Christmas Dreaming

Christmas Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyDreams during the holidays bring happy memories, and recurrent anxieties.

The holiday season brings many anticipated pleasures, and many reasons for worry. Our dreams about Christmas express both happiness and anxiety, eagerly looking forward to the holiday but also expressing recurrent worries about every possible thing that could go wrong.

The Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) includes 184 dream reports of 5+ words in length in which “Christmas” is mentioned at least once. Below are excerpts from a few of these dreams (identifying details have been removed). Without delving into the personal meanings of these dreams, we can still read them as fascinating commentaries from the unconscious on Christmas as a collective cultural experience.

Good times. The most positive Christmas dreams emphasize feelings of togetherness, play, and creativity.

“Dreamed about family Christmas time. Brought back happy memories of getting together with brother and sisters.”

“In my dream I was back home. It was Christmas break and my brother, his roommate and I were on a plane going home. When we got there, I went back to my high school and got to see all my friends again.”

“We were all in a hotel for Christmas. I don’t know why but it was a little sad. After a while, we walked outside and it began to snow. We all picked it up and had a snowball fight. It felt like a perfect day.”

“I dreamt that me and some other girl were singing in the living room to this Christmas music. We were trying to put “Away In a Manger” to a rap beat!”

“I was given a box with small parcels in it. I realized that this was a Christmas present. The dream became lucid and I thought, “This is a Christmas dream.” I was doing housework at the same time and noticed a bare Christmas tree in the house alongside a wall. I thought that it needed decorating before the party I would have that night.”

Misfortunes. Dreams also remind us of how very many things can go wrong during the holidays.

“My husband wants to plug in a string of Christmas lights that have a short circuit in them, or rather the switch in the wall does. The lights go on and off. I suggest he try another switch or plug.”

“I had a dream that it was Christmas Eve. My boyfriend and I arrived at my mother’s home in the afternoon and she wasn’t there, she didn’t show up till 5:30 because she was at the gym. This meant dinner wouldn’t be served till later than 8 which is when my boyfriend and I have to leave for a trip to his parents’ home. I was extremely irritated throughout the dream.”

“It was the night of my school’s Christmas pageant, and I was running late–very late. The pageant was supposed to start at 7:30, and I didn’t start dressing for it until 7:45. When I finally headed out the door, I was already a half hour late and I suddenly realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to do when I got there.”

“I was out Christmas shopping in a huge crowd and I got lost and couldn’t find my way out of the store.”

“I was buying trying a Christmas present for a family member but wherever I went it was out of stock or they didn’t have it.”

“I’m going to a Christmas party at my boss’s house, and I manage to spill my coffee, complete with generous amounts of soymilk, all over her couch.”

Nightmares. The holidays can bring out deeper fears, too.

“As a child, and a few times as an adult, I had a recurring dream at Christmas time, initially happy, involving spinning Christmas trees with colored lights. The multiple trees begin to spin faster, then unite into a single, large tree, and come closer. The dream turns darker, and the tree begins to be threatening, a whirl of pine needles and colored lights. Eventually I get sucked into the tree, and wake up in a sweat. To this day I use only white lights on my Christmas trees.”

“I was about 5 years old, and it was Christmas Eve. I was lying in bed, in the top bunk, and when I looked over at the bedroom door, there was a skeleton standing there, with a red Santa hat on, and a bag slung over its shoulder, as if full of gifts.”

Visitations. The most poignant Christmas dreams recall loved ones we have lost, and whose presence we miss most at this time of year.

 “Last week I dreamed that my brother and I were wrapping Christmas gifts. He ran out of wrapping paper and asked if I had any. I didn’t think I had any left but miraculously pulled out a roll and handed it to him. Just as I did this I woke up. My brother died many years ago. He lived in another state and would visit for a week every Christmas. Every time he came he would wrap all his gifts in my wrapping paper which irritated me.”

