Realistic Simulation And Bizarreness In Dream Content: Past Findings And Suggestions For Future Research

G. William Domhoff

University of California, Santa Cruz

NOTE: If you use this paper in research, please use the following citation, as this on-line version is simply a reprint of the original article:
Domhoff, G. W. (2007). Realistic simulation and bizarreness in dream content: Past findings and suggestions for future research. In D. Barrett & P. McNamara (Eds.), The New Science of Dreaming: Content, Recall, and Personality Characteristics, (Vol. 2, pp. 1-27). Westport, CT: Praeger Press.


According to age-old stereotypes that are constantly reinforced by breathless stories in the modern mass media, the content of dreams is extremely bizarre, with little apparent rhyme or reason. Newsweek began an August, 9, 2004 feature story on "What Dreams Are Made Of" with the following lines:

"In the middle of the night, we are all Fellini -- the creator of a parade of fleeting images intended for an audience of one. At times, it's an action flick, with a chase scene that seems endless ... until it dissolves and we're falling, falling, falling into ... is it a field of flowers? And who is the gardener waving at us over there? Could it be our old high-school English teacher? No, it's Jon Stewart. He wants us to sit on the couch right next to him. Are those TV cameras? And what happened to our clothes?" (Kantrowitz & Springen, 2004, p. 41).

Two years later, U. S. News and World Report used exactly the same headline and offered the same type of fairy tale lead-in for a special story on dreams:

"Strange images appear from long-forgotten memories. Or out of nowhere: You're roller-skating on water; your mother flashes by on a trapeze; your father is in labor; a friend dead for years sits down at the dinner table" (Szegedy-Maszak, 2006, p. 55).

The popular idea that dreams are mostly strange and other worldly is reinforced by well-known Freudian claims that they are full of disguised impulses and arcane symbolism. Bizarreness is also a dominant theme in one of the most publicly visible dream theories to emerge from the discovery of REM sleep in the 1950s, the activation-synthesis theory advocated by J. Allan Hobson and his co-workers (e.g., Hobson, 2002; Hobson, Pace-Schott, & Stickgold, 2000a; Hobson, Pace-Schott, & Stickgold, 2000b). For them, however, bizarreness is not due to disguise or symbolism, but is simply the reaction of an ill-prepared forebrain to allegedly random activation that arises periodically from the brain stem due to the onset of REM sleep.

Although Freudians and activation-synthesis theorists are at opposite poles when it comes to the degree of meaning and sophisticated thinking said to present in dreams, they both believe the dreaming brain is in a highly emotional and psychotic state -- schizophrenia for the Freudians (Solms & Turnbull, 2002) and delirium for the activation-synthesis theorists, an organic brain disease characterized by disorientation, illogical cognition, distracted attention, unstable emotion, and dull intellectual functions (Hobson, 2002, p. 23; Kahn & Hobson, 2005a, p. 436). However, activation-synthesis theory then allows for the possibility that the forebrain can draw on thought patterns and memories developed in the waking state to impose at least some degree of coherence on these unexpected stimuli, which means that dreams can provide psychological information about the dreamer. All in all, though, dreams are said to be "cognitive trash" (Hobson, 2002, p. 23)

But are dreams really as bizarre and emotional as they are made out to be by the mass media and these rival dream theorists? And could future research adjudicate the disagreements between the Freudians and activation-synthesis theorists about the degree to which bizarreness is the product of figurative thinking or simply the result of cognitive defects? Drawing on a wide range of studies in both laboratory and non-laboratory settings, this chapter shows that dreams are far more coherent, patterned, and thoughtful than is suggested by the usual image of them. Instead, they are by and large a realistic simulation of waking life. At the same time, the chapter shows that there are aspects of dream content that are unusual and perhaps nonsensical. But it then cautions that any claims about the bizarreness of dreams must be made on the basis of comparisons with relaxed waking thought because it, too, is subject to sudden shifts in topics, the intrusion of irrelevant thoughts and memories, and other "bizarre" features that are often taken for granted (e.g., Klinger, 1999; Klinger & Cox, 1987-1988).

With the predominantly realistic nature of most dreams established, the chapter goes on to present ways to resolve arguments about the nature of bizarreness in dreams. Specifically, it suggests that studies of the unusual elements embedded in lengthy individual dream journals provide the best possible context for finding any plausible figurative meanings that may be produced by the dreaming mind based on "resemblances" (i.e., shared "properties") between people, activities, or objects. Unusual elements that still do not make any sense after the careful study of a dream journal can plausibly be chalked up to cognitive breakdowns that reveal the limits of coherent thinking in the dreaming state.

To accomplish its goals, the chapter begins with an overview of major studies of dream reports collected through awakenings in sleep laboratories, which have the advantage of being immediately recalled in a controlled setting. They also make it possible to eliminate the irrelevant and misleading reports that are sometimes mistaken for dreams, such as reports from brief awakenings during sleep or frightening thoughts during sleep paralysis, when the brain is in the waking state but the body is still immobilized. These controlled laboratory studies reveal that dreams are overwhelmingly about everyday settings, people, activities, and events, with only a relatively small amount of bizarreness. The chapter then proceeds to studies that compare dreams collected in the laboratory and at home from the same participants, which show that there are only minor differences between dreams in the two settings. Then the chapter turns to large samples of dream reports collected in a systematic fashion from students in university settings. These studies add to the picture by uncovering patterns in dream content based on gender and cross-national comparisons. They also provide normative figures on the degree to which settings are distorted, characters change from one person to another, and feelings of confusion and surprise are experienced.

To provide greater depth to the analysis, the chapter then moves to a consideration of the results from detailed analyses of lengthy dream journals kept by a variety of individuals for their own separate reasons. These studies reveal the consistency of specific dream elements (e.g., characters, types of social interactions, and themes) over months, years, and decades, which supports the idea that dreams are coherent and meaningful. Studies of dream journals also contribute to the evidence that dreams are usually not bizarre by showing that many aspects of dream content are continuous with waking conceptions and concerns, with "concerns" defined in a general way that covers wishes, interests, worries, and fears. Moreover, and most importantly in terms of whether unusual elements in dreams have figurative meaning, the information available to date suggests that some of them probably have figurative meaning, but that many others do not. This divided verdict sets the stage for future research projects that go beyond the old dichotomies.

