Dreaming as Embodied Simulation: A Widower's Dreams of His Deceased Wife

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. (2015). Dreaming as embodied simulation: A widower's dreams of his deceased wife. Dreaming, 25, 232-256.


This article presents argument and evidence in support of the hypothesis that dreaming can be understood as a form of embodied simulation. Building on many past studies of dream content employing the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) coding system, the article claims that most dreams dramatize the complex set of conceptions that are part of the dreamer's cognitive structure. Dreams embody conceptions primarily through literal enactments, making them somewhat akin to a theatrical play. The plausibility of this hypothesis is demonstrated through a quantitative analysis of emotions, social interactions, misfortunes, and good fortunes in a unique series of 143 dream reports written down over the space of 22 years by a widower because they were about his deceased wife. The inferences drawn from the analysis of the dream reports are consistent with the widower's written reflections on his marriage and his answer to a question sent to him by e-mail on a potentially embarrassing issue. The article also uses an Unrealistic Elements Scale to search for possible instances of figurative elements within the dream reports; about one third to one half of the unusual elements identified by means of this scale have some plausible connection to the conceptions expressed in the dream reports. The dream reports and information on the dreamer's life are available to everyone for further analysis on dreambank.net under the pseudonym "Ed."

The purpose of this article is to present evidence for the hypothesis that dreams are embodied simulations that have many parallels with the simulations that occur during mind-wandering and daydreaming (e.g., Addis, Pan, Vu, Laiser, & Schacter, 2009; Andrews-Hanna, Reidler, Sepulcre, Poulin, & Buckner, 2010; Christoff, Gordon, Smallwood, Smith, & Schooler, 2009; Foulkes, 1985; Mason et al., 2007). Both waking cognition and dreaming are embodied in the sense that areas in the brain supporting visual and sensorimotor imagery are activated when people make use of simulation. They are also embodied in the further sense that the imagery is subjectively "felt" as the experienced body in action (Bergen, 2012, pp. 13-17; Gibbs, 2006; Landau, Robinson, & Meier, 2014; Niedenthal, Winkielman, Mondillon, & Vermeulen, 2009). Moreover, literal and figurative meanings for the same word, such as the motion verb "run," activate slightly different brain regions according to one fMRI study, so it is possible that many literal and figurative meanings are embodied in different ways (Romero Lauro, Mattavelli, Papagno, & Tettamanti, 2013). Then, too, evidence for embodied simulation in the sense in which it is used in this article also has been found in studies of working memory, episodic memory, implicit memory, and even reasoning (Wilson, 2002, pp. 632-634).

The concept of embodied cognition deepens and extends the cognitive approach to dreams pioneered by Calvin S. Hall (1953b) and later greatly modified and extended by John Antrobus (1978, 1986) and David Foulkes (1985, 1999) based on findings from their laboratory dream research. For example, Hall (1953b, p. 274) suggested, "the images of a dream are the embodiment of thoughts." He meant this in the very literal sense that dreams dramatize the complex set of conceptions that constitute the dreamer's cognitive structure, especially conceptions of self and significant others. As literal embodiments, dreams are more like plays than any other waking analog because they include settings, characters, social interactions, activities, and emotions (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966, pp. 18, 36, 52, 68).

The conception of dreams as plays arose from repeated readings of a thousand or more dream reports while writing down all the elements they included, and then grouping the various elements into a set of empirical coding categories (Hall, 1951, 1956). The Hall and Van de Castle (1966) coding system that resulted from the refinement of these categories (hereafter the HVdC coding system) provided further depth for a cognitive theory of dreams through the finding that the frequency of a dream element in a set of dream reports reveals the intensity of a waking concern. This finding leads to the conclusion that dreams express conceptions and concerns (Domhoff, 1996; Hall & Lind, 1970). The emphasis on concerns in a cognitive theory of dreaming has the added virtue that it links dream content to the contents of mind-wandering and daydreaming (Andrews-Hanna, Reidler, Huang, & Buckner, 2010; Gold & Reilly, 1985/1986; Klinger, 1971). This linkage is also consistent with the idea that dreaming is an intensified form of mind-wandering that is supported by the default network, as augmented by secondary sensorimotor cortices and the caudate nucleus (Domhoff & Fox, 2015; Fox, Nijeboer, Solomonova, Domhoff, & Christoff, 2013). As literal enactments and dramatizations of conceptions and concerns, dreams may be the most vivid and multisensorial form of embodied cognition (Domhoff, 2010, 2011).

As a possible addition to a cognitive theory of dreams, Hall (1953a) also proposed that any use of "symbolism" in dreams (which is considered by presentday cognitive theorists to be a form of figurative thinking, based on metaphor, metonomy, irony, and/or conceptual blending) should be understood as an attempt to express, not disguise, complicated conceptions (cf. Antrobus, 1978; Lakoff, 1997; States, 1987, for similar ideas about dreaming and metaphoric thinking). Building on his close reading of dream reports, Hall (1953a) hypothesized that it might be possible to identify at least some potentially symbolic elements in dreams by looking for unlikely or impossible events, such as sudden changes in a dream character, distorted settings and objects, and unlikely actions — especially when these elements occur two or more times in a series of dreams from one individual. The attempt to identify these elements resulted in an Unrealistic Elements Scale, which focuses on unrealistic features or occurrences concerning characters, unusual or distorted settings, and unusual objects (Domhoff, 1996, p. 278; Hall, 1966, p. 40). At the same time, and importantly, Hall (1953a) noted that he could only identify such potentially metaphoric elements in about 10% of the dream reports he studied with a forerunner of the current Unrealistic Elements Scale. This figure is very similar to the estimate that 10%-20% of all forms of discourse are figurative, with varying rates for different genres, which may provide another parallel between waking cognition and dreaming (Gibbs, 2014, p. 25; Steen, 2010).

In the same vein, it is well documented that dreams are often experienced by dreamers, and were written about by philosophers and religious thinkers of the past, as having something in common with parables, fables, and allegories due to the subjective feeling that they seem to contain lessons or have hidden meanings (e.g., Bulkeley, 1994, 1999, 2016, for evidence on this point). As such, dreams can be thought of not only as embodied simulations, but also as figurative dramatizations that contain both literal and figurative elements within them.

The article strives to demonstrate that dreams are an especially dramatic instance of embodied simulation through a study of a highly unusual personal dream journal that was kept by a widower, who wrote down almost every dream he had about his deceased wife over a period of 22 years: 143 dreams in all. He initially recorded these dreams because he found them to be an unexpected source of solace as he struggled to cope with his grief and loneliness after her death. The fact that he did not write down any dreams he recalled on other topics means that the full range of his dream life cannot be known, and that comparisons between dreams of his deceased wife and his other dream experiences cannot be made. However, this limitation does not alter the possibility that a focus on a specific slice of his dream life over a long period of time may be very illuminating. The dream reports and the HVdC codings of them are accessible to all readers via dreambank.net, under the pseudonym "Ed," thereby inviting interested readers to extend or correct the ensuing analysis.

