It seems like the fantasy worlds we inhabit after we tuck in for the night are pretty much out of our control. One minute you're dreaming about winning the Nobel Prize in physics, and the next minute you're fist-fighting a cybernetic Stephen Hawking. But there is nothing magical about your dreams -- they are a function of your brain's biology, which means that there are actual, physical reasons why in last night's dream your mother transformed into a gorilla instead of, say, a wombat.
Science is just beginning to understand the factors that control your dreams, but what we've discovered so far is weird as hell.
If that headline sounds like New Age bullshit to you, like maybe we're going to start talking about how dreams are visions from your spirit's magnetic energy matrix or something, calm down -- as weird as this is, the science behind it is more straightforward than you think. As we have mentioned before, your brain's pineal gland can sense geomagnetic activity. It's not magic -- it's just helping to regulate hormones for your sleep cycle. Some people are sensitive enough to fluctuations in the Earth's magnetism that it creates anxiety and depression (high magnetic activity hurts the output of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your mood). Well, it looks like magnetism also controls whether you'll dream that you're merely flying or that you're in a cross-country skiing championship while giant man-roosters try to distract you with naked images of Willem Dafoe, who is also a cat for some reason.
Don't look down. We assure you the penis is regular human size.
After recording his dreams for eight years, psychologist Darren Lipnicki stumbled upon this correlation: low geomagnetic activity means crazier dreams. When the magnetic field was high, his dreams made more sense, but when it died down, he was dreaming tripped-out things. As he describes it, "I was stranded on a foreign coastline with a monkey that spoke English and a woman that suddenly became small, almost doll-sized. Then I was at home."
For his study, Lipnicki devised a five-point scoring system to rate his dreams -- those with a rating of 1 were scenarios that seemed perfectly reasonable, but those that he rated a 5 were all flying toasters and monkey butlers.
Take away the pants and this one goes straight to 4 on sheer principle.
It would make sense if (as Lipnicki suspects) it's all about magnetism and melatonin. After all, people who take melatonin supplements say that they experience crazier dreams. This also leads to the conclusion that weird-ass dreams are the sign of a healthy brain -- your melatonin is doing its job.
If you've ever been in the middle of a dream when you suddenly realized you were dreaming and could actually control what happened, you've experienced a lucid dream. The ability to get into the driver's seat of a dream -- to battle monsters, or hang out with celebrities, or (most importantly) have sex with anyone you can imagine -- is an incredibly popular hobby on the Internet, with whole communities set up to advise each other about how to do it. Well, the answer may be easier than they think: play lots of video games.
"It's called a loophole, bitches."
Video game players report having more lucid dreams than other people, according to a study. The lead researcher, Jayne Gackenbach, has been doing dream research for over a decade and has been able to reproduce the results time and time again -- gamers just have a knack for wresting control of their unconscious mind, which is good news for any gamers who find that they're not getting laid very often in the real world. Or maybe it's terrible news. You decide.
Gackenbach's hypothesis is simply 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.
"PRESS A, PRESS A, PRESS A, MOTHERFUCKER, PRESS A!"
That's not all, though -- according to the research, frequent gamers actually have the ability to ward off nightmares. Apparently, the essence of a scary dream is the dreamer's inability to respond to threatening situations like zombie hordes or disappearing pants. But gamers are able to "fight back" in their dreams, which lowers the general threat level. Gamers' nightmares tend to be more violent, but less frightening.
So the good news for gamers is that you don't need to pay a dime to live a new fantasy adventure every night. The bad news is that we're thinking we're about five years away from game publishers figuring out how to charge you for that shit.
"The DRM gives me pretty bad seizures, but those wet dreams are worth it."
Where your politics fall on the spectrum might have deep implications for the dinner table and the voting booth, but you'd think that we're all pretty much the same when we put our heads down at night, right? It's all having sex with our gym teacher in public while our teeth are falling out.
Well, scientists who look into this kind of thing have done some research on how people's political attitudes affect their dreams, and they found that whether you pressed the button for Mitt or Barack in the last election has profound implications for what your dream worlds look like. For instance, dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley found that conservatives are nearly three times as likely to suffer from nightmares as their left-wing counterparts.
