Dark Dreams

Here’s another reason to prefer reality over dreams; dreams are darker:

We collected dream reports (N=419) and daily event logs (N=490) from 39 university students during a two-week period, and interviewed them about real threat experiences retrievable from autobiographical memory (N=714). Threat experiences proved to be much more frequent and severe in dreams than in real life, and Current Dream Threats more closely resembled Past than Current Real Threats.

If someday we have tech to suppress dreams (or at least memories of them), will it be considered cruel to allow your kids to dream?  HT to Tyler.

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  • Christopher M

    It seems highly implausible to suggest so, even from a utility-maximizing perspective, once you consider the utility people get from contemplating their dreams, taking ideas from them, realizing aspects of their selves through them, finding in them a useful set of symbols for their goals, desires, and fears, and just enjoying that wonderful feeling of waking up from a bad dream, coming back into normal consciousness, and realizing that it wasn’t real.

  • Aaron

    It’s been suggested that dreams can function as a “virtual playground”, where various scenarios can be practiced. Trying different reactions and judging their efficacy without the danger of real-life seems like it could be useful.

  • poke

    Most people don’t remember dreams unless they make an effort to or their sleep is interrupted. Even then, it takes some effort to remember them after waking, rather than letting the memory fade. I don’t think we’d lose much if we could never remember them.

  • Daniel Yokomizo

    OTOH there’s no equivalent to lucid dreaming in reality.

  • Daniel: OTOH there’s no equivalent to lucid dreaming in reality.

    I don’t know what you mean, but I’m usually aware that I’m having a dream, and I attribute my being able to overcome nightmares I had in childhood to developing skills for controlling dream environment, modifying objects operating in the dream and performing actions on them to ensure comfortable scenarios, editing out elements that would otherwise contribute to nightmares. May have something to do with me being a kinesthetic/visual thinker. Dreams certainly don’t give reality-resolution experience, but they are not uncontrollable.

  • ShardPhoenix

    I personally wouldn’t mind not having dreams, at least as long as there weren’t any negative side effects. Most of them lean towards the bad, having a particularly bad dream can leave me feeling melancholy for quite a while after I wake up.

  • interesting. i love dreaming, but i love writing fiction too, so maybe i have a good relationship with my unconscious mind.

    if dreams are proto-fiction, should we look at fiction to see if similarly it’s more negative than reality, and perhaps biases us (what is this bias called, fiction bias?) would we want to surpress fiction in the future to increase wellbeing? i hope not 🙂

  • Dreamer

    I personally couldn’t live without dreams – even when they’re traumatic and harrowing they’re far more thrilling and enjoyable than anything that happens in my daily life, and I have quite an interesting daily life. Dreaming for me is like watching a stunningly good film in which I’m the star – and as Christopher M said above, they’re definitely a creativity aid.

  • steve

    I don’t think it is automatically in our best interests to remove threat experiences (or the memories thereof) from our lives, particularly if we can only remove some and not others.

    As long as dealing with threats is part of living, developing methods of dealing with threat experiences is a positive. This can only happen if we are exposed to them, even (especially?) if they are the unconscious kind.

    The real cruelty is to cultivate a child’s blind belief in her own total security.

  • jamie

    Am I the only one who loves nightmares?

  • Funny you should post this today – last night I actually had a dream about you (Robin Hanson), in which for some reason I was trying to give you investment advice.* In the dream, I suggested that “chemical toilets” (the kind that don’t flush, but which contain substances or specialized bacteria to break down waste so that it doesn’t pose a sanitation hazard) would be a good market, as flush toilets will be “on their way out” within the next 5 years due to concerns about water waste and the need to maintain potable supplies.

    Seriously, I have no idea where that came from, but when I woke up I actually considered sending an e-mail suggesting a post about dreams and their relationship to bias. That is, how often do people (perhaps without telling anyone else) make decisions or take actions based on elements of their dreams? And of those that do engage in dream-driven behavior while awake, which ones are perhaps doing so in ways that are rational? I would think that for fiction authors and painters, dreams could provide a ready source of interesting images to work with. However, for folks making decisions regarding, say, what to invest in or what projects to pursue, dreams are probably a very poor guide (at most, perhaps, causing a person to consider an avenue of thought they might not have considered before).

    * Disclaimer: I know next to nothing about investing, and have never studied it in any depth.

  • My personal experience would agree with the findings – the threats I experience in dreams tend to be much more severe than threats I experience in reality. However, the emotional impact of those threats while dreaming is minuscule compared to the emotional impact the same events would have in reality.

    Horrid things can happen while dreaming, but for some reason, they don’t feel horrid. They feel… peculiar.

    It’s just a dream.

  • And I wouldn’t do away with dreams because they’ve given me valuable, attitude-changing experiences which pointed me on the right track emotionally.

  • I don’t think we’d lose much if we could never remember [dreams].

    We wouldn’t, but others might, given the psychological criterion of personal identity and the fact that we are often psychologically disconnected from those who dream. The question is whether we are required, by something other than self-interest, to either allow dreamers to dream, or to prevent them from dreaming–and thereby perhaps from being born.

  • mark

    Am I the only one who almost never have dreams at all (or never remembers them, which is effectively the same thing)?

    I have maybe one or two dreams per month that I can remember at all, and far fewer than that which actually have a discernable plot. Probably less than 25% are “nightmares”, and those aren’t really scary (in the “waking up in a cold sweat” sense) – they just involve my being in some dangerous situation (for some reason, I’ve had several dreams in which I was playing in surf which gradually rose until I was dodging 20-foot breakers).

  • Andy Wood

    I would expect dreaming tendencies to be an individual thing. Most people I’ve talked to about it do report frequent bad dreams, while I almost never (less than once a year) have negative dreams. My brother has lucid dreams exclusively, while I have probably had less than 10 in my lifetime. Most people report not remembering their dreams, but I remember at least 2-3 every night in a fair amount of detail, and my brother remembers almost all of his dreams. I’ve always noticed that most people do not share my experience of having only fun, happy, interesting dreams. This has always been totally independent of how happy or horrible my waking life was at any given time.

    As an interesting aside, my brother and I have each confirmed that we do arithmetic correctly in dreams.

  • Very interesting post! And, on a related note, just a few days ago at Buddhist Geeks, there was a nice podcast, titled Dream Practices: Comparing Dream Yoga and Lucid Dreaming in which B. Alan Wallace compares and contrasts two dream practices, viz. Dream Yoga (originating with yogi Naropa) and Lucid Dreaming (pioneered by Dr. Stephen LaBerge). ‘Dream Yoga’ is employed by some Tibetan Buddhists in their spiritual practices.

  • Toni

    Sure, that’s why we have a name for bad dreams (“nightmare”) but none for good dreams. I think to discuss the issue of dream suppression we should better understand their purpose (either some sort of evolutionary thing or just how they affect your mind’s housekeeping).