In addition, several of the dream reports in this journal (but only a small minority of them) can be classified as "memorable dreams," which are defined as dreams that have a great impact on the dreamer in waking life, sometimes for years or decades (e.g., Bulkeley, 1999, 2007; Busink & Kuiken, 1996; Knudson, 2001, 2003; Kuiken & Sikora, 1993). Memorable dreams, although rare, are of interest to dream researchers precisely because they mean so much to the dreamer. Furthermore, dreams about deceased loved ones are among the most dramatic and important of memorable dreams. This is especially true when the deceased loved one appears to be alive in the dream — even though the surprised, delighted, or shocked dreamer knows that the person is dead. Dreams in which the deceased loved one provides reassurances as to his or her well being, or solace or advice to the dreamer, are also highly impactful (Barrett, 1992, for the seminal study on the dreams of deceased loved ones).

It is also noteworthy that Ed's reflections on some of the dreams that impacted him the most support the longstanding anthropological idea that belief in a world of spirits may be at least in part based on dreams (Bulkeley, 2016; LaBarre, 1972; Lincoln, 1935, Chapter 2; Tylor, 1958, p. 22ff). Although Ed was not very religious, he wrote in his reflections that in a few of the dreams it felt like he actually had been "visited" by Mary:

A few dreams have me wondering if I had actually "supernatural-like" experiences. I swear that Mary really did "visit" me. The first was my very first dream of her. I had this just a week or two after she died. She came to me in a dream and told me she wants me to be happy.

The Scientific Rationale for Studying Dream Series

Although dream journals such as Ed's (called "dream series" by content analysts) may seem at first glance to be unlikely sources of useful dream reports, they are in fact a form of archival data uninfluenced by the demand characteristics implicit in any experiment (Kihlstrom, 2002; Orne, 1962), the desire on the part of at least some participants to please the experimenters (Crowne & Marlowe, 1960), or by the expectancies of experimenters and participants (Rosenthal & Ambady, 1995; Rosenthal & Rosnow, 1969). They are unobtrusive measures that can be extremely valuable as nonreactive measures if the authenticity of the journals can be documented and if the findings with them are consistent with what is found with other dream journals, each of which has different sources of potential irrelevant bias and error (Allport, 1942; Baldwin, 1942; Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, Sechrest, & Grove, 1981). In that regard, the use of several different dream series has parallels with the use of random sampling in experimental work because the diverse reasons for keeping a dream journal (e.g., personal insight, a source of themes for novels, simple curiosity) likely cancels out the impact of irrelevant variables.

A statistical analysis of findings from four different individual dream series, two from men and two from women, discovered few indications of autocorrelation or any other nonrandom pattern, which may distort the results of standard statistical tests by reducing the number of independent observations. This conclusion for the four separate dream series is based on 125 applications of the Wald and Wolfowitz (1940) nonparametric runs test, which tests for randomness in time series that are based on categorical data. Only five of the 125 runs (which ranged in length from 86 to 171 observations) were significant at the .05 level and only one at .01 level, which is about what would be expected by chance (Domhoff & Schneider, 2015a, p. 73). This means that standard statistical techniques assuming randomness of observations can be used to analyze results from quantitative studies of dream series.

Studies of approximately 25 dream series, using either the HVdC coding system or specific word searches carried out on dreambank.net, reveal that there tends to be consistency in what people dream about over months, years, and decades (Domhoff, 1996, Chapter 7; 2003, Chapter 5; Domhoff & Schneider, 2008). In addition, content analyses of about a dozen dream series demonstrate that there is continuity between the conceptions expressed in dreaming and waking thought in regard to important people and avocational interests in the dreamer's life (Bulkeley, 2012, 2014; Domhoff, 1996, Chapter 8; 2003, Chapter 5).

As already noted, it is important to authenticate that a dream journal actually was kept for the time period and reasons stated by the dreamer. For this reason, dream reports that have been posted on the Internet have not been used in any of the research on dream series by cognitive dream researchers. Instead, the series were written by hand, entered into a Word document, or tape-recorded by the dreamer without any intent of offering them to dream researchers at a later date. Based on the information presented below, and an examination of photocopies of the original copy of the first dreams written down by the widower in the early 1980s, there is every reason to believe that the dream journal used in this analysis is an authentic one. It also should be noted that asking friends, friends of friends, or online volunteers to keep a dream journal for a month or two eliminates all the advantages that are present with unobtrusive measures and reintroduces the problems of demand characteristics and expectancy effects.

Background on Ed and His Dream Series

Ed and Mary had been married for 32 years and had raised three young adult children when she died at the age of 54. Ed, who was 57 at the time of Mary's death, had not previously had much interest in dreams or any investment in any dream theory. His later account of why he began recording his dreams about Mary, written after he had been keeping his dream journal for 16 years, supports the claim that dreams about deceased loved ones are often highly memorable and emotionally important to the dreamer:

I began recording my dreams of Mary from the time I had the first one, which was very shortly after her death on June 15, 1980. I was so alone after Mary died. I had no one to talk to about my terrible grief and great sense of loss. So when I had a dream in which Mary appeared, it was like a precious moment of being with her again. I wanted to capture that fleeting moment and hold onto it forever.

Many years later, however, he sometimes experienced writing down the dreams, which were by then more everyday in nature, as a habit or obligation. On February 15, 1997, for example, when he was 74 years old, he prefaced his dream reports by noting that he had had two dreams of Mary two nights before, but did not record them immediately, and soon forgot them. He wrote, "For the last few dreams I seem too lazy to record dreams as quickly as I should. What's happening?" On May 22, 2001, after writing down a dream in which Mary gives an enigmatic reply to his compliment about how good she looks, he notes that he was "ambivalent" about recording it, but felt he had to: "On the one hand I didn't feel like recording it, but on the other hand, I felt I must record it." By this point, his dreams of his deceased wife were rarely "memorable" ones.

Ed originally had no intention of making his dream journal public, but in the mid-1990s he began to think it might be useful to other people who were grieving. That idea was on his mind when he first allowed dream researchers to study the dreams for a paper presented at the meetings of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in 1998. The paper was later revised for publication. It reports that the researchers could not find any patterns in the dreams, in part because it was very difficult for them to attain reliability for most of the ad hoc thematic categories they originally identified; nor did the unfolding of the dream series show any developmental sequences, which the researchers see as "consistent with the new understandings of grief as not conforming to a uniform, 'stages' process" (Belicki, Gulko, Ruzycki, & Aristotle, 2003, p. 105).

Ed's dreams about his deceased wife were not frequent. The second dream was not recalled until 2 months after the first one, and the third was recalled a month after that. In 14 of the 22 years, he recalled between four and eight dreams, with a range of between two and 11 for most of the 22 years. He recalled the most dreams (14) in the year between July 1, 1996, and July 1, 1997 — 16 years after Mary's death. There were usually many days or months between dream reports. Between mid-February, 1990 and mid-April, 1991, he recalled no dreams of Mary at all. This 14-month hiatus provides a natural dividing point for comparing the content of the early and later parts of the series, with 62 dreams in the first part and 81 in the second. As of July 2004, when he was 81, he had not had a dream about Mary since August 8, 2002. It is also noteworthy that such infrequent and sporadic recall makes the problem of autocorrelation very unlikely.

As part of his tentative plan to publish a pamphlet or book based on his dreams, which never materialized, in 1996 Ed wrote a reminiscence of his life with Mary, along with a commentary on how his dreams about her impacted his life. His reflections and commentary provide a very useful waking-life perspective that can be compared with the various conceptions and concerns that are portrayed in his dreams. His reminiscences are available on www.dreambank.net by highlighting the "Ed" series in the search engine and then clicking on "Info" (Schneider & Domhoff, 1999).

