Chapter 9: The Repetition Dimension in Dreams and Waking Cognition
In this chapter we want to put some of our findings into a larger context to suggest that there is an overlooked dimension, a repetition dimension, underlying much of our dreaming. We also want to connect the "unfinished business" driving the repetition dimension to similar findings on the content of our thoughts when our waking minds are drifting, wandering, or daydreaming.
The repetition dimension refers in the first instance to those aspects of dream content repeated over and over, but it also concerns the repetition of whole dreams as well. We have seen some of the more subtle manifestations of this dimension in earlier chapters, but here we want to connect the routine repetitions of dream content to the more dramatic evidence for a repetition dimension. In so doing we draw on a wider range of dream research than quantitative content analysis: clinical, questionnaire and thematic studies.
The repetition dimension manifests itself most obviously in traumatic dreams that reproduce overwhelmingly negative experiences again and again, to the great discomfort of the dreamers. It then moves to the recurrent dreams that puzzle or frighten many people at one time or another in their lives. It next turns to "common" or "typical" dreams, meaning the unusual dreams like flying or appearing inappropriately dressed in public that many people report they have experienced at least once. From recurrent and typical dreams it is only a small jump to repetitive themes within long dream series, examples of which will be given in the main body of the chapter. The continuum ends with the characters, interactions, activities, and objects that appear in ordinary dreams consistently over decades in long dream series, or appear more frequently in an individual or group's dreams than might be expected on the basis of our norms for dream content.
The theoretical significance of the repetition dimension is its support for the idea that people dream about ongoing personal concerns and interests, whether pleasant or unpleasant, trivial or profound, past or future, which makes dream life similar to much of waking cognition (Klinger, 1971, 1990; Singer, 1988, 1993). In the following sections we examine what is known about traumatic dreams, recurrent dreams, typical dreams, repeated themes, and frequent dream elements to see if a common thread emerges. Whether dreams are attempts at resolving emotional preoccupations, as many have suggested (e.g., Breger, 1967; Cartwright, 1977; Kramer, 1982), or "unintentional" revelations of what is on the dreamer's mind, as Foulkes (1985: chap. 5; 1993a) claims, the repetition dimension suggests that dream content makes sense in terms of the dreamer's life, and therefore has psychological meaning. Our argument derives primarily from Hall and Van de Castle's (1966:13-14) notion that the intensity of a preoccupation can be inferred from the frequency with which a particular dream character or dream activity appears. Generalizing this notion to include the frequency of certain types of dreams leads to a theory of dreams as expressing or reflecting emotional concerns and interests. It is a theory that can encompass infantile wishes, societally repressed insights, worries about the future, present-day conflicts, and strong everyday interests.
At the very least, this chapter poses a new question for dream theorists. Just as no theory of cognition should be taken seriously if it cannot encompass dreaming, as the work of Antrobus (1978, 1986, 1994) and Foulkes (1985, 1993a) suggests, so too should no theory of dreams be taken seriously if it cannot deal with the repetition dimension we show to be very prominent in dream content.
Traumatic dreams, now understood as a major symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, are experienced by soldiers in war, people engulfed in natural catastrophes, individuals involved in terrible accidents, and women and children who have been raped or assaulted. They are notable because they tend to repeat the traumatic event in all its emotional detail and horror. People suffering from traumatic dreams often dread the thought of going to sleep.
Despite the dramatic and overwhelming nature of traumatic dreams, they have not been at the center of theoretical attention. They are often seen as atypical and peripheral. Freud's thinking may be the ideal example on this point. Although he hypothesized a role for infantile trauma in causing neuroses almost from the outset of his work, traumatic dreams did not figure at all in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Instead, he came to his insights there through analyzing free associations to complex and puzzling everyday dreams. Just how far traumatic dreams were from his attention can be seen in the fact that he began his theoretical argument about dreams as wish fulfillments by pointing to the most simple of dreams, namely, children's short dreams of things they longed for the day before.
In the years between 1900 and 1914 many critics suggested that certain types of dreams, such as anxiety and punishment dreams, did not fit his theory. But Freud vigorously argued there were indeed wishes underlying these seemingly non-wishful dreams. Only new material on "war neurosis" dreams that was brought to his attention during World War I led him to believe there was a type of dream that may not fit his theory. Indeed, this realization was one reason for the major changes he made in his instinct theory after the war, when he emphasized a compulsion to repeat (Freud, 1920).
Still, when it came to dream theory, Freud (1920:13) put war neurosis dreams to the side by saying that "the function of dreaming, like so much else, is upset in this condition [traumatic neuroses] and diverted from its purposes." In his final formulation on dreams, he admitted that traumatic dreams did not fit his theory, but nonetheless stuck with the old theory by saying "the exception does not overturn the rule" (Freud, 1933:29). True enough, dreams were now defined as a disguised "attempt" at wish fulfillment, but more importantly he explained traumatic dreams away by saying a more basic mechanism aimed at mastering overwhelming stimuli took control of psychic functioning in rare situations (Freud, 1920:32, 1933:29).
In a way, then, our argument begins where Freud left off the second time around, with traumatic dreams and the phenomenon of repetition. Contrary to Freud, we are saying that we should not start with the allegedly easiest of dreams, young children's short dreams, which in any case may be mere sleeptalking during arousals from NREM sleep according to Foulkes' (1982:44-47) finding of virtually no dreaming in pre-school children. Instead, we should begin with the most difficult of dreams, traumatic dreams, and search for a theory encompassing them as well as wish fulfillment dreams.
The most systematic studies on traumatic dreams concern Vietnam veterans because they can be studied in large numbers due to their common experience; then, too, they also make themselves available to researchers through VA hospitals. It is this work that makes it possible to go beyond a mere summation of a wide variety of individual instances in a search for generalizations. Relying primarily on research by Hartmann and his associates (1984) and Kramer, Schoen, and Kinney (1987), the following things can be said about traumatic dreams and those who suffer them. First, the combat soldiers who suffered later from traumatic dreams were younger, less educated, and more likely to be emotionally involved with a close buddy who was killed or injured as compared with non-sufferers with similar combat experiences. Those who did not have such dreams put up a wall between themselves and other people while in Vietnam; they decided very early not to become emotionally close to anyone (Hartmann, 1984:209).
