Sexual 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.
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.
This year I’ve had the honor of serving as an advisor for three doctoral dissertations in the study of dreams. Dianne Jackie Frost at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Cynthia S. Sauln at Sofia University, and Mary Walsh at San Francisco Theological Seminary have done highly innovative work in exploring some of the most important and potentially transformative aspects of dreaming experience. Each of them has shown amazing devotion and diligence, and their findings are truly original contributions to the field.
Dianne Frost’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology is titled “Engaging With the Imaginal: A Study of Women’s Dreamwork.” Her study focuses on six women at a counseling center who participated in a group process of sharing dreams, exploring their images, and following their changes over a seven-week period (using methods drawn from the works of Steven Aizenstat, Jack Zimmerman, Virginia Coyle, Mary Watkins, and others). Each of the women came to the process from a place of pain and crisis (interpersonal violence, depression, addiction, body image issues, etc.), and Frost shows how their dreams accurately reflect their emotional concerns and give witness to their suffering. More importantly for therapeutic purposes, the dreams point the way towards healing, towards potentials for new life and new growth beyond the challenging conditions of the present. As the women shared their dreams and discussed possible dimensions of meaning, Frost found they developed a new depth of trust in their own strength, resilience, and creativity.
My favorite quote comes from the woman using the pseudonym “Cadence.” Cadence told Frost she had always looked to outside sources for guidance and advice in her life, but the insights she was gaining from her dreams made her realize she has a reliable source within herself:
“I felt like I needed someone else to guide me through, and this process really allows me to do that on my own. It’s like I’m my own innate healer, with knowledge and images that only I can tap into and create a relationship with and learn from.”
Nothing in Frost’s approach limits it to women with these kinds of problems; her way of working with dreams could be usefully applied with many other groups of people who are striving for greater health and wholeness.
“In My Dreams I Am the Hero I Wish to Be: A Mixed Methods Study of Children’s Dreams, Meaning-Making, and Spiritual Awareness” is the title of Cynthia Sauln’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). Sauln recruited 32 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who were willing, with their parents’ permission, to describe a vivid or unusual dream. She invited the children to draw pictures of their dreams, and she asked them to fill out two surveys designed to assess their spiritual and religious beliefs. Sauln says in her introduction,
“For the purpose of this study, children’s spirituality is defined as an awareness of the divine or something larger than themselves that can provide meaning for waking life events and understanding of the world around them. Especially for children, it is a personal experience that may be expressed as a ‘knowing’ and an interpretation of the mysteries found in nature, animals, relationships and connections with people, dreams, and/or in their religious practices and beliefs.”
Drawing on the work of Kate Adams, C.G. Jung, and others, Sauln argues that dreams can play a vital role in children’s spiritual development. She shows the close connection between spirituality, health, and creativity in childhood, with dreams as a mode of experience bringing them all together. Ironically, many teachers and parents were so skeptical about dreams in general that they would not give their children permission to participate in Sauln’s study, even though the children themselves were invariably curious about their dreams and eager to discuss and draw pictures of them. This made the data-gathering process much more difficult than Sauln expected.
However, there was a silver lining to these difficulties. Her extra efforts to recruit participants led her to ultimately gather a group of children with an unusual degree of ethnic diversity. There were several Hispanic children in her study whose dreams seemed especially significant in relation to their waking spiritual beliefs. In my SDDb research I’ve found some evidence of relatively high Hispanic interest in spiritually meaningful dreams. I wonder if future research from Sauln or others might explore Hispanic dream experiences in more detail.
Mary Walsh’s dissertation for her Doctor of Ministry in Advanced Pastoral Studies from San Francisco Theological Seminary is titled “Prophetic Imagination and the Neuro-physiology of Trauma in Substance Abusing Adolescents.” Walsh is a practicing psychotherapist whose doctoral studies have examined the theological dimensions of suffering, caregiving, and healing. For two years she worked as a therapist at a high school for troubled adolescents, with a focus on their dreams in relation to several other measures of mental and physical health. The students at her school came from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of them were suffering multiple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to talking about their dreams, she measured the students’ heart rate variability to track their neuro-physiological coherence during the treatment process. Walsh’s use of sophisticated biofeedback technology will make it possible to illuminate new dimensions of dreaming and its role in mind-body healing. I’m very curious to see what further uses can be made of biofeedback technologies like these.
Walsh has gathered an extremely valuable set of data that provides unique insights into the life experiences of young people at the most neglected margins of society. Although she still has some writing to do, her project is putting together a compelling argument in favor of the therapeutic effectiveness of group dreamsharing for this poorly-served population.
It should be obvious I’m very proud of these three researchers! Each of them has stayed true to her original vision and persevered in her scholarly work despite all manner of obstacles and static from uncomprehending administrators, teachers, etc. Their success bodes well for the future of dream studies.
