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#BelieveItOrNot: being female, right-wing or a gamer affects your dreams

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 6:18 IST

Hollywood superstar Sylvester Stallone repeatedly sees his dead son in his dreams and is disturbed. He contacts a Vedic scholar who recommends a 'shraadh' for his son. Stallone dispatches his half-brother and wife to attend the ceremony for the departed soul in Rishikesh.

This isn't the plot of a new East-meets-West psychothriller. It happened last week - and shows how our understanding of dreams and their role is still many shades of grey.

Decades after Freud's interpretation of dreams was debunked, much of the world - cutting across regions and religions - continues to take their dreams more seriously than science does.

"It is important to not give too much importance to dreams. The way they were looked at in the past has largely changed and the original dream-related theories are obsolete," says Samir Parikh, consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Healthcare.

"It's the meaning that an individual gives them that makes any dream significant - even though it may otherwise be insignificant," he adds.

Here's what we do - scientifically - know about our dreams:

Dreams don't necessarily reflect what's important, they reflect your preoccupations

What you think of and do extensively through the day shapes your, dreams - not literally, in terms of what you dream about, but emotionally in tone.

"A dreamer's dream is influenced by his personal experiences and realities of life," says Delhi-based psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh.

However the last thing you do before you go to bed does have a high impact on your dreams as well - so the book you read, movie you watch, music you listen to or conversations you have before bedtime will often shape your slumber visions.

What is also true, according to experts, is that more frequent dreams do signal a more fertile, creative mind - so rather than be disturbed by it, see it as a positive. When you're more engaged in creative activity, too, you dream more - linking back to the fact that it's a preoccupation.

Your gender actually has a role to play

Men and women dream differently - though that may be more a function of their preoccupations and interests.

Swansea University's Dr Mark Blagrove looked at more than 1,00,000 people's dreams and found that some of the most frequent topics for male dreams were: cars, weapons, violence and sex with unknown partners.

In contrast, women tended to have dreams centered around people they know and familiar situations such as the home or workplace.

The gender differences kick in earlier than you may imagine. A study by psychologist Robert Van de Castle found that "there are gender differences in dreams in children as young as three.

His research showed that the differences were relatively small till about age 12, but post that, girls' dreams start focusing more on emotions and appearance, while mens' dreams were much more focused on aggression. That's largely due to the higher level of testosterone in the male body, while female dreams on the other hand reflected a lot more detail and nuance.

Your political orientation impacts your dreams

Cue the right-wing jokes: where you fall on the political spectrum also affects your dreams. In the US, for instance, it's been shown that Republicans have more nightmares than Democrats.

According to dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley, those on the right are three times more likely than those whose politics lean left to have nightmares. The differences also extend to quality: Republican nightmares were far scarier than Democrat nightmares.

Remember that the next time you're in the voting booth!

While Hindus, Muslims and Christians may dream the same dream, your religion may interpret that dream differently

There's very little agreement about what a dream means.

In Islam, a dream about a fat cow indicates a good harvest, while a lean cow indicates a poor yield.

In Hinduism, on the other hand, seeing animals in dreams is indicative of primal instincts and desires that remain repressed, and a cow symbolises fertility.

And then there's the Old Testament, where Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dream of seven skinny cows eating up seven fat cows to mean that there would be seven years of plenty and then seven years of famine.

Are you a gamer? You're more in control of your dreams than non-gamers

Gamers are believed to have a better chance at controlling their dreams, according to a study by Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist at Grant MacEwan University in Canada.

This necessarily applies to lucid dreams, or dreams where you enter the dream state and part of your mind knows you're dreaming.

Gackenbach's hypothesis is that "video games train the mind to take control of a fantasy situation. So when you are asleep and enter a dream state, your brain immediately thinks 'video game!' and you find yourself able to take control of the dreamscape."

Recurring dreams may reflect insecurity rather than trauma

The difference may seem minor, but it's actually significant.

When you experience something traumatic or disturbing, it can haunt your dreams for years. Children who witnessed the 2002 Gujarat genocide had nightmares of the mob attacking their village for years. Ditto for the 2004 tsunami survivors who were plagued by recurring nightmares about 'walls of water'.

However, research seems to indicate the dream is more a metaphor than an actual fear: in other words, dreaming about something doesn't mean it will happen to you again; instead, it tends to be the default imagery your mind associates with anxiety.

So, each time you're in a situation where you're anxious, your insecurities take the form of a known trauma or fear. Rape victims, for instance, have documented repeated dreams about being raped - and these dreams were heightened when they were facing other pressures or insecurities in their everyday life.

Often, you're unaware of these insecurities. Dreams are often seen as an outlet for the release of these insecurities which is why dream analysis is used as an important therapeutic tool by professionals.

Yet by itself such dreams mean little.

Roger that, Mr Stallone?

First published: 19 October 2015, 8:51 IST
Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub

Bats for the four-legged, can't stand most on two. Forced to venture into the world of homo sapiens to manage uninterrupted companionship of 16 cats, 2 dogs and counting... Can read books and paint pots and pay bills by being journalist.