The Meaning of Nightmares

My hypothesis on the meaning of nightmares is based on three things: one, the popular idea that the purpose of sleep is to prepare the mind for the next day; two, the fact that there are common nightmares that billions of people have experienced; and three, for years I would carefully backtrack events from my previous day every time I woke up from a dream or nightmare.

Throughout the day, there are instances where you fail to acknowledge something. Why? Because you were too preoccupied with something else. Information entered the brain but you didn’t consciously process it—it didn’t “register”. I call these unacknowledged thoughts. I hypothesize that a dream plays out the consequence for not acknowledging these thoughts. In other words, a dream is your mind’s rendering of what will happen in the future if you were to continue ignoring this thing. The purpose of dreams is to make you aware of unacknowledged thoughts. Most dreams are quickly forgotten. Nightmares, on the other hand, can have a lasting impression. They are exaggerated, unrealistic, and traumatizing. A nightmare occurs after you failed to acknowledge something that your mind considers important. From your mind’s perspective, you committed a big mistake. In other words, a nightmare is saying, “If you continue to screw up and ignore [unacknowledged thought], then this crazy event is going to happen to you.” So, what does your mind consider important? I’ve found that it’s very primitive.

Common nightmares that I’ve been able to “reverse engineer”:

·        The nightmare of free-falling is induced when, during your wake, you lean against a railing and fail to acknowledge the possibility of it breaking and you falling off the cliff. This must take place somewhere high up, like the second story of a mall or a hotel balcony. People overlook the rail breaking because they have faith in the structure holding up. I mean, has that ever even happened in history? This nightmare can also be induced if you fall asleep with your limbs, or almost the majority of your body, hanging over the edge of the bed. You were likely “half-awake” or too tired to acknowledge the imminent danger. Again, the nightmare is your brain telling you, “This is what’s going to happen!”

This guy probably had a nightmare about falling the night after this photo shoot.


·        The nightmare of teeth becoming loose and/or falling out is induced by drinking ice water, or any very cold drink, and failing to acknowledge the sensation of chills coming from the nerves of the teeth. Biting on ice cream would also work so long as you disregard the chilly sensation. What could cause you to not acknowledge this feeling? You may be preoccupied in a dinner conversation.

·        The nightmare of teeth crumbling into pieces or breaking is induced by eating food that is very hard and crunchy while not acknowledging that it is very hard. Based on personal experience, I can confirm that eating Wheat Chex (by itself) or a raw carrot can induce this nightmare.

·        The nightmare of being chased by a monster, beast, supernatural being, paranormal creature, boogeyman, etc. is induced when you suspect that something is lurking from behind or hiding in the dark and yet you suppress the urge to quicken your pace, check over your shoulder, or turn your head. You don’t take action because you have assured yourself that paranormal things don’t even exist. By not acknowledging the possibility that something scary is lurking or hiding, the nightmare is induced.

·        The nightmare of going into a major exam completely unprepared occurs when you don’t commit an exam date and time to memory. Why would you? Because you already have a class syllabus or calendar with dates of all the major exams. You recognize the importance of an exam but fail to acknowledge its date.

·        The nightmare of finding out you’ve been enrolled in a class for many months but never went to class is induced when you have a schedule/calendar of all your classes and refer to it instead of committing your schedule to memory.

·        The nightmare of forgetting a locker combination occurs when you put your belongings in a locker and fail to acknowledge that you don’t have your combination memorized. Instead, you rely on a written or printed note of your combo.

·        The nightmare of running and then slowing down, as if in thick syrup, is induced by jogging/running while wearing very tight, movement-restricting pants without acknowledging that it is restricting your gait. Similarly, the nightmare of having your punches or kicks slow down is induced by doing a karate or kickboxing session in a tight, movement-restricting shirt or pants without acknowledging its restrictiveness.

·        The nightmare of throwing ineffective punches in a fight occurs when you do a karate or kickboxing session and fail to acknowledge how or where you’re throwing punches. You’ve paid no attention to your form.