Dream Content From Laboratory Awakenings

Although there is clear evidence that NREM dreams can be similar in content to REM dreams (Antrobus, 1983; Foulkes, 1962; Foulkes & Schmidt, 1983; Herman, Ellman, & Roffwarg, 1978; Kamiya, 1961; Rechtschaffen, Verdone, & Wheaton, 1963), especially late in the sleep period (Antrobus, Kondo, & Reinsel, 1995; Cicogna, Natale, Occhionero, & Bosinelli, 1998; Fosse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 2004, p. 302), REM dream reports are usually longer, more frequent and more vivid. This section will therefore focus on the content of dreams reported from REM awakenings, first in adults, then in children and adolescents.

The most comprehensive study of adult REM dream content in the sleep laboratory is based on 635 dream reports collected "for a variety of experimental purposes" in a series of investigations over a period of seven years between 1960 and 1967 (Snyder, 1970, p. 127; Snyder, Karacan, Tharp, & Scott, 1968) The 58 young adult men and women who participated in these studies were awakened on 250 nights in two different laboratories, one at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, the other at the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. Owing to the varying purposes of the original investigations, some participants were simply asked to report anything they remembered upon awakening. Others were questioned in detail about what they recalled, a procedure that tended to produce longer dream reports. Still others, 20 male students taking part in an investigation of the sequence of dream emotions, were questioned at each awakening for details about any emotional accompaniments of the dream.

The investigators defined a dream report by specifying that "the subject's words must clearly convey an experience of complex and organized perceptual imagery," which also must have "undergone some temporal process or change" (Snyder, 1970, p. 129). They thereby excluded the isolated visual images, fragmented auditory recall, and thoughts that are also part of the more general category of sleep mentation. Based on this definition, 75% of the awakenings led to dream recall. The reports were divided into short (less than 150 words), medium (150-300 words), and long (over 300 words) sets as a control for length.

Although there were some small differences due to word length, the overall finding was that "dreaming consciousness" is "a remarkably faithful replica of waking life"(Snyder, 1970, p. 133). For example, 38% of the settings were familiar to the dreamers, and another 43% were similar to places they knew (the remaining 19% of reports, most of them of short length, did not mention a setting). Of the identified settings, only 5% were "exotic," in the sense of highly unusual or out of the ordinary, and less than 1% were "fantastic," in the sense of unrealistic (Snyder, 1970, p. 134). Ninety-five percent of the dreams contained at least one other character in addition to the dreamer. The most frequent activity was talking, which appeared in 86% of the medium-length reports and 100% of the long reports. By contrast, "active exertion" (e.g., running, playing a sport, fighting) occurred in only 15-20%. Using a conservative standard to guard against imputing any emotions to the dreamers, specific emotions were judged to be present in only 30-35% of the reports, with unpleasant emotions outnumbering pleasant ones by 2 to 1. Anxiety and anger were the most frequent types of emotions; erotic feelings occurred in only 8 of the 635 reports (1.3%) (Snyder, 1970. p. 141).

The investigators made a series of ratings for coherence (does the narrative hold together as a story), dramatic quality (are the events outside the ordinary gamut of waking life), credibility (are the events conceivable, even if unlikely), and bizarreness (are any events "outside the conceivable expectations of waking life"). They found that 60-80% were highly coherent on a three point scale, as compared with less than 5% that were rated as low on coherence. Three-fourths had a "nil" or "low" degree of drama on a four-point scale, and less than 10% were high on drama. Fully 65% of the dream reports were rated as highly creditable, and another 25% as of medium credibility; about 8% were rated as low on credibility and 2% as having no credibility. In keeping with the findings on credibility, the dreams were rated as having a low degree of bizarreness. Focusing here on the longest reports because they were more frequently rated as bizarre, 50% were rated as having no bizarreness, 30% as having a low degree of bizarreness, 8% as having a medium degree, and 2% as having a high degree (Snyder, 1970, p. 145-146).

The researchers also made a search for "typical" dreams, which are defined by certain common themes that many people report they have experienced in response to questionnaires. The themes in most typical dreams readily fit into the characterization of dreams as "bizarre," such as appearing partially dressed or naked in public (with feelings of great embarrassment), suddenly losing teeth, flying under one's own power, or falling through space. At the same time, other typical dream themes are more realistic, such as failing an examination or finding money. The investigators discovered that the more bizarre types of typical dreams were not very frequent in their sample. For example, only 10 mentioned any degree of nudity, none of which included any embarrassment. The loss of teeth occurred in three dreams, while flying and falling made one appearance each (Snyder, 1970, p. 148). Even the more realistic types of typical dreams were rare: 11 dreams related to examinations, none of which involved failure, and one dream included the finding of money.

Based on their wide range of findings, the authors conclude that adult dreams are very different from what is commonly believed. They characterize a prototypical REM dream report as a "clear, coherent, and detailed account of a realistic situation involving the dreamer and other people caught up in very ordinary activities and preoccupations, and usually talking about them"(Snyder, 1970, p. 148). Overall, they believe that as many as "90% would have been considered credible descriptions of everyday experience"(Snyder et al., 1968, p. 375).

Bizarreness in Laboratory Dream Reports

The unexpected lack of highly unusual dream content in REM reports was investigated in

more detail in a study of 16 young adult women who spent two consecutive nights each in the lab and answered questions about the familiarity and likelihood of specific dream elements after an average of four REM awakenings per night (Dorus, Dorus, & Rechtschaffen, 1971). First, the contents were categorized as (1) physical surroundings (settings and objects); (2) characters (humans, animals, and creatures); (3) activities (physical, expressive, verbal, and cognitive); or (4) social interactions (aggressive, friendly, and sexual). Next, each type of element was placed in one of six categories for types of "novelty." Three of these categories ranged from the exact replication of the dreamers' reality to large but plausible differences from their waking experience; the other three categories ranged from previously unexperienced but realistic elements to elements that are fantastic or improbable.

