Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work by Kelly Bulkeley“Sleep, the gentlest of the gods, the spirit’s peace, whom care flies from: who soothes the body wearied with toil, and readies it for fresh labors.”

 

That’s how the Roman poet Ovid described sleep in his first century CE masterpiece the Metamorphoses.

 

Many people today desperately seek the restorative blessings of sleep just as Ovid described, but instead they find themselves plagued by bad dreams about work.  Rather than providing a peaceful respite from the burdens of waking life, sleep for many people has become a battleground of job-related stress and financial anxiety. In a recent online survey I conducted with Harris Interactive, 2252 American adults were asked to describe a dream relating to their work or employment status.  All the reports are available via the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) website.  (Here’s a link to the reports of 10+ words in length.)  These dreams offer a fascinating window into the workplace experiences of people across a wide demographic swath of American society.

Reading through the dream reports, it becomes clear that each job or profession has its own distinctive type of nightmare:

A trucker dreamed of a car cutting him off, so he had to slam on the brakes and then fight to control his rig as it started to jack-knife.

A nurse dreamed of her patients unhooking themselves from their monitoring equipment and wandering off, which led to the nurse getting fired for incompetence.

A waiter dreamed about having too many customers to serve, forgetting where the tableware was, and losing track of all the orders.

An electrician had vivid recurrent dreams about needing to fix strange gadgets with hundreds of wires, none of them labeled.

Several teachers had bad dreams about being unprepared for class, dealing with uncooperative students, and struggling with new technologies.

Numerous office administrators had nightmares of phones not working, desks piling up with unfinished work, and calculators streaming out endless amounts of rolled paper.

Whatever makes people feel powerless, overwhelmed, or out of control in their particular type of work, that’s going to drive the content and emotions of their dreams.

Sometimes people’s anxieties are transformed by the dreaming imagination into bizarre scenes that reflect a kind of surrealistic commentary on their employment situation.  Ovid would surely be delighted by metamorphic dreams like these:

A 30-year old woman from Arizona dreamed that “giant staplers were chasing me down the hall” at the school where she works. 

A 35-year old software developer from Minnesota dreamed of going to apply for a job and finding the interviewer was an alien with green skin and a large almond-shaped head. 

A 62-year old woman from Illinois dreamed that a computer was chasing her yelling “Program me!”

A 64-year old man from Minnesota who recently lost his job dreamed he had gone back to his office, but instead of the familiar building it was a strange storehouse for used furniture: “I think the dream meant that my former job was basically warehousing people who needed to move on.”

Weird and troubling as these dreams may be, they in fact make perfect sense in light of scientific research showing that dream content tends to accurately reflect people’s waking life emotional concerns.  Anything that worries us in waking life will likely show up in our dreams, either literally or metaphorically.  This idea of meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns has a lot of data to support it, much of it generated by G. William Domhoff and available on his dreamresearch.net website.

For many people today, worries about their jobs and personal finances top their list of emotional concerns in waking life.  Several of the survey participants spoke of their fears about losing their jobs or trying to find a new one.  A 27-year old Arizona man who has recurrent nightmares of being attacked by bears said, “You never know if you will have employment the next day.”  In such a tenuous economic environment, dream content will naturally reflect people’s job-related worries and preoccupations.

There seems to be a rough evolutionary logic to these kinds of bad dreams.  Several researchers, most recently Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli, have proposed that one of the functions of dreaming is to simulate possible threats in the waking world, helping to prepare the individual to better handle those threats if they ever actually occur.  In this view nightmares give us a safe opportunity to mentally practice survival-related behaviors and get ready for potential dangers.  The short-term pain of upsetting dreams is outweighed by their long-term gain in promoting greater vigilance and preparedness.

It should also be noted the same powers of imagination that generate vivid work nightmares can also generate many other kinds of dreams as well.  Here too there is good scientific evidence to support the idea that dreaming is an inherently creative and multidimensional activity.  During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the time of the sleep cycle when most dreaming occurs, the brain becomes hyper-associative.  The constraints of externally focused consciousness loosen, allowing innovative possibilities to emerge out of wide-ranging connections between perceptions, memories, instincts, and cultural influences.  This is why dreaming seems so crazy and scattered—and why it’s occasionally the source of brilliant flashes of creative insight.

