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Exam nightmares

By Legal Eagle

Every now and then, I’m sitting in an examination room at my old English school. There’s been some problem with my A-Level exams, and they’ve asked me to re-sit the History exam some 20 years later to prove it was really me who took the original exam. I am trying my best to write essays about Louis XIV and Oliver Cromwell, but I really can’t remember anything except the vaguest details. Sometimes my right arm is broken, so that I’m having trouble writing with any speed. Or sometimes I’m nude, and it’s terribly cold, distracting and uncomfortable.

And then…I wake up. I don’t know why History always features in this dream, as it was a subject I loved and I don’t recall having any difficulty in the real A-Level History examination, in which I did very well. But clearly there’s some residual anxiety about it somewhere in my subconscious.

I was reminded of this dream when I read this article in the newspaper; apparently I’m not alone by any stretch:

Between 20 and 50 per cent of people have had at least one exam dream, said Deirdre Barrett, the author of The Committee of Sleep and assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

“These dreams continue decades after finishing formal education, but occur at times they’re facing scrutiny or evaluation by others, especially authority figures,” Dr Barrett said.

In the final months before submitting the PhD, I had the “re-sitting the A-Level History exam” dream every second or third night, despite telling people about it, which usually works to dispel recurrent nightmares. If it wasn’t that, it was the freaking “teeth falling out” dream (I hate that dream – where your teeth suddenly wobble and start falling out of your mouth). Fortunately, once I handed in the PhD, the nightmares stopped, and have pretty much stayed away since, apart from the occasional “going to work/out in public with no clothes on” dream.

Does anyone else have recurring nightmares of this nature? If so – what examinations feature in your nightmares? Was it a subject which you really struggled in, or was it one where you did fine in real life? Hope that my students aren’t suffering any nightmares on account of the subject I’m teaching them…!

26 Comments

  1. AJ
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I have reoccurring alternative dreams where I am informed that something was wrong with/I never really finished high school or university and I have to do one of them over again.

  2. Ben
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    I have the teeth one very often. One of them falls out and I’m able to put it back in but it keeps falling out.

  3. Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I frequently have exam nightmares. Always maths, for which I haven’t been studying. Sometimes I dream that I have had to go back to repeat highschool.

  4. Chris
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    For about a decade after graduating from university I would occasionally have nightmares about having an exam the next day and not having studied for it. Probably a hangover from often having left studying for a subject until a couple of days before the exam :-)

    Never had a nightmare of actually being in an exam though, nor ones about high school exams (but they were generally a lot less stressful than uni ones for me).

  5. Posted October 22, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Never had an exam nightmare, except for real, wide-awake-in-the-exam-room ones.
    As a child and teen, I had the teeth falling out nightmare. All of them, tumbling out of control.
    I read somewhere, decades ago, that it represents a secret that you are keeping that is ‘busting out’ by way of the nightmare, as you persist in keeping it in. Try Google for other possible explanations.

  6. Posted October 22, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Like AJ, I’ve had variations on the not finishing uni/high school one. Never anything about teeth, though – that’s a newie!

  7. Chris
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Have those who have had the teeth dreams also had orthodontic treatment? Mine dreams about loose teeth only started after I had bands.

  8. John H.
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I have the teeth one very often. One of them falls out and I’m able to put it back in but it keeps falling out.

    It is an anxiety dream, often about growing old. Quite common. Odd too because life gets better with age. I’ve just finished reading a book about “godless countries” – Sweden and Denmark. Odd finding: atheists face death better than the religious. As I say to people: scared of dying? What, scared of nothingness?Scared of the dark?

  9. kvd
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    As I say to people: scared of dying? What, scared of nothingness?Scared of the dark?

    Not often I disagree with you JH@11, but I think it’s more the case that people are generally scared of ‘not-living’ and also, and more particularly, the ‘transition’ involved to get to that other state. I’d happily take a blue pill and drift off – but hold my head under water, and I’d fight – as will any sentient being.

    And on that basis, I can’t see how religion enters into it at all.

  10. John H.
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    And on that basis, I can’t see how religion enters into it at all.

    As Camus wrote: The body has a logic of its own and shrinks from annilhilation. As Jung noted: many older people are not afraid of dying, quite ready for it. As I read about centenarians: not afraid of death at all. Our culture instructs that fear, we are conditioned towards that fear. It can be overcome.

  11. Holden Caulfield
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Gee I’m glad others have these nightmares. I’ve been having them for years. Sometimes I am back in Year 12 about to sit exams for subjects I have never studied, including French and Chemistry. In some dreams, I am actually sitting the exam and writing it. I see clearly the Chemistry/French questions, and am attempting to answer them! I don’t know if the dream exam papers contain information I have picked up subconsciously since leaving school or what. But I have worked out that these dreams tend to happen when I am way behind schedule at work, or somewhere else. I’ve now worked out the dreams are a wakeup call that I am way behind schedule in something, or have been avoiding something.

    I know people (one in particular) who’ve had the teeth falling out dream, including all of them falling out at once into their hands!

  12. John H.
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Hey Legal Eagle,

    Didn’t you mention something about POE? Just came across this …

    http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/the-psychology-of-edgar-allan-poe.html

  13. John H.
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    But his oddness was part of his genius, I guess.

    There is a news release making the rounds about mental illness-creativity linkage. Statistically this was first noted by John Karlsson, an Icelandic epidemiologist but keep in mind it is typically the first degree relatives of psychotic individuals that make the genius game however depression – writing still figures prominently. Aristotle noted melancholy – thinkers linkage. Many others have but then as Jung noted: If a man knows more than others he becomes lonely – so the explanation may be trivial. I don’t think that is true, there is something else going on there. And it isn’t about bloody dopamine!

    It is also important to remember, as illustrated by Liam Hudson in the 60′s, the IQ – genius linkage is quite weak, possibly at only 130+ but others put it down to 120+. So Mensa people are not quite as smart as they would seem suggesting iq of 140+ = genius. :)

  14. John H.
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    But the corollary of that is that she thinks and thinks and thinks, and gets very anxious or melancholy about things

    Studies indicate that scientists typically score high on neurotiicism. You have a challenge there, to encourage the critical thinking but also help her to create behaviors to ward off the melancholy. Oh and BTW be careful of doctors that suggest medication! That has become an increasing trend over recent years, especially in the USA, the drug addled nation.

  15. JMc
    Posted October 28, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Hope that my students aren’t suffering any nightmares on account of the subject I’m teaching them…!

    No nightmares yet LE, but rest assured I’ll let you know if I have any.

  16. Nanuestalker
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I have a nightmare where people discuss their special nightmare!
    _______________________________

    In my special nightmare I’m fixated on breaking something down to its smallest parts and no matter how much I try to stop I can’t. I put it down to my habit of sometimes obsessing about or over-analysing situations or happenings in my life.

  17. Nanuestalker
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    I never remember what the thing is I’m trying to break down, it the obsessing that stresses me and wakes me up. Weird eh?

  18. Nanuestalker
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    *it’s

  19. John H.
    Posted November 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    In my special nightmare I’m fixated on breaking something down to its smallest parts and no matter how much I try to stop I can’t.

    That’s the nightmare of some neuroscientists. Impossible.

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