Floods or Family Conflict? Bad Dreams Differ By Gender

Men's nightmares tend toward the catastrophic, while women often have bad dreams about interpersonal relationships, according to a new study. Why the difference? NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Antonio Zadra, a researcher at the University of Montreal.

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I think it's safe to say most of us do not enjoy nightmares - that cold sweat, sitting up straight in bed, our pulse racing. But when Antonio Zadra, professor at the University of Montreal, began working on a study about nightmares he found that the narrative animating those bad dreams tended to be very different between men and women. He is coauthor of a new study that has a lot to say about the differences in the way we dream. He joins us now from Montreal. Welcome to the program.

ANTONIO ZADRA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, what were the differences you noticed in the nightmare scenarios of men and women?

ZADRA: Well, there are some themes that appear more in men's nightmares. These include themes of disasters, calamities - for example, dreamings of floods, earthquakes, wars, as well as infestations, for instance, of insects. Whereas when we look at themes involving interpersonal conflicts, be it with friends, family members, they're twice as often found in women's nightmares than in men's nightmares.

MARTIN: Did this come as a surprise to you? Did you expect to find dreams varied so much by gender?

ZADRA: I think one of the biggest surprises wasn't just some of these differences we found between the nightmares of men and women, but the broad range of themes people reported, the image most people have of nightmares, of being dreams of chase and pursuit and physical aggression, certainly occurs in the majority of nightmares. There's really a wide range, including themes related to interpersonal conflicts, for instance, themes related to health; being told that not only do you have cancer but you're going to be dead within three days. Here, the nightmares are not driven by emotions such as fear but usually extreme sadness, for instance.

MARTIN: This is a pretty comprehensive study, but you also noted that women in general have better dream recall.

ZADRA: Absolutely. Not only do women have a much better facility to recall their dreams, they are generally much more interested in their dreams than are men, much more willing to take part in studies on dreams. They're just more interested by the topic.

MARTIN: So, what do you think we can take away from this study?

ZADRA: A lot of things. One, you have these gender differences that you can relate to broad conceptualizations of how people experience their waking life activities. And you can even draw up parallels with entertainment industry, in the sense that if you look at who tends to go to pure action movies and who wants to spend their time being entertained by that, it is generally men.

MARTIN: But did I hear you say that men are more likely to dream scenarios where they're the only good guy, they're the superhero of their own dream?

ZADRA: Or at least they are trying to be or they are placed in that position. Now, they may or may not succeed in whatever challenges they face in their dreams or nightmares. But, yes, they are more often alone, at least in their nightmares.

MARTIN: Very interesting. Professor Antonio Zadra of the University of Montreal sharing his gender dream research. Professor, thanks so much.

ZADRA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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