Pain in Dreams

So, yesterday I said “I have a very odd idea of what comprises an awesome dream–the one yesterday was distinctly unpleasant, but it was also very interesting and unusual…” I think I’ll write about that dream, today.

As it turns out, you can actually feel pain in dreams. I’ve had a few dreams where I’ve experienced pain, but I could count the number of them on the fingers of one hand. The most interesting of these was the one I had the day before yesterday. It started out as a fairly normal variation on the (oddly common) dream theme of having one’s teeth rot/fall out. I broke my two front teeth, somehow, and I was left holding the little bits that had been knocked out. I was worrying about what I would do, and if the bits of teeth in my hand could be put back in, if I didn’t lose them (so of course the bits kept crumbling or otherwise being on the verge of being lost). It didn’t hurt at first, but the dream kept going on with me worrying about my teeth and wondering how to get this fixed and trying to find a dentist. When it did start to hurt, it was this throbbing, sharp pain shooting through my two broken front teeth. Later it was more of a throbbing, dull pain. At some point, I was thinking about something I saw on tv a long time ago about a guy who fell (like off a short cliff/dropoff) and hit the ground face first and broke most of his teeth, and he was in so much pain from his broken teeth.

I did finally get to a dentist’s office. For some reason, it was just three interns and a homeless guy (who was in charge) working there, and I waited for all the people with appointments to go first, so I was stuck in the waiting room while being in pain and still somehow managing to be apprehensive about being stuck with needles for anesthesia or whatever. Intellectually, I realized that getting stuck with needles would hurt less than my teeth already did, but apparently fear doen’t need to make sense to be real. I never did actually get in to see the dentist, and the dream moved on to some other scene, and my teeth were still broken, but I was also paying attention to other things and I don’t think they hurt anymore.

When I finally woke up, I was sooooo relieved to find that my teeth were all still intact. That’s how I usually feel when I wake up from a teeth-falling-out dream. The fact that it actually hurt, though, was different and unusual and interesting (and unpleasant, but that part was over), so I (excitedly) made sure to write down all the details I could remember that might be at all relevant. I’d had a previous hypothesis about how pain in dreams works from the handful of previous times I’d had dreams in which I felt pain, and this dream seemed to be consistent with it.

Feeling pain in dreams is quite rare, but there are plenty of things that happen in dreams which would hurt in real life, but they don’t in the dream. Like falling from the second story or having all of your teeth fall out or getting in a fight or having a dog bite you in the face. One thing I noticed in the handful of dreams I’ve had where I felt pain was that it seemed to happen when I was focusing on the thing that should hurt and expecting that it should hurt (with the exception of one dream fragment for which I don’t remember any context at all). That was most definitely the case with this dream. I spent a large portion of the dream specifically worrying about my teeth, and I explicitly recall thinking about the guy I saw on tv who was in so much pain from his broken teeth, so I was definitely expecting that it ought to hurt.

Expectations seem to have an unusually large effect on dreams. I’ve taken advantage of this during lucid dreams at times, controlling parts of my dreams by controlling my expectations. For instance, when I decided I wanted to go to Hogwarts in a dream, I found a door, expected that Hogwarts would be on the other side, and opened it. It took a number of tries to get this to actually work the way I wanted, but it did work, eventually.

Anyway, my hypothesis about pain in dreams is that it is likely to occur when you are expecting something to hurt or are particularly focusing on something that you think should hurt.

I did some googling, though. Although I was rather disappointed at how many of the sites that came up in my search were about astrology and divination and stuff, I did find some actual solid information. Apparently there’s another explanation that’s likely to account for (some instances of) pain in dreams, as well, which is that sometimes real life pain is incorporated into dreams. I find this highly plausible, because I already know it’s possible for certain real life sensations to be incorporated into dreams*. Moreover, I found at least two studies which indicate that this does happen some of the time, for some people (here and here, and also a blog post discussing both studies here). I don’t think this hypothesis accounts for all occurrences of dream pain, however, because there are accounts of people having felt pain in dreams where physical pain was not a factor. The aforementioned blog post contains a couple of examples of this, and I am fairly certain at least one of my experiences of feeling pain in a dream was like this. I can’t say about my most recent pain dream, unfortunately. I did wake up in some minor pain that day, but it was entirely different in location, severity, and type of pain than what I felt during the dream, so I don’t know if that could account for it or not.

Anyway, I totally thought of a way to test my hypothesis while I was writing all this. If I can recreate the circumstances which I expect would cause me to feel pain in a dream (that is, both expectation of and focus on something that ought to hurt), and if this results in pain felt during a dream, then my hypothesis might be correct (and would be worth testing further). There are obvious constraints on this sort of experiment, of course, due to things like ethics and not being a masochist. Something mild like pinching myself, while focusing on what the pinch feels like and (trying to) expect that it will hurt, should work just fine. And, of course, to recreate specific circumstances while dreaming, I’ll have to wait until the next time I get lucid and then hope I remember the experiment I wanted to do. I’ll probably have to repeat the experiment several times, and I suspect my results may be fairly mixed. I’m not sure how much I want to bother testing this, though. It would probably be a lot more interesting, and less of a pain (see what I did there?), to see what I could find out by experimenting with focus and expectations in dreams, generally. Ok, so I am now officially in love with the idea of applying the scientific method to (lucid) dreams and seeing what I can figure out about dream control and how dreams work, in general. And there is soooo much we don’t know about dreams–this will be fun. Besides, I hate having to kind of wave my hands and say “it probably works like this” and “other people said this one thing worked” when I’m talking about stuff like dream control or the effects of expectations on dreams or methods of becoming lucid in dreams. And most of the time when I have stuff I can point to research to back up, it’s research by one specific guy (namely, Stephen LaBerge).

I really want to take a class on the design of experiments, now… the railroaded sort of experiments I always had to do in science classes before taught me very, very little about how to design my own experiments. Hm, better yet, I’ll just have to visit the school library and read some books on my own time.

* For instance, one lucid dreaming technique involves a device which is worn over the eyes like a sleep mask; when the eye movements typical of REM sleep are detected (there’s a reason it’s called Rapid Eye Movement sleep, and it’s the sleep stage during which most dreaming occurs), the device emits flashes of light. The idea is that these flashes of light will be incorporated into the dreamer’s dream, one way or another, and if they can remember that the weird sudden lighting changes or flashes of lightning or whatever means that they should check if they are dreaming, then this might induce a lucid dream. The NovaDreamer is an example of one such device.

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