The content of dreams: Methodologic and theoretical implications

G. William Domhoff

University of California, Santa Cruz

NOTE: If you use this paper in research, please use the following citation, as this on-line version is simply a reprint of the original article:
Domhoff, G. W. (2005). The content of dreams: Methodologic and theoretical implications. In M. H. Kryger, T. Roth, & W. C. Dement (Eds.), Principles and Practies of Sleep Medicine (4th Ed., pp. 522-534). Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.


Drawing on both laboratory and non-laboratory studies, this chapter reports on what is known and generally agreed upon about the nature of dream content in the general adult population in industrialized democracies, suggesting that for the most part dreams are a reasonable simulation of waking life in terms of characters, social interactions, activities, and settings. However, there is no consensus on the degree to which dreams are characterized by emotionality or bizarreness, owing to methodological problems in studying these issues. There are developmental changes in dream content until late adolescence, when dream content becomes surprisingly stable and consistent throughout adulthood and old age. There are relatively few differences between the dreams of mental patients and normal adults, except for the low levels of friends and friendly interactions in the dreams of some patient groups. Samples of dreams from societies all over the world, including many pre-industrial ones, find that there are more similarities than differences in dream content, but there are also large individual differences that have been linked to the dreamer's concerns and interests in waking life. The several methodological pitfalls in doing replicable studies of dream content are discussed. The ways in which clinical research could contribute to a better theoretical understanding of dreams are mentioned.


This chapter reviews systematic findings on normative dream content to provide baselines and methodological strategies for future research in clinical and non-clinical settings. It begins with what is known about dream content from quantitative studies of REM reports collected after awakenings in the sleep laboratory, briefly mentions the similarities and differences between REM and NREM reports, and then considers results based on several different comparisons of laboratory and home dream reports. The lab-home comparisons set the stage for an examination of dream reports collected from large samples of young adults outside the laboratory setting, which in turn provides a basis for discovering any differences based on age, mental health status, and culture. It is then possible to analyze the wide range of individual variation in dream content that is revealed through quantitative studies of individual dream series, and to relate these variations to waking thought and behavior. Highly atypical dreams, such as those that make a lasting impression on the dreamer, also can be best assessed within this normative context. The methodological implications of these general findings for future studies are presented at relevant places throughout the chapter, and the implications for theories of dreaming are briefly considered in the final section.

Since the emphasis is on replicated findings where there is widespread agreement, studies using small sample sizes, samples of uncertain quality, or rating scales of unknown reliability and validity are not considered. Critiques of these and other shortcomings in the literature on dream content can be found elsewhere.(Domhoff, 1996; Domhoff, 1999) However, despite the focus on generally accepted findings, disparate results due to unresolved methodological problems are addressed for two content categories of importance to theories of dreaming--those for coding emotions and for coding dream elements that are unusual or unrealistic by waking standards (often called "bizarre" elements in the dream literature).

There is no consensus on what distinguishes "dreaming" from other cognitive processes, such as thinking or daydreaming, nor on what constitutes "dream content." (Pagel et al., 2001) For purposes of this chapter, dreaming is defined as a sequence of perceptions, thoughts, and emotions during sleep that is experienced as a series of actual events; the nature of these events, the dream content, only can be known to investigators in the form of a verbal or written report. The kind of empirical studies discussed in this chapter reveal that the events of a dream always include the dreamer as an observer or participant, and that they almost always include at least one other character besides the dreamer (either a person or an animal). In addition, the dreamer or the other characters in the dreams are invariably engaged in one or another activity (e.g., looking, walking, running) or a social interaction. Thus, the sense of participation in an event, along with characters, activities, and social interactions, is what distinguishes dreams from the more fleeting, fragmented, and/or thought-like forms of sleep mentation.

Dream Reports From Laboratory Awakenings

Perhaps the most comprehensive study of REM dream content in the sleep laboratory is based on 635 dream reports collected "for a variety of experimental purposes" in a series of investigations over a period of seven years between 1960 and 1967 (Snyder, 1970, p. 127; Snyder, Karacan, Tharp, & Scott, 1968). The 58 young adult men and women who participated in these studies were awakened on 250 nights in two different laboratories, one at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, the other at the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. Owing to the varying purposes of the original investigations, some participants were simply asked to report anything they remembered upon awakening. Others were questioned in detail about what they recalled, a procedure that tended to produce longer dream reports. Still others, 20 male students taking part in an investigation of the sequence of dream emotions, were questioned at each awakening for details about any emotional accompaniments of the dream.

The investigators defined a dream report by specifying that "the subject's words must clearly convey an experience of complex and organized perceptual imagery," which also must have "undergone some temporal process or change" (Snyder, 1970, p. 129). They thereby excluded the isolated visual images, fragmented auditory recall, and thoughts that are also part of the more general category of sleep mentation. This definition is very similar to the one adopted for the purposes of this chapter. Based on this definition, 75% of the awakenings led to dream recall. The reports were divided into short (less than 150 words), medium (150-300 words), and long (over 300 words) sets as a control for length.

Although there were some small differences due to word length, the overall finding was that "dreaming consciousness" is "a remarkably faithful replica of waking life" (Snyder, 1970, p. 133). For example, 38% of the settings were familiar to the dreamers, and another 43% were similar to places they knew (the remaining 19% of reports, most of them of short length, did not mention a setting). Of the identified settings, only 5% were "exotic," in the sense of highly unusual or out of the ordinary, and less than 1% were "fantastic," in the sense of unrealistic (Snyder, 1970, p. 134). Ninety-five percent of the dreams contained at least one other character in addition to the dreamer. The most frequent activity was talking, which appeared in 86% of the medium-length reports and 100% of the long reports. By contrast, "active exertion" (e.g., running, playing a sport, fighting) occurred in only 15-20%. Using a conservative standard to guard against imputing any emotions to the dreamers, specific emotions were judged to be present in only 30-35% of the reports, with unpleasant emotions outnumbering pleasant ones by 2 to 1. Anxiety and anger were the most frequent types of emotions; erotic feelings occurred in only 8 (1.3%) of the 635 reports (Snyder, 1970. p. 141).

The investigators made a series of ratings for coherence (does the narrative hold together as a story), dramatic quality (are the events outside the ordinary gamut of waking life), credibility (are the events conceivable, even if unlikely), and bizarreness (are any events "outside the conceivable expectations of waking life"). They found that 60-80% were highly coherent on a three point scale, as compared with less than 5% that were rated as low on coherence. Three-fourths had a "nil" or "low" degree of drama on a four-point scale, and less than 10% were high on drama. Fully 65% of the dream reports were rated as highly creditable, and another 25% as of medium credibility; about 8% were rated as low on credibility and 2% as having no credibility. In keeping with the findings on credibility, the dreams were rated as having a low degree of bizarreness. Focusing here on the longest reports because they were more frequently rated as bizarre, 50% were rated as having no bizarreness, 30% as having a low degree of bizarreness, 8% as having a medium degree, and 2% as having a high degree (Snyder, 1970, p. 145-146).

The researchers also made a search for "typical" dreams, which are defined by certain common themes that many people report they have experienced in response to questionnaires, such as failing an examination, appearing partially dressed in public (with feelings of great embarrassment), suddenly losing teeth, flying under one's own power, falling through space, and finding money (Nielsen et al., 2003). They discovered that typical dreams were not very frequent in their sample: only 11 dreams related to examinations, none of which involved failure, and only 10 mentioned any degree of nudity, none of which included any embarrassment. The loss of teeth occurred in three dreams, and flying, falling, and finding money made one appearance each (Snyder, 1970, p. 148).

