Sleep Experts Have No Idea What the Most Common Nightmare Is

Past studies only represented a specific group and method of studying nightmares, and all came up with variable top results

Photo: astridle

Teeth falling out, leaving the house naked, running your sister over in a car: this is the stuff of nightmares, the common ones, that most of us have experienced. But although we all suffer from nightmares and can often recall them, research surrounding the subject of those twisted dreams is still murky.

This may, in part, be due to the mixed methods used to quantify nightmares, i09 explains.  There’s some agreement on the definition: A nightmare is only a nightmare if it wakes you up. (Otherwise, in researchers’ eyes, it’s just a “bad dream.”) Still, over the past 100 years several researchers have tried to get to the bottom of what most often makes us bolt up in the night.

i09 collected the results of four studies, conducted between the 1930s and 2010, and all four varied in what they ranked as the top nightmare contender. But they also revealed some commonalities. Friends or family members dying or disappearing ranked as the most common nightmare scenario, closely followed by falling, being chased or the dreamer being murdered or killed. On the other hand, only a group of students reported interpersonal conflicts as being the stuff of nightmares (perhaps having a falling out with their PhD advisor?), while a group of Germans were the sole group to be haunted by nightmares of being late.

These differences likely reflect the mindset, age and cultures of different groups of people, i09 writes. To complicate matters further, people may answer differently depending on when and how they recount their nightmare—it mattes where they’re filling out a questionnaire or being interviewed, and it matters whether they’re relating their dreams immediately upon waking up or hours or days later. Short of creating an Inception-like device that allows researchers to explore and witness others’ dreams, it seems, the exact specifics of the stuff of nightmares may remain blanketed in darkness.

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