Dreams can be confusing, from bizarre plotlines to nonsensical characters and confusing experiences and sensations. Dramatic and seemingly painful situations can unfold – but how much of this are we really experiencing? If we scream in pain as we get squished by a tree in a nightmare, do we feel it? Can you feel pain in dreams?
The topic is a complex one, with an array of interesting studies surrounding it. The general consensus: Yes, you can feel pain in dreams, but whether that pain is triggered by the dream or by something physically happening in your body is a whole neurological minefield.
Can you feel pain in dreams? Real pain VS dreamed pain
One reason why you can feel pain in dreams is something painful occurring in real life – for example, if a wasp were to decide to sting your snoozing body (rude). This kind of pain in dreams was explored in a 1993 paper where blood pressure cuffs were used to administer pain while participants were in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep.
The pain participants experienced mimicked the real-life pain that was being inflicted by the tightening cuff. Interestingly, the theme of the dreams tended to center around this pain, with the dreamers reporting feelings of anger and repetitive actions that were intended to alleviate the pain. One participant with a long-standing knee problem also reported greater pain in dreams compared to the other participants.
Is pain in dreams real?
Dreamed pain differs from "real" pain in that its source is the dream’s content rather than a real-life stimulus. For example, someone might be dreaming of being tortured in a way they’ve never been in real life. The dreamt trauma, however, still registers as pain in the moment, likely inspired by learned perceptions of painful situations. Dreamt pain usually goes away as soon as the dreamer wakes up.
“I would argue that even ‘actual’ pain is kind of all in your head,” said Erin Wamsley, an assistant professor of psychology at Furman University in South Carolina, to Vice. Pain is, in a way, a mental experience. That’s to say that when we suffer an injury, the pain is processed in our brains rather than in the affected body part.
Pain in the brain presents as activation in the pain-related areas of your cerebral cortex, triggered by information from pain receptors in your peripheral nervous system. When dreamt pain occurs in dreams, your brain probably isn't receiving pain messages from parts of your body, but instead drawing from memories of pain from your past.
Are some people more likely to feel pain in their dreams than others?
When it comes to your likelihood of nighttime gripes, your general state of health appears to play a part in the frequency and nature of pain you can feel in dreams. A 2017 study found that pain in dreams occurs in around 1 percent of healthy people's dreams and 30 percent of those with acute and severe pain.
"In patients, pain dreams might be instigated by actual pain whereas for healthy persons pain dreams might be pain memories (self-experienced pain and/or seeing persons in pain)," wrote the study authors. "Future research should clarify how pain is processed during sleep. As patients with chronic pain experience negatively toned dreams, it will be beneficial to ask chronic pain patients about their dreams and, if necessary, offer specific treatment options like imagery rehearsal treatment."
So, in conclusion: Can you feel pain in dreams? Yes, but your waking health probably predicts whether it is "real" or "dreamed" pain.