Based on their wide range of findings, the authors conclude that dreams as they have defined them are very different from what is commonly believed in psychiatry and popular culture. They characterized a prototypical REM dream report as a "clear, coherent, and detailed account of a realistic situation involving the dreamer and other people caught up in very ordinary activities and preoccupations, and usually talking about them" (Snyder, 1970, p. 148). Overall, they believe that as many as "90% would have been considered credible descriptions of everyday experience" (Snyder et al., 1968, p. 375).

The apparent lack of highly unusual dream content in REM reports was investigated in more detail in a study of 16 young adult women who spent two consecutive nights each in the lab and answered questions about the familiarity and likelihood of specific dream elements after an average of four REM awakenings per night (Dorus, Dorus, & Rechtschaffen, 1971). Based on the categories of the Hall and Van de Castle coding system, which was designed specifically for the study of dream content, the contents were categorized as (1) physical surroundings (settings and objects); (2) characters (humans, animals, and creatures); or (3) activities (physical, expressive, verbal, and cognitive) and social interactions (aggressive, friendly, and sexual) (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966). Then, each type of element was placed in one of six nominal categories for types of "novelty." Three of the categories ranged from the exact replication of the dreamers' reality to large but plausible differences from their waking experience; the other three categories ranged from previously unexperienced but realistic elements to elements that are fantastic or improbable. Using the percentage of perfect agreement between two coders as their measure of reliability for these difficult judgments, the reliability for their novelty scale was 94.6% for characters, 84.5% for physical surroundings, 64.3% for activities and social interactions, and 53.1% for ratings of the overall dream (Dorus et al., 1971, p. 366).

The investigators concluded that their results "emphasize the rarity of the bizarre in dreams" because major distortions of actual waking experiences reach a high of only 16.7% of all the activities and social interactions, and of 6.2% and 7.8% for all characters and physical surroundings (Dorus et al., 1971, p. 367). The figures for the most improbable category of event never experienced by the dreamer in waking life were 4.9% of all physical surroundings, 1.3% of all characters, and 6.8% of all activities and social interactions. When they carried out global ratings of each dream for overall novelty, they found that 25.8% showed large but plausible differences from previous waking experiences and that 8.9% were highly improbable by waking standards.

Turning again to the issue of emotions initially addressed in the Bethesda/Brooklyn study, it was first investigated in great depth in the sleep lab in a study of 17 young adults (9 women, 8 men) over two nonconsecutive nights, with a mean of six REM awakenings per participant. The participants were quizzed in detail after each awakening as to the presence of emotions and the appropriateness of the emotion to the content. Drawing on ratings by both participants and na•ve judges, it was concluded that about 70% of the dream reports had at least some affect (Foulkes, Sullivan, Kerr, & Brown, 1988), a much higher figure than in the Bethesda/Brooklyn study, but one that is supported in later studies of REM reports (Fosse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 2001b; Strauch & Meier, 1996). The type of emotion, or lack thereof, was appropriate to the dream situation in 60% of the dreams. However, there was no emotion in 17% of the cases where there would have been some in a similar waking situation, and the presence of dream emotion in 3.2% where there would have been none in waking life. The investigators concluded that emotions are generally appropriate in dreams, with the major anomaly being the absence of emotion when it would have been present in waking life.

Another comprehensive laboratory investigation of emotions used 500 REM dream reports from 44 participants (26 women, 18 men), who spent a total of 161 nights in the laboratory. Participants were asked after each awakening about the presence of any specific emotions and the nature of the overall feeling or mood of the dream. Specific emotions were present in 50% of the reports, a general mood was present in 23%, and no emotion was present in 26%. In terms of the specific emotions, negative feelings appeared twice as often as positive ones, but a positive feeling tone was 2.5 times more frequent in those dreams with an overall mood (Strauch & Meier, 1996, p. 93). This disparity between the negativity of specific emotions, as judged by content analysts, and the positive (pleasant) nature of general feeling tone, as rated by the dreamers themselves, will be encountered again later in the chapter.

Taken together, these detailed descriptive studies provide a consistent picture of REM dream reports as portraying a reasonable simulation of the dreamer's waking world. The dream scenario is original, but not usually fantastic, and the emotions are generally appropriate to the situation when they are present. This picture is supported by other studies that will be discussed later in the chapter when the results of studies comparing laboratory and home dream reports are presented.

Several laboratory studies have probed for any changes that might occur in dream content from REM period to REM period, uncovering very few replicable differences. Ratings by the dreamers themselves in one study found there is some increase in clarity, intensity and vividness from the brief first REM period to later REM periods (Foulkes, 1966, p. 92-94). A study with five participants found one difference among many comparisons: more references to the past in late-night REM periods (Verdone, 1965). However, that result could not be replicated in a large-scale study based on 332 REM reports from 11 young adult male participants (Hall, 1966b). Another study reported there may be somewhat more bizarre elements in later REM periods (Dorus et al., 1971), but that result was not supported in a larger study of 342 REM reports that found no differences through the first four sleep cycles of the night (Natale & Esposito, 2001).

Employing categories for settings, characters, activities, social interactions, and emotions, both quantitative and qualitative analyses find few or no differences from REM to REM when corrections are made for the length of report (Domhoff & Kamiya, 1964b; Fosse et al., 2001b). In the most comprehensive study of this issue, there were two minor differences among 26 analyses employing Hall/Van de Castle categories for the first four REM periods, whether they were nights with single or multiple awakenings, and there were no differences with spontaneously recalled dreams that came from night or morning REM self-awakenings (Hall, 1966b). However, there may be some degree of thematic continuity from REM to REM on a few nights. In a study of 36 nights of REM reports from 24 participants, for example, six nights contained a repeated theme (Strauch & Meier, 1996, p. 206).

REM And NREM Dream Reports

As is well known, there were indications in early laboratory studies that dreaming occurs almost exclusively in REM, but since then there have been many comparisons of REM and NREM reports that seem to contradict that initial assumption (Antrobus, 1983; Foulkes, 1962; Foulkes & Schmidt, 1983; Herman, Ellman, & Roffwarg, 1978; Kamiya, 1961; Rechtschaffen, Verdone, & Wheaton, 1963). Most of these studies have been summarized in several places, including a chapter in this volume (Foulkes, 1985; Nielsen, 2000). These comparisons agree that dreams, when defined in much the same way as they are for purposes of this chapter, are more frequent and longer during REM periods. Most studies conclude that many NREM reports seem to be "thoughts," not dreams. In fact, NREM reports are more often a continuation of waking thoughts and memories, whereas there are few episodic memories in REM or home dream reports (Baylor & Cavallero, 2001; Fosse, Fosse, Hobson, & Stickgold, 2003).

