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The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Studies of the content of dreams confirm what most of us already suspect: dreams are more likely to be nasty than pleasant, or as the researchers put it, “negative dream contents are more frequent than corresponding positive dream contents”. A recent study reports that threatening experiences are more frequent and intense in dreams than in real life. All this is in line with the entertaining (and not implausible) ‘threat simulation theory’ of dreams, according to which the evolutionary function of dreams is to simulate threats so that our ancestors could spend their nights rehearsing attacks by enemies and predators.

So dreams have a serious negative bias. All of this might have been extremely useful back then. But an unwelcome consequence is that we spend a large portion of our life in pointless misery. Clinical depression is often understood as a disposition to obsessively accentuate the negative. It seems all of us are clinically depressed during certain hours of the night. Think of a human life and how many hours of sleep it contains. Of these, many are spent dreaming. And most of these dreams are unpleasant in different ways. If we add all this up, dreaming makes our lives significantly worse, on balance. Shouldn’t we do something about this?

If upon waking each of us spent a couple of hours in a state of intense anxiety, surely we would have sought some ways of mitigating this misfortune. Why are we so complacent about dreams? There is another bias at work here, the bias against what we don’t (or only rarely) remember. Even if we wake up from a nightmare, it is already in the past. And only those afflicted by the very worse dreams dread sleep. We go to sleep quite happy, indifferent to the unpleasantness ahead.

Proust somewhere wrote that “we do not include the pleasures we enjoy in sleep in the inventory of the pleasures we have experienced in the course of our existence.” Might we be right to be indifferent—after all that unpleasant is rarely remembered, it is utterly disconnected from the rest of our life. If two people had very similar waking lives, with similar amount of happiness, success, accomplishment, and so forth, yet the first has also had more unpleasant dreams, would we say that his life was worse? 

We might hesitate, but it’s hard to see how we could be right to deny this. Suppose that these two persons are approaching the end of their life. It seems to them that their two lives went equally well. But suppose that a letter arrives informing one of them that, unbeknownst to her, she was for many years the subjects of a horrific experiment. She would be woken up every night and given a series of electric shocks. But then she would be given a pill that put her immediately to sleep and made her forget what happened. Can we really believe  that being the subject of this experiment has not made her life worse in any way? (In answering this question, we need to focus on the pain she endured, not on the badness of the ill treatment she received.) But in what way is the (milder but more extensive) unpleasantness of dreams different?

So human lives are significantly worse than they could be, and nobody is doing anything about this. Of course humanity faces many greater problems. But our complete indifference to nocturnal miseries is still odd and irrational. Perhaps dreams can be eliminated, perhaps they can be made more pleasant. Perhaps things should be left just as they are, perhaps there are great benefits to simulating threats every night. We don’t have the answers because we never seriously considered the question.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Perhaps the positive valence Nietzsche confers upon suffering as necessary to the “economy of the soul” should be extended to include the suffering we experience nocturnally. Perhaps even this latter realm of suffering is integral to that “chaos within oneself” required to “give birth to a dancing star.”

    Also, for what it’s worth, Werner Herzog has said that he considers his film-making a kind of compensation for the fact that he retains in memory no vestiges of a dream-life.

  2. I believe dreams are an important part of our subconscious minds and drill our minds on fears, challenges and desires. More than trying to eliminate them, we should try to understand them.

    Now, changing tme possitively would certainly be fun.

  3. My dreams when I was a child were highly negative – almost all were fear based. It took on a fair amount of significance but in a sense that one isn’t driven to do a lot about it maybe because it isn’t expected that one can and you don’t know how one would go about it.

    One of my friends used to say no matter what he did his subconcious was always smarter than him. Well I was smarter than my subconcious – so I started lucid dreaming and took control. Now my dreams are usually pretty neutral – and sometimes positive. Now negative dreams just result in a flurry of defense mechanisms.

  4. Richard,

    No doubt many ‘threatening experiences’ in dreams are only mildly unpleasant, and some may even be pleasant. Others may involve significant stress. This presumably varies from person to person. But I doubt we can speak with confidence even about our own case, given that we remember so few of our dreams.

    What is certainly correct is that a measure of the frequency of threatening experiences is only an indirect measure of unpleasantness. But the assumption that a negative bias in dream content is also correlated with a bias towards unpleasantness seems to me plausible.

    Many people do enjoy seeing horror movies (importantly, some don’t). Does anyone enjoy nightmares?

  5. Also in relation to the paper – I’m inclined to think that it is dodgy logic to argue that dreams have a purpose related to fear just because they tend to contain fear. Dreams are ancient things in evolutionary terms they are hundreds of millions of years old and are now intimately entwined with brain functionality as opposed to being recent “add-on”s. They need not have a consistent objective from when we were little frogs to now we are humans.

    I think dreams and the effect they are observing is a product of the lack of independent outside stimulus and how brains evolved such that evidence of it existing is not strong evidence of any specific evolutionary driver.

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