Why is it so hard to remember dreams? Scientific evidence dating back to the 1950’s has shown the brain is active in various ways throughout the sleep cycle. Yet when we wake up we often can’t remember more than a few fleeting images that disappear from our minds almost immediately. Why can’t we recall more of what we experienced while asleep?
As a partial answer to that question, try this thought experiment. Imagine you are a star basketball player. It’s the final moments of a championship game. The score is tied, the crowd is screaming, and victory hangs in the balance. Just before time expires you make a brilliant play that wins the game.
Then, the second the game’s over, a reporter pulls you off the court, thrusts a microphone in your face, and says, “What was going through your mind when you made that play?”
As with most athletes facing this situation, you’d probably be at a loss for words. You’d find it difficult if not impossible to communicate the full experience of what it felt like while you were in the game. So soon after the game’s end, your brain would still be somewhat disoriented by the abrupt transition, and it would be a challenge to form a linear, grammatically proper thought.
This is more or less what it’s like when we wake up in the morning. Our brain has just been operating in a very different mode from waking consciousness. It’s extremely difficult to convey the experiences of the former state of awareness into the linguistic terms of the latter.
That’s a general reason for the limits of our dream recall. But still, a question remains: Why do some people remember several dreams every night, while others remember virtually none at all? Sometimes I hear this posed as a challenge—“I don’t remember any of my dreams and I’m just fine, so what’s the point of paying attention to them?” Other times it’s more of a request for advice—“I know dreams are valuable, but I barely remember any of them, so how can I improve my recall?”
Current scientific research suggests that some degree of dream recall is a normal part of human life. According to Michael Schredl’s thorough review of the research literature in The New Science of Dreaming:
“On average, students recall one to two dreams per week at home… In representative samples of the general population [in Austria], dream recall frequency is slightly lower, but about 68% recall at least one dream per month.” (1)
Similar results appeared in a demographic survey of 2970 American adults I commissioned in 2010, when 67.81% of the participants said they recalled at least two or three dreams per month.
A very small percentage of people say they remember no dreams whatsoever. The only research I know that has directly focused on “non-dreamers” was done by James Pagel from the Rocky Mountain Sleep Clinic in Colorado. Pagel found that 6% of his lab’s incoming patients said they never remembered any dreams. After further questions and experiments, Pagel found that most of these people could remember at least a few dreams from earlier in life. He concluded that “true non-dreaming was very rare in our sleep lab population (0.38%)—1 of every 262 patients.” (2)
It’s not clear why some people remember an extremely high number of dreams. Gender may have something to do with it, since females tend to remember more dreams than males. The difference is not absolute—there are high-recalling men and low-recalling women—but many researchers have found the same modest difference. In the 2010 demographic survey, 10.21% of the women vs. 6.64% of the men said they remembered a dream almost every morning.
Age is also a factor, as children and young adults tend to remember more dreams than do older people. This pattern seems to be more pronounced among women than men: Young women have the highest frequencies of dream recall, with a big drop-off for older women, while young men have only slightly more recall than older men.
Many other factors can influence an individual’s dream recall frequency, including sleep quality, medications (some increase dream recall, others decrease it), and stressful circumstances in waking life.
The most intriguing factor is encouragement by others. Michael Schredl refers to this as an “experimenter effect,” in which
“[T]he expectations of the participants and the expectations of the experimenter can affect DRF [dream recall frequency] as measured in the sleep laboratory. In the high expectancy conditions [of one study], dreams were recalled more often. Similarly, other studies have demonstrated how sensitive DRF is to comments of the experimenter; simple encouraging comments produced a marked increase in DRF. Even the completion of a short dream questionnaire yielded a higher DRF after four weeks.” (3)
It seems the mere act of encouraging people to remember more dreams leads to an increase in recall frequency. This isn’t just a function of compliant participants trying to please their experimenters. It’s an indication that dream recall depends to a large degree on a person’s conscious attitude towards dreams. A low interest in dreams correlates with low recall, and high interest in dreams correlates with high recall. As the research reviewed by Schredl shows, even a slight positive change in attitude can yield a higher frequency of remembered dreams.
If you build it, they will come.
1. Michael Schredl, “Dream Recall,” in Patrick McNamara and Deirdre Barrett (ed.s) The New Science of Dreams (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007), vol. II, p. 80.
2. J.F. Pagel, The Limits of Dream: A Scientific Exploration of the Mind/Brain Interface (London: Academic Press, 2008), p. 152.