If you have recurrent nightmares about work, try this: After getting in bed each night and turning off the light, take a moment to think about the amazing creative powers in your own dreaming imagination.  If your dreams can create vividly realistic scenarios of work, what other kinds of scenarios could they create?  What are the strangest, most otherworldly dreams you’ve experienced in the past?  What would you like to dream about now?

Your dreams may feel like foes, but with an open mind and playful spirit you can persuade them to become allies.

 

 

How Not to Raise a Witch

How Not to Raise a Witch by Kelly BulkeleyMany years ago a student told me a story about her childhood dreams that still haunts me.  It’s not a happy story—in fact I find it incredibly sad—but it’s kept me thinking about what we know, and don’t know, about the potentials of dreaming.

 

Wanda (a pseudonym) was a student in a religious studies course I taught for upper level undergraduates at Santa Clara University.  The topic of the class was religious and psychological perspectives on dreaming, and we covered the history of Western dream theories from ancient Greek myths to modern sleep laboratory research.  I encouraged the students to think about how the various theories related to their own dream experiences as one way of testing the validity of those theories.

 

After class one day Wanda told me that when she was a child, she often had dreams that seemed to anticipate future events.  She didn’t think it was a big deal, and the predictions were often about trivial things, but she was always intrigued by the possibilities her dreams revealed.

One night when she was thirteen-years old, a few weeks before her 8th grade prom, she dreamed that her mother would be in a car accident the very night of the dance.  In the dream Wanda saw that, for some unknown reason, her prom dress was in the car, and so was her mother’s collection of record albums.

She shared the dream and its strange details with her best friend, and they were both stunned when, right before the prom, Wanda’s mother did indeed have a car crash.  Without telling Wanda, her mother had taken her prom dress to be hand-tailored, and on the way to the tailor she was taking her stereo and albums to loan to a friend.  Fortunately no one was injured, but the accident seemed to conform very closely to what Wanda had recently dreamed.

At this point I should note something Wanda had mentioned in earlier class discussions, namely that she was raised in a strictly fundamentalist Christian family.

Excited by the weird accuracy of her dream, Wanda told her mother about it, and also about other dreams she felt had accurately foreseen future events.  To her surprise, her mother became frightened and angry.  She said she didn’t want to hear any more dreams like that.  “I am not going to be the mother of a witch!” she shouted.

Realizing how upset her mother was, Wanda simply stopped having such dreams.  She said it was like she chose to shut something off inside her.

And now, many years later, she didn’t know how she could turn it back “on” again even if she wanted.

In other cultural contexts, Wanda’s extraordinary dreams would be taken as indications of her natural aptitude for training as a shaman, healer, or diviner.  But in the cultural context of Wanda’s fundamentalist Christian family these kinds of powers, especially when emerging in a female, were harshly repudiated as “witchery.”

It’s possible, of course, that Wanda made up her story.  I have no way of independently verifying what she told me.  She certainly seemed honest and sincere to me, and I saw nothing in her behavior during the class to make me doubt her character.  She was a good but not spectacular student, quiet and reserved among her peers.  She gained no special favor by telling me what she did.  Actually, given that SCU is a Catholic school, it probably wasn’t a wise thing for her to share such a heretical experience with a teacher.

There’s no compelling scientific evidence proving that dreams can predict the future, although there is an argument to be made that dreaming has the adaptive function of simulating potential threats that may arise in waking life (Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli have done research in this area).  But Wanda’s dream was so accurate and so detailed, and it involved a threat not to her but to someone else.  How is that possible?  We just don’t know.  Current science cannot explain this kind of ability.

We do know, however, that humans vary widely in their dream recall, with some people naturally much more receptive to the products of their nocturnal imaginations than others.

We also know that some Christian authorities have a troubled history of demonizing unusual dream experiences and persecuting people, especially women, who show an interest in them.

And we know, thanks to works like Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams, a study of dream reports gathered in 1933-1939 Nazi Germany, that extremely oppressive cultural forces can disrupt people’s capacity to dream, scaring them away from their own inner lives.

In light of all that, I’m left thinking that Wanda was likely telling me the truth.  She was a “big dreamer” with the misfortune to be born in a cultural context that was hostile to her gift.