Originally posted by Peter Gray on his Psychology Today Blog.
Dreams of being in school are common among adults of all ages. In fact, in dream surveys, being in school typically ranks among the top five dream categories in frequency, even among adults who have been out of school for decades (e.g. Mathes et al., 2014). In those studies, participants simply marked, on a check-off list, the topics they had dreamed about. Such studies tell us nothing about the nature of the dreams.
Are school dreams pleasant or unpleasant? What happens in the dreams? To address these questions, I used my last blog post to conduct an informal survey. I asked readers to describe, in the comments section, any recurring dreams they have about being in school; to indicate on a five-point scale how pleasant or unpleasant the dreams typically are; to indicate when they last had such a dream; and to indicate how long it had been since they were a student in the type of school (elementary school, middle school, high school, or college) at which their dream is usually set.
One hundred and twenty eight readers responded to the survey. In response to the question of the level of school involved in their dreams, 73% mentioned high school, 34% mentioned college, 12% elementary school, and 7% middle school or junior high school. (These totals add to more than 100% because some noted more than one setting for their recurring dreams.) Here are the other main findings:
Nearly everyone rated their school dreams as unpleasant, nobody rated them as pleasant.
I asked people to rate the pleasantness of their recurring dream on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 = very pleasant, 2 = somewhat pleasant, 3 = neither pleasant nor unpleasant, or equally pleasant and unpleasant, 4 = somewhat unpleasant, 5 = very unpleasant.
None of the respondents rated their recurring dream as 1 or 2. Only two respondents rated their recurring dream as a 3. One of those two rated her dream as a 3 rather than a 4 or 5 only because her “massive sense of relief” on realizing in the later part of the dream that she had already finished school negated the unpleasantness of the earlier part. All of the rest rated their school dreams as a 4 or a 5, with the average being midway between 4 and 5.
Some described their dreams as going beyond anxiety to a level they identified as panic. Here are a few quotations illustrating the intense emotions experienced:
• I just keep doing circles in the hallways, trying to get to classes. Nothing ever works out. I am scared, nervous, anxious, alone, and I can’t do anything to change it. I wake up feeling depressed, insecure, unsure, unsettled, in my younger years, crying.
• I wander around, panicked, looking for the correct classroom, I dread having the teacher lay into me about missing classes
• The feeling is extreme anxiety, embarrassment, and shame.
• [I am] completely freaked out that I know nothing and am going to fail the class. The feeling of not knowing and of impending failure is so intensely gut wrenching.
• I wake up with my heart pounding every time.
• But then, all of a sudden, there even popped up a whole new subject about which I hadn’t been informed. But I had to make a written exam about it. I am panicking, I am in agony; all I have studied for, all the hard work was in vain, no degree.
• I feel embarrassed in the dream and confused about why I am a bad student, but I also know it to be true and unchangeable. I feel completely unempowered and ashamed.
• I am in despair — why did I enroll again in classes I don’t need [and will fail]? I am running the halls wondering what to do.
• Sick anxiety, sadness, despair, overwhelm — I can NOT possibly succeed here.
• I always wake up, soaked with sweat and shaking. It’s always a very vivid dream. It’s one that I can remember with lots of details long after waking up, unlike most dreams that I have.
• The dreams always revolve around me walking around, either high school or college, panicked and on the verge of tears because I can’t remember my schedule. … I wake up sweating, with my heart pounding, and it takes quite a bit of time for the adrenaline to wear off.
For some, the panic is modulated by the simultaneous awareness, within the dream, that they are, in real life, done with school. Here’s an example:
- I always have a feeling of dread bordering on panic, but yet at the same time an awareness that I am an adult and it really doesn’t matter.
The most common school dream themes are (a) missing classes all term and therefore being likely to fail, and (b) being unable to find the classroom.
My own most common school dream is one in which I suddenly discover, in high school or college, that I have been enrolled in some class that I was unaware of or had forgotten about and never attended. It is the day of the final exam, and I am searching through dungeon-like hallways trying to find the classroom. I finally get to the classroom, late, and I realize that I have no idea what the subject is and can’t make heads or tails of the exam questions. I used to think this was an odd dream, probably representing some unique aspect of my personality, but now, in this survey, I have learned that this is the most common of all school dreams, at least among those who responded to the survey.
To conduct the qualitative analysis, I first read all of the dream reports and made notes concerning the themes that seemed to occur frequently. I then reread all of the reports and coded each dream for the presence or absence of each theme that I had previously listed.
