Evidence? In your dreams…

Posted on December 19, 2011


John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

Dateline: 11 November 2011 // Posted by: Joanne O’Sullivan
Source: The Sun

Story: “Why girls have more nightmares”

Summary: According to columnist Dr Pam Spurr, women have “wilder” dreams than their male counterparts and suffer more nightmares than men. This is supposedly due to particular female hormones which during the menstrual cycle cause body temperature changes which lead to women experiencing more bizarre and striking dreams in comparison to men. Spurr also alludes to a previous study carried out at the University of the West of England which found that while 30% of women reported having nightmares, only 19% of men claimed to have experienced bad dreams.

Spurr also attempts to explain the mechanics and causes for dreams, referring to the limbic system as one possible source. She explains how this primitive area of the brain, responsible for strong emotions, “has an emotional clear-out” during a person’s sleep which leads to the production of dreams and nightmares that “chatter” to a person “in their own language”. Spurr also explores and seeks to provide meaning for some common themes of good and bad dreams and what action a person should take in response to the meanings of their dreams.

Why is this PseudoNews? There is a complete lack of empirical evidence or academic commentary to back up any of the claims made in this article and Spurr’s attempts at explaining complex neurological processes are, at best, comical.

The only indication of empirical evidence used in the composition of the article is Spurr’s vague allusion to “a recent study…at the University of the West of England”. Spurr does not include any reference or citation to the mentioned article nor does she indicate the author of the study. This distinct lack of academic material on which to establish her claims damages the validity of her argument and undermines her scientific propositions.

Spurr’s assertion that women have more nightmares than men can easily be discredited through an explanation of a particular stage of sleep which causes dreams. When a person is fast asleep they often experience several episodes of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In sleep experiments when participants have been woken by researchers during this particular stage, the participants will almost always report having experienced a dream. Many people who have claimed to have not dreamt in a long time have reported dreams after sleeping in sleep laboratories because they have been woken by researchers during REM sleep. Therefore, being woken while experiencing a dream can be crucial to remembering the dream itself.

Dr Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre has observed that there is understandably a gender difference in reported nightmares as “women’s sleep tends to be more disrupted and they have more insomnia”. It is entirely possible that men experience as many nightmares as women, but because of the fact that men tend to experience better sleep patterns they fail to remember or subsequently report them. While this theory has not been unequivocally proven, it certainly offers a more satisfactory scientific explanation than the “emotional clear-out” of the human brain or the concept of dreams having the ability to “chatter” to us in their own, or any other language.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? One of the major pseudoscientific features of the article is the non-falsifiable theories that are utilised. Spurr attempts to interpret what she calls “The Five Top Dreams” and “The Five Top Nightmares” and to advise action to be taken to fulfil their “secret meaning”. While the practice of studying the latent and manifest content of dreams follows the reasoning of Freudian theory the major problem with Freud’s theory is that it is non-falsifiable. Even if an interpretation is wrong a psychoanalyst can always provide a plausible interpretation of a dream that reveals hidden conflicts disguised as obscure symbols.

Spurr also follows one of the characteristic practices of pseudoscience in that she fails to refer to any research other than the weakly proposed study that supports her theory. While she claims that nightmares “could all be down to women’s hormones…caused by their monthly cycle” she fails to ever discuss the possibility of studying an experimental control group, such as a group of women who have gone through menopause, who may no longer produce these hormones and consequently may not experience nightmares, the discovery of which would scientifically support her theory. However, her failure to suggest any other method which might potentially disprove her logic clearly illustrates the pseudoscientific principle of confirmation bias.

The moral of the story: Spurr’s unquestioning acceptance of a theory which proposes that biological differences significantly affect neural activity such as dreams is yet another example of society’s outdated view of gender and how it may affect behaviour.