Aggression in Dreams

Aggression in Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyHitting, fighting, chasing, shooting, killing—these are not only common themes in the news each day, they are also recurrent features of our dreams at night. Few studies have focused specifically on aggression in dreaming, even though Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, claimed that “the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man” (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930). A combination of old and new methods of research can shed light on how this primal instinct plays out in our dreams.

Who Has Aggressive Dreams?

The Hall and Van de Castle system (1966) of dream content analysis has codes for three kinds of social interactions: friendly, sexual, and aggressive. Research using the HVDC system has suggested a few basic patterns in the frequency of aggression in dreams:

  • Men have more aggression, especially physical aggression, in their dreams than do women.
  • Women are more likely to be victims than initiators of aggression in dreams.
  • Children have more aggression in dreams than do adults, especially involving attacks by animals.
  • Older people have less aggression in dreams than do younger people.

Hundreds of studies have used the HVDC method over the past several decades, and their findings support the basic idea that aggression is an innate feature of human dreaming.

Why Do We Have Aggressive Dreams?

An additional perspective comes from using word search technologies to identify significant patterns of meaning in dream content. The Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has a template with a category for physical aggression, and a large collection of dreams to study for a specific theme like this.

The SDDb Baseline dreams are a good place to start—a set of 5,321 dreams (3,227 females, 2,094 males) that represent a composite portrait of dreaming in general (the reports were given in response to a question about “your most recent dream”). Although limited in many ways, the Baseline dreams offer an empirical basis for making comparisons across different sets of dreams. This can help in identifying trends and patterns that would be difficult to see otherwise.

Applying the word search category for physical aggression to the female Baselines, we find that 15.1% of the dreams include at least one word relating to physical aggression. Applying the same word search category to the male Baselines yields a result of 21.5% of the dreams with at least one reference to physical aggression. (The combined Baselines figure is 17.6%.) So this analysis confirms the finding of the HVDC system that men’s dreams, on average, seem to involve more physical aggression than do women’s dreams. The top ten words used in these dreams were the following: Hit, kill, fight, chasing, killed, shot, fighting, chased, war, shooting.

Turning to the dreams of individuals who have kept track of their dreams for a lengthy period of time, a great deal of variation appears in the frequency of physical aggression. For example, “Tanya,” a young woman, has a relatively high proportion of physical aggression in her dreams (25.4%, in 563 reports), about the same as “Lawrence,” an older man (25.7%, in 206 reports. Another young woman, “Jasmine,” has low physical aggression in her dreams (10.5%, in 800 reports), just like “RB,” an older man (11.8%, in 51 reports).

There is clear evidence that experiences with physical aggression in waking life can increase the frequency of its appearance in dreaming. The best examples are “Mike,” who served as a medic during the Vietnam War and whose collection of dreams includes a very high proportion of physical aggression (76.3%, in 97 reports). In the four sets of dreams from “Beverley” from 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016, the first set has much more physical aggression (11.9%, in 253 reports) than in the other three (5.7%, in 687 reports), which accurately reflected her involvement in that earlier time period with a violent religious cult.

To help shed light on the role of culture in dreams of physical aggression, the SDDb also includes sets of dreams from non-Western people, which can be analyzed in the same way. For the Mehinaku people of the Amazonian rain forest, a collection of 383 dreams had 22.5% with at least one reference to physical aggression. For a group of Nepalese college students, their dreams (535) had 18.1% with a reference to physical aggression. Three groups of African church members reported dreams (142) with a 19% frequency of physical aggressions. These findings are close enough to the SDDb baselines overall figure of 17.6% to suggest that culture is not a decisive factor in this aspect of dream content.

Concluding Insights

Aggression appears to be a normal feature of human dream content, across different cultures.

Men seem to have more physical aggression in their dreams, although some women have high levels, too.

Dreams of physical aggression can accurately reflect actual aggressions in waking life, so an unusually high level of dream aggression, or a sudden change in dreams to a higher level of aggression, might be a therapeutically valuable sign.

Many dreams of physical aggression do not, however, reflect actual experiences of aggression. These dreams may use violence as a metaphor (e.g., a dream of physical attack as a metaphor of feeling emotionally vulnerable). They may reflect instances of fictional aggression (e.g., seen in a movie). They may be anticipations of violence that may happen at some point in the future (e.g. a threat simulation).

Aggression in dreaming can be viewed as an internal form of play-fighting—the most common form of play in the animal kingdom, and very frequent among humans, too. Play-fighting functions as a way of preparing for future challenges, and also for diminishing and defusing emotional tensions that can lead to actual violence. The same psychological dynamics of play-fighting seem to be operative in dreaming, too.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 31, 2021.

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.

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. 

Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal

Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyThe value of keeping a dream journal is inherent in the practice itself. Simply recording your dreams on a regular basis will increase your dream recall, deepen your self-knowledge, and help you maintain emotional balance in waking life. You can enjoy these benefits even if you never look back at your journal after recording each dream.

But if you do have the opportunity to look back and review your journal over a period of time, you can learn some amazing things about yourself and the world in which you live.

I’ve been keeping a dream journal for more than 30 years, and the discoveries never stop coming. I study my journal both for personal insight and for new ideas to explore in my research with other people’s dreams. At the end of each calendar year I go back over the last 12 months of my dreams to explore the recurrent patterns and themes, using the word search tools of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) to make an initial survey. This year’s review provides an incredibly accurate portrait of my concerns and interests in waking life, and gives me lots of inspiration for new research to pursue.

