Exam Nightmares

The degree is well in hand, but the dream remains the same. More pervasive than student loans, exam nightmares continue to dog graduates many years after
by Janice Paskey

It's a nasty thing, the subconscious mind. Just when you think a stressful situation is over, a dream can bring it all back, replaying Ů even embellishing Ů the event to make it more frighteningly real than ever. For many students, exam dreams, or more precisely exam nightmares, are a fact of university life. What's lesser known is that alumni may suffer recurring exam nightmares years after graduation. And yes, there are scientific theories why.

žExaminations can be among the most stressful experiences in life, so it is hardly surprising that they make frequent appearances in our dreams,Ó writes psychologist David Fontana in The Secret Language of Dreams (Chronicle Books, 1994). He notes these dreams have common themes: arriving at an exam without having studied, or arriving late and searching frantically for the examination room.

Theories abound, yet no one knows exactly why we dream. Scientists tell us that dreaming occurs primarily in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when the brain is very active. They tell us that REM sleep occurs every 90-100 minutes, three to six times a night. Dreams can be an important clue to the state of the unconscious. In his essay, On the Nature of Dreams, Carl Jung commented, žSignificant dreams are often remembered for a lifetime and not infrequently prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure house of psychic experience.Ó It's not proven that alumni recognize exam nightmares as jewel-laden, and while Jung believed in collective archetypes Ů common themes Ů regional variations seem to apply.

One prevalent feature appears to be the universality of dreams, or that common dreams can be shared by many people. In the 1958 article žThe Universality of Typical Dreams: Japanese vs. AmericansÓ (American Anthropologist), the authors note, žAmid the profusion of dreams which arise from the innermost recesses of the mind and which belong uniquely to one individual, there are recurrent themes which are shared by many persons. . . . [They] denote his membership in clan, culture or species.Ó Haunted by exam nightmares? McGill alumni, welcome to your clan.

According to dream researcher Tony Zadra, BA'88, MSc'91, PhD'95, recurrent nightmares are those which re-appear more than five or six times. Some McGill alumni well recall such nightmares, and weave their own psychic map of the campus. Political science graduate Patrick Mathieu, BA'94, had a typical exam nightmare: žI had an exam at the Bronfman Building, but when I arrived I found out it had been switched to the gym. I ran up the hill to the gym but when I got there I was late and couldn't find a seat. By the time I finally sat down, I had lost my concentration for the exam.Ó Corey Cook, BA'94, now an analyst with KPGM Peat Marwick in San Francisco, recalls that he had a post- exam nightmare. žIt was the last exam of the year in economics, a 100 percent final, but when I arrived there I had forgotten everything about economics and played tic- tac-toe for the duration of the exam. I woke up in a cold sweat. Actually I got an A in that course.Ó

Indeed, success is one of the hallmarks of many people with recurrent exam nightmares, says Zadra, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the link between recurrent dreams and psychological well-being and who is currently a post- doctoral fellow in the Centre d'»tude du Sommeil of L'HŔpital Sacr»-Coeur in Montreal. žWhat's strange is that the negative aspect in the dream is tied to an experience in which the dreamer did well. What people should keep in mind is to make a link with their current situation. There is the same underlying message: this is just another task that I can solve or approach constructively.Ó This link, often a stressful situation, is known as a žretrieval clue,Ó says Kingston psychologist Heather Nogrady, DipEd'69, who adds that she doesn't have exam nightmares. žI'm sure I've repressed them,Ó she says jokingly.

Montreal alumni seem to have the bilingual fact to worry about. Tony Zadra, who works in French, says his recurrent nightmare involves a high school French exam that he's writing at McGill. žI'm either not ready, or I look at the clock and the time is almost up and I haven't done anything. I'm frantic. What have I been doing for three hours?Ó Kip Cobbett, BA'69, BCL'72, senior partner in the law firm Stikeman Elliott, says he still dreams about exams. žIt's usually the same. It's three days before a French exam and I've about 20 books to read ů and I haven't started reading any of them.

Past-principal David Johnston, now a law professor in McGill's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, finds himself back in school during his nocturnal hours. žMy nightmare is to do with scheduling. I'm at Harvard or Cambridge [his alma maters] and arrive for the exam a day late.Ó Johnston argues these dreams aren't all that pressing. žMy approach is more philosophical: life is difficult, and it has a testing point. Once we realize our testing point, we go a very long way to facing the demands on it. People relate these nightmares to `type A' personalities; I think this is too sophisticated an analysis. A degree of stress in our life is positive. One of the great things in life is to challenge yourself.Ó

Evelyn Hannon, BA'89, the publisher of Journeywoman, a newsletter for women travellers, recalls that her exam nightmares were so terrible during her first degree (the classic: showing up, not being prepared) that when she went back to McGill years later for a second degree in English, she began studying months in advance in order to be prepared. žIt was such a horrible feeling that I didn't want to relive it,Ó she said in an interview from Toronto.

Other nightmares are tied to the importance of education. Montreal scientist Roland Kuhn, MSc'89, PhD'93, describes his: žA bureaucrat arrives from the Ontario Ministry of Education and announces they made a clerical error, that I actually failed grade 8, and so all my degrees are rendered invalid. I have to go back and re-do grade 8. Sometimes, depending on the level of anxiety, I have to go back and do grade 3. I have to get back behind a small desk and all the kids are pointing at me.Ó

Kuhn, who didn't begin working full time until age 35, says it points to obvious insecurities. žAll I've got going for me is a lot of degrees, so that's the worst thing that could happen to me.Ó

Psychologist David Fontana believes that dream examinations may stand for success and failure in any area of our personal or professional life. žFailure in a dream test can be a highly uncomfortable experience, encouraging the dreamer to face up to shortcomings that he or she may otherwise have been unwilling to see.Ó

The gym, the clock, the sheets of paper, the exam paper turned upside down. . . these memories lie dormant until a similar stress brings them flooding back in a sea of anxiety. Fear not, McGill grad, it's just one more challenge to meet.