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How it all started?

The first study to coin Maladaptive Daydreaming

· Research,Informative

For Mental Health awareness day, I wanted to bring attention to the first study every done on Maladaptive daydreaming. In 2002 Dr. Eli Somer first published a study in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, V called Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry. This was the first time the term Maladaptive daydreaming was ever coined. Let's look at this study and cut through some of the academic language to see what the paper is trying to say.

Before this study

Before this paper, most researchers looked at daydreaming as a normal part of life. In his seminal book "Daydreaming", Singer 1996 concluded that 96 percent of fairly educated, American adults engaged in some form of daydreaming. However, there has been previous research to suggest the long existence of this condition. Research on excellent hypnotic subjects in 1983 by Wilson and Barber noticed a group of avid daydreamers and characterized them as "fantasy-prone personalities." The paper predicted 4% of the population to be "fantasy-prone." Moreover, a study done in 1987 reported that for some individuals, fantasy proneness could be abnormal and lead to depression. However, none of this was proof of a unique condition until the paper by Dr. Eli Somer in 2002

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This paper is mostly a qualitative look into Maladaptive daydreaming. That means; the article looks at a small sample size in great detail and tries to develop general trends and patterns that can then be applied to a larger sample size. It is generally used for topics that don't have distinct variables and/or is not a well-known phenomenon, both of which apply to this condition. It is also a phenomenological inquiry. In a phenomenological inquiry, the research questions are open-ended, allowing the participants to describe their complex experiences in detail.

Participants and Procedure

The study looks at six participants who exhibit symptoms of Maladaptive daydreaming. Three of these individuals were undergraduate students, 2 were graduate students, and two were university-educated professionals. All of them were characterized as 'fantasy-prone' by the Wilson and Barber's (1983) definition. Maladaptive daydreaming for this study was defined as "extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning." For this study, the participants were asked two structured interviews, two quantifiable questionnaires, and one open-ended interview. The table given below and presented in the paper provides a description of the participants.

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All subjects endured traumatic childhood experiences like exposure to violent parental conflicts (participants 1, 2), emotional neglect (participants 2, 3, 4, 6), psychological abuse (participants

2, 3), physical abuse (participant 2), and sexual abuse (participants 3, 4, 6). All had been lonely children and continued to be loner adults. Except for participant 2, who had one good same-sex friend, none of the others reported having any romantic and platonic relationships. Participant 4 was the only one who no longer engaged in daydreaming activities, and her daydreams had gradually faded a year before the study.

Function of the daydreams

The analysis revealed three primary functions of the dream.

  1. Disengagement from Stress and Pain by Mood Enhancement
  2. Wish Fulfillment Fantasies
  3. Companionship, Intimacy, and Soothing

All subjects claimed that these daydreams helped to disconnect from the pain of living and magically transform their misfortune into something more desirable. Subject 2, for example, used these daydreams to block-out parental conflict and Subject 3 seemed to admit to using these daydreams as a form of escapism. Four subjects also described finding a safe, comfortable, and loving environment in these daydreams and using it as a way to fill a need for intimacy and companionship.

Recurrent Themes

The daydreams also had some recurrent themes between these subjects. There were often themes of Violence; an Idealized Self; Power and Control; Captivity, Rescue and Escape; and Sexual Arousal. Five of the subjects talked about sadism, bloodshed, etc. in their daydreams, but they weren't a source of distress. Five of the subjects also pictured themselves as the person they would want to be. Four of the participants had daydreams with a desire for authority. Feelings of being trapped were also common in these daydreams. However, sexual themes were mixed. Some were indicating desire, some guilt and others coping mechanisms for previous sexual assault.

Daydreaming Dynamics

All the participants seemed to associated the inception of maladaptive daydreaming with traumatic childhood experiences. Subject 1 had the latest onset of Maladaptive daydreams after a romantic heartbreak. However, all the other participants had their start before their teen years due to a childhood adverse event. Five of the participants had a physical movement associated with their daydream. Either as a way to hypnotize themselves into the daydream or enact elements of the daydream. Five participants claimed that therapy helped them understand the role daydreams played in their lives, with subject four completely stopping daydream due to extensive long-term therapy.


In conclusion, the study mostly focuses on six patients displaying maladaptive daydreaming symptoms. Four were earlier diagnosed with a dissociative disorder (problems involving memory, identity, emotion, perception, behavior, and sense of self), and the other two were given a narcissistic personality disorder diagnosis. The paper categorizes the purpose of these daydreams into three categories:

  1. Disengagement from Stress and Pain by Mood Enhancement
  2. Wish Fulfillment Fantasies
  3. Companionship, Intimacy, and Soothing

The daydreams also had recurrent Violence; Idealized Self; Power and Control; Captivity; Rescue and Escape; and Sexual Arousal. The paper theorizes that aversive circumstances (traumatic experiences) seem to cause the condition's development. However, this has been since debunked by later more quantitative research.

Since the study

A lot of papers since have come about to discuss maladaptive daydreaming, one as recent as 2020. And some of the findings of this paper have been debunked. For instance, a later more quantitative research showed no proof that childhood trauma was the cause of the condition. However, this paper did still shed light onto a before completely unrecognized condition leading to now thousands of people finding out more about themselves and feeling less alone. Moreover, some of its findings still seem to ring true for a lot of maladaptive daydreamers. For example, the presence of an idealized self or using daydreams as a way to experience intimacy. I hope through this summary I was able to help you learn more about the maladaptive daydreaming.