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What we can learn from 9/11 about dreams and nightmares

Filed in
  • PTSD
  • trauma
  • nightmares

By Thomas Heffron  |  Sep 11, 2013
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The disturbing images of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, N.Y., were like a waking nightmare. But did the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, affect how we dream? And can we learn anything about the role of dreaming from our response to these events?

Researchers from Tufts University School of Medicine and Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Boston, Mass., sought to answer these questions. The study by Dr. Ernest Hartmann and Tyler Brezler was published in the journal Sleep in 2008.

Hartmann and Brezler recruited 11 men and 33 women for their study. Each member of the study group had been recording all their dreams for years. The age range of the 44 participants was 22 to 70 years. They lived across the U.S. None of them lived in Manhattan, and none had anyone close to them die in the attacks.

Each participant submitted written accounts of 20 dreams for the study. These were the last 10 dreams they recorded before 9/11 and the first 10 dreams recorded after the attacks. Most participants recorded at least one or two dreams per week.

The 880 dreams were assigned random numbers. Then they were scored on a blind basis. Dreams were analyzed for features such as central image, intensity, emotion and vividness. They also were scored for content involving attacks, tall buildings and airplanes.

The study authors define a “central image” as a striking or compelling image that stands out. It may be powerful, vivid, bizarre or detailed.

Dreams and 9/11

Results show a significant increase in the presence and intensity of a central image in dreams after 9/11. The researchers conclude that this change springs from an increased emotional arousal after 9/11.

“The more intense imagery is very consistent with findings in people who have experienced trauma of various kinds,” said Dr. Hartmann. “The idea is that we all experienced at least some trauma on 9/11/01.”

Surprisingly, there was no increase in dream content involving airplanes or tall towers. There also were no “replay dreams.” None of the 440 post-9/11 dreams portrayed the events that were replayed time and again on television.

But there was a trend in these dreams to more content involving attacks. The dreamer was almost always the victim or potential victim. Attacks involved animals or monsters, violent criminals or battle scenes.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, bad dreams can cause emotional distress. A nightmare disorder may develop if you have repeated nightmares. About 2% to 8% of people have a nightmare problem. Nightmares also are a common sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dream Theories and 9/11

In the study results the authors find support for the Contemporary Theory of Dreaming. The theory states that dreams are guided by the emotion of the dreamer. The central imagery of the dream depicts the dreamer’s emotion.

This would explain why no dreams in the study depicted specific scenes of the terrorist attacks. Instead the dreams were more likely to involve the emotional theme or idea of an attack. This supports the view that dreams are new, emotional creations rather than a replay of waking events.

As an example the authors cite the common dream image of a tidal wave. It is often reported by people who have been through an attack or other trauma. The image of a tidal wave may reflect the emotion of terror or being overwhelmed.

The authors predict that the images of 9/11 may become another “tidal wave.” We may dream of the terrorist attacks during stressful times of emotional trauma.

The authors also state that the study results give some support to the “continuity hypothesis” of dreaming. This view is that dreams reflect the concerns of waking life.
Dreams in the study did not reflect the likely concerns about future terrorist attacks. But they did reflect a general, emotional concern about a lack of safety.