3. Schredl 2007, p. 89.
In the current issue of the IASD journal Dreaming (Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 240-252) I have an article with results of a blind word search analysis of a teenage girl’s dream series. (Many thanks to the anonymous dreamer, “Bea,” and to Bill Domhoff for mediating our interactions.) The article is my latest effort at developing a method of using statistical patterns in word usage frequency to identify meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns. I think the results show that we’re making good progress. Here is the abstract of the paper:
“Previous studies of dreaming in adolescence have found that 1) shifts in dream content parallel shifts in cognitive and social development and 2) adolescent girls seem more prone than boys to disturbing dreams and recurrent nightmares. This paper confirms and extends those findings by using a novel method, blind word searches, to provide results that are more precise, detailed, and objective than those offered by previous studies. The method is used to analyze a series of 223 dreams recorded in a private diary by an American girl, “Bea” (not her real name) from the ages of 14 to 21. Accurate predictions about continuities between Bea’s dream content and waking life concerns included important aspects of her emotional welfare, daily activities, personal relationships, and cultural life. The results of this analysis illuminate the multiple ways in which dream content accurately reflects the interests, concerns, and emotional difficulties of an adolescent girl.”
And here are the final two paragraphs:
“These findings underscore an important yet frequently misunderstood point about the continuity hypothesis: The strongest continuities between dreaming and waking relate to emotional concerns rather than external behaviors (Hall and Nordby 1972; Domhoff, Meyer-Gomes, and Schredl, 2005-2006). Many of Bea’s nightmares do not reflect actual waking experiences, but they do accurately reflect the dire possibilities and worst-case scenarios that trouble her in waking life. Bea’s nightmares mirror her worries about things that might happen, not necessarily any actual events that have happened.
“For clinicians, therapists, counselors, and teachers who work with adolescents, the Bea series adds new empirical depth to the idea that dreams are meaningful expressions of emotional truth, especially around issues of family history and personal relationships, and perhaps especially for adolescent girls. It remains to be seen if word search analyses have any further practical value, but the results presented here should certainly encourage anyone who works with teenagers to listen carefully to their dreams for potentially valuable insights into their developmental experiences.”
Here’s a good example of how to use the word search function of the Sleep and Dream Database. It focuses on “visitation dreams,” i.e., dreams in which people who are dead appear as if alive. These vivid and highly memorable dreams have been reported in cultures all over the world, in many periods of history. People today still experience visitation dreams with remarkable frequency (1). As part of research I’m doing for a new book, I want to learn more about the basic patterns in visitation dreams. I’m especially interested in their social and emotional aspects. My hypothesis, based on cross-cultural evidence and the results of a 2007 content analysis study I did of mystical dreams (2), is that visitation dreams tend to be positive experiences, characterized by friendly interactions and low negative emotions.
Can I put that hypothesis to an empirical test? Can I push the analysis of visitation dreams to a deeper level of detail and identify additional recurrent features?
The SDDb word search function makes this kind of research easier to pursue than ever before. There’s a new set of dreams in the database, Demographic Survey 2012, which includes a question about visitation dreams. On the word search page I scrolled down the list of constraint values to harris_2012:Q1030, Visitation Dream, and selected it. I then selected “Female” from the top line of the constraint value list. I clicked on “Word Search” again, and entered “25” in the Min Words box under Limit Response Length. When I clicked “Perform Search” I had a set of 221 reports from women of visitation dreams of 25 or more words in length. When I repeated this procedure and selected “Male” instead of “Female,” I had a set of 96 reports from men of visitation dreams of 25 or more words in length.
For both the Female and Male sets I searched for all 7 Word Classes and 40 Word Categories, one class or category at a time. It took about 20 minutes to generate these figures.
The results both confirm and extend my initial hypothesis. The visitation dreams have many more friendly than physically aggressive social interactions, and generally low proportions of negative emotions (3). That’s a solid confirmation of previous findings, with some additional details to fill out the picture:
— The overwhelming majority of characters in the visitation dreams are elder family members. For women, the most frequently used family character words are grandmother, mother, and father. For men, the most used words are father and dad.
— Other than vision, speech, and some mention of intensity, these dreams have very few other elements of content: low non-visual perception, low colors, low emotions, low cognition, low nature, low non-family characters, low non-friendly social interactions, and virtually no culture references.
This quick exercise in using the SDDb’s word search function has taught me several things. Visitation dreams do seem to be mostly positive experiences. They very often include elder family members, i.e. well-known and personally intimate characters with whom the dreamer speaks and has friendly social interactions. Evidently few other details matter; the dreamer’s focus is squarely on the appearance of the person who is dead but appears as if alive. There may be some gender differences in which particular family characters show up most frequently, but the basic patterns of content emerge clearly in both the women’s and men’s reports.
I’m sure I’ll find many more recurrent themes once I read through the dream narratives. But already, after just a few minutes of statistical analysis, I have a good overview of the dreams that gives me an empirical context for highlighting further subtleties of significance.
(1) In American Dreamers I cite a 2007 survey of 705 American adults that found 38% of the participants had experienced a visitation dream at least once in their lives (p. 32).
(2) “Mystical Dreaming: Patterns in Form, Content, and Meaning” (2009), Dreaming 19(1): 30-41.
(3) These two sets are not perfect matches for comparison with the SDDb Baselines, since they include all reports of 25+ words, whereas the SDDb Baselines are for reports of 25-49 words and 50-300 words. But the baselines can still be useful in evaluating the broad patterns of the visitation dreams.