However, there are three caveats that need to be added to this quick characterization. First, most -- although probably not all -- of these differences disappear when there is a control for length (Antrobus, 1983; Foulkes & Schmidt, 1983; Hobson, Pace-Schott, & Stickgold, 2000).. Second, the differences that remain relate to a greater character density in REM reports, which in turn leads to the possibility of social interactions (Domhoff & Schneider, 1999; Foulkes & Schmidt, 1983). Third, there is evidence that NREM reports late in the sleep period are more similar to REM reports than are NREM reports from the first few hours of sleep (Antrobus, Kondo, & Reinsel, 1995; Cicogna, Natale, Occhionero, & Bosinelli, 1998; Domhoff & Schneider, 1999, p. 149). In the most recent study of this kind, the thought-like nature of NREM decreased by 56% and the hallucinatory nature increased by 62%, leading to the conclusion that "as the night progresses, NREM approaches the neurocognitive characteristics of REM" (Fosse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 2004, p. 302).

The similarities in dream content between REM and late-night NREM reports, when combined with the fact that there are similarities in dream content from REM to REM, suggests that a representative sample of people's dream life, as defined in this chapter, can be collected at any time beginning with the third REM period, when participants are more likely to be alert and cooperative upon awakening. This suggestion is also supported by a study showing a high degree of recall from NREM awakenings at the end of the sleep period (Cicogna et al., 1998). This is a highly useful conclusion because it makes the collection of dream reports in the laboratory less stressful and also more efficient in terms of good recall.

Laboratory and Home Dream Comparisons

The credible nature of most laboratory dream reports raises the possibility that there might be substantial differences between them and more bizarre dreams remembered at home--perhaps owing to an inhibitory effect from the laboratory setting, or the differences in method of reporting in the two settings (spoken versus written), or selective recall at home (forgetting small details and highlighting emotionally salient or anomalous elements), or some combination of these factors. However, several careful investigations reveal that there are relatively few differences between home and laboratory dream reports even when these differences are not perfectly controlled (Domhoff & Schneider, 1999; Heynick & deJong, 1985; Hunt, Ogilvie, Belicki, Belicki, & Atalick, 1982; Strauch & Meier, 1996). Furthermore, most of these differences disappear when the proper controls are introduced (Foulkes, 1979; Weisz & Foulkes, 1970). The one exception to this generalization seems to be hostile and aggressive dream elements, which occur more frequently in the home dream reports of young adults in three different studies (Domhoff & Kamiya, 1964a; Domhoff & Schneider, 1999; Weisz & Foulkes, 1970).

The largest and most detailed comparison of lab and home reports used written reports from home, which are usually shorter than transcribed lab reports. However, with corrections for length using the Hall/Van de Castle indicators for 21 categories of dream content, there were only four statistically significant differences between 120 home dreams and 272 lab dreams from eight young adult males who recalled at least 34 lab dreams and 15 home dreams. The percent of characters that were animals was higher in the home dreams, as were three aggression indicators. More specifically in terms of aggressions, there was a higher percentage of dream reports with at least one aggression; a higher rate of aggressions per character; and a higher percentage of aggressions that were physical in nature, as defined by destruction of personal property, chases, physical attacks, and murders. The effect sizes for these statistically significant differences were in the small or medium range, except in the case of the physical aggressions percent, which showed a large magnitude of difference (Domhoff & Schneider, 1999).

The higher frequency of aggression in home dream reports supports the concern that there is some selective recall in everyday dream reports. Even here, however, it is noteworthy that 44% of the dreams did not contain any form of aggression, whether physical or nonphysical, and 72% were without any physical aggression. These findings are fairly similar to those with a normative sample of home dreams from young adult men that is discussed later in the chapter, where 53% of the reports had no form of aggression and 74% had no physical aggression (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966). If home dream reports have a strong bias for atypical elements, then it might be predicted that there would be a much larger number of sexual dreams, but only 9% of the home reports in this study contained as much as a sensual hug or kiss, as compared with 5% of the laboratory reports.

These findings on the relatively small differences between home and laboratory dreams may be explainable in terms of the results from laboratory studies that compare what is reported from REM awakenings with what is still remembered in the morning (Baekland & Lasky, 1968; Meier, Ruef, Zeigler, & Hall, 1968; Trinder & Kramer, 1971). Such studies reveal that recency and length of report are the primary factors in later recall, which at home would lead to a representative sample of nightly dream content given the lack of content differences from REM to REM and between REM and late-night NREM. However, some of these studies also show that intensity can be a tertiary factor in morning recall, which suggests there is some selection bias toward the everyday recall of more emotionally salient content.

All in all, the findings presented in this section demonstrate that new ideas can be tested with representative samples of dream content collected outside the laboratory, but it also must be stressed that empirical studies show there are numerous obstacles to obtaining such reports. They have to be collected with a standardized reporting form, and participants must be given ample time to respond. Otherwise, brief and hasty reports consisting of a phrase or a few sentences are often provided. Systematic comparisons with longer reports suggest that reports of less than 50 words, far below the average laboratory report length, are usually too brief to describe dream content adequately, and are often discarded before any analysis is made (Domhoff, 2003, pp. 79-84). In addition, it takes at least 75 to 125 reports from a group or individual for good quantitative studies because some dream elements appear too infrequently for adequate statistical analysis with fewer reports. For normative studies of groups, it is essential to ask for the "Most Recent Dream" people can recall to keep samples comparable to laboratory dream reports. If recency is not emphasized, the sample is likely to include many recurrent or highly memorable dreams, some of which may stem from childhood (Domhoff, 1996, p. 67). Such dreams are interesting in and of themselves, but it is first necessary to have a solid picture of everyday dream life in order to understand them more fully. The collection of dream reports outside the laboratory also can be facilitated by the use of the Nightcap, a computer-based home awakening system that uses the presence of eye movements and absence of head movements to detect REM sleep, and then sends an awakening auditory signal to the dreamer; it already has proven useful in a study of 16 participants over a period of 14 nights each (Fosse et al., 2001b; Fosse et al., 2004).

Normative Dream Content in Home Dreams

As might be expected from the results of the laboratory-home comparisons, studies of large samples of dream content collected from young college-educated adults outside the laboratory show many similarities with the laboratory results when the same or comparable content categories are employed. In retrospect, it turns out that this point was first demonstrated as early as the 1890s in careful investigations of their own dreams by academic psychologists of the introspectionist school (Calkins, 1893; Weed & Hallam, 1896). As the lead investigator in the Bethesda/Brooklyn laboratory investigation of 635 REM dream reports concluded, their findings "only confirm the findings of Calkins in 1893" (Snyder, 1970, p. 150).

The most systematic research on large samples of this kind has been done using the same Hall/Van de Castle coding categories employed in several of the laboratory investigations described earlier. The system, which has 10 general categories that cover everything from characters to types of activities to such descriptive elements as intensity, size, and temperature, relies on the nominal level of measurement due to problems of both reliability and psychological validity with rating scales. The raw frequencies are analyzed using percentages and ratios to correct for the varying length of dream reports from sample to sample. Normative findings with 500 dream reports from 100 men and another 500 from 100 women reveal a pattern of gender differences that need to be taken into account when doing studies of individuals (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966).

For instance, men and women differ in the percentage of gendered characters who are men and women, with men having a male/female percent of 67/33 and women 48/52. Aggression, defined as a desire, intention, or action to annoy or harm some other character, is the most frequent type of social interaction in dreams, occurring at least once in 47% of men's dreams and 44% of women's. Although men and women are about the same in terms of the percentage of dreams in which aggression occurs, men have a higher rate of aggressions per character, and a much higher percentage of their aggressions are physical in nature. The magnitude of these and other differences is calculated with the h statistic, which corrects for the fact that standard deviations cannot be determined with data expressed in percentages (Domhoff, 1996, Appendix D). The dream reports used in creating the normative sample, as well as the codings for them, are available to researchers through www.dreambank.net (Schneider & Domhoff, 1999).