The results of the initial word search analysis are presented in the table in the previous post. I compared the results of my 2018 dreams with my dreams from 2016 and 2017. I also compared them with the male and female “baselines.” The baselines are two large collections of dreams gathered by various researchers to provide a source of “normal” dreaming in the general population. (I describe the baselines in more detail in my Big Dreams book.)

To analyze these dreams I used the SDDb 2.0 template of 40 word categories in 8 classes, listed in the lefthand column. The percentages to the right of each category indicate how often a dream in the given set includes at least one reference to a word in that category.

In 2018 I remembered one dream each night, as I did in 2016 and 2017. The average length of the dreams increased during this time (102 in 2016, 111 in 2017, 116 in 2018). This suggests the word search results will tend to be a little higher in the 2018 set, just because there are more total words to search. This will also be true in comparisons with the baseline dreams, which have an average length of 100 words (females) and 105 words (males).

Keeping that in mind, the 2018 dreams had more references to vision and color than previous years, while other sensory perceptions (hearing, touch, smell & taste) stayed the same. The table doesn’t show it, but the most frequently mentioned colors in my 2018 dreams were white, black, green, gray, and blue.  For both of these categories (vision and color), my dreams have many more references than either the male or female baselines.

The emotion references in the 2018 dreams are pretty similar to 2016 and 2017. I have much more wonder/confusion than the male and female baselines, and somewhat more happiness.

The 2018 dreams have a rise in references to family characters, and to females generally. The frequencies of references to animals, fantastic beings, and males are quite steady from 2016 to 2018. Compared to the baselines, my family references are still rather low, my animal references are high, and my female references are very high.

The three categories of social interaction—friendliness, physical aggression, and sexuality—are all steady from 2016 to 2018. The sexuality frequencies are somewhat higher than the baselines.

The frequencies of my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines are all similar on the categories of walking/running, flying, and falling. My dreams have fewer references to death than the baselines.

The cognitive categories—thinking, speech, reading & writing—are consistent across 2016-2018, with higher frequencies of thinking than the baselines.

The cultural categories are also remarkably consistent from 2016 to 2018, with a slight rise in references to food & drink and art.  Compared to the baselines, my dreams have fewer references to school and more to art.

Of the four elements, the frequencies of fire and air are consistent in my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines. My dreams have more references to water and earth.

This kind of analysis is quite superficial, of course. It ignores personal associations, narrative flow, and all the subtle qualities of dreaming that can’t be captured in numbers.  That’s true, and yet it’s also true that a well-crafted word search analysis can reveal some fascinating themes that are both accurate and thought-provoking.

One of the most striking results of this initial analysis is the remarkable consistency over time of most of the word categories. There are a few significant changes, which I’ll discuss in a moment. But those changes are more dramatic when set in the bigger context of strong consistency across word categories as diverse as air (3% in 2016, 4% in 2017, and 4% in 2018), touch (12, 11, 13), anger (7, 8, 8), fantastic beings (4, 4, 3), physical aggression (16, 17, 17), flying (7, 6, 7), and clothing (18, 19, 21). As wild and unpredictable as individual dreams may be, in the aggregate they seem to follow steady long-term patterns.

Against that background of consistency, the changes that do occur over time are all the more intriguing.

The rise in references to vision and color from 2016 to 2018 seems related to the lengthening of my dream reports over this time. As my reports get longer, I apparently need to use more vision and color words to describe what happens in each dream.

The rise in references to family characters might be a return to a more “normal” ratio of family in my dreams. The family frequencies in 2016 and 2017 are actually the lowest I’ve ever had (extending the comparison back to 2010), so 2018 may be a bounce-back year. This would make sense in relation to my waking life: 2016 was the beginning of the “empty nest,” when the last of our children moved out of the house.

The rise in references to female characters is the most intriguing. The references to male characters stayed mostly the same from 2016 to 2018 (47, 44, 43), so the 2018 increase in female references leads to a big gender gap (59% female vs. 43 male). The baselines actually have slightly higher frequencies of male references vs. female references, so the variation in my 2018 dreams is even more unusual.

What might account for this change? My first thought is political. American society, as I currently perceive it, is dominated by destructive masculine energies, and change is only going to come once we bring more women to positions of power. I’m trying harder than ever in waking life to listen to female voices, and that intention may have influenced the patterns of my dreaming.

Two other features of the analysis pique my curiosity.

One is the rise of references to art over 2016-2018 (7, 14, 15), which I believe correlates with my increased participation as a board member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I wonder if other people who become more involved with an artistic group or practice also experience a rise in their dreams about art. I also wonder if my rise in art references might be connected to my higher frequencies of vision and color.

The other feature I’d like to explore further is the consistently low frequency of references to religion during all three years (3, 4, 3). This might seem odd since I have two graduate degrees in religious studies, and I’ve written several books about religion. But at the same time I never attend church, and I don’t belong to any religious group or denomination. My dreams seem to reflect the latter reality, my personal behavior rather than my scholarly pursuits.

In a recent survey that I’ve been analyzing with the help of Michael Schredl, we asked people to choose one of the following categories to describe their religious identity—Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Agnostic, Atheist, Nothing in Particular, and Something Else. I would definitely categorize myself as “something else”—not one of the religious identities, but not one of the non-religious identities, either. And it turns out (previewing the statistical findings Michael and I will soon publish) that people who identify religiously as “something else” have the highest interest in dreams compared to other groups. This makes me more curious than ever to understand the beliefs of people who religiously identify as “something else,” and how those beliefs relate to their attitudes towards dreaming.

I’m left with a final question, which will guide me in 2019: To what extent do these patterns reflect the past, and to what extent do they map the future?

####

This post first appeared in Psychology Today on February 5, 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.