This is a speculative post. I want to say that up front, because I’m unusual among daydreamers: music isn’t, and never has been, part of my daydreaming experience. In fact, I’ve often used music to pull me out of a daydream. When I need to stop daydreaming and focus on real life, listening to music for a few minutes helps to reset my mind. For me, focussing on music – really listening to it – is grounding rather than dissociating.
But for most daydreamers, music is a critical part of the daydreaming experience. Music is needed to set the scene, create the right mood, and add an extra dimension to the daydream. In fact, music is so commonly associated with daydreaming that it features in two questions in the MDS-16, the scale used to assess maladaptive daydreaming disorder. The MDS-16 distinguishes between using music to initiate a daydream (“To what extent does music activate your daydreaming?”) and using music during the daydream (“To what extent is your daydreaming dependent on continued listening to music?”).
The second question highlights the importance of music during the daydream. When used in this way, music fulfils a similar function to pacing – it’s something we do while we’re daydreaming to enhance the immersive state and maintain our disconnection from reality. But what about the first question, which asks whether music activates your daydreaming? That makes it sound like a trigger, something that pushes us into a daydream in a similar way to boredom or loneliness.
But most daydreaming triggers are things we want to escape from, and music doesn’t fit that category. So what do we mean when we say music is a trigger? Given how common it is for daydreamers to listen to music while daydreaming, I wonder whether the act of putting in the earbuds, selecting the song, turning up the volume, is all part of the ritual that initiates the daydream.
If, over many years, you’ve consistently used music to enhance your daydreaming, your brain has come to associate music with daydreaming. You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dog experiment, in which dogs began to salivate on hearing a sound that they’d come to associate with food. It’s called classical conditioning. Your brain has associated listening to music with daydreaming, so now when you hear music, particularly if it’s one of your daydreaming tracks, you automatically start daydreaming.
For most of us, daydreaming is an intensely enjoyable and rewarding experience. Even if you’re struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder and are frustrated by the amount of time daydreaming steals from you, or you’re intensely self-critical for not being able to control your daydreaming, there’s a good chance that the daydreaming itself gives you a rush of positive emotions while you’re doing it. And those positive emotions serve as a reward which reinforces the behaviour: as soon as you hear the music, your brain anticipates the reward and you experience that anticipation in the form of an urge to daydream.
This association between stimulus (music) and reward (daydreaming) could work for just about anything. Although music isn’t a trigger for me, I’ve always daydreamed last thing at night before I go to sleep. The act of turning out the light and snuggling down under the duvet now acts as a trigger for me. I start daydreaming without even consciously thinking about it.
But if any stimulus can become associated with daydreaming, why is music such a common trigger that it merits two mentions in the MDS-16? I doubt anyone knows for sure, but I wonder if it has something to do with music’s capacity to generate emotion. Both music and daydreaming can be used to change our emotional state. One of the main reasons we daydream is to escape from negative emotions. Music can be used in the same way. So it seems logical that music can enhance daydreaming, and daydreaming can enhance the experience of listening to music. And it’s therefore easy to see how the two could go together.
As I’ve said, my daydreaming isn’t activated or maintained by music, so if you use music to daydream, I’d love to know whether you agree with what I’ve written here. Let me know in the comments section how you see the connection between music and daydreaming. And if you don’t daydream to music, let me know that too – I’d like to know I’m not alone!