Daydreaming: An Underrated Threat to Polyphasic Sleep Adaptations


Daydreaming, also known as mind wandering, is a common phenomenon in humans’ daily life. Under normal conditions, it is usually harmless – it is usually moments of distraction from current tasks, similar to lost-in-thought moments. It is summed up as “a wide variety of spontaneous and undirected mentation”, and can account for up to 30-50% of thought-probe responses in laboratory and field studies1. There appears to be some reciprocal correlation between the frequency of daydreaming and sleep quality, and even chronotype; however, it is still unclear how much sleep deprivation can affect the frequency of daydreaming, as well as whether daydreaming in return causes sleep deprivation (insomnia)1. In extreme cases, daydreaming can interfere with daily life on a global scale.

In polyphasic sleep adaptations, daydreaming anecdotally appears to be a controllable threat; however, it seems to be amplified by sleep deprivation effects and can cause irritating experiences. Whether daydreaming is a direct product of sleep deprivation is yet to be concluded. There are also ways to overcome excessive daydreaming, depending how much it affects each individual. Even though daydreaming is far from being as malevolent as other well-known sleep disorders (e.g, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome), it is still a very common occurrence in polyphasic sleepers.

Daydreaming, sleep quality and sleep deprivation

Sleep Quality:

A reliable yet moderate correlation has been found between daydreaming and sleep quality – the poorer the sleep quality, the more frequent daydreaming occurs1. Another study also claimed that daydreaming can also affect sleep quality by increasing sleep onset latency2. Despite limitations from the study, it is reasonable to establish such correlations – being distracted and lost in continuous thoughts can effectively prevent sleepers from entering sleep. Common observations such as rolling around in bed, inability to sleep due to a racing heart and especially stress or anxiety contribute to nocturnal insomnia. As a result, sleepers become unable to stop the train of thoughts and cannot commit to sleeping.

Similarly, in polyphasic sleeping, stress responses are also frequently reported, but more so in the case of new polyphasic sleepers who are new to napping and sleeping at different hours in the day. On reducing sleep schedules with multiple naps, being concerned over oversleeping from not being able to fall asleep in the preceding sleeps causes panic and anxiety in quite a few beginner nappers.

Sleep Deprivation:

Poor sleep quality includes sleep disturbances (e.g, waking up in the middle of the night and cannot fall asleep again, long sleep onset latency), waking up in the wrong sleep stages, feeling unrested upon awakening despite a full night’s rest (e.g, no blue light prevention before night sleep, delayed sleep phase, desynchronized circadian rhythm) and several other factors. There has been a relationship found between daydreaming frequency and sleep deprivation – the more sleep debt, the more daydreaming later on3. This is applicable to polyphasic sleeping adaptations as well; adaptations to extreme schedules (anywhere below 5 hours of total sleep) become hard for the majority of adapters and cost a lot of productivity hours (e.g, trying to stay awake, inability to focus on current tasks, staring at the clocks for time to pass). Due to certain levels of cognitive impairment with some sleep reduction, adapting to a polyphasic schedule is made harder with the threat from daydreaming, which can be a very powerful disruptor against personal productivity, especially during Stage 3 of adaptation.

Daydreaming and chronotypes

Interestingly enough, sleep chronotypes appear to play some role in daydreaming frequency. However, all relevant data stems from studies on monophasic sleep, whose focus was on cognitive performance and the state of mind wandering. It was concluded that delayed sleep phase (Wolf chronotype) generates more daydreaming occurrences, while early sleep (Lion chronotype) is positively correlated to mindfulness and alertness1. The explanation for this connection is that Wolves are likely to be forced to wake up earlier than scheduled for different personal reasons, potentially causing them to be sleep deprived (e.g, work, school).

It is also worth noting that circadian dips created by different chronotypes can influence daydreaming occurrences. One study demonstrated that preferred mentally active hours in the day (a retrospective questionnaire method was used for participants so the data might not be as accurate) can have an effect on dispelling or reducing daydreaming or mind wandering instances7. During these hours, these individuals report to be more alert and focused than non-preferred hours, possibly because of their daily routines. As a result, non-prefered hours stimulate more daydreaming (e.g, evening hours for morning type or morning hours for evening type). The concrete mechanism is hypothesized that daydreaming occurs at the hours where executive control is taken over by spontaneous thoughts during non-preferred hours of the day. During these hours, the brain goes into default mode (which is akin to rest or autonomic mode) in response to external cues and stimuli.

