Due to their deeply personal, you-had-to-be-there nature, human dreams are quite difficult to study in the confines of clinical science – an approach based on objective and observable data.
Despite the inherent challenges, however, psychologists are still drawn toward the puzzle of why our dreams take on the various mundane, anxiety-inducing, adventurous, or downright nonsensical themes that they do.
Published this month in the aptly named journal Dreaming, a study led by Jonas Mathes at the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf presents us with a new insight into a particularly troubling yet common subset of dreams – violent nightmares.
His team sought to investigate how often people have nightmares in which they commit violent acts against others, as well as to examine the situational motives of these acts within the dream and to assess whether individuals with certain personality factors are more likely to experience these so-called offender-nightmares.
Their two-part investigation asked two groups of people (39 and 60 individuals) who regularly experienced nightmares (not just unpleasant dreams, as those are more frequent than fun dreams in nearly everyone) to keep a journal detailing dream content for 28 nights. The first group was assessed for aggression using a well-known psychology questionnaire, whereas the second was assessed for aggression, neuroticism, and creativity.
The results suggest that our dream-selves can be surprisingly vicious: Between 18 and 28 percent of all dreams reported in the first group’s diaries involved aggression against another person.
“Most of the aggressive acts in these dreams were intentional, and killing a person was the most prominent offender’s act,” they wrote. Before you write off all humans (or just Düsseldorf residents) as repressed psychopaths, however, take note that most of the dream scenarios were motivated by self-defense.
Analysis of the personality surveys revealed that people with regular offender-nightmares were more likely to have a history of real-world violence and show traits of neuroticism and aggression than those who didn’t experience offender-nightmares or persons without nightmares in general. While this association is rather intuitive, Mathes and his colleagues were fascinated when they discovered that offender-nightmares are also more common in people who had more creative achievements.
Though they concede that more research is needed to confirm these links between personality and violent dreams, the findings make sense in the framework established by past studies. During dreams, the mind ruminates on issues and emotions that we try to suppress (and consequently dwell on more) throughout the day. Thus, individuals who are more tightly wound due to underlying neuroticism, past trauma, or struggles with criticism and rejection from a creative career field may simply have more inner demons that they battle in their sleep – literally.
"Nightmare dreamers who are also more creative may also be more creative in reacting to the aggressor actively," Mathes told IFLScience. "Instead of running away, they fight back, or probably they are offending because they want to save or protect another dream character."