Ed's reminiscences present a very moving remembrance of his first meeting with Mary. He recalls that he was smitten from the moment that he saw her and recounts how she looked in great detail. Whether his memory is accurate or not, this reconstructed memory is a revealing portrait of his waking conception of Mary:

I met Mary because the Social Club to which I belonged agreed to meet at a boardwalk area one Saturday night. I had arrived there with another fellow member and we were looking around for the other members of the Club. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned around and looked into Mary's beautiful, large brown eyes, I was a "goner." I'm sure I fell in love with her at that instant . . . She had recognized me as a member and had approached me to ascertain whether the Club was to meet here. I assured her that they had. But as I talked to her, I "fell" into those eyes glowing with warmth, good humor, and the joy of life. I was Mary's captive from that moment on. I don't remember what else happened that night, but I started seeing Mary regularly from then on. All I could see that night was Mary's beauty — her large brown eyes, her full red lips, and her jet-black hair framed by an aquamarine scarf. But I saw more than her physical beauty that night. I also saw her beauty of soul and spirit, which flowed from her like the radiance of sunshine. I had fallen "crazy" in love at the first sight of Mary.

He also notes that Mary was not as immediately taken with him as he was with her, and that he even learned later that she had a date or two with another man after they started seeing each other. Nonetheless, the dreamer and his future wife were soon involved in an intense courtship and were married in 1947, 13 months after they met. They waited 5 years to have children while Ed finished his college education, at which time they had a daughter, followed by a son 3 years later, and a second son 5 years after that. Ed worked in a counseling role in hospitals and a private children's aid agency, and Mary was employed as an office manager for a small financial company. The reminiscence paints a generally positive picture of their marriage, and tells of a routine of work, child rearing, and vacations.

Then, suddenly, after 23 years of marriage, when Mary was 45, she began to suffer bloating and stomach pain that turned out to be ovarian cancer. Following a radical hysterectomy in 1971, she was assured that she was cured, and was indeed symptom-free for 6 years, but the cancer returned during the seventh year. Medication suppressed the tumors and there seemed to be a chance that she would live normally for some time — or so Ed and Mary thought — but the cancer came back a third time during the next year. She had a long and painful terminal illness that ended with her death 1 year later. Their children were 27, 24, and 19 when she died.

The bereaved husband reports that he suffered great agony, loneliness, anger, and confusion during her final illness and after her death. He met another woman, Bonnie, about 4 months after Mary died and married her about a year later. However, the marriage did not work out well at all. He and Bonnie separated after 5 difficult years of marriage in which they often argued. He remained single and lived alone from then on. In his reflections, both at the time of the separation and in a later epilogue, he wrote that his second marriage was a great mistake that caused shock to his children. He wondered in retrospect how he had ever gotten involved with someone so different from Mary. He reported that Mary had been his first and only girlfriend, and that he was a shy person who did not find it easy to take the initiative with women.


The study started with several readings of the dream reports by the author, each time making notes on characters, social interactions, emotions, and the state of Mary's health. These readings and notes led to three separate analyses. First, the dream reports were coded, without any knowledge of the dreamer or the purpose of the study, by two of the author's research assistants using the following categories from the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) coding system: emotions, friendly interactions, aggressive interactions, sexual interactions, misfortunes, and good fortunes. Coding for characters was not carried out because the dreamer, who is not coded in the HVdC system, and his wife Mary were the main characters in every dream, and often the only characters. In the case of good fortunes, the codings were based on an expansion of the original HVdC system that includes recovery from illness and return from death as good fortunes (Bulkeley, 2006; Domhoff, 2003, pp. 77-79).

Once the codings were completed, the dreams were compared with the male norms for the HVdC system to determine the degree to which they were different from a representative sample of men's dreams; the analyses were done by the DreamSAT utility on dreamresearch.net (Schneider & Domhoff, 1995). The normative samples for both men and women are based on five dream reports that were drawn randomly from each of 100 dream diaries from men and 100 dream diaries from women. The diaries ranged from 12 to 18 dream reports and all of the reports contained between 50 and 300 words. They were written with a guarantee of anonymity over semester-long periods of 16 to 18 weeks between 1949 and 1951(Hall & Van de Castle, 1966, p. 158). The normative findings based on these 1,000 dream reports were later replicated with dream reports in dream diaries provided by men and women at the University of Richmond in 1981, women at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985, and women at Salem College in the late 1980s (Domhoff, 1996, pp. 68-72 for a summary of these studies; Dudley & Fungaroli, 1987; Dudley & Swank, 1990; Hall, Domhoff, Blick, & Weesner, 1982; Tonay, 1990). Although the normative study and the replications are based on men and women who were much younger than Ed, both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies show that there are no changes in dream content with age once young adulthood is reached, except for evidence of a decline in aggressive interactions in men; this considerable similarity makes it feasible to use the men's normative findings as a starting point in studying Ed's dream reports (Côté, Lortie-Lussier, Roy, & De Koninck, 1996; Domhoff, 1996, Chapters 5 and 7; Hall & Domhoff, 1963, 1964; Zepelin, 1980, 1981).

The HVdC comparisons were analyzed using the test for the significance of differences between two proportions. Both effect sizes and p values were determined, and the p values were adjusted using the Benjamini-Hochberg (1995) step-up, multiple-test correction formula to account for the fact that there are 12 comparisons between Ed's dream journal and the male norms, as well as 9 comparisons that were made between the early and later parts of the journal. This correction did not lead to the loss of any statistically significant differences in the case of the 12 comparisons with the norms, but the three initially statistically significant differences between the early and later dream reports in the series were eliminated (Domhoff & Schneider, 2015b, for the strengths of the proportions tests and information on the rationale for the correction formula). The results also were examined for a lack of randomness with the Wald and Wolfowitz (1940) nonparametric runs test; consistent with the findings for four other dream series, there was no indication of autocorrelation or any other nonrandom pattern for seven of the eight runs tests that were carried out. The positive finding, which concerned good fortunes, is discussed in the Results section.

Along with the HVdC analysis, the author and one of his research assistants used the Unrealistic Elements Scale to search separately for highly unusual, improbable, or impossible events to see if any of these unusual elements might prove to be symbolic in the figurative sense proposed by Hall (1953a). Findings from the HVdC analysis were then used to see if they could shed any light on potentially symbolic elements in the dream reports. Although there are several other "bizarreness" scales (e.g., Bonato, Moffitt, Hoffmann, Cuddy, & Wimmer, 1991; Reinsel, Antrobus, &Wollman, 1992; Revonsuo & Salmivalli, 1995; Williams, Merritt, Rittenhouse, & Hobson, 1992), the Unrealistic Elements Scale is used in this study because it focuses on the types of bizarreness that are most likely to be expressions of figurative thinking.

In particular, the other scales include sudden changes in the dream narrative ("discontinuities") that are not based on dream content. Moreover, discontinuities are often the most frequent form of bizarreness found with these scales (Rittenhouse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 1994; Williams et al., 1992), which leads to far higher estimates of bizarreness in dreams than laboratory dream studies of bizarreness that employed content-based rating scales (Dorus, Dorus, & Rechtschaffen, 1971; Snyder, 1970). In addition, an emphasis on discontinuities is questionable as a guide to bizarreness that may be unique to dreaming because there is strong evidence of numerous discontinuities in drifting waking thought in both laboratory and field studies (Klinger, 1999, 2009; Klinger & Cox, 1987; Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). Supporting this finding, a comparison of samples of drifting waking thought collected in a sleep laboratory with REM reports found that the waking reports had significantly more discontinuities, whereas REM reports and drifting waking thoughts were similar on impossible combinations and REM reports were higher than waking thoughts on impossible identities (Reinsel et al., 1992, pp. 164-165, 169-170).

