Can dreams tell the future? Unique dreaming patterns predict later behavioral problems in a healthy early-adolescent sample

Nirit Soffer-Dudek, Ph.D.; Avi Sadeh, D.Sc.

Emily started having unique dreaming experiences when she was 14. She would dream of flying or hurtling intensely across the room, dream vividly about the taste of smoking even though she never smoked in real life, and once she even experienced vibrations while awakening which she dreamt were her brother's cell-phone placed on her body. She became interested in the meaning of these dream experiences and discussed them with several members of her family hoping to gain an understanding of them. When that approach failed, she eventually went on to study psychology to find answers. To her disappointment, she finished her degree without an answer to her question – What were those dreams about? Although it is commonly known that disruptions to sleep quality are indicative of psychopathological distress (e.g., Benca, Obermeyer, Thisted, & Gillin, 1992), dream patterns hardly receive as much attention in modern psychology. Can dreaming tell us anything about affect, and can it inform us of important psychological processes before they are obvious and apparent? It has long been known that nightmares are related to stress and psychopathology (Chivers & Blagrove, 1999; Cukrowicz et al., 2006; Nguyen, Madrid, Marquez,& Hicks, 2002); it seems that negative affect persists from waking to nighttime. However, recent research on adults expanded the links between dreaming patterns and distress to include several other forms of unique dreaming. In this article, I will briefly describe these findings on adults, and then outline a pioneering study we conducted and published recently in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, which explored this topic in adolescents. I will conclude with some observations that might have been helpful to Emily and her family.

In a series of studies on clinical and non-clinical populations, a construct labeled "sleep-related experiences" was associated with daily stress and with psychopathological distress, such as depression and anxiety symptoms (Soffer-Dudek & Shahar, 2009, 2010, 2011; Soffer-Dudek, Shalev, Shiber, & Shahar, 2011; Soffer-Dudek, Wertheim, & Shahar, 2011). This construct includes intriguing phenomena such as remembering many dreams, having recurrent dreams, having dreams of falling or of flying, experiencing confusion upon awakening as to whether an experience was real or was only dreamt, dreaming of awakening, having vivid dreams, and having hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations (i.e., experiencing dreamlike-images while falling asleep or while awakening). In a rigorous study that assessed nocturnal sleep-related experiences on a day-to-day basis, daily stress predicted the occurrence of sleep-related experiences even when sleep quality was controlled (Soffer-Dudek & Shahar, 2011). These experiences were conceptualized by the authors as hybrid states of consciousness in which arousal invaded sleep. Thus, if sleep is aroused following waking distress, one will remember more dreams, have more physically active dreams, and experience more confusion between sleeping and waking states.

A recent study employed this line of thinking to normally-developing young adolescents, by seeking to examine the longitudinal association of unique dreaming patterns with behavioral problems, specifically, externalizing and internalizing symptoms (Soffer-Dudek & Sadeh, 2013). The main question of the study was whether adolescent-reported unique dreaming would follow parent-reported behavioral problems, or whether unique dreaming would precede parent-reported behavioral problems, thus acting as a clinical marker of distress. Ninety-four 10-year-olds were assessed for sleep and dreaming patterns and their parents reported externalizing and internalizing psychopathological symptoms. Assessments were repeated at 1- and 2-year follow-ups. Dreaming patterns were assessed with two measures: (a) dream diary dream recall frequency – average number of dreams remembered by the adolescent within a 7-day assessment period, and (b) a questionnaire assessing enhanced and unusual dreaming, containing the following items:  “I wake up scared or from a nightmare in my sleep,” “I remember dreams,” “I dream about scary things,” “I dream strange dreams and dreams that I can’t understand,” “I keep having this weird dream over and over again,” “I remember my dreams for a long time,” and “I think that dreams have an effect on me and my life.” This questionnaire produced good internal reliability, suggesting that adolescents who have scary dreams are also those who tend to remember their dreams, have recurring dreams, have bizarre dreams, and experience their dreams as meaningful.

Overall, from age 10 to 12, reports of unusual dreams decreased over time, and dream recall decreased among girls. Perhaps this suggests that the normal transition from childhood to adolescence is characterized by focusing less on dream and fantasy and more on external reality. So who still remembers his or her dreams and has unusual dreams at age 12? We found that 10-year-olds whose parents reported that they tended to internalize (e.g., were anxious or depressive), were more likely to recall many dreams and experience unusual dreams at age 12. But what about the other way around? Can dreaming patterns at age 10 predict an increase in behavioral problems from age 10 to 12? While the weekly dream recall measure was not a predictor of subsequent behavioral problems, the unique and unusual dreaming questionnaire was. It predicted an increase over time in both internalizing and externalizing parent-reports of behavior problems. Thus, it acted as an early clinical marker of risk for behavioral problems in adolescence, even before parents were aware of the problem. Perhaps distressed adolescents experience arousal and negative affect during sleep, causing them to have negative, bizarre, and memorable dreams. It seems that assessing self-reported dream patterns during early adolescence may help early detection of covert psychopathological distress.

In an in-depth exploration of Emily's story, it turned out that her parents had experienced marital problems since she was 12, but with an air of secrecy: the topic was not discussed among family members. Additionally, while she reported sleeping well, she was always "on the lookout" for family members coming into her room when she was asleep to borrow things without her permission. Finally, she developed an un-diagnosed anxiety disorder. It seems that Emily's dreams did have a meaning: they told the story of her distress and constant arousal. They suggested that a lot of things were going on and that Emily couldn't afford to let herself sleep peacefully. Although unique dreaming has been studied mainly in adults, it might be even more important in teens, as they often find it difficult to verbalize their distress. Possibly, screening for unique dream patterns in adolescents may enable us to help young people like Emily, in their search for the answer to their dreams.


Nirit Soffer-Dudek is a lecturer at the department of Psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and the head of the Consciousness States and Psychopathology laboratory. After obtaining a Bachelor's degree in Psychology at Israel's Open University, Dr. Soffer-Dudek continued her M.A. and Ph.D. studies at Ben-Gurion University. Subsequently, she completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Tel-Aviv University with Prof. Sadeh. In addition, Dr. Soffer-Dudek works as a psychologist at the Psychiatry Department at Soroka Medical Center, located in the south of Israel. Her research aims to explore the links between altered consciousness traits and stress and psychopathology.

Avi Sadeh is a Professor of Psychology, Director of the Child Clinical Psychology Graduate Program, and the Director of the Children’s Sleep Laboratory at the School of Psychological Science, Tel Aviv University, Israel. Prof. Sadeh completed his B.A and M.A. studies at the Department of Psychology, Haifa University, and then completed his D.Sc degree at the School of Medicine, the Technion, Haifa. Prof. Sadeh completed post-doctoral training at Brown University.

Prof. Sadeh is a clinical psychologist, with more than 25 years of experience in treating, infants, children and families. He serves as an Associate Editor on Journal of Sleep Research and on the editorial board of Sleep and Sleep Medicine Reviews.


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