Movies

Why Do Our Dreams Trick Us Into Wetting the Bed?

Investigating Minari’s most profound question.

David, the adorable pint-sized hero of Minari.
Don’t listen to your grandma. It’s not a broken penis, little buddy. Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

You already know that Minari movingly addresses the immigrant experience, assimilation, family farming, and economic precarity in 1980s Arkansas. But did you know it’s also about pee?

Yes! The flow of urine is as crucial to Minari as the flow of county-owned water is to the Korean peppers and eggplants Jacob (Steven Yeun) plants in the rich Arkansas earth. Minari even features a pee-related prank that would not be out of place in a Jackass movie. But central to its plot is the bed wetting struggles of its tiny, adorable central figure, David, played by tiny, adorable, 7-year-old Alan Kim.

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“Sometimes I dream I’m peeing in the bathroom,” a mournful, damp David explains as his mother and grandmother strip his sheets. “But I wake up in my bed.” When I watched this scene, I sat bolt upright in my chair. That is exactly what bed wetting was like for me when I was little and adorable! I would dream I was peeing in the bathroom, then wake to wet sheets and sad disappointment.

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It struck me that I had never really thought about this weird link between dream peeing and IRL peeing. Was this actually a totally common experience? An extremely unscientific Twitter poll suggested that I wasn’t the only one who’d made this connection.

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Wanting to know more, I reached out to the American Urological Association, who put me in touch with Dr. Brian Stork, clinical assistant professor of urology at the University of Michigan.* “That’s a really interesting question about nocturnal enuresis,” Stork said, using the fancy urologist’s term for nighttime bed wetting. “It doesn’t come up very much in the literature.” (The primary study he found about dreaming and bed wetting was a very small experiment performed in 1961.)

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Stork explained that the causes of bed wetting are various: a small or overactive bladder, a patient whose sleep is particularly deep, or abnormally high urine production. “In most cases, it’s probably multifactorial,” he said, adding that patients undergoing a disruptive family event are more at risk. (In Minari, David’s dealing with his family’s sudden move from California to rural Arkansas, so this tracks.)

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I came away from our conversation more convinced that this anecdotal causality was correct. One reason bed wetting was never a major issue for me as a kid, I always believed, was that I trained myself early to understand that if I was dreaming about peeing in a toilet, it was time to wake up. Even now, I understand that if my dreams diverge from their usual plots of being sent back to college or fighting off zombies for a detour to a restroom, it is a sure sign that my body needs a pit stop—and so I had better wake up. In Minari, David’s mother even tells him that whenever he’s about to go to the bathroom, he should stop and pinch himself to make sure he’s not asleep and dreaming. In a later scene, he stands before the toilet, ready to go, but gives himself a pinch beforehand, just in case. (I did that once while extremely high, when, standing at a toilet, I suddenly couldn’t remember if I was awake or asleep. I was awake!)

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After our conversation Stork, intrigued, reached out to other scientists, including a neurologist, Dr. Ronald Chervin, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Michigan. And what Chervin explained threw my whole understanding of the sleep/pee dynamic into chaos.

“For one thing, we can’t be sure what comes first, the enuresis or the dream,” Chervin said. “Sleeping in a wet bed could engender the dream, just like—as we often assume—a dream of urinating could trigger the bed wetting.” He explained that enuresis can occur at any stage of sleep, not just REM sleep, “when the more vivid and elaborate dreams occur.”

Well, this was shocking. I was peeing, then dreaming? I was peeing while dreaming? (In that 1961 study, it turns out, most of the subjects’ bed wetting occurred after they were dreaming.) Was my (and little David’s) surefire way to avoid bed wetting actually not as surefire as we believed? “The long and the short of it is, we don’t know,” said Chervin. The dreaming brain is still mostly a black box, it seems, and scientists are busy trying to puzzle out the basic origin and meaning of dreams—they’re not really trying to work out what, specifically, a dream of endlessly peeing, in the bathroom of a submerged submarine, while seawater slowly rises around my legs, has to do with anything.

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“Almost every child eventually grows out of it,” Stork told me, estimating that 1 to 2 percent of adults experience nocturnal enuresis. I grew out of it. So did little David, who grew up into Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of Minari­, who has not made his new film’s launch into a personal chronicle of adult bed wetting or anything. These days, thank goodness, the hero of Minari dreams only of Oscar gold.

Correction, Feb. 17, 2021: This story misidentified the university where Stork is a clinical professor of urology. He works at the University of Michigan, not Michigan State.

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