Attitudes Towards Dreaming: New Research

Attitudes Towards Dreaming: New Research by Kelly BulkeleyA new study explores the demographic variables that correlate with positive vs. negative attitudes towards dreams.

In the latest issue of the International Journal of Dream Research, Michael Schredl and I published the results of a new study on people’s attitudes towards dreaming. Several studies have been done previously looking at differences in people who have a positive view towards dreams versus people who have a negative view towards dreams. Most studies have found that younger people have more positive attitudes towards dreams than older people; women have more positive attitudes than men; and people with high dream recall have more positive attitudes than people with low dream recall.

Our study replicated those findings, and went beyond them by looking at three additional variables: ethnicity, education, and religion. The results shed new light on the sociology of dreaming in the contemporary United States.

The study involved an online survey of 5,255 American adults, administered by YouGov, a professional opinion research company. In addition to their demographic background, the participants were asked several questions about their attitudes towards dreams. These questions took the form of six statements about dreams, presented in random order. The participants were asked if they agreed or disagreed with each statement:

  • Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.
  • Dreams are a good way of learning about my true feelings.
  • Dreams can anticipate things that happen in the future.
  • Dream are random nonsense from the brain.
  • I am too busy in waking life to pay attention to my dreams.
  • I get bored listening to other people talk about their dreams.

The first three of these statements were considered positive, in that they regard dreaming as something real, powerful, and valuable. The second three statements were considered negative in dismissing dreams as unreal or insignificant.

Our analysis of the results led to several new and interesting findings. In terms of ethnicity, the blacks in this sample had significantly higher frequencies of agreement with the positive statements about dreams, and lower frequencies of agreement with the negative statements, compared to whites. Hispanics had more agreement with the positive statements than the whites, but not as much as the black participants. At the same time, Hispanics agreed more with the negative statements than either the blacks or whites.

In terms of education, we analyzed the participants in two groups: those who had attended at least some college, and those with at most a high school degree. The differences were fairly small between these two groups. The people with more education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “bored by other people’s dreams” statement. The people with less education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements.

The most intriguing results came from the religion question. We found that religious orientation correlates strongly with attitudes towards dreaming. Atheists and agnostics were mostly likely to disagree with the positive statements and agree with the “random nonsense” statement. The Protestants and especially the Catholics were more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements. The participants who identified themselves religiously as “something else” had the least negative and most positive attitudes towards dreaming of all the groups. This seems like an especially important avenue for future research, looking more carefully at the “something else” population to study how their unconventional religious outlook affects their attitudes towards dreams. Our findings suggest that dreaming is an especially important part of these people’s spiritual lives.

This study provides new clarity about the demographic qualities that are most often associated with positive or negative attitudes towards dreams. The people in contemporary American society who are most intensely engaged with dreaming (“hyper-dreamers”) tend to be young, female, non-white, slightly less educated, and more spiritual than religious. The people who are least engaged with and most dismissive of dreams (“hypo-dreamers”) tend to be older, male, white, slightly more educated, and atheist or agnostic. These are broad tendencies with lots of individual variation, but they do suggest a deeper connection between certain clusters of demographic qualities and how people relate to their dreams in the present-day United States.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 22, 2019. 

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity by Kelly BulkeleySexual dreams have long been part of human experience, as we know from historical sources.  For example, the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, an ancient manual of dream interpretation, devoted several pages to the various types and classes of sexual dreams.

 

However, we do not know how widespread sexual dreams are, who has them most often, and when they begin.

 

In a survey I commissioned a couple of years ago, nearly 3000 American adults were asked the question, “Have you ever had a dream with sexual feelings or experiences?”  Of those who answered “Yes,” a follow-up question was asked: “Did you have any sexual dreams before your first sexual activity in waking life?”

The answers to the first question were 69% Yes and 24% No for the men (1912 of them), and 58% Yes and 34% No for the women (1058 total), with 7% of the men and 8% of the women responding “Not Sure.”

On most other typical dreams questions (e.g., chasing, falling, visitation) the women answered Yes more often than did the men.  Sexual dreams stood out as a significantly more frequent experience for the men.

For the follow-up question about sexual dreams before sexual activity, the gender disparity was even bigger: 48% of the men said Yes and 22% said No, whereas only 23% of the women said Yes while 39% said No.

