What Dreams Reflect in Your Waking Life

What Dreams Reflect in Your Waking Life by Kelly BulkeleyNew research highlights 13 areas of continuity between waking and dreaming.

Since 2009 I have been experimenting with word search technologies to identify meaningful patterns in people’s dreams, using an empirical method that others can test, replicate, and verify.  In a recent unpublished working paper I performed a “meta-analysis” of these studies to determine the strongest signals of waking-dreaming continuity I have found so far.  Below is a summary and condensation of the initial results, sorted into three broad groups: Self, Relationships, and Culture.

Self

Professional/public identity: Dreams accurately reflect a person’s main activity, profession, or job in waking life.  Based only on the content of dreams, we can tell whether someone is an educator, a journalist, a soldier, a student, a scientist, or a musician (as examples I’ve found in previous studies).

Health: Patterns in dreaming correspond to various aspects of the dreamer’s physical and mental health.  Dreams indicate when people are depressed or anxious, when they have suffered a trauma, when they are injured or disabled, and when they are facing the end of life.

Personality: At least some aspects of personality are accurately mirrored in dream content, including emotional temperament, either balanced or turbulent, and sociability, either high or low.

Gender: An individual’s gender is reflected in dream content, and so are the gendered aspects of an individual’s interactions in the social world, either more male-oriented or more female-oriented.

Death: There is a strong correlation between the appearance of death-related words in dreams and concerns about death in waking life.

Relationships

Family and Friends: Dreams offer an especially accurate reflection of the most important relationships in a person’s life.  The more frequently someone appears in your dreams, the more likely it is that you have an emotionally significant relationship with that person, whether or not the person is physically present in your current life, and whether your feelings toward that person are positive or negative.

Sexuality: Patterns in dream content accurately reflect the level of sexual activity in a person’s waking life, both physical and imagined.  Romantic relationships and falling in love make a discernible impact on dream content.

Animals: People who have strong relationships with animals in waking life also tend to dream frequently about those animals.

Culture

Reading & writing: People who enjoy reading and writing in waking life also have higher frequencies of these activities in their dreams.

School: People’s educational backgrounds can be discerned in the patterns of their dreams, either highly engaged with schools or far removed from schooling and formal education.

Sports: Dreams accurately reflect people’s engagement with sports and athletics. Patterns of dreaming can identify people who are actively involved in sports and enjoy watching it, or who have no interest at all in sports.

Artistic interests: People who are engaged with art in waking life tend to dream extensively about art, too.  I found correlations between people’s dreams and their interests in painting, music, theater, literature, and poetry.

Religion/spirituality:  Patterns of dream content reflect important aspects of the dreamer’s religious or spiritual concerns.  For some people, their dreams reveal a deep involvement with a formal religious tradition.  For others, their dreams reflect a sense of “unchurched” spiritual curiosity and eclecticism.  And for others, their dreams indicate a generally low level of interest in religion or spirituality in waking life.

There are many limits to the use of word search methods in the study of dreams, and many challenges that need to be overcome if this approach is to grow into a generally useful tool for dream researchers.  But even with these limits, we can identify several strong signals of meaning in dream content.  These are the simplest, most obvious ways in which dreams accurately reflect people’s concerns in waking life.  Future studies, using more sophisticated tools, will likely reveal even deeper levels of meaning.

 

Note: previous publications on this material include 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016.

Cosmo Romance Dreams

Cosmo Romance Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyA couple of years ago a reporter from Cosmopolitan magazine sent me a list of dream types she had gathered from other women in her office.  I can’t remember if an article ever appeared, but I thought the dreams were interesting as expressions of the concerns many women feel about their romantic relationships.  Here is the intro I gave to the reporter, the dream types, and my comments. (Note: I just found a copy of the article.  It appeared in the December 2010 issue, p. 112, under the rather lurid title “What Your Freaky Love Dreams Mean.”)

 

Many of these dreams seem to have a distressing, negative tone, so let me say that in general I look at “bad” dreams and nightmares as valuable opportunities for insight and growth.  Such dreams usually revolve around the most emotionally important and challenging issues of our lives.  They focus on our difficulties precisely in order to give us a deeper understanding of what’s going on and what we might do about it.

 

1) You’re back with an ex.
*Is there a different interpretation depending on whether the ex you dreamt about was a nice guy who you had a good relationship with vs. a bad guy who didn’t treat you well?
Dreaming about one’s past romantic partners never ends.  He may be gone from your waking life, but, for better or worse, he’ll linger in your dreams forever.  These kinds of dreams do NOT automatically mean you want to get back together with him.  Rather, they reflect the complex and long-lasting impact any serious relationship makes on your unconscious mind. The details of the dream are important: I would want to know, in what situations does your ex appear?  What kind of emotional energy does he bring into the dream scenario?  If he’s a “good” ex, perhaps the dream suggests there’s still a way in which his presence is a helpful force in your waking life.  If he’s a “bad” ex, maybe it reflects a sense of still being trapped in the relationship, or possibly threatened by something symbolized by his kind of personality.

2) Your partner betrays you in some way (like cheating, lying, or revealing something personal about you to everyone).
This is the price of a committed relationship: a vulnerability to betrayal.  No matter how strong a relationship may appear in waking life, both people inevitably suffer some degree of insecurity, both conscious and unconscious, about their partner’s being unfaithful.  This insecurity naturally comes out in dreams that vividly portray how badly you would feel if your partner violated your trust and fidelity.  It’s possible the dreams are clues to an actual problem in the relationship (again, the details matter), but usually such anxiety dreams are reminders of our exposure to extreme emotional pain whenever we form a romantic bond with someone else.
3) You blow it with your man (whether by having a one-night stand, saying something cruel to him, etc.).
Monogamy doesn’t come easily.  We all have within us complex and conflicting feelings about our romantic partners.  It’s important to acknowledge and accept those feelings when they arise in dreams, even if we don’t necessarily act on them.  That said, if someone were having these dreams frequently, I’d certainly wonder about the quality of their waking relationship.
4) You’re engaged, and there’s something off about your ring—the stone is missing or so small you can’t see it, it’s ugly, etc.

An engagement ring is an ancient emblem of love and commitment, a very public announcement of two people’s plans for a future life together.  This makes it an excellent dream symbol for a person’s feelings about the impending marriage.  Because the focus in these dreams is usually on the appearance of the ring, I’d want to ask if there’s a concern about the appearance vs. the substance of the relationship.

5) Something weird happens during your wedding (like you can’t see the groom’s face).

A wedding is one of the most momentous rituals of human society, a true rite of passage that forever binds two people’s lives into one.  The awesome magnitude of this life change is often reflected in distressing dreams of wedding day disaster.  A Buddhist perspective might be helpful here: In that tradition’s view, a dream of wedding catastrophe could be a good dream because it shows your old way of life is dying and a new and better way of life is being born.  The weirdness reflects the shifting of your reality from the past to the future.  In the case of the groom’s missing face, it might be that his appearance and personality are not the primary focus here; what’s ultimately important is the power of the vows you’re making with him.