Article originally published on Sept. 11, 2008

14 Comments

  1. 1 Tayler McRae 17 Sep
    I had a dream about 9/11 this past night. I was not even alive when the attack happened. I was born in 2002. My entire family was in the tower before the attack and I knew what was coming and I tried to convince them to leave. But they refused. So I left the building in a panic and watched as the second plane flew into the south tower (which was the tower my family was in.) It was so bizarre. I don’t know anyone who was inside the buildings obviously. And I don’t know anyone who experience what happened in New York that day first hand. I think what happened though is we talked about it a lot in my class this past 9/11. And I was thinking about it a lot. I thought would how it would be to lose someone like that. And how the families felt. And I mourned for them. Even if it was so long ago. And I guess that manifested a nightmare of how it would really feel. 
  2. 2 Treesa 10 Sep
    Today morning i woke up from a dream that I got trapped in world trade centre when it collapses. I was a child when it really happened and I am unaware much about the disaster.But this dream give me a shock that just now I came to realise that the real incident took place in 9/11/2001and I had a dream abt it on the same date 19 years later 9/11/2020. Iam really confused that why I had a dream like that eventhough I dont know much about the incident.
  3. 3 lexi 20 Aug
    I just had a dream of 9/11 i was 10 at the time the twin towers got struck. However in the dream I was going in elevator and there where a couple others in there too as we here going up the elevator and I assume that we were on a higher level because all of a sudden the elevator goes crashing down my person was crouching in the corner. Then through someone else's eyes I was outside watching it happen the builds where on fire and all I said was I see no plane then next thing you know the twin towers are coming down. it was horrifying.
  4. 4 Hailey Harper 15 Jun
    I just had a dream about me in 9/11 and NYC being destroyed. I was only 1 when it actually happened, so that was 19 years ago now about. But I dreamt that I was with my family in a tall building,  and for some reason we had to get out. It was all smoky and the stairs were taken out, so we opened a vent to the elevator, and it was a 50 floor drop, we couldn’t do it. We then somehow got out but I lost my family, and called my dad in my dream to ask where they were, and told them I had seen the only way we could get out safely, which was the nj expressway. Don’t ask why but for some reason that is what cane to mind. But my family has left me and on the phone with my dad he couldn’t breathe and then it hung up. I was on my own in the smoke and rubble. Later in my dream, I was with my family and my dad said to look, because the Statue of Liberty was now gone alone with the tower we were in . 
  5. 5 Sara 29 May
    I was wasn’t even alive when this terrifying day happened. We learn about it in school and i went to the News museum in DC and they showed vivid pictures of people dying and covered in blood. I don’t know why I had a dream about this but I’m really scared and confused. I remember in my dream I was with my family in a limousine on the streets of Manhattan and we dropping off every one at there hotel and we didn’t even know it was going to happen. We made to our hotels and then the first plane hit. It felt like the world was ending. All I remember after that is me going out and trying to find my mom and then the second plane hitting. If you could figure out why I had a dream about this day when I wasn’t even there the email me please!!
    Sincerely, Sara  
  6. 6 Ashley Nave 18 Jan
    I remember about Friday or Thursday when the new 2001 school year was just beginning at Stafford High School. I was in my senior year, and had uneasy disturbance or feeling about something that morning before or after my third period class. The teacher aid has asked me what was wrong, and I told her that I had an uneasy feeling or disturbance about something but couldn't describe it to her. It was eventually a warning sign or something was going to happen. Then eventually after my third period on Tuesday September 11 2001 upon the CNN news channel about the Pentagon, and World Trade Center attacks which caused everyone one to be in shock of what happened.
  7. 7 Kaitlyn Evers 27 Dec
    This dream made my heart pound I kept waking up thinking it would go away but instead I would fall back asleep and end up right where I was. I dreamt that I was walking around NYC and I saw the plane crash in the first tower and everyone around me started screaming. I ran into the building because a kindergarten class had just gone in there for a field trip. I was telling everyone the building was going to fall and nobody would listen to me except a few of the students. I started picking up kids by threes and running out of the building. After they were all safe outside and the teacher was yelling at me the building fell. 
  8. 8 Morene 25 Dec
    I had an very scary dream that myself was in 911 however it wasn't the twin towers I was in another building and I just found out that I was pregnant in the dream I was crying and I saw people crying and freaking out!. Somehow I manage to get out but there wasn't no way out I died however the place I was at wasn't heaven the place I was at unknown!!!. The dream felt real!!!.
  9. 9 Blair 31 Aug
    I just had a dream that i was on the going to the 100th floor with an elevator at one of the twin towers and i was looking at the outside view through a window and there was a sunrise.Then the scenery changed and for some reason i was in a plane listening to music.I don't know why i had this dream i have never visited the twin towers.However my birthday is on 11th of September 2002 and maybe my birthday has something to do with it.
  10. 10 Kate 12 Jul
    i was a teenager living in the midwest when it happened. My mom worked in an office building near downtown and i remember caling her, begging her to flee downtown in case there was more coming. 
    I found this page because ive been sewrching, trying to fond why last night i couldnt not shake the image of the jumpers falling from the towers appearing in my dream last night. 
    I usually do not remember my dreams, but this woke me up and i couldnt shake it. 
  11. 11 Jasline 07 Jun
    I just woke up 5 minutes ago from an intense nightmare. I was about 3 or 4 when 9/11 happened. In the dream, like the article suggested, it hadn't exactly shown me the actual attack on tv. My dream self just had a vision or some form of knowledge that it was about to happen. I was at an airport/mall (I'm not sure how it turned into a mall) and it was a college field trip. It wasn't going to be my flight but i was still terrified so i warned my Instructor who did not believe me. 3 seconds later the airport televisions all froze and weird wording appeared that somehow meant to warn people about the attack happening. My instructor panicked and absolute chaos erupted in the airport. I began to panic as everybody around me were running for their lives and for some reason the scenery was changing back and forth from the airports on the day of 9/11 to the mall. Either way there was panic everywhere and people were getting hurt. Nobody knew where to go or what to do. The strange part is i can't tell if the first or second plane crashed on the very top floor of this huge mall/airport or if the very top floor began to give out (most logical is the plane hit us) because people were falling from the highest floor directly onto people in the floors below killing both the people falling and people being hit. So i panicked. The escalators were speeding straight down so people on them were falling front side first. Anyway by the end this weird thing began happening and i kept somehow being teleported outside in a deserted desert to this tall heighted thing (i don't even remember the name) kinda like a a satelite thing idek but i was very dangerously high up and it was for some reason always changing shapes and moving. A voice began telling me that my visions made me chosen to somehow go back and stop the attack. Then i woke up with an intense headace and began looking it up. 
  12. 12 Jason 24 Apr
    I've had recurring dreams about 9/11, although in them the towers are still there but somehow I know what is about to happen. Sometimes the attacks take place in the dreams, sometimes not. I attribute these dreams to two things. 1st and foremost, watching the events of September 11, 2001  unfold from beginning until end on television. Second, I had visited the observation deck of the World Trade Center approximately 10 years prior  to the attacks so watching  the towers fall in real time left an indelible impression on me.
  13. 13 Simon Timothy 18 Feb
    To whom it may concern,

