Daydreaming is often considered a childish activity. So it might come as a surprise that studies indicate at least 96% of adults engage in daydreams and/or fantasizing on a daily basis. These daydreams typically last for just a few minutes while the mind wanders, but they can also be more involved, frequent, and lengthy. And getting caught up in daydreams is not, as previously thought, as sign of tending toward mental illness.
According to an article in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, we’re learning that daydreaming is “a normal part of our cognitive processes.” In fact, it’s pretty normal to “spend one-third to one-half of our waking hours daydreaming, although that amount can vary significantly from person to person.” I was honestly pretty surprised to learn this. I mean, I know I do that, but I wasn’t expecting such a large percentage of the population to also daydream so much.
But while reading different articles about daydreams, I realized something else. They’re talking about people’s minds drifting into fantasies about their real lives. For example, it’s considered healthy for someone approaching a job interview to daydream about getting the job or for someone in a high-stress job to spend time fantasizing about how all their conversations for the upcoming day could go well. Other studies asked people to daydream about taking vacations or their childhood home. These daydreams are about things that could happen or have happened. I have those types of daydreams, too, but that’s not what most of mine are.
While studying hypnotic suggestibility in 1981, psychologists Theodore X. Barber and Sheryl Wilson discovered that the 27 women they identified “as extremely good hypnotic subjects … all had a fantasy life so intense that it seemed ‘as real as real.'”‘ After more research, people in this group are now described as having a “fantasy prone personality” (FPP). On the more extreme side, where fantasies start to take over reality, it’s called “maladaptive daydreaming” (click here to read an interview with a maladaptive daydreamer).
According to researchers, about 4 percent of people spend half or more of their waking hours absorbed in reverie. The fantasies are not mere fleeting daydreams but something of a cross between a dream and a movie, where an elaborate scenario unfolds once a theme is set. (from a New York Times article)
Reading about this group is where I start to recognize myself. Not in every way (I only match about half the standard characteristics of FPP), but definitely in the structure of their fantasies. Someone who daydreams might spend a few minutes imagining what it would be like to be a character in their favorite TV show. A fantasizer would create an alter-ego for themselves in that world and experience the fantasy with such realistic intensity it’s as if they’re watching extra episodes of the series (personal confession: I actually have an extensive fictional diary for the version of “myself” that’s living in the Stargate universe).
Why Live In Fantasy?
One theory about why certain people develop a fantasy prone personality is that their childhoods were so traumatic they escaped into fantasy. But while the percentage of people with FPP who’ve also suffered childhood abuse is higher than the general population, it’s not high enough to explain all of them. According the the New York Times article I referenced earlier, 25% of people identified as FPP showed “signs of mental disturbance” but only 10% “reported serious problems, such as difficulty turning off their imagination to pay attention to the real world.” Most aren’t unhealthy or traumatized.
Another explanation is that as children, people with a fantasy prone personality had parents who indulged their natural imaginations. These are the children who were encouraged to read fairy tales, to play with their imaginary friends, and cope with loneliness through pretend. That group includes me and a large percentage of the people who could describe themselves as fantasizers. This explanation for FPP also assumes certain people can be naturally more prone to extreme fantasizing than others.
A Personality Connection
Since most (if not all) of the population daydreams, we can’t really make statements about which personality types are more prone to daydreaming. However, it does seem that there’s a connection between certain personality traits and extreme fantasizers. Personality is largely a combination of inborn tendencies and how we respond to very early events (for example, studies suggest introversion/extroversion is inborn, while traits such as a preference for sensing/intuition show up a little later). It makes sense for people with certain personality traits to lean toward vivid imagination more than others.
In Myers-Briggs, introverted types are more likely to describe themselves as having a “rich inner world” than extroverted types but daydreaming isn’t exclusive to them by any means. Of the introverts, INFJs and INFPs have a reputation for living inside fantasies. But there’s nothing to keep other types with strong imaginations and rich inner lives from becoming extreme daydreamers, so we can’t come down definitively and say INF-types are more prone to fantasy.
In the Enneagram, however, there are types that are identified as more likely to live in fantasy. Type 4 is particularly inclined toward withdrawing to fantasy and losing themselves in imagination. Writers Riso and Hudson describe this tendency as the “characteristic temptation” of Type 4. That’s something that really jumped out at me when I started studying this type system, since I test as a 4w5. It explains my type of daydreaming much more fully than INFJ traits do.
Creativity and Sensitivity
There may also be a connection between FPP and being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). At the very least there’s overlap with certain traits. These include being able to easily imagine how other people feel in a given situation, having a rich inner life, being deeply moved by fiction and the arts, and needing/wanting time to withdraw from the “real” world. Extreme fantasizers also tend to be “more creative and more empathetic than other people” (quote from the NY Times article).
The connection between creativity and FPP is so strong that every article I read on fantasy prone people mentioned a high correlation between vivid fantasies and creativity. I even ran across an article on Psychology Today addressed to writers encouraging them not to take the “fantasy prone” label as a bad thing. For every person with these traits who actually does struggle maintaining their grip on reality, there could be dozens for whom the ability to fantasize is a useful gift. Just because modern culture is pretty negative about the imagination doesn’t mean having a good imagination is a bad thing. In fact, I think one could make the argument that a culture collectively out of touch with the imaginative desperately needs people brave enough to dive into fantasy and share their experiences through their art.