NOTHING IS MORE boring than other people’s dreams, unless they coincide with your own. Writing for the Atlantic last month, Kelly Conaboy brought up one particular dream of hers, which is also a dream belonging to a wide swath of the general public:
It’s the end of the semester, and I suddenly realize that there is a class I forgot to attend, ever, and now I have to sit for the final exam. I wake up panicked, my GPA in peril. How could I have done this?
I have dreamed exactly that same thing, many times, and so have many, many other people. Conaboy asked experts what the scripted dream means. “[T]hese dreams tend to pop up when the dreamer is anxious in waking life, particularly about being evaluated by an authority figure,” one told her. “So much stuff happens in school that really sets your foundational beliefs and really sticks there in your unconscious mind,” another explained.
These sound plausible but also wildly inadequate. Why is the dream specifically about the forgotten class, out of all the possible anxieties of that age? Why is it never about that long, bleak hour after you’ve rolled up the rug and tapped the keg, when you’re worried your party might never become a party? Or about everyone bringing back the flu from Thanksgiving break?
But also: what’s the point of having an inaccessible private self if your unconscious is simply going to play the same reruns everybody else gets? I polled Twitter about a set of stock dreams, to see how uniform Dreamland really is. The overlooked college course was by far the most common scenario, with 72 percent of respondents saying they had had it. There were at least two forms of selection bias driving the results—the polling naturally was biased toward responses from people who follow my Twitter account, and from people who’d bother to respond to a question about dreams—but in absolute numbers, the pool of people reporting that dream was just short of 2,000 people.
None of the other dreams I suggested were shared by a majority of people, but even the least popular ones had more than 200 people co-signing them. Forty-six percent of people had dreamed of being out in public without their clothes; 44 percent of respondents had dreamed their teeth were crumbling or falling out. Forty percent had dreamed about needing to pee and being unable to find a usable bathroom. Thirty-six percent had dreamed about trying to get to the airport and having everything go wrong.
Twenty-seven percent had dreamed a more esoteric variant of the college dream—the jumping-off point of Donald Barthelme’s short story “Me and Miss Mandible“—in which they were sent down to some earlier level of schooling, as an adult, by mistake. Twenty percent had found themselves driving a car blindly, through darkness or rain or fog, with the lights or wipers unable to help. Multiple people responded to the car scenario by saying that their particular recurring dream was about trying helplessly to control a moving car from the back seat.
I was surprised by the relatively low numbers of people who’d dreamed they were onstage with a band and unprepared to play, at 16 percent, or who found themselves thrust into action, unready, with a pro sports team, at 10 percent. Even so, again, hundreds of people had dreamed about those things, too. And from the responses, it became clear that if I’d ever been a theater kid, I would dream about having to go onstage unrehearsed, and that huge numbers of other former theater kids would all be dreaming that exact same dream.
There were also 40 percent of people who said they had experienced a meta-dream about their stock dreams, in which they recognized one of the unfolding scenarios as something that they’d dreamed about before, but believed that this time it was happening for real.
I wondered at first, reading the results, whether having such a long list of repeating anxiety dreams to draw from indicates that I must be unusually anxious. Then I remembered that I have these dreams because I am down in the depths of a long night’s sleep, while other people are lying awake and fretting.
One folk belief or hypothesis that some people offered on the subject of scripted dreams was that you won’t have one if you have lived through the experience in real life. This is not true, or at least not generally true. When I was in college, for instance, I more or less did quit attending a class in primatology one semester and nearly put it out of my mind, only to have to jam all the reading and coursework into a couple of days at the end. The experience didn’t inoculate me against dreams about overlooking a class, although I think it left my roommate with a case of vicarious trauma. Also the professor turned out to be a scientific fraud, which may or may not be beside the point.
While I was thinking about that boundary between life experience and anxiety dreams, though, I suddenly remembered a bit of real-life lore I’d heard about a friend of mine named John Donahue. This genuinely did happen, and I messaged him to confirm the details.
After college, in the 1990s, he was living in a dilapidated group house with some other friends of ours, who were in a reasonably serious punk band—they ran an independent record label, hosted basement shows for bands coming through town, put together a Japanese tour. One evening, he was sitting around the house when the phone rang. It was a rock club in the neighborhood, asking if the punk band was available to be the emergency opening act for a show that night.
The band wasn’t home. John told the club so. Well, the club asked, was John in a band?
At the time he was, but only sort of. Or he had been. John’s band was in the process of breaking up, and they hadn’t rehearsed together in a while. He told the club he didn’t think it could work, hung up, and sat down to watch TV.
Then he thought about it a little more. He called the club back and asked if it would be OK if he played solo. They sent over a cab, and a friend helped him load up his guitar and amp.
The featured performer that night was the indie-rock legend J Mascis, of Dinosaur Jr., and the club’s basement mainstage venue was full. John made his way through the crowd with his gear and got up on stage. A lighting guy asked how he wanted the lights, and he told him “Basic?”
And then, without his bandmates, without practicing, he faced the packed house and played his soon-to-be-defunct band’s songs, or at least the guitar parts, as best he could. “I can’t say I won over the crowd necessarily,” he wrote.
John told me he has anxiety dreams, but never about being on stage unprepared. What did it feel like to live out the exact plot of other people’s nightmare? “I remember my mouth got very dry, but otherwise I didn’t feel panicky,” he wrote. “I felt like, yes, this is what I am supposed to be doing!” To thank him for his emergency performance, the club offered him a future gig on their smaller upstairs stage. Motivated to take them up on it, he started a new band, and they played their first show there.