Why Does Music Trigger Maladaptive Daydreaming?

14 June, 2020

A theory about how music triggers maladaptive daydreaming, based on my theory that music is a superstimulus for the perception of non-spontaneous speech.

A Model of Maladaptive Daydreaming

Maladaptive daydreaming is when a person becomes addicted to daydreaming, to the extent that they do it for hours on end, and they choose to daydream in lieu of other activities such as hanging out with friends, hobbies, studying or working. Usually the maladaptive daydreamer recognises the excessiveness of their compulsion to daydream.

In many cases, although not all, the maladaptive daydreamer does their daydreaming while listening to music, that is, they are addicted to a combination of daydreaming and music.

I propose the following model of maladaptive daydreaming:

If I wanted to sloganize this model, and reduce it to a simple catchphrase, I would say:

Emotional evaluation, without truth evaluation.

This model is very similar to the model I have proposed to account for the emotional effect that music has on the mind of anyone who listens to music:

These two models are almost the same – the only difference being that the second model uses the abstract concept of "hypothetical meaning", whereas in maladaptive daydreaming the hypothetical meaning always consists of an imaginary scenario deliberately imagined by the daydreamer.

The identification of these two models tells us something about the relationship between maladaptive daydreaming and "normal" daydreaming:

The Functions of Music and Daydreaming

In as much as maladaptive daydreaming can be considered to be dysfunctional, we want to understand what are the normal functions of both music and daydreaming, so that we can understand how it is that these functional phenomena result in something that is not so functional.

The Function of Daydreaming

A dictionary definition of daydreaming, from the Cambridge Dictionary, is:

the activity of thinking about pleasant things that you would like to do or have happen to you, instead of thinking about what is happening now

I would give a slightly different definition, which is more specific about how daydreaming relates to planning, and which also allows for the possibility of more negative types of daydreaming, ie those daydreams about situations that are not "pleasant":

the activity of thinking about what you would do or how you would feel in certain hypothetical scenarios, without thinking or planning how you would get into those scenarios, and without attempting to determine the realistic probability that you would ever get into those scenarios

If you are one of those people that believes that it is only worth thinking about goals when you have a step-by-step plan for achieving those goals, then daydreaming defined this way might seem to be a completely pointless activity.

However, not everything in life can be planned.

Sometimes things happen to you, both good and bad, that did not result from anything you did.

It can be important sometimes, when an unexpected opportunity arises, to quickly and confidently take advantage of it.

So it can be worth planning what you would do in a situation involving an unexpected opportunity, even though you have never bothered to plan how you would get into that situation. (And similiarly for planning how to deal with unexpected bad situations.)

This, then, might be the true biological function of daydreaming.

The dysfunction of maladaptive daydreamers is not that they are daydreaming, because daydreaming does have a function – rather the dysfunction is that they prefer to daydream too much, because they enjoy it too much, and as a result they daydream even in situations where most people would have other things that they would want to do.

The Function of Music

According to my latest theory about music, there are two biological functions related to music.

This first is that music is a superstimulus for the perception of non-spontaneous speech.

This perception serves the purpose of ensuring that a listener only makes the effort to immediately determine their beliefs about the truth value of what a speaker says, if the speaker is perceived to be genuinely saying something that expresses what they are thinking right now "in the moment".

With this first function, music itself has no function – rather the response to music is a side-effect of a functional aspect of the perception of normal (ie non-musical) speech.

The second related function is that music itself is functional, in that it helps a person to think hypothetical thoughts and strongly feel the emotional significance of those thoughts, while not making any attempt to determine the truth value of those thoughts.

In other words, the biological function of music is to help us daydream, and in particular to fully experience the emotions of our daydreams.

Again, with music-triggered maladaptive daydreamers, the dysfunction is not that music enhances the emotions of their daydreams, because this happens with most people. Rather the dysfunction is that the music has too much effect, and that the effect can be sustained for longer periods of time.

How are Maladaptive Daydreamers Different? – A Hypothesis

The above model explains music-driven maladaptive daydreaming, because it shows that maladaptive daydreaming is a direct result of the normal function of music.

In as much as there are people who are affected very strongly by music, and who daydream too much, this can be explained as a case of simple variation. That is, for anything that most people respond to, there will be some people who respond to it more strongly (and others who respond more weakly, or not at all).

However, my proposed model of how music triggers maladaptive daydreaming contains four different components:

  1. The imagination of the daydreamer
  2. The raw emotional response to imagined scenarios
  3. The degree to which the evaluation of truth is suppressed, possibly as a function of listening to music
  4. The degree to which the emotional response is reduced as a function of any evaluation of truth that may occur

All or any of these components of the model may be subject to degrees of variation across different people.

But, the specific association of music with maladaptive daydreaming does imply that most of the difference between maladaptive daydreamers and normal people might come from the variation in the third component of the model, ie

When maladaptive daydreamers listen to music, this enables them to suppress truth evaluation more strongly and for longer periods of time than is the case for normal people.

We might suppose that this applies even in the case of non-music-driven maladaptive daydreaming, ie:

Non-music-driven maladaptive daydreamers are able to completely suppress truth evaluation strongly for long periods of time, even without the assistance of music.

And in conclusion, considering all four components of the model:

  1. The ability of maladaptive daydreamers to imagine scenarios is no greater than that of "normal" daydreamers.
  2. The raw emotional response to imaginary scenarios is the same in both maladaptive daydreamers and normal daydreamers.
  3. Maladaptive daydreamers can suppress truth evaluation more efficiently, and can sustain this suppression effectively for longer periods of time, especially if assisted by music.
  4. In as much as truth evaluation occurs, the resulting reduction in emotional response is the same for both maladaptive and normal daydreamers.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it may have some relevance in the search for techniques to treat maladaptive daydreaming.