“I dreamed that my mom (who is deceased) and I were going out to the stores and shopping for Christmas. I didn’t want to wake up, because if I did then she would be gone again. The dream seemed really real.”

“My grandmother passed away recently. My dream was about us baking cookies. I believe the dream comes from the many memories I have of us doing that at Christmas.”

Conclusion

These dream reports were provided mostly from American adults, most of whom are Christians. Given the universality of dreaming, we can predict that people who are members of non-Christian religious traditions also have dreams about their most sacred holiday celebrations, and these dreams also range across the emotional spectrum from happy anticipations to anxious nightmares.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today, 12/14/20.

 

Jung, Flying Saucers, and the Anxieties of Our Time

Jung, Flying Saucers, and the Anxieties of Our Time by Kelly BulkeleyHow archetypal dreams, visions, and art respond to a collective crisis.

One of the last books he ever wrote, C.G. Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1957) shows how psychology can shed new light on social anxieties and cultural conflicts. This slender text offers Jung’s perspective on the controversial phenomenon of “unidentified flying objects” (UFOs). Writing at a time when UFO sightings were a public craze, Jung saw an opportunity for psychology to make a valuable contribution to collective understanding and self-reflection.  The resulting book remains an excellent model for the psychological interpretation of culture, with potentially helpful implications for our troubled times today.

Jung examined several kinds of texts with the UFO theme: dreams, art from both old and new sources, waking visions, and science fiction, along with media stories and governmental reports. This itself is interesting, as it shows how Jung treated all these different kinds of texts as arenas in which symbols from the collective unconscious (“archetypes”) can emerge. When treating an individual patient, Jung looked for the emergence of special symbols or archetypes that respond directly to the patient’s waking life problems. With the UFO phenomenon, he expanded this approach to the whole of Western society. Why are so many people dreaming, thinking, and envisioning UFOs at this particular moment? What is happening in society right now that elicits this kind of collective visionary experience?

Here as in many of his later writings, Jung highlighted the psychological strains of living during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The division of the world into two hostile, nuclear-armed camps, separated by an “Iron Curtain,” suggested that global humanity was in a gravely unhealthy condition. Jung also emphasized here as elsewhere how the modern world can threaten individuality with mass movements, both politically (communism) and economically (consumer capitalism). People everywhere were in danger of being subsumed into mindless, undifferentiated groups where true psychological development was impossible.

The sudden surge of UFO sightings at this specific moment in history made sense, Jung said, as a response to these acute social anxieties. With the conscious mind in such an embattled condition, the collective unconscious provided what Jung called a compensatory or balancing archetypal symbol: the mandala, an image of wholeness and integration. Mandala symbols are best known from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Asian religions, but in their archetypal essence they appear in all cultures, usually as round figures with a variety of geometric, chromatic, and symbolic complexities. Jung said that UFOs, whatever their reality as visitors from alien planets, have the psychological meaning of mandalas, projected into the sky above us, giving us a vision of transcendent union and wholeness. The integration we have failed to achieve in this world is reflected back to us as a living potential arriving from the greater realm of the cosmos (itself a symbol of the collective unconscious). Because people of our time are struggling in this essential psychological task of becoming an integrated, fully actualized individual (the process of “individuation”), the archetype of wholeness cannot be directly recognized in its traditional forms. Thus, it

“is forced to manifest itself indirectly in the form of spontaneous projections. The projected image then appears as an ostensibly physical fact independent of the individual psyche and its nature. In other words, the rounded wholeness of the mandala becomes a space ship controlled by an intelligent being.”

Thinking of Jung’s book and its methods as applied to our world today, we can ask the following questions: What is the great anxiety of our age? What is the greatest threat to collective health and well-being? What are the compensating dreams and visions pointing us beyond our current problems?

