Aug 042011

Out of the top hat

Can you please talk a little about sex dreams? (Why people think they happen, when girls “usually” start to have them / anything else you think would be good for us to know)

Well, so there’s the “dream” part of the question and then there’s the “sex” part of the question.

Dreaming itself is still a bit of mystery. We mostly dream during REM sleep, with its deep, slow brain waves and total physical paralyzation (except for your eyeballs, of course). All of us dream every night. Many people don’t remember our dreams, but everyone dreams every night, unless there is something seriously wrong.

Sex dreams tend to happen most during REM sleep. REM dreaming in general, runs my preferred theory, probably functions as worst-case-scenario type preparation – taking all the things that happened today and all the things that led up to those things, along with all the things that may happen tomorrow, loading it all up like a neural trebuchet, and firing it – BLAM – across the brain. The result is a bit of a mess as far as your rational mind is concerned, so when you’re remembering it in a conscious state you’re like, “What. The. Fuck?” but ultimately it’s like rehearsal for life.

So much for REM dreaming.

Now, throughout the sleep cycle, your brain oscillates through degrees of disinhibition. (See the dual control model for full explanation, but briefly this means turning off the sexual “brakes” that stop you from being aroused during inappropriate situations.) This is the best explanation I know for why REM is also when people with penises experience noctural penile tumescence (LOVE. LOVE. LOVE that phrase).

(Morning wood is waking up around a REM phase; it has nothing to do with being horny and everything to do with just being asleep and healthy. The horny in the morning thing is actually about testosterone levels being highest at the start of the day and gradually lowering as the day ages.)

So, during REM, your brain is disinhibited and there’s this BLAM of life happening in your brain. Sometimes sex is the dominant thing in the BLAM. Sometimes it’s school or family or a movie you just saw or a book you just read or whatever. Sometimes it’s food. But sometimes it’s sex.

Non-REM (NREM) dreaming, on the other foot, tends to be more about motor coordination, rehearsal, and integration. Anyone who plays a sport or an instrument, who is learning a motor skill or memorizing anything will rely on non-REM sleep in order to maximize their potential. If you’re practicing the stop-start technique, NREM is probably when your brain is rewiring to make you better at ejaculatory/orgasmic control. So you might have sex dreams then, too.

When do people start having them? Well, dreams that APPEAR sexual to adults typically begin around puberty, with the onset of hormonal changes. But children have their own brand of sexuality and I’m totally sure they sex makes it into their dreams, but in a totally different, self-centered, charmingly childish way. In the way that children masturbate at nap time, they dream sexually. It’s not sexual in the way that adolescents and adults are sexual, but it’s its own kind of sexual.

Altogether, dreams don’t mean much. They don’t indicate anything about you as a person, you can’t interpret them in any organized way. Dreaming about doing some sexual thing does not necessarily mean you want to do that thing in real life; dreaming about sex with someone does not mean you want to have sex with them in real life – though it also doesn’t mean you DON’T want to have sex with them in real life. It just means that that person and sex were in the neural trebuchet together. It happens.

That said, how you feel about the dream as you remember it may indicate something or other. Like, “Wow, last night I dreamt that Gender Neutral Jamie and I got it on. Damn, that was HOT. Jamie is HOT. Maybe I want Jamie!” What indicates the wanting is not the fact that you had the dream nor even the fact that you remembered the dream, but the emotional experience you had in response to that memory. Dig? Okay.

Emily Nagoski

  10 Responses to “top hat: sex dreams”

Comments (10)
  1. so liberating

  2. The evidence about sleep consolidating motor learning, etc, is 50:50; sometimes it works, sometimes not. I tend to think it matters too, but I looked into this a while back and the evidence really is very mixed.

    • Really? I thought it was more consistent than that – and that’s NREM dreaming, yes? Or are people investigating motor learning during REM dreaming?

  3. This was a nice, simple explanation. I’m so glad my dream of being the sex-queen on an alien world full of angels wasn’t meant to be realistic :D

  4. That paragraph about NREM sleep explains something I’ve always wondered about — when I’m playing a computer game intensely, I’ll often dream-play the same game during the night. I call this “Tetris dreams” for the first game where I had that experience, but I’ve beaten off many a zergling rush (Starcraft) in my dreams, too. Lately it’s been enemy tanks in the bushes, due to too much World of Tanks.

    • Totally! In fact, I saw a documentary where a dream researcher said that the tetris dream phenomenon was his motivation for doing NREM dream research.

  5. Oh, yeah, kids totally have sex dreams! I remember when I was a kid I used to have this reoccurring dream involving purple, fuzzy alien things that had long sticky tongues. They’d tie me up with their tongues and lick me and stuff, and I’d wake up feeling all funny. At the time I had no idea, but it was defiantly arousal. And over time those dreams kind of morphed into more adult, “normal” bondage kinds of dreams.

    I kind of miss my purple, furry aliens, though.

  6. So, if that explains dreams that involve sex, how does having a physical orgasm during a dream (as opposed to an in-dream-only-orgasm) come into play? Especially, if you’re body (eyes excepted) is paralyzed during REM? Is the phenomenon comparable between men and women?

    • Just more of the same – orgasm is crossing a threshold of SES stimulation, with low enough SIS stimulation. The reason it’s common in adolescent boys is that their high levels of testosterone make their SES extremely sensitive, so it’s easier for them to cross that threshold. And yup, same in males and females; females just don’t have to deal with laundry.

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