    I am an 18 year old British student who has visited New York once during 2012. I visited the memorial site at this time.
    I was 3 when the events of 9/11 transpired, and it is one of my first, vivid memories. I remember what I was doing and where I was when I saw it on the morning news. I was the once who called in my mum to show her. I used to ask my Dad for months after why it happened and all he used to reply was "bad men Simon, bad men." 
    Now, at 17 and 18, I have been dreams about 9/11. I have them about 4 times a month. In each case, the towers are in different locations; the surrounding areas a product of my imagination. The events of the dream happen in either two ways. I am an observer watching the towers get struck and watching them fall with no apparent trauma emotion I can feel. Or I am trying to escape from the floors above where the towers were struck and I can feel a real sense of urgency and fear. 
    They're not worrying me so to speak, but I find it a bit unsettling.
    What could fix this and why do they happen? 
    If possible, please send an email to the email I attached above. or here. darthsion1000@gmail.com


  14. 14 Antony Jenkins 30 Apr

    Dear Sir/Madam, For the past three years (within the first fortnight of every month) I have been experiencing the same dreams/nightmares about 9/11. Although I was not there during the attacks as I was in college I'm haunted by the images and sounds of that day. The dreams consist of watching both planes crash into the towers from many angles and then to find myself inside one of the builds attempting to escape. I've asked several people about the meaning of these dreams but so far have had no successful conclusion. CAN YOU HELP?! Yours Sincerely. Antony Jenkins 

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