Emotions, which are placed into five categories (apprehension, anger, sadness, confusion, and happiness), can be coded only if they are explicitly expressed. By this strict criterion, emotions are present in 41% of men's dreams and 57% of women's. This figure is somewhat larger than what was reported in the Bethesda/Brooklyn study (Snyder, 1970), but well below the figure of 70-75% for three REM-based studies mentioned earlier in the chapter (Fosse et al., 2001b; Foulkes et al., 1988; Strauch & Meier, 1996). The most frequent of these emotions for both men and women is apprehension, which accounts for just over a third of all dream emotions, followed by happiness and confusion, which each account for about a fifth of all emotions. Overall, a great majority of the specific emotions in dream reports are negative for both men and women, a conclusion that has been replicated in four studies (Merritt, Stickgold, Pace-Schott, Williams, & Hobson, 1994; Roussy, Raymond, & De Koninck, 2000b; Tonay, 1990/1991; Strauch & Meier, 1996).

The general Hall/Van de Castle norms can be used with confidence for a variety of purposes because they have been replicated for males and females at the University of Richmond in 1981, for women at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985, for women at Salem College in the late 1980s, and women at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the early 1990s (Domhoff, 1996; Dudley & Swank, 1990; Hall, Domhoff, Blick, & Weesner, 1982; Tonay, 1990/1991). The results with these predominantly Anglo students also seem to generalize to Mexican-American college students in the Southwest according to three studies in the 1970s and 1990s. Although two of these three studies used their own rating systems, not the Hall/Van De Castle system, they found a similar pattern of gender similarities and differences on key elements (Brenneis & Roll, 1976; Kane, Mellen, Patten, & Samano, 1993; Kern & Roll, 2001). Generally speaking, then, there is reason to believe that there has been little or no change in the dream life of American college students over the past 50 years.

The findings also are broadly similar to what has been reported in investigations of Canadian, Dutch, Swiss, and German college-educated adults, although there are fewer physical aggressions in the dreams of the Dutch and Swiss samples (Schredl, Sahin, & Schaefer, 1998; Strauch & Meier, 1996; Waterman, Dejong, & Magdelijns, 1988; Lortie-Lussier, Simond, Rinfret, & De Koninck, 1992; Rinfret, Lortie-Lussier, & de Koninck, 1991). Dream content is also more similar than different for college students in two large industrialized societies outside of Europe and North America -- India and Japan (Bose, 1983; Prasad, 1982; Yamanaka, Morita, & Matsumoto, 1982).

Typical dreams, those with themes common to many people, have been studied in large samples outside the laboratory, where they turn out to be as rare as they are in the laboratory. A canvas of 983 dream reports from two-week journals provided by 126 students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, discovered that virtually none of ten typical dreams occurred more than a few times. For example, there were only five flying dreams in the two-week sample, 0.5% of the total. The figures for several other typical dreams were even lower. Two people dreamed of finding money, two became lost, two were taking an examination, one lost his teeth, and one fell (Domhoff, 1996, p. 198). A study based on 1,910 dream reports from students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, reported a similar low figure for flying dreams; 17 participants reported 22 flying dreams, 1.2% of the total dream report sample (Barrett, 1991). The similarity of these findings to those reported in laboratory studies is further evidence that carefully collected home dream reports can provide samples reasonably similar to those obtained from awakenings in the sleep laboratory.

Problems in Studying Emotions in Dreams

Although there is widespread agreement with the Hall/Van de Castle findings on the extent to which various settings, characters, social interactions, activities, and objects appear in dreams, there are disagreements on both the pleasantness and frequency of emotions in dreams, owing to methodological difficulties alluded to at the beginning of the chapter. As already noted, several different studies using blind coders find that negative emotions outnumber positive ones (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966; Merritt et al., 1994; Roussy et al., 2000b; Snyder, 1970; Tonay, 1990/1991), However, very different results emerge when the dreamers themselves make a global rating of each of their dream reports on a pleasant-unpleasant dimension. Such studies regularly find that the dreamers rate the emotions in their dreams as at least equally pleasant and unpleasant, and sometimes as more pleasant.

This contrast is demonstrated in one of the earliest studies using both approaches. The content analyst concluded that 64% of the explicitly expressed emotions in a sample of 1,000 home dream reports were negative or unpleasant, and that only 18% expressed happiness, but the dreamers rated their dreams as more pleasant than unpleasant by a margin of 41% to 25%, with 11% judged as mixed (Hall, 1951, p. 62). Significantly, the dreamers also said that 23% of the dreams were without feeling tone, which is not much lower than the finding of no affect in 30% and 26% of the dreams in three REM-based studies mentioned earlier in the chapter (Fosse et al., 2001b; Foulkes et al., 1988; Strauch & Meier, 1996). The contrast between the two types of findings in this early home study is similar to the findings in a more recent laboratory study of 500 REM dreams cited earlier, which showed that the specific emotions were negative by 2:1 according to coders, but positive in general mood according to the dreamers themselves by 2.5:1 (Strauch & Meier, 1996). Later studies report the same tendency for dreamers to rate their home dreams as more pleasant than unpleasant (Fosse et al., 2001b; Schredl & Doll, 1998; Kahn, Pace-Schott, & Hobson, 2002; Kahn & Hobson, 2002). There is no ready explanation for these contrasting results with the two different methods, which has been a hindrance in drawing theoretical conclusions about emotions in dreams.

Dreamers also tend to attribute many more emotions to their home dreams than do blind judges when they are asked to recall the emotions that accompanied the report they have written down (Kahn et al., 2002; Kahn & Hobson, 2002; Merritt et al., 1994). However, based on the REM-report finding that only about 70-75% of dream reports have any affect, it is an open question in need of further study as to whether or not this greater amount of emotions in self-ratings of home dream reports is the result of two extrinsic factors: the demand characteristics of such a rating task, and the waking-life assumption that certain emotions would logically be present in many of the situations experienced in the dream. This may be especially the case where the dreams and ratings were obtained as part of "a graded class exercise," even though students were told that they could obtain dreams from the instructor if they did not remember their dreams (Kahn & Hobson, 2002; Kahn et al., 2002, p. 35). Perhaps it will prove useful to do both blind analyses and dreamer self-ratings for emotions in future studies, but it needs to be clear that so far the two approaches yield different results.

Problems in Studying Bizarreness in Dreams

There is also disagreement among content analysts on an issue not addressed by the Hall/Van de Castle coding system: the extent to which bizarreness is a facet of dreaming. In studies that focus on clearly impossible events, the figure is 10% or below for large samples of both REM and home dreams (Domhoff & Schneider, 1999; Dorus et al., 1971; Snyder, 1970). When sudden scene changes, uncertainties, and small distortions are included, the figure rises to between 30 and 60 percent, which is somewhat comparable to the finding for overall ratings for the most unusual elements in the detailed laboratory study of bizarreness discussed earlier in the chapter (Bonato, Moffitt, Hoffmann, & Cuddy, 1991; Revonsuo & Salmivalli, 1995; Rittenhouse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 1994; Dorus et al., 1971). With a six-point rating scale based on the degree to which any dimension of the dream differs from waking experience and behavior, including such deviations from social norms as murder and leaving the scene of an accident, 75% of 500 REM reports from young adult men and women had at least one bizarre aspect, as compared with 7 to 8% that were bizarre in three or more ways (Strauch & Meier, 1996, pp. 95-103). Given these widely disparate results, there is not much chance of resolving these differences until there is agreement on categories that can be used with higher reliability than has been achieved with most bizarreness scales.

