Men and women have different nightmares

Mar 24, 2010 by Lin Edwards report
A child sleeping (Sleep)
A child sleeping. Image: Alessandro Zangrilli, via Wikipedia.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Almost everyone has nightmares at some time in their lives, while a few have nightmares almost every night, but no one is quite certain what they mean. Now scientists in Germany carrying out one of the largest ever studies on nightmares have found there are clear differences in the nightmares of men and women, and while the nightmares may not have a direct correspondence to the waking life they probably do reflect the sleeper's deepest concerns and emotions.

Nightmares usually occur during REM sleep, and are defined as disturbing mental experiences. They often cause the dreamer to awaken. The last few years have seen an increase in the number of publications about the frequency and psychopathology of nightmares, but there have been few systematic studies of the content of nightmares in adults.

The study, carried out by Dr Michael Schredl of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, involved over 2,000 people, who were asked to report on their bad dreams. The results were that 48% reported never experiencing nightmares, 10% said they had them a few times a year, and nearly 5% reported having frightening dreams at least every couple of weeks. The most common topics were falling, being late, paralyzed or chased, and losing loved ones.

The study found nightmares about being fired from a job, or about violence were more common in men, while for women nightmares of sexual harassment or a death of a loved one were more prevalent. Women were also more likely to have bad dreams about losing their hair or teeth, perhaps suggesting an about becoming unattractive. Both genders reported nightmares about failing exams, and they could have such dreams even if they were not students.

Dr Schredl said nightmares about being paralysed, falling, or being chased do not usually correspond directly to experiences in the dreamer’s waking life, but may reflect waking fears. For example, being chased by a monster in a might be a metaphor for a daytime fear of a task the dreamer would like to avoid. Dr Schredl said more research is needed to investigate the “possible metaphoric relationship” between nightmares and stressors in waking-life.

The results of the study are published in a paper in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience journal.

Explore further: When it comes to depressed men in the military, does size matter?

More information: Nightmare frequency and nightmare topics in a representative German sample, Michael Schredl, European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, DOI:10.1007/s00406-010-0112-3

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fourthrocker
2.4 / 5 (5) Mar 24, 2010
No one is quite certain what dreams and nightmares mean? I am. They don't mean anything. I remember most of mine and I am old enough to remember a lot. They have no meaning whatsoever. They are disjointed amalgams of daily experience and random stuff. The only time I have a so-called nightmare is when I am sick. I seem to have several types of dreams. Non-visual ones are the most disjointed. The visual ones can be as real as real life, sometimes I am not sure if I am awake or dreaming when I have these, they are the best. Then there is the occasional lucid dream which seem to happen more often as I get older. Not only do they not mean anything they hardly ever are about what I would like to dream about so they don't even fulfill desires. You can believe they mean something but you will be wasting your time looking for that meaning, you won't find any.
Skeptic_Heretic
4 / 5 (2) Mar 24, 2010
It appears nightmares are linked to concious thought process and attitude, as expected.

JJC
3.6 / 5 (5) Mar 24, 2010
Even if nightmares are formed from random/nonsensical neural firing, it is still interpreted in a meaningful way in your brain.

So, at the very least nightmares can tell you about how your brain makes sense out of the world. For example, if you are always losing your hair (article example) in a dream, it might indicate that your mind tends to interpret things in terms of attractiveness.

