What Does It Mean When We Have a Bad Dream about an Upcoming Performance?

You know that dream? The one where you wake up late and miss your audition? Or get there and realize you’ve prepared all the wrong excerpts? Or arrive only to discover that your instrument case is empty (which actually happened to me once at a master class – in real life)?

What does it all mean? Should we be worried? Especially if we have one of those dreams the night before a big performance?

Or could it possibly be a good sign?

The normal response

When we have a bad dream that puts a bit a fear in our thoughts, it’s tempting to dwell on it, or let the dream get to us a bit. We feel uneasy, anxiety ratchets up, and the worries kick in.

All of which puts us in an emotional state that is neither pleasant, nor helpful.

But don’t these dreams come true sometimes? I mean, it can’t be good to have dreams of crashing and burning the night before, right?

The exam

Researchers at Sorbonne Universités in Paris conducted a study to see what sort of relationship there might be between dreaming of one’s medical school entrance exam and the scores themselves. Would dreaming about the exam predict worse performance? Or would the dreams predict better performance?

2324 students in the health studies track at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris were slated to take an entrance exam, which would determine which field of medicine they would be eligible to continue in.

Meaning, each student would be given a ranking based on their test scores, and those ranked first to 313th would be eligible to go to med school. Students with scores in the top 430 could enter pharmacy school, those up to 460 could enter midwifery school, and 499 was the cutoff for dental school.

Needless to say, this was a high-stakes test with some pretty significant consequences for one’s career and life.

The students

After completing the exam, students were asked to complete a short survey.

Of the 719 students who responded, 23.8% dreamed about the exam the night before, and 73.4% reported having dreams about the exam at some point in the semester.

Some students had positive or neutral dreams about the exam, but the vast majority of the dreams were bad ones, centered around some sort of problem or failure on the exam. Being ranked 2,300th, for instance, or being late, running out of time, or not being able to answer the questions.

You know, those nightmarish dreams that wake us up feeling freaked out, uneasy, our heart pounding in anticipation.

The results

Interestingly, the students who dreamed about the exam the night before scored higher than those who didn’t.

In fact, the more frequently students dreamed about the exam during the semester, the higher their scores tended to be.

And if you’re wondering if this had anything to do with whether students had dreams of success vs. dreams of failure, the nature of the dream didn’t seem to matter much. The 177 students who had “good” dreams of exam success didn’t score any higher on average than the 519 students who never dreamed of success, and instead had “bad” dreams of problems and failure.

In fact, the students who got the five highest scores all dreamed of problems on the exam.

So are bad dreams good?

Bad dreams may not be much fun, but the results of the study suggest that far from being an omen of doom, dreaming about an important upcoming “performance” may actually be a good thing. A sign that you are taking it seriously, and are more likely to do better than if you don’t have dreams of the upcoming event.

The authors of the study surmise that this “negative anticipation” might help us “optimize” what we do in our waking hours.

For instance, if you dream about having a memory slip, what’s the first thing you’re likely to do upon waking up? Flip to that section in the score, and refresh your memory, right? And probably even play it through in your head a few times, test yourself, and work on it some more in your practice session?

Take action

So the next time you dream of messing up in an audition or performance, remember that this doesn’t mean you’re screwed, and should throw in the towel. Far from it.

Just do what you need to do to be as prepared as you can, and remind yourself that this is just your brain keeping you on your toes.

And that if anything, you’re probably going to do even better than if you didn’t have that dream. That feels better, no?

One-sentence summary

Reality is never as bad as a nightmare, as the mental tortures we inflict on ourselves. ~Sammy Davis Jr.

photo credit: CameliaTWU via photopin cc

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8 Responses

  1. What a fascinating study! Thank you for sharing. I remember I once had a dream about forgetting to do some math homework back in high school. The next morning I double checked and sure enough – the problems in my dream were due that day in class! Dreams are powerful messages from our subconscious, and I find even the nightmares are rarely really about something truly negative. According to Carl Jung, all people/symbols in our dreams are various aspects of ourselves, each with their own message to share. While literal dreams are certainly possible, I encourage my clients to try becoming the symbols and ask what their purpose is for them. It might be to explore a passage further or double check your outfit and instrument, or it might be something else entirely!

  2. I’ve had bad dreams before leading the music service at church. Those seem to be the days the service goes especially well.

  3. I’ve read many times that during sleep, the brain consolidates, in the form of new neural connections and pathways, that which is practiced during the day. Results don’t show up just immediately, but marinate, if you will, in the brain. Dreams mean the piece, and process, has been internalized.

    Dreams should not be regarded as a predictor of the future, but rather a good sign that real learning is taking place.

    FWIW (and IW to remember): the plural of anecdote is not data.


    1. Quick drive-by comment: in statistically significant enough numbers, the plural of anything is data.

      If one person’s anecdote triggers the revelation of similar information among others, then it’s worth investigating. It’s not enough to draw a conclusion from … yet, but it’s worth investigating.

  4. Great advice Dr. Noa, thanks for the reminder! It’s so easy to forget how anxiety and nervousness are just signs that we truly care. No less when a bad dream occurs (of which I can’t say I’ve had too many regarding performances) it’s an opportunity for us to heighten our focus and achieve the great performance we believe we’re capable of doing.

  5. Bad dreams about an upcoming performance usually precede me covering ALL my bases before an event itself. Keeping us on our toes, indeed (or just making us freakishly prepared for all bizarre, dream-like alternatives). Thanks for the article.

  6. Thank you for this article.

    The research you describe and your comments fit well with Joe Griffin’s theory of Dreams (The Origin of Dreams, 1997), which understands dreaming as a way to resolve unfulfilled expectations (positive or negative) from the previous day. Griffin’s later work relates Dreaming to Creativity and mental well-being. I would certainly agree with your broad conclusion, that dreaming about something shows that this matter is important to the dreamer (i.e. bad dreams are NOT forebodings of disaster): knowing this could help a student normalise and accept bad dreams before an important event.

    If one can remember details of such a dream, it might even be possible to identify what particular elements of the forthcoming event the subconscious is concerned about, so that these elements could be targetted in practice/preparation. However, Griffin’s theory predicts that Dreams show everything in Metaphor, so the dream first has to be de-coded, the Metaphors understood. And since the purpose of Dreaming is to resolve the unfulfilled expectation, it’s not easy to remember dreams or de-code them. If the Dream did its job, the matter is now resolved to the subconscious’ satisfaction, so this particular element now has low intensity.

    Griffin’s work also shows that excessive night dreaming, brought about by excessive daytime rumination, saps our mental energy; in serious cases this leads to Depression. If a student is troubled by repetitive dreams on the same subject, this is also not a foreboding of imminent disaster, but rather an indicator that they should stop worrying! Easier said than done: anxious worrying leads to bad dreams leads to more anxiety, more worrying. Understanding the mechanism of dreams can help break this negative spiral.

    Finally, Griffin’s theory also provides an explanation for the links between Dreaming, Creativity and mental health. There is plenty of evidence that highly creative people are more susceptible to Depression and other mental illnesses. But this fact does not have to be alarming, it can also be empowering. A student can truthfully be told that their ability to have powerful, realistic (sometimes even disturbing) dreams is part of what gives them the Creativity to be a fine performer, and that Dreaming (as well as creative work) is nature’s way to help us maintain our mental well-being.

    Summarising from an Ericksonian perspective, we can normalise our student’s (and our own!) dreaming, so that Dreams can be accepted and utilised.

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