Group Differences: Age, Mental Patients, and Small Non-Industrial Societies

The findings on the dream content of young college-educated adults in industrialized societies provide a normative basis for a variety of group comparisons concerning age, mental health, and membership in the small non-industrial societies studied by anthropologists.

Age Differences

There appear to be major changes in dream content from the pre-school to teen years, but few changes from the late teens to old age. Dream content thus seems to parallel cognitive and emotional development during childhood as well as the stability of adult personality.

Much of what is known in a systematic way about children's dreams comes from a classic longitudinal laboratory study of children between the ages of 3 and 15, supplemented by a cross-sectional laboratory replication a few years later with children ages 5-8 (Foulkes, 1982; Foulkes, Hollifield, Sullivan, Bradley, & Terry, 1990). More recently, a 5-year longitudinal laboratory study of Swiss children ages 9-15 has provided additional supporting information (Strauch, 2003b). However, as shown shortly when the home-reported dreams of children are discussed, there are larger differences between the lab and home dreams of children than there are for adults.

The first longitudinal study involved two groups of children who slept in the laboratory every other year for nine non-consecutive nights over a 5-year period. The first group was between 3 and 4 years of age when the study started. The second group was between 9 and 10. The study began with a total of 30 children in the two groups; six boys ages 11 to 12 were added at the start of the third year, and seven girls ages 7 to 8 were added at the start of the fifth year. In all, 46 children were studied--26 for all 5 years, 34 for at least 3 years, and 43 for at least 1 complete year. The investigator made 2,711 awakenings over the 5-year period.

The most unexpected finding was the low amount of recall from REM periods in the 3 to 5 year olds (only 27% of the REM awakenings yielded any recall that could reasonably be called a dream), and the static, bland, and underdeveloped content of the few reports that were obtained. The reports became more "dreamlike" (in terms of characters, themes, and actions) in the 5 to 7 year-olds, but it was not until the children were 11 to 13 years old that their dreams began to resemble those of adult laboratory participants in frequency, length, emotions, and overall structure, or to show any relationship to personality (Foulkes, 1982, p. 217).

Animals were the primary characters in the dreams of the pre-school children; they also appeared in 38% of the REM reports from 5-7 year-olds, with a gradual decline to the low levels of adulthood beginning at 7-9. With the people who did appear, the same differences in male/female percent found in young adultd were present from the outset--70/30 for boys between 3 and 9, 51/49 for girls in the same age range (Hall, 1984). "Hostile attacks" were virtually absent from the dreams of the pre-schoolers, and were present in only one of four dream reports for both boys and girls between ages 5-7. All but one of these attacks was initiated by some character other than the dreamer, and the dreamer was rarely the victim. The same low level of attacks was found at age 7-9, although some of the acts were now initiated by the dreamer--in 9% of the girls' dreams and 4% of the boys' (Foulkes, 1982).

During the preadolescent and adolescent years, there was a general decline in dreaming about family members for both genders, but the girls tended to be in home or residential settings more often than the boys. Between 11 and 13, positive social interactions outweighed "antisocial" interactions by 2:1, with a slight increase in antisocial interactions between 13 and 15 and with girls showing a greater amount of victimization in such interactions.

The cross-sectional replication study focused on 10 boys and 10 girls within 1 month of their 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th birthdays because the most dramatic changes in the longitudinal study seemed to occur during this age period. These 80 children were awakened 10 times each over a period of three nonconsecutive nights for a total of 800 awakenings. All of the main original findings were supported. The median rate of reporting was only 20% for all age groups. The imagery in the dreams was more static than dynamic until age 7, and the child's "self" character did not tend to take an active role in the dreams until age 8 (Foulkes et al., 1990). As with young adult dreams, there were more characters in the girls' dreams, and there was the same gender difference in the percentage of male and female characters. There were no failures, few negative emotions, and very few misfortunes. There were few aggressive or friendly interactions, with more friendliness in the girls' reports (Domhoff, 1996, p. 94).

The recent longitudinal study of Swiss children ages 9-15 involved 12 boys and 12 girls who slept in the laboratory for three nonconsecutive nights every other year and provided a total of 551 REM reports. The results were generally similar to those for preadolescents and adolescents in the earlier longitudinal study, and there were only relatively small changes in most categories over the 6-year period. Except for a decline in the animal percent, there was consistency over time in most character categories, such as the percent of familiar characters, along with the usual gender differences in the male/female percent. The percentage of dreams with at least one instance of aggression fluctuated between 24 and 28 for the boys and went from 18 to 31 for the girls. The percentage of dreams with at least one instance of friendliness went from 16 to 18 to 24 for the boys and varied from 28 to 20 to 23 for the girls. The largest change was a decline in bizarreness for both boys and girls, as defined by degrees of deviation from waking experience and social norms; just over 60% of the dream reports had at least some degree of bizarreness at ages 9-11 and 11-13, but the figure fell to 41% at ages 13-15 (Strauch, 2003b).

When these laboratory findings for children and teenagers are compared with those from studies of home reports provided by children (Avila-White, Schneider, & Domhoff, 1999; Resnick, Stickgold, Rittenhouse, & Hobson, 1994; Saline, 1999), there are far greater differences in terms of unusual characters, aggression, and unlikely events than is the case in comparisons of laboratory and home dreams for adults. This generalization includes the home dream reports that were collected as part of the longitudinal study of 9-15 year-old children in Switzerland, which had significantly more instances of friendliness, aggression, and bizarreness than did the laboratory reports (Strauch, 2003b). However, the original longitudinal study of young children did include a separate study where children slept in the laboratory but were not awakened, as well as a home versus laboratory dream comparison, which together led to the conclusion that any differences were due to selective recall of more salient dreams from spontaneous morning recall in the lab or at home (Foulkes, 1979).

In contrast to the apparent changes in dream content from childhood to adolescence, dream content is extremely stable in terms of characters, social interactions, and most other dream elements after age 18 according to cross-sectional studies in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland (Brenneis, 1975; Cote, Lortie-Lussier, Roy, & DeKoninck, 1996; Hall & Domhoff, 1963; Hall & Domhoff, 1964; Strauch, 2003a; Zepelin, 1980). The elderly recalled fewer dreams in one large longitudinal study (Giambra, Jung, & Grodsky, 1996), but their dream content remained generally the same -- except perhaps in terms of aggression, where three different studies suggest a decline (Brenneis, 1975; Hall & Domhoff, 1963; Zepelin, 1980). A comparison of the results from two separate studies of how college-age and elderly women (59-87 years) rated the emotionality of their dream reports supports the idea that there is a decline in aggressive/hostile dream content in older adults (Howe & Blick, 1983; Stairs & Blick, 1979). Both sets of women wrote down 5 dreams over a period of 6 weeks and rated each dream on a 10-item emotional checklist. Anger-rage and fear-terror were checked less often in relation to the dream reports of the elderly; enjoyment-joy accounted for a higher proportion of emotions related to the dream reports of the elderly.