The investigators concluded that their results "emphasize the rarity of the bizarre in dreams" because major distortions of actual waking experiences reach a high of only 16.7% of all the activities and social interactions, and of 6.2% and 7.8% for all characters and physical surroundings (Dorus et al., 1971, p. 367). The figures for the most improbable category of event never experienced by the dreamer in waking life were 4.9% of all physical surroundings, 1.3% of all characters, and 6.8% of all activities and social interactions. When they carried out global ratings of each dream for overall novelty, they found that 25.8% showed large but plausible differences from previous waking experiences and that 8.9% were highly improbable by waking standards.

As one part of a comprehensive laboratory investigation of dream content in Switzerland, based on 500 REM dream reports from 44 participants (26 women, 18 men) who spent 16l nights in the laboratory, Strauch and Meier (1996) examined a subsample of 117 dreams with a variety of bizarreness scales. They report that they "collected only very few dreams in which coherent thought and experience were entirely lacking, which remained totally unintelligible, or were even seemingly disturbed" (Strauch & Meier, 1996, p. 103). They found that unusual dream content, ranging from mild violations of social or cultural standards to improbable-to-eccentric actions by characters, were more than twice as frequent as bizarreness in dream structure, such as sudden appearances or disappearances, or sudden scene changes. There were no bizarre elements of any kind in 23.9% of the reports and only one bizarre element in another 39.3%.

Rather clearly, then, there is some bizarreness in adult dreams, but far less than might be expected based on the claims by the mass media, Freudians, and activation-synthesis theorists.

Emotions in Laboratory Dreams

The issue of emotionality in dreams initially addressed in the Bethesda/Brooklyn study was investigated in great depth in the sleep lab in three different studies. In the first, 17 young adults (9 women, 8 men) were questioned in detail after each awakening as to the presence of emotions and the appropriateness of the emotion to the content over two nonconsecutive nights, with a mean of six REM awakenings per participant (Foulkes, Sullivan, Kerr, & Brown, 1988). Drawing on ratings by both participants and na´ve judges, it was concluded that about 70% of the dream reports had at least some affect, a much higher figure than in the Bethesda/Brooklyn study, but one that is supported in the later studies of REM reports to be discussed in the next two paragraphs. The type of emotion, or lack thereof, was appropriate to the dream situation in 60% of the dreams. However, there was no emotion in 17% of the cases where there would have been some in a similar waking situation, and the presence of dream emotion in 3.2% where there would have been none in waking life. The investigators concluded that emotions are generally appropriate in dreams, with the major anomaly being the absence of emotion when it would have been present in waking life.

In a Swiss study by Strauch and Meier (1996) that was discussed in the previous sub-section, participants were asked after each awakening how they felt during the dream and how intense their feelings were. Based on all 500 REM dream reports, they found that 26.4% of the dream reports had no emotions, 23.4% had general mood states, and 50.2% had specific emotions. Overall, a variety of negative emotions appeared twice as often as positive ones, with the intensity of the emotions in a middle range, that is, rarely extremely mild or extremely intense. By and large, the participants "registered the same emotional reactions that they would have had while awake and facing a similar situation," but some dreams lacked the emotional involvement that would have been part of the same experience in waking life (Strauch & Meier, 1996, p. 95). Based on the significant number of dreams without emotions in them, they concluded that "the interesting observation that many dreams did not cause emotional reactions stands in contrast to a conception that emotions are crucial to the dream experience" (Strauch & Meier, 1996, p. 95).

A third study, focused exclusively on the issue of emotions, reported findings similar to those in the first two studies. Using REM reports from 9 Norwegian participants (7 women, 2 men) whose sleep stages were monitored in their homes with a portable polysomonographic machine, it was discovered that 26% of the reports had no emotional elements, which is almost exactly the same as the findings in the two laboratory studies just cited (Fosse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 2001). Moreover, emotion was rated as "low" in 18% and "medium" in 28% of the remaining dreams in this study, leaving only 28% of the dream reports in this study with "high" emotional content.

The finding in these three studies that emotions are absent from about one-fourth of all REM dream reports, and that sometimes there are none where they would have been present in waking life, does not support the general claims about emotionality in dreams by Freudians and activation-synthesis theorists. Nor does the distribution of emotional intensity fit with their assumptions.

Laboratory Studies of Children's Dreams

The findings from REM awakenings with children and young adolescents reveal their dreams to be even less bizarre and emotional than those of adults, as first shown in longitudinal laboratory study of children between the ages of 3 and 15, supplemented by a cross-sectional laboratory replication a few years later with children ages 5-8 (Foulkes, 1982; Foulkes, Hollifield, Sullivan, Bradley, & Terry, 1990). A 5-year longitudinal laboratory study of Swiss children ages 9-15 replicated these findings and added new insights as well (Strauch, 2003; Strauch, 2005).

The original longitudinal study involved two groups of children who slept in the laboratory every other year for nine non-consecutive nights over a 5-year period. The first group was between 3 and 4 years of age when the study started. The second group was between 9 and 10. The study began with a total of 30 children in the two groups; six boys ages 11 to 12 were added at the start of the third year, and seven girls ages 7 to 8 were added at the start of the fifth year. In all, 46 children were studied -- 26 for all 5 years, 34 for at least 3 years, and 43 for at least 1 complete year. The investigator made 2,711 awakenings over the 5-year period.

The first unexpected finding was the low amount of recall from REM periods in the 3 to 5 year olds (only 27% of the REM awakenings yielded any recall that could reasonably be called a dream), along with the static, bland, and underdeveloped content of the few reports that were obtained. The reports became more "dreamlike" (in terms of characters, themes, and actions) in the 5 to 7 year-olds, but it was not until the children were 11 to 13 years old that their dreams began to resemble those of adult laboratory participants in frequency, length, emotions, and overall structure, or to show any relationship to personality (Foulkes, 1982, p. 217).

