Research to Keep You Awake: Nightmares

Study suggests one bad dream can taint others

Gabbi had her spine bones outside her skin. I saw purple veins on skin around the bones. Jess said that if Gabbi developed a cough, she could die. I was sick with agony. Jess was cleaning in between each of Gabbi’s vertebrae, and Gabbi was acting happy.

The preceding is neither the result of ingesting illegal substances nor a scene from a David Lynch film. It’s a nightmare recorded on Dreamboard, an online forum where dreamers log their slumbering reveries, both good and bad. The nightmare wrecked more than one night’s sleep for this anonymous dreamer. Within a week, that person reported having another less scary but still unpleasant dream that involved defecating on himself/herself in a bathroom, before disgusted onlookers.

Those seemingly disparate dreams weren’t unrelated, says Victoria Pae (CAS’16). The aggression experienced in a nightmare may seep into your next dream within a week, according to a study Pae did through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

In fact, the dreams immediately before nightmares were a barometer in the study; they contained aggressive acts that foreshadowed the nerve-shattering anxiety of the coming nightmare, says April Minsky, head research assistant with the Cognition & Parkinson’s Disease Project at the VA Boston Healthcare System and the School of Medicine’s McNamara Lab. She helped Pae with the project.

How precisely this strung-out aggression and anxiety snake through multiple dreams is little studied or understood, Minsky says. But anxiety levels are what distinguish nightmares from merely unpleasant dreams (a distinction Dreamboard’s dreamers don’t make, according to Pae). Nightmares, the UROP researchers say, tended to involve physical aggression, such as being chased by a stranger or supernatural creature. Unpleasant dreams typically featured interpersonal conflicts and a vague sense of apprehension; for example, in one analyzed as part of the UROP study, the dreamer’s friends accused her of excessive teasing. And unlike nightmares, the before-and-after dreams bookending an unpleasant dream weren’t tainted by the unpleasantness, the researchers found.

Studying the content of sleepers’ dreams is important because regular nightmares can be a barometer of certain disorders. “People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, experience recurring nightmares,” Minsky says. One technique for treating PTSD is image rehearsal therapy, in which patients with nightmares are asked to think about a recent one they’ve had and re-script it into a positive dream—draining the nightmare of the nightmarish. Minsky and Pae are seeking funding to enroll Dreamboard users in online, six-month image rehearsal therapy to see if it helps. Their UROP work will refine their understanding of what constitutes a nightmare versus an unpleasant dream.

To a layperson, the difference in their study might not always seem stark. Here’s another nightmare from Dreamboard that Minsky and Pae studied:

I was trying to leave the hotel to go spend the day on the beach in Florida and this strange woman was following me and trying to stop me. She seemed very disturbed and dangerous, like she would kill me. I tried to make her think I wasn’t going to leave without her, but I was looking to escape without her knowing.

In that dreamer’s post-nightmare dream, he/she slammed a door closed to avoid a lunging wolf, slicing the animal in two and then watching it “trying to stand on just its front legs, and it was flopping around.”

Minsky and Pae hope to pursue the research further, as they had only a small sample of dreams to work with in the UROP study. They studied 446 dreamers from Dreamboard who had nightmares, but only 19 of those dreamers recorded dreams that flanked their nightmares. “We’re working on a grant right now…to expand these findings” with a larger number of subjects, says Minsky. The UROP nevertheless is an important step, she says, because few studies have probed the dreams that precede and follow nightmares. (In addition to the 446 nightmare dreamers, Minsky and Pae studied 405 dreamers with unpleasant dreams.)

Their findings led them to question one assumption about nightmares. Minsky says the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s bible, defines a nightmare-related disorder, in part, as one in which the nightmare causes the dreamer to awaken. Yet only 113 dreamers with nightmares in the study—about one-quarter of the total—reported waking up after their nightmares, Pae says.

Pae and Minsky have submitted a paper with their findings for consideration by the journal Sleep.

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