The Dream Reports of Mental Patients

There have been many studies of dream content in various psychiatric populations over the past 100 years, but most of them are anecdotal in nature, use untested coding systems, or include only small numbers of patients, so there are few consistent findings (Kramer & Roth, 1979). There are several likely reasons for why the findings on psychiatric patients have been so meager and inconsistent. There may be variation from hospital to hospital in how patients are diagnosed and classified. Patients within the same diagnostic categories may have been in different phases of their illnesses. The possible effects of medication or hospitalization on dream content usually are not controlled. Most of all, patients may be too heavily medicated, withdrawn, or resistant to provide full and accurate accounts of their dreams.

Moreover, there may not be very many large differences between normal dream content and what mental patients dream about, as seen in a study of 211 dream reports collected from 50 male patients who were grouped into four diagnostic categories: five patients who were both schizophrenic and alcoholic, 20 patients who were schizophrenic, 15 patients who were alcoholics, and ten patients with a variety of other diagnoses. The dream reports of the four groups were compared with each other and with the Hall/Van de Castle male norms for characters, social interactions, success and failure, misfortune and good fortune, and eating and drinking. The differences among the patient groups were few and unrevealing: dream reports from schizophrenics were shorter, for example, and there were more instances of drinking alcohol and fewer sexual interactions in the alcoholics' dream narratives. Moreover, there were only two differences between the 50 patients as a whole and the Hall/Van de Castle norms, a lower male/female percent and a very low rate of friendly interactions, especially with women (Hall, 1966a).

Low friendliness also was a striking outcome in a study of 27 hospitalized female patients, 15 of whom suffered from schizophrenia and 12 from other types of psychoses (Schnetzler & Carbonel, 1976). A similar result is reported in a study of female outpatients who suffered from high anxiety states (Gentil & Lader, 1978). Findings in a comparison of dream reports from depressed and schizophrenic patients studied in the laboratory reveal a lack of friends in patient dreams as well as a low rate of friendly interactions (Kramer & Roth, 1973). There were more strangers in the schizophrenics' dream reports and more family members in the depressed patients' reports, but the striking commonality is that both groups had a low number of friends as a percentage of all the human characters in the dreams: 18% for schizophrenics and 22% for depressives, as compared to 31% for men and 37% for women in the Hall/Van de Castle norms.

Although the study of four groups of male patients did not reveal any differences on aggression, three studies of female patients suggest they may more often be victims of aggression in their dreams than other women. The study of hospitalized psychotic women just mentioned in terms of low friendliness found that they were more likely to be victims in aggressive interactions, as did the study of anxious women outpatients. In addition, a study of 30 hospitalized female schizophrenics presents evidence for a high degree of both aggression and victimization in a patient population. The patients were mostly new admissions in an acute phase of their illness. None had received electroshock within the previous 3 months. They ranged in age from 15 to 39, with a median age of 19. Compared to a control group of college women in the same age range, the schizophrenics' reports contained more aggression, especially physical aggression against the dreamers (Carrington, 1972).

Dream Reports From Small Non-Industrial Societies

Good anthropological evidence reveals that interest in dreams and the uses to which they are put in religious and medicinal ceremonies vary greatly from culture to culture, with hunting and gathering societies putting more emphasis on dreams than agricultural ones (D'Andrade, 1961). However, contrary to culturalist expectations, there may be as many similarities as differences in dream content, according to several solid studies based on a wide range of cultures.

A detailed ethnographic study of a Mehinaku Indian village of about 80-85 people in the Amazonian rain forests of central Brazil provides the best in-depth look at the dream reports of pre-industrial men and women known personally to the content analyst. Moreover, the traditional Mehinaku way of life was essentially undisturbed when they were studied in the 1970s, and the people liked to remember their dreams and tell them to each other. It was therefore very easy to collect dream reports from them, so most of the adult population of the village participated: men contributed 276 dreams, women 109. The dream reports were coded for physical aggressions and sexuality with categories fairly similar to those in the Hall/Van de Castle system. They were also coded for the degree of activity or passivity, as determined by whether the dreamer initiated actions (active) or only observed or reacted to the actions of other dream characters (passive).

There is more physical aggression in these dreams than in American dream reports, especially with animals, but the gender differences are the same in that men report more physical aggressions than women. Mehinaku are also more likely than Americans to be victims of aggression, but in keeping with the Hall/Van de Castle norms, women are more likely than men to be victims. Sexual thoughts or interactions were present in 13% of the men's reports, which is virtually identical with the Hall/Van de Castle norms, and in 12% of the women's, which is three times higher. In men's sexual dreams there is sometimes a fear of assault by jealous male rivals or angry women lovers. Women's dream reports often express a fear of rape and other violent encounters with sexually aggressive men. Sixty-one percent of the men's dream reports were judged as active and 39% as passive. By way of contrast, 42% of women's dream reports were judged as active and 58% as passive.

The ethnographer concluded that his findings correspond with the waking life of the Mehinaku. There is threat from a wide range of animals and insects, and there is conflict and competition among the men. Most men and women have several lovers as well as a spouse, and women do fear sexual pressures and attacks from men. Moreover, the higher passivity in women's dreams corresponds to their situation in a highly patriarchal social order, where men dominate in the home as well as in the public aspects of village life. At the same time, there are similarities with the Hall/Van de Castle norms, especially in terms of gender similarities and differences, which led to the hypothesis that "with additional cross-cultural data it may be possible to show that the dream experience is less variant than other aspects of culture" (Gregor, 1981, p. 389).

This hypothesis is supported in an analysis of all the dream reports collected through the first six decades of the twentieth century by American and British anthropologists. In over a dozen cultures that are famous in the anthropological literature, including Alor, Baiga, Hopi, Ifaluk, Kwakiutl, Navajo, Tinguians, Truk, and Yir Yoront, there are more similarities than differences. In the case of characters, men always dream more of males than females, and women tend to dream equally of both genders. There are always more single than plural characters, more humans than animals, and more familiar than unfamiliar characters. In the realm of social interactions, the rate of aggressions per character is higher than the friendliness per character rate, with one exception. Dreamers everywhere are more often victims of aggression, with two exceptions, and there is usually more physical than nonphysical aggression. Misfortunes outnumber good fortunes, and there are more negative than positive emotions (Domhoff, 1996, p. 119).

However, there are a few large differences that make sense in terms of the variations from culture to culture. For example, the animal percent ranged from a high of 34% and 31% for the men in two hunting and gathering groups, the Baiga and Yir Yiront, to 6% for Hopi women, who are sedentary agriculturalists, but it was always higher for small non-industrial societies than it is in any industrialized society. There were also significant variations in the percentage of all aggressions that were physical; for male dreamers, the figure ranged from 92% for the Yir Yoront to 86% for the Baiga, 77% for the Navajo, and 40% for the Hopi (the figure is 50% for American men and 29% for Swiss men).

Individual Case Studies

Within the context of the many well-established group findings, individual case studies can be of great value for both research and possible clinical applications because detailed comparisons can be made between specific aspects of dream content and waking thought or behavior. The collection of many such series has been rendered more feasible by the availability of the Nightcap for home awakenings (Fosse et al., 2001b; Fosse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 2001a). Case studies also can be based on blind analyses of extant dream journals kept by individuals for their own reasons--personal, intellectual, or artistic. Such dream journals are a form of personal document long recognized in psychology as having the potential for providing new insights concerning motivation and personality (Allport, 1942; Baldwin, 1942). They have value as nonreactive measures that have not been influenced by the purposes of the investigators who later analyze them. The conclusions drawn from nonreactive archival data are considered most reliable and useful when they are based on a diversity of archives likely to have different sources of potential biases (Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, Sechrest, & Grove, 1981).