The cross-sectional replication study focused on 10 boys and 10 girls within 1 month of their 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th birthdays because the most dramatic changes in the longitudinal study seemed to occur during this age period. These 80 children were awakened 10 times each over a period of three nonconsecutive nights for a total of 800 awakenings. All of the main original findings were supported. The median rate of reporting was only 20% for all age groups. The imagery in the dreams was more static than dynamic until age 7, and the child's "self" character did not tend to take an active role in the dreams until age 8 (Foulkes et al., 1990). There were very few aggressive interactions, negative emotions, misfortunes, or failures; friendly interactions were few in number as well (Domhoff, 1996, p. 94).

The longitudinal study of Swiss children ages 9-15 involved 12 boys and 12 girls who slept in the laboratory for three nonconsecutive nights every other year and provided a total of 551 REM reports. The results were generally similar to those for preadolescents and adolescents in the American longitudinal study. In addition, rating scales for self-involvement, the inclusion of speech, and the inventiveness of the dream structure showed increases over time, supporting Foulkes's (1982; 1999) conclusion that there are subtle changes in dreaming cognition in adolescence. Only 13-14% of the dreams were accompanied by emotions or feelings of well being in the first year of the study. The figures were 15% for boys and 25% for girls by age 13-15, which is well less than half of what was found with adults in the same laboratory setting (Strauch, 2005, p. 161, Table 4). In terms of content, most of the dreams concerned a variety of everyday situations, such as playing sports (20%), moving from one place to another (20%), being around home (20%), and being involved in interesting activities -- not classroom work -- at school (10%). However, 10% were adventure stories that included unlikely encounters with robbers, ghosts, or movie heroes.

The dreams were also rated on a scale that ranged from the realistic to the inventive to the unrealistic. "Inventive" was defined as the combination of familiar waking experiences in an unusual, creative manner. "Unrealistic" elements, which were also called "bizarre" or "unlikely, were defined by a lack of any relation to the waking world. In terms of these categories, 39-41% of the dream reports were realistic at all three age levels, which was essentially the same as the 37% of realistic dream reports found with the young adult control group. Inventive dream reports rose from 29% to 44% over the 5-year period, just below the 50% level for the control group. Unrealistic/bizarre dreams declined from 31% to 15%, with the latter figure similar to the 13% of unrealistic dream reports for the young adult group (Strauch, 2005, p. 162, Figure 2). Several of the unrealistic dream elements occurred within the context of otherwise everyday situations, as when a soccer game was being playing with balls of many different colors. But others were completely unrealistic, as when an 11-year-old boy reported from the third REM period that rats were riding on birds in the underground sewer system (Strauch, 2005, p. 162).

In summary, the most comprehensive and detailed descriptive laboratory studies of REM reports from both children and adults provide strong evidence that dreaming is far less bizarre than is generally claimed. However, it might be argued that REM dream reports are not a good sample of dream life, which is what Hobson and his co-workers (2000b) have done in downplaying the results of laboratory dream studies in general. It therefore is necessary to look at studies comparing laboratory and home dreams before turning to the findings with the many thousands of dream reports collected outside the laboratory setting.

Laboratory And Home Dream Comparisons

There are several plausible reasons why REM dream reports might be different from those collected via morning recall in a home setting. They include the possible inhibitory effect of the laboratory setting, differences in the method of reporting in the two settings (spoken versus written), and selective recall at home (forgetting small details or highlighting emotionally salient and bizarre elements). However, despite early claims to the contrary (Domhoff & Kamiya, 1964), several later studies of laboratory and home dreams from the same participants demonstrate that there are not many differences in favor of home dreams even when there are no controls for the possibility of selective memory for more emotional and bizarre dreams at home (Domhoff & Schneider, 1999; Hall, 1966; Heynick & deJong, 1985; Hunt, Ogilvie, Belicki, Belicki, & Atalick, 1982; Strauch & Meier, 1996; Zepelin, 1972). Furthermore, most of these differences disappear when the proper controls are introduced (Foulkes, 1979; Weisz & Foulkes, 1970). The one regular difference in the two types of reports seems to be in the realm of hostile and aggressive dream elements, which occur more frequently in the home dream reports of young adults in three different studies (Domhoff & Kamiya, 1964; Domhoff & Schneider, 1999; Weisz & Foulkes, 1970).

These general conclusions are demonstrated in a reanalysis of the large and detailed comparison of lab and home reports by Hall (1966), based on transcribed laboratory reports and written home reports. Using the corrections for dream length based on percentages and rates that are built into the Hall and Van de Castle (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966) content indicators for 21 categories of dream content, the reanalysis found there were only four statistically significant differences between 120 home dreams and 272 lab dreams from eight young adult males who recalled at least 34 lab dreams and 15 home dreams. The percent of characters that were animals was higher in the home dreams, as were three aggression indicators (Domhoff & Schneider, 1999). Most notably in terms of bizarreness, there were no differences in this study in the percentage of dreams with at least one bizarre element using an "unrealistic elements" scale that has categories for (1) unusual activities; (2) unusual occurrences; (3) distorted objects or arrangements of objects; and (4) metamorphoses of the dreamer, other characters, or objects (Domhoff, 1996, p. 278; Hall, 1966, p. 40). Overall, only 10.4% of the 815 dreams had at least one unrealistic element. This result was later replicated in a Canadian laboratory (Hunt et al., 1982).

The higher frequency of aggression in home dream reports in the reanalysis of Hall's study supports the concern that there is some selective recall in everyday dream reports, but it is noteworthy that 44% of the dreams did not contain any form of aggression, whether physical or nonphysical, and 72% were without any physical aggression. Moreover, aggressive interactions, many of which simply involve hostile thoughts, criticisms, and rejections, are not what Freudians and activation-synthesis theorists have in mind when they characterize dream content as bizarre. It therefore seems reasonable to use the results of content studies of home-reported dreams as a further guide to the general nature of dream content.

Findings From Outside The Laboratory Setting

As might be expected from the results of the laboratory versus home comparisons, studies of large samples of dream content collected from young college-educated adults outside the laboratory show many similarities with the laboratory results when the same or comparable content categories are employed.