Second, the dreams begin to change slightly over time as the person recovers, gradually incorporating other elements and becoming less like the exact experience. Put another way, the traumatic dreams slowly come to resemble ordinary dreams (Hartmann, 1984:219). Third, there seems to be a decline in traumatic dreams if they are discussed in groups with other veterans who suffer from them (Wilmer, 1982). Hartmann (1984:238-239) reports early discussion also seems to decrease such dreams in those who suffer from other kinds of traumas as well.
Finally, those who have recovered often suffer a relapse to the old dream content when faced with new stressors. Kramer, Schoen, and Kinney (1987) provide good examples of this phenomenon for veterans dealing with marital disruption; war scenes from the past then return with all their pain and anxiety. Thus, "the Vietnam experience serves as a metaphor to express the [new] difficulties" (Kramer, Schoen, and Kinney, 1987:79). At this point we see how the study of traumatic dreams and their aftermath illuminates the general study of dreams, for dreams as an expression of our conceptions and emotional preoccupations is an important strand of dream theorizing (Hall, 1953a, 1953b; Antrobus, 1977; Baylor, 1981; Baylor and Deslauriers, 1985, 1986-87).
We draw the following implications from the work on traumatic dreams. First, such dreams should not be put aside as exceptions of one sort or another. They are legitimate, "real" dreams, and they are experienced as dreamlike by the dreamers. Second, these dreams deal, quite obviously, with emotional problems that have overwhelmed the person. They are about emotional events that people cannot "handle" or "assimilate" or "master," to use several different words to capture aspects of the difficult experience we are here trying to comprehend. Somehow the person's defenses were down or overwhelmed; something was able to slip by the psychological radar and wreak havoc with normal psychic functioning. Third, the dreams decrease in frequency and become altered in content to the degree that the experience is assimilated. Fourth, the way in which the experiences sometimes reappear when new problems arise suggests the old traumas have become metaphors for new stressful situations.
Traumatic dreams, then, reflect a preoccupation with problems we have not resolved. This is a possible starting point for a theory to explain what we dream about. Before making too much of one type of dream, however, it is necessary to look at the closest relative of traumatic dreams, the recurrent dream, to see what conclusions can be drawn from studying it.
Recurrent dreams have not been studied with the depth and intensity of traumatic dreams. Most of the studies have been clinical-anecdotal in nature or based on brief surveys. However, the combined results from several studies provide the basis for generalizations and inferences about recurrent dreams (LaRue, 1970; Cartwright and Romanek, 1978; Robbins and Houshi, 1983; D'Andrade, 1985; Cermak, 1992).
Fifty to 80% of college students report on questionnaires that they have experienced a recurrent dream at one time or another in their lives (Cartwright and Romanek, 1978; Robbins and Houshi, 1983; D'Andrade, 1985; Cermak, 1992). There is great variation in the length of the period in which they occur, ranging from a few months to decades. There also is great variation in the frequency with which the dream appears within that time period--from once or twice a week to once or twice a year (D'Andrade, 1985).
Recurrent dreams are most often reported to begin in childhood. Adolescence is also a frequent time of onset, with only a few beginning in adulthood (Robbins and Houshi, 1983; D'Andrade, 1985). The affective tone of recurrent dreams is negative in at least 60-70% of the cases, making them in that sense very reminiscent of traumatic dreams (Cartwright and Romanek, 1978). Two content analyses find recurrent dreams are much more likely than ordinary dreams to contain only the dreamer (LaRue, 1970; D'Andrade, 1985). The most frequent content theme of recurrent dreams is being attacked or chased, accounting for 43% of recurrent dreams in one study:
A content analysis of the recurrent dreams that students reported revealed that only one type of dream occurred with any frequency, an anxiety dream in which the dreamer was being threatened or pursued. The threatening agents were wild animals, monsters, burglars, or nature forces such as storms, fires, or floods. The dreamer was watching, hiding, or running away (Robbins and Houshi, 1983:263).
Recurrent dreams are often reported to begin at times of stress, such as the death of a loved one, separation from parents, or the divorce of parents. However, the content usually does not reflect the stress situation directly. The following recurrent dream, reported by a woman in college as beginning at age 14, when she left her mother's house to live with her father and stepmother, is typical in this regard, as well as in its lack of any characters except the dreamer:
I am asleep in my bed at home. I know I'm in bed, in my room--but I have no tangible sensations in regard to my surroundings. It is pitch black and like a vacuum. There is a vague feeling of dizziness. A large, hairy (masculine) hand reaches out and pushes me into my closet. The door cannot be opened. The hand sets the closet on fire and I suffocate and die in the heat and smoke (LaRue, 1970:7).
Still, there are occasional recurrent dreams dealing exactly with the emotional problem facing the dreamer, as with a virgin woman who was anguished about whether or not to sleep with her boyfriend. In the dream she is making love with her boyfriend: "The dream is very active and does not involve climax, merely tension, fear and a subsequent shame and day of headaches on awakening" (LaRue, 1970:4).
Clinical studies and surveys suggest that recurrent dreams sometimes disappear when the problem is resolved (Cartwright, 1979). Systematic evidence related to this observation has been provided by Brown and Donderi (1986), who gave a battery of well-being measures to recurrent dreamers, former recurrent dreamers, and non-recurrent dreamers. The current recurrent dreamers scored significantly lower on well-being measures than former recurrent dreamers. They also found that the everyday dreams of the current recurrent dreamers contained "larger proportions of aggressive, anxious, and dysphoric dream content, relative to the other two groups" (Brown and Donderi, 1986:619).
The conclusion we draw from this work on recurrent dreams is that most of them are very similar to traumatic dreams. More exactly, we hypothesize that most of them are watered-down editions of traumatic dreams. They have their origins in some stressful situation, usually in childhood or adolescence, they are repeated, and they are mostly unpleasant. They differ from the traumatic dreams of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because they usually are not a re-experiencing of the stressful situation. Instead, they seem to be more metaphoric in content, with wild animals, untamed nature, monsters, or scary strangers chasing, attacking, or entrapping the dreamer.