Studies of several different dream journals first proved their usefulness for scientific purposes by revealing an unexpected consistency in dream content that stretches from the late teens to old age. People's dream lives vary from day to day and week to week, but consistency in both themes and Hall/Van de Castle coding categories manifests itself through comparisons of hundreds of dream reports and with time spans of months and years (Domhoff, 1996, Chapter 7). The short-term variation in dream content, when combined with the fact that most recalled dreams are soon forgotten, may contribute to the belief that dream contents are unsystematic or highly responsive to daily events.

Analyses of dream journals reveal three kinds of consistency: absolute (the frequency or percentage with which an element appears remains the same year after year), relative (the incidence of one element always exceeds the incidence of another element, even though they both may increase or decrease in frequency), and developmental (there is a consistent increase or decrease from one period of time to the next). Relative consistency is the most frequent kind of consistency in dream series. Absolute constancy occurs slightly less often. Developmental regularities are much less common than the first two.

Absolute constancy over decades is best demonstrated in a study of the male/female percent in the early and late dream reports in 11 different dreams journals (eight from men, three from women), where there was great consistency for periods ranging from a few months to 32 years. The only exception is a woman who wrote down many of her dreams out of personal interest for a period of 50 years; her male/female percent instead showed a developmental regularity, changing from 53/47 in 1912-1933 to 39/61 in 1960-1962, when she was in her 70s, lived in a women's retirement home, and had fewer contacts with men (Domhoff, 1996, p. 150).

Although the male/female percent showed a gradual decline for the woman in the retirement home, the themes in the first 600 of her dream reports remained quite constant. She is eating, preparing to eat, preparing a meal, buying or seeing food, watching someone eat, or mentioning she is hungry in 21% of the dreams. The loss of an object, usually her purse, occurs in 17%. She is in a small or disorderly room, or her room is being invaded by others, in 10% of the dreams, and another 10% involve the dreamer and her mother. She is trying to go to the toilet in 8%, usually being interrupted in the process, and she is late, concerned about being late, or missing a bus or train in 6%. These six themes account for at least part of the content in almost 75% of her dreams (Domhoff, 1996, p. 206).

Three separate studies of discontinuous dream series show that the consistency revealed in continuous dream journals is not the result of practice effects. The largest and most ambitious of the three involved a comparison of two or three dreams from each of 21 women ages 30 to 55 with dreams they had written down for researchers 10, 15, or 17 years earlier. In all, there were 50 dream reports in each sample. Using several different scales, including the major Hall/Van de Castle categories, there were no differences (Lortie-Lussier, Cote, & Vachon, 2000). Similar results were obtained in a small-scale study of the dream reports of a young man who wrote down 40 dreams at age 17, 20 at age 21, and 50 at age 24; the three most unusual features of his dream content--a low male-female percent, a low rate of aggressions per character, and a low physical aggressions percent--were consistent over all three time periods (Schneider & Domhoff, 1995).

The third study compared dream reports written down 34 years apart by an adult woman. She recorded nearly 100 of her dreams out of personal interest when she was young and single between 1923 and 1932, and then several hundred more beginning in 1966, when she was a widow living in a small town in the West, several thousand miles from where she was born and raised. In terms of Hall/Van de Castle categories, the frequencies for most categories were similar in both sets of dreams. However, despite the quantitative similarities in the major character categories, the actual cast of characters changed almost completely, except for members of her family of origin. As in other dream series that have been studied, she dreamed about people with whom she was in contact at the time, even if it was only by correspondence. For all the similarities in the two sets of reports, there were some changes as well. The percentage of unfamiliar characters was higher in the 1960s than the 1920s, for example. Although her rate of aggressive interactions was low in both sets, she dreamed more often of being a victim of aggression, especially at the hands of males, when she was in her 20s, whereas in her 60s she was more often the aggressor (Domhoff, 1996, p. 146).

Blind analyses of dream journals also have led, through the formulation of inferences that can be accepted or rejected by the dreamer and other respondents, to the conclusion that much dream content is continuous with the dreamers' waking conceptions, concerns, and interests. That is, as already seen in the cross-cultural studies discussed earlier in the chapter, what people dream about is also what they think about or do when they are awake. The most direct continuities involve the main people in a dreamer's life and the nature of the social interactions with them. There also is good continuity for many of the dreamer's main interests and activities. Still, this general finding has to be qualified in three ways.

First, the continuity is not with day-to-day events, but with general concerns. Three studies that tried to match detailed waking reports of daily concerns with dream reports, two based on REM awakenings, one based on morning recall at home, found that blind judges could not reliably match records of daily concerns or events with dream content. The content of the dreams often revolved around daily life, such as family, friends, and school, but if the actual events of the day were incorporated in any specific way, it was not understandable to independent raters (Roussy, 2000; Roussy et al., 2000a; Roussy et al., 1996). This finding is consistent with studies showing low levels of episodic memory in dreams (Baylor & Cavallero, 2001; Fosse et al., 2003).

Secondly, the continuity usually is with both thought and behavior, but sometimes it is only with one or the other. For example, people who have highly aggressive dreams are not always aggressive people in waking life, but they usually admit to many aggressive thoughts and fantasies during the day. Similarly, people who have frequent sex dreams are not always sexually active in reality, but they tend to entertain the same thoughts in waking life and sometimes practice frequent masturbation to the accompaniment of their sexual fantasies. Third, not all dream elements are continuous with waking conceptions and concerns. It is these anomalous aspects of dream content that may be the products of figurative thinking, as some theorists assert, or impaired cognitive functioning, as other theorists claim.

The most complete study of a lengthy dream journal is based on 3,118 dream reports over a 22-year period from an adult woman who was later interviewed over a two-day period, as were four of her friends, about those aspects of her life that appear in her dreams (Domhoff, 2003, pp. 111-133). A blind analysis of social interactions with family members and friends showed that the dream enactments were continuous with her waking thoughts and concerns in terms of the frequency of their appearance and the balance of aggressive and friendly interactions with them. For example, the continuing anger and turmoil the dreamer felt in relation to her ex-husband were expressed in the dreams through repeated negative interactions with him over the first 15 years of the series, many of which dramatized their past waking conflicts. However, there was a significant (but not complete) change in the balance of aggressive and friendly interactions in her dreams at about the time when, according to both the dreamer and her friends, she could think or talk about him in waking life without becoming upset.

To take an example at the other extreme, her dreams over a two-year period involving a man for whom she developed a great infatuation contained at the outset numerous portrayals of sexual interactions. Later on they presented a picture of betrayal and rejection by him. In reality, she had never had anything but a friendly social relationship with this person, who was several years younger, and according to her friends, had no romantic interest in her. This example demonstrates very clearly that continuity is sometimes with waking thought, but not waking behavior. She imagined a love affair, and then she imagined that he had rejected her for another woman, but she knew better in waking life.