Since Jung’s time, the Cold War has ended, and Westerners have little to fear from global communism. The threat of civilization-ending nuclear war remains, but it no longer worries people the way it did some decades ago. Instead, a multitude of other apocalyptic scenarios haunt people’s waking hours. These include environmental catastrophe, civil war, economic collapse, pharmacological mind-control, robotic takeover, and political tyranny under an evil dictatorship (e.g. by fascists, socialists, racists, theocrats, and/or neoliberals), not to mention a global pandemic. We have reached Boschian extremes in our capacity to conjure vividly variegated scenarios of doom and ruin.

Following the logic of Jung’s method, and given our present context, perhaps we should be on the lookout for dreams, visions, and works of art that provide a creative response from the unconscious depths to these overwhelming apocalyptic horrors

For instance, we might expect the compensatory emergence of archetypal symbols of renewal and rebirth, of growth and revitalization, of a future collective renaissance.

We might expect to see more dreams of empathetic reconnection with others, stimulating greater awareness of multiple perspectives on the world, breaking free from the solipsism of the digitized self to reconnect with other people, with nature, and with one’s own body.

We might expect to see more expressions of the archetype of the trickster, the playful agent of chaos and disorder who disrupts established traditions and yet also inspires new creativity and cultural dynamism.

We might see more forceful and perhaps even threatening appearances of the anima archetype, challenging narrowly androcentric thinking and stubbornly enduring patriarchal biases in all aspects of personal and collective life.

It seems a near-certainty that the apocalyptic anxieties of the present age are already calling forth unconscious responses of archetypal energy and symbolism in all of our lives. The big question is whether our conscious minds can recognize these archetypal expressions when they do occur, and integrate them into a broader, more balanced sense of self—a stronger self that can act more effectively in the world, fueled by the energy of psychological wholeness.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today, 12/7/20.

A Database for Dreamers

A Database for Dreamers by Kelly BulkeleyThe Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) is a digital archive designed to promote an empirical, hands-on approach to dream research.  The SDDb enables users to apply basic tools of data analysis to identify meaningful dimensions of dreaming experience.  The goal of the SDDb is not to replace other modes of dream interpretation, but rather to complement and enrich them with new insights into the recurrent patterns of dream content.  Anyone who studies dreams, from whatever perspective and for whatever purpose, can benefit from knowing more about these basic patterns.

The SDDb is not the only online resource for this kind of approach to the study of dreams.  The Dreambank.net website run by G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider also has a large online collection of dream reports gathered by various researchers that can be searched and analyzed in many ways.  The future will likely witness the development of many other online databases with valuable collections of dream material.  The focus here is on the SDDb, but the following discussion highlights important methodological principles that apply to all forms of digitally enhanced dream research.

The SDDb currently contains more than 30,000 dream reports of various types from a wide range of people.  Some of the reports come from individuals who have kept a dream journal for many years.  Some of the reports come from participants in surveys and questionnaires.  Some come from the studies of other researchers who have generously shared their data with me.  The SDDb also includes dream reports from anthropological studies, historical texts, literary sources, and media interviews.  (The database does not, however, contain dream reports that users have entered directly through an online portal. That feature awaits future development.)

The SDDb also includes, in addition to dream reports, the answers given by survey participants to a variety of questions about their sleep and dreaming, for example how often they remember their dreams, how often they experience insomnia, have they ever had a dream of flying or lucid dreaming, etc.  The data also include people’s responses to various demographic questions about their gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, religious practices, political beliefs, etc.

This combination of a large number of narrative dream reports plus a large amount of quantitative survey data makes the SDDb an especially deep and varied resource for the study of dreaming.

The SDDb offers two basic functions for exploring this material.  One, “Survey Analysis,” enables you to compare answers to questions posed on a survey or questionnaire.  For example, you can create a statistical table to compare the dream recall frequencies of people from different age groups, or the insomnia frequencies of people with different political views, or the occurrence of lucid dreams among men and women.

The other function, “Word Searching,” enables you to sift through large numbers of dreams for particular words and phrases.  You can search the dreams by choosing your own word strings, or you can also use the built-in word search templates to search for typical categories of dream content.  This function allows you, for example, to search a set of dreams for all the references to water, or colors, or fear, or the names of famous people or places.

