If you think dreams can’t actually hurt you, then this might make you reconsider. Last night, I dreamed that I forgot my password. When I woke up, I had actually forgotten my password.

Top image: Little Nemo in Slumberland

The dream wasn’t anything spectacular. I was at my computer, about to check my email, and for some reason I wasn’t able to see anything. Over time, I realized that I couldn’t get beyond the login screen. I’d forgotten my password. I kept trying to remember my password in the dream until I woke up, walked to my computer, tried to log in to my email.

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The problem wasn’t that my dream had erased all thoughts of my password. It had done the opposite. Instead of automatically typing in my password, the way I normally do, I was thinking about typing in my password — which meant I couldn’t do it.

George Humphrey, a British-born psychologist, was the first to illuminate this quirk of the human mind. He was unimpressed with psychology’s love affair with the unconscious, believing that experimentation could help us understand the orderly processes that he believed underpinned seemingly random turns of thought. Some of his experiments were hair-raising, but insightful. He is said to have held his newborn daughter out of a window to see if she showed any sign of fear when looking down at the drop. In 1960, six years before Humphrey died, psychologists put babies on a specially-built “visual cliff” for exactly this reason. The cliff would replicate the visual experience of being dangled over a drop, but without the danger.

Humphrey determined that we don’t become practiced at a skill, but instead we become accustomed to performing a certain way in a certain situation. If you are used to shooting baskets unobserved for years, having thousands of people looking at you changes your whole awareness of the situation. Suddenly you’re doing something that you’ve never done before, which is why playing games in front of a crowd is nearly as important a part of an athlete’s training as regular practice and physical conditioning.

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And if you’re used to sleepily logging in to your email account and checking your mail as you wait for your tea to cool, being forced to think about your password makes the sequence of letters you’ve “practiced” typing into your computer for months turn into a completely unfamiliar protocol. Humphrey called it “hyper-reflection.” And for all of you reading this — try not to let it mess you up when you type in your email password later on.

[Source: Analysis Paralysis]