Dreams of Gerontius

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My daytime life is excellent but  night life is dull because dreams are  rubbish. They used to be more exciting. At age 7, most nights,  I could depend on being chased by wolves around my boarding school;  In my 20’s I was often in dodgy spaceships that leaked oxygen to vacuum and in my 30’s and 40’s I continually hurried to miss trains and planes. In my 50’s and 60’s I turned up, late, to speak at meetings where I had no idea what to say or had brought the wrong power-point. In my 70’s I am relegated to the audience at dull lectures and, last night, the talk was so bad that I dreamt that I was dozing off.  Since I am what my profession has made me, I did not puzzle about the metaphysics of dreaming that one is going to sleep. I made a small search  of what my colleagues have to say about dreaming in old age.

A problem is that we can only count and analyse dreams that people remember. While we are dreaming bursts of electrical activity that can be recorded from our brains through our skulls (EEG) are brief, fast and accompanied by rapid eye movements (REMs) behind closed eyelids.  If we are woken during shallow REM sleep we often report dreams. During periods of deeper sleep we make few or  no eye-movements, our slower EEG waves are  interrupted  by brief bursts of very fast activity (“sleep spindles”) and, if woken, we seldom report dreams. Older people have less deep and more shallow sleep, but with fewer. REM episodes. They also report fewer dreams in total, so the  assumption has been that they may dream less often. I have not found data on a key question whether, over all awakenings from REM,   the ratio of reports of dreams to reports of no dreams changes with age. This might give a clue whether age affects the number of dreams or, rather, memory for dreams.

Am I relieved that although my dreams have become boring I may not remember most of them? I do not find memories of boredom unpleasant and can instantly switch them off, but the idea that I may experience unpleasant things that I don’t consciously recall is more disturbing. In the same way as when thinking about  the (in my view) not-yet- convincing evidence that anaesthetised surgical patients feel, but do not remember pain. I feel uneasy to think that I may have vivid, and possibly unpleasant experiences while I am asleep that I can never again bring to consciousness.

One report suggests that that older people who are more intelligent, and particularly those who have better visual memories recall more, richer and more complex dreams1.  Older women also recall more, and more vivid dreams than old men do. This can be linked to evidence that keeping memory and intelligence depends on good health and slower brain ageing and women are more durable than men. This could also explain the very general agreement that older people remember fewer dreams 2 . If dream-dearth in old age is caused by brain ageing, this would explain why those who live and stay healthy and mentally able to a greater age, experience slower brain ageing and keep up their dream productivity. Not good news for me. More rich and better plotted dreams might provide better entertainment and reassure me that I am still keeping my brain and wits. So my rare and lame dreams are discouraging. I prefer to believe, like some researchers, that we begin to recall fewer of our dreams from early middle-age onward simply because we regard them as irrelevant and tedious3  or because that is how they become  as our lives attenuate.  A study of 1,065 men and 1,263 women aged 17–92 yrs and also  a review of results from this and 174 other experiments report consensus that older women recall more of their dreams than old men do4. However, this is apparently not just because they live longer and tend to keep sharper than men of the same age, because even in childhood there is a small sex difference that reaches a lifetime maximum in adolescence.

As always there are many possible explanations for sex differences. Women not only recall more dreams than men, but have better-quality dreams  and pay more attention to them. A small study followed 11 men and 11 women over 20 nights and found that the men’s dreams were not more aggressive, but starred more male characters and single characters and included more noise effects but were also, more often not in colour. Female dreams were more complex and emotionally intense and polychromatic. So, it seems quite understandable that women become more involved with their dreams than men do. Their dreams are better plotted, stage-managed and produced and directed, and so more entertaining.

The internet opens remarkable new opportunities for researchers to collect huge rich data-sets.  A web study of 19,367 women and 4,634 men (the difference in samples adds to the evidence that women are more interested in discussing their dreams) found that, at all ages younger than 60, women reported more nightmares per month (4.4 as against 3.30). Their average monthly nightmares increased from 10 to 19 and from 20 to 30 and then declined. Men’s nightmare averages were constant from 10 to 39 and then also reduced 5.

Apart from the differences in their dream quality and frequency, men and women seem to dream of slightly different things. This is unsurprising because when they are awake they are pre-occupied by different things. Our daily lives and our dreams share the same scenery and stage-props. So androids dream of electric sheep and a large study of truck-drivers found that they, (surprise!), tend to dream of driving trucks6 . Much of the difference in emotional quality of dreams can also be explained by differences in life context. Formal studies find that in both women and men both sex and aggression in dreams diminishes from youth through middle age and later life.  So no surprise there. Notoriously, physically and emotionally stressful single events and stressful occupations feed their traumatic scenarios into dreams. The dream-environments of elderly retired academics are appropriately placid. Not to say tedious. To make my dreams more exciting I might energetically seek more excitement and stress in my daily life. I do not think that I shall bother.

Findings that most of our dreams are replays of bits of our daily lives accounts for observations that, contrary to the stock ideas of romantic fiction, older people do not seem to dream more often of the past than the young do7. Though we have a greater proportion of past to present to dream about, the now, whether exciting, disturbing or uneventful,  takes control. The cloth of old dreams is woven from the threads of old lives.

To radically change our lives to re-plot our dreams does not seem worthwhile but, though the scripts are hard to control, it seems possible that we can liven up the production values and the scenery. A persistent theme in dream research is whether people dream in colour or black and white. At least one study suggests that , for whatever reason, young men are more likely to have monochrome dreams than  young women but that colour comes to dominate in old age. The evidence for  late colour is debated. At least one study insists that black and white becomes less frequent, but this is  to support an argument that black and white and technicolour dreams reflect changing trends in television and cinema. Some of my colleagues claim  that this does not just reflect changes in cinema during  lifetimes in early affluent societies, but also the more rapid transitions from monochrome to colour television in later developing countries. I am puzzled  that while all of us,  except the colour blind, see life in vivid colour the tints of our dreams may be strongly determined  by the  media that we watch, but at least the chance that this may be so offers me easy solutions  to dream improvement. Buy a glossy, great TV set and a huge Tablet with a glittering multi-pixel display  and use them to watch lives more exciting than my own.

  1. Waterman, D. (1991). Aging and memory for dreams. Perceptual and Motor skills. 75. 355-365
  2. Giambra, L.M., Jung, R.E. & Grodsky, A., (1996). Age changes in dream recall in adulthood. Dreaming, 6  17-31.
  3. Schredl, M. & Reinhard, I. (2008). Gender differences in dream recall. A meta-analysis. Journal of Sleep Research, 17, 125-131.
  4. Herman, S. & Shows, W.D. (1984).How often do adults recall their dreams ? International Journal of Aging and Human Development. 18. 343-254.
  5. Nielsen, T.A., Stenstrom, P. & Levin, R. (2001). Nightmare frequency as a function of age gender and September 11.   Findings from an internet questionnaire. Dreaming, 16, 145 – 158.
  6. Schredl, M., Funkhauser, A. & Arn, N. (2006). Breams of Truck-Drivers, A test of the continuity hypothesis.  Imagination and Personality, 25, 179-186.
  7. Giambra, L.M. (2006). Daydreaming about the past: The time setting of spontaneous thought intrusions. The Gerontologist, 17, 36-38.
  8. Schwitzgebel, E., Huang, C., Zhou, Y. (2006). Do we dream in colour ? Cultural variations ands scepticism. Dreaming, 16, 36-42.

About Gray Rabbitt

Grumpy gerontologist
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