How many people have immersive or maladaptive daydreaming?

Before I knew that maladaptive daydreaming had a name, I used to wonder whether everyone daydreamed in the same way I did or whether I was the only person who lived another life in my head. When you don’t have a word to describe your daydreaming, and you don’t know anyone else who does it, it’s natural to wonder whether you’re the only one.

The truth is, some people are immersive daydreamers, but most are not. Some immersive daydreamers become addicted to their daydreaming and develop maladaptive daydreaming disorder. Others remain immersive daydreamers. It was life-changing when I realised I wasn’t alone, but it raised an obvious question: how many of us are there?

And that’s a question that scientists don’t have a good answer to yet. To date, there’s only one study, by Israeli researchers Nirit Soffer-Dudek and Nitzan Theodor-Katz, that has looked at how many people have maladaptive daydreaming. They came up with a figure of 2.5%, which has been widely quoted online, usually without context.

So where did the researchers get that figure of 2.5% from? They took four groups of people – three groups of psychology undergraduates and one group that was representative of the general Jewish-Israeli population. Everyone in the study completed the MDS-16, which is used by scientists as an initial screening tool for maladaptive daydreaming. In the general-population group, 4.2% of people scored over 40, which is the level usually considered to be indicative of possible maladaptive daydreaming.

However, the MDS-16 is not intended to be a diagnostic tool. A high score on the MDS-16 doesn’t mean that someone definitely has maladaptive daydreaming disorder. So the researchers interviewed people in two groups of psychology undergraduates who had MDS-16 scores over 40 to establish how many of them actually had maladaptive daydreaming disorder. In both groups, 60% of students who scored over 40 on the MDS-16 were confirmed to be maladaptive daydreamers. The researchers hypothesised that the same would hold true for the general population: 60% of 4.2% is 2.5%, which is why they concluded that approximately 2.5% of people are maladaptive daydreamers.

The problem is that in the two groups of students where the researchers conducted interviews, only 24 people scored over 40 on the MDS-16, and nine of those were unavailable for interview, so only 15 interviews were actually carried out. Nine of the fifteen (60%) students were found to be maladaptive daydreamers. But these are small numbers. What if just one more interviewed student had been diagnosed with maladaptive daydreaming? Then it would have been ten out of 15 (67%), and that would have led the researchers to conclude that the prevalence of maladaptive daydreaming in the general population is 67% of 4.2%, which is 2.8%. In other words, if just one interview had led to a different conclusion, the prevalence of maladaptive daydreaming would have jumped from 1 in 40 to 1 in 35.

The often-quoted figure of 2.5% is useful in establishing that maladaptive daydreaming is rare, but not extremely rare. It’s obviously not something that affects 10% or 20% of people. It’s also not a one-in-a-million occurrence. But, 2.5% is best viewed as a reasonable guess rather than an exact number – it could be revised upwards or downwards as more research is done.

The other reason that more research is urgently needed is that this study says nothing about the prevalence of immersive daydreaming. That wasn’t the point of the study. The MDS-16 is designed to screen for maladaptive daydreaming, and several questions ask whether your daydreaming interferes with your life (for example, “How much do you feel that your daydreaming activities interfere with achieving your overall life goals?”). Immersive daydreamers are going to have relatively low scores on these questions. As a tool to establish whether someone’s daydreaming is negatively affecting their life, the MDS-16 is useful. But it doesn’t (and was never intended to) distinguish immersive daydreamers from non-daydreamers.

As a lifelong immersive daydreamer who has struggled with maladaptive daydreaming disorder at several points in my life, the questions I’m really interested in are:

  • What percentage of people are immersive daydreamers? In other words, how many people, like me, invent complex imaginary worlds and get emotionally attached to fictional characters?
  • And, if someone is an immersive daydreamer, what is the chance that they will, at some point, develop maladaptive daydreaming disorder?

Given that our style of daydreaming is almost universally regarded as something ‘different’ or ‘unusual’, I suspect that the percentage of people who are immersive daydreamers is quite low. And that means that the proportion of immersive daydreamers who go on to develop maladaptive daydreaming disorder might be worryingly high. If a group of people are at high risk of developing a debilitating behavioural addiction, there’s a strong argument for identifying those people and educating them about how to manage that risk. But we just don’t have the numbers yet to be able to say what the risk is. We have a rough idea how many people are maladaptive daydreamers, but we urgently also need to know how many people are immersive daydreamers.

Image by arnerichter1975 from Pixabay