After the results using the HVdC categories and the Unrealistic Elements Scale are presented, five different subsets of Ed's dreams are discussed because they provide a very good context for a consideration of how the empirical findings might relate to figurative thinking in dreams. These dreams feature (a) Mary returning from death or unexpectedly recovering through surgery; (b) Mary giving reassurance to Ed; (c) Mary's illness or death; (d) sexual interactions; and (e) aggressive interactions. In addition to providing the opportunity to examine the possible appearance of figurative expressions in dreaming, these dreams demonstrate the wide variety of thoughtful and complex scenarios that the dreaming mind can produce (e.g., Kozmova & Wolman, 2006; Wolman & Kozmova, 2007). As a third and final part of the analysis, both the HVdC and figurative findings from the dreams series are compared whenever possible with the waking thoughts Ed appended after writing down some of the dream reports, or that are part of the reminiscences that he wrote in 1996. Ed's reply to a question from the author was also used on one difficult issue.



The first striking but unsurprising finding concerns the large amount of emotion in the dream reports. As might be expected, Ed's dreams about Mary are far more likely to contain emotions than the HVdC normative sample for men's dreams. This difference is most evident in the percentage of dreams with at least one emotion (75.5% for the Ed series, 40.8% for the male norms). In addition, Ed's dream series has a higher percentage of dreams in which the dreamer himself is happy (23.8% vs. 8.6%) or sad (14.7% vs. 4.0%). Finally, when happiness is considered as a percentage of the full range of emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, apprehension, and confusion) that can be reliability coded for in dream reports, which yields an indicator called the "negative emotions percent," the dreams are less emotionally negative than the normative sample (69% for the Ed series as compared with 80% for the male norms). Table 1 displays these findings and the magnitude of the effect sizes. In terms of emotions, Ed's dreams embody the range of emotions he feels toward Mary both awake and while dreaming.

Table 1. A Comparison of Ed's Dreams With the Male Norms for Selected Emotion Indicators
Edhp padjusted
Dreams with at least one emotion40.8%75.5%+.72.000**.000**
Dreams with at least one dreamer-involved happiness8.6%23.8%+.42.000**.000**
Dreams with at least one dreamer-involved sadness4.0%14.7%+.38.000**.000**
Negative emotions percent80.5%69.2%-.26.004**.005**
*p < .05.   **p < .01.

Ed's dreams about Mary are characterized by a large number of friendly interactions (208 in 101 dreams) and a small number of aggressive interactions (64 in 41 dreams). By contrast, the HVdC normative sample contains more aggressive than friendly interactions. The clearest demonstration of this unusual pattern of friendly and aggressive interactions is shown by an indicator called the aggression/friendliness percent, which is determined by dividing the number of dreamer-involved aggressive interactions by the combined number of dreamerinvolved aggressive and friendly interactions. The figure is 36.4% with female characters in the male norms, but it is only 22.1% for Ed's interactions with Mary. There is also more friendliness than would be expected in terms of the percentage of dreams with at least one friendly interaction, and less aggression in terms of dreams with at least one aggressive interaction. It is therefore plausible that Ed's dreams act out his predominantly friendly feelings toward Mary. There are also 25 sexual interactions in Ed's dream series, which are sorted in the HVdC coding system into five subcategories that range from erotic thoughts about a person to sexual intercourse. They occur in 15 dreams, which is close to what would be expected based on the male norms. They run the gamut from the positive to the negative in terms of the feelings and social interactions in them (see Table 2).

Table 2. A Comparison of Ed's Dreams With the Male Norms for Selected Social Interaction Indicators
Edhp padjusted
Aggression/Friendliness Percent
(for the Male Norms, with all female
characters; for Ed, with his wife)
Dreams with at least one aggression47.0%28.7%-.38.000**.000**
Dreams with at least one physical aggression26.4%2.8%-.38.000**.000**
Dreams with at least one friendliness38.2%70.6%+.66.000**.000**
Dreams with at least one sexuality11.6%11.9%+.01.925.925
*p < .05.   **p < .01.

Further complexity is added to the findings on social interactions when the question of who initiates the three types of social interactions is considered. First, Ed befriends Mary more often than she initiates a friendly interaction with him (81% vs. 19%), which is higher than the 67% versus 33% difference for men's friendly interactions with the female characters in the normative sample. Similarly, Ed initiates 76% of the 21 sexual interactions that do not begin with mutual overtures. In striking contrast, Ed is the aggressor in only 25% of their relatively few aggressive interactions, whereas men initiate 50% of the aggressive interactions with women in the male normative sample. In other words, Ed is the victim of Mary's aggressions in 75% of their aggressive interactions. In effect, as further discussed later in the article, these interaction patterns for friendliness, sexuality, and aggression simulate Ed's conceptions of his relationship with Mary. The results for friendly and aggressive interactions are displayed in Table 3; the table does not include the initiation of sexual interactions because there are no normative findings with which to compare them.

Table 3. A Comparison of Ed's Dreams With the Male Norms on Befriender Percent and Aggressor Percent
Edhp padjusted
Befriender Percent with female characters
(norms: all female characters; Ed: his wife)
Aggressor Percent with female characters
(norms: all female characters; Ed: his wife)
*p < .05.   **p < .01.

Misfortunes and Good Fortunes

Misfortunes are defined in the HVdC coding system as frustrating or bad things that happen to the dreamer or some other character through no fault of any character, which is what distinguishes them from aggressions. They can range from forgetting to lock the door to losing a key to falling off a roof to having a bodily defect to dying. Misfortunes can be divided into those that are psychologically upsetting (e.g., forgetting something, losing something, being lost) and those that happen to the body (a rash, an illness, an injury, a death). Good fortunes, on the other hand, are unexpected positive events that occur through no effort by the dreamer or some other character: finding money, having the ability to fly under one's own power, recovering from an illness, and — not incidentally in terms of this study — coming back from the dead (Bulkeley, 2006).

There are no significant differences between the Ed series and the male norms on the percentage of dreams with at least one misfortune or good fortune. However, Ed's dreams do differ in that all of the misfortunes are bodily ones, far higher than the normative sample (h  2.00, p and adjusted p  .000). This is in good part because of Mary's illness and frequent bodily defects: 31% of the dreams portray her as ill or dead, whereas only 12% of the HVdC normative sample contains such content. Thus, it can be argued that many of Ed's dreams embody his upsetting memories of Mary's illness, which are visualized very graphically in their various forms and stages. On the other hand, there are 10 dreams (7% of the total) in which Mary has the good fortune to come back to life and one in which she unexpectedly recovered from her illness through surgery. Because the good fortunes tend to be grouped together at various points in the dream series, and especially at the beginning and end, it is likely that the Wald and Wolfowitz (1940) runs test is detecting this unusual pattern. But it does not seem to be due to autocorrelation because the dream reports are recorded weeks and months apart over a 22-year period.

Summarizing the results from the analyses based on the six HVdC coding categories, most of them are obvious or unsurprising given the unique nature of this series of dreams. However, they do provide solid evidence that the coding system is useful in detecting individual differences, and that at least some aspects of the content in this dream series is continuous with waking conceptions and concerns. Not so obvious, there is also a subtle pattern to the friendly, sexual, and aggressive interactions between Ed and Mary that might not be noticed in reading through the dream journal or analyzing it qualitatively or without the use of norms to provide perspective.

