Dreaming in Black and White

The Wizard of Oz was originally released in 1939, viewed by millions of Americans who delighted in its novel cinematic analogy that waking is to dreaming as black & white film is to color film.  I’ve always assumed the question “Do we dream in color or black & white?” originated with the huge cultural impact of The Wizard of Oz.  I’ve study many dream traditions around the world, and while some typical dream phenomena are cross-cultural (e.g., flying, snakes, teeth falling out), the color vs. black & white question does not seem to be one of them.  Perhaps such a question can only arise in a culture in which people are viewing both color and black & white photos, films, and television shows.

Recently I found an article I wish I had known earlier, by Eric Schwitzgebel: “Do People Still Report Dreaming in Black and White? An Attempt to Replicate a Questionnaire from 1942.”  Schwitzgebel says, “In the 1940’s and 1950’s, dream researchers commonly thought that dreams were primarily a black & white phenomenon…However, by the 1960’s, most researchers reported a high incidence of color in dreams” (p. 25).  To investigate this strange psycho-cultural shift, Schwitzgebel replicated a 1942 study by W. C. Middleton in which college students were asked about their dream recall and colors in their dreams.  His results from a 2001 sample of students found a big difference: “The undergraduates in the present study reported much more colored dreaming than Middleton’s undergraduates in 1942.” (p. 28)

The exact question was, “Do you see colors in your dreams?”  “Very frequently” was the answer of 3.3% of the 1942 students (N=277) and 26.6% of the 2001 students (N=124); “Frequently,” 7.0% vs. 25.8%; “Occasionally,” 19.0% vs. 22.6%; “Rarely,” 30.8% vs. 13.3%; and “Never,” 39.9% vs. 4.4%.

Schwitzgebel ends his paper by saying, “If it is plausible to suppose that dreams themselves have not changed from black and white to color in this interval, we may conclude that one or another (or both) groups of respondents were profoundly mistaken about a basic feature of their dream experiences” (p. 29).

This seems too harsh to me.  As I mentioned at the outset, this color vs. black & white question is not a natural one.  The participants in Middleton’s 1942 study would have been high school students when The Wizard of Oz came out three years earlier.  I wonder if they interpreted the survey question as meaning, do you ever dream like Dorothy did in the movie, in fantastically vibrant technicolor?  In the cultural shadows of World War II and the Great Depression, it may not be surprising that most of the students answered “no.”

Another finding in Schwitzgebel’s study, which he doesn’t discuss, is that dream recall in general seems to have risen.  The participants in both studies were asked “How frequently do you dream?”  “Very frequently” was the answer of 13.4% of the 1942 students and 27.4% of the 2001 students; “Frequently,” 24.9% vs. 33.9%; “Occasionally,” 41.5% vs. 25.0%; “Rarely,” 30.8% vs. 13.3%; “Never,” 0.3% vs. 0.4%.  Based on these findings, it seems that not just color in dreams but dream awareness overall is greater now than in 1942.

However, Schwitzgebel’s study was performed in 2001, with students who passed their formative years in a decade of relative peace and prosperity.  Would we find the same results today if we replicated the questionnaire a third time, with students in 2012 who grew up in the cultural shadows of the War on Terror and the Great Recession?


Note: Schwitzgebel’s article appeared in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2003, vol. 96, pp. 25-29.