Looking more closely at follow-up question results, the age of the participants mattered a lot.  The frequency of Yes answers was much higher for younger than older people, although the gap between males and females remained for all ages.

 

  Males     Females    
Age Yes No N/S Yes No N/S
18-29 76% 8% 15% 55% 22% 22%
30-49 55% 16% 29% 31% 37% 32%
50-64 44% 24% 33% 17% 39% 44%
65+ 37% 30% 33% 11% 48% 42%

 

Other demographic variables (e.g., race, income, education, religion) did not correlate with any significant differences.

What can we learn from these results?

First, we have to consider the limitations of the data. Many people are simply reluctant to talk about sex.  Dreams sometimes portray taboo, socially frowned upon sexual behaviors that people may not want to admit.  Some religious traditions teach that sexual dreams should be shunned as demonic temptations.  More generally, people vary in how well they can recall different types of dreams from earlier in life.

All these factors suggest the survey results are underestimating rather than overestimating the frequency of sexual dreams. Some of the participants probably answered “No” when the actual truth was “Yes,” while it’s unlikely that many participants said “Yes” when the accurate answer would have been “No.”

To explain these findings, we can appeal to both biology and culture.  It makes sense that young people entering their prime years of reproductive potential would have dreams that anticipate and prepare them for this fundamental biological goal.  Just as some nightmares simulate threats to our survival (e.g., being chased by wild animals) so we’re better prepared to face them in waking life, it could be that sexual dreams are simulating reproductive opportunities we will hopefully have in the future.  Such dreams might have less biological value or significance for older people.

It could also be that young people in contemporary America are more likely to dream about sex because they are immersed in a culture filled with sexually arousing content.  Dream content accurately reflects people’s biggest emotional concerns, and it’s plausible to assume that many young people today are thinking a lot about sex before they are sexually active.   Again, such dreams would be less likely among older people whose emotional concerns no longer center on sexuality.

Both biological and cultural factors could also account for the gender differences.  The process of sexual maturation may generate stronger physical pressures for young males than females, prompting a higher proportion of sexually explicit dreams.  Cultural portrayals of sexuality certainly seem to emphasize male rather than female perspectives, which may stimulate relatively more dreaming about this subject.

These explanations are admittedly speculative and open to question.  However, it is clear that dreaming is closely connected to our nature as sexual beings.  Even before sexual activity in waking life we tend to be sexually active in our dreams, anticipating how it will happen, what it will feel like, and with whom we’ll share the experience.  The fact that some dreams can lead to actual climax for both men and women suggests that dreaming is, at one level, a physiologically hard-wired means of preparing us for our lives as reproductive beings.

We Have a Winner!

We Have a Winner! by Kelly BulkeleyCongratulations to Michael Paul Coder, the winner of the dream research contest I posed last week.  Michael correctly identified the gender, age, and dream type of six sets of dreams using only word search frequencies and my baseline hypotheses to make his inferences.  He also correctly identified the bonus questions of which sets of dreams came from the same person.  Best of all from my point of view, Michael showed me his work so I could see how he applied the baseline hypotheses to the word search frequencies.  The correct answers are below.

 

Perhaps it should not be surprising to learn that Michael is a talented and experienced software architect with a website, Lucid-Code, offering a variety of technologies for exploring consciousness in dreaming.

 

His success is encouraging because it shows that an essentially automatic process of word frequency analysis can reveal meaningful patterns in dreaming. It should give us additional confidence that this kind of approach to dream research can provide quick, accurate, and reliable results.

 

What other aspects of dream meaning can be illuminated by this method?  That’s an open question….

 

Set 1: Female, younger than 18, MRDs.

Set 2: Male, older than 18, MRDs.

Set 3: Male, older than 18, MRDs.

Set 4: Male, older than 18, MRDs.

Set 5: Female, younger than 18, MRDs.

Set 6: Male, older than 18, MRDs.

Bonus question: Sets 1 and 5 come from the same person, and Sets 3 and 4 come from the same person.

A Dream Research Contest

A Dream Research Contest by Kelly BulkeleyTo help test the initial hypotheses arising from the SDDb baselines, I am offering a dream research contest, open to anyone willing to give it a try.  The first person to send me (at bulkeleyk@gmail.com) the correct answers will win a $50 gift certificate to Amazon.com.