Changes Over Time

There are several seeming changes in the nature of Ed's dreams about Mary as the years go by. First of all, there is a decline in back-to-life, reassurance, and illness dreams. The 10 dreams in which Mary has the good fortune to return to life occur exclusively in the first part of the series (Numbers 2, 3, 16, 25, 26, 31, 34, and 38). Toward the end of the second part, however, nearly 20 years after her death, she returns home unexpectedly in one dream due to the success of last-minute surgery that saved her from death. However, it is not a back-to-life dream because she is portrayed as never having died, and he is not shocked that she is alive. The three dreams in which Mary gives reassurances to Ed occur in the first 2 years after her death. In addition, there is a decline in the number of dreams in which Mary is ill or dead, from 39% of the dreams in the first half of the series to 23% in the second half. Generally speaking, then, the dreams seem to be more about everyday life as time goes by, but this trend, reflected in the medium effect sizes, does not reach statistical significance at the .05 level when the correction formula is applied, most likely because the sample sizes are not large enough for the various elements involved in the comparisons (Domhoff & Schneider, 2015b).

The dreams also seem to become somewhat more aggressive and negative in emotional tone in the second part of the series. This change is registered in the aggression/friendliness percent, which rises from 17% in the first part of the series to 28% in the second part. This increased negativity is also seen in the rise in the negative emotions percent from 63% to 75%. On the other hand, the percentage of dreams with at least one misfortune declines — because Mary is less often portrayed as ill or dying. However, these trends are not statistically significant when the correction formula is utilized. The complete findings on the first and second parts of the series on HVdC indicators are displayed in Table 4.

Table 4. A Comparison of Ed's Dreams on Selected Content Indicators Before and After the 14-Month Hiatus in Dream Recall Between Mid-February, 1990, and Mid-April, 1991
 Set 1
Set 2
hp padjusted
Aggression/Friendliness Percent1728+.27.030*0.102
Befriender Percent7785+.19.2190.313
Aggressor Percent2426+.05.8640.864
Negative Emotions Percent6375+.28.041*0.102
At least one aggression2333+.24.1540.289
At least one friendliness6972+.05.7700.856
At least one sexuality1609-.23.1730.289
At least one misfortune4528-.35.038*0.102
At least one good fortune1309-.14.4130.517
*p < .05.   **p < .01.

Results Using the Unrealistic Elements Scale

Casting a very wide net that includes, as already mentioned, unrealistic features or occurrences concerning characters, unusual or distorted settings, and unusual objects, there are 104 unrealistic elements in the 143 dream reports. The most frequent of these elements involve various characters, starting with the 10 instances in which Mary returns to life. There are also metamorphoses in which one character changes into another or a character changes in age. The two changes in characters both involve the change of his second wife, Bonnie, into Mary. In addition, there are age changes in characters. In some dreams he and Mary are younger, or their children are younger. For example, in one dream he and Mary are frantically searching for their 10-year-old son, but when he suddenly appears he is the young adult that he actually was at the time.

There are several instances in which there are unexpected people in his apartment — men using the kitchen, students in the shower area — or in his bed with him. The person in the bed is his mother-in-law in one instance, an unknown woman in another. There are sometimes young children present that he knows are his children, but they do not look like any of his actual children. Also, he is able on two different occasions to see the people he is talking to on the telephone — once it is two women, once it is Mary.

In addition, a few of the familiar settings are distorted; more specifically, they are composites of apartments he has lived in, or else they are familiar places that are in some way unusual, such as a window being in a different wall. In one instance the setting is partly a bedroom in one of his former apartments, but down the hall there is now a hospital room wherein Mary is resting. In another, there is a partition in part of their kitchen. There are also a handful of unusual activities or objects in the dreams. For example, in one dream he is floating above the sidewalk and looking down on Mary. In another he is riding what is alternately a bike and a car. As shown in the next section, the contexts in which some of these elements occur suggest they could be figurative embodiments of waking concerns and memories. However, as also discussed later, many of the unusual elements are not readily construed as figurative.

Subsets of Dream Reports That Share a Common Element

The findings reported up to this point can be given further substance, and plausible figurative glosses in some instances, by looking at dreams that are highlighted by five different main elements or themes: (a) Mary returns from the dead, (b) Mary reassures Ed, (c) Mary is ill or dead, (d) there is a sexual interaction, or (e) there is an aggressive interaction. In addition to providing a context for seeing whether some unusual elements might be figurative in nature, a consideration of these five different themes provides another opportunity to see if and how the dream findings relate to Ed's waking thoughts and concerns, and the degree to which they might be called embodiments in the way in which the term is meant by cognitive theorists today.

Back-to-Life Dreams

In the back-to-life dreams, Ed usually portrays himself as overjoyed or delighted to see Mary and embraces her with enthusiasm, or tells her how good she looks and how glad he is to see her. However, Ed often feels confused or perplexed because he knows that Mary is dead, which suggests that he is not without some of his critical facilities as these impossible events unfold. Other studies have found similar situations in which unusual elements are combined with puzzlement that such events are occurring, which calls into question claims that there often is bizarre thinking in dreams. Instead, it is more likely that the dreamers are confused, surprised, or puzzled by the bizarre events, just as they would be in waking life (Kozmova & Wolman, 2006; Wolman & Kozmova, 2007). Most of all, though, it is Ed's feelings of confusion and puzzlement that appear to give these encounters the sense of an embodied simulation.

Moreover, the back-to-life dreams contain unusual elements that seem to be figurative in nature. In the second dream in the series, which occurred in the third month after her death, his confusion over seeing her alive, even though he knows she is dead, seems to be embodied quite literally through a metamorphosis in her facial features:

002 – September [no date given], 1980 – When I enter the house I see Mary, full face, as she is portrayed in her "Glamour" photo. She isn't exactly looking at me. I am surprised and excited to see her and say something like, "How come you're here? You're not supposed to be here. You're dead. How did you get here?" I know I am delighted to see her, but am surprised that she has returned. But as I speak, her face changes from a most beautiful complexion (as it had been before her death) into a waxen, artificial, dead face — as one sees after the mortician has dressed a body.

A second back-to-life dream contains a figurative reference to the division between living and dead persons that is recognized as a metaphor in the dream. This metaphor is embodied by the fact that he is looking at her across a road that he intuitively knows he cannot cross:

034 – September 28, 1984 – I see a car parked across the road and Mary is sitting inside it. I can see her clearly. She is beautiful. She is dressed in white. I know that she is dead, and that the road between us is the dividing line between Life and Death. I am on the Life side, Mary is on the Death side. She smiles briefly at me, but mostly the expression on her face is serious. We have a conversation, but I cannot see Mary's lips moving. I emphasize that the children are well, particularly Maria.

There is also a back-to-life dream in which Ed knows Mary is really dead, but she does not realize it. He somehow knows he cannot tell her she is dead; if he does so, he thinks she will disappear. Perhaps this scenario can be understood as a figurative embodiment of the fact that his dreaming mind knows she is dead, but does not want to lose the image of her that it is experiencing. This dream begins with Ed walking into his bedroom to find a pin to repair his torn underwear, where he finds Mary:

025 – September 5, 1983 – She appears as she had as a young woman. She is not wearing makeup and her hair is down. I think she is wearing a housedress. When I see her I know she is dead, so I drink in with my eyes all I can see of her. She doesn't know she's dead, so I know I must enjoy every moment I have with her because soon she won't be with me. So I carry on as though this was very normal, and I did not let on to her that she is dead. There is a very serious and thoughtful expression on Mary's face. I tell her about the trouble I am having with my shorts and she agrees to pin this up correctly.

