Dreams are strange, misunderstood things. This week, Science of Us is exploring the latest research that helps explain what they are, what they might mean, and how they affect our waking lives.
I have this recurring dream, maybe once every couple weeks or so: I’m in the grocery store, pushing my cart up and down the aisles. I fill it up with all the things on my list; I pay; I start heading home, shopping bags in tow.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing. It feels like kind of a raw deal, to be honest, when other people spend their dreams flying or making out with unattainable celebrities or doing any of the other stuff they can’t do during waking hours. The possibilities are limitless, and I’m stocking up on pantry staples.
But the unfairness of it all has always bugged me less than the possible reason behind it: If I’m consistently stuck with mundane dreams while others are living it up in their own sleeping brains — is that an unflattering reflection of something in my personality? Do boring dreams, in other words, make me a boring person?
This, readers, is the story of one boring dreamer’s quest for validation.
My first stop was a chat with Robert Stickgold, who heads up the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School – and, as it turns out, knows how to soothe a gal’s dream-related anxieties. You can be interesting and still recall only deeply uninteresting dreams, he explained: Because we remember dreams by waking up from them, a dream’s bizarreness (or lack thereof) may have less to do with our inner lives and more to do with where we are in the sleep cycle when we awaken. Dreams are most common and most vivid during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep; someone who constantly dreams of more mundane things, then, may be waking up more often from a non-REM phase of sleep.
And there are likely more of us in this sad little club than it seems. It’s just that some members don’t know it. “I think those banal dreams are much more common than people think, because they don’t stick in our memory and we don’t share them with other people,” he says. Don’t get too smug about your dreamworld adventures, in other words; you’re probably grocery shopping, too. No one is immune.
But even the most ordinary dreams, he argues, are rarely as ordinary as we remember them to be, because dream logic operates by different, looser rules than waking logic. Unless you can remember every nitty-gritty detail of your dream, your memory might be glossing over something that seemed normal at the time, but would look pretty weird by the light of day.
“In a dream, if you came back to your Volkswagen bug and saw two elephants sitting in the backseat, you wouldn’t say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s physically impossible, you could never fit two elephants in the back of a Volkswagen.’ And you wouldn’t say, ‘Why would there be two elephants in my Volkswagen?’” he says. “What you would say is, ‘I left the car locked.’ [People] sort of get a sense that something’s not right, and then they come up with a completely inappropriate explanation.”
To be fair, maybe you could somehow squeeze two large animals into the back of a Volkswagen. Maybe they’re babies, or the car is one of those novelty limos, or something else that’s a pretty big stretch but not a thousand percent impossible to rule out. But even dream events that more explicitly defy the laws of the universe, Stickgold adds, are subject to the same treatment: “You’re flying. You don’t say to yourself, ‘Oh, cool, I’m dreaming.’ You say ‘I’m awful high up,’ or ‘This is a lot of fun.’ So we tend not to notice the bizarreness, even the impossible forms of bizarreness, in our dreams. We just take it.” We’re more likely to remember dreams when they have a stronger emotional pull; if we accept a crazy circumstance with a matter-of-fact shrug, then, instead of something like wonder or terror or joy, chances are higher that we won’t carry the memory of it into our waking lives.
Evolutionarily, though, that acceptance likely worked in our favor — even if it means we can recall fewer nighttime adventures, it also helps to keep us safe. Alternate dream logic holds up because, apart from lucid dreamers, we rarely question whether or not we’re dreaming, in either dreams or waking life. “That perfectly normal-looking man is coming at me with a knife, I must be dreaming — that’s not what you want your mind to think at that point,” Stickgold says. Instead, we tend to swallow whatever reality we perceive, because it’s to our detriment not to. (This is also one possible reason why most dreams become increasingly negative over time —the incongruencies build up, leaving us with a mounting sense of unease, but no reason to assume that whatever’s happening isn’t real.)
So if we can accept whatever we dream, are there any limits to what’s dreamable? I’d read once, for example, that everyone we encounter in dreams is someone we’ve seen before, even if we don’t remember — that our dreaming brain, in other words, is incapable of making up new faces from scratch. It’s comforting to think that in this regard, at least, everyone has a certain lack of dream imagination. Anyway, I know I’m not alone when I’m dream-shopping; I never remember specific faces, but it’s kind of cool to think they’re all people I’ve laid eyes on in waking life.
It’s also something that doesn’t have much grounding in research. When I brought it up to Dylan Selterman, a psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, he dismissed it as “a romantic idea” with no factual basis: “People tend to dream about their family, friends, significant others much more frequently than strangers,” he says, but that’s no reason to assume that we couldn’t. And anyway, it’d be impossible to prove.
In fact, when it comes to dreams, there doesn’t really seem to be any territory that’s off-limits. “Here’s the conundrum: If I can think of something that people never dream of, I can dream it,” Stickgold says. You can dream up anything that your waking imagination can concoct.
Which brings my anxiety back full circle: If I can dream anything, then what type of person would stay with their feet on the ground and their hands on the shopping cart? Am I choosing this on some level? Maybe it’s indifference — not that I can’t conceptualize cool, crazy dream scenarios, but that I just don’t care enough to explore them.
But Selterman explained that there isn’t really any one overarching trait that would influence the frequency of boring dreams — not indifference, not lack of imagination, not any other of the undesirable things my nervous brain had been running through. While there’s still likely some variability in how often people have exciting dream experiences, the link between dreaming style and personality isn’t something that’s been firmly established, Selterman says: “Dreams are kind of a parallel to people’s waking consciousness,” but they tend to be shaped by more fleeting things like emotions and life events, and less by something as fixed as personality.
Granted, there are a few exceptions here, too: More creative people tend to have more vivid dreams, and Selterman says there’s some evidence that athletes and other very physically active people do, too, a pattern that may be related to their heightened spatial awareness. People with insecure attachment styles, meanwhile, tend to have more negative dreams about the people closest to them, often with themes of betrayal, abandonment, or jealousy.
But all three examples, Selterman says, are “less about bizarreness and more about vividness and clarity, and maybe even emotional intensity.” It’s both good news and bad news: The only thing really uniting us boring dreamers, it seems, is our own disappointment with our dreaming lives. It could be worse. At least dream me always has a fully stocked fridge.