Dreams to file

The Somnieve database will make it possible to explore new hypotheses about the dream experience.


Dreams, which have always fascinated mankind because of the plots our minds weave while we are theoretically absent from ourselves, have also been the focus of scientific research for several decades. What kind of experience do they represent? Why do some people dream every night and others say they never do? Why do they appear so strange and absurd to us, yet somehow full of meaning? And other times, instead, banal, simple photocopies of scenes from everyday life?

A group of researchers from the MoMiLab of the IMT School coordinated by Giulio Bernardi is at work mapping people's dreams, in what is so far the most comprehensive study at the international level in terms of sample and quantity of data collected. The purpose of this mapping, which has been underway for four years and from the analysis of which the first results are beginning to emerge, is to have a solid base of data to understand the dream phenomenon, and to confirm or disprove some of the hypotheses in circulation, for example whether and how dreams change with age, according to gender, and the state of health or illness of individuals.

Messages from the night

To build the dream database - called Somnieve, and which will be made available to the entire scientific community - volunteers were asked to report in the morning on their experience and memories of dreams from the previous night. To increase the reliability of the accounts, unlike in other research, the study participants are given a voice recorder and asked to produce the account immediately after waking up, for two consecutive weeks. "Participants have to report whether they remember dreaming or not, whether they have the impression that they dreamt but do not remember the dream, to recount the content of the dream if they are able to remember it," explains Valentina Elce, a researcher at Scuola IMT working on the construction and analysis of this archive. For the duration of the study, participants also wear a bracelet, called an actigraph, which measures various data, such as the duration of sleep and wakefulness or any awakenings during the night. At the beginning and end of the dream recording period, participants are subjected to psychological tests and questionnaires that measure various factors, from anxiety levels to interest in dreams, predisposition to daydreaming , memory and concentration ability tests.

So far, 220 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 70 have participated in the experiment (recruitment is still ongoing), and almost 3,000 morning reports have been collected, of which more than 1,600 are dream reports. Making an initial analysis of the collected data, thanks in part to artificial intelligence algorithms, the researchers have begun to settle some hypotheses about what factors influence our likelihood of waking up in the morning from a dream. "Until now it was thought that women dream more than men," notes Bernardi, professor in general psychology at the IMT School and coordinator of the project. "In reality, we found no confirmation to this idea. The factor that best predicts the likelihood of remembering dreams is the attitude people have towards dreams themselves and dreaming; whether they are interested or intrigued by these nocturnal mental experiences, for example, or give them specific importance." It could be that women remember more dreams than men or say they dream more simply because they generally attach more importance to the dream experience. 

Dreams for all seasons

Another hitherto accepted idea is that one dreams more when young than when old. But according to Somnieve's analysis of the data, advancing age does not seem to lead to a decrease in dreams. Again, the data from the study could provide an alternative explanation for this belief: it is the duration of sleep that favours dreams - the more you sleep, the more you dream. Since people tend to sleep less as they get older, it may be that older people dream less simply because they sleep for less time. With age, on the other hand, there are more and more people who, upon waking, have the sensation of having dreamt but do not remember what they dreamt: these are the so-called white dreams. The same factor, sleep duration, could explain the observation that was made during the pandemic, when surveys had suggested that people tended to report dreaming more: since with the lockdown there was no need to travel to work, they probably slept longer.

The study also seems to disprove other ideas that have been circulating in the scientific community for some time, for example that people with more imagination are those who dream and remember dreams more. "We found no particular association with this personality trait," confirms Elce. "Nor did the mapping data reveal any associations between dreaming and having or not having a good memory. "One curiosity that emerged from the study was instead that dreams seem to change with the seasons. "In winter there is a lower tendency to dream - that is, fewer dream stories are reported - than in summer," Bernardi says. We can assume that this depends on variations in our sleeping habits and the type of sleep we get, but further studies will certainly be needed to verify these assumptions. In short, the closer we think we are to understanding them, the more the mystery about dreams deepens.

Chiara Palmerini

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