Information for Students

We receive many inquiries from students asking for suggestions and materials in relation to science projects or research papers. This document will give you everything you need if you want to do a good study.

If you read through this page and if you still have further questions, we'd be glad to answer them. But please read this entire document before writing to us. As much as we enjoy studying dreams and interacting with students, we can't start from the beginning, so to speak, with each student. That's why we created this section.

How we can help

There are a number of ways that the material in this Web site can help you with a project or paper:

  • You can learn content analysis.
  • You can enter your codings into our DreamSAT spreadsheet (requires Excel 5) and have instant and accurate results that save you much time and effort.
  • You can have one of our expert coders study the dream reports you've already coded so you can compare your codings with hers/his and see if you are doing it right.
  • If you have a long series of dreams on a disk, we can put them in a private place on our web site where you can use our search program to make various kinds of keyword searches.

There are a million original studies you could do. Ideas will come to you as you read through our examples. Some of the possibilities -- especially for high school students -- are studies of teenagers' dreams that have never been done before. That's partly because these kinds of studies are relatively new, and partly because researchers don't usually have easy access to the dreams of middle-school and high-school subjects.

There's one issue that you need to be aware of right away: It's really not possible to use either observational or experimental methods with dreams. That's because:

  1. You can't observe dreams while they are happening. (Sure some people sleeptalk during a dream on occasion, and sometimes dreamers smile or grimace, but that's not enough to go on, even on the rare occasions when someone is there to hear or see these events -- like in a sleep laboratory at a university or medical center.)

  2. You can't make them happen, so you can't find a "stimulus" that will produce a reliable "response." Dreams occur several times a night naturally.

  3. Pre-sleep stimuli like music or videos don't seem to have much impact on dream content.

  4. External stimuli applied while the person is asleep usually awaken the subject or don't have very much impact on the dream. That applies to music, whispered names, bells, tickles, and even sprinkles of cold water (yes, someone did that once!).

  5. Even in the sleep lab, subjects exposed to a pre-sleep stimulus or bombarded with an external stimulus during sleep may not be able to recall a dream when they are awakened, which means the researcher ends up with no data after all that work.

  6. The subjects can't tell you about their dreams while they are happening like they could about a daydream or reverie while awake -- because, of course, they are asleep.

What all this adds up to is that people can become very frustrated when they want to try to study dreams. To put it another way, all we have is:

A verbal or written report...
of a memory...
of an experience that went on inside the person's head while they were sleeping.

That means dreams are two steps removed from the researcher's direct observation. Maybe we should just call it a day, huh?

Can we be scientific about dreams?

Yes. We can do what's called a "content analysis" of the dream reports that are written down for us. That is, we have to classify the people, actions, and objects in dreams into categories -- categories like "characters" (friends, family, animals), or "social interactions" (friendliness and aggressions), "striving" (success and failure), and "emotions" (happy, angry, sad, confused, apprehensive).

Once we've sorted all the stuff that appears in the dream report into our various categories -- which takes a lot of time and patience -- then many interesting analyses can be done.

But before you go any further, you ought to ask your teacher or professor: "Can I do a non-observational, non-experimental study that uses content analysis for quantitative studies of dream reports?"

If he or she turns out to love that kind of strong talk from you and says "go for it," and you are sure you like the idea of reading through many dream reports -- which we personally find fascinating, fun, and often very emotionally moving -- then there are many studies you can do. Here are just a few examples:

  1. How do the dreams of girls differ from those of boys?

  2. How do the dreams of 12-year-olds differ from those of 17-year-olds?

  3. Is there more apprehension and confusion in dreams right before exam week than there is right before a week of vacation?

  4. How do the dreams that you wrote down at age 13 differ from the ones you are going to write down at age 16 or 17 for your science project?

  5. How do the 50 to 100 dreams that someone you know wrote down in a diary differ from the typical dream content for people his or her age?
By applying the methods described on this web site, you can answer any of these questions, and probably most of the questions that have popped into your mind as you read the examples. You don't need anything besides what's on this web site.

But first, how do you obtain the dreams for making the analysis? After all, if you don't have any dream reports, you can't even begin. First things first.

The three ways you can obtain usable dream reports

  1. You can use our Most Recent Dream form to collect the last dream each student in your class, grade, or school remembers having, whether it was this morning, last week, or last month.

  2. You can advertise in the school paper, local newspaper, or on bulletin boards in bookstores for dream journals that already have been kept for some months or years.

  3. If you are a prolific dream recaller, or have a friend who is, you can keep a dream diary for a couple of months, or have him or her keep a dream journal.

Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Next, we will say a little more about each method.