Since polyphasic sleeping is all about consistency and maintenance of sleep-wake hours strictly (even though flexing is tolerable upon completed adaptation), the body gets used to the waking hours, total sleep time each day and gives out cues regarding alertness dips or boost depending on the hours of the day. When a stable sleep-wake polyphasic schedule becomes a routine, sleepers feel rested (getting enough sleep), and can minimize daydreaming or live with it without fearing that productivity and mental clarity are affected to a large extent. Check out the blog post on Sleep Chronotypes & Planning for more information.

How dangerous can daydreaming get?

There is some discrepancy between daydreaming experience reports. One demonstrated that daydreaming affects each individual depending on how positive the experience itself is – if it is something positive, it can improve emotions and reduce loneliness3,8. On the other hand, negative, repetitive and self-focused daydreaming incidents result in worse emotional health and even some psychological issues (e.g, dissociative tendencies, mood disorder)3. In severe cases, excessive, uncontrollable daydreaming can eventually lead to maladaptive daydreaming (MD), also known as daydreaming disorder4,5. MD can become so transparent that patients often mix up fantasy and reality (e.g, imagining having a conversation with a superhero in comics)5,6. Furthermore, there is also high comorbidity of MD – in one study, it was found out that approximately 75% of the total number of patients (39) qualified for at least 3 additional disorders and about 41% met criteria for at least 45.

Despite the crippling effects of MD, there has been no self-reported case of such related disorders in the polyphasic community up to date.

How to alleviate daydreaming?

During polyphasic sleep adaptations, daydreaming is inevitable. The only main concern is productivity during waking hours, which is one of the main perks of polyphasic sleeping. To be able to remain mentally active, it is ideal to set up a long list of activities to fill up the waking hours. Depending on the polyphasic pattern of choice, remaining alert may or may not be difficult for the sleeper. One of the most important factors is motivation. Without any motivation to stay awake and take advantage of the waking hours, adaptation will quickly become immensely difficult. Many polyphasic sleepers have succeeded in adapting to multiple different sleep schedules thanks to skyhigh personal motivation to continuously stay engaged with their favorite activities. Check out the following post, How to Manage Sleep Deprivation for more information.

Even after the adaptation phase, daydreaming can still occur from time to time, but its effects are largely negligible and do not interfere with daily performance. Getting the right amount of sleep is what can dictate the patterns of daydreaming and staying away from sleep deprivation is a healthy lifestyle.


Daydreaming usually is benign in the context of polyphasic sleeping. Daydreaming can both affect sleep quality when a sleeper first begins sleeping polyphasically and result from sleep deprivation at the same time from the sleep pattern of choice. The intensity of daydreaming varies between individuals and depends on which schedule is a target for adaptation. Understanding and determining personal chronotypes can give more insights on how to form routines and stick with them for long term. Staying motivated throughout adaptation is the key to adapting and making use of sleep-wake hours wisely.

Main author: GeneralNguyen

Page last updated: 27 March 2020

  1. Carciofo, R., Du, F., Song, N., & Zhang, K. (2014). Mind Wandering, Sleep Quality, Affect and Chronotype: An Exploratory Study. PLoS ONE, 9(3), e91285. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091285. [PMC]
  2. Harvey, A. G., & Payne, S. (2002). The management of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts in insomnia: distraction with imagery versus general distraction. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40(3), 267–277. doi:10.1016/s0005-7967(01)00012-2. [PMC]
  3. Poerio, G. L., Kellett, S., & Totterdell, P. (2016). Tracking Potentiating States of Dissociation: An Intensive Clinical Case Study of Sleep, Daydreaming, Mood, and Depersonalization/Derealization. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01231. [PMC]
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  5. Somer, E., Soffer-Dudek, N., & Ross, C. A. (2017). The Comorbidity of Daydreaming Disorder (Maladaptive Daydreaming). The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 205(7), 525–530. doi:10.1097/nmd.0000000000000685. [PMC]
  6. Giesbrecht, T., & Merckelbach, H. (2006). Dreaming to reduce fantasy? – Fantasy proneness, dissociation, and subjective sleep experiences. Personality and Individual Differences, 41(4), 697–706. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2006.02.015
  7. Carciofo, R., Du, F., Song, N., & Zhang, K. (2013). Chronotype and time-of-day correlates of mind wandering and related phenomena. Biological Rhythm Research, 45(1), 37–49. doi:10.1080/09291016.2013.790651
  8. Poerio, G. L., et al. “Mind-Wandering and Negative Mood: Does One Thing Really Lead to Another?” Consciousness and Cognition. 2013;22(1):1412–1421. [PMC]

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