The first thing I heard when I woke up yesterday morning was “I just almost killed a guy!” Believe it or not, I wasn’t at a crime scene—I was safe in my own bed, trying to catch my last precious moments of shut-eye before I faced the workday. My husband, on the other hand, was apparently in grave danger. Fortunately, I know him so well that I could guess right away that he wasn’t even fully awake yet, despite his vigorous grunts and kicks as he defended himself from his imaginary assailant. But his outburst got me thinking—is it just my husband who seems to have violent dreams on a regular basis, or is it a phenomenon that men in general experience? And what about women—do they also spend their nights fighting off attackers, or do they dream about babies and clothes and other stereotypically female subjects?
Separate but Equal
Overwhelming evidence indicates that men and women do have significantly disparate dreams, most likely because of differences in both biology and social conditioning. A 1994 study by pioneering psychologist Robert Van de Castle found that dreams may be sex-differentiated in children as young as age three. Children appear to dream about aggression with equal frequency until age twelve, but then, as kids start to mature sexually, girls’ dreams begin to involve less aggression and focus increasingly on emotions, talking, and physical appearance. Meanwhile, one of every four characters a dreaming male encounters before he reaches his thirties is aggressive in some way, according to a study by dream analyst Calvin Hall.
When people mature, differences between men’s and women’s dreams become even more pronounced. In 2009, British psychologist Jennie Parker invited one hundred women and ninety-three men between ages eighteen and twenty-five to record their dreams in journals. After studying the journals’ content, Parker reached two primary conclusions: 1) women have nightmares more often than men do, and 2) men dream about sex more often and more intensely than women do. Women’s bad dreams fell under three general categories—fearful dreams, confused dreams, and dreams of losing a loved one—and involved more misfortune, negative self-perceptions, and failures than men’s unpleasant dreams. Of the dream journals Parker collected, the men’s journals contained more references to sexual intercourse, whereas the women’s recorded sexual dreams were tamer, involving kissing or merely fantasizing sexually about other characters in their dreams.
Another study, by Dr. Mark Blagrove at Swansea University, investigated 100,000 people’s dreams and found numerous other differences in how men and women dream. According to Blagrove, male dreams frequently include cars, weapons, and/or violence, are often about work-related issues, and feature more strangers, including unknown sexual partners. By contrast, female dreams generally last longer, focus on the home, and involve more characters—usually familiar faces from the dreamer’s job, social life, or family. While men’s dreams often take place outdoors or in unfamiliar environments, women’s dreams are often set indoors or in familiar places, such as their office or house. In addition, women pay more attention to the physical details of the characters in their dreams—for instance, facial expressions and clothing—than men do, and can recall them more readily when they awaken.
Despite their differences, dreaming men and women do traverse some of the same nocturnal terrain. Even though female dreams are more emotionally charged overall than men’s are, many feelings make appearances in both sexes’ dreams, including surprise, distress, shame, fear, joy, guilt, anger, confusion, and interest. In addition, while men’s dreams are more aggression-driven than women’s, the object of aggression in both sexes’ dreams is typically male. For all dreamers, vision is the strongest perceived sense in dreams, followed by hearing, touch, and smell (in descending order of intensity). Finally, both men and women dream about things they want or are afraid of. Common anxiety dreams that plague both sexes include visions of immobility, falling, drowning, being chased, or losing one’s teeth.
Other times, dreamers’ desires and fears are determined by their individual circumstances. For example, pregnant women often encounter recurring dream motifs that are related to anxiety surrounding childbirth and parenting. Some of the most frequent motifs are knives (which symbolize fear of a C-section), animals (which represent the developing fetus), and burglary (which reflects a pregnant woman’s sense that her fetus has “invaded” her body).
Wake Up and Face the Facts
There’s a reason why Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus keeps getting reprinted—we keep coming up with evidence to support the notion. That goes for both our nighttime world and our daytime one. You may sleep in the same bed with a person of the opposite sex for decades on end, but most of the time, the visions that populate your heads while you snooze will come from two different planets. At least the next time I wake up with my husband thrashing around next to me, I’ll know he’s not having trouble sleeping—he’s just having sex with a stranger in a car while fleeing an army of dangerous men.
Updated November 3, 2010