Dream Recall: The Highs and the Lows

Dream Recall: The Highs and the Lows by Kelly BulkeleyWhy 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.

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Notes:

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.

 

 

 

Dreaming in Adolescence

Dreaming in Adolescence by Kelly BulkeleyIn 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.”

 

 

Dreaming of the Dead: Patterns of Word Usage in Visitation Dreams

Dreaming of the Dead: Patterns of Word Usage in Visitation Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyHere’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.

 

 

Notes:

(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.

We Have a Winner!

We Have a Winner! by Kelly BulkeleyCongratulations to Michael Paul Coder, the winner of the dream research contest I posed last week.  Michael correctly identified the gender, age, and dream type of six sets of dreams using only word search frequencies and my baseline hypotheses to make his inferences.  He also correctly identified the bonus questions of which sets of dreams came from the same person.  Best of all from my point of view, Michael showed me his work so I could see how he applied the baseline hypotheses to the word search frequencies.  The correct answers are below.

 

Perhaps it should not be surprising to learn that Michael is a talented and experienced software architect with a website, Lucid-Code, offering a variety of technologies for exploring consciousness in dreaming.

 

His success is encouraging because it shows that an essentially automatic process of word frequency analysis can reveal meaningful patterns in dreaming. It should give us additional confidence that this kind of approach to dream research can provide quick, accurate, and reliable results.

 

What other aspects of dream meaning can be illuminated by this method?  That’s an open question….

 

Set 1: Female, younger than 18, MRDs.

Set 2: Male, older than 18, MRDs.

Set 3: Male, older than 18, MRDs.

Set 4: Male, older than 18, MRDs.

Set 5: Female, younger than 18, MRDs.

Set 6: Male, older than 18, MRDs.

Bonus question: Sets 1 and 5 come from the same person, and Sets 3 and 4 come from the same person.

A Dream Research Contest

A Dream Research Contest by Kelly BulkeleyTo help test the initial hypotheses arising from the SDDb baselines, I am offering a dream research contest, open to anyone willing to give it a try.  The first person to send me (at bulkeleyk@gmail.com) the correct answers will win a $50 gift certificate to Amazon.com.

 

The contest challenges you to look at the word usage frequencies of six sets of dreams (available here) and make the following three predictions for each set: a) Is the dreamer a male or female? b)  Is the dreamer younger or older than 18? c) Is this a set of most recent dreams (MRDs) or highly memorable dreams (MemDs)?  You will not be able to read any of the dreams–you only get to look at the numerical frequencies of how often they used certain types of words.

 

I’m going to make it easier by giving three big clues.  These clues are so big, in fact, that they will give you a clear map to reach the correct answers.

 

Clue #1: The six sets of dreams come from four individual dreamers, let’s call them A, B, C, and D.  Two individuals gave two sets of dreams each.  The other two individuals gave one set of dreams each.  This means the contest has a bonus question: Which sets of dreams come from which individual?

 

Clue #2: As discussed in previous posts, the SDDb baselines have identified a number of significant differences between male and female dreamers and between MRDs and MemDs.   These differences can serve as analytic tools of comparison for making the kinds of predictions I’m asking you to propose.  Below are several specific tests you can use to identify the dreamer’s gender (male or female) and age (older or younger than 18) and the type of dreams contained in the set (MRDs or MemDs).  (Note: The age tests are not drawn directly from the SDDb but from other sources of research on children’s dreams (e.g., David Foulkes, Calvin Hall).)

 

Clue #3: There are two cases out of the 18 total predictions (3 questions x 6 sets of dreams) in which the overall conclusion of the tests gives the wrong answer.  In other words, the tests will lead you to the right answer about 89% of the time.  To get 100% of the answers right, you’ll have to add some kind of insight above and beyond the tests.

 

Good luck!  And please “show your work”–explain to me how you derived your predictions.

 

Tests for Gender:

If Emotion is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Emotion is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Fear is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Fear is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Speech is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Speech is Lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Characters is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Characters is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Family is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Family is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Friendliness is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Friendliness is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Physical Aggression is lower than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Physical Aggression is higher than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Sexuality is lower than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Sexuality is higher than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

 

Tests for Age:

If Cognition is higher than the MRD baselines –> Older than 18

If Animals is higher than the MRD baselines –> Younger than 18

If Family is higher than the MRD baselines –> Younger than 18

 

Tests for MRD vs. MemD

If Air is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Air is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Flying is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Flying is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Family is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Family is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Animals is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Animals is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Fantastic Beings is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Fantastic Beings is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Christianity is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Christianity is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Death is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Death is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

The Distinguishing Features of Big Dreams

The Distinguishing Features of Big Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyIf someone presented you with two sets of dreams, one of most recent dreams and one of highly memorable dreams, you could predict with a high degree of confidence which type of dream was in which set, based only on word usage frequencies.

The set with more references to flying, air, family, animals, fantastic beings, Christianity, and death is more likely to consist of highly memorable dreams.

This is a testable hypothesis that emerges out of a comparison of the SDDb baselines for most recent dreams (MRDs) and highly memorable dreams (MemDs), available here.  To be clear, it’s a prediction of probability, not certainty.  Some highly memorable dreams have none of these elements, while some most recent dreams have several of them.  But according to the SDDb baselines, it is the statistical tendency of highly memorable dreams to contain significantly more of these elements than we generally find in most recent dreams.

