Can’t escape school in your dreams? This is the meaning of the nightmare that keeps humanity awake

That classroom you attend in your sleep is a metaphor from the past that serves to unburden the problems of the present

Enrique Alpañés

Just a month ago, Carmen’s nightmares came true. She was back at the corridors of the Complutense University of Madrid, where she studied; she even went into her old classroom. However, this time she did not have to take a test, as she has dreamed of repeatedly since she finished her degree a decade ago. In fact, she was there to give a talk, so in some way her dreams also came true. Proud, she shared a photo of the moment in a WhatsApp group chat, along with her thoughts: “You know, I’ve had nightmares that I had to come back here because I hadn’t gotten my degree. Has it happened to you?”

“Oh yes, yes, and with high school, too,” replied one friend. One after another, the answers filled the chat window. Everyone had experienced something similar.

This is a recurring dream all over the world. Long after graduation, the anxiety of day-to-day life drags dreamers back to the classroom in their sleep. You leave school in real life, but in the dream world, a part of you remains there. It is in school where you begin to understand how life works; that is where you face your first tests, which are not always passed. The first social relationships away from the protection of the family are also established there. And it is there that one returns, over and over again, to relive one’s traumas.

Luca Maria Aiello has spent years diving into the world’s libraries of dreams. This computer science professor from the University of Copenhagen designed a virtual dreamcatcher, an algorithm that reads texts in search of keywords, and he is using it to comb the internet’s dream databases. A few years ago he did it with Dreambank.net, a collection of more than 20,000 dreams that began to be collected in the early 20th century, but in recent months he has been working on a newer, larger database: 44,000 dreams written in a Reddit forum thread. He explains that for this new, still unpublished work, they are using machine learning to extract a taxonomy of dreams and find their different themes.

His team classified 22 recurring themes; among them, of course, is school. “It includes almost 10% of the dreams,” said the professor, highlighting its prevalence by comparing it to the workplace — another place where dreamers also spend a lot of their awake time, but which is only present in 3% of dreams.

Intuition — experience, even — would make a person assume that, if sleep takes you to school, you are in for a nightmare. However, the data says otherwise: only 18% of the dreams that occur in this scenario could be classified as nightmares. “I also would have bet that they were more,” admitted Aiello. But the difference between a dream and a nightmare is relative, just like the feelings that going back to school to reunite with classmates, teachers and exams from the past can generate in many.

Aiello and his group have not been able to draw a profile of the dream student. They do not know if there are more men or women, if they are older or younger or what their education or economic levels are, because the Reddit users have not provided this information. However, from previous studies he can infer that, in general, women have more optimistic, friendly dreams, while those of men, by contrast, tend to be more aggressive and negative.

Ursula Oberst, a professor of psychology at the Ramón Llull University in Barcelona, Spain, agreed that generic conclusions cannot be reached. “The existence of a universal dream symbology has been ruled out. We don’t interpret the dream, we interpret the dreamer,” she explained. Oberst points out that we can understand these dreams as metaphors for a current situation. “It has even been shown that the dreamer uses these processes as a resource to find solutions to this current problem, such as answering the teacher with something original.”

“Childhood and adolescence are stages of life that leave a deep mark,” said Oberst. That is why we return to them in dreams that are “frequently loaded with negative affectivity.” However, in order to find the cause, added the expert, we should not look to the past, but to the present. “This can happen to us when we go through difficult moments in our adult lives, which are represented metaphorically in dreams,” she explained.

Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher at Harvard University and author of the essays Pandemic Dreams and The Committee of Sleep, mentions some common variants of school dreams: the dreamer has to run to take a test after having fallen asleep, or they cannot find their classroom, don’t understand a text, studied the wrong subject or show up naked. All these variants share a common element: the anxiety of not being up to the task, of not passing a test.

Maybe in the real world people have graduated, or dropped out of high school or college forever, with good grades or maybe bad memories. But, at nightfall, everyone repeats the grade and revisits the trauma, with the school serving as a sort of psychological consultation, a metaphor from the past that helps solve the problems of the present. How poetic to think that, even though our school years are behind us, in the dream world one keeps going back, night after night, to continue learning.

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