The general flavor of these findings can be seen in a study of German college students that used 246 reports from 98 women and 95 reports from 37 men that were collected in the mid-1990s (Domhoff, Meyer-Gomes, & Schredl, 2006). They were coded for at least one instance of several simple categories developed in order to determine the degree to which the dreams involve people and activities from everyday life. There were four categories for familiar characters: (1) parents or siblings; (2) spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends; (3) other family members; and (4) friends. There were five categories for commonplace leisure activities: (1) traveling or vacationing; (2) watching or playing sports; (3) going to parties, cafes, or bars; (4) watching entertainers or shows; and (5) shopping. There also was a single category for involvement in work, school, or politics. The everyday nature of most of these dreams is seen in the fact that 75.2% of the women's dreams and 62.1% of the men's have at least one instance of one of the four categories of familiar characters. Similarly, 42.3% of the women's dreams and 27.4% of the men's have at least one instance from one of the five leisure-time categories. The routine matters of work, school, or politics appear in 20.3% of the women's dreams and 29.5% of the men's dreams. Overall, only 12.6% of the women's dreams and 20.0% of the men's have no instance of any of the above categories. Compared to women, the men's dreams are less likely to have familiar characters and familiar leisure time activities, and more likely to have instances of school/work/politics. However, the important point for purposes of this chapter is that only a minority of dreams from either gender involves unknown characters or activities that are out of the ordinary.

The most systematic research on large samples of dreams from college students has been done using the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) coding system, which has 10 general categories that cover everything from characters to types of activities to emotions to such descriptive elements as intensity, size, and temperature. Since the results with this coding system are fairly well known and readily accessible, they can be presented in relatively brief compass here, with a focus on how they relate to the issues of coherence, bizarreness, and emotionality in dreams (Domhoff, 1996).

First, Hall and Van de Castle's (1966) normative study, based on 500 dreams from 100 predominantly white middle-class women and 500 dreams from 100 men of the same demographic at two universities in Cleveland between 1949 and 1951, uncovered gender similarities and differences that are similar to gender similarities and differences in waking life; this is evidence for the patterned nature of dream content. For instance, there is a higher percentage of physical aggressions in men's dreams and a higher percentage of rejections and exclusions in women's dreams, which parallels the waking finding that boys engage in more physical aggression than girls and that girls are more likely to engage in "social aggression" -- exclusion, rejection, and criticism (Underwood, 2003).

At the same time, the normative results also reveal that dreams are not a perfect simulation of everyday life. For example, 7% of the familiar settings in men's dreams and 14% of the familiar settings in women's dreams are in some way different from the way they actually are in waking life, and almost 2% percent of the characters are dead, imaginary, or turn into another character for both men and women . It is also noteworthy that about one-third of all dream reports contain "misfortunes" that range from being lost to illness to the death of a loved one, and that the negative emotions of sadness, anger, confusion, and apprehension, when taken as a whole, greatly outnumber the expression of happiness. More generally, when the number of dreams with at least one aggression, misfortune, failure or negative emotion is totaled, 80% of men's dreams and 77% of women's have at least one of these negative elements. On the other hand, only 53% of dreams for both men and women have at least one of several positive elements, such as friendly interactions, good fortune, success, and happiness. Results such as these show that dreams are not a complete replica of waking life.

The discovery that 11.6% of the men's dreams and 13.4% of the women's dreams contain at least one instance of confusion, surprise, puzzlement, or uncertainty is of special interest for the purposes of this chapter because this feeling is "generally produced either through confrontation with some unexpected event or else through inability to choose between available alternatives" (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966, p. 112). The following example from the male norms shows that the feeling of confusion might be a useful marker in analyzing bizarreness in dreams:

"I was at a birthday party, and present were, as I remember, my girlfriend, my brother, and my sister-in-law. They sang "Happy Birthday" to me. There was a huge, decorated birthday cake in the center of the table. Every time I counted the candles on the cake they increased in number. Amazed at this, I was told that when one reaches 21, the rest of his life passes quickly, and I shouldn't be surprised at this at all. Even in the dream this did not make sense to me but worried me intensely."

The normative gender findings were replicated for men and women at the University of Richmond in 1981, for women at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985, for women at Salem College in the late 1980s, and women at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the early 1990s (Domhoff, 1996; Dudley & Swank, 1990; Hall, Domhoff, Blick, & Weesner, 1982; Tonay, 1990/1991). Generally speaking, then, there is reason to believe that there was little or no change in the dream life of American college students over a 45-year period, which speaks to the regularity of dream content.

The results with American college students also are broadly similar to what has been reported in investigations of young Canadian, Dutch, Swiss, and German college-educated adults, although there are fewer physical aggressions in the dreams of the Dutch and Swiss samples. (Lortie-Lussier, Simond, Rinfret, & De Koninck, 1992; Rinfret, Lortie-Lussier, & de Koninck, 1991; Schredl, Petra, Bishop, Golitz, & Buschtons, 2003; Waterman, Dejong, & Magdelijns, 1988). Dream content is also more similar than different for college students in two large industrialized societies outside of Europe and North America -- India and Japan.(Bose, 1983; Prasad, 1982; Yamanaka, Morita, & Matsumoto, 1982). These and other findings with dreams from other cultures, including small indigenous cultures, add a cross-cultural component to the claim that dreams have a patterned nature, with a tendency to focus on personal concerns (Domhoff, 1996, Chapter 6).

Typical dreams have been studied in large samples outside the laboratory, where they turn out to be as rare as they are in the laboratory. An analysis of 983 dream reports from two-week journals provided by 126 students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, revealed that virtually none of ten typical dreams occurred more than a few times. For example, there were only five flying dreams in the two-week sample, 0.5% of the total, which is of special interest because activation-synthesis theorists believe that flying is prevalent in dreams because the vestibular system is reactivated during REM sleep (Hobson & McCarley, 1977). The figures for several other typical dreams were even lower. Two people dreamed of finding money, two became lost, two were taking an examination, one lost his teeth, and one fell (Domhoff, 1996, p. 198). A study based on 1,910 dream reports from students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, reported a similar low figure for flying dreams; 17 participants reported 22 flying dreams, 1.2% of the total dream report sample (Barrett, 1991).

