Daydreaming is like a memory in present tense

I’ve sometimes been asked what it feels like to immersively daydream. And although, to me, it comes as naturally as breathing, it’s surprisingly hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it. I see, hear, and feel every detail, but I’m not hallucinating. I know my daydreams aren’t real, and yet they’re real to me. I know what my characters look like, even though I’ve never seen them through my eyes. The description that fits it best is that it’s a memory in present tense.

To understand what I mean, try this: recall a conversation you had with someone yesterday. Replay that conversation in your mind. I’m willing to bet that, even if you’re a normative daydreamer, you don’t remember just the words of the conversation, as though you’re reading a transcript. You remember the other person’s tone of voice and facial expressions. You remember how what they said made you feel. You remember where you were when the conversation took place and who else was present. You might even remember some of the thoughts and distractions that were running through your mind during the conversation. And yet, while you’re remembering the conversation, you know you’re not actually experiencing it over again. You can hear and see all the details, but those details aren’t coming in through your senses; they exist only as images in your imagination.

Daydreaming is exactly the same, except that instead of remembering something that happened in the past, you’re creating a scene in your head in the present. But that doesn’t stop all the details being there. I think that’s something that sets immersive and maladaptive daydreamers apart from normative daydreamers. I can decide to daydream a scene that takes place in a made-up location I’ve never used before, and it’s instantly as vivid as a memory. I don’t have to decide on all the details, they’re just there. It’s the same with characters. When my plot requires a new character, they stroll in fully formed – I know what they look like, what their backstory is, what type of person they are. I don’t have to decide those things; the character just arrives as a complete person.

But if your daydreams are closely tied to your real life, especially if they’re often set in real places and your characters are based on real people, this memory analogy can help explain why you might occasionally mix up fantasy and reality. Because it does happen. We like to think that one of the trademarks of immersive and maladaptive daydreaming is that we always know what is real and what isn’t. Our daydreams are not hallucinations. We know while we’re daydreaming that it isn’t really happening. And yet we’ve all had moments when we’re not entirely sure if a conversation with a friend really happened or whether it was something we daydreamed.

If you’ve ever mixed up reality and daydreaming after the event, don’t panic; you’re not going crazy. Once you’ve daydreamed a particular scene or conversation, that daydream becomes a memory, just like the memories of things that really happened. While something is actually happening, you know whether it’s coming in through your senses or whether it’s a mental image in your imagination. But afterwards, when you recall it, it’s a mental image in your imagination, regardless of whether it was originally real or not. If your daydreams take place in a fictional universe, or in a real place you’ve never really been to, then the scene will clue you into whether you’re remembering a real event or a daydream. But when your daydreams take place in real places, with characters based on people who are actually part of your real life, you don’t always have those clues. And that’s why it’s completely normal that you might not always know whether a particular memory is a memory of a real event or a memory of a daydream.

This memory analogy has helped me explain to people what it’s like inside my head. But trying to explain my daydreaming to normative daydreamers has made me very aware just how much effort it takes to understand any perspective other than our own. It doesn’t matter to me whether I’m recalling a memory, anticipating a future event or imagining a scene from my daydream. All are equally detailed. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a mind that doesn’t automatically fill in the blanks. Normative daydreamers struggle to understand what it’s like for me having stories bouncing around inside my head all the time. I struggle to understand how they live without them.