On… nightmares 1 Reply Well, of COURSE I love this, like most people I love anything that tells me I am more creative than your average bear. But also, it’s just a relief. Ever since I was about 21, I’ve had night terrors. Which means that about three nights a week, I wake up screaming. As in, SCREAMING. Sometimes I point at things in the corner or on the light, sometimes I get up and walk around the room, sometimes I open curtains, take pictures off walls, grab the duvet and pull it off the bed while yelling at something to go away. I know. I am crazypants. Yah, sharing a bed with me must be annoying as fuck. Fox says he can mostly calm me down before it gets to getting-out-of-bed levels. In the olden days, when I had roommates, I just had to white-knuckle it alone, while I woke up, with a sore throat from screaming, on the stairs or the floor outside my room. One time I screamed so much that I woke up my roommate on the floor above and she assumed I was being murdered so she HID. FOR REAL. (Thanks dude.) And nope, nothing really bad has ever happened to me. I was never kidnapped or raped or exposed to undue amounts of Billy Ray Cyrus music. We have loosely tracked it to my blood sugar levels – if I eat something like yoghurt or almonds before I go to bed, I’m less likely to go full banshee. It doesn’t happen, at all, when I’m preggers. But aside from that, it just happens. I’m always kind of embarrassed about my night terrors, because people think it’s so weird. Or they assume that I must dread going to sleep (nope, love it) or that I wake up in the morning with memories of being petrified (not really, if it’s bad enough that I wake in the middle of the night I have a residual feeling of fear, but otherwise I wake up my usual annoyingly happy self). But now I can say that my night terrors are just part of being a writer. Yeah. Suck it. Two other things in this article really connected with me: one, having a dreamlike quality to waking thoughts. On any given day, even when I’m not actually sitting at my laptop, a substantial percentage of my brain is daydreaming my way through a story. It makes me vague and a little deaf (my best friend from college called me Vagueness), and I have to make a large effort to be present and aware of my surroundings. Children have really helped me with this, as you can’t really daydream when there’s a fighting chance you’ll be cleaning up spilled cereal in two minutes if you do. And two, the heightened sensitivity to all emotional experience. I am the kind of person who gets so upset by news about death, or pain, especially to children, that it feels physically painful to read the newspapers. (I live in a hearts-and-flowers world where the New York Times only has the Arts section, the Metropolitan section, and the Style section.) Tell me your sad personal news, and I’ll cry with you. If I think about certain lines from songs or movies, or a documentary my friend Kristen made about the sexual abuse of deaf children by priests, the first story in In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders (which is a comic short story, I am just a FREAK) or certain details I know and wish I didn’t about what the Nazis did, I’ll feel so overwhelmed that for a minute or two, it’s like I’m drowning in sadness, and I have to cry a bit just to let the feelings out. It’s SO PATHETIC. I always thought that everyone felt like me and I was just a weakling. The kind of wimpy dick who let shit affect her so much, it was almost pretentious. But no! I am not pretentious (at least, not in this way). It appears this is just part of being me, like not remembering numbers longer than two digits, always dancing like it’s 1983, and being able to tie a cherry stalk in a knot in my mouth with my tongue. (Yah totally sexy, right? No, because I look like the old lady who swallowed a fly while I do it.) Anyway, enough about ME. Read the article from NYMag below (I could post to the original story on New Scientist but who has the time): People Who Have More Nightmares Might Also Be More Creative Nightmare is kind of a weird word, etymologically speaking. The night part is obvious enough, but mare has more of an unexpected history: In old English, it was the word for demons who were thought to possess people as they slept. The compound word, nightmare, was originally a term for the spirits themselves, only later coming to refer to the dreams they caused. The term has stuck, but nowadays, psychologists have a few other ideas about what causes nightmares. Writing in New Scientist earlier this week, psychology PhD candidate Michelle Carr, who studies dreams at the University of Montreal’s Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine, explained the two dominant theories: One is that they’re a reaction to negative experiences that happen during waking hours. The other is “threat simulation theory,” or the idea that we evolved to have nightmares as a sort of rehearsal for adversity, so that when the real thing rolls around we’re better equipped to handle it. Whether or not they function as a training ground for real-life situations, though, nightmares do have some real benefits for the people who thrash and sweat their way through them, as Carr noted. One 2013 study, for example, found that frequent nightmare sufferers rated themselves as more empathetic. They also displayed more of a tendency to unconsciously mirror other people through things like contagious yawning, a phenomenon that’s been studied as an indicator of empathy. Carr, meanwhile, has found that people who have constant nightmares also tend to think further outside the box on word-association tasks. Other research, she explained, has found support for the idea that nightmares might be linked to creativity: Sleep researcher Ernest Hartmann, while a psychiatrist at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston in the 1980s, found that people seeking therapy for nightmares were not necessarily more fearful or anxious, but rather had a general sensitivity to all emotional experience. He concluded that sensitivity is the driving force behind intense dreams. Heightened sensitivity to threats or fear during the day results in bad dreams and nightmares, whereas heightened passion or excitement may result in more intense positive dreams. And both these forms of dreams may feed back into waking life, perhaps increasing distress after nightmares, or promoting social bonds and empathy after positive dreams. The effects go further still. Hartmann realised that this sensitivity spills over into perceptions and thoughts: people who have a lot of nightmares experience a dreamlike quality to their waking thoughts. And this kind of thinking seems to give them a creative edge. For instance, studies show that such people tend to have greater creative aptitude and artistic expression. Jess and Chris [two of Carr’s research subjects] scored highly on a test to measure this, called the boundary thinness scale, and both are artists: Jess is a painter and photographer, Chris a musician. And, in a satisfyingly tidy stroke of cosmic balance, Carr’s research has found that people who often have nightmares also tend to have more positive dreams than the average person. “The evidence points towards the idea that, rather than interfering with normal activity, people who are unfortunate in having a lot of nightmares also have a dreaming life that is at least as creative, positive and vivid as it can be distressing and terrifying,” she wrote. “What’s more, this imaginative richness is unlikely to be confined to sleep, but also permeates waking thought and daydreams.” Even after people wake up and shake off the nighttime demon, in other words, a trace of it stays behind, possessing them throughout the day.