Dream Research In The Mass Media: Where Journalists Go Wrong On Dreams

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. (2005-2006). Dream research in the mass media: Where journalists go wrong on dreams. The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 4(2), 74-78.

Media stories based on what psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts have to say about dreams build on two age-old questions that are usually framed in either-or terms. Are dreams meaningless nonsense, the incidental by-product of a brain working at half speed, or are they deeply meaningful and highly revealing psychological productions, perhaps with important adaptive functions, such as contributing solutions to everyday problems? Are dreams a form of madness that save us from waking insanity, or are they relatively mundane cognitive productions?

Research over the past 45 years has led to a set of systematic descriptive findings that make it possible to look at dreams in new ways. These new findings come from sleep laboratory awakenings, content analysis, cognitive development studies, and neuropsychological studies of brain-injured patients. They may not be "correct" or the whole story, and indeed, they probably will be displaced over the years if dream research is now on a sound scientific basis, but they do deserve to be heard when journalists call. However, they do not fit easily into the dichotomies implied by the questions posed in the previous paragraph, so they are often ignored by journalists, who want to stick with tried and true news pegs. Moreover, the new findings are disputed or ignored by most of the clinicians and psychoanalysts interviewed for stories about dreams, making it all the easier for journalists to miss their significance.

In this article I will briefly summarize the new findings and explain the difficulties that have been encountered in having them considered alongside the traditional views that continue to be featured in popular articles, whether in the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, or Newsweek. I will conclude by suggesting how the handful of laboratory dream researchers and content analysts within academic psychology might be able to do better in reaching the media in the future, primarily by having a larger impact within academic psychology itself.

If we focus on the most reliable descriptive findings on dreams--that is, those that were collected with the most controls, analyzed with the most reasonable quantitative methods, and then replicated -- the following picture emerges that defies the old polarities and casts doubt on all clinically based theories. First, contrary to what was thought in the early 1960s, and became a staple of the popular and journalistic imagination, it has been known since the late 1960s that dreams can occur in NREM sleep that are very similar to those reported from REM awakenings or remembered in the morning, especially from Stage II NREM late in the sleep period (e.g., Antrobus, Kondo, & Reinsel, 1995; Cicogna, Natale, Occhionero, & Bosinelli, 1998; Fosse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 2004; Foulkes, 1962; Herman, Ellman, & Roffwarg, 1978; McNamara, McLaren, Smith, Brown, & Stickgold, 2005; Rechtschaffen, Verdone, & Wheaton, 1963). In fact, dreaming can occur during relaxed waking states when lying quietly in a darkened room, with wakefulness monitored by the EEG (Foulkes, 1985, for a summary; Foulkes & Fleisher, 1975; Foulkes & Scott, 1973).

Second, content analyses of dreams collected in both sleep laboratories and college classrooms over the past 55 years suggest that most dreams are more coherent, reasonable, and focused on everyday life than traditional cultural stereotypes--and clinical theorists--assume (Domhoff, 2005a, for a summary; Dorus, Dorus, & Rechtschaffen, 1971; Snyder, 1970). True, dreams sometimes contain unusual scenarios or images, but far less often than might be expected. Moreover, the unusual scenarios have to be seen within a context of predominantly familiar settings, a cast of mostly known characters, and an enactment of everyday activities and interests. As the most prolific and creative laboratory dream researcher of the 20th century, psychologist David Foulkes (1985), concluded after several decades of work, dreams are a reasonable simulation of the waking world.

Third, blind analyses of numerous dream diaries kept by a wide range of people for varying reasons-- a type of nonreactive archival data that gain power when the diverse archives lead to the same conclusions--all reveal that dream content has a striking consistency over months, years, and even decades in types of characters (e.g., parents, friends), social interactions (e.g., percentages of aggressive, friendly, and sexual interactions), and types of activities (e.g., eating, playing a sport) (Domhoff, 1996). This again implies a coherence and regularity to dreaming. Fourth, inferences based on blind analyses of dream journals, when compared with biographical material on the dreamers, or their answers to written questions, demonstrate that dream content is often, but not always, continuous with waking thoughts and concerns (Domhoff, 2003).

Fifth, longitudinal and cross-sectional studies in which young children ages 3-15 were awakened in the sleep laboratory suggest that dreaming is a gradual cognitive achievement based on the development of a variety of cognitive skills, especially the ability to create mental imagery. This is seen first in the unanticipated finding that median recall from REM awakenings of pre-school children was only 15%, but it is also shown by the static, undeveloped, and unemotional nature of the infrequent content that the pre-schoolers do report, and by the relatively simple nature--and continuing infrequency-- of the dreaming that occurs from ages 6 to 9. If we can trust laboratory studies, and I think we can, dreaming is not adult-like until ages 9-10 and not comparable to adult dreams in frequency, length, content, or emotions until ages 11-13 (Foulkes, 1982; Foulkes, 1999; Strauch, 2005).

