The Nightmares of Halloween

The Nightmares of Halloween by Kelly BulkeleyIt’s more than a metaphor to say that Halloween is a time when our nightmares go on parade. The scary images, decorations, and costumes that take over the month of October have a direct psychological connection to the actual themes and patterns of people’s nightmares. If we look at current research on nightmares—who has them, what they’re about, what causes them—we can gain new insight into the unconscious creativity of our Halloween festivities.

Who has nightmares? Numerous studies have reached the same conclusion: children are especially prone to nightmares, and so are women. Let’s start with age. The younger you are, the more likely you experience nightmares. Ernest Hartmann’s 1984 book The Nightmare notes the frequency of nightmares in children between the ages of 3 and 6, and he suggests that bad dreams may begin even earlier than this: “It is quite likely that nightmares can occur as early as dreams can occur; that is, probably late in the first year of life.”

The age factor shows up clearly in the nightmare patterns of adults. In a 2010 survey (available in the Sleep and Dream Database) in which 2,993 American adults answered a series of questions about sleep and dreams, the following are the percentages of people in different age groups who answered “Yes” to the question, “Have you ever had a dream of being chased or attacked?”

Chasing/Attack dreams, by age:

18-24: 71%

25-34: 65%

35-54: 59%

55-69: 48%

70+:  40%

Now for gender. Women tend to have more nightmares than men do, although how much more seems to vary during the life cycle. A meta-analysis by Michael Schredl and Iris Reinhard in 2011 found a striking pattern: similar frequencies of nightmares for males and females in childhood and old age, but a significantly higher frequency of nightmares for females during adolescence and adulthood. There seems to be a “nightmare bump” during women’s lives that elevates their frequency of bad dreams consistently higher than men’s. Is this nature or nurture? Probably both. A similar pattern appears in the 2010 SDDb survey cited above, when analyzed in terms of gender.

Chasing/Attack dreams for men, by age:

18-24: 68%

25-34: 63%

35-54: 56%

55-69: 47%

70+:  37%

Chasing/Attack dreams for women, by age:

18-24: 82%

25-34: 71%

35-54: 65%

55-69: 50%

70+: 46%

No matter how we explain these differences—more on that below—the basic pattern seems clear. Nightmares are especially frequent early in life, and especially for women during adolescence and young adulthood.

What do we have nightmares about? The most common content is fear, of course. And yet, what terrifies one person may have no emotional impact on someone else, so it’s difficult to generalize about the contents of nightmares. Still, it is possible to identify a few typical elements. In the SDDb, I selected four types of dream text (“bad dream,” “nightmare,” “nightmares,” “worst nightmare”), of 25+ words in length, which yielded a set of 423 dreams. I analyzed these 423 dreams using a word-search method with a template of 40 categories of content. I then compared the nightmare results to the results for the SDDb Baselines, a collection of more than 5,000 dreams representing ordinary patterns of dream content.

The dreams in the Baselines average about 100 words per report, while the 423 nightmares have an average length of only 65 words per report. This means the Baselines will tend to have higher frequencies on all categories. That’s actually helpful for our purposes, because it makes it easy to spot the categories that are unusually high in the nightmares (Baselines included in parentheses):

Fire: 4.7% (4.3%)

Air:  6.4% (4.4%)

Falling: 10.9% (8.3%)

Death: 18.4% (8%)

Fantastic beings: 10.4% (2.1%)

Physical aggression: 42.1% (17.6%)

Religion: 7.1% (6.7%)

Weapons: 9.9% (3.9%)

These are the categories of content that seem to be over-represented in nightmares, appearing more often in bad dreams than in ordinary dreams. They are also the themes that characterize pretty much every horror movie ever made, and countless video games, and, of course, many of the costumes and decorations of Halloween.

Why do we have nightmares? Psychologists have offered several theories about this. For Sigmund Freud, a nightmare is a failure of the sleeping mind to contain the instinctual desires aroused in dreaming. Similarly, the neurocognitive theory of Ross Levin and Tore Nielsen explains nightmares as a failure of emotional regulation during sleep. Carl Jung viewed nightmares as reflections of inner conflict, and thus potential revelations of insight and guidance. Antti Revonsuo’s “threat simulation theory” focuses on chasing nightmares and their potentially beneficial role in preparing the individual for similar threats in waking life.

The simple fact that nightmares are so common seems to be evidence against a theory of dreaming as a form of play (such as I propose). How can a frightening experience be playful? Actually, a theory of dreaming as play has a good explanation for the prevalence of nightmares. Research on play in animals and humans has found that play-fighting is one of the most common forms of play among social species like ours. Although it’s not “real” fighting, play-fighting does involve real aggression, threats, and negative emotions, and it seems to have a valuable rehearsal/preparatory function similar to other forms of play. Paradoxically, play-fighting can also promote social bonding by creating a safe arena to work through interpersonal tensions.

This brings us back to the connection between nightmares and Halloween. Seen in this light, the many little rituals of Halloween are ways of playing with our nightmares, welcoming them into waking awareness, sharing them with others, and celebrating their wild creative energies. Once each year, we invite these energies into the community as a way of enlivening and strengthening our collective bonds, at a time when daylight is waning and the nights are growing colder. This is the psychological wisdom of Halloween, infusing us with a playful burst of unconscious vitality just as we’re preparing to survive through the coming darkness.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on October 21, 2021.