Background and Methodology

The development of the SDDb began in the early 2000’s in consultation with G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, who helped me understand how to use their Dreambank.net website.  With their encouragement I started designing a new, complementary database that would 1) include both dream reports and survey data, 2) allow for the use of built-in word search templates, and 3) have the flexibility to enable a wide range of searches and analyses.  In 2009 I worked with Kurt Bollacker, a software designer and engineer from San Francisco with expertise in digital archiving practices, to build the first version of the database.  In 2014 I began working with Graybox, a web technology company in Portland, to expand the scope of the SDDb and improve its user interface.  A major upgrade of the database was completed by Graybox in the spring of 2020.

The word search approach has many advantages as a mode of dream research include its speed, transparency, replicability, flexibility, and power to analyze very large quantities of material.  The process is fairly easy to learn, and sites like the SDDb and Dreambank.net provide free and open access for users to engage in their own study projects aided by these new digital tools.

This approach has several disadvantages, too.  They include deemphasizing the qualitative aspects of dreaming, overemphasizing the measurability of dream content, and leaving open the key question of how to connect the numerical frequencies of word usage with the waking life concerns of the dreamer.

These disadvantages can be diminished by using quantitative analysis as one method among others in a multidisciplinary approach to dreams.  There is no reason in principle why word search methods cannot work in coordination with other methods using qualitative insights and evaluations.  Indeed, I would argue the future prosperity of dream research depends on developing better interdisciplinary models for integrating the results of multiple methods of study.  The users of the SDDb can help to make progress in creating those models.

To address the challenge of how to connect the word usage frequencies with relevant aspects of the dreamer’s life, two principles should be kept in mind.  These principles suggest paths for exploring the potentially meaningful connections between the dream and the individual’s waking situation.

One principle is the continuity hypothesis: the relative frequency with which something appears in a person’s dream can be a reflection of its importance as a meaningful concern in the person’s waking life.  In other words, the more often something (a character, setting, activity) shows up in dreams, the more emotionally important it’s likely to be in waking life. To be clear, the continuity does not need to be literal or physical; it’s more what people care and think about in their waking lives.

As an example, one of the dream series in the SDDb comes from “Bea,” a young woman whose anxious, sad dreams were continuous not with her actual life, which was quite safe at the time, but with her worries about possible bad things that might happen to her family or to the students in her care as dormitory resident assistant.

The other principle is the discontinuity hypothesis: infrequent and anomalous elements of dream content can be spontaneous expressions of playful imagination, occurring at any point in life but especially in times of crisis, change, or transition.  Something that appears very rarely and is dramatically discontinuous with typical patterns of dream content can reflect the mind’s concerted effort to go beyond what is to imagine what might be.

As an example, the “Nan” series in the SDDb comes from a woman who had suffered a horrible car crash, followed by several months in the hospital. Most of the dreams in her series have negative, nightmarish quality (as would be expected from the continuity hypothesis), but one dream is unusual in having multiple colors, a good fortune, and a reference to beauty. Nan singled this dream out as having an especially important impact on her during her recovery from the accident, giving her a sense of hope that one day she would regain her health and creative spirits (which she eventually did).

A New Feature: The SDDb Baselines

The recent upgrade of the SDDb included the addition of a new feature that allows users to compare the results of word searches with a large set of more-or-less “average” dreams. This feature helps to determine the significance of the word search results. For example, I said above that most of Nan’s dreams have a “negative, nightmarish” quality. How can I support that claim? By using the baselines feature.

The baselines are two curated sets of “most recent dreams” from 2,094 males and 3,227 females, gathered by several researchers from a variety of populations between the 1950’s and the present (including the Hall and Van de Castle “norm” dreams). They are aggregated here to represent typical densities of the appearance of key words or phrases in ordinary dreaming.

