Bad Dreams Are Like Dress Rehearsals for Your Mind

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Photo: Grant Faint

Many nightmares are as strange as they are scary. Take a few I’ve had just this week: A bear chased me. A bad boss from a former job inexplicably showed up at my current job just to torment me. An angry orange man accepted the presidential nomination from a major political party — whoops, ha-ha, no, that one’s real. The point is that it’s often hard to see the point of bad dreams; if they address things you’re worried about in your waking life, they often do so only in the abstract.

There are, as Nautilus reports this week, a few schools of thought when it comes to the meaning of dreams: One is that they have no meaning — they’re your mind’s way of shuffling around new and old information before filing that information away somewhere. But other researchers theorize that dreams may be “a form of threat simulation,” writes Jim Davies, a cognitive scientist at Carleton University. They’re your brain’s way of getting you prepped for the bad stuff that could happen when you wake up, in other words. Davies explains:

It turns out that mental practice has been shown in over 30 sports to be as helpful as physical practice. A now-classic study of mental exercise, for example, shows that golfers who visualized putting a ball into a hole performed 30 percent better than they did on a prior attempt. There’s something about exercising your motor system in an inner, idealized environment that makes you perform better. But if you get too much mental practice you start to get too disconnected from reality. So … dreaming about being chased can help you when you really are being chased because, even if the dream’s scary, it’s a form of “positive imagery.”

Likewise, nightmares could be the brain’s way of sorting through — and, in the process, defanging — some of the intense emotions you carry around with you all day. “What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are,” as Scientific American phrased it in a 2011 article on dreaming. “Our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it.” The science of dreaming, like dreaming itself, is just wonderfully weird.