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.

What Kinds of Technology Do People Dream About Most Frequently?

What Kinds of Technology Do People Dream About Most Frequently? by Kelly BulkeleyThe past one hundred years of human history have been dramatically transformed by the invention of several new technologies, each of which has impacted people’s lives in profound and complicated ways.

In light of empirical research showing strong continuities between waking and dreaming, we can hypothesize that modern technologies have also made a tangible impact on the content of people’s dreams.

And indeed, there is evidence in support of that idea. By analyzing a collection of more than 16,000 dream reports available for study on the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), it becomes possible to examine which kinds of technology have most influenced people’s dreams in terms of their frequency of appearance.

The results suggest the newest technologies are not necessarily the most important ones in the world of dreams.

To explore this question I looked at all the dream reports on the SDDb of 25 words or more in length for Females (N=10,168) and Males (N=6,590), and selected the “Technology and Science” category from the 2.0 word search template.

This is a quick and dirty approach, but it has the virtue of providing an easy and relatively straightforward means of getting an evidence-based response to the question.

The results for the Females were 990 dream reports with at least one reference to a word in the “Technology and Science” category, approximately 10% of the total number of dreams. The figures for the Males were 602 and 9%.

Looking in more detail at which terms appeared most frequently (these include singular and plural uses of the term), the results for the Females were these:

Phone, 3.55%

Movie, 3.18%

Video, 1.26%

Computer, 1.2%

Machine, .91%

Radio, .65%

Camera, .62%

Television, .26%

And for the Males:

Phone, 2.69%

Movie, 2.47%

Video, 1.27%

Computer, 1.03%

Machine, 1.02%

Radio, .47%

Camera, .49%

Television, .36%

I did a parallel search with the same two sets using the SDDb 2.0 word search template category for Transportation. These results—24% of the dream reports for both Females and Males had at least one reference to a Transportation word—are much higher than the Technology and Science frequencies.

Looking more closely at specific forms of transportation appearing in people’s dreams, these were the results for the Females:

Car, 9.12%

Boat, 1.92%

Bus, 1.81%

Airplane, 1.49%

Truck, 1.26%

Elevator, 1.16%

Bicycle, .86%

And for the Males:

Car, 8.18%

Boat, 2.12%

Bus, 1.65%

Bicycle, 1.56%

Airplane, 1.46%

Truck, 1.37%

Elevator, .67%

The first thing to note is the remarkable gender balance. On almost all the categories and word clusters, the Female and Male frequencies are extremely close. (The main exceptions are slightly more Bicycle references for the Males, and slightly more Phone, Movie, Car, and Elevator references for the Females.) This consistency across so many terms suggests that modern technologies have impacted men and women about equally.

Secondly, the analysis indicates that the most frequently appearing modern invention in dreams is the automobile. It seems that technologies of transportation have had more of an impact on people’s dreams than have technologies of communications and entertainment.  Add in trucks and buses to cars, and the predominance of the internal combustion engine in dreaming becomes even greater.

Why might this be? I’m not sure, but I wonder if technologies of transportation have more of a visceral impact on people’s lives. Telephones, movies, videos, and computers can be fascinating and absorbing, but they do not directly affect a person’s body with the kind of sensory intensity that people feel during a car ride.

Whatever the explanation, the results of this brief study indicate that the most frequently appearing type of modern technology in dreams is one that was invented more than one hundred years ago. Newer technologies like computers and videos have not (yet) made as big an impression on the dreaming imagination.

Maybe future developments in virtual reality will enable a more powerful stimulation of people’s physiological responses, prompting a rise in VR-related dreams. But that remains a far-off possibility.

Until then, cars remain for most people the dream technology of choice.


Note: here are the word strings for the specific technology and transportation searches:

Phone: phone phones telephone telephones iphone iphones. Video: video videos. Computer: computer computers. Machine: machine machines machinery. Radio: radio radios. Camera: camera cameras. Television: television televisions tv tvs.

Car: car cars auto autos automobile automobiles. Boat: boat boats ship ships. Bus: bus buses. Bicycle: bicycle bicycles bike bikes. Airplane: airplane airplanes plane planes. Truck: truck trucks. Elevator: elevator elevators.

Digital Dream Analysis: A New Article on Word Search Methods

Digital Dream Analysis: A New Article on Word Search Methods by Kelly BulkeleyThe latest issue of the journal Consciousness and Cognition has an article of mine titled “Digital dream analysis: A revised method,” that’s the fruition of several years of data-driven work.  It lays out the latest developments in testing and refining the word search template programmed into the Sleep and Dream Database, a digital archive and search engine designed to promote scientific dream research.  The original article I wrote using this word search method was in a 2009 issue of Consciousness and Cognition, titled “Seeking patterns in dream content: A systematic approach to word searches.”  The new article builds on that earlier piece and extends it in two ways.

First, it presents a revised, 2.0 version of the word search template that has many improvements on the 1.0 version presented in the 2009 article.  I’m sure there will be more refinements in the future, and hopefully more researchers developing their own templates as well.  But for now, the 2.0 version is useful as a well-tested and fairly comprehensive tool for analyzing dream content simply, quickly, and reliably.

Second, the article applies the 2.0 word search template to a number of previously studied collections of dreams from very high quality sources (Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle, J. Allan Hobson, and G. William Domhoff).  In doing so I followed the advice of Kurt Bollacker, database engineer for the SDDb, who suggested I take “classic” studies in dream research from the past and try applying my new method to their same data.  That’s what I have done in this article: use the word search method to analyze the same sets of dreams those researchers studied, so we can see what the new method can and cannot tell us about meaningful patterns in dream content.

Here is the abstract for the article.  The whole thing, I’m told, is available for free download until November 22, 2014.

“This article demonstrates the use of a digital word search method designed to provide greater accuracy, objectivity, and speed in the study of dreams.  A revised template of 40 word search categories, built into the website of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), is applied to four “classic” sets of dreams: The male and female “Norm” dreams of Hall and Van de Castle (1966), the “Engine Man” dreams discussed by Hobson (1988), and the “Barb Sanders Baseline 250” dreams examined by Domhoff (2003).  A word search analysis of these original dream reports shows that a digital approach can accurately identify many of the same distinctive patterns of content found by previous investigators using much more laborious and time-consuming methods. The results of this study emphasize the compatibility of word search technologies with traditional approaches to dream content analysis.”

The Religious Content of Dreams: A New Scientific Foundation

This is an article from the journal Pastoral Psychology 58 (2009), 93-106.  It was the first time I tried applying word search methods in the analysis of a specific aspect of dream content in a series of dreams from a particular individual.  Although I don’t foreground the idea, it’s an early attempt at “blind analysis” in terms of an approach to identifying continuities between dream content and the individual’s concerns and activities in waking life.

PP The Religious Content of Dreams 2009