In Nan’s case, her dreams indicate she definitely did feel strong concerns at this time, in a mostly negative direction.  Of her 26 dreams, 8 of them (31%) have at least one reference to fear.  The corresponding figure for the female baselines is 25%. She has references to death in 19% of her dreams, versus 9% for the female baselines; references to physical aggression in 23%, versus 15% for the female baselines; and zero references to happiness, versus 8% in the baselines.

These frequencies accurately reflect the frightened and vulnerable quality of Nan’s feelings in waking life. Even if we knew nothing about Nan’s personal life, we could use these variations of her dreams from the baselines to make the prediction that she is suffering through a difficult and frightening situation.

This is the foundation for the “blind analysis” method I have been using in several papers and IASD conference presentations (see below). Now the tools I use to make those analyses are available to everyone.

 

Further reading:

  1. The Meaningful Continuities Between Dreaming and Waking: Results of a Blind Analysis of a Woman’s Thirty-Year Dream Journal. Dreaming 28: 337-350.
  2. Using the LIWC Program to Study Dreams. Dreaming 28: 43-58. (Co-authored with Mark Graves)
  3. The Digital Revolution in Dream Research. In Dream Research: Contributions to Clinical Practice (edited by Milton Kramer and Myron Glucksman) (Routledge).
  4. Dreaming in Adolescence: A “Blind” Word Search of a Teenage Girl’s Dream Series. Dreaming 22: 240-252.

 

The New Dream Studies and the Wall Street Journal

The New Dream Studies and the Wall Street Journal by Kelly BulkeleyDream researchers are creatively deploying a variety of big data technologies to open a new era of oneiric discovery.

An article appeared earlier today by Robert Lee Hotz, science reporter for the Wall Street Journal, titled “New Insights into Dreams and What They Say About Us.” It’s a great article, well-written and thoroughly researched, and quite fair-minded towards the scientific study of dreams. (The article can be found here, if you have WSJ access.)

Here is my favorite line:

“While still highly experimental, the new dream studies underscore the power of data mining to assemble unexpected insights by sifting through large data sets of seemingly unrelated information.”

That is very well put. Exciting possibilities beckon on the horizon, and yet much more work needs to be done in mapping the multidisciplinary terrain between here and there. Hopefully others who read the article will recognize these potentials and contribute their insights to this dynamic, though still “highly experimental” realm of inquiry.

I always want to get people more enthused about the study of dreams—but not too enthused. To my great relief, Hotz concludes the WSJ article with some cautionary words (my own included) about the need for greater ethical evaluation and awareness of the possibly harmful abuses of these technologies.

Two follow-up notes from the article.

First, the survey of dreams in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and recent protests against racial injustice involved 4,947 American adults, completing an online questionnaire designed by me and administered by YouGov on June 15-19, 2020. I am currently working with Michael Schredl on an article analyzing the responses to this survey. An early preview of the results appeared in a post I wrote for Psychology Today on June 25, 2020. The data from this survey are not yet available in the Sleep and Dream Database, but they will be soon.

Second, to the question of “How many dream reports from how many people are in the SDDb?” I gave the estimate of more than 26,000 dreams from more than 11,000 people. I obtained those figures by using the SDDb’s advanced word search tool and defining the data set as all reports with a minimum word count of 5, which yields a result of 26,498 dreams from 11,346 participants. There are surely many additional dreams in the database of less than five words, but many of those reports include “non-dream” answers (such as “no,” “don’t remember any”), which are important to preserve but shouldn’t be counted in overall tallies of the actual dreams. There are also some non-dreams of more than 5 words, but not enough to alter the basic estimate of 26,000 dream reports currently in the database.

Dreams of Wildfire

Dreams of Wildfire by Kelly BulkeleyThe West Coast has a long history of wildfires, and dreaming about wildfires. A study from the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm has important lessons for those of us currently being threatened and harmed by the blazes in California, Oregon, Washington, and elsewhere.