In the next dream in the journal, which occurred almost exactly 5 months after the previous one, Mary has been resurrected for some purpose he does not know, but this time he makes the mistake of mentioning that she is dead, which leads to a sudden change in her mood and health:

026 – September 3, 1983 – I am walking with Mary, who is wearing a white dress. She looks terrific — as she had prior to the last recurrence of the disease. She has been resurrected for a particular purpose that is not made clear in this dream. I comment on how terrific she looks, even though she had been in the grave only a short while ago. There was no decay nor any indication that she had been dead. But as I speak, I realize I should not have said anything because she doesn't know she had been dead and is now resurrected. My remarks disturb her greatly. Her mood changes from one of smiling happiness into surprised sorrow. Something in her belly begins to bulge and throb.

In another seemingly figurative back-to-life dream, which comes several years later, Ed is living with Mary, but now both of them know she is dead. Nonetheless, this time she is happy and active, and they hug and kiss. When they go outside on the front lawn looking for something, a passerby says she cannot see Mary because Mary is dead, to which Ed replies, "She may be dead, but I can see her." This exchange with a passerby may embody his understanding that Mary lives on in his memory even though others cannot see that fact.

Back-to-life dreams seem to be evidence for the complexity of the dreaming mind as it grapples with what it wishes — the return of a deceased love one — and what it knows about the finality of death. Collectively, they may be viewed as the embodiment of his dilemma, especially because of the emotions that accompany them.

Reassurance Dreams

Three of Mary's relatively few friendly gestures toward Ed were in the form of reassurances of the kind discussed by Barrett (1992) as one type of dream about deceased loved ones. The first of these dreams was also the first dream he had about her shortly after her death, the one that affected him so strongly that he began to keep a dream journal:

001 – July [no date given], 1980 – I see her in profile. She looks as lovely as she had before the illness, and when she was younger. At one point in the dream I also see a profile view of her when she and Maria (their daughter) press their cheeks together. Mary doesn't look at me, nor am I aware that she spoke. It is like a TV scene where someone is not speaking yet you hear that person's voice in the background. I hear Mary say, "I want you to be happy, Ed."

A second reassurance dream expresses her approval that he was remarrying:

012 – September 17, 1981 – I am looking down on Mary, from above and to her right. She is nude. I believe she is looking at me and smiling. Although her lips aren't moving, she is talking to me. I see on her abdomen a large white spot (of disease and decay? I don't know). The message she gives me is that she knows she is going to die from the illness, but she is accepting of her death, and she wants me to be happy. Although there is no mention of Bonnie and my forthcoming marriage to her, it seems that Mary is giving me her approval to go ahead and get married and have a happy life. In this dream Mary has her original and beautiful long, dark hair. She is wearing it in an upswept style. Her face is beautiful. She is not wearing the colostomy bag.

The third and final reassurance dream is a unique dream in the series in that he is aware that she is dead while they are talking and at the same time receives reassurance from her:

023 – August 25, 1982 – I see Mary very clearly, as she appeared before the illness. She is very beautiful, is smiling and happy. We are having a long conversation. I am able to touch her. I think I also hug her and hold her hand. We both know that she is dead. I ask her if she is all right. She assures me that she is fine and happy. I am pleased to know that she is OK. Somewhere I see two of her sisters, but I'm not sure how they "fit" into this dream. I think Mary is concerned about them. She seems to be telling me that her sisters are — or will be — OK. Or maybe she is telling me about their health — that it is unfortunate that they are not well — but one must accept whatever happens.

These reassurance dreams seem to suggest that his conflict has been resolved, but subsequent dreams, and Ed's reminiscences, show that these three reassurance dreams did not resolve anything in his dream life or his waking life. Only a month after the dream in which Mary seems to give her approval for his marriage to Bonnie, he sees Mary and calls her Bonnie, which seems to be a figurative embodiment of his confused feelings. A year later he has a dream in which he is "bawling out" and shouting at Bonnie, who changes into Mary, who looks "very upset and hurt," which seems to be a very complex embodiment of his highly conflicted emotions at that point. Four years later, in the months shortly before he and his second wife separated in November 1986, he had his final dream in which Bonnie appears along with Mary. It appears to be a direct, nonfigurative embodied simulation of his frustration:

044 – March 28, 1986 – Both Mary and Bonnie were in the dream, and I kept getting them mixed up, calling each by the other's name. I think both were angry with me. The mood of the dream was upsetting and uncomfortable.
Illness and Death Dreams

There are 44 dreams concerning Mary's illness, hospitalization, or death. They are mostly realistic portrayals of Ed's thoughts and feelings during various stages of Mary's illness. They contain many expressions of sadness, apprehension, and confusion. There is no particular sequence or progression to them in terms of the severity of her illness. In many of these dreams, Mary looks very good, or they are embracing, but he is aware that she is dying, and he feels great sadness or cries. In others she still looks very beautiful, but there is one or another telltale sign of her illness, such as paleness. Sometimes she is overweight or bloated, but in another dream she is thin and gaunt, and in two others she is bald. Some of these illness dreams seem to portray his concerns with her treatment. One portrays her decision to stop chemotherapy. Six months later, he urges her in a dream to resume chemo, which seems to be a literal embodiment of his regret that she did not try chemo once again. In other dreams in this category she is in the hospital, or he is going to visit her burial site, or he is grieving after looking at pictures of her in an album.

Strikingly, there are very few unusual elements in the illness dreams. In that regard, they seem to be nonfigurative embodiments that directly simulate his memories of past interactions and his ongoing mixture of feelings. However, one of the unusual settings in an illness dream seems to portray in an embodied way Ed's concern that he cannot be at the hospital to see Mary more often. It also envisions an interesting but unrealistic solution to this concern — he is in his apartment, but a wing of the hospital is attached to it and he can go to see Mary quickly and directly. It gives the impression of a wishful dream that provides the blend of home and hospital that he needs. This impression is made more plausible by the fact that so many of his dreams portray Mary's illness and Ed's desire to take care of her. Although the illness dreams decline by almost half in the second half of the series, they do not disappear entirely. In the 139th of the 143 dreams, nearly 22 years after Mary's death, he has the following harrowing dream:

139 – March 19, 2002 – Mary is lying on her back on a bed with her head hanging over the top edge of the bed. She is deathly ill and appears as she did in the last few weeks of her life — emaciated, deathly pale, and extremely weak. Her head was not bald but the hair on it was very sparse — as it was when it began growing back after the chemotherapy treatment. I sit on the bed and cradle her in my arms. I ask her why she is lying with her head hanging back over the edge of the bed. She answers that this is the only way she has to prevent her from vomiting.
Dreams with Sexuality

As stated in the results section, the number of dream reports with at least one sexual interaction is about what would be expected based on the male norms, and Ed initiates sexual interactions more frequently than does Mary. In this brief section the focus is on the thoughts, feelings, and concerns once the sexual interaction is initiated. In an early dream in the series Ed sees Mary in a thin gown and experiences the joy of feeling her body, which would seem to be a prime example of an embodied simulation in both its emotional and visual components. However, some of the sexual dreams seem to express lack of interest on either his or Mary's part, or feelings of inadequacy on his part. In two dreams he cannot get or maintain an erection. Once again, as in the case of the illness dreams, there is no sense of any figurative elements within the dreams, but each dream as a whole could be read as a parable or allegory about Ed's sexual concerns. For example:

089 – December 11, 1994 – Mary and I are making love, but I am impotent and reluctant to make love because I am afraid I won't be able to get an erection. On the other hand, Mary wants to help me, but she's reluctant to engage in intercourse because it is painful for her. I don't know why this will hurt her because there is nothing about her being ill in this dream. Also Mary is in a hurry to go somewhere and is reluctant to take the time to have sex because it will delay her departure. At the same time, she doesn't want to disappoint me, so we do have sex. I get an erection but lose it as soon as I penetrate Mary. As I struggle to get an erection again, I am hurting Mary. We stop making love. Each tries to assure the other that it was OK, but maybe next time will be better.

