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Why So Many People Have Disturbing Dreams About Their Teeth

Are dreams of teeth falling out related to psychopathology or dental irritation?

I previously wrote about "typical dream themes" which seem to occur with some frequency across cultures; dreams of teeth falling out, breaking, or rotting is one of the most common dream themes, with 39 percent of the population reporting teeth dreams in one study (Yu, 2012). This is one theme which seems to be discontinuous with waking life—because while we often dream of waking life situations, teeth falling out is not a common occurrence in waking life. Because of this, it is hard to know why people experience such dreams. One recent study aimed to find out.

The authors suggested two potential hypotheses—that teeth dreams are related to actual dental distress such as teeth grinding during sleep, or that teeth dreams are more metaphorically related to factors of psychological distress.

The first hypothesis stems from the idea that teeth dreams may be triggered by teeth grinding, where the sensations of teeth grinding are incorporated into the dream. This is in line with other studies showing that various sensory stimuli can be incorporated into dream content (for more on this, see my previous post). This is also in line with a correlational study showing that people who have teeth dreams also more often have other typical somatosensory dreams such as falling, being chased, or flying (Yu, 2010), suggesting these individuals may generally experience more somatosensory excitement during sleep.

The current study was designed to test for relationships between teeth dreams and dental tension, other typical dream themes, general sleep disturbances, and factors of psychological distress. A total of 210 participants completed online questionnaires—including the Dream Motif Scale (Yu, 2012)—which assess dream themes in 14 categories; one category, "Sensorimotor Excitement," constitutes falling, teeth falling out, and a few other items. Participants also completed the Brief Symptom Inventory which assesses many psychological symptoms including anxiety, depression, and others. Finally, participants responded to whether they grind their teeth at night and whether they experience dental irritation in the morning. Sleep quality was assessed as well using a standard questionnaire.

The authors found that occurrence of teeth dreams correlated with experience of dental distress upon awakening, but not with self-reported teeth grinding. Teeth grinding was not associated with any of the measures, including sleep disturbance, typical dream themes, or psychological distress. Other typical dream themes were not found to correlate with actual dental distress; the relationship was found only for teeth dreams. Further, teeth dreams were not associated with psychological distress or sleep disturbances—although psychological distress was related to teeth tension.

In general, the study indicates that teeth dreams are significantly associated with dental irritation and that this relationship seems to be relatively specific (e.g., there were no associations with general sleep disturbances or psychological distress, and dental irritation did not correspond with other dream themes). Nevertheless, as this is a correlational study, the causality cannot be determined; it’s possible that teeth dreams cause teeth grinding which is then associated with dental irritation on awakening. Future laboratory studies could attempt to assess this.

Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

References

Rozen, N., & Soffer-Dudek, N. (2018). Dreams of teeth falling out: an empirical investigation of physiological and psychological correlates. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1812.

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