Still, not all recurrent dreams can be tied to obvious stressors, as in the case of traumatic dreams, which presents a problem for linking the repetition dimension with emotional preoccupation. In some instances the stressors may be forgotten, but findings from a study of an unusual type of recurrent dream suggests a new angle: what is ordinary for some people may be stressful for others. The unusual recurrent dreams to which we refer are the nightmares of the very small number of people who suffer from lifelong nightmares. These dreams and those who dream them have been studied by Hartmann (1984) through psychiatric interviews and a battery of psychological tests with 50 subjects. The subjects were the most extreme from among many who responded to a newspaper ad asking for interviews with those who suffer from frequent nightmares.
Although lifelong nightmare sufferers do not have exactly the same nightmare each time, there tends to be a thematic pattern making the nightmares very similar to recurrent dreams. As Hartmann (1984:61) notes, "Some of the subjects described having had 'some form of this nightmare' or 'something like this' many times." Moreover, only a few themes make up most nightmares for most of the subjects. As was found with the college students who reported recurrent dreams in the aforementioned survey studies (e.g., Robbins and Houshi, 1983; D'Andrade, 1985), by far the most important theme is of being chased and attacked:
Typically, a subject would recall childhood nightmares in which he or she was chased by a monster, something big, strange, and unknown. Later on, the chaser was more likely to be a large unidentified man, a group of frightening people, a gang, or a troop of Nazis. Often, the dreamer was not only chased, but attacked, or hurt in some way. Sometimes there was only a threat that something would happen and the dreamer awakened in fright. However, in many cases the dreamer was actually caught, beaten, stabbed, shot, or mutilated (Hartmann, 1984:60).
In terms of their content, as well as in their repetition and emotional intensity, the nightmares of those who are lifelong sufferers are very similar to traumatic dreams. And yet, these people seldom recall any obvious traumas. Nor do they suffer from excessive anxiety, anger, or guilt according to personality tests and psychiatric appraisals. Instead, they are relatively normal people who work mainly as artists, teachers, and therapists; some are in graduate school. They are service-oriented people who responded to the ads because they wanted to help others by helping science.
What seemed to differentiate these people from various control groups utilized by Hartmann was their extreme sensitivity and openness from early childhood onward. They were likely to be upset by little things as children; they thought of themselves from the start as unusual and they seemed to be exceptionally self-conscious and aware for youngsters. Hartmann concludes that these people remain especially "thin-skinned," as the common expression goes, whereas most of us are rather "thick-skinned." Hartmann makes the contrast in terms of thin and thick "boundaries," and provides many examples of how this distinction holds, whether it be in the rejection of rigid sex roles or the lack of strong psychological defenses (cf. Hartmann, 1992, for his further studies of boundaries).
These findings suggest there is a small percentage of highly sensitive people for whom many everyday experiences are in effect highly traumatic. Their congenital make-up and/or early life experiences have made daily life into a combat zone metaphorically comparable to what Vietnam was for average people who were not old enough or sophisticated enough to put on hard personal shells. If we conceive of the thin-thick dimension of the human personality interacting with a dimension of experience ranging from very nonthreatening to overwhelming, then we can suggest that many dreams might be reactions to traumatic experiences, even if the traumatic experience for some people is no more than an interview with a potential employer, or talking to a large group.
The findings on recurrent dreams thus seem to reinforce the idea that many dreams express our emotional preoccupations. However, a theory based on traumatic dreams and recurrent dreams is not broad enough--there are too many people who do not report having either of these types of dreams, and too many dreams are neither traumatic nor recurrent. It is therefore necessary to search for the repetition dimension in the everyday dreams of everyday dreamers.
Typical dreams, as noted at the outset of the chapter, are unusual dreams that many people say they have experienced. There have been several questionnaire studies asking people if they have ever had this or that typical dream, with a few percent saying "yes" to themes concerning "losing teeth" or "finding money" and a majority answering in the affirmative to "flying under their own power" or "falling helplessly through space" (e.g., Griffith, Miyago, and Tago, 1958; Ward, Beck, and Rascoe, 1961).
However widespread such dreams may be, it is certain that they occur very infrequently. In that sense they are very atypical. We had Susan Cermak search through 983 dream reports from two-week journals from 126 students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1992. She found that virtually none of ten common dreams occurred more than a few times even though many of the students had reported on an earlier questionnaire that they recalled having had such a dream at least once. For example, 59% of the males and 53% of the females said they recalled a dream of flying, but there were only five flying dreams in the two-week sample, 0.5% of the total. Barrett (1991:131) reports a similarly low figure for flying dreams from a study of 1,910 dream reports at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; 17 subjects reported 22 flying dreams, 1.2% of the total dream report sample. Our figures for several other typical dreams were even lower. Only one person reported a falling dream in the two-week period. One lost his teeth, two found money, two became lost, and two were taking an examination. So, typical dreams are not very important in terms of the general dream life in the American population. However, we think they may be useful in finding meaning in dreams precisely because there is a great deal of commonality in some very unrealistic dream content. This commonality across individuals earns these dreams a place on the repetition dimension.
In this section we will report on work on typical dreams by ourselves and others that we think answers some questions about dreams or has potential for further development. Some of this work deals with types of dreams not usually included on lists of typical dreams, namely, dreams of recently deceased loved ones and dreams of weddings. The dreams about recently deceased loved ones are of special interest because they seem to have a developmental sequence, and the dreams of weddings may be of theoretical significance because they are one of the few dreams of any kind that are experienced primarily by one gender. We also will focus on two of the most frequent of typical dreams, inappropriate dress dreams and flying dreams. Dreams of being inappropriately clad are usually the dreams that are most frequently accompanied by a feeling of embarrassment. Flying dreams, on the other hand, are the most typically pleasant of people's dreams.
We begin this section with Barrett's (1992) research on dreams about deceased people because it is more complete than our studies and provides a model for future work. We then turn to our tentative findings on dreams of weddings, inappropriate dress, and flying.