The underlying tensions that in fact existed in the sexual relationship between Ed and Mary are discussed further in the next section in the context of dreams that contain striking aggressive interactions.

Dreams with Aggressive Interactions

As noted in the results section, there are 64 aggressive interactions between Ed and Mary in the dream series. They are primarily nonphysical in nature, which would be described in everyday language as expressions of hostility — angry thoughts, critical remarks, rejections, and accusations or threats. There are four physical aggressions, in all of which Mary is the aggressor. In one dream, she throws "a ham or a roast" at him; in two dreams, she pushes him away; in another, she takes something away from him. Several other aggression dreams seem to embody the annoyances, tensions, and rejections that often typify married life, such as arguments and criticisms. There are also two aggression dreams that contain unusual elements that could be seen as figurative embodiments consistent with the aggressive feelings. In the first one she cooks him a meal, which is a friendly act on her part, but he does not have time to eat it, and finally puts it in the garbage basket in the kitchen, which is a rejection on his part, meanwhile thinking that she is "crazy clean" because he sees that the silverware is wrapped in plastic.

In a later dream the comedian Jerry Seinfeld asks Ed to show him how to find his way to a certain building downtown, and Mary joins them. However, once they reach the building she walks off with Seinfeld, leaving Ed behind, a rejection by Mary and Seinfeld, which makes Ed very angry. As he is waiting for them to return, he explores a pile of sand near the building, and soon finds himself gradually sinking into it, shouting out for help, but with nobody coming to his rescue. This vivid image of sinking into quicksand seems to be a figurative embodiment of his sense of helplessness. Then there is a change of scene and he is back home with Mary, where he decides to express his anger to her — a verbal aggression by Ed — after debating the matter with himself. This verbal aggression, along with the thoughts and feelings that accompany it, seem to embody the feelings he was very likely experiencing at that moment in the dream scenario.

The most dramatic of the dreams with aggression in them are four that involve arguments about their sexual life. They all seem to be very literal embodiments, not at all figurative enactments. Perhaps they are best characterized as episodes in "Scenes From aMarriage." In the first of these dreams, Mary angrily claims that Ed does not understand her:

090 – February 16, 1995 – I am hugging Mary and kissing her, and whispering "sweet nothings" in her ears. She pushes me away, telling me not to do this. I don't remember her exact words, but, to me, her message is clear. She wants me to stop what I'm doing. I am upset and hurt and draw away. I stop cuddling her, and say (or imply) I will no longer hold and hug her if this bothers her. Mary becomes angry, and says (or implies) that I don't understand her — or that I misunderstand what she means.

In two of these dreams Mary is angry with Ed about an affair with another woman. The first one, 16 years after her death, gives the impression that Ed is simulating, or perhaps more precisely, reenacting an actual event:

103 – August 28, 1996 – I see Mary, but not clearly. I believe she is angry at me for having had a brief sexual encounter with another woman. But that was many, many years ago (over 20 years ago) and I thought we had gotten over that long ago and there had never been another lapse on my part since then. I'm not sure what we talked about in the dream, but Mary's mood changed from anger at me to that of being very solicitous toward me for some problem I am facing. I have no idea what that problem is.

In response to a question in June 2014, about the basis for this dream, Ed replied by e-mail, "Yes, that dream is true in terms of my faithlessness to Mary on one occasion and was never repeated ever again. When I read it again today (I cannot remember when I last read it, perhaps more than 10 years ago), it reflects my guilt, which has haunted me all my life and has never left my thoughts." After turning to other topics, Ed continued in the same vein: "I shall never forget Mary's remark to me in the relatively short conversation we had after my confession: 'Ed, this is going to take me a long, long time to forget.' And indeed it was a long time before our relationship appeared to me to have returned to normal. I use the term 'appeared to me' because we never talked about it again. Neither of us ever referred again to that betrayal of mine and I was left wondering for the rest of my life what really went on in her head about my terrible behavior."

In the second dream about an affair, about 8 months after the previous one, Ed is in a play or a business venture (he is not sure which), wherein he must have an association with a woman, and perhaps even kiss her, but friends warn him that people will gossip and Mary will hear about it. He says that Mary knows he would not cheat on her. The scene changes and he is at home taking a shower, and senses someone has entered the house:

113 – April 13, 1997 – I feel a draft and get out of the shower and find the bathroom door open. I step out of the bathroom and look around. I see no one. I call out, "Mary, is that you?" There is no answer. I go back into the bathroom. There, on a table, is an empty wine glass (or cocktail glass?). When I see this, I know Mary is home. I dry myself, then search through the house, looking for her. After looking through several rooms, I find her lying on the sofa, her back toward me. I am delighted to find her, go over to the sofa, kneel down, and try to embrace her. She yells out angrily at me, "Leave me alone! Don't touch me! You're having an affair with . . ." (she names the woman, but I have no recollection of the name as I record this). My first reaction is to laugh and tell her this is a lot of nonsense. As I do so, I remember what my friends told me, that a certain person would gossip and plant seeds of doubt in Mary's mind about my relationship with that woman. I am in the process of trying to explain the true nature of the situation to Mary when the dream ends.

In perhaps the most cerebral and revealing of the dreams in which they argue about sexuality, Mary blames him for their lack of sexual relations, which leaves Ed unable to reply even though a litany of answers is running through his mind as she is talking. The dream appears to be a realistic dramatization of how they avoided dealing with sexual problems. It also demonstrates how deeply thoughtful and ruminative dreams can be, a mix of thoughts and feelings that seem to be the essence of embodiment:

065 – May 24,1991 – Mary and I are having an argument and two children are witnessing it. These children are ours, but neither is Maria, Robert, or Adam. In the dream I recognize them as ours. The argument is about Mary's decision to leave me. She tells me she is going to leave me because I don't love her. Her proof of this is that I don't have sex with her often enough. I am flabbergasted. I believe that our lack of frequent sex is her fault. While I have a great deal I want to say to her about this, I just can't get anything out of my mouth. I want to ask her why she always falls asleep on the sofa, night after night. This prevents me from having sex if she's not beside me in bed. I also wanted to remind her of how very emphatic she was about not wanting sex when we had vacationed in the Bahamas (in 1972). I'll never forget her comment: "Ed, I didn't come on vacation to have sex." I also wanted to remind her that she is ill and having sex is next to impossible. But somehow I am not able to say any of these things. I seem to be babbling. All I can do is plead with her to stay with me. I insist that I do love her.