Emotions in Home-Reported Dreams

People tend to attribute many more emotions to their home dreams than they do when they are awakening in the laboratory and asked about the emotions they experienced during the dream. They also find more emotions than do blind judges when they are asked to rate their dream reports line-by-line, after the reports are written out. In these studies the possible emotions that might appear are listed in separate columns that are to be marked if they are deemed appropriate (Kahn & Hobson, 2002; Kahn, Pace-Schott, & Hobson, 2002; Merritt, Stickgold, Pace-Schott, Williams, & Hobson, 1994). However, based on the laboratory finding that only about 70-75% of dream reports have any emotion in them, it is an open question in need of further study as to whether or not this greater amount of emotions in self-ratings of home dream reports is an actual finding or the result of two confounding factors: the demand characteristics of such a rating task and the waking-life assumption that certain emotions would logically be present in many of the situations experienced in the dream. These questions may be especially important where the dreams and ratings were obtained as part of "a graded class exercise," even though students were told that they could obtain dreams from the instructor if they did not remember their dreams (Kahn & Hobson, 2002; Kahn et al., 2002, p. 35).

Thinking in Home-Reported Dreams

In addition to the talking, laughing, and smiling that goes on in many dreams, all of which imply that the characters in dreams are thinking, there is also evidence of thinking in a more goal-directed sense, as evidenced by such terms as "contemplate," "decide," "ponder," and "think about:" 13.8% of the men's dreams and 21.0% of the women's dreams in the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) normative sample contain at least one such thinking element. The figure would be higher if "transient mental activities" such as remembering, forgetting, recognizing, wishing, and feeling sorry were included (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966, p. 90). When talking, expressive behaviors like laughing and crying, and goal-directed thinking are combined, 67.2% of the men's dreams and 74.3% of the women's dreams have at least one of these three elements.

There is further evidence for the presence of appropriate thinking in dreams when the dreamers themselves go back through their dreams in a line-by-line fashion (Kahn & Hobson, 2005a; Kahn & Hobson, 2005b). These studies show that the dreamers are often aware of how they feel toward other characters and how the characters feel about them, which suggests that the ability to understand that others have thoughts and feelings ("theory of mind") remains intact during dreaming (Kahn & Hobson, 2005b). Although these results may overstate the degree of thinking and feeling that is going on during dreaming due to the same potential demand characteristics and after-the-fact reasoning that raise questions about similar studies asking participants to judge their own emotions in dreams, they do show that dreams can be as thoughtful and subtle as waking thought.

Bizarreness in Home-Reported Dreams

As noted earlier, less than 10% of both REM and home dreams have bizarre elements when the focus is on highly unusual or clearly impossible events (Dorus et al., 1971; Hall, 1966; Snyder, 1970). However, when mildly unusual contents and "features" like sudden scene changes, unusual juxtapositions of images, uncertainties, confusion, and small distortions are added to the picture, the figure rises to between 40 and 60 percent in home-reported dreams (e.g., Revonsuo & Salmivalli, 1995; Rittenhouse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 1994).

Abrupt scene changes are the most frequent of these bizarre features, occurring in 34% of 200 dreams in one study (Rittenhouse et al., 1994). However, not all studies agree that there are frequent discontinuities within dream reports. In a detailed study of this issue, Foulkes and Schmidt (1983) divided REM dream reports into a series of "temporal units," defined by the appearance of a new activity in the dream, such as the sequence of "coming out of school/opening the gate/children saying goodbye to each other/walking down the street." They found that only one in eight temporal transitions was accompanied by a discontinuity in both setting and characters. They argue that the relatively small discontinuities in dreams are consistent with, and probably necessary for, the considerable degree of narrative and thematic development that is found in most REM reports.

Whatever the exact number of abrupt scene changes and other unusual features within dreams, it is not obvious that these and other unusual events in dreams are inherently bizarre if they are compared to either the stories people are familiar with in waking life or with their waking thought flow. That is, bizarre dream events that could not happen in reality do occur in many of the stories, fairy tales, and videos that everyone experiences from pre-school onwards. Metamorphoses and blended characters, for instance, are standard features of imaginative productions. So too are animals that talk and sudden changes in settings.

Even everyday waking thought has more of the features that Freudians and activation-synthesis theorists see as unique to dreams. For example, in a study comparing REM reports to waking streams of thought from the same participants sitting in a darkened room, it was found that there were more abrupt scene changes in the waking sample than in the REM reports (Reinsel, Antrobus, & Wollman, 1992). In everyday thought sampling with large numbers of people by means of pagers, about a third of all thoughts are judged by participants as "spontaneous," meaning that they just popped into their minds (Klinger, 1999; Klinger & Cox, 1987-1988). Further, 21% of the thoughts analyzed in these studies have aspects that are physically impossible, and many thoughts are judged as disconnected. Importantly, there are also wide individual differences in how much thinking is said to be deliberate or spontaneous. For two-thirds of the participants, the majority of their thoughts are deliberate and intentional, but for the other one-third the majority of their thoughts are spontaneous. In judging the bizarreness of dreams in the future, the proper baseline therefore must be the same person's waking thought patterns, as randomly sampled by means of a pager (cf., Bednar, 2000, p. 909; Chapman & Underwood, 2000, p. 917).

The most likely difference between dreaming and waking thought concerns the lack of awareness for the unusualness of some events in dreams. In one of the earlier-cited studies of thinking in dreams, the activation-synthesis theorists Kahn and Hobson (2005a, p. 437) conclude that thinking is much like it is in waking, that is, there is "more or less normal cognition," which is quite a concession on their part. But they also stress that the participants in their study mention, when going over the home dream reports they write down, that they sometimes did things in the dreams they would judge as unlikely in waking life. The authors believe this is evidence for the lack of "metacognition" in dreams, that is, for the absence of an understanding that the person is in bed and "hallucinating." This is in fact a distinctive feature of the dream state, sometimes called the "single-mindedness" of dreams (Rechtschaffen, 1978; Rechtschaffen, 1997). Whether this lack of metacognition is evidence for the psychotic nature of the dreaming state is a question that deserves further examination by dream researchers.

