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Recurring Final Exam Dream?

Of course, you forgot you were taking this course.

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If you've had "the dream" related to school, you know exactly what it is.

This is the dream where it is the day of a final exam, and you realize that you forgot you were taking the course and therefore had not attended any of the classes, did not do the reading, and you certainly are not prepared for today's test. Other variations include your having attended some of the classes, perhaps at the beginning of the semester, and then you just forgot about the class until the day of the final. It was not intentional, but somehow, it just happened.

With all the commonalities and differences among us, my very informal, essentially conversational "research" suggests this dream is common among the past two or three generations in the United States and other countries with educational systems that emphasize high stakes formal written tests that determine your future academic opportunities.

Other common components shared by many, but not all, of the dream havers:

  • The dreams don't start before high school and may not even start until college is completed.
  • The subject is one the dreamer found difficult—often math, English, or science—but the failure to attend the class was not intentional.
  • Many dream the added dilemma of not being able to find the exam room or having to go to the bathroom.
  • Most people wake up without ever entering the room, seeing the exam, or having any outcome, resolution, or consequence, yet with the sense that the outcome will have been quite bad.
  • Most people are dressed normally, but some are in pajamas; others are nude.
  • The classroom door is closed, and frequently wood, some with wired safety glass windows on the door.

Usually, there are no other people in the hall and the dreamer has no conversations with anyone.

The neuroscience research that I study, especially related to my books about child development and brain research-based education, is accumulating about the neurochemistry and the brain's electrical and metabolic states during the various phases of sleep. We now know more about dream states and the measurable electrical patterns during dreams. For example, it is rare for people not to dream; even those who don't think they dream show identifiable dream-like patterns.

During dreams, the emotional brain trumps the higher, reflective, cognitive brain. The dominant brain activity during dreams is the REM state (rapid eye movement with low voltage fast electrical activity) and the metabolic activity is higher in the emotional, involuntary, more primitive limbic system. In addition, there is decreased metabolic activity in the prefrontal cortex involved in consciously directed thoughts, planned behavior, emotional self-control, executive function (prioritizing, risk-analysis, higher cognition, judgment, and the focused alert mindful state).

There is no research I have found that offers confirmed, objective evidence about cause, effect, or statistically validated explanations for the significance of The Dream, its frequency, or the variation in details.

I offer some of the hypotheses with an invitation for you to send in your variation of the dream. If you'd like to share your hypothesis about the meaning of The Dream, why it comes when it does, or any other associated ideas, those of us who have had the dream would love to read your ideas. The good news is that as there are no definitive research conclusions, your interpretations cannot be contested—there are no wrong answers and this is not an end of semester test, so have fun sharing and reading.

Hypotheses and Interpretations (from the literature and anecdotal):

  • The dream often occurs in approximation with having forgotten or being concerned about forgetting to do something important in waking life.
  • The dream may reflect a sense of responsibility, duty, or choice where the dreamer knows what he should do, but is hesitant or reluctant to do the act.
  • A change involving the end of something is imminent and there is low confidence about the future.
  • It is a time when regrets of past actions or inactions have been in mind—a possible prompt to not "put off until tomorrow what can be done today."
  • The dream, when it comes in approximation with a significant date, such as a birthday, anniversary, school reunion year, date of the death of someone significant, offers the doorway to the classroom as a metaphor to paths not taken, the recognition that a "long" time has passed without goals achieved.
  • The dream is a reminder not to miss an opportunity or take a more active role in one's destiny.

When I spent a week doing presentations and enjoying time with other neuroscientists and educators in Argentina this month (September 2009), I learned that test stress is not one of their problems. If a students pass the individual classes in one educational level, they can proceed to the next level. There are end of term tests, but they do not have the "make or break" impact on a student's future options or the finances of a school. Again, my "research" was informal and anecdotal, but among the 40 people I casually questioned between ages 16 and 66, not one had any version of The Dream.

From my perspective, as a neurologist and classroom teacher with a goal of helping educators reduce the negative impact of standardized test pressure, I also wondered if U.S test pressure was influencing the frequency or age of onset of The Dream. Unfortunately, there has been evidence that such is the case as parents and teachers now report that children as young as first grade report disturbing dreams about disappointing their parents by doing poorly in school.

Not only is test pressure draining the joy from learning, robbing children of the sustained motivation of curiosity, and reducing the U.S. high school graduation rate to the lowest of any industrialized county, but when six-year-old children suffer even in their sleep, can we allow the toxic impact of test pressure to continue yet another year?

Ask your children about their dreams. Let's share our stories and use them to work with policy makers and end the nightmare test legacy of The Dream.

"Ask Dr. Judy" About Your Neuro-Education Topics

If there are topics about which would like to read more that relate to the neuroscience of learning and the brain—from my perspective as a neurologist, former classroom teacher, and current author and presenter about how the brain learns, please include your questions as blog responses with the heading of “Ask Dr Judy” questions. Although I will not be able to address specific individual questions regarding learning problems for individual children, I will try to take on the topics of highest concern and interest about the mind, the brain, and education.

My area of specialty is using the neuroscience research I read and my years of classroom experience and parenting to make suggestions that connect the research with ways to optimize education and parenting for all children to achieve the highest joyful potentials. I do not focus on individual conditions, such as autism ADHD, or dyslexia, as these deserve responses from sub-specialists. As this is a blog format, others may join in the conversation with their opinions and research that relates to the questions.

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