Nightmares not only afflict us at night and can prevent us from sleeping: they can haunt us during our daytime hours as well. But in the field of 20th century psychoanalysis, and in the current beliefs of many people, dreams aren’t just random images passing before the mind as we sleep, they are signs of deep trauma or fear, often so deep that we do not consciously acknowledge it.
Nightmares about losing our teeth are the most common suffered by people. A study from the 1950s showed that more than 20% of American adults (and about 17% of of Japanese adults)have some form of dream about the loss of teeth. Less formally, DreamMoods reports that teeth falling out dreams are the most common dream their users report. What does this mean?
When people interpret your dreams, they often start by using a general interpretive framework that is based on symbols of what your teeth mean.
This is, for example, what DreamMoods does. They talk about your teeth as being symbolic of your attractiveness and emphasize that this type of dream reflects anxieties about your appearance and how other people perceive you. They even refer to some dubious research about women having this dream more often as menopause approaches, research that is commonly referred to, but which doesn’t seem to have a good citation anywhere.
Other psychologists expand the symbolic valence of teeth to include speaking, eating, and fighting, which then translates to fears that you aren’t being heard, acknowledged, or are feeling out of control.
Dreams as Relived Memory
Another common interpretation of dreams is that they are your mind replaying old memories. It makes sense from this perspective that dreams of teeth falling out would be common, because every adult has memories of their teeth falling out as they lost their baby teeth.
There are two different ways in which this may happen. In one theory, your mind is consolidating short-term memories and placing them in long-term storage. This theory doesn’t work as well for explaining the frequency of tooth loss nightmares because the loss of teeth obviously occurred many years before for most of us.
The other theory about dreams and memory is that your mind is doing organizational work on memory, cleaning up old memories, making sure they’re properly filed, and making connections between them. This theory might mean that the brain often revisits the memory of losing baby teeth, for some mysterious reason.
Dreams as Threat Simulation
Another popular theory about your dreams is that you’re going through a threat simulation that prepares you for dealing with events that may occur during your waking life. The threat of losing your teeth is both very real and very serious. For many animals, teeth are the difference between life and death. For most of evolutionary history, when our teeth wore out, we were doomed to die. Perhaps our mind operates on the assumption that losing our teeth is one of the most serious threats we face, and regularly re-runs the scenario, just in case we find some way out of the desperate situation.
Is This Dream as Common as We Thought?
Of course, it’s possible that this dream isn’t actually as common as some people say. New research that is going to be published in the journal Sleep focuses on shortcomings of previous dream studies, emphasizing that the dreams that people report when asked about their dreams are statistically inconsistent with the dreams they actually have, based on their sleep journals.
It avoids the repetition of the tooth dream, and in fact relegates health problems to a minor 9% of dreams.
However, it’s worth noting that although the researchers collected a log of more than 10,000 dreams, they only had enough detail to analyze just shy of 700 of them. With that small of a sample, it seems that the new study is not really in a good position for making any conclusions about the frequency of certain dreams.
For many of us, the terror of losing our teeth is as close as our pillow and as inevitable as sleep.