The most common theme was that of having missed a course all semester, usually in high school but sometimes in college, and then having to take a final exam in that course. This theme was reported as recurrent by 69 (54%) of the respondents. It was often accompanied by feelings of embarrassment and stupidity about missing the course, anxiety or panic about impending failure, and feelings of dread about having to spend another year in school because of this failure.
The second most common theme was that of being lost in school (usually high school), unable to find the right classroom, accompanied by embarrassment, shame, anxiety, or panic about showing up late. This theme was reported by 55 (43%) of the respondents.
As in the case of my own recurrent dream, the theme of not being able to find the class was often combined with the theme of missing the class all semester. A total of 35 respondents (27%) reported a recurring dream in which they had missed a course all semester and now, late in the term, typically on final exam day, they were searching for the classroom and couldn’t find it. WHY THIS DREAM? I have no idea. If you have an idea, please tell me in the comments section.
A variation of the can’t-find-the-class dream is the can’t-open-my-locker dream. Thirteen respondents reported this theme, typically accompanied by feelings of anxiety or panic about being late for class or unable to attend class because of not being able to get the correct materials or their class schedule out of their locker.
Another common theme is that of having to go back to school as an adult.
The third most common dream theme — after the missed-class-all-semester and can’t-find-the-classroom themes — is the theme of being forced, as an adult, to go back to high school, or even elementary school, because of some bureaucratic snafu or the discovery that the dreamer had failed to meet some requirement. Twenty-one (17%) of the survey respondents reported such a recurrent dream. Here are two examples:
• In the dream, I’m already a doctor in practice (which I am in real life), but I suddenly realize that I never actually graduated from high school, and I have to go back and finish high school classes. It always happens in the middle of a semester, too, so I know I’m going to be behind, and the teacher is going to wonder where I’ve been the whole semester. … Even while dreaming, I know that I’m already working as a doctor, and it seems crazy that I have to go back and finish something at high school level. When I wake up, I always have the same feeling: “I knew that couldn’t be right! I graduated from high school 35 years ago.”
• I am forced to go back to high school at my current age and relearn all of the material in order to graduate. All of the people with whom I went to high school are still there and are still their same high school age, but I am older, my current age. … I feel like a bad student, which is frustrating, because I have a graduate degree! I feel trapped by the pointlessness of the school bureaucracy and the ridiculousness of being made to repeat high school. I contemplate dropping out but simultaneously feel mortified by such a decision.
School anxiety dreams can continue for decades after graduation.
I asked the survey respondents to indicate the number of years that had passed since they had last been a student in the kind of school that was the setting of their recurrent dream. The responses varied from about 5 years on up to about 60 years. On the basis of those responses, I made guesses about the age of each participant and found a range from 20 years up to 77 years old, with most (72%) being in their 30s or 40s. Regardless of age, respondents generally indicated that the dream had remained pretty much the same over the years, though some indicated that, with time, it had become less frequent and in some cases less anxiety-provoking.
Here are three examples of reports from respondents in their 60s:
• [Finished high school in 1970.] I have many recurring dreams about school, …all of them riddled with anxiety. … [In one], I am even back in elementary school. In this variation I am still my grown up self or at least college age in a classroom of elementary school children. … In another …, the setting can be high school or college, I have somehow totally forgotten to attend a class for an entire semester and I still have to take the final exam.
• I am over 60 and am so surprised that so many others have the same dream as me. I am in the hall of my HS and cannot find my classroom. It is about a level 5 of stress. Then I doubt myself even further and am unsure of my class schedule. Then my memory fails me even more and I can’t remember what days I have a class or if I am still in that class. The dream usually ends there but I sometimes become aware that I already graduated.
• I am 62. I have had frequent dreams of being in middle school walking up stairs, walking down hallways in search of my room. I also have dreams of getting lost trying to get to college, somehow I end up walking thru corn fields, prairies, needing to catch a train. Sometimes I make it to class but if I do then I haven’t done my homework, or I missed too many classes.
Well, I’m not Freud or Jung, I don’t have a theory of why these particular dreams are so common or what they might mean about the mind’s inner workings. How sad, though, that schooling, which is more or less required by law of all young people, produces, as one of its consequences, a lifetime of bad dreams. Hmm. I wonder if it would be possible to devise a way for our children to become educated that would leave them with a lifetime of good dreams, not bad ones. Wouldn’t that be something worth striving for? Any ideas how to do that?
It’s also interesting to me that many of the respondents indicated that they actually were very good, punctual students, who rarely missed classes and never failed. I wonder if we “good students” actually have worse dreams about school than those “bad students” who sat in the back of the class and shot spitballs. If you know any adults who were “bad students” ask them about their school dreams and tell me about them in the comments section here.
About the Author
Peter Gray is the author of the book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.