Whether or not this hypothesis has any practical application, it adds new evidence in support of the theoretical claim that dreams are meaningfully structured not just for the individual dreamer but also in relation to each other.  There really are different types of dreams, and their differences can be expressed in increasingly precise terms.

Other researchers such as Harry Hunt and Don Kuiken have proposed psychological models to account for different types of dreams (what Hunt calls “the multiplicity of dreams”).  I am not yet at the point with the SDDb baselines to feel comfortable engaging directly with their approaches, but that is definitely a long-term goal.

At this stage I want to look more closely at the higher-frequency MemD elements and try to understand what they might contribute to the dreams’ long-term impact on waking awareness.

Flying: Not all dream references to flying involve magical powers–some relate to the flight of birds, or flying on airplanes, or floating in water, or time “flying” by.  But many of the references are indeed about people flying magically, and I think it makes good sense that overall, MemDs have significantly more flying references than MRDs.  I would be surprised if it were otherwise, based on the recurrence of magical flying dreams through cross-cultural history.  Genuine flying dreams tend to be quite vivid and realistic, and it’s reasonable to assume that such unusually stimulating sensations would make a lasting impact on waking awareness.

Air: Some of the air references occur in flying dreams, but in most MemDs the air references appear in different contexts: the dreamer is struggling to breathe, or facing a tornado, or noticing the wind blowing.  I don’t know about dreams of wind, but certainly with dreams of tornados and potential suffocation the memorability of the experience is likely to be very high.  A tornado is the most powerfully destructive form of air in nature, and suffocation is a perennial threat to human life, perhaps especially in sleep for people who snore or have apnea.

Family: References to family members appear often in MRDs; they appear even more often in MemDs.   I think it’s fair to say that most people’s strongest emotional relationships (both positive and negative) are with family members.  Thus it makes sense that their appearance in a dream correlates with high memorability.  Looking in more detail at the word search results, references to parents (e.g., mother, father, mom, dad) tend to be the highest, suggesting that dreams in which the individual is cast as a child or in a child’s role are more likely to be memorable.

Animals: Based on any of several different theories (psychoanalytic, developmental, evolutionary), it could be expected that MemDs would have a higher proportion of animals than MRDs.  Psychoanalytically, animals symbolize powerful instinctual energies. Developmentally, animals appear more often in children’s than in adults’ dreams, and MemDs are often recalled from early in childhood. In evolutionary terms, animals in dreams may reflect ancestral threats that we are innately primed to notice and remember.

Fantastic Beings: This category by definition includes characters who are not “real,” so their appearance in dreams naturally arouses some degree of heightened awareness and emotional impact.  Many of them are perceived as extremely frightening and dangerous to the life of the dreamer.  I was surprised by the SDDb baseline results that the MemDs do not have more fear-related emotions than the MRDs, but perhaps what makes some MemDs different is the supernatural source of the fear. There is a connection to be made here with the notion of “minimally counterintuitive supernatural agents” as used in the cognitive science of religion–dreaming is a rich experiential source of people’s religious and spiritual beliefs about such beings.

Christianity: Many references to Christianity in both MRDs and MemDs are relatively trivial references to Christmas, or mild oaths, or a person’s name.  But more often in the MemDs there are direct references to interactions with Jesus, battles with demons, visiting heaven, and worshipping in church.  In a majority-Christian country like the U.S., where all the SDDb baseline participants reside, this seems like an expectable result.  Insofar as Christianity, like most religions, is concerned with deep questions of morality, suffering, and faith, any dream that refers to religious teachings is likely to register more memorably in the dreamer’s awareness.

Death: Whether considered in religious or secular terms, death surely counts as a major existential concern of human life.  Dreaming itself has long been mythologically associated with death, and cultural traditions all over the world have stories about dreams as a portal to the afterlife.  In MemDs the theme of death takes many forms: other characters dying or being killed right in front of the dreamer, dead relatives appearing as if alive (i.e., visitation dreams), and, more rarely, the dreamer him or herself dying.  When the prospect of mortality arises in a dream, it’s not surprising that the individual takes notice and remembers.

What do these seven higher-frequency MemD elements have in common?

For one thing, several of them involve “counter-factuals,” i.e., phenomena that are literally impossible in ordinary waking life.  Magically flying in the air, encountering fantastic beings, seeing people who are dead appear as if alive–these are strikingly anomalous experiences that stand out from ordinary life and make a big impression on memory.

Secondly, several of the MemD themes involve dire threats to the individual’s life and well-being.  Dreams of death, demons, monsters, wild animals, suffocation, and tornados naturally arouse a host of psychological and physiological responses that can literally seize the dreamer’s attention and hold it long after waking.

Thirdly, a few MemD themes relate closely to the prominent themes of children’s dreams generally, with more animals and higher family references.  As I noted earlier, the SDDb baseline for MemDs includes numerous childhood-era dreams reported by children and adults, so it is definitely skewed toward children’s dream content.  That means the differences between MRDs and MemDs could be explained as artifacts of the differences between adults and children.  I grant there will be a large degree of overlap between highly memorable dreams and children’s dreams–precisely because the most memorable dreams people often recall are dreams from childhood.

Not all children’s dreams are big dreams–but many big dreams are dreams that have been remembered from childhood.