive, happy daydreams of success and achievement generally continue these types of mental images into adulthood; these daydreamers are most likely to benefit from the positive aspects of mental imagery. Daydreams become the impetus for problem-solving, creativity, or accomplishment. On the other hand, children whose daydreams are negative, scary, or visualize disasters are likely to experience anxiety, and this pattern will carry over into adulthood as well. A child's daydreams may take a visible or public form—the daydreamer talks about his mental images while he is experiencing them, and may even act out the scenario she or he is imagining. After age ten, however, the process of internalizing daydreaming begins.

It is not unusual for a daydream, or series of daydreams, to precede an episode of creative writing or invention. Athletes, musicians, and other performers use a form of daydreaming known as visualization. As the individual prepares for a competition or performance, he or she forms a mental picture of him- or herself executing and completing the task with the desired successful outcome.

Further Reading

Hogan, John. "Daydreaming: Experiments Reveal Links Between Memory and Sleep." Scientific American (October 1994): 32+.

Seligson, Susan V. "What Your Daydreams Really Mean." Red-book (July 1995): 51+.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Kenneth John William Craik Biography to Jami (Mulla Nuruddin ʼAbdurrahman ibn-Ahmad Biography