This article originally appeared on AlterNet.
There aren’t many things that fascinate, frighten, sadden, intrigue, confuse or enlighten us more than dreams. While science seems stumped about dreams, artists are inspired, creating countless books, movies, poems, paintings, dances and plays about dreams in an effort to understand more about this mysterious unconscious existence we enter when we sleep.
More than 100 years after Freud wrote "The Interpretation of Dreams," we still aren’t exactly sure what a dream really is. Science tells us that our sensory abilities (like vision, hearing, etc.) reside in various areas of the neocortex of our brains, and that during sleep these various areas fire randomly, producing illusions that seem disjointed and enigmatic. (In other words, dream-like.) Freud theorized that dreams were manifestations of our deepest, sometimes darkest desires. Still others have posited that dreams are sort of virtual simulations in which we rehearse threatening situations in case they happen to us in real life (and in fact some dream studies have shown that 70 percent of dreams involve threats of some kind).
Dreams often draw on our memories, but because long-term memory is associated with another part of the brain, the hippocampus, and the neocortex and the hippocampus don’t communicate well during sleep, our memory dreams are often fragmented and rarely follow a sensible plot line. We also have different kinds of dreams during different stages of sleep. Dreams during early REM sleep (a lighter phase of sleep) tend to incorporate recent memories from our waking hours. Dreams during late-night REM sleep tend toward the strange and fragmented. Non-REM sleep (a deeper sleep) tends to produce shorter but more straightforward dreams.
In the end, we still don’t know why any of this is so, although there is some speculation that dreams help integrate new memories with past experiences. There is also evidence that the free association of dreams helps the brain to be more creative and solve problems more efficiently.
Amerisleep, an online mattress company, recently did a survey of more than 2,000 men and women across America to see how their dreams compared. While the results aren’t strictly scientific, they paint an interesting picture of the shadow world we spend a third of our lives traveling through.
1. The subjects of recurring dreams.
Dreams may start recurring at any point in our lives, but the survey participants most commonly reported (39 percent) that they began having recurring dreams in childhood, while 21 percent said adolescence, and 15 percent said as adults. A full 25 percent said they had never had a recurring dream.
It is rare to find a single person who has not had a dream about falling. Indeed, over 53 percent of the survey participants report recurring dreams about falling. Not far behind are recurring dreams about being chased (almost 51 percent). Here are some of the other most reported recurring dreams (rounded up to the nearest percent):
- Being back in school (38 percent)
- Being unprepared for a test or event (34 percent)
- Flying (33 percent)
- Having sex with someone you shouldn’t be having sex with (32 percent)
- Encountering someone who has died in real life (31 percent)
- Death of yourself or a loved one (30 percent)
- Having your teeth fall out (27 percent)
- Being lost (27 percent)
- Running but getting nowhere, or running in slow motion (26 percent)
- Being late or missing a plane, train or bus (26 percent)
- Being paralyzed or unable to speak (24 percent)
- Discovering your partner has cheated on you (18 percent)
- Seeing snakes, spiders or other creatures (17 percent)
- Intruders breaking into your house (16 percent)
2. Our jobs may dictate our dreams.
People in certain professions seem more prone to having certain recurring dreams. According to the survey, 74 percent of people in the telecommunications business have had recurring dreams about falling. Forty-six percent of those in public safety (police, fire, paramedic, security) fly in their dreams. Our randy military personnel lead the pack in dreams about having sex with someone they shouldn’t be having sex with (50 percent). Fifty-five percent of people who work in journalism, publishing or writing, report having recurring dreams about being back in school. Twenty-six percent of retired people find themselves naked in public. And early childhood education professionals often find themselves unable to find a toilet (25 percent).
3. The kinds of dreams we have.
About 70 percent of participants say that their dreams are either “realistic” or “somewhat realistic.” The remainder report that their dreams tend to be “somewhat bizarre” or “very bizarre.”
4. Dream recall.
Only 19 percent of survey participants say they remember their dreams every night. Forty-two percent say at least once a week; 38 percent say they rarely recall their dreams and 1 percent say they never recall their dreams.
5. Men vs. women.
Women are the winners in the dream-recall sweepstakes: 24 percent of female participants remember their dreams almost every night, while 43 percent remember them at last once a week. Only 14 percent of the guys can recall their dreams nightly, although 41 percent can recall them at least once a week. Thirty-three percent of women rarely or never recall their dreams, vs. 46 percent of men. (This lines up with a study by the Association of Psychological Science, which concluded that women have better short-term memory than men.)
6. What men and women dream about most.
The survey drew a clear line in the types of recurring dreams men and women have. Women tend to have more stressful dreams, whereas men tend to report more positive ones. Fifty-four percent of women have recurring dreams about being chased, while only 48 percent of men have these dreams. Thirty-two percent of women find their teeth falling out in dreams, vs. 23 percent of men. Twenty-four percent of women discover their partners are cheating on them, against only 12 percent of men. Spiders, snakes and other creepy crawlers recur in 21% of women’s dreams vs. 13 percent of men’s.
Conversely, 36 percent of men report flying dreams, against only 29% of women. Sixteen percent of men meet beautiful strangers vs. 11 percent of women. Nineteen percent of men strike it rich against only 12 percent of women.
Take a look at the full study.