Day-dreaming- The Autistic Thinking

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

“A daydream is a meal at which images are eaten. Some of us are gourmets, some gourmands, and a good many take their images precooked out of a can and swallow them down whole, absent-mindedly and with little relish.”

W.H. Auden

To Prof Freud belongs the honour of having thrown a flood of light upon dreaming. By the publication of his best known work,’Die Traumdeutung’, he showed that dreaming is not merely a chaotic rumbling of the brain cells, of no interest to science, but rather that dreaming is a peculiar and complex form of mental activity well worthy of the most careful study from the point of view both of pure science and of psychological medicine.

The dreaming in sleep is commonly accepted as falling within the bounds of normal. Perhaps dreaming does serve as a safety-valve for our repressed tendencies, and thus facilitate a more complete voluntary control of our mental life during waking hours.. However there is no clear evidence in support of the notion, day-dreaming or fantasy formation would seem to be a step nearer to the definitely abnormal.

The extent to which normal persons indulge in day-dreaming cannot be estimated: first, because we cannot draw any sharp line between day-dreaming and other modes of imaginative activity; secondly, because day-dreaming is often more frequent than the subject supposes; like night-dreaming, it is apt to be forgotten. It is probable that in many cases it goes on as a sort of side-show, a collateral stream of mental life running parallel with the main stream of self-conscious activity; and in such cases it is especially liable to be ignored or denied by the conscious subject. It would be rash, then, to assert that day-dreaming is at its minimum in extrovert persons of great practical activity; that it is more frequent with introverted persons; and that in general it is more frequent in children than in adults. As we grow up, we become more deeply and constantly concerned with practical problems for the solution of which we need to conform our thinking to the logical and historical order of events; we build up systems of belief which, as they grow richer and more firmly knit, limit more and more the range of our imaginative activities.

In autistic thinking, a person creates a fantasy oriented mental environment and places himself at the central place there. Actually these are the expression of a sort of complexes created in him by unknowingly accepting his inability to excel in some specific behavior pattern. Thus some time he wishfully identifies himself with the person who possesses that attribute in abundance. In children, whose imaginations are less fettered by beliefs founded upon much experience of the actual and the probable, day dreaming seems to take more often than not, a compensatory form, and to be more constructive and less recollected than the adults. They build’ castles in the air’  which express and to some extent gratify the desires that remain ungratified by the course of real life. The weakly child pictures himself as the hero of battle field, the dullard pictures himself carrying of the prizes at school etc.

The day dreams of many children are renewed and continued from day to day over long periods of time, and then becoming developed and systematized, may play a very important role in their lives. It is impossible to say how real these day dreams figures and activities seem to the child, but they certainly engage his emotions in an active way. Literature, art cinema and likewise largely take the place of day dreaming for adults as hearing stories does in part, for children, and  it is probable that such substituted or readymade day dreams, if wisely selected, afford a more healthy, or at least a less dangerous, form of imaginative activity. For day-dreaming, though it may conduce to the development of imaginative power, may easily be carried to excess by some natures and thus prepare the way for mental disorder.

Autistic Thinking is a condition in which a person is morbidly self-absorbed and out of contact with reality.  BLEULER in Amer. Jrnl. Insanity LXIX. 874 describe it as” When we look more closely we find amongst all normal people many and important instances where thought is divorced both from logic and from reality. I have called these forms of thinking autistic, corresponding to the idea of schizophrenic autismus. an example of what is called ‘autistic thinking’, which means thinking that is sufficient unto itself, and not subjected to any criticism. Autistic thinking gratifies some desire and that is enough for it. “

The day-dreaming of normal subjects is one variety of a form of thinking which Prof. Bleuler has proposed to call “ Autistic.” It might perhaps with advantage be called rather “automatic thinking,” in order to mark its affinity with the sensory and motor automatisms, such as crystal visions and automatic writing. Bleuler insists on the essential similarity between the fantasy- formations that we call the day-dreaming of normal subjects and that of mentally disordered patients, more especially of those of the schizophrenic type.

Bleuler points out that most of us do a certain amount of autistic thinking, and adds: “ We stand, therefore, far nearer than would have at first sight appeared, to the lunatic, whose vagrant thoughts struck us just now so forcible. At any rate the difference is only a relative one. And when we look more closely we find amongst all normal people many and important instances where thought is divorced both from logic and from reality. I have called those forms of thinking ‘autistic’, corresponding to the idea of schizophrenic autismus, which, turning away from reality, sees life in fantastic pictures, and if founded precisely upon autistic thinking…The knowledge of this kind of thinking is a necessary foundation for the understanding of morbid formations”

Normally psychologists considers autistic thinking is the thinking of the unconscious. But though the recognition of autistic thinking is of extreme importance, it is profoundly unsatisfactory to dispose of it by simply ascribing it to ‘the unconscious’.Bleular treats the autistic thinking as though it were something radically different in kind from normal thinking ‘ How great the gap is between autistic and logical or realistic thinking will be clear to us when we realize what logical thinking really is. Firstly, it represents occurrences in the outer world and their associations. We have often heard thunder following lighten, therefore whenever we see lightning we expect thunder,’And there is no ‘ secondly ‘ in his account of logical thinking,, it remains for him merely  the sequence of ideas determined by associative reproduction according to the principle of temporal contiguity.