Sixth, neuropsychological studies of brain-injured patients demonstrate that large swaths of the outer cortex, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, sensori-motor cortex, and primary visual cortex, are not needed for dreaming, but that injuries in specific areas of the visual association cortex can lead to changes in dream imagery similar to waking defects, and that injuries in either parietal lobe, or bi-lateral injuries in the white matter of the pre-frontal cortex, can lead to loss of dreaming (Kerr & Foulkes, 1981; Kerr, Foulkes, & Jurkovic, 1978; Solms, 1997). These findings imply a relatively specific neural network for dreaming that is similar to what can be inferred from imaging studies that use brain reactivation patterns during REM periods as a proxy for dreaming (e.g., Braun et al., 1997; Maquet, 2000).

Seventh, and finally, the conclusion that some adults with specific brain injuries do not dream is made all the more interesting by the finding that a very small percentage of apparently normal adults do not report dreams when awakened during REM sleep in the laboratory (Butler & Watson, 1985; Pagel, 2003).

Taken together, these seven findings on dreaming and dream content lead to the surprising possibility that issues of psychological meaning and adaptive function have to be separated. On the one hand, dreams seem to have at least some psychological meaning in that they are reasonable simulations of waking life and relate to the person's interests and concerns, although it needs to be quickly added that this does not necessarily mean that all the elements of a dream, or even all dreams, are "meaningful." On the other hand, dreaming may not have any biological purpose, such as Freud's (1900) claim about preserving sleep, if little children and some adults can sleep and live normal lives without them.

The idea that dreaming has any psychological purpose, or at least any waking psychological purpose, is called into doubt by the minute percentage of dreams recalled by most people and by the rarity with which dreams deal with the day's events or reveal even a hint of a solution to any problem. Furthermore, most of the anecdotal examples of alleged problem solving in dreams actually involve reveries, drug-induced states, or thoughts while waking up. It seems more likely that the rare dreamer who derives new ideas from dreams comes to them after awakening and reflecting on the dream, which is very different from the idea that dreams themselves have a problem-solving function (Blagrove, 1992; Blagrove, 1996). Dreams are novel and creative productions, and they have inspired new work by musicians, artists, and authors, but that does not necessarily mean that they have any adaptive function.

Based on these findings and arguments, it is plausible, but by no means certain, that dreaming may be an accidental by-product of two important evolutionary advances, sleeping and thinking. When the findings on the gradual development of dreaming in children are added to this picture, along with the possibility of dreaming in relaxed waking states, perhaps dreaming occurs by default whenever there is (1) a fully developed neural network for dreaming; (2) an adequate level of cortical activation; (3) an occlusion of external stimuli; and (4) the loss of conscious self-control, i.e., a shutting down of the cognitive system of "self" (Foulkes, 1999).

Although the findings briefly summarized in the above paragraphs might seem newsworthy in that they are new and unexpected, and in addition are consistent with current cognitive and neurocognitive thinking, they are not well received in the media. Instead, the favorite news peg on dreams, even when academic psychologists who study dreams are interviewed, continues to pit the age-old, dreams-are-nonsense view against the clinical claims about arcane psychological meaning and adaptive purpose. The nonsense view is now represented by J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist by training, who contributed to sleep research in the 1960s and 1970s through studies of frogs and cats. He first captured media attention in the late 1970s with the sudden arrival of his activation-synthesis theory, which says on the basis of neurophysiological sleep studies in cats, and with no reference to any studies of dreams collected in sleep laboratories, that dreams are an attempt by a poorly functioning cortex to do the best it can (a synthesis) with the periodic random bombardments (activations) it receives from the brain stem during REM periods (Hobson, 1988; Hobson & McCarley, 1977).

A strong critic of psychoanalysis, Hobson asserted that brain stem activation of REM sleep shows that Freud was wrong on every one of his key conclusions, and especially the idea that dreams have the important purpose of preserving sleep in the face of episodic bodily urges. At the same time, Hobson did softly say that dreams can have the kinds of straightforward psychological meaning described earlier, but he saw this meaningfulness as the relatively minor and mundane "signal" in a production that is mostly "noise." For the most part, he described dreams as "bizarre," which is the part of his theory that the media liked for its complete contrast with the Freudian claims.

Hobson readily admits that he was purposely provocative and confrontational in presenting his theory as the antithesis of Freud's (Dolnick, 1990). But in accepting his confident assertions uncritically, the media bought into two misleading claims on which most dream researchers disagreed with Hobson very strongly. First, the Hobson vs. Freud reinstatement of the old dualism perpetuated the idea that "real" dreams only occur during REM, running roughshod over the attempts by laboratory dream researchers to correct their earlier mistakes (see, for example, the early Hobson vs. Freud story in Newsweek, Seligmann, 1978) . Second, by locking into the notion that dreams are bizarre and nonsensical, journalists swept aside the solid findings on the nature of dream content by laboratory researchers (e.g., Dorus et al., 1971; Foulkes & Schmidt, 1983; Snyder, 1970). The old die was basically recast when New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman (1984) said at the outset of a very long feature story that Freud's claim about the meaningfulness of dreams was being challenged by scientists who "assert that dreams are essentially mental nonsense that have no psychological significance whatever." That framework has been used ever since (e.g., Dolnick, 1990).