·        The nightmare of running late and missing a bus, train, flight, or ship occurs when you greatly prepare for an upcoming morning event yet fail to acknowledge how you will wake up on time to catch the transport. You really don’t have to because you rely on an alarm clock.

·        The nightmare of being unable to move or speak as a scary figure approaches (a.k.a. sleep paralysis) is induced by wrapping yourself tightly in blankets and falling asleep. You fail to acknowledge that you’ve greatly restricted your ability to move which makes you defenseless and vulnerable to attack. Some people have observed a correlation between this nightmare and lying on their back. The way I explain this is that the lying-on-the-back position allows you to wrap yourself tightest in blankets. This nightmare is very similar to the free-falling nightmare in that the failure is committed at bedtime.

·        The nightmare of a natural disaster racing towards you, such as a nuclear blast or volcanic eruption, and about to end your life is induced by failing to acknowledge that life is short and can end at any moment beyond your will. During your wake, you were doing something (mundane) and not realizing there’s something else you’d rather be doing. You did not seize the day. If someone you know died in the natural disaster, you probably failed to acknowledge that you want to spend time with them.

Common nightmares I’m not sure about:

·        The nightmare of being naked in public and embarrassed occurs when you wear loose-fitting clothes and do not acknowledge that slip ups are likely to occur. Or, you were busy moving/dancing around in loose clothes and failed to acknowledge that you had a wardrobe malfunction and people saw.

·         The nightmare of your loved one cheating occurs when you spend time with him or her and fail to acknowledge that he or she may not be very attracted to you.

A commonality stands out among my interpretations of popular nightmares: the unacknowledged thoughts are things we disregard either because society has said it’s okay or because tools have allowed us to. For example, water is always served ice-cold in society, so we drink it like this without second thoughts. Ink and paper (i.e. tools) allows us to not have to remember schedules and locker combinations. Nightmares are nature’s way of punishing us for having faith in society and tools rather than obeying our own primal instincts. It also seems that nightmares are based on very basic human functions: fighting, running, memorizing, our teeth... My interpretations of nightmares are very literal, whereas most people’s interpretations are metaphorical. Although these are just nightmares, dreams work in the exact same way, except they’re induced by failing to acknowledge things that the mind considers neutral or positive. It only takes a second or two of failing to acknowledge something to induce a nightmare. E.g. a sip of water.

Dreams would be easy to interpret if they made sense. They would make sense if they were complete. For example, if you had a dream where you drank cold water and then had loose teeth, you would wake up with an understanding to avoid ice-cold drinks. In actuality, a dream just shows the consequence (of not acknowledging a thought) seamlessly woven into a normal world. For example, in an actual nightmare, your teeth would spontaneously loosen as you’re sitting in class or something. I believe this is because sleep is all about transferring unacknowledged thoughts from the hippocampus to the acknowledged thoughts of the cerebrum. The unacknowledged thought was never fully processed so it remains completely disconnected from the neural network. It’s probably just a single neuron containing the information “teeth feel chilly”; it has no context. The brain doesn’t know where to fit this information. The environment of the dream is provided by the cerebrum, which contains one’s view of the world.

You cannot test my hypothesis on nightmares on yourself for two reasons. Firstly, the hypothesis is based on failure to acknowledge certain thoughts. You cannot put ice in your mouth to chill the teeth and expect the nightmare to occur because you will have acknowledged the chills as you mindfully do it. Thus, it must be a blind experiment. Secondly, most people wake up to an alarm clock, thereby disrupting a full night’s sleep. To me this means that not all unacknowledged thoughts will become acknowledged. This also means that the mind is probably going through a backlog of unacknowledged thoughts from up to a week ago. Thus, it may be tough to elicit a nightmare that’s based on the most recent 12 hours you’ve been awake. However, if you do have a common nightmare sometime in the future, you should carefully backtrack the day before to see if you neglected your primal instinct for just a second.

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© Buism 2014