If your dreams are meaningless and disjointed, you may have a tendency in life to interpret events as random or purposeless. What your brain does is always a reflection of you, even in dreams.
Rynox77
3 / 5 (2) Mar 24, 2010
Have you ever seen the optical illusion where you stare at an image for 30 seconds, then stare at a blank wall? The image remains in your eyes in a form as the nerves in your eyes neutralize. I always assumed a similar process is at work in your conscious while you sleep. Dreams, thus, may relate to experiences you've had or may be creative projections of your mind.
Simonsez
1.5 / 5 (2) Mar 24, 2010
I have to agree with most of the suggestions presented above, based on my own experience. Having never experienced what I would call a nightmare, and thus lacking a proper understanding of why people feel terror in dreams, I have to surmise that the experience of a nightmare is simply a bad reaction to the events acknowledged in the dream. For instance, the article mentions that among the most common nightmares are falling (I have had dreams where I was falling, they were not frightening), being late (I have felt this at times in dreams, but never to a point of distress), teeth falling out (this happened once in a dream, though strangely the next day when I awoke I noticed I had a cavity! still wasn't scary) and death of a loved one (had this happen in a dream, but was not moved to distress). Perhaps one reason I am not bothered by the events of dreams is that I usually am able to understand that it is a dream, and in fact I have lucid dreams often enough for it to be familiar.
Simonsez
1 / 5 (1) Mar 24, 2010
cont'd. Again from experience, my dreams seem to have always been a combination of real life events and places, either recalled during the day or not recalled but stored in memory and randomly accessed, as well as simple conjecture and imagination/daydreaming that occurred throughout the day or previous days. Often in dreams I feel somewhat confused, but only because I get false feelings of familiarity/recognition for objects or people. It is rare that people I know in the waking world are part of my dreams, and usually the faces of the people in my dreams "blank out" upon waking and I can only remember a few details. There are a handful of dreams I can vividly recall from as early as 4 years old, which amazes me. I would love to take part in a study someday; hopefully brainwave reading technology will improve in coming years and we can finally understand what causes dreams to be remembered versus not remembered, and what causes them to be formulated at all.
fourthrocker
2 / 5 (1) Mar 24, 2010
Almost everything in dreams feels familiar, people, places, things. I used to think that it really was but it's a false impression, a characteristic of dreams. My IQ seems to be about half normal, always, like I am only using half my brain when dreaming. I have seen and heard amazing things. Several times I have experienced music and it has always been incredibly beautiful and nothing I ever heard before. I wish I could get into that state voluntarily. The unconscious mind seems to have a talent for music that the conscious normally doesn't.
designmemetic
2 / 5 (1) Mar 24, 2010
Nature vs Nurture? Do we dream about monsters chasing us because we evolved genetically to have brains that categorizes objects and events into a predator vs prey schema? We might think of all fear experience as residing in the same portion of the brain and hierarchal in organization such that a consciously specific fear of receiving a bill we can't afford to pay gets interpreted along the following cognitive path. . . Fear (chemical pathway represented internally by elevated heart rate, and biological response) > Avoidance strategy (chemical pathway/cognitive megastructure typically represented by being chased and activation of analysis protocols to identify a single threat point and move away from it). When strengthening the paths regarding bills and creating long term associations to avoid bills, a representation of bills as some monster would be more effective in addressing (locating in the mind's architecture) a the specific monster class known as un-payable bills.
Caliban
2.5 / 5 (2) Mar 24, 2010
While it would be extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive, I've always thought that a much more comprehensive approach would be necessary to actually have any real hope of successfully discovering the relationship(if any) between waking and dreaming life.
Wouldn't it be more useful, for instance, to assess participants' personalities, keep daily journals of waking/dreaming life, and then try to discover correlations from a holistic perspective?
And if any significant common sybols or themes emerged, would they be universal- at least in a cultural context? Useful?
I suspect that, as a rule, dreams don't arise from a vacuum, or are just the brain in idle while the body repairs itself during sleep cycles. Though it seems likely that this is true some of the time.
From my own experience, I can say that many times my dreams have been explicitly linked to day-to-day life and to significant life events. More often, though, the connection isn't obvious at all.
xamien
4 / 5 (1) Mar 25, 2010
While I will accept that most of the people responding to this article with regard to their own dreams and nightmares appear to have few of them, I will object to the basis for which these individuals summarily make judgments for the dreams and nightmares of others and what causes them. For the most part, I seldom have nightmares and dreams myself, but when I do, they are particularly vivid and drawn out in great detail. Does this mean something? Perhaps. It is much too early make any useful conclusions while the experimenters are busy gathering the data.
Simonsez
3 / 5 (1) Mar 25, 2010
While I will accept that most of the people responding to this article with regard to their own dreams and nightmares appear to have few of them, I will object to the basis for which these individuals summarily make judgments for the dreams and nightmares of others and what causes them.

I don't make any claim to know the cause of a nightmare, though I think it is sound logic to suggest that it is very likely dreams are typically amalgams of daily experiences + thoughts + subconscious daydreaming/imagination. That said, I think it is also a sound argument that at a base level, one could describe a nightmare as the very upsetting/negative reaction to events of a dream. My reasoning for that argument is as I stated above, due to the realization after reading this article that I have experienced dreams with the subject matter of the "most common nightmares" yet I was not moved to terror as seems to be the common factor among those who experience traditional nightmares.
superhuman
not rated yet Mar 28, 2010
I suspect dreams are there to subtly influence our conscious mind and align it's goals with those of our biological instinct. This is mostly done using emotions that dreams invoke their details are often random and irrelevant.

For example if you are single you may dream about potential partners and sex but you will be unlikely to reach satisfaction and a bit of that frustration will unconsciously carry over into your awaken life priming you to seek it then. If you have a young child you may dream about something happening to it which will prime you to be more protective. If your job is an important source of your self-confidence you may dream about losing it which should prime you to work to avoid it, and so on.

So that makes dreams a tool of our instinct, used to show us hypothetical situations and emotions they invoke. By showing us what will be rewarded by positive emotions and what punished by negative ones it can influence our actions and align them with our biological goal.