The media's interest in the Hobson/bizarre vs. Freud/meaningful story line increased in the late 1990s when Hobson was challenged by a neuropsychologist turned psychoanalyst, Mark Solms (1997), who claimed that his work in the late 1980s on the effects of various brain injuries on dreaming was "consistent" with a Freudian view because it showed the essential role of the cortex. Although Hobson and Solms emphasized their differences, they share four things in common that make their argument of interest to the media and marginalize the kinds of descriptive findings outlined earlier-- they downplay (Hobson) or ignore (Solms) the laboratory and content analysis findings on the actual content of dreams; they deny (Hobson) or ignore (Solms) the developmental findings on dreaming; they stress the neurophysiological origins of dreams, with no emphasis on the need for cognitive skills and capacities; and most of all in terms of media attention, they both say that dreams are a form of psychiatric illness (delirium for Hobson, schizophrenia for Solms) .

Small wonder, then, that the new descriptive results still cannot find a place in media stories on dreams. For example, when the New York Times did a big story on dreams for the 100th anniversary of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, it was all about the strong claims by Hobson and Solms, with commentary on their views by a few others (Goode, 1999). On the one hand, the article concluded that Freud had been vindicated to some degree, when in fact every one of his specific hypotheses is refuted or called into question by post-1950s findings (Domhoff, 2003, pp. 136-143). On the other hand, the Times article stated that laboratory dream research found dreams to be "bizarre," which is simply Hobson's assertion based on his theory, not the conclusion drawn by the many researchers who have collected dreams in the sleep laboratory (Domhoff, 2005b).

The general problems the new findings face also can be seen in a fairly recent feature story on dreams in Newsweek (Kantrowitz & Springen, 2004). It began by emphasizing how unusual and crazy dreams are, like a Fellini film:

"In the middle of the night, we are all Fellini--the creator of a parade of fleeting images intended for an audience of one. At times, it's an action flick, with a chase scene that seems endless ... until it dissolves and we're falling, falling, falling into ... is it a field of flowers? And who is the gardener waving at us over there? Could it be our old high-school English teacher? No, it's Jon Stewart. He wants us to sit on the couch right next to him. Are those TV cameras? And what happened to our clothes? (Kantrowitz & Springen, 2004, p. 41).

The story went on to cast the issues in terms of nonsense (Hobson) vs. psychological meaning (Solms), incorrectly asserting that findings from laboratory research put a "crimp" in dream content studies because they supported Hobson's claims about bizarreness and lack of meaning. (In fact, laboratory dream research began its decline well before Hobson came along because it did not fulfill the hopes of the many Freudians among the pioneers in the field and was supplanted by an increased emphasis on the more useful findings in sleep research (Domhoff, 2004).) The Newsweek story repeated the many theories about the adaptive functions of dreaming, including once again the idea that dreams keep us from going crazy, a kind of safety valve, but did not present any of the evidence that dreams may have no "purpose."

Two years later, U. S. News and World Report used exactly the same title ("What dreams are made of") and offered the same type of fairy tale lead-in for its special story on dreams that was filed under the dubious rubric of "health and medicine:"

"Strange images appear from long-forgotten memories. Or out of nowhere: You're roller-skating on water; your mother flashes by on a trapeze; your father is in labor; a friend dead for years sits down at the dinner table" (Szegedy-Maszak, 2006, p. 55).

Once again, the story emphasizes anecdotes about the healing powers of dreams and gives no hint that many researchers now suspect that dreams may have no adaptive function.

Based on this record stretching back to 1978 in Newsweek, it seems that dream researchers have their work cut out for them if their descriptive findings are going to be included in future stories about dreams. One of the most concrete and immediate steps they could take is to continue to urge the authors of introductory psychology textbooks to include these new findings rather than relying almost exclusively on the Freud vs. Hobson framework, along with speculations on the possible problem solving function of dreaming, as they often tend to do (Squier & Domhoff, 1998). A more balanced account of dream research within psychology textbooks might help because science journalists sometimes turn to mainstream scientific sources as background for their work.

When it comes to talking to journalists, it might be useful for dream researchers to stress even more forcefully that one set of findings suggests that dreaming has no adaptive function and another set supports the idea that dreams nonetheless have psychological meaning. This conclusion, tentative though it may still be, might be unusual enough to jostle the traditional framing.

More substantively, dream researchers need to identify more non-dreamers and study them in greater cognitive depth. Studies of non-dreamers not only have the potential to advance our understanding of dreaming, but they challenge the usual journalistic assumptions in a very dramatic way. After all, no non-dreamers to date have been shown to lose sleep or become demented. In the long run, however, dream researchers are going to have to find ways to relate dream content to the neural network for dreaming if they are going to make systematic dream research of greater interest to the media (and scientific psychologists).

One way to do that might be in-depth studies of those who suffer a variety of brain injuries that might affect dream content. Pre- and post- studies of people put on drugs known to affect parts of the neural network for dreaming, such as Parkinson's patients, also might be useful. Such an approach, which is by no means guaranteed to work, might enlist the support of neuropsychologists and cognitive psychologists, and thereby lead to a theory that incorporates many of the systematic findings mentioned in this commentary. Only then would the media really be ready to abandon the old dichotomies.


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