People Who Do Not Dream

Some people get along just fine without dreams.

Posted Apr 21, 2012

We all know someone who claims never to dream. Although the question has never to my knowledge been definitely answered by science, it appears that there are some people who rarely or never dream or never recall the dreams they have. At least this is what they tell us.

Stepansky et al (1998), studied dream recall in a sample of 1000 adult Austrians. They reported that 31 percent of this sample reported dreaming 10 times per month or more, 37 percent reported dreaming 1-9 times per month, and 32 percent reported dreaming less than once per month.

To really be sure that an individual does not dream, we would have to follow him for years and perform awakenings from REM sleep to see if he dreamed. If the individual never reported a dream after years of awakenings from REM sleep then we could reasonably conclude that either the person does not dream, that he or she lacks the ability to recall dreams, or that he or she is a liar who, for some reason, wants to conceal the fact that he does in fact dream).

While every human being so far as we know exhibits REM sleep, not every human being reports dreams. It appears you can have REM sleep with very low dream recall or possibly without dreams entirely.

There may even be groups of individuals who never recall their dreams or who do not dream. Just as there were premodern tribal groups who made dream-sharing a central part of their culture, I can imagine the opposite: a group of people who never cultivated dreams and who therefore never understood what they were.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus reported in book IV of his Histories that there once was such a group of people many thousands of years ago in North Africa near the mountain called Atlas. “The natives call this mountain 'the Pillar of Heaven' and they themselves take their name from it, being called Atlantes or the Atlanteans. They are reported not to eat any living thing, and never to have any dreams.”

These few lines from the Histories have prompted many speculative scholars to link the Atlanteans to the putatively mythical island of Atlantis, situated in the Atlantic outside the Straits of Gibraltar. Plato, in his Critias and Timaeus, reported that a great civilization had existed at that point in the Atlantic several thousand years before Plato’s time. The Atlanteans had reputedly achieved great levels of spiritual, scientific, artistic and technical success, but then faced catastrophe through war and natural disasters. Refugees from Atlantis fled to North Africa, Persia, and elsewhere. In Persia the Atlanteans hooked up with the magi and Zoroaster to initiate that great religious tradition. In North Africa, the Atlanteans settled near Mount Atlas and then interacted with the first stages of ancient Egypt and helped to initiate that great religious tradition and so on. The Atlanteans described by Herodotus, according to the speculative scholars, may have been refugees from Atlantis.

It is not clear why beings from such an advanced civilization would not report dreams. But whatever the cause may be, I could find no other reports of a culture that did not dream.

Dreaming may be a cultural universal, but it is clear that some individuals recall few or no dreams over many years—and that these individual suffer no ill consequences from their apparent inability to dream. Dream recall may not be necessary for mental, physical, or cultural health.

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References

Blgraove, M (2007) Dreaming and personality. In: Barrett, D., & McNamara, P. (Eds.). (2007). The new science of dreaming (3 volumes). Westport, CT and London: Praeger Perspectives.

Stepansky, R., Holzinger, B., Schmeiser-Rieder, A., Saletu, B., Kunze, M., & Zeitlhofer, J. (1998). Austrian dream behavior: Results of a representative population survey. Dreaming, 8, 23-30.