Dreams of Deceased Loved Ones
Dreams of deceased people are dreams in which the dreamer knows in the dream she or he is interacting with a person who is dead and gone. Dreams of a dead person concerning a time from before the person's death do not qualify. The dreamer has to be aware that the person has in effect come back from the dead to be considered a dream of a deceased person.
Our most systematic knowledge concerning such dreams comes from a study by Barrett (1992). Although her general focus was on how any deceased person is depicted in dream reports, it turned out that most such dreams concerned deceased people who can be described as loved ones. Dreams about a deceased loved one are only a small percentage of all dream reports, but they often occur in the months or years after a loved one dies and have a similar enough content to be considered "typical" dreams. Moreover, some of the subjects report these dreams occur more than once, making them "recurrent" dreams as well as "typical" ones. In addition, there are certain changes in the content of these dreams that make them of considerable theoretical interest.
Barrett's study of this type of dream is based on two sources. First, she went through 149 dream diaries kept by 58 male and 91 female students in courses at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for time periods ranging from two to six weeks. Second, she distributed a questionnaire to 96 students (39 male, 57 female), asking for any such dreams they recalled from the past. The study of the large sample from dream diaries yielded only 29 reports with any deceased characters in them, about 2% of the total dream sample. These reports came from 18 students, 12% of the sample. Moreover, 11 of these 29 reports were in the dream diaries of three women whose friend had committed suicide during the time their diaries were being kept. Thirty-nine percent of the people who filled out the survey questionnaire reported that they had had one or more such dreams. They turned in a total of 48 dream reports. In all, then, Barrett had a total of 77 reports to work with from the two different samples.
Barrett found she could classify the dream reports into four categories. Only seven of the reports seemed to fit into two or more categories. We will now discuss all four categories and their content characteristics, but the first three of them are of theoretical interest to us.
The first category contained dreams in which the dreamer was amazed or upset to see the deceased loved one alive. Barrett called these "back to life" dreams. They made up 39% of the 77 dreams of the dead. They tended to occur within a few days or months of the loved one's death. They often contained a mixture of intense positive and negative emotions. They seemed to involve the kind of denial of death often found in early stages of grieving. All of the dream reports from the three women who were keeping a dream diary at the time of their friend's suicide were of this type. Here is an example of such a dream:
I have a recurring dream that my grandmother calls me at my house while my mother, sister, and I are preparing dinner. I answer the phone and she says "Hi, it's me." I said, "Hi Grandma." She asks, "How are you?" Then I want my mother to talk to her and she says "No, I called you." When my mother comes to the phone, my grandmother hangs up. My mother replies, "Stop saying it's Grandma, she's not there." Another recurring dream I have is that my grandmother visits me in a hotel. I say, "Oh, you've come back to me," and she says "Yes, we are going to try it again and see if I live this time." Suddenly she collapses on the bathroom floor. I try to revive her, but I can't. I am panic-stricken and scream, "You can't die, I have to do this right this time."
The second category contains dreams in which the deceased person is giving the dreamer advice. The topics range from the trivial to the important and highly personal. These "advice" dreams, as Barrett calls them, made up 23% of the sample. They tended to occur many months to years after the person had died. Their emotional tone was usually pleasant. Here is an example of such a dream report:
My father died nine years ago but I often dream that he returns, especially at times of stress in my life. He looks older than he ever got to be in real life and very wise looking. I tell him problems I am having and sometimes he just listens and I feel better but usually he gives me advice, sometimes very clear, sometimes garbled. In the instances where it is clear, it is always good advice but things I already know I should do. But just seeing him and hearing it from him makes me feel better.
The third category consisted of "leave-taking" or "resolution" dreams. In these dream reports the loved one explains the circumstances of his or her death, or assures the dreamer that everything has worked out for the best. These dreams make up about 29% of the sample. They can occur anywhere from several months to many years after the loved one dies. In a dream series these dreams almost always occur after back-to-life dreams (category one) and usually after advice dreams (category two). The feeling tone of these dreams is extremely positive. They often bring great relief to the dreamer and help resolve guilt in waking life. Here are two moving examples of this type. The first one comes from the same woman who had the recurring dream quoted earlier in which her grandmother collapses and the dreamer can't revive her:
I had a lucid dream [i.e., she was aware she was dreaming during the dream] about my grandmother that was probably the best dream I have ever had. In this dream I was little, about 5 or 6 years old, and I was in the bathroom at my grandmother's house. She was giving me a bath in this big claw-footed tub. The old steam radiator was turned on, making it very cozy. I knew that I was dreaming and that I was getting to see my grandmother well again. After the bath, she lifted me out onto the spiral cotton rug and dried me with a blue towel. When that was done she said she had to leave now; this seemed to mean for heaven. I said, "Good-bye, Grandma. I love you." She said, "I love you too Mary." I woke up feeling wonderful. She had been delirious in the last few months of her life, so I'd never really gotten to say good-bye.
The second dreamer resolved her guilt about not having seen her grandmother shortly before the grandmother's death:
After my grandmother died, I felt terrible because I had visited her when she was in the hospital but I never went to see her in the hospice. I thought she would be coming home; she died suddenly just when we thought things were getting better. The first thing I thought of when I was told of her death was that I didn't get to say good-bye or tell her that I loved her. For two months after her death I was tormented by guilt and anger over not saying how I felt to her. However, one night I dreamed that I was awakened by a phone ringing in the hallway upstairs in my house. I got up out of bed and went to answer the phone. As I picked up the phone, the dark hallway I was standing in became fully illuminated. I said "hello" and my grandmother's voice said "Hello, Sally, this is grandma." I said "Hi, how are you." We spoke for about 10 minutes until we were ready to hang up (I can't recall what we spoke about). Finally, my grandmother said she had to go. I said, OK Gram, take care, I love you." She said "I love you too, good-bye." I said "good-bye." As I hung up the phone, the illuminated hallway became dark again. I walked back to bed and fell asleep. When I awoke (for real this time) the next morning, and ever since then, I have been at peace with my grandmother's death.