If the concerns dramatized in dreams are in general continuous with waking life, as blind analyses of several dream journals suggest (Bulkeley, 2012, 2014; Bulkeley & Domhoff, 2010; Domhoff, 1996, 2003), then this dream embodies the fact that there were tensions about sexuality after Mary had a radical hysterectomy in 1971, and perhaps even more so after his brief affair 2 or 3 years later. Evidence for this inference appears in Ed's long comments about this dream, which are reminiscent of the kind of written self-reflections that James W. Pennebaker (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001, Pennebaker & Keough, 1999, Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999) has shown to be useful to people:

When I awoke I was very conscious of the argument put forth by Mary. I felt she was so unfair to me in equating infrequent sex with my not loving her. I went over in my mind, while lying in bed after waking up, what our sex life had been during the years preceding her death. While this dream prompted me, now, to think about this aspect of our relationship, I had thought about it frequently when Mary was alive.

Ed then recalls a discussion they once had about the fact that she often fell asleep on the sofa at night. It seems to express the kind of misunderstandings that couples often experience:

Why had she slept on the sofa, night after night? We once talked about this. Mary told me, at that time, that she felt I didn't want sex because I didn't come to get her off the sofa and into bed. And I told her that I didn't go after her because I thought she wanted to avoid me and sex. As I recall, we never really did resolve this problem. He goes on to say that when they did have sex, it was very enjoyable because Mary was a very "orgiastic woman" who took an "active" part in lovemaking. He then repeats the vacation incident in 1972 that he referred to in the dream itself, when she told him she did not come on vacation to have sex:

I was quite shocked when Mary told me she didn't come on vacation to have sex. It seemed so out of character with the good times we were enjoying at that time. Her angry comment so stuck in my mind that I took it to mean she wasn't crazy about sex and didn't want it very often. That may be why I didn't approach her for sex more often.

Ed then characterizes himself once more as a shy person who does not assert himself when he feels he has been rejected: "I bowed out of the act and did not try to get this straightened out." He also comments that "This dream had a strong impact on me in reviewing, yet again, our sexual relationship," a statement that perhaps can be taken as evidence as to why some people find dreams of personal use to them. More generally, his reflections on the sexual dreams discussed in this section show the way in which dreams can be useful in psychotherapy. They provide a platform for talking about painful issues that the client finds difficult to discuss without first recalling how they were dramatized in a dream.

Discussion and Conclusion

The findings in this study support the idea that dreams are embodied simulations. The main themes of these dreams — his wife's health and his relationship with her — enact obvious concerns that his written reflections attest to in waking life. In his dreams he wishes his wife were still alive, sometimes wants her help or assurance, can't quite believe she is really dead, on occasion enacts fond memories of the good times they had together, often puzzles over the sexual tensions in their marriage, and relives the horrible events of the terminal illness that ended her life. The dreams in this series simply, but profoundly, and often beautifully, express and embody the conflicted thoughts and feelings that are on the dreamer's mind and in his memory bank. Moreover, the fact that Ed initiates a strong majority of the friendly and sexual interactions with Mary, but is usually the victim in their aggressive interactions, needs to be emphasized as enactments of his conception of their relationship. This is especially the case because similar results have been found in other instances that involves intimate relationships (Domhoff, 1996, pp. 179-181; 2003, pp. 103-105, 109-110, 116-125).

In addition to the literal embodiment of thoughts and interactions, at least some of the unrealistic elements in this dream series appear to be figurative expressions of the dreamer's thoughts in a clear and direct way, and are sometimes understood by the dreamer as figurative within the dream itself. This point is made most dramatically in dream 034, in which Ed understands that Mary is dead even though she is sitting in a car and talking to him. In this dream, as recounted earlier, he realizes that he cannot cross the road that stands between them because he knows "that she is dead, and that the road between us is the dividing line between Life and Death." That is, he does understand while dreaming that she is "on the other side," figuratively speaking.

Some of the repeated unusual elements are arguably figurative as well, as when rooms look slightly different than in reality or are blends of two places in which they lived. In particular, the dream in which his apartment is attached to a hospital room down the hall seems to simulate a wishful solution to his distance from Mary and the hospital. Similarly, the dreams when he and Mary are younger, or the children are younger, seem more like memory-based enactments of earlier times that he looked back upon with fondness rather than bizarre confusion over his current age.

Beyond these general connections between the dream reports and Ed's waking thoughts and concerns, the pattern of friendly actions and sexual overtures toward Mary by Ed, and of aggressive actions toward Ed by Mary, seems to be accompanied by figurative depictions of his relationship with Mary. In his eyes, he tries hard to please her and means well, but often cannot do anything right. This element of feeling incompetent and picked upon may be expressed figuratively when, for example, he spills the tea he is bringing her, sinks in quicksand while trying to keep up with her and Seinfeld, mixes up Mary and Bonnie, or can't find their children.

However, it seems unlikely that all the unusual aspects in the dream reports are figurative embodiments of the dreamer's concerns. In this regard, the results are similar to an even more negative conclusion in a study of metamorphoses of characters and objects that was carried out within the context of a long dream series from a middle-aged woman. It concluded that "it was not possible to develop convincing evidence that any of the metamorphoses relate to the systematic findings," even though the dream reports had been studied in detail with the HVdC system and the dreamer and four of her friends had been interviewed (Domhoff, 2003, pp. 131-133). In the present study, many of the unrealistic elements, as many as one half or more, seem to be incongruous confabulations or random filler. For example, the vehicle that is alternatively a bicycle and a car in one dream does not relate in any obvious way to the content of the dream or to any other dream reports in the series. However, it may be that readers who avail themselves of Ed's dream reports on dreambank.net will see overlooked patterns, thereby making the analysis of this dream series a collective and ongoing effort.

Based on the results of this study, it seems plausible that future studies of even longer dreams series, when later supplemented by detailed biographical information and interviews with the dreamer's friends, may make it possible to be more exact about the degree to which all types of dreams, not just the ones written down by this bereaved widower, are dramatic embodiments of conceptions and concerns. At the same time, future studies might make it possible to better distinguish figurative elements within dreams from unusual elements that are more likely the product of cognitive defects and glitches during the dreaming state.

The possibility of making greater use of dream journals to study literal and figurative embodiments in dreaming through the deployment of the HVdC coding system, the Unrealistic Elements Scale, and word strings may be strengthened by the finding that there are only rare indications of autocorrelation or any other pattern in the widower's dream series, or in four individual dream series from two men and two women of varying ages (Domhoff & Schneider, 2015a). This methodological finding suggests that the consistency and continuity found in past studies of dream series are based on a random spin through the dreamer's cognitive Rolodex.

The random draw of dream scenarios from a dreamer's memory bank of interests and emotional preoccupations is compatible with the idea that dreaming is a revealing form of stimulus-independent thought. More exactly, dreaming is very likely a form of stimulus-independent thought that is a dramatic and multisensorial embodiment of the same personal worries and interests that often underlie drifting waking thought and daydreaming (e.g., Fox et al., 2013; Klinger, 1971; Mason et al., 2007; Singer, 1966).


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I am grateful to "Ed" for allowing me to make use of his dream journal and for answering the questions I posed to him on and off over the space of a dozen years after I received a copy of his dream journal. I thank Kelly Bulkeley for the helpful comments he made on an earlier version of this article. I would also like to thank Melanie Cauble and Katrin Meyer for their research assistance, and Adam Schneider for creating the tables and editing the article.

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