Please don't tell me your dreams

The other night I caused a small raucous at a very civilised dinner party when I refused to participate further in a conversation that for some of the others around the table they appeared to have fully engaged in. They were discussing green m & m’s and then bodies being decapitated and just before it started to really deteriorate I interrupted and stated I would not be a part of a conversation of this matter any further.

Because a few years ago I decided that I had had enough. I was not going to listen to (healthy) people bang on about what they dreamt about anymore.

Seriously, I find that there really is nothing more boring than listening to people talk about how interesting they find the content of their dreams. I would rather sit and listen to paint dry.

I totally agree that dreams can be absurd and weird. They can go from being terrifying to erotic to bizarre to banal. And sure, it is an interesting question – How on earth do our minds conjure up such ridiculous imagery, such inane thoughts, such spectacularly vivid and surreal landscapes, intense emotions—such narrative trash? But, I can guarantee that we will not answer this question around the dinner table.

Firstly, we all dream. And we probably dream a hell of a lot. But we don’t remember them all (thank the heavens, because then we’d be talking about it even more).

Dreaming occurs during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which accounts for about 20% of our sleep time. During sleep, we dream about every hour and a half (as the brain cycles in and out of REM sleep), and each dream period gets progressively longer. If you happen to remember your dream, chances are it’s simply because you woke up during it. Waking up during a dream is by far the best predictor of you remembering a dream. It’s fresh in your mind. Or it could be that you’re only remembering the last dream that you had. We tend to have most of our REM sleep in the second half of the night.

We will probably also remember our dreams when we’re experiencing other significant emotions as well. We’re more likely to remember our dreams if we are feeling anxious or down, perhaps because we’re waking up more when we’re worried. Maybe in the middle of dream.

And physical health gets in the way as well. Certain medications can supress REM sleep, including some anti-depressant medications, which makes it more difficult to remember dreams. As can sleep apnoea. Whilst there’s other medications, like the smoking cessation medication, Zyban which can cause vivid dreams which are reportedly easily recalled.

Over the last half-century, researchers have identified a few factors that may influence dream recall, from age and gender to specific personality traits. Studies on the biological basis of dreaming have found people with high dream recall show different patterns of neurological activity than their forgetful friends. Other researchers have looked at differences between men and women, younger and older people. In general, we remember our dreams more when we are younger. Probably because we are sleeping much more deeply. And women usually have higher dream recall then men.

And whilst we might claim that our dreams are sooooo surreal and bizarre, chances are they probably aren’t. There are patterns.

Older people report more death themes in their dreams. Male dreams have more sexual and aggressive content than female dreams, which have more themes dealing with home and family. Women report that they dream of their mothers and babies more when they are pregnant. Introverts report more dreams and with greater detail than extroverts. People who experience psychosis, depression and people who have occupations in the creative arts (musicians, painters, and novelists) report more nightmares. People with schizophrenia and severe depression provide shorter dream reports than those of better mental health. It is also reported that people experiencing depression dream of the past more than those who are not experiencing depression.

Environmental factors occurring before and during sleep can shape the content of dreams. What people experience prior to falling asleep can show up in dreams in blatant, subtle, or symbolic forms. People watching movies that evoke strong emotions tend to have highly emotional dreams. In fact, the greater the emotionality of a daily event, the greater the probability that the event will occur in a dream during the subsequent sleep period. Those who are wrestling mentally with a problem often dream about that problem. Some have even reported that the solutions to their problems occurred during the course of dreaming. The German physiologist Otto Loewi's Nobel Prize-winning research with a frog's nerve was inspired by a dream he had. Sometimes events during the day show up in a compensatory form in dreams. Those deprived of food, shelter, friends, or other desirables report an increased likelihood of dreaming about those deprivations at night.

Events occurring during sleep can be integrated into the dream plot as well. External stimuli such as temperature changes, light flashes, and various sounds can be detected by the sleeping person's senses and then become part of the dream. However, research indicates that sensory information is only infrequently assimilated into dreams. Internal stimulation from physiological activities occurring during sleep may have a greater chance of influencing the nature of dreams. Dreams about needing to find a bathroom may be caused in part by a full bladder. Similarly, nighttime activation of the vestibular system (which controls the sense of balance), the premotor cortex (which initiates movements), and the locus coeruleus (which plays a role in inhibiting muscles during sleep so that dreams are not acted out) perhaps can stimulate the production of dreams about falling, chasing, or being unable to move, respectively.

But more interestingly, our dreams are actually not all that unique. From the 1940s to 1985, Calvin S. Hall collected more than 50,000 dream reports at Western Reserve University. In 1966 Hall and Van De Castle published The Content Analysis of Dreams in which they outlined a coding system to study 1,000 dream reports from college students. It was found that people all over the world dream of mostly the same things.

Personal experiences from the last day or week are frequently incorporated into dreams. The most common emotion experienced in dreams is anxiety. Other emotions include pain, abandonment, fear, joy, etc. Negative emotions are much more common than positive ones.

Content-analysis studies have identified common reported themes in dreams. These include: situations relating to school, being chased, running slowly in place, falling, arriving too late, a person now alive being dead, a person who is dead being alive, teeth falling out (this is not uncommon Trudy Booker!), flying, future events such as birthdays, anniversaries, etc. (with different scenarios), embarrassing moments, falling in love with random people, failing an examination, not being able to move, not being able to focus vision, car accidents, being accused of a crime you didn't commit, suddenly finding yourself naked, going to the toilet, and many more.

The thing we really don’t know is why we actually dream. Why does the restorative function of human sleep require dreaming? There are plenty of theories around from Freud’s wish-fulfillment theory to evolutionary theories of external vigilance. But none yet confirmed.

What we do know though, is that what you’re dreaming about is probably not all that unique and unusual. So please, don't tell me about it.



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