On October 20, 1991, almost exactly two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area, a brush fire in the eastern hills of Oakland, California exploded into a racing wall of flame that consumed several residential neighborhoods with shocking speed. Twenty-five people died, hundreds were injured or suffered from smoke inhalation, and more than 3,000 homes and apartments were reduced to ashes.

Two weeks after the fire was finally extinguished, Dr. Alan Siegel, a clinical psychologist from Berkeley, and his colleagues Barbara Baer and Karen Muller initiated a very timely and illuminating study. They recruited three groups of people: 28 who lost their homes, the Fire Survivors; 14 who lived in burn zone but homes were not destroyed, the Fire Evacuees; and 18 people living outside the evacuation zone, the Control Group. All the participants provided an interview, responses to several questionnaires (e.g., the Beck Depression Inventory), and a two-week dream journal. Siegel and his colleagues carefully analyzed all this information, focusing special attention on patterns in their dreams. Their work appeared as a chapter in Deirdre Barrett’s excellent edited work Trauma and Dreams (1996).

Two of Siegel’s findings stand out as potentially helpful for people currently in the West Coast wildfire danger zone.

The first came as a surprise to the researchers:

“An unexpected finding of our study is the profound and largely unacknowledged reactions of the Fire Evacuees—people who lived in the burn zone but whose homes were spared. Their unremitting survivor guilt, depression, intrusive thoughts, and nightmares were more distressing than that of the Fire Survivors.” (161)

Siegel emphasizes the therapeutic significance of this finding. In addition to those who have been directly impacted by a disaster, the “lucky survivors” can suffer terribly, too, in ways they may try to hide or minimize as part of their survivor guilt.

The second important finding is that “post-fire dreams reawakened preoccupations with grief from earlier epochs” (167). The experience of a new trauma has the potential to reactivate memories, feelings, and physiological reactions from previous traumas. This is especially important to recognize when trying to help people find their path towards recovery and healing:

“Of all the factors shaping coping and recovery, one invisible dimension of the Survivors’ and Evacuees’ experience was dominant—the lingering emotional impact of earlier losses, traumas, and deprivations… Those with more profound backgrounds of trauma were more severely affected and slower to recover. Their dreams after the fire and around the anniversary of the fire frequently used the metaphor of their earlier traumas to depict reactions to the Firestorm and its aftermath.” (174)

Siegel’s work highlights a vital insight in caregiving work in the wake of a disaster: the people most vulnerable to psychological suffering from the present event are likely to be those who are carrying unhealed wounds from the past.

There is no getting around the long-term impact of such experiences on everyone involved, and Siegel’s observation about anniversaries is worth underlining. He says “firestorm survivors suffered profound reactions to the impending first anniversary of the fire” (173). This should be kept in mind when planning public memorials and commemorations of a disaster, which different people may experience in very different ways.

Still, there is reason to hope that with time and effective caregiving, recurrent post-traumatic nightmares can gradually change and transform in more positive directions, becoming less fixated on the specific triggering event, more varied and imaginative in form, and generally dreamier in mood and feel. This was a key finding of Ernest Hartmann in his 1984 work Nightmares, to which Siegel refers in his conclusion:

“A series of dreams often shows a progression toward mastery as a trauma is resolved. Nightmares that are like graphic memories of the trauma gradually fade, giving way to dreams less focused on the trauma and more mixed with other concerns.” (176)

This important study by Siegel and his colleagues adds further evidence in support of the idea that greater familiarity with dreaming can have subtle but significant public health benefits. Dreaming is a vital part of our innate crisis-response system, hard-wired into our brains over millions of years of evolution (and presumably many, many wildfires). Promoting more knowledge about dreaming and dream-sharing offers a simple and effective way of strengthening our collective resilience whenever disaster strikes.

 

Reference:

Alan Siegel, “Dreams of Firestorm Survivors,” in Trauma and Dreams, ed. Deirdre Barrett (Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 159-176.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, September 13, 2020.

