Why People Can't Stop Talking About Their Extremely Boring Dreams
"You were in my dream last night."
Photo by BonninStudio
It’s happened more times than I’d like to admit: I’ve just woken up from a vivid dream during which my partner has lied/cheated/otherwise been a complete asshole. I look over at him, ready to fight. But he’s still sleeping, one arm slung over the comforter like he doesn’t have a care in the world, completely oblivious.
Later, when he finally does wake up, I try to recount how deeply he hurt me in my dream, but I fail. Other things—like the emails on my phone or our whining Miniature Pinscher—have distracted me. I can’t remember what my partner did or where we were or who was with us. But the feelings of hurt linger.
He stares at me with a blank look on his face as I try to recall the overnight journey that impacted me so much. It feels important that he knows his role in my dream. Eventually, however, I give up.
In a 2013 episode, the popular radio program This American Life included dreams on its list of seven things people should never talk about. Amy Schumer also alluded to this societal taboo in a comedy sketch in 2015 about offering paid services to listen to boring conversations. Her closing line: “We will not listen to your dreams. We are not saints.”
When it comes to sharing our nightly musings, the overwhelming message seems to be: Just don’t. And yet, even when we’ve forgotten half the dream or know what occurred is hardly worth sharing, we still feel compelled to tell people we dreamt about them. But why?
“[Dreams] can really affect how we feel in the morning,” says Alice Robb, author of the recently published book Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey. “Often, people will have flashbacks throughout the day to things that happened in their dreams. And because our dreams are inherently mysterious, I think there’s a very understandable desire to try to process our dreams. [And] we process things by talking about them and trying to work through them with our friends and people we care about.”
Scientists have yet to come to a consensus for the reason why we dream. One theory, called the threat-simulation hypothesis, has to do with preparing for stressful events in real life. Most of the emotions we experience while asleep are negative, Robb writes in her book. In the 1990s, Finnish scientist Antti Revonsuo suggested that dreams might have evolved to help our ancestors ready themselves for the dangerous situations that marked early human life, such as encounters with wild animals.
As a result, talking about our dreams may also be a part of an evolutionary trait. Robb quotes Robert Stickgold, director of Harvard’s Center for Sleep and Cognition, on how the brain tries to identify valuable information: “Maybe part of this process of biasing the brain’s association-strengthening mechanism — to say, ‘Pay attention to this association I found’ — carries over into waking, and now you want everyone else to pay attention to it.”
Another theory for why we dream, courtesy of Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett, is that dreams evolved to help us solve problems and see solutions that we may not otherwise notice during our waking hours.
“We’re taking in so many stimuli all the time,” Robb explains. “In the daytime, we’re editing out things that are not the most important because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to function in society. When we dream, we’re working in this free network of associations. We’re letting our minds wander, and that’s when we might be giving ourselves the space to think about the things that we haven’t given or can’t give our full attention to during the day.”
In many cases, the appearance of a person in your dream is more about your own internal thoughts than the person. “Obviously, all your dreams are a construction of your own mind,” Robb says. “A Freudian take is that every part of the dream represents some aspect of yourself. Maybe you’re dreaming of someone from your past who represents something that was important in that time in your life when you felt awkward or you felt free or whatever. I think they can also be about your feelings about that person.”
We may also find ourselves telling people we dreamt about them because it’s easier to do that than bring up an otherwise difficult topic, Robb says. After all, it’s easier to admit that something happened in your dream, which you had no control over, than to confess something is bothering you. “[Dreams] allow us to deny authorship,” she says.
“Because dreams so often are really cutting to the heart of our emotional lives and emotional concerns, sharing them is one of the best ways to process and understand them.”
Feeling sheepish, I find myself compelled to tell Robb about one of my own dreams. I share a particularly unremarkable one in which an editor I worked with regularly but had never met in person made a brief appearance. I really wanted to tell her about it the next day, I recall to the author, but I didn’t because it felt wrong to do so—as if I’d be crossing some professional boundary.
Robb says it can feel “very intimate” to share a dream with someone, especially depending on your relationship with that person. But, she adds, “because dreams so often are really cutting to the heart of our emotional lives and emotional concerns, sharing them is one of the best ways to process and understand them.”
“I would love for us for to live in a world where we can talk more freely about our dreams and to let our dreams be a more integrated part of our lives,” Robb continues. “I don’t think it makes sense that we have to confine them to sleep. Also, I think people like hearing that they’ve been a part of our dreams—that they worked their way into your subconscious. It’s kind of nice, right? They’ve made more of an impression than they realized.”
Of course, she adds, you should filter when appropriate. “If you had a weird sex dream about your co-worker, maybe don’t mention that. As with other forms of conversation, you can still edit yourself as you see fit.”