 

The contest challenges you to look at the word usage frequencies of six sets of dreams (available here) and make the following three predictions for each set: a) Is the dreamer a male or female? b)  Is the dreamer younger or older than 18? c) Is this a set of most recent dreams (MRDs) or highly memorable dreams (MemDs)?  You will not be able to read any of the dreams–you only get to look at the numerical frequencies of how often they used certain types of words.

 

I’m going to make it easier by giving three big clues.  These clues are so big, in fact, that they will give you a clear map to reach the correct answers.

 

Clue #1: The six sets of dreams come from four individual dreamers, let’s call them A, B, C, and D.  Two individuals gave two sets of dreams each.  The other two individuals gave one set of dreams each.  This means the contest has a bonus question: Which sets of dreams come from which individual?

 

Clue #2: As discussed in previous posts, the SDDb baselines have identified a number of significant differences between male and female dreamers and between MRDs and MemDs.   These differences can serve as analytic tools of comparison for making the kinds of predictions I’m asking you to propose.  Below are several specific tests you can use to identify the dreamer’s gender (male or female) and age (older or younger than 18) and the type of dreams contained in the set (MRDs or MemDs).  (Note: The age tests are not drawn directly from the SDDb but from other sources of research on children’s dreams (e.g., David Foulkes, Calvin Hall).)

 

Clue #3: There are two cases out of the 18 total predictions (3 questions x 6 sets of dreams) in which the overall conclusion of the tests gives the wrong answer.  In other words, the tests will lead you to the right answer about 89% of the time.  To get 100% of the answers right, you’ll have to add some kind of insight above and beyond the tests.

 

Good luck!  And please “show your work”–explain to me how you derived your predictions.

 

Tests for Gender:

If Emotion is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Emotion is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Fear is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Fear is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Speech is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Speech is Lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Characters is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Characters is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Family is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Family is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Friendliness is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Friendliness is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Physical Aggression is lower than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Physical Aggression is higher than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Sexuality is lower than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Sexuality is higher than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

 

Tests for Age:

If Cognition is higher than the MRD baselines –> Older than 18

If Animals is higher than the MRD baselines –> Younger than 18

If Family is higher than the MRD baselines –> Younger than 18

 

Tests for MRD vs. MemD

If Air is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Air is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Flying is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Flying is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Family is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Family is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Animals is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Animals is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Fantastic Beings is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Fantastic Beings is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Christianity is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Christianity is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Death is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Death is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

Who Sleeps Worst in the US? The Surprising Truth

Who Sleeps Worst in the US? The Surprising Truth by Kelly BulkeleyAn excellent guest post on Ryan Hurd’s Dream Studies website by A.L. Castonguay looks at sleep as a misunderstood public health issue.  Specifically, who in America is sleeping relatively well, and who is sleeping poorly?  The latter group is important to identify because inadequate sleep can lead to physical, emotional, and cognitive problems–not to mention disrupted, diminished dreaming.

Castonguay draws upon data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on sleeplessness in the US to discuss factors of age, region, employment status, and obesity, among other demographic variables.  Castonguay’s analysis shows that people who most often report sleeplessness, “defined as insufficient sleep (less than 7 hours per night) on more than 14 days within the past 30, are predominantly people of color…between the ages of 25-44, unable to work, and obese.”

These findings raise a number of questions about the cultural and behavioral influences on sleep.  I have also found in previous research that poor sleep corresponds to economic anxieties and employment concerns (e.g., Chapter 5, “Work and Money,” of American Dreamers).  I just received data from a new demographic survey of American adults, and a quick scan of the results point in the same direction–people at the lower end of the income scale sleep worse than people at the top end.

The obesity figures are striking, especially when shown on a regional map of the US.  The Southern part of the US has the highest proportion both of people who are obese and who get insufficient sleep.  We don’t know what’s cause and effect, but it seems there’s a strong and dynamic relationship between the two problems.

It turns out that the states with the lowest relative frequencies of insufficient sleep are California, Oregon, and the Dakotas.  Who knew?

One point Castonguay doesn’t mention that intrigues me is the relatively good sleep of Asians and Hispanics compared to other people of color (Black, American Indian, Multiracial).  The number of participants in these racial/ethnic groups may be low and thus less statistically representative, but the figures are consistent with hints I’ve found in my own research.

If, as the topline results indicate, culture plays a role in quality of sleep, we need a lot more detailed information about how individual people’s sleep experiences are shaped by the multiple strands of cultural influence, including ethnic background, economic status, education, family life, and eating behaviors.