Basic Patterns in Dreaming

Basic Patterns in Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe basic patterns of dream content are coming into sharper focus, thanks to new technologies of digital analysis. By using these tools to study large and diverse collections of high-quality dream data, and then making those tools and data publicly available, we can illuminate recurrent frequencies of dream content that others can easily review, replicate, and verify for themselves. The more we know about these basic patterns, the more we can gain helpful insights from people’s dreams regarding their mental and physical health, social relations, cultural interests, and even spiritual beliefs.

When I began this line of research in the mid-2000’s, I used the resources of the Dreambank.net, a site managed by G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider. In a paper from 2009, “Seeking patterns in dream content: A systematic approach to word searches,” drawing on the resources of the Dreambank, I included this passage in the conclusion:

“Until researchers have gathered many more high-quality reports from a wide variety of people (ideally accompanied by multiple sources of biographical data), we cannot make any definitive declarations about the universal features of human dreaming. But the results of this study suggest several testable hypotheses:

  1. Dreaming perception is primarily visual, with less hearing and touch and almost no smell or taste.

  2. All emotions are represented in dreams, with fear the most frequent.

  3. Many types of cognitive activity occur in dreaming, especially those associated with awareness and social intelligence.

  4. Aggression is more frequent than sexuality, and both are more frequent for men than for women.”

Today, these same hypotheses can easily be tested with the resources of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb). The simplest method is to use the SDDb’s built-in word search template of keywords. The word search function has a template of forty categories of dream content, including categories for specific types of perception, emotion, cognitive activity, and social interaction. Starting on the “Advanced Search” page, I would define the data set for this purpose by setting a word limit of 25 words, and then select a category from the keywords menu. Looking at perceptions first, the following results can be generated in a few moments:

Out of a total of 20,510 dream reports of at least 25 words in length, reported by a total of 7,335 people, a word relating to visual perception appeared at least once in 34.6% of the reports. For hearing, the figure was 10.7%, for touch, 13%, and smell and taste combined only 2.7%. Eleven years later, I would still stand by that first hypothesis.

Turning to emotions, the results of the same simple search process (define the data set as having a minimum of 25 words, and selecting a category from the keywords menu) are just as predicted. A word relating to fear appears at least once in 18.2% of the dreams. Anger appears in 7.1%, sadness in 3.7%, happiness 6.5%, and wonder/confusion 14.4%. This hypothesis seems pretty solid, too.

Cognition in dreaming is harder to study for various reasons, but the word search method can still offer some interesting results. A word relating to thinking appears at least once in 41.9% of the dreams. Some kind of speech or verbal communication appears in 37.6%, and a reference to reading or writing in 7.6%. These findings support the basic idea that dreaming has a fair amount of cognitive activity, with plenty of social communication, though more detailed studies are needed to tease out the variations between dreaming and waking cognition. The third hypothesis is worth keeping.

Social interactions in dreaming are also difficult to study, so the results here should be regarded with extra caution. Indeed, the hypothesis from 2009 may not bear contemporary scrutiny, particularly around gender differences. (When defining the data set, gender can be selected as a search variable from the constraints menu.) The SDDb word search approach yields a finding of at least one reference to physical aggression in 20.8% of the male dreams and 17.2% of the female dreams. That’s a difference, but not a huge one. With the category of sexuality, the male dreams had at least one reference in 5.8% of the reports, versus 6.6% for the female dreams. This is the reverse of the predicted difference. The results of this quick analysis confirm that overall references to physical aggression occur much more frequently than references to sexuality, but the results do not support the 2009 hypothesis about higher frequencies of both kinds of content in men’s dreams.

There are other ways to study these questions with the tools of the SDDb. For example, the “baselines” function provides the frequencies on all 40 categories for a specially curated subset of 2,094 male dreams and 3,227 female dreams. These baseline frequencies provide a kind of measuring stick for dream researchers—a more precise way of determining the average frequencies of particular types of dream content and comparing them to other sets of dreams, which might have content features that vary from the baseline patterns in interesting ways. That shall be a topic for another post.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today on September 4, 2020.