The fourth category developed by Barrett contains dreams in which the nature of death is being discussed with a deceased person. The deceased person may be a distant relative or friend, or more generally someone who was not emotionally close to the dreamer. If a deceased loved one is involved, the dream is likely to have occurred many years after the person died. These dreams sometimes seem almost philosophic in content, a contemplation of the mysteries of death or the possibilities of immortality. They seem to express the dreamer's concerns about his or her own mortality. Some are pleasant, some are not. They make up about 18% of Barrett's sample.
One striking contingency of these "philosophic" death dreams is the frequent utilization of a telephone as the medium of interaction with the deceased person. Fifty-three percent of the dreams in this category involved telephone calls from the deceased person. By comparison, telephone calls appeared in 24% of the dream in the other three categories, and in only 3% of a random sample of 300 dream reports in Barrett's University of North Carolina dream collection. In short, Barrett's analysis suggests that the telephone may be a metaphoric way of expressing abstract communication in American culture. Here are two examples of these "philosophic" dreams, both with telephones in them:
I had a lucid dream that the phone rang and it was my deceased mother. I knew it was a dream but I thought it was really her and that she could contact me in the dream state. I was frightened to talk to her but I didn't want to let that show and hurt her feelings, so I tried to act cheerful and make banal conversation. I said "Hi, how are you?" She said, "I'm pregnant." I thought she must have gone insane and think she's alive and young again, but to humor her I asked, "Are you going to have a boy or a girl?" She said, "I am going to be a girl." I felt more and more uncomfortable and said, "I've got to go now; I'll talk to you later," and hung up. As soon as I woke up, the dream sounded like a reincarnation statement but during the dream it just sounded crazy and threatening somehow.
This dream was really strange. I was talking on the phone to a man who was describing a wonderful place where he was. The man was very familiar. I was told by another person (or perhaps it was a thought), that I was talking to Pa (my boyfriend's dad, who just died). I saw his face in a phone booth floating among the clouds. There were angels flying around too. Three angels. When I asked if this was Pa, he said, "No, Pa died, how could you talk to him?" But Pa's image and voice were the ones that told me that. I accepted this and continued to speak to this person.
We think the changing nature of the themes in dreams about deceased loved ones is especially significant in terms of our claim that the repetition dimension reveals the way in which dreams express emotional preoccupation. Not only do dreams of deceased loved ones show that many different individuals "repeat" the same type of dream in reaction to the loss of a loved one, but the changes in the content of these dreams seem to reveal the underlying psychological processes following from the loss. We are a long way from saying the dreams themselves "resolve" grief, but the bereavement dreams reported by Barrett do seem to reflect where the dreamers are in the grieving process.
In the process of reading through the dream series he collected at Case Western Reserve University, Hall (1953c:134-135) noticed that some students occasionally dream of getting married, and that more of these students are women than men. Moreover, things often seemed to go wrong in the women's wedding dreams--wrong groom, wrong bridal gown, wrong church, or the groom doesn't show up. Note that we say "often." Some wedding dreams are positive for women. Twenty-five years later, Garfield (l988:134-142) reported similar observations on wedding dreams.
We think a type of dream frequent in one gender and relatively rare in the other might help us to understand meaning in dreams, especially if that dream has frequencies in some Hall/Van de Castle content categories significantly different from the norms. Using a questionnaire for collecting past dreams, we have found a considerable gender difference in the frequency of memory for wedding dreams in two different samples of college students at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Those results are displayed in Table 9.1.
Table 9.1 goes here
If we next ask what percentage of these dreams have "negative" elements in them, meaning misfortunes, aggressions, failures, and negative emotions, we find that negative dreams are more likely for the women than for the men, but the men's sample is too small to be conclusive. A closer look at the women's negative wedding dreams shows that the negative element is usually a misfortune, and these misfortunes are much more likely in dream reports where the groom turns out to be a stranger. (The fact that the groom is a stranger, a surprise in itself for such a momentous occasion, is not counted as a misfortune.) We also have learned that some women have this type of dream several times. Our questionnaire also showed that the frequency of this dream is not related to whether or not the dreamer has a boyfriend or is about to be married.
If dreams express concerns and conceptions, what can we learn from wedding dreams? Can we find evidence that women in general are more preoccupied than men with weddings? Do men and women have different conceptions of weddings? We do not know the answers to these questions, but we think they are useful to ask. We also think that studies comparing women who have frequent, few, or no wedding dreams would be informative about meaning in dreams.
Inappropriate Dress Dreams
Dreams of being inappropriately dressed in public are of interest to us because they usually are accompanied by a strong emotional feeling of extreme embarrassment. We therefore approach this dream by asking people to write down the dream in which they felt the greatest embarrassment during the dream itself. The reports we receive almost invariably concern the theme of inappropriate dress in public. By starting with the issue of embarrassment, this type of typical dream becomes of interest as a possible metaphoric expression of an emotion experienced by most people at one time or another.
We find that 40 to 50% of both males and females think they have had such a dream, usually in their mid-teens, and sometimes recurring. Most of these dreams involved inappropriate dress rather than a complete lack of clothing, and the most frequent setting was the person's school. The fact that there was no gender difference should not go unremarked, of course. Content analysts do not always find gender differences.
To our mild surprise, the content of these embarrassing dream reports is more varied than we expected. Even though most of the reports involve nudity, partial nudity, or being at school in pajamas, there are nonetheless some where the person only has the wrong clothes or shoes for the occasion, or only lacks shoes, and yet the same feeling of embarrassment and mortification is present for the dreamer. The hypothesis thus arises that these dreams express concern with social roles, conformity, and acceptance by peers. Nudity may be the most dramatic metaphoric statement of the issue, and males are a little more likely to be completely naked, but nudity does not seem to be the main concern. That is, "inappropriateness" may be the concern.
If we can appeal to the waking mind for a moment for guidance, we know that social embarrassment can be expressed with such metaphors as "caught naked" or "caught with your pants down." They are instances of the more general conceptual metaphor called "embarrassment is exposure," as developed in an interview study on embarrassment in American subjects by Holland and Kipnis (1994, 320-321). The famous story of the Emperor's New Clothes also is relevant here because it concerns social roles and fitting into society. The little boy who couldn't see the alleged new suit of clothes was not yet properly socialized into the role conformity of being a dutiful subject to the king.
