The nightmare protection hypothesis: An AU tutor’s surprising research

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The nightmare protection hypothesis suggests that combat video games can help some people cope with nightmares.

The nightmare protection hypothesis suggests that combat video games can help some people cope with nightmares.

The “nightmare protection hypothesis” by Dr. Jayne Gackenbach and colleagues suggests the relationship between violent video games and nightmares — at least for some groups of people — is not what you might expect it to be. And for people like soldiers, combat video games might even be a source of empowerment and therapy for coping with traumatic events.

How Gackenbach came to study gaming and nightmares

Gackenbach, an Athabasca University tutor of communication studies and an associate professor of psychology at MacEwan University, has been researching dreams for most of her career. She got interested in studying video games too, she says, after purchasing a Nintendo game console for her son and reading about how gamers have better spatial skills like being able to rotate objects in their mind’s eye or keep their bearings in the woods.

Dr. Jayne Gackenbach with volunteer Luna Xiaoyan Lu at the 2014 International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) conference in Berkeley, California.

Dr. Jayne Gackenbach with volunteer Luna Xiaoyan Lu at the 2014 International Association for the Study of Dreams conference in Berkeley, California.

“I had been studying lucid dreams for many years at that point, and spatial skills was one of my major findings — that is, lucid dreamers have superior spatial skills,” she says. “So I wondered if gamers had more lucid dreams.”

Eventually, her interest in gaming along with her background in experimental psychology led to her developing an interest in combat video games. She suspected these games could have a positive influence on some people and their dreams, and she was right.

The nightmare protection hypothesis: First findings

In her first major study on the nightmare protection hypothesis, published in 2011, Gackenbach and her research partners from AU (professor Dr. Evelyn Ellerman and student Christie Hall) found that male soldiers who regularly play aggressive combat video games have fewer traumatic dreams about their military service than soldiers who play only occasionally or who play less violent games.

Why might this be? There are a few reasons, Gackenbach says, but one important one is that since combat video games encourage players to fight back against threats, people who play these games can build up a sense of empowerment. This sense of empowerment may transfer into their dreams and enable them to fight back better to the threats that confront them in nightmares. They’re also able to exert more control over what’s happening in their dreams.

Nightmares are the most common element of post-traumatic stress due to trauma, she says. So combat video games could help not only soldiers but also firefighters, police and other people who work in high-risk occupations to cope with a major symptom of the stress they might experience after a traumatic event.

Gackenbach is far from the only one who thinks so — a growing body of research is supporting the use of video games and virtual worlds as therapy for a variety of stress-related psychological problems. For example, another group of researchers developed Virtual Iraq to help treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Does the hypothesis apply to females too?

So far, Gackenbach and her students have not been able to replicate the nightmare protection hypothesis among female gamers.

So far, Gackenbach and her students have not been able to replicate the nightmare protection hypothesis among female gamers.

In 2013, Gackenbach and some of her students at MacEwan completed a study that replicated the nightmare protection hypothesis among male students who play a lot of video games. But they found an opposite effect for female students — the female students in the study who played a lot of video games had the most problems with nightmares.

Since then, Gackenbach and her students have continued to puzzle out why the nightmare protection hypothesis does not hold for females, and in 2014, they’ve presented their findings at several conferences. “We think that there may be several reasons for this difference in nightmare protection,” she says. “One is that females play more casual, non-combative games. Thus they’re not getting the rehearsal of fighting back.”

The nightmare protection hypothesis is an avenue of research with many more questions to answer, and Gackenbach and her students are continuing to search for those answers. “We’re currently … looking at nightmare protection using a scary film as the pre-sleep stimulus and examining if combat gaming results in less nightmarish content. Additionally, we’re running a study in the fall delving deeper into the female exception to nightmare protection.”

Inoculation for trauma

Gackenbach is quick to agree that being desensitized to violence is generally not desirable. “But in situations that are potentially so violent and life-threatening and traumatizing, then some of that numbing — I use the word ‘inoculation’ — some of that may, in fact, be adaptive.”

“My hope is to help people who may be suffering from particular sorts of trauma with a potential way to move on.”

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