Why do we still dream about high school as adults?

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Why do we still dream about high school as adults?

The halls of South Austin’s Crockett High School are not too labyrinthine in real life. There’s a fairly straightforward courtyard-and-wings floorplan. In my recurring dreams, however, there’s practically a minotaur waiting for me at every possible twist and turn. 

As a student in both grade school and in college, I lived for assembling my schedule each semester, much in the way some people hold a special thrill for their fantasy draft. But every few months I have the same bad dream: I don’t know what order my classes are in, and I don’t know where to find them, either. As I posted on Facebook when I woke up one recent morning: “So, I'm going to have the same dream where I forget my high school class schedule for the rest of my life? Cool, that's chill.”

I have companion dreams to this particular nocturnal panic. Sometimes there’s a test on a book I haven’t read; sometimes I’ve been enrolled in a class for an entire semester and didn’t realize it until the last week of school. As the comments poured into my Facebook post like a varsity football team busting through a paper banner, I was taken aback by the number of people afflicted by the same sour nostalgia. Forgotten locker combinations, late arrivals to marching band practice, blanking on lines in a school play: friends my age all have similar bad dreams about school. Judging by the colleagues decades my senior who said they still have such unwelcome subconscious anxiety, it seems likely to last.

What gives? Why do we all still dream about high school even once we have very serious adult problems? 

Nothing a little Googling can’t answer — sort of. According to neuroscience news site Brain Decoder, school dreams regularly top lists of most common nightmare fuel across cultures. The themes most likely to pop up, they say? Unwittingly missing classes and not being able to find your classroom.

It’s obvious that most of us are haunted by our adolescent years, but the “why” isn’t an easy nut to crack. Brain Decoder offers a few possible explanations. One — which they call the “pop-psychology route” — suggests that school dreams could correspond to current insecurities and worries. Feeling lost and disorganized? Probably reminds your stupid sleep brain of feeling lost and disorganized among the lockers. Brain Decoder also offers the “reminiscence bump” as a part of the explanation, which is the idea that your adolescent memories tend to be your strongest, so they crop up more readily. (There are studies to back that up, they say.) 

2004 New York Times article hones in on a more specific and predictably erudite reason for this omnipresent dream theme: the rise of the meritocracy. As American society began to broker advancement based of performance (starting with the academic variety) over family prestige, “a companion set of anxieties took up residence in the subconscious.” Dreaming about your fear of failure at the most basic level, according to psychiatrists interviewed by the Times, helps keep people on track.

But I think my chosen reason for still not being able to find Ms. Cunningham’s seventh-period chemistry class is what Brain Decoder calls the “activation-synthesis hypothesis.” Basically, your brain chemistry shifts when you fall into that sweet, sweet REM sleep. High on lobe-juice, this theory says, your head just goes off the rails into some weird narrative territory.

Considering some dreams I’ve also had — there’s that one about Ashton Kutcher and a loose tiger — I’ll buy what that theory is selling.

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