The dreamer's great involvement in the theater as a playwright, actor, and director is revealed by the frequency with which she dreams of these activities. Her theater-related dreams portray moments of great triumph -- such as when she is acknowledged for her under-appreciated talents -- but they also include an equal number of misfortunes, failures, and rejections that are consistent with what she and her friends say are her fears and anxieties in regard to this area of interest.

However, there are also aspects of her dreams where inferences based on the assumption of continuity were disconfirmed, which opens up new avenues for adding depth and complexity to the understanding of dreams. For instance, the appearance of cats that are underfed, lost, or deformed does not reflect any waking concerns in regard to her great affection for cats. She rides horses fearlessly in her dreams, but was on a horse only a handful of times in waking life, and fears them. Her dreams also give the impression that she probably learned to shoot guns when she was growing up -- and enjoys doing so -- but neither inference proved to be accurate.

Similar results appeared in an exhaustive study of 1,368 dream reports from a convicted child molester in his mid-30s (Domhoff, 1996, pp. 166-171). Many of them were written on paper bags and laundry lists for his own personal reasons over a period of a few years while he was in a mental institution. A complete Hall/Van de Castle coding of the dream reports revealed that he differed from the norms in only a few ways, but most of those differences turned out to be continuous with his waking thoughts or behavior. In particular, there are many unusual features in the character patterns in his dream reports, with his mother appearing four times more often than would be expected from the norms, and his sister appearing ten times more often. On the other hand, there are no mentions of his father.

Beyond female family members, he dreams primarily of unknown males and unknown females. The percentage of characters who are friends of the dreamer is only 9%, far below the male normative figure of 31% for males , and there is an especially low incidence of female friends and acquaintances. As for the males who are known to him, they are usually his fellow inmates, not friends of long standing (Domhoff, 1996, p. 166). However, the patient was not unusually low on friendly interactions because of his generally positive interactions with his mother and sister in his dreams, but also because he often befriended or helped children and teenagers.

The patient had a typical number of dreams with at least one sexual thought or interaction, but his sexual dreams differ from those of other adult males in terms of the variety of characters with whom he is erotically involved and the types of interactions that occur. Whereas heterosexual adult males have erotic encounters almost exclusively with peer females, he is involved in or witnesses sexuality in his dreams with men as well as women, and children as well as adults. He is also unusual in the range of sexual acts in which he engages. Most of all, his dream reports contain more sexual fantasies and less sexual intercourse than the male norms.

These dream findings fit with the reality of his waking life, where he was very dependent on his highly controlling mother and his supportive sister, whom he said were the two most positive influences in his life. His father, often absent in his early years, was pushed out of the house by the patient's mother when the patient was 12, and died a few years later. The patient had no friends and preferred to be around children. As in his dreams, he had had sex with other males and at least once with an animal. His main sexual outlet, however, was the same compulsive voyeurism present in his dream reports. He wrote that he had always had "a morbid yet fascinating curiosity about the female genitals" (Domhoff, 1996, p. 170). In his teens and early adulthood, his child molesting did consist primarily of looking at children's genitals, but later it included fondling on several occasions and exposure of himself at least once.

There were also some informative differences between the dream content and his waking behavior. Although he masturbated frequently in his dreams, leading to the inference that he was a compulsive masturbator in waking life, he reported that he did not masturbate for weeks at a time because he thought masturbation was wrong and often felt depressed afterwards. He used meditation and an interest in spirituality to help him control this urge, suggesting that an analysis of dream content may not always reveal how people actually deal with their desires in waking life. On the other hand, he claimed that his masturbation fantasies were heterosexual, unlike many of the sexual activities in his dreams, and that he thought of himself as heterosexual. However, his adult behavior showed a pattern that corresponded to his dreams. As already noted, he had experienced sex with men, children, and animals. Here it is relevant to add that he had never engaged in "petting" or sexual intercourse with a woman, which makes the point that his dreams are continuous with his waking behavior, but not with his waking self-conceptions on the issue of his sexual orientation.

The possibilities for using individual dream journals in controlled pre/post studies in clinical settings are demonstrated in a pilot study with a young adult woman. She first recorded her dreams at age 18 when she went into psychotherapy, which she quit after a year because she did not think it was helping her. A year later she began taking 25 mg of sertraline (Zoloft) to deal with generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks, working up to 100 mg before the panic attacks stopped. One year after that, 21 years old and still taking medication, she resumed her journal for purposes of this comparison, but without any knowledge of the Hall/Van de Castle coding system. Based on pre and post samples of 33 and 40 dream reports, she moved closer to the female norms on several categories. She had large declines in her rate of aggressions per character, familiar settings percent, and elements from the past, and large increases in her friends percent and rate of friendliness per character (Kirschner, 1999).

Implications For Theories of Dreaming

The array of systematic results presented in this chapter suggest that a considerable amount of psychological information can be extracted from dream reports. This conclusion provides support for the core idea of all twentieth century dream theories. At the same time, it must be stressed that much dream content is not yet understood.. There is no convincing evidence as to whether such dream elements may be the meaningful metaphoric products of figurative thinking or relatively meaningless random filler, or a mixture of both. Obviously, much research work remains to be done.

The findings also suggest that a significant percentage of dream content focuses on a handful of personal concerns revolving around social interactions with family, friends, and co-workers. There are few age differences once young adulthood is reached, and there are many cross-cultural similarities. The greatest variability in dream content seems to concern the appearance of aggression, especially physical aggression. Differences in aggression are the biggest difference between laboratory and home dream reports. Aggression also varies greatly owing to age, with relatively little aggression in the dreams of children and elderly adults compared with young and middle-age adults. In addition, there are large individual, gender, and cultural differences. This variability suggests that aggression might be valuable in developing a better theory of dreams because it might be especially sensitive to drug effects, brain lesions, or life-changing events (Domhoff, 2003, Chapter 1).

Despite the originality and creativity that is displayed in the cognitive production of dreams, and even given the aspects of dream content that are not understood, most dreams are more realistic and based in everyday life than is suggested by any traditional dream theory. In addition, much dream content seems more transparent than might be expected by clinical theories that emphasize disguise and/or symbolism in understanding dreams. Finally, a significant minority of dreams may not be as emotionally based as all traditional theories imply, especially before the adolescent years.

These conclusions can be used to focus future research, but uncertainties about the extent of emotionality and bizarreness must be resolved before the findings on dream content can constrain theorizing about dreams even more fully than they should now. Still, the generally accepted results do set the stage for seeing how the effects of various medications and brain lesions on dream content might contribute to theory construction. For example, such studies might provide the basis for linking the psychological findings on dream content to the neurological substrate that is active during dreaming (Domhoff, 2003). It may even be that new theorizing can be based in part on detailed case studies of unique individual patients who are brought to a variety of clinical settings, including sleep disorder clinics. Clinical studies would be especially valuable if the patient had been keeping a dream journal that could serve as a baseline for comparison with postmedication or posttrauma dreams.

At the most general level, the findings based on systematic content research suggest that dreams are first and foremost the embodiment of thoughts through dramatizations of life concerns and interests. They almost always involve the dreamer and they are usually intensely interpersonal. Dreams as they have been defined for the purposes of this chapter seem to be more similar to plays than any other waking-life analog. Perhaps dreams are therefore best understood as enactments of various "scripts," in both the cognitive and playwright senses of that term. It is hypotheses such as these that might be fruitfully explored in the future in both clinical and non-clinical settings using the combined tools of content analysis, neuropsychology, and brain imaging.


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