But rather than speculate on the basis of waking metaphors, we need to do further studies with this simple dream that can be collected in abundance. We need to find out more about feelings and events on the day of its occurrence, or about forthcoming events of concern to the dreamer. We need to make a concerted effort to understand the range of events (are they in relation to social roles?) that might be triggering this dream. We need to find dream series in which inappropriate dress dreams are frequent so that we can compare them with other dreams in the series. Most of all, here is a situation where we need to see if there is a correlation between the occurrence and frequency of these dreams and such individual differences as (1) frequency of feeling embarrassed in waking life; (2) shyness; (3) nervousness in new social roles; and (4) concern with peer acceptance. In short, this single typical dream may be ideal for a number of reasons in developing an understanding of the repetition dimension in dreams.
We conclude this section with one of the few dreams of any type, typical or individual, that is primarily positive in emotional content. We refer to dreams of flying, soaring, gliding, and floating above the earth without the aid of airplanes, balloons, gliders, or any other of the devices that are required for human beings to fly. We have included a question on flying dreams and their emotional tone (pleasurable, unpleasurable, or both) on our questionnaire concerning past dreams because they have the potential for being linked to waking metaphors based on the experience of flying.
Three-fourths of the men and 55% of the women in our first Santa Cruz sample and 59% of the men and 53% of the women in the second sample report experiencing a dream where they were flying under their own power. Most of these dream experiences were judged to be highly positive, although some of the positive feelings sometimes turned into apprehension later in the dream.
In pleasurable flying dreams, people report that they merely flapped their arms and went straight up like a helicopter, or put their arms in front of them and took off like superman, or just suddenly found themselves floating along looking down at the ground. We think such dream experiences may be based in the conceptual metaphor that "happy is up" (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Lakoff, l987). This metaphor allows people to express their pleasure by saying they are "up," "high," "flying," "high as a kite," "walking on air," "floating on air," or "on top of the world." The fact that pleasurable flying dreams can contain an edge of concern, or turn apprehensive, does not contradict this metaphoric theory. People often express fear that positive feeling states will come to an end with comments about "crashing" or "coming down."
Conclusion on Typical Dreams
Typical dreams, if they are considered within the context of the repetition dimension, may be of greater theoretical interest than has been realized in the past. They may reveal the expression of emotional preoccupations, both negative and positive, common to everyone at one time or another (e.g., grief, embarrassment, elation). However, the study of such dreams as a window into the repetition dimension is clearly at a very early stage. The results are suggestive and encouraging, but much more work would have to be done before typical dreams could have the same standing on the repetition dimension as the other points along it.
Repetitive Dream Themes
Clinical researchers, especially Jungians, have given us some intimations of the degree to which certain themes may repeat themselves in dreams. However, Hall's systematic work with lengthy dream series revealed just how pervasive and consistent repeated elements and themes are in dreams. Since much of that work has been presented in earlier chapters, we will direct most of our attention here to one new dream series and to new aspects of a series already discussed. The general point, rather obviously, is that the repetitive themes and elements found in long dream series can be seen as denatured versions of recurrent dreams, and thus as another point on the repetition dimension.
A look at the themes in Dorothea's 50-year series, a topic not previously discussed in full, provides a good starting point. Ten themes appeared with considerable regularity in Dorothea's dreams. Six appeared with basically the same frequency throughout the entire fifty years. In roughly one out of every four dreams she was eating or thinking of food. The loss of an object, usually her purse, occurred in one out of every six dreams. Dorothea was in a small or disorderly room, or her room was being invaded by others, in every tenth dream. Another ten percent of her dreams involved the dreamer and her mother. She was trying to go to the toilet in one out of every 12 dreams, usually being interrupted in the process, and she was late, concerned about being late, or missing a bus or train in one out of every 16 dreams. These six themes alone account for at least part of the content in almost 75% of her dreams, strong support for the idea of a repetition dimension. Unfortunately, it is not really possible to explain how all these themes might relate to stresses in Dorothea's life. This is because we do not know enough about her. The important point to be drawn from her series is the sheer repetition of themes over five decades: this repetition appears to have echoes, however emotionally faint, of traumatic dreams and recurrent dreams.
One of Hall's (1982) unpublished analyses not discussed in previous chapters provides an opportunity to show how at least some of the themes discovered in a long dream series are connected to the dreamer's main preoccupations. This analysis of 449 dreams covers "only" 16 years, but the themes are unusual. The subject of this analysis, called "T" by Hall, wrote Hall the following letter in the late 70s:
May I say how much I enjoyed your books about dreams. I have utilized them as I sought help through psychotherapy to moderate certain character defects.
I have reached the age where I am aware of my own mortality. I have probably two thousand dreams written down through the nights over sixteen years. Some are typed. Some are in handwriting. If you're interested in such a group of dreams, I will type them out and send them to you (Hall, 1982:2).
Hall replied that he would like to see a few of the typed dreams before he decided whether or not to do anything with the series. The letter and typed dreams that came back convinced Hall he was dealing with a literate and reasonable person. In addition, the dreams were interesting because they were so unrealistic, a feature of a dream series that we have shown to be more atypical than the common image of dreams might lead one to expect.
Hall then asked for half the dreams, including the first and last 100 and ones from all other years. The dreamer, who greatly overestimated the number of dreams in his collection, sent back 449 dreams. Later he sent the remaining 514 on his own initiative (Hall, 1982:3). The analysis to be presented here was completed before the second half of the dreams arrived. Our careful reading of the remaining dreams convinced us they are no different in their thematic content from those Hall analyzed.
As Hall later learned, T was indeed to all outward appearances a normal and satisfied person. In his early 50s at the time he first contacted Hall, he was a former law enforcement official who had earned a degree in creative writing after his retirement. He was happily married after marital stress when he was in his 30s and 40s, and his two grown children were doing well. He reported that psychotherapy had helped him with his tendencies toward anxiety, anger, and depression--he no longer became so angry with authority figures, he did not become depressed, and he was a recovering alcoholic who had not had a drink in 17 years. He had stopped the womanizing of his earlier years and controlled his compulsive gambling.
