Despite the stress and dread they can cause, dreams about failure could actually be a good omen -- especially if you have a big test coming up.
That’s according to a new study by researchers at Sorbonne University and the Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris, France.
Researchers, led by neurologist Isabelle Arnulf, M.D., Ph.D., queried 719 medical school hopefuls about their sleep on the night before the big entrance exam. They found that 60.4 percent of those students had dreamt about the exam, and the majority of those dreams did not go well. Seventy-eight percent of dreamers dreamt that they were late to the test, and/or forgot the answers. In other words, they were nightmares.
After getting the test results, researchers compared them to the students' questionnaire results and found that dreams about the exam on the night before the test were linked with better performance on the test. Multiple dreams about the exam leading up to the day also predicted proportionally higher scores. According to the researchers, the study suggests that “negative anticipation of a stressful event in dreams is common, and that this episodic simulation provides a cognitive gain."
In a blog for Psychology Today, Dr. Dennis Rosen, M.D. discussed the study and noted that there’s a “certain logic” to dreaming about failure.
“… the more preoccupied (and nervous!) you are about not succeeding at something, the harder you will work at it in order to prevent the bad outcome you fear,” he writes. "Conversely, if you aren’t worried enough, that’s likely to be reflected both in your preparations and in your dreams, which will be focused upon the things that you are.”
This isn’t the first intriguing dream study published by Arnulf. In 2009, she found that people who are sleepwalkers or who have sleep terrors may actually be acting out parts of a bad dream. The finding was a surprise because at the time, it was widely believed that dreams didn’t occur during sleep waking or sleep terrors. Arnulf chalked it up to the fact that most of the research before her report studied children who suffered from the two sleep conditions, not adults.
Arnulf also found in 2011 that dreams could also contain experiences that a person has never experienced in real life. Study participants who had never walked (people with born with some kind of paraplegia) had dreams that included feelings of walking, running, dancing, biking and playing sports. Of course, anyone who has had a flying dream could have told her that. But Arnulf suggested that mirror neurons, which are neurons that are activated when you observe someone else doing an action, could be reactivated during sleep.
The finding intersects with another of her studies that year, which found evidence that human beings re-enact the things they learned earlier that day in their dreams.