It is not totally true that normal mental life is merely the psychology of association. Our normal thinking is purposive. Bleular does not see that all mental life is purposive, that the higher form of mental activity differ from the lower, not in that purpose is added to them, but rather in that in the higher forms the goal is clearly defined in consciousness, while in the lower it remains obscure and vague. Hence he is led to regard autistic thinking as distinguished from normal thinking by lack of purpose.Acordingly he writes “One of the most important neurotic disturbances of sleep is undoubtedly based on the fact that emotionally accentuated complexes, which are more or less repressed by the day’s work make themselves felt as soon as purposive thinking ceases”.

Bleular distinction between autistic and logical thinking is, not to be identified with Freud distinction between the thinking of ‘the unconscious’ according to the pleasure principle and the thinking of the conscious according to the reality principle. He though appreciative of Freud’s real contribution, seems to have avoided the hedonic fallacy.

Besides associative reproduction and the logical operations of judging and reasoning, there is one all important factor is conation, which not only include conation of the form of self-conscious volition, but also the lower forms of conation, desires and impulses that determine largely the course of associative reproduction and play a large part in determining judgments and thus in building up beliefs. And it is not only wishes, or desires in strict sense of the word, that play this part, but any and every strong conative tendency, the tendencies of fear and disgust, no less than the tendencies of lust and hunger and love and ambition.

The conation factor is the predominant one in autistic thinging. There is no sharp line to be drawn between autistic and logical thinking, autistic thinking also makes use of logic and of associative reproduction, but, the more our train of thinking is dominated by motives, by desires and impulses, whose nature and goals remain obscure to us, the more does such thinking approximate to the type of autistic thinking. It is because the day-dreaming of normal persons, like their night-dreaming, is thus dominated by obscure desires and impulses, that it may be called autistic.

The basic difference between autistic thinking of sane person and that of insane is that in the mentally disordered person the repressed tendencies that dominate the autistic thinking are more completely repressed, perhaps in every case to the degree that some disassociation is effected. The repressed, and perhaps dissociated, system then works in relative isolation from the rest of the personality. It may work wholly subconsciously, or it may thrust the thought-products of its subconscious working into consciousness in the form of hallucinations, insane  beliefs, and uncontrollable strivings. The day-dreaming of normal children is largely the expression of unexpressed or ungratified tendencies. With advance of years, autistic thinking becomes increasingly the expression of repressed tendencies rather than merely of tendencies ungratified by the course of normal life. It is for this reason that the day-dreaming of children is less remote from the normal, and less dangerous, than that of adults.

It would be absurd to regard all day-dreaming as morbid. In children especially a certain amount of day-dreaming may be regarded as normal and healthy, and as contributing to the development of the powers of imaginations. If all day-dreaming by children were in some way prevented, it is possible that one consequence would be a lack of all poetic production, literature and the drama and perhaps science, would be improvised. Yet, even in children, day-dreaming may be excessive, and the boundry of the normal and the healthy would seem to be passed when the child tends to withdraw itself from active social life in order to enjoy its day-dreaming. An early symptom of autrism is such withdrawl, the  child, in many cases, prefer to stay in bed, and welcomes every mild indisposition as an excuse for seeking this retreat from the real world.

In adolescence the dangers of day-dreaming are greater. It is then that the youth, confronting the task of adapting himself to his social world, and of earning for himself a recognized place in it, is peculiarly apt to find in fantasy-formation a substitute for real achievement and a compensation for his deficiencies, in place of facing his tasks and acknowledging and striving to make good his defects.

The danger of day dreaming is not confined to the retreat from reality. It may take more positive forms. First the excessive day-dreamer is liable to confuse in recollection his day-dreams with real events, so that the line between truth and fiction remains ill-defined for him. Secondly, he may imagine himself as the central figure in some line of action of a reprehensible or criminal nature.. Without subscribing to the exploded idio-motor theory of action, we may suppose that the thinking out in imagination of such a plan of action, and the repeated dwelling upon it, may facilitate the execution of such a plan, if circumstances arise similar to those imagined, it realization is also desired, the subject is impelled towards its realization by those desires which  have sustain the imaginative planning.

Daydreaming allows you to play out scenarios where you miraculously save the day. You play out scenarios in your head that are kind of crazy, and then you personally, heroically resolve them.

Mark Waters


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