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What Are Nightmares Made Of?

• January 29, 2014 • 6:00 AM

The Nightmare. (Photo: Public Domain)

Pretty much exactly what you’d expect.

Few studies have delved into the dark details and emotions associated with nightmares, and even fewer have used dream logs as a basis for analysis.

As researchers at the University of Montreal note in a new study forthcoming in Sleep, daily logs are the so-called “gold standard” for this type of research because other evaluations, like interviews and questionnaires, can “yield inaccurate dream reports due to the fragile nature of dreams’ long-term recall as well as memory and saliency biases.”

When scientists ask a subject to recount the details of a nightmare, they’re more inclined to draw from the extreme fringes than the standard fare. “This may explain why themes of falling and of being chased are among the most frequently reported themes in studies based on questionnaire or interview data while appearing much less frequently in prospective logs,” the researchers write.

In this particular study, the psychologists asked 572 participants to record their dreams for two to five weeks. They were also asked to reflect on their emotions at the time of recording. After an analysis of “9,796 dream reports,” they whittled down the results to “253 nightmares and 431 bad dreams reported by 331 participants.” The researchers defined nightmares as dreams unpleasant enough to pull the participants out of sleep. Bad dreams were terrible, but did not cause the subjects to stir.

The main findings:

  • For nightmares, the vast majority of subjects reported experiencing some kind of “physical aggression.” The scientists defined this as: “Threat or direct attack to one’s physical integrity by another character, including sexual aggression, murder, being kidnapped or sequestered.”
  • The top-ranked theme for bad dreams (and second-ranked for nightmares) was “interpersonal conflicts,” or “conflict-based interaction between two characters involving hostility, opposition, insults, humiliation, rejection, infidelity, lying, etc.”
  • The third most popular narrative thread for both nightmares and bad dreams was “failure or helplessness.” This was defined as: “Difficulty or incapacity of the dreamer to attain a goal, including being late, lost, unable to talk, losing or forgetting something, and making mistakes.”
  • Unsurprisingly, the emotion of fear (as in being “terrified, horrified, frightened, scared, panicky”) was the most commonly cited for both bad dreams and nightmares. But nightmares were more emotionally intense.
  • Nightmares and bad dreams were much “more bizarre,” or “less rational and more unlike everyday life,” than your standard-issue prancing-through-fields brand of dreams. Nightmares also beat out bad dreams on this variable. One cited in the press release seems to elucidate this finding: “I’m in a closet. A strip of white cloth is forcing me to crouch. Instead of clothes hanging, there are large and grotesquely shaped stuffed animals like cats and dogs with grimacing teeth and bulging eyes. They’re hanging and wiggling towards me. I feel trapped and frightened.”
  • There were a few notable differences between sexes. Men had nightmares more often about disasters, calamities, and insects than did women. Women were twice as likely to have nightmares featuring “interpersonal conflicts.”
Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

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