Exam dreams: waking terror
Words: William Ham Bevan
For those seeking a way to rationalise – and perhaps end – their examination dreams, there may be no easy answers.
When Professor David Tong wrote about exam setting in CAM 70, he touched a nerve with readers. Judging by the response, anxiety dreams about finals are widespread, unsettling and hard to stop.
Adrian Williams (Peterhouse 1957) wrote:
“More than 50 years have passed since I passed Maths Tripos Part II, and I continue to dream of the experience. In my dream I have never done any work and have not attended any of the lectures. For 50 years I have let down my College, my tutors, my University, my parents, my school, and most of all, myself.”
He has not been alone. Alumni of all different ages have dispatched letters about their own Tripos nightmares. Among them was Roger Smith (St Catharine’s 1957), who took his Classics Part II in 1960. He says:
“In some of the dreams I’ve had, I don’t know what the set books were for the Tripos, or I know but haven’t read them. In the most terrifying dream, I turn over the exam paper at the given signal and the print is dancing in front of my eyes so I can’t read the questions.”
The phenomenon of exam nightmares is explored in Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899. In it he cites three of the most typical scenarios – “dreams which almost everyone has dreamed in the same manner”. Appearing alongside “the embarrassment-dream of nakedness” and “dreams of the death of beloved persons” is “the examination-dream”.
As we know, the latter is hardly conducive to a restful night’s sleep. But many researchers in the fields of psychiatry and psychology suggest that there is a difference between a dream of this kind and the out-and-out nightmare. Freud’s colleague Robert Fliess formalised this with his division of such dreams into the Angsttraum – the simple anxiety dream – and the more harrowing Alptraum.
According to Professor John Forrester, Head of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, the explanation for the first type of dreams in classic Freudian theory would be that they represent anxiety displaced from a present concern back to an event in the past. By this account, they serve as ‘wish fulfilment’, offering consolation by revisiting episodes that were highly stressful but successfully overcome. So should they be considered a positive experience?
He says: “You’re writing for a magazine which is about people who’ve overwhelmingly passed through the Cambridge system successfully, and passed their exams. So it’s a wonderful irony that they’re dreaming their exams over and over again, because they’re precisely the very small proportion of the population who’ve quite often built their lives on their supreme success at exams.
“That’s exactly the framework of the Freudian theory of examination dreams. In Freud’s original edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, examination dreams have, in his view, a standard format and a standard raison d’être, which is a consolation. The dream is saying ‘you were so successful back in the past, and you will be successful in confronting whatever it is you’re actually preoccupied by in the present’.”
Examination dreams may be common, but is there anything particular to the Cambridge Tripos exams and how they affect us? Several of the correspondents noted that other exam memories simply lacked the same staying power. Adrian Williams, who went on to become an actuary, reports never having similar dreams about his accountancy exams; but very few life events, he believes, reach the intensity of Cambridge finals.
“It was a fearsome experience. There were six exams of three hours each, starting on Monday morning and running till Wednesday afternoon. There’s your whole academic life washed up in 18 hours, almost head to tail.”
Nevertheless, the conscious and unconscious associations of sitting Tripos exams may differ widely between former students. Now a Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, Jonathan Lear guided many students through the Philosophy Tripos when he was Director of Studies at Clare.
“It’s a typical point in life where you’re moving towards adulthood,” he says. “It’s marked as a moment of transition, and thus in the moment you are being measured in a socially significant and public way. But when one hears about these things, they can be very various: I’ve certainly talked with people who’ve really enjoyed the experience and think of it as a really great, defining moment for them."
Ending exam dreams
So for those seeking a way to rationalise – and perhaps end – their examination dreams, there may be no easy answers. But in the CAM postbag, a number of letter writers have mentioned their own attempts to exorcise the demons.
Roger Smith says:
“Around the time of my 50th birthday I started to reread the classics, and the nightmares stopped. I still have my Greek and Latin at breakfast time each morning – I read some Greek with my porridge and Latin with my toast and honey. And I can read what I like, such as the comedies of Aristophanes, rather than what the examiners told me to read.”
It seems – alas – to be an imperfect cure. When a contemporary of Adrian Williams lent him a full set of Mathematics Part II papers, he found that time had taken its toll.
“It’s not that we don’t understand how to find the answers,” he says. “We can’t even understand the questions.”
In his original letter, he nevertheless expressed hope that this could “purge the memory of its bitter lees”. Has it worked?
“Well, I’ve not had the full monty since,” he says. “I’ve not got to sit the exam, though I’ve dreamed I was about to go into it, thinking ‘this will not be a good experience’. So the jury is out on this one; but I think I shall go on having that bloody nightmare.”
Do you have dreams about your university exams? Share them with us on Twitter using #examdreams or email: email@example.com - we'd love to hear from you.
The full version of this article appears in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 72. Find out how to receive CAM.