A dream researcher analyzes our recurring dreams

Why do the same dreams always catch up with us at night??

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I have a dream – and it has haunted me for many years. In it I sit in the Abiprufung, mostly in the math Abi, and can not solve a single task. Because I forgot to learn. I’m not alone in this dream: According to a study by the University of Montreal, 72.4 percent of students dream about their exams or other situations from their school days. Other people dream of being chased or falling into the bottomless pit. What do our recurring dreams mean? A zoom call with Michael Schredl, dream researcher and head of the sleep laboratory at the Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany.

now: Mr. Schredl, why am I still dreaming eleven years after my high school graduation that I’ll fail it??

Michael Schredl: I assume that you have passed your exams in reality.

Yes, I did.

Even Sigmund Freud had examination dreams. And like you, he always dreamed of tests he passed in his waking life. In fact, these dreams are not about not being able to do something, but about the fear of not being able to do something. So the exam dream is a metaphor for the fear of failing.

Dream researcher Michael Schredl analyzes what our dreams mean.

But then why not dream about this fear itself? But of a test, which I have already long behind me?

Imagine you were a film director and had to make a film about the fear of failure. What kind of movie would you make? Maybe one about an exam where everything goes wrong, with action and emotion. It’s much the same in dreams: your anxiety there takes on an exaggerated, dramatic form and is translated into vivid imagery. Everyone knows the fear of failure in an exam, that’s why this dream occurs so often.

"Whether dreams have a function is as yet unclear"

I used to think that at night my repressed fears from my school days would come back to me.

Your fear of failing is not repressed, you experience it consciously. If you are in the office, you have to perform every day. This is the case in our society. And of course it can always happen that someone is not satisfied with your performance. So, as I said, the dream of the Abi exam is just a kind of metaphor for a completely different question you are asking yourself: How do others evaluate my performance? After all, it can always happen that your boss says: What kind of junk did you write there??!

Sure, it can happen.

In dreams, you simply experience the pressure to perform more emotionally than in waking life.

Why do I dream about my fears at all?? Does this have an evolutionary reason?

Whether dreams have a function is unclear so far. There is a theory that says we practice for life while we sleep. So if you’re scared in a dream and run away, you might not get eaten as quickly in waking life. So does your exam dream also have a meaning? One can argue about that. Most people don’t necessarily feel better the next morning. But some people also think: Now I’d better study hard and see to it that I master my tasks well. So it all depends on how you yourself deal with the dream.

What do other dreams mean?? For example, a colleague of mine constantly dreams that she breaks a friend’s cell phone. She hides it, but of course it comes out in the end.

There are different variants of this dream. The most poignant one is to kill someone in a dream and to be afraid that the body will be found in the cellar. These dreams are about having made a mistake and not really being open about it. And it is about the fear of the reaction of others to this mistake. This dream, too, does not usually reflect a real experience, but rather the worry of having to experience such a situation.

"With people around 20, the fear of failure is particularly great"

Another colleague of mine keeps dreaming that she is suddenly pregnant and has to go to the supermarket to buy baby goods in a very concentrated way.

This is about responsibility. So it could be that in real life you are given a responsibility, for example a job, and you ask yourself: can I do all this?? And what is the biggest responsibility you can have? Children! Caring for a child is already high level. So again, the dream about the baby is a metaphor for: Will I be able to do all that I have put myself through??

How is it that we are always confronted with the fear of failure in our dreams??

We also experience other fears in our dreams. For example, many people constantly dream that they are falling into the bottomless pit. So they dream about a moment they can’t do anything about. This is the absolute loss of control and a dramatic version of: I feel helpless and have no clue what to do about it. So the fear of failure is only one of many fears that we experience in dreams. But of course, we live in a meritocracy and especially with young people this fear is very present.

So we young people especially often dream that we fail in an exam?

Children, interestingly enough, do not. They tend to dream about the fear of being alone in the world, without their parents. The dream about the exam usually comes after school.

It was the same for me. I only dreamed about my final exams a few years after I graduated from high school.

That’s because this dream is not directly related to high school graduation, but to the pressure you experience to perform afterwards. For people around 20, the fear of failure is particularly great. In this phase you are tested a lot and you start in your job. It is a time of uncertainty. As you get older, you usually feel more secure at work. And the exam dreams become rarer.

In my case, it has been several months since I last dreamt about my final exams.

The simplest explanation is that you have become more relaxed. If the boss says to you today: That was not so good, then you say: Okay, then I’ll do it again. If something goes wrong, it is no longer a drama. You know: Next time will be better.

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