An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Nightmare at the Center of the Universe

  • Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70
  • 12
domebwProfessor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

Academic dreams are common. Students often dream that they miss a final. I, symmetrically, used to dream that I had forgotten to show up for a humanities class for the entire semester, just remembering I was registered for it a few minutes before the final, for which I had, of course, not prepared.

This year, I got booted out of my favorite 11 am slot in 32-123 in favor of some Chemistry General-Institute-Requirement subject, and I found my subject, 6.034, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, assigned to 34-101, which I consider as dark and gloomy as a crypt. After several cranky weeks and a lot of lobbying, I got my subject reassigned to the Center of the Universe, the gorgeously renovated 10-250, under the Great Dome, but at 10 am, rather than the 11 am slot I prefer, realizing that most MIT students say they are on west-coast time.

Perhaps that dislocation is why I had my first academic dream in decades.

It was my first lecture of the semester. Somehow my daughter Sarah, a senior, and I were having trouble finding a cup of coffee for me to take to class. When we did find a place that would sell us coffee, I couldn't find my wallet. Then, it occurred to me I hadn't prepared for my lecture. I found my notes, but the pages were blank. Because of all the confusion, I showed up at 11:15 am, only to realize that my class had been switched to an hour earlier—I had missed it entirely.

I was distraught beyond description, and wandered the halls with great anxiety. I could not console myself; I could not think how I could recover from the blunder. Then, I ran into my assistant, Maria, and asked “Maria, is this a dream?”

“No,” she said, “it is not a dream. You really missed it. Everyone is complaining.”

After a little more hall wandering, I woke up, and realized my first lecture was still a week away. On the actual day of my first lecture this past Wednesday, I left home for MIT quite a bit earlier than usual.



Sun, 09/20/2009 7:56am

I've had a lot of these sorts of dreams.

The curious thing is that the one time that an "academic nightmare" became reality, it wasn't so bad. I was late for a 6.001 test, ran up to Walker Memorial, opened the door to the room and there was no one there. Ooopppssss.....

However since I knew there was going to be another section of the test, I ran over to the EECS department, looked over the post course notes got the location of the second section and got over there. The weird thing about it is how calm and unpanicked I was.

There was also the time when I was supposed to TA a test and forgot. Fortunately there was another TA. The professor was upset but professional. I felt awful about the whole thing, but there wasn't this sense of doom that happens when you have the failure dream.

I remember that a psychologist pointed out that it was interesting that no one ever has nightmares about failing a class or degree that they actually failed in.


Sun, 09/13/2009 5:39pm

Memories of unpleasant events, and dreams of them, can be suppressed only to resurface after decades. It would be interesting to find out what re-triggers these memories. The movie "Waltzing with Bashir" illustrates this phenomenon.
Something strange happened to me recently. My sister asked if I remembered our home phone number when we were growing up, about 40 years ago. I wrote that challenge off as impossible, but weirdly enough a week later I remembered the number out of the blue. She confirmed it as correct (she had a secret mnemonic). What is with that?!?

Stan de Riel '80

Sun, 09/27/2009 10:53pm

I beg to differ, having had occasional academic nightmare dreams ever since MIT, and I did drop out for 5 years from Course 5 (then finished my BS). Oddly, I found lab work in the pharmaceutical industry (where I eventually worked for 25 years) was much less stressful than that at school.

In reply to by twofish

Al Johnson

Thu, 09/24/2009 11:38am

I have this recurring dream that Patrick and I are high school freshmen playing with explosives in his home chemistry lab on weekends and that I'm afraid he'll use Monday's speech class to tell about all the stupid things we did, like heating pipe cannons with propane torches. Then I wake up and realize that it wasn't a dream.

Kevin Dye

Mon, 09/14/2009 5:56pm

Perhaps this is closely related to what Buckminster Fuller called "cosmic fishing." The difference is that in your case you were recalling an existing memory, whereas he was drawing on something a bit grander.

In reply to by Conan

Bob Jones

Thu, 09/24/2009 4:20am

Oddly, while I've had lots of failed/missed class (or exam) dreams (not recently), I've had a non-dream (a reality, as it were) paralleling Professor Winston's nightmare. A few years ago, I needed a transcript for some now-forgotten purpose (applying for graduate school or law school or something). When I received a copy of my transcript, I found I had received a "D" (my only D) in a humanities class, of which I had no memory of attending except for the first class and the final exam.

Karen Ouzts

Wed, 09/23/2009 11:59pm

My 'uh-oh' dreams are not consistent as to venue: sometimes elementary school, sometimes h.s., college or grad school. Sometimes they are about having forgotten I was taking a course until some form of 'final judgment' was at hand. Sometimes it's that I'm lost and can't find the classroom or exam site. Sometimes it's just that I'm late and missed a class or event. I'm quite relieved to learn that I'm not the only one who occasionally gets these 'performance anxiety' dreams!


Wed, 09/23/2009 9:37pm

My academic nightmare is similar, but it somehow got tangled up with the song lyric "It's late September and I really should be back at school." In the dream, it's more like late November, and I've been spending the entire time with a coed, and haven't been to class at all. And it's always the same coed. Actually, it's only an academic nightmare; otherwise, not a bad dream at all.


Mon, 09/14/2009 1:34pm

I've had too many of these dreams -- project started too late, final not prepared for -- for too long. Have to think that education should not be so traumatic that it would leave nightmarish scars.

John Evans '01

Mon, 09/14/2009 1:17pm

That's interesting, Glenn; I have dreams about going back to high school in order to take some class that I supposedly missed the first time, because if I don't, my MIT diploma will be rendered invalid.

It's good to hear from Prof. Winston, I enjoyed 6.034 when I took it a few years ago! I guess we're all in the same boat when it comes to anxiety, huh?

Brian D. Carlstrom

Mon, 09/14/2009 12:26pm

I didn't start having that dream about MIT humanities classes until 10 years after graduation when I was a graduate student at Stanford. In my variant, I frequently got into the situation because I simply forgot to drop a class I had stopped attending. Of course that never happened in real life and I can't explain why a PhD student in computer science was having dreams about undergraduate humanities classes. Perhaps if I had taken 9.00 like I always had wanted it would all make sense. At least 6.034 never gave me nightmares...


Glenn N

Mon, 09/14/2009 12:35am

Oh, so it is common! Yes, I've had dreams about forgetting to go to a class and then finding at the end of the semester that I was totally unprepared.

But my recurring dream - for many years AFTER graduating MIT - was that my high school diploma was rescinded because they found out I had cut gym class. And then my MIT degree was taken away. In reality, I always wanted to skip gym, but was too good to even skip it once.

At MIT I tried to ignore the swimming requirement (do they still have that?), and at the start of my last semester, they informed me I still had to pass the swim test! Well, my housemate and I were in the same sinking boat, and took the swimming class with a bunch of secretaries at lunch time. Passed with flying colors and enjoyed it!