"And now I shall sing every Nickelback song ever recorded. In the style of polka."
During the four-year study, Bulkeley found that nearly half of the dreams described by conservatives were nightmares, compared to only 18 percent of liberal dreams. His own interpretation, which he admits is speculation, is that conservatives are "very attuned to the dangers in the world," whereas liberals tend to be more utopian and optimistic. But either way, this isn't the only study to have found this -- another experiment had some graduate students go through something called the KJP Dream Inventory and found that being more conservative was positively correlated with dreams about falling, being chased, and generally being discontent.
So here's a question for you to discuss among yourselves: Does thinking like a Republican cause you to have more anxiety and scary thoughts, or does having more anxiety and scary thoughts cause you to vote Republican? We don't want to make it sound like a bad thing either way -- you could make the argument that they're just being realistic.
And that the dreams about falling actually represent their love of extreme sports.
So what don't Republicans dream about? Apparently, they have fewer sex dreams. We have no idea what to make of that.
We all know that our dreams can be influenced by things that are happening in our sensory environment -- the aliens we're shooting at might suddenly begin shrieking the same sound as our alarm clock, or the supermodel we're making love to might begin to bark at us just as the annoying dog next door wakes up. But now research has shown that smells in our environment affect our dreams as well, but not in the way you'd think.
"Sir, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave the store."
Scientists in Germany experimented on 15 subjects by pumping different smells into the room as they entered REM sleep. During the study, they wafted the odors of things like rotten eggs and roses across the noses of the sleeping subjects and asked them about their dreams after they awoke. It turns out that the unpleasant smells tended to trigger more negative dreams, as you'd suspect, but the dreams didn't have anything to do with the smells (the smell of something rotten didn't make them dream of zombies or fart monsters or anything like that).
The researchers believe that this is due to the effect that smell has on the limbic system of the brain, which governs emotion and behavior. This appears to be a hugely underrated factor in how our brains work, by the way -- we did a whole article a while back on weird ways you're subconsciously affected by smells and learned that manipulating smells is almost a form of mind control. According to one expert, our sense of smell alone has "direct access to the subconscious areas of the brain, which affects emotion, mood, and memory." Even when you sleep.
"This smells great! Now, about that whole sleep thing ..."
So if you're suffering from chronic nightmares, maybe you should think less about the stress in your life and more about the whole farting roommate situation.
Everything on this list so far has hinged on one unspoken factor: whether you can even remember your dreams at all. All of these surveys and studies were based on people who could actually remember what they dreamed about, and some of us can't -- we just wake up with a vague memory of something unpleasant happening, and maybe that it involved spiders. Well, according to researchers, the more creative you are, the less difficulty you have in remembering your dreams in the morning. This may seem like an abstract and ambiguous category to try sorting people into, but the researchers looked at variables such as being "prone to absorption, imaginativeness, daydreaming, and fantasizing," and concluded that people who scored high on these factors tended to remember their dreams more often.
"Two words: 'evil dick.'"
You might think that this is just a result of whatever chemicals those artsy types were putting into their bodies, but the results were adjusted for things like intake of caffeine and alcohol (which, as those of us who write for a living can attest, tend to spike harder as deadlines begin to dominate our lives). It didn't matter -- the creative types still retained their dreams better.
According to psychology professor David Watson, "People who are prone to daydreaming and fantasy have less of a barrier between states of sleep and wakefulness and seem to more easily pass between them." It sounds similar to the mechanism that lets gamers control their dreams -- apparently that whole bridge between your waking and dreaming mind is something that is built with practice.
"I can't even differentiate between the two anymore. In my eyes, everyone burns."
So if, when trying to concentrate on a lecture, you find yourself inexorably drifting toward wondering how well the lecture hall could survive a zombie apocalypse, then you're probably more likely to remember what you dream about each evening (which, we suppose, is probably fighting a zombie apocalypse).
For more things that affect you more than you realize, check out 6 Weird Things That Influence Bad Behavior More Than Laws and The 5 Weirdest Things That Influence How Your Food Tastes.