But one thing did not change between 1963 and 1979, and that was his dreams. The same themes were present in the first 100 dream reports as in the last 100 (Hall, 1982:64-65), and they are very different from what is found in most dream series. The five main themes for our purposes here are (1) the overbearing but seductive mother; (2) the weak but lovable father; (3) the dangerous homosexual who makes advances and must be attacked; (4) males with female characteristics and females with male characteristics; and finally (5) metamorphoses of all kinds and descriptions, including men into women, women into men, humans into animals, young into old, and objects into animals and people.
There are 31 dreams where his mother appears and 26 with his father present. The mother is variously "depicted as being insincere, self-pitying, overbearing, cold, quarrelsome, rude, and contemptuous," and in only one dream, where she consoles T, is she presented in a positive way (Hall, 1982:14). In one dream she turns into a werewolf and in another characteristic dream T is trying to break free as she clings to him, demanding to be kissed. Conversely, T's love for his father is demonstrated in five dreams, and in four dreams the father is helpful and concerned in regard to T. There are three dreams where the father acts as a moral authority, but five in which he is weak, passive, or inadequate, sometimes in relation to T's mother. In one dream T sucks his father's penis and in another dream T notices that his father has no penis.
Homosexuals are extremely rare in the dreams of heterosexuals, but T has 28 dreams in which they appear. Usually they approach him and make advances toward him; he is disgusted or frightened, and he tries to repulse them, sometimes quite violently with a knife or other weapon. There are also 11 dreams in which T is surprised or confused by women with penises, men with breasts, or men without penises. In one such dream, "a beautiful woman appeared naked with a penis. My feelings are confusion, disbelief in what I saw." T makes advances toward her, but she rejects him; he keeps asking her if she has a penis. Then, "she shows it to me growing out of her left breast. She described how she made it by pushing a small stick or object into her breast. It is like the hard penis of an eight or ten-year-old boy" (Hall, 1982:34-35).
There are 73 metamorphoses in T's dreams, and they are far more varied and far less benign than those found in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Of the most relevance to this brief summary of the study are the 12 dreams where a man changes into a woman, or vice versa. In two of these 12, it is T himself who makes the change. Sometimes there is an age change as well as a gender change, as when an enemy soldier changes into a 15-year-old girl or a ten-year-old girl changes into T (Hall, 1982:39-40).
Taken as a whole, the unusual themes in this dream series suggested to Hall that T was plagued by three emotionally troubling questions: Am I male or female? Am I heterosexual or homosexual? Am I an adult or a child? (Hall, 1982:41). T's conception of his mother as overbearing in contrast to his father as passive may have been one cause of these questions. When Hall presented his inferences to T, he readily agreed with the characterizations of his mother and father. He also said he had struggled to become an adult. However, he said that he never doubted his maleness, nor did he have any concerns over whether he was homosexual. He did not recall any experiences of homosexual advances toward him. Thus, the recurring themes in this series must remain in part a mystery to us.
Much work of great potential remains to be done with themes in long dream series. For now, though, we think the findings on Dorothea and T, and Jason in chapter 7, provide the basis for a tentative conclusion: at least some themes in dreams may be residues of difficult relationships or painful experiences, thereby linking repetitive dream themes with traumatic dreams and recurrent dreams.
It is now time to consider briefly how the usual content of ordinary dreams from average dreamers might relate to the repetition dimension. That is, it is now time to add the findings presented in this book to the repetition dimension.
Repeated Dream Elements
Most clinical theorists, with the exception of Jung (1974) and French and Fromm (1964), tend to focus on one dream at a time, and they attempt to understand each dream in terms of material from outside of it -- events of the previous day, biographical information, free associations, amplifications, or the acting out of the dream. These approaches do not lend themselves to finding that a person dreams consistently about certain themes or has higher frequencies for some dream elements than most people. Thus, most clinical theorists probably would not expect everyday dream life to be part of a repetition dimension. Too many dream reports do not seem to fit.
However, as this book demonstrates, quantitative content analysis of both series and sets of dreams shows there is a large amount of repetition in the everyday dreams of everyday people. There is repetition in the classes of characters and types of social interactions people dream about, and there are individual, age, gender, and cultural differences in relative frequencies, and hence, we can infer, in concerns and interests. For example, Kafka fits on the repetition dimension in one way, the child molester in another. Men are high in some categories, women in others. In terms of the hypothesis being considered in this chapter, quantitative consistencies and high frequencies are evidence for the repetition dimension. Quantitative findings on ordinary dreams have allowed us to link these dreams with what we know about more dramatic types of dreams from clinical, questionnaire, and qualitative studies.
In closing our argument, we want to emphasize we have not said that all dream content is repetitive and past-oriented. We recognize that new elements appear in dreams and that we can dream about concerns in the future. Young unmarried women's dreams about fouled-up weddings, discussed earlier in the chapter, come to mind here. So do the anxious dreams about deformed babies and difficult labor experienced by some pregnant women (Van de Castle, 1971:39-40; Stukane, 1985; Maybruck, 1989). We have argued that the repetition dimension inplies that dreams reflect emotional concerns, but we do not preclude emotional concern with the new as well as the old, the happy as well as the sad, or the trivial as well as the profound, for that matter. As we will now see, the wide range of concerns found in dream content are also found in studies of waking cognition. The repetition dimension in dreams may be one end of a longer continuum.
Dreaming and Waking Cognition
There is now impressive evidence on the similarities between dreaming and waking cognition, suggesting they lie along a continuum rather than being distinctive forms of thinking. The first evidence for this similarity is developmental. Foulkes's longitudinal and cross-sectional studies of dreaming in young children, reported in chapter 5, show that the ability to produce a coherent and animated dream narrative parallels the development of waking cognitive capabilities. Most children under age six or seven do not dream very well. They report a few static images on a minority of awakenings from REM sleep, and only gradually between ages seven and eight introduce action and their own selves into the process (Foulkes, 1982, 1993b).
