Classroom Lecture Notes: Overview of Dream Research

by G. William Domhoff

These are my own notes that I use when teaching classes about dream research. They may be of use to those looking for some general information about dreams and dream research.

Three main reasons why dreams are so marginal in psychology

  1. By and large, you can't do systematic experiments. Dreams cannot be "caused" to occur. They are not easily influenced once under way, and then influenced only in trivial ways. Dreaming is a relatively autonomous state.
    Even the concerns expressed just before sleep do not predict what people dream about in the first REM period of the night. So even if dreams express concerns, as the instructor will later claim (and he could be proven wrong), we can't tell which concerns will appear in a night's dreams.
  2. They can't be observed while they are happening, except in the rare instance of REM Behavior Disorder.
  3. They can't be reported on while they are happening. At least awake participants can report their subjective states while those states are occurring, like a drug experience.

So, all dream researchers have to work with is a "report" of a "memory" of a cognitive experience during sleep. This "distance" from the event makes psychologists wonder if dreams can be studied in a scientific way. They also worry that some reports may be incomplete, inaccurate, or completely made-up.

When it comes to dream recall, we know very little. "Motivation" to recall or an "interest" in dreams best predicts recall, better than personality or cognitive variables. Thus, it may be best to focus dream research on extremely good recallers if we want to understand dream content.

The five streams of dream research, dates of origin, and peak years

  1. Clinical...began in 1900, ascendant until 1950s. Freud, Jung, Perls, many others. All are offshoots of or reactions to Freud, and secondarily elaborations of Jung.
  2. Classroom/empirical era. Began in 1945, never ascendant, but still ongoing. Started by Calvin S. Hall by collecting dreams from students, then older adults and children. No info on dreamer, objective analysis, opposite of clinical approach.
  3. Sleep laboratory era...began in 1953 with discovery of REM sleep, ascendant in 1960s/70s. Led to many important discoveries. Raised big questions about clinical theorists. But did not fulfill its initial hopes, leading to disappointment on part of many lab dream researchers. There are only one or two dream research labs left in the United States, a few in Canada and Italy.
  4. Dreamwork movement...this movement began in late 1960s, peaked in 1980s, and is still ongoing. Believe dreams are positive, a basis of creativity, should be shared in groups. In most ways, opposite of clinical view, but also different from classroom and lab orientations because not very friendly to scientific approaches. Very experiential.
  5. Cognitive/neurocognitive era...started in 1980s, now of interest in academic world, but still marginal...began with general turn in cognitive direction in psychology...also influenced by laboratory findings on children's dreaming, showing children may only gradually develop the ability to dream as cognitive abilities mature. Also now more credible because of brain imaging studies showing which parts of the brain are active during dreaming, along with neuropsychological studies showing that dreaming is lost when certain parts of the brain are damaged.

What are the main findings from cross cultural studies of dreams?

  1. Just about everywhere, people think dreams are important, but this is more true in hunting and gathering societies, generally speaking, than in agricultural communities. From this fact, some researchers infer that dreams are important when people live in conditions of uncertainty, such as when they don't have a stable food supply.
  2. However, not all dreams are important. Most societies, and Carl Jung, distinguish between "big" and "little" dreams.
  3. Most societies have dream specialists called "shamans." If we take a step back, we can think of them as having the same role as psychoanalysts in our society, which also means that psychoanalysts function as modern-day shamans. In both cases, they go into the "other world"--the spirit world or the unconscious--to learn the causes of an illness, and they use dreams to do so.
  4. As implied by point 3 above, in all cultures dreams are thought of as coming from "somewhere else," either the spirit world or the unconscious. They are not the product of our waking "self." They don't feel like we create them. They "happen" to us.
  5. The biggest difference between traditional societies and Western societies is that we think dreams have personal, psychological meaning, whereas they tend to think dreams have spiritual meaning (in the sense of prophecies, warnings, visits from spirits).

So, here's a generalization...when are dreams important...when people have big concerns...in times of crisis and transition. We will say there are at least six such occasions.

  1. Physical illness--fever, chemical imbalance, etc. For most societies, this illness is due to malevolent spirits, or sinful acts, and thus the role of dream is to divine the source of the illness.
  2. Personal or Family Crisis, which can lead to scary dreams/nightmares. Some teenagers develop an interest in dreams out of such crisis dreams.
  3. When a loved one dies, or is about to die. This is important in two different ways. First, we may have a dream that "predicts" the person's death, which can lead to a belief in parapsychology, and at the least create an interest in dreams. Second, the deceased loved one may appear in dreams and seem as alive as ever, which is shocking or frightening to the dreamer at first, and contributes to a belief in a world of spirits. Later, the dreamers may have dreams in which this person is alive and giving reassurance that all is well for him/her, or providing advice to the dreamer.
  4. During the transition from youth to adulthood. In many societies, it is necessary to have a "big" dream to determine your future role in the society. This dream can be induced by social isolation, sleep deprivation, fasting, and/or the use of a hallucinogen.
  5. At moments of religious conversion. In the excitement and stress of thinking about changing religions, people may have dreams in which the main personage in the new religion appears, which is taken as a sign they should convert because of the belief that dreams come from a spirit world. Most people do not consider that they might have this dream because they have been hearing about and thinking about this spiritual figure. The dream convinces them to convert: it becomes an "occasion," a "platform," a reason to make the change.
  6. In times of crisis for a culture, a person (called the "culture hero" by some anthropologists) has a dream or dreamlike experience in which he/she is told the new directions the cultural group must take. It is as if the general crisis is "solved" for everyone via one person's dreams. Some anthropologists believe that dreams play a large role in the creation of many new cultural practices, including religions.

Generally speaking, then, dreams during illness, family crisis, when loved ones die, or at times of cultural crisis, lead to a close tie between dreams and belief in a world of spirits. Dreams figure importantly in many religions, as a look at some of the key passages in the Bible will attest.

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