Findings With Individual Dream Journals

Within the context of the many well-established group findings highlighted in previous sections, blind analyses of dream journals kept by individuals for their own reasons -- whether personal, intellectual, or artistic -- are of great value in assessing the nature of dream content. They have standing as a form of personal document long recognized in psychology as possessing the potential to provide new insights (Allport, 1942; Baldwin, 1942). They are valued as "nonreactive" measures that have not been influenced by the purposes of the investigators who later analyze them. Put another way, they are devoid of the demand characteristics that can be a confound in many types of psychological research, including dream research. The findings with nonreactive archival data such as dream journals are considered most persuasive when they lead to the same conclusion even though the various journals have different types of potential biases due to the differing motivations and purposes of the journal keepers (Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, Sechrest, & Grove, 1981).

Consistency in Lengthy Dream Journals

Studies of several different dream journals first proved their usefulness for scientific purposes by revealing an unexpected consistency in dream content that stretches from the late teens to old age. Such consistency is further evidence for the coherence and regularity of dream content. People's dream lives vary from day to day and week to week, but consistency in both themes and Hall/Van de Castle coding categories manifests itself through comparisons of hundreds of dream reports and with time spans of months and years. (Domhoff, 1996, Chapter 7) The short-term variation in dream content, when combined with the fact that most recalled dreams are soon forgotten, may contribute to the belief that dream contents are unsystematic and bizarre.

The thematic consistency of dreams can be seen in a dream journal kept by an adult woman over a period of 50 years out of personal interest between 1912 and 1962. The themes in the first 600 of her dream reports, some of which might be called unusual or bizarre if not seen in the context of the whole series, remained quite constant. She was eating, preparing to eat, preparing a meal, buying or seeing food, watching someone eat, or mentioning she is hungry in 21% of the dreams. The loss of an object, usually her purse, occurred in 17%. She was in a small or disorderly room, or her room was being invaded by others, in 10% of the dreams, and another 10% involved the dreamer and her mother. She was trying to go to the toilet in 8%, usually being interrupted in the process, and she was late, concerned about being late, or missing a bus or train in 6%. These six themes accounted for at least part of the content in almost 75% of her dreams. The main exception to this consistency was a decline in the percentage of characters who were identified as men, dropping from 53% in the first half of the series to 39% when she was in her 70s, living in a women's retirement home and having fewer contacts with men (Domhoff, 1996, pp. 150 and 206).

Consistency within an even longer series of dreams can be demonstrated using the statistical tools available on www.dreambank.net, a dream archive that contains over 16,000 dreams in English and 6,000 in German (Schneider & Domhoff, 1999). The Barb Sanders series contains 4,253 dreams over a 20-year period. When the 3,115 dreams she wrote down before giving her dream journal to dream researchers were compared with the 1,138 she recalled after being aware her dreams would be studied, it was found that at least one of the 13 main people in her life (parents, ex-husband, three siblings, three children, granddaughter, and three best women friends) appeared in 33.6% of the dreams in the first set and 35.1% of the second set. Her interest in theatrical productions as a writer, actor, and producer appeared in 4.9% of the dreams in the first set and 5.2% in the dreams in the second set. Using long word strings for each of the five emotions that are coded for in the Hall and Van de Castle coding system, the percentages for the two sets were very similar for emotions in general and for specific categories; the only slight difference was an increase from 15.6% to 20.2% for dreams with at least one term for happiness (Domhoff & Schneider, 2004).

Three separate studies of discontinuous dream series show that the consistency revealed in continuous dream journals is not the result of practice effects. One was based on dreams provided by the same women when they were young and middle-aged (Lortie-Lussier, Cote, & Vachon, 2000), one compared the dreams of a young man at ages 17, 21, and 24 (Schneider & Domhoff, 1995), and one compared the dreams from a woman when she was in her 20s and in her 60s (Domhoff, 1996, p. 146).

The Continuity of Dream Content With Waking Concerns

Blind analyses of dream journals also show that much dream content is continuous with the dreamers' waking conceptions and concerns, which is further evidence for the coherence and regularity of dreams. The most direct continuities involve the main people in a dreamer's life and the nature of the social interactions with them. There also is good continuity for many of the dreamer's main interests and activities (Domhoff, 1996, Chapter 8). However, this general finding has to be qualified in one important way: the continuity is not with day-to-day events, but with general concerns. Three studies that tried to match detailed waking reports of daily concerns with dream reports, two based on REM awakenings, one based on morning recall at home, found that blind judges could not reliably match records of daily concerns or events with dream content. The content of the dreams often revolved around daily life, such as family, friends, and school, but if the actual events of the day were incorporated in any specific way, it was not understandable to independent raters (Roussy, 2000; Roussy et al., 2000; Roussy et al., 1996). This finding is consistent with studies showing low levels of episodic memory in dreams (Baylor & Cavallero, 2001; Fosse, Fosse, Hobson, & Stickgold, 2003).

The most complete study of a lengthy dream journal is based on the first 3,118 dream reports in the Barb Sanders series discussed in the previous sub-section for its evidence of consistency (Domhoff, 2003, pp. 111-133). A blind analysis of social interactions with family members and friends showed that the dream enactments were continuous with her waking thoughts and concerns in terms of the frequency of their appearance and the balance of aggressive and friendly interactions with them. For example, the continuing anger and turmoil the dreamer felt in relation to her ex-husband were expressed in the dreams through repeated negative interactions with him over the first 15 years of the series, many of which dramatized their past waking conflicts. However, there was a significant (but not complete) change in the balance of aggressive and friendly interactions in her dreams at about the time when, according to both the dreamer and her friends, she could think or talk about him in waking life without becoming upset.

