Mythical monsters of the night like the Boogeyman or the Chupacabra have terrorized our dreams since childhood. Although nightmares leave us heavily panting, sweaty, and with a faster heartbeat, science suggests there’s a bright side to these fright nights. According to a recent study published in the journal Sleep Medicine, dreamers who have recurring nightmares tend to be creative thinkers.

"Horrific as having [nightmares] frequently can be, it also seems to endow more regular positive dreams, and heighten empathy and creativity," wrote Michelle Carr, study author and psychology candidate at the the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory in the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine in Montreal, Canada, in the New Scientist.

Previous studies have found two dominant theories on the origins of nightmares: One theory suggests they're a response to the negative experiences that occur when we're awake, and the second is they act as simulations that help us prepare for dealing with real-life possible threats. Whether or not they function as an essential life tool, these series of bad dreams can serve as an outlet to enhance our creativity.

In the new study, Carr and her colleagues sought to observe whether nightmare sufferers tend to display unusual word-emotion associations during a rapid eye movement (REM) sleep-sensitive task compared to non-nightmare sufferers. The volunteers ran through questionnaires, tests of creativity, and reported their waking daydreams before electrodes were placed on their scalps and bodies. Finally, they took a nap. They were evaluated on their performance on a task containing positive and negative cue words both before and after a nap with REM sleep. The performance was assessed again one week later.

The findings revealed nightmare-sufferers scored higher than their counterparts on both positive and negative word associations, even after the 1-week retest. Both groups showed a decrease in REM sleep when negative cue words were given and an increase in positive dreams associated with positive cue words. However, a week later, only the nightmare group maintained these effects.

“[Nightmare] sufferers may access broader than normal emotional semantic networks in the wake state, a difference that may lead to this group being perceived as more creative," the researchers concluded.

In other words, nightmare sufferers possess an "imaginative richness" from dreaming that seeps into their conscious throughout the day, according to Carr.

Carr’s study echoes the research of sleep specialist Ernest Hartmann. In the 1980s, Hartmann’s line of research focused on the personality characteristics of nightmare sufferers, which produced surprising results. He found nightmare sufferers tend to have a lack of psychological defenses that made them more open to their feelings and the world around them. These dreamers were more likely to be creative people and artists that possess a “vulnerability” trait because they have the ability to be touched by the world around them and experience its pain.

For example, in Carr’s study, Jess and Chris [two of Carr’s research subjects] scored highly on a test that measures this, called the boundary thinness scale, and both are artists: Jess is a painter and photographer, Chris is a musician.

In addition, Hartmann found people who sought therapy for nightmares aren't more fearful or anxious, but display a heightened sensitivity to emotional experiences. He believes it is this sensitivity that produces the intensity in these dreams. The heightened sensitivity stems from threats or fears during the day that manifest themselves in bad dreams and nightmares. Similarly, heightened passion of excitement leads to more intensely positive dreaming.

A similar 2007 study found dreams that stimulated waking-life creativity played a role in the lives of the participants who kept dream diaries. The main factors that influenced the frequency of creative dreams were dream recall frequency and the thin boundaries of personality dimension, as explored by Carr.

Despite their power, nightmares are rare in adults. Only two to eight percent of the adult population have a current problem with bad dreams.

Nightmares are a double-edged sword of creativity and perhaps eternal suffering — which in reality is an outlet for creative vision.

Source: Carr M, Blanchette-Carrière C, Marquis LP et al. Nightmare sufferers show atypical emotional semantic associations and prolonged REM sleep-dependent emotional priming. Sleep Medicine. 2016.