New Study Looks at the Cause of Recurring Nightmares

CC BY 2.0. "The Nightmare" by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Detroit Institute of Arts

Do you dream of falling, failing or being attacked night after night? New research sheds some light on nightmares.

Dreaming is such a wonderfully curious experience. Last night I had a large pet octopus that scrambled and slurped across the floor; his name was Oscar and he was having a hard time being housetrained ... just another normal chapter in the surreal world of a nighttime brain. Sometimes things get very strange in there; is it any wonder that in antiquity, dreaming was thought to be supernatural communication to be interpreted by people with spiritual powers?

While dream interpretation remains a popular pastime, researchers have been studying the workings of the nighttime brain at least since Jung and Freud began mining the depths of the subconscious. Now, Netta Weinstein and her team from the University of Cardiff in the UK, have conducted two studies exploring whether people's day-to-day frustration or fulfillment of psychological needs plays out in their dreams.

The short answer is, not surprising, yes. And since we are often interested in sleep health and overall wellness around here, it seems an interesting topic to explore.

The researchers found that frustrations and emotions associated with specific psychological needs influence the goings-on in our dreams. “Participants whose so-called psychological needs were not met, either more enduringly or on a day-to-day basis, felt more frustrated,” notes the publisher of the paper. “They reported having more negative dream themes such as frightening dreams, or ones in which sad or angry emotions surfaced.”

They found specifically that when any of three psychological needs were not being met during waking hours – competence, autonomy, and relatedness – those people were more likely to have a recurring bad dream and to analyze their dreams negatively. From the paper:

"All three of these experiences reflect important occurrences in people’s daily functioning. The psychological need for competence refers to feeling effective in acting on the world and achieving desired outcomes. The psychological need for autonomy refers to experiencing a sense of choice and psychological freedom in one’s functioning. Finally, the psychological need for relatedness refers to feeling close and connected to others in one’s social sphere."

In the first of the two studies 200 participants were asked about their most common recurring dream; the other study analyzed entries of 110 participants’ "dream diaries." The researchers then looked at how experiences related to psychological needs during the day might be related to the “deeper level of processing that dreams provide, and that so-called "bad" dreams might be "left-overs" of poorly or even unprocessed daily experiences.”

The subjects with higher levels of frustration vis-à-vis their psychological needs reported recurring dreams characterized by negative themes, such as “falling,” “failing,” or “being attacked.”

(Interstingly, the study names nine of the most common negative dream themes: falling, being attacked or pursued, being frozen with fear, being locked up, the presence of fire, being nude in public, trying repeatedly to do something, failing an examination, being inappropriately dressed, and arriving too late. Good to know if you ever wanted to devise a nightmare bingo game.)

"Negative dream emotions may directly result from distressing dream events, and might represent the psyche's attempt to process and make sense of particularly psychologically challenging waking experiences," explains Weinstein.

The paper concludes that overall, “these studies suggest that waking-life psychological need experiences are indeed reflected in our dreams.” Which probably isn't really all that surprising. But to look at it in the context of the specific psychological needs analysed, it could be helpful in working backwards from a recurring nightmare to better understand that which vexes one during waking hours. Now if I could just figure out what dreaming about a pet octopus means...

The paper was published in Motivation and Emotion.