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Your Dreams Are Gendered(ish)

Women dream of falling in love, men dream of… China?

Are you a man? Do you often dream of traveling to far off places, like outer space? Do you dream about having sex? Because according to a new study from Mattress Advisor, these are the things your subconscious is most commonly conjuring up when you’re sleeping.

The study asked 1,200 Americans about their dreams, and found that 37.9 percent of men reported exploring a new place while catching some zzz’s. “Respondents described feelings during this dream to be anything from ‘terrifying’ and ‘pure bliss’ to ‘wonder’ and ‘sadness and anxiety,’” reported Mattress Advisor. “Frequent mentions of China and outer space led the visual of male dreams and provides context for the broad range of feelings evoked in participants.”

The study also found that men dream of sex nearly twice as often as women. “The next most popular experience American men dreamed of was sex, at about 15 percent,” the study reported. “Meanwhile, their female peers dreamed of sex almost half as much, represented by 8.5 percent of the population.” Women do, however, dream about love more often than men. “The number of women who dreamed about falling in love (15.2 percent) was nearly the same as the number of men who dreamed about having sex (15 percent),” the study continued. “Meanwhile, only 6.2 percent of men reported dreaming about falling in love.”

So how do we explain these differences?

“You could say dreams are gendered in terms of certain patterns of content,” explains Kelly Bulkeley, a psychologist of religion, specializing in dream research. “The fact that men tend to dream about sexuality more than women do is intriguing. It could be a function of nature or nurture, but either way, it suggests that the study of dreams might be a means of illuminating areas of similarity and difference in the sexual desires of women and men.”

Patrick J. McNamara, an associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, agrees that when it comes to the differences between men and women’s dreams, it’s still impossible to deduce exactly how gender plays a role. “I don’t think many scientists believe in strict separation of socialization and biology,” says McNamara. “Clean nature v. nurture splits just don’t exist. The differences are real and stable so we cannot say whether they’re driven by biology or by socialization or culture, because we don’t see biology and culture as so separate anymore.”

To that end, there still are several key differences between the way men and women dream, according to Bulkeley. “Men’s dreams tend to have more male characters than female characters, while women’s dreams tend to have an equal ratio of male and female characters,” says Bulkeley. Additionally, men’s dreams tend to have more aggressive and/or sexual interactions. “Women’s dreams tend to have more friendly interactions and more negative emotions,” explains Bulkeley.

Michael Schredl, a researcher at the Sleep Laboratory of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, believes that some of these differences can be attributed to different hormone levels in men and women. “If you take, for example, physical aggression, there’s likely a biological factor — testosterone, more muscles — that men are more aggressive in waking life, and in their dreams,” he says. But he’s quick to note that other things, like women dreaming more often about clothes, might have more to due with established gender roles.

Still, researchers struggle to understand whether dreams are actually gendered in terms of the dreamer identifying as either a man or a woman. “Sometimes people have a dream in which they notice they are, or have, changed into the opposite gender,” says Bulkeley. “But otherwise, one’s gender is either assumed or not noticed.”

There is some evidence to suggest how a person’s biology might affect their dreams: “Biological factors are clearest in women’s dreams around pregnancy and childbirth, which men typically don’t experience,” says Bulkeley.

Overall, though, Bulkeley emphasizes that in most ways, the dreams of men and women are basically the same. “We’re a dreaming species, no matter our gender, age, race or anything else,” says Bulkeley. So whether you’re dreaming of China, marriage, or marrying the Chinese takeout delivery dude, you can be sure that, when we’re asleep at least, we’re not that different after all.