To take an example at the other extreme, her dreams over a two-year period involving a man for whom she developed a great infatuation contained at the outset numerous portrayals of sexual interactions. Later on they presented a picture of betrayal and rejection by him. In reality, she had never had anything but a friendly social relationship with this person, who was several years younger, and according to her friends, had no romantic interest in her. This example demonstrates very clearly that continuity is sometimes with waking fantasy, but not waking behavior. She imagined a love affair, and then she imagined that he had rejected her for another woman, but she knew better in waking life.

Unusual Elements in Long Dream Series

However, not all the elements in dreams are continuous with waking conceptions and concerns, and some are highly unusual. It is these anomalous aspects of dream content that may be the products of either figurative thinking or impaired cognitive functioning. Looked at from the perspective of recent theorizing on metaphors, some dreams may have the form of proverbs or parables, which can be understood only by extracting generic information from specific stories. Such dreams may rely on "resemblance" metaphors, which depend upon the perception of the common aspects -- or "properties" -- in two representational schemas (Grady, 1999; Grady, Oakley, & Coulson, 1999). Although the potential number of figurative meanings in any given dream are potentially limitless because so many aspects of the content can be construed as sharing at least some kinds of properties, the likely meanings are greatly constrained by the information that is provided in other dreams in the person's journal. Likely meanings also can be checked by presenting inferences to the dreamer and/or people knowledgeable about the dreamer for confirmation, emendation, or rejection.

Early work by Hall (1953) demonstrated how these constraints can work to produce plausible figurative meanings based on blind analyses of dream series. To take his best example, a young woman had an especially striking dream in which she was searching for her wedding gown because she and her husband were to be married again on their first wedding anniversary. However, she was very disappointed to find the gown was dirty and torn. With tears in her eyes, she put the gown under her arm and went to the church, only to have her husband ask why she had brought the gown. She wrote at the end of her dream report that she was "confused and bewildered and felt strange and alone," which are potential markers of metaphoric bizarreness in dreams (Hall, 1953, p. 179).

Looking at the dream from a figurative point of view, Hall hypothesized that the state of the dress might express her conception of her marriage. That is, the dream may be a conceptual blend based upon a metonymy, with the torn gown standing for an unhappy marriage (Gibbs, 1999). To test this hypothesis, Hall looked to see if there were other dreams in the series that might suggest the marriage was in difficulty, and there were several: (1) the stone from her engagement ring was missing; (2) her husband had tuberculosis; (3) one of her women friends was going through a divorce; and (4) a friend who was about to be married receives a lot of useless bric-a-brac for wedding presents. If the Hall and Van de Castle system had been available when this analysis was made, the case could have been improved by comparing the dreamer's aggressions-per-character ratio with her husband to the same ratio with other adult males. If it were higher with her husband than with other adult males, and if there were a lower rate of friendly interactions as well, then the metaphoric hypothesis would have been supported by means of a non-metaphoric content analysis. It also would have been useful to ask the dreamer to respond to this inference, but this was not possible because the sample of college students from which this series was drawn used code numbers to report their dreams.

In the Barb Sanders series, where inferences could be checked with the dreamer after the blind analysis was completed, the several appearances of cats that were underfed, lost, or deformed do not reflect any waking concerns in regard to her great affection for cats. This discontinuity suggests that this unusual repeated element might be metaphoric in nature, reflecting her painful physical ailments or perhaps her concern for forlorn people (in four other dreams she refers to lost and lonely men as "stray kittens") (Domhoff, 2003, p. 128). There were also composite characters in her dreams, that is, a blending of two people, that make sense, such as a person who was a composite of the two men she had loved the most in her life, one when she was in high school, the other when she was in her 40s. In addition, there were metamorphoses that had plausibility as expressions of issues in the dream narrative. On the other hand, most of the metamorphoses did not make any figurative sense within the context of the given dream or the series as a whole. Since such elements do not seem to have figurative meaning even with a deep knowledge of a large number of dreams and considerable information about the dreamer, then by a process of elimination it seems plausible to attribute them to one or another form of cognitive breakdown.

Discussion and Conclusion

Taken as a whole, the overall results from laboratory and home studies do not provide evidence for the characterization of dream content as highly emotional, bizarre, and similar in structure and content to schizophrenia or delirium. Contrary to Freud's (1900) claim that the "manifest" content of the dream is rendered confusing and incomprehensible by the efforts of the dream-work, and to Hobson's (2002, p. 23) assertion that dreams are "cognitive trash," dreams are for the most part reasonable simulations of waking life that contain occasional unusual features in the form of distorted settings and objects, highly unusual characters, inexplicable activities, strange images and metamorphoses, and sudden scene shifts (Dorus et al., 1971; Foulkes, 1985; Snyder, 1970).

At the same time, the results of detailed studies of unusual elements in the Barb Sanders series suggest that some of them may well be expressions of figurative thinking, as the Freudians would expect, but that others are more likely due to cognitive defects in the dreaming state, just as activation-synthesis theorists would insist. The conclusion that some unusual elements probably have no figurative meaning is reinforced by the finding that there are more bizarre features in dream mentation at sleep onset, when a transition from waking to a brief dreaming state occurs (Foulkes & Vogel, 1965; Vogel, 1991). In sleep-onset dream reports, there are far more instances of partial images, superimpositions of unrelated images, and completely unrealistic content (Foulkes, 1999. p. 135). Generally speaking, then, if dreaming is viewed as a cognitive achievement of great complexity, it is plausible that the pervasive system of figurative thinking available in waking life may sometimes be operative, but it is equally plausible that some conceptual operations could go wrong, especially in transitional states within sleep or at times of stress or physical illness for the dreamer.

Based on the overall findings presented in this chapter, future studies of the degree to which dreams are psychologically meaningful or bizarre would benefit by starting with the idea that dreams dramatize conceptions and concerns, and that they are generally consistent over time and continuous with waking thoughts. Then the deviations and discrepancies from consistency and continuity could be used to add nuance to the picture. In particular, unusual features and elements in some of the dreams in a dream series should be studied more closely to see if they have plausible figurative meanings within the constraints provided by the many realistic simulations within the series. If such an analysis fails to find figurative meaning for various types of unusual elements, then they could be studied to see if they share common features that can be attributed to one or another type of cognitive defect during dreaming.


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