science of us

Why Don’t We Dream About Our Smartphones?

Photo: Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm/Getty Images

A week ago, this tweet caught my eye, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. “As much as I use my smartphone,” it said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in any of my dreams.” It was so true — I really didn’t dream about my iPhone, as far as I could recall. And according to the tweet’s 55,000+ likes, nor did many other people. Now, I don’t expect dreams to represent reality, necessarily. At least 60 percent of my dreams feature airplanes shaped like my bedroom and supported by floppy, creaky iron wings. But for how frequently I look at my phone, I would expect some version of it — even a bizarro dreamland version — to appear semi-regularly in my dreams.

I asked Alice Robb, author of the forthcoming book Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey, to explain our phones’ relative absence from our dreams, and she introduced me to what’s called the “threat simulation hypothesis” of dreaming. “[This theory] basically suggests that the reason why we dream is that dreams allow us to work through our anxieties and our fears in a more low-risk environment, so we’re able to practice for stressful events,” says Robb. This hypothesis also posits that because our dreams are an evolved defense mechanism, we tend to dream more often about fears and concerns that were relevant to our ancestors — so, less about, say, hacking, and more about running from wild animals. “People tend not to dream quite as much about reading and writing, which are more recent developments in human history, and more about survival related things, like fighting, even if that has nothing to do with who you are in real life,” says Robb.

While the threat simulation hypothesis can be interpreted to support the tweet that started this whole thing, Robb tells me there’s also evidence to suggest it’s not totally accurate. (Shocking.) For instance, analyzing data from more than 16,000 dream reports, researchers have shown that cell phones appear in 3.55 percent of women’s dreams (and 2.69 percent of men’s) — not a huge number, but it’s higher than the frequency with which movies (3.18 percent), computers (1.2 percent), and airplanes (1.49 percent) appear in our dreams.

Certain life circumstances also make dreaming about one’s phone more likely, Robb tells me. “A lot of people have very intense dreams while they’re in mourning, and when people have dreams about the person who died, one common motif is that we’ll dream that the dead person is calling us,” she says.

But broadly speaking, says Robb, dreams are idiosyncratic, and it’s difficult to generalize — but it is true that the content of our dreams can be influenced by what we think about. Consider this: after spending several days thinking about how infrequently my phone appears in my dreams, I had a dream made up almost entirely of texting. And let me tell you, you’re not missing much.

Why Don’t We Dream About Our Smartphones?