Friendly Dreams

Friendly Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyDreams with explicitly sexual and/or violent interactions tend to get the most attention, but dreams actually tend to have surprisingly high proportions of friendly content, too. According to an analysis of the nearly 35,000 dream reports collected in the Sleep and Dream Database, 47% of the women’s dreams have at least one reference to a friendly social interaction (the most used words: friend, friends, boyfriend, help, party, love), as do 36% of men’s dreams (most used words:  friend, friends, girlfriend, help, love, party. For both genders, those figures are greater than the combined percentages for sexual interactions (4% for women, 6% for men) and physically aggressive interactions (15% for women, 22% for men).  If we add in non-physical aggressions (for example, saying or thinking mean things about a person), the relative proportions change, but the key fact remains: Friendly social interactions are a prominent feature of the content of most people’s dreams. If dreams offer a “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious mind,” as Sigmund Freud famously claimed in The Interpretation of Dreams (2nd ed.), giving evidence of our deepest sexual and aggressive instincts, then dreams also provide evidence of our friendly, prosocial instincts.

Although much less studied than sex and aggression, researchers have identified several patterns in dreams with friendly social interactions. As illustrated above, women tend to have more friendliness in their dreams than do men. Whether this is nature (women are innately more friendly than men) or nurture (women are socialized to be more friendly than men)  is unclear; perhaps aspects of both factors are involved. According to G. William Domhoff in Finding Meaning in Dreams (1996), almost all friendliness in dreams involves the dreamer; there is very little “witnessed” friendliness. Men have more aggression in relation to male characters in their dreams, and more friendliness towards female characters. Women tend to have more friendly interactions in their dreams with men they know, and more aggressive interactions with men they do not know. All of these findings are tendencies, of course, which may or may not apply to specific individuals. But these patterns of friendly content in dreaming do seem consistent with common aspects of people’s social interactions in waking life.

Similar aspects of friendly dreaming occur with several individuals whose long-term dream journals are collected in the SDDb. For example, Jordan, an artist in her forties, has friendly interactions in 43% of her dreams; for Jasmine, a musician in her twenties, it’s 42%; for Mike, a veteran who served in Vietnam as a medic, it’s 40%. My own collection of dreams from 2012 has a friendly interactions figure of 42%; in my dreams from 2020, it’s 44%.

Not everyone has this much friendliness in their dreams. The “Natural Scientist,” whose 1939 journal of 234 dreams was analyzed by J. Allan Hobson in The Dreaming Brain (1987), has friendly interactions in 24% of his dreams. This may reflect the limited social contacts in his waking life (he was a bachelor and a laboratory scientist who studied insects). This seems to reflect the continuity principle of dreaming: the frequency of an element in dreaming reflects the emotional importance of that element in the individual’s waking life. The Natural Scientist may not have dreamed a lot about friendly social interactions, but he did dream about insects more often than anyone else in the SDDb, which was certainly continuous with his waking life.

Some variations in the friendliness of dreaming can be observed over time. During the phase in her twenties when “Beverly” belonged to a secretive religious cult, she had friendliness in 30% of her dreams. After leaving the cult and regaining control of her life, the friendliness in her dreams grew to 34% in her thirties, 36% in her forties, and 40% in her fifties. As she has described in her own writings on the experience, it took a long time for Beverly to liberate herself from the mental shackles of the cult. Her dreams seem to reflect that slow and arduous but ultimately positive journey.

Not surprisingly, nightmares tend to have low frequencies of friendliness. In a survey asking several thousand people to describe their “worst nightmare,” only 8% of the reports of 15 or more words had a reference to friendliness. Similarly, in surveys asking people about their dreams of work, just 8% have a reference to friendliness. By contrast, surveys asking about visitation dreams (in which someone who is dead appears as if alive) have friendliness in 23% of the reports, and surveys asking about “the most memorable dream you’ve ever had in your life” yield references to friendliness in 29% of the reports. It seems the more spiritually-charged a dream becomes, the more likely it will have a friendly social interaction.

Although much more will emerge from future studies, the research so far on friendliness in dreaming has several practical implications.

First, you can learn about the depth and quality of your relationships with your friends by considering who does and doesn’t appear in your dreams, and how you interact with them when they do appear.

Second, you can observe the patterns of who in your dreams initiates a friendly act, versus who receives the friendly act. Are you always on the giving end, or the receiving end? Do some of your friends only appear in one or the other role?

Third, you can see in dreams when feelings of friendliness become mixed with feelings of romantic and sexual desire. In some dreams it’s hard to tell if an interaction is friendly or romantic—which may be exactly the point, in terms of bringing to conscious awareness your ambiguous feelings towards someone else.

Fourth, if you notice that the frequency of friendliness in your dreams diminishes drastically, that might be a sign of difficulties with your social life. Everyone has their own baseline of “normal” friendliness in their dreams, so it’s worth paying enough attention to your dreams over time and becoming familiar with your own regular patterns, to enable you to recognize worrisome changes when they occur.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, 9/11/21.

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, 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.