Studies of the inability to produce visual imagery in brain-damaged patients also point to this similarity. People who lose their ability to create visual imagery in waking thought also report an inability to dream, or else to produce visual imagery in their dreams (Kerr, 1993). The high quality of the many speech acts in dream reports argues for the same parallel. Sentences in dream reports are as complex and grammatically correct as in waking life, and they are appropriate to the situation in the dream. For example, bilingual subjects in laboratory studies with REM awakenings use the language appropriate for the person they are talking to or the situation they are in during the dream (Meier, 1993). This implies that the brain is functioning at just as high a level in dreams as in waking.
Looking at the parallels from the waking side, several different studies report dream-like mentation in samples of free-flowing thought. Foulkes and Scott (1973) found that 24% of sampled thoughts from 16 female college students were described as visual, dramatic, and dream-like in a laboratory study where subjects reclined in a moderately lighted room while their wakefulness was monitored by EEG recordings. Foulkes and Fleisher (1975) then found a very similar figure, 19%, in a replication study using 10 men and 10 women who were each signaled to report their thoughts 12 times in sessions of 45 to 60 minutes. In a comprehensive sampling of everyday thought in 29 undergraduates (13 men, 16 women) who were signaled randomly over a period of seven days by means of a pager, Klinger and Cox (1987/88: 124) report that 9% of the 1,425 thought samples were rated as involving "more than a trace" of dream-like thought and another 16% as having "a trace" of such thought.
But what about the seemingly "symbolic" nature of dreaming as opposed to waking thought? As this book has shown, much of our dream life seems to involve straightforward narratives about our lives, but to the degree it does not we can turn to literature suggesting that dream symbolism may be a form of metaphoric thinking during sleep (Langer, 1948; Hall 1953b; Lakoff, 1993). This parallel is strengthened by the fact that metaphorical and other forms of figurative thinking seem to be more extensive in waking thought than is generally recognized (e.g., Gibbs, 1994: chap. 4). Lakoff (1987; with Johnson, 1980) has suggested a long list of "metaphors we live by," ones we take for granted and often do not consciously register as metaphors. For example, we conceptualize the mind as a "container" and anger as "heated fluid in a container," so we can talk of people "blowing their stacks" or "flipping their lids." Moreover, there is evidence to show that some figurative speech has a basis in mental imagery. When people are asked about idioms such as "spilling the beans" or proverbs like "a rolling stone gathers no moss," the great majority produce visual images containing considerable commonality (Gibbs and O'Brien, 1990; Gibbs, 1994: 163, 315-317).
The content as well as the process of spontaneous waking thought seems to have many similarities with dreaming. Summarizing a wide range of studies on children's play and imaginings between ages four and 12, Klinger (1971: chap. 3) concludes they most frequently reflect current concerns. Studies of the content of adults' daydreams with Singer and Antrobus's (1970) Imaginal Processes Inventory suggest current concerns as the primary content of this form of spontaneous waking thought (e.g., Singer, 1988; Klinger, 1990), and there is evidence of recurrent daydreams as well (Singer 1975, 17ff). Further, the daydream diaries of people who filled out Klinger's Concern Dimensions Questionnaire reflect the same concerns expressed on the questionnaire. Fifty percent of the daydreams in one study, as we briefly reported in chapter 8, contained one of the top five concerns on people's lists. Here we can add that 65% included at least one of the concerns mentioned on the questionnaire (Gold and Reilly, 1985/86). These findings with questionnaires and diaries have been confirmed in random thought samples obtained by signaling people via pagers as they go about their everyday lives. As with dreams, the current concerns of waking life can reflect ongoing conflicts from childhood, continuing regrets about the past, newly arisen problems, or worries and rehearsals regarding the future, but we also savor more good memories in these waking samples than we do in dreams (Klinger 1990, 18-19).
If we combine the findings on the similarities between dreaming and waking cognition on both process and content, it seems likely that we can extend the repetition dimension into waking thought. There are parallels to traumatic dreams in the waking "flashbacks" of post-traumatic stress disorder. There are recurrent and typical daydreams (Singer, 1966, 1975). There are individual styles and themes in people's daydreams (Klinger, 1990: chap. 4), and of course there are individual differences in the frequency of different kinds of current concerns in everyday thought samples. These parallels lead to a conclusion very similar to the one drawn by Singer (1988) and Klinger (1990): emotionally arousing events in real life are the basis for concerns expressed in daydreams, random thought intrusions, and dreams. Our everyday consciousness, concludes Singer (1988: 303), is full of "unfinished intentions as well as current concerns."
Having stressed the continuity of waking cognition and dreaming at an underlying level, including the possible presence of the repetition dimension in both states, we now need to remember the differences as well. Daydreams are generally more pleasant, more satisfactory in outcome, and more transparent in meaning to us, and we usually feel more in control of them as well (Singer, 1966; Klinger, 1990: 16, 64). They may express the same concerns as dreams, but not as dramatically. Dreams, need we say, are a very real experience for us. We seem to lose our self-reflectiveness in dreams, that is, our ability to comment on our thinking and realize it is "only" thinking. We become extremely "single-minded" in our dreams (Rechtschaffen, 1978; Foulkes, 1985). We are caught "in" them. They happen to us. They can leave us shocked, upset, or puzzled to a far greater degree than daydreams.
Not even drug-induced states or hallucinations have the same experiential qualities as dreams, despite the tendency of many theorists to think of them as linked to dreams because they feel beyond our control. Drug-induced states usually lack an ongoing narrative quality, that is, a story line, or even more, a sense of personal involvement in some continuing interaction with other people. As for hallucinations, they are overwhelmingly auditory in nature, consisting of voices that interrupt thinking, or persecutory figures who make criticisms and issue commands.
Dreams, then, are unique picture stories that we enter into at night. They are dramas that occupy our minds while we are asleep. Most preliterate peoples throughout the world believe dreams are the real adventures of the soul as it wanders about outside the body during sleep, meeting up with other souls and various kinds of spirits. If we put aside our theories for a moment, this is not very different from the subjective sense we have when we awaken from a dream: they are real while they are happening. For us, though, they can serve as a direct route to our conceptions and concerns, as shown with considerable precision through the quantitative study of dream content.
- The one strongly positive relationship in his dream reports is with his wife. She is quite often portrayed as supportive of him and he is protective of her. She may be the reason why both T and the marriage survived (Hall, 1982:21-25).
Go back to the Dream Library index.