If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night perplexed by your latest weird dream, you’re not alone. We all have some seemingly screwed up dreams. But did you know that many of our dreams stick to a handful of universal scripts?
Many researchers use “dream banks” ― collections of dream records from thousands upon thousands of people ― to identify common themes and patterns occurring in dreams. What’s more, by tracking what’s going on in their subjects’ waking lives when those dreams pop up (and even using brain scans), researchers are beginning to learn why we are all having so many of the same dreams each night. (Spoiler alert: it’s in part because we share many of the same underlying thoughts and feelings.)
We partnered with Sleep Number to share six of the most common dreams we have at night ― and what they could mean for your day ahead.
1. Taking a Test ... And Everything Going Wrong
Years after high school and college, many people still find themselves taking tests in their sleep ― typically, with horrible results, says Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving — And How You Can Too. Dreamers get into the exam room to realize that they’ve been studying for the wrong class, or showed up 30 minutes late. Meanwhile, those people who, as kids, got more worked up about sports tryouts or acting auditions than they did about pencil-and-paper exams often dream that they show up to those “tests” with the flu or forget their lines, Barrett says.
What it means: “People often have this dream at times in which they are feeling evaluated, either literally through something like a big performance review or in subtler ways,” Barrett says. For instance, you might have some anxiety about working with a new boss, or feel like your mother-in-law is scrutinizing your every move, she says. Consider any aspects of your life in which you currently feel tested, then focus on how you can crush them.
2. Being Naked (Or Inappropriately Dressed) In Public
Unless you’re a nudist, these dreams are never any fun. But, oddly enough, the degree of embarrassment we experience in-dream typically isn’t consistent with what we’d actually experience were we to show up to an event way underdressed, Barrett notes. For instance, in dreamland, if we’re at a concert buck naked, we might just stand there sheepishly. But if, in real life, we attended a black-tie dinner wearing flip-flops, our worlds might very well implode.
What it means: Such dreams typically point to social anxiety or fear of not being socially accepted. Barrett notes that these dreams tend to become more common in people’s teens and 20s, and thankfully let up in our 30s, 40s and 50s as we become more self-assured.
3. Your Teeth Falling Out
Losing your teeth ― whether from a swift punch or slow rot ― is both one of the most unnerving and the most common dream occurrences, says Berit Brogaard, director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami. She notes that in variations of the dream, some people instead lose an arm, leg or other body part.
What it means: This dream may be brought on by worry over an actual physical malady, Brogaard notes, or it could relate to a fear of loss ― of youth, beauty, strength or even aging family members. To get to the bottom of these dreams, Brogaard advises keeping a dream log in which you write down not just your dreams, but also things occurring in your life during the day and week before the dream. Look for common themes.
Phew, one of the fun ones! In this dream, you could be soaring through the clouds à la Iron Man or flapping your arms a couple of feet above the ground. No wonder lucid dreamers ― those who actually know when they are dreaming and, thus, are able to control what they do in their dreams ― often spend their nights flying, Brogaard says.
What it means: “It seems to be some type of metaphor for freedom,” Barrett says. In your waking life, you may feel that you’re in charge, discovering facets of yourself or faced with endless opportunities.
Occasionally in their “flying” dreams, people can suddenly feel out of control and scared of crashing to the ground, Barrett says. And according to Brogaard, It’s a widely referenced dream spanning time periods, countries and cultures.
What it means: Brogaard says that dreaming of falling or out-of-control flight might simply mean that you feel out of control in real life; that you’re trapped (the opposite of the freedom of the flying dream) or headed in the wrong direction. Again, a dream diary comes in handy here.
6. A Romantic Rendezvous With An Ex
“It’s very common for people from your past, including exes, to show up in dreams,” Brogaard says ― sometimes as innocent extras in your brain’s nighttime theater production, other times in romantic scenarios that play out as badly in your dreams as they could in real life. Maybe you get caught and lose your current significant other. Maybe your ex burns you just like he did all of those years ago.
What it means: If you actually miss your ex, or are thinking about cheating on your current partner, your dream’s meaning is obvious. However, Brogaard notes that these dreams are common even in people who are happily married and have no interest in anyone else. In these folks, who probably wake up from such dreams mystified, the dreams may point to unresolved heartache, she says. It’s time to find closure.
Whatever archetype it follows, know that a dream can potentially provide valuable insight into what’s weighing most heavily on our waking minds.
As Barrett points out, we’re still ourselves when we’re sleeping. “All of our usual hopes and fears are still there,” she explains. “Our dreams are just basically thinking in a different biochemical brain state, and are very consistent with our waking life concerns — even though they present themselves in these dramatic, highly visual ways.”
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