Fascinating science behind dreamsComment on this story
London - According to Germanic folklore, nightmares were brought by an evil goblin which sat on people’s chests while they slept.
Ancient Asian tribes thought that if you wrote down your bad dreams on clay tablets and threw them in a river, they would be banished for ever.
The psychiatrists Freud and Jung thought it wasn’t nearly so easy as that, and were convinced the dreamer was reliving some painful experience from the past.
Perhaps our natural desire to forget nightmares — which are defined by those who study them as so unpleasant they wake us up — and bad dreams (which don’t break our sleep) as quickly as possible is why they’ve been neglected as a subject for scientific research. Like the things we imagine are lurking under the bed, we’d just rather not look.
Now, however, the most comprehensive study of the phenomenon ever undertaken has cast a new light on the terrors that haunt our night-time hours. Psychologists at the University of Montreal have discovered there’s a gender gulf in the dark corners of our unconscious minds.
The survey — where 572 respondents kept diaries about almost 10 000 dreams — revealed men and women have their sleep disturbed by very different torments.
Men’s nightmares and bad dreams were more likely to feature themes of disaster or calamity such as floods, earthquakes and war. Conversely, inter-personal conflicts such as those with a spouse, relative or work colleague were much more frequent in women’s nightmares — and much more rare with men.
The people who appear in bad dreams also vary fundamentally between men and women. The latter usually have nightmares about people and in settings they know, while many of the scenes and characters in men’s nightmares are completely fictitious.
There are several possible explanations for all this, Professor Antonio Zadra, the study’s co-author and one of the world’s top dream researchers, tells me.
It could be down to evolution and, for instance, the male’s deeply ingrained role as the protector, always on the lookout for physical threats to his family. Some experts believe the main reason we dream is to rehearse in our minds how to survive dangerous situations.
“In men’s case, nightmares could be a throwback to those times when their survival was based on the fight-or-flight response,” says Dr Zadra.
Another theory is based on the assumption that all our dreams are rooted in our real-life interests and fears. In “real life”, men and boys like to watch horror films and thrillers, whereas women prefer emotional dramas. And so that’s how it is in the nocturnal drama of our nightmares.
Another gender difference that surprised Dr Zadra was that men are far more prone to nightmares about insects, snakes and rats. He admits he would have expected the opposite, but suggests that while creepy-crawlies may be scary to us all, “they don’t humiliate or anger us”. In short, they don’t have that “relationship dimension” that absorbs women — so women don’t dream about them.
The study also found that men’s bad dreams and nightmares tend to be more aggressive and unremittingly negative. What people may not realise is that most nightmares start off fairly inoffensively, but then a “trigger” event sends the dream downhill.
Men’s dreams become nasty more quickly and stay that way, says Dr Zadra. Furthermore, while women often have a character in their dreams trying to help them, men are more alone in their nightmares with no one on their side. It isn’t just that women have different bad dreams to men — they also appear to have significantly more of them, the study found, which chimes with previous research.
It might simply be because women are more interested in their dreams and so tend to recall them better, says Dr Zadra.
But he suspects it goes deeper than that: people who suffer frequent nightmares tend to be more prone to anxiety and depression. And we know, he says, that such disorders are more common in women than in men.
The study also showed that we don’t have the sort of nightmares we think we have. That cliche of plunging helplessly through the air hardly ever torments us — falling themes occurred in just over one per cent of all nightmares and bad dreams.
The same was true of suffocating, drowning and feeling paralysed.
Even that other supposed nightmare favourite, being chased, came well down the list of most common themes.
Dreams, of course, are very fragile — we forget them quickly unless we write them down immediately. The reason we may think so many nightmares are about falling, suffocating or being pursued by a horrible monster, Dr Zadra believes, is because they are the sort of intense experiences that burn themselves into our memory — regardless of how little they actually crop up when we dream.
So, if not falling off a skyscraper or fleeing some unnameable terror down endless dark corridors, what really haunts our dreams most?
At the top of the list was physical aggression, including murder, rape and kidnap. These featured in nearly half of all nightmares, but only in a fifth of bad dreams. Next came interpersonal conflicts — such as rows, insults, infidelity and rejection — which made their way into just over 20 percent of nightmares and more than a third of bad dreams.
Failure or helplessness — including being late, lost, unable to talk, forgetting or losing something and making mistakes — came third. That was followed by health-related concerns and death, and then by a general feeling of apprehension or worry.
But what is it that sets off a nightmare? There’s good evidence that they are not random, and do relate to the dreamer’s everyday life.
Studies have shown that the periods when we suffer particular stress and emotional turmoil are the times when we experience nightmares most.
To understand them, Dr Zadra says, you have to know quite a lot about the dreamer. “Me dreaming of being stuck in my car is not the same as it would be for a car mechanic or someone who commutes in one for an hour a day,” he says.
“I live in Montreal and we have a lot of snow,” says Dr Zadra. “In a dream I could be in the car with my wife, my wheels are spinning wildly in the snow, and we’re not going anywhere. That could be a metaphor, maybe, for being stuck in a relationship which I want to work but it won’t go anywhere.”
The Montreal team also found a similar divide between the sexes while studying erotic dreams. “The overwhelming number of characters in women’s erotic dreams are people they know — their partner or ex-partner, a colleague at work,” Dr Zadra explains.
“In men’s dreams, the characters are usually complete creations. They don’t see themselves having sex with their wives or girlfriends, not even movie stars. The women they dream of are fabrications or composites of people.”
This certainly craves an explanation. “I don’t want to sound like a chauvinistic pig by using stereotypes,” says the professor. “But broadly speaking, intimate relations are much more emotionally meaningful and salient to women than they are to men.”
And so for females, an intimate act is much more likely to involve someone who is meaningful to them in real life.
So what can we do if we want to block out either an erotic dream we’d rather not have, or a nightmare that won’t go away?
Experts favour a technique called “image rehearsal therapy”, which involves the sufferer re-imagining the dream, but changing something about it.
“Some people change the whole thing, some the ending and some just change a tiny detail such as the colour of a wall,” Dr Zadra says. There is compelling evidence from tests on trauma victims that the dream rarely recurs.
There’s another reason not to fear that leering goblin crouched over our sleeping bodies. In 22 percent of nightmares and 38 percent of bad dreams, no matter how alarming they had been, there was some sort of happy ending. And that didn’t mean simply waking up. - Daily Mail