Most Recent Dreams

If you have access to homerooms, classrooms, or a student assembly, and have permission to take 20 to 30 minutes of precious class time, then the Most Recent Dream technique is a powerful and efficient method because it allows you to obtain large samples that include all kinds of people (good recallers of dreams and poor recallers alike) in a relatively short period of time.

With this method, you don't have to wait around hoping that at least some of the students you've asked will keep a dream diary at home for a week or two, and then give it to you. Experience shows that most don't. Those who do often write short and hasty reports. Worse, critics can say that those who turned in diaries may differ from those who did not on some important personality or memory dimensions. That is, they would raise questions about the "representativeness" of your sample. The beauty of the Most Recent Dream method is that just about everyone can remember at least one dream from the past six months, so it gives you a "representative" sample of dreams from a "representative" sample of subjects.

We also know how many Most Recent Dream reports you need for a good study -- at least 100, but the more the better. We know this from drawing "subsamples" of different sizes from very large samples of dream reports where we know the overall findings, then determining how close their results approximated the overall results. Twenty-five or 50 or even 75 dreams from a group is not good enough. The results aren't reliable. To be serious, you need at least 100 to 125 from each group you are studying, which would be 250 dreams if you were comparing 10th-grade boys and girls or 8th-grade and 9th-grade girls. But the truth is that several hundred from each group is even more powerful, and there are ways to do analyses of that many dreams that don't take as much time as you might think.

In collecting Most Recent Dreams, it is very important for you and the teacher to set the right tone so that students will take the task seriously and give you honest reports.

First, it should be explained that the reports are for a science project and that no names are required. You just want their age and gender. Such anonymity is very common for subjects in studies, and is usually appreciated by the subjects. The only trouble with anonymity is that some immature individuals take it as an invitation to not take the task seriously. Thus the need to set a serious tone when you ask for the dreams.

Second, you should emphasize that it is important to follow the instructions closely, which ask for the subjects to write down the date they think they had the dream and the time of day they remembered it. Asking for the date and time has two rationales:

  1. It focuses the subjects' attention on the fact you want the "last dream they can remember." If they don't pay attention and write down their most memorable or frightening dream, then the sample is biased toward unusual dreams.

  2. It allows you to discard dream reports where the date is more than six months prior to the date you collect the dreams. That helps to assure a representative sample of typical dreams.

  3. Third, you should say that their participation is voluntary, and that they should write that they "don't recall any dreams" if that is the case or that "they don't want to participate" if that is the case. If subjects feel they are forced to participate, they may make up dreams.

  4. Fourth, just before the reports are about to be turned in, you can ask the subjects to write one more thing at the bottom of the page. Tell them you would like them to answer the following question: Is this a real dream you had or did you make it up? "Yes" for real, "No" for made-up.

    It may sound strange, but social psychology studies show that sometimes those who don't follow instructions will admit that fact if they are asked. This is especially likely when the reports are anonymous. That is, they may have pangs of conscience even after they have played their little joke on us.

Once you've collected the reports, there are several things you can do to improve the quality of the data for your study even before you start making analyses:

First of all, you can eliminate those reports where the person says something like "this is a dream I have over and over" or "this is my worst nightmare." Second, you can eliminate any reports that are just one or two sentences. We often use a 50-word minimum as a cut-off point. Third, you can eliminate any reports where the person didn't really write down a dream, which you will be fairly good at spotting after you have read through all the dream reports. The few that don't sound like the others may be made up.

For the most part, though, almost all subjects will be cooperative and honest and helpful. Consider it a successful session if 80-90% give you usable reports.

There's one problem with Most Recent Dream Studies with people under age 18: boys don't honestly recall as many dreams as girls. This has been verified in laboratory studies where their recall is lower even when they are awakened during times when they are very likely to have been dreaming. Moreover, their reports are often shorter, and they may be a little less likely to be willing to participate. What this adds up to is that it may be hard to get enough Most Recent Dreams from boys.

If you think you might have trouble getting enough dreams from boys, then it may be a good idea to formulate a research question that allows you to discard the reports from boys and to use girls as your subjects. You could compare girls of different ages, which is called a "cross-sectional developmental study." You could compare girls from different schools. You could compare girls who are mostly active in music or theater with girls who participate in a lot of sports, or girls who have a steady boyfriend with those who don't.

Whatever study you do with Most Recent Dreams, the point is this: The question you will study may depend on the ease with which a large enough sample of dream reports can be obtained.

Advertising for a dream journal

You'd be surprised how many people have written down their dreams for at least a month or two at one time or another. Not millions, but maybe two or three percent, which is more than enough to obtain some very useful dream data if you put up signs around schools, colleges, or bookstores saying you are looking for a dream journal to study for your Science Project, or if you place a little ad in the school newspaper or local newspaper. There may even be groups of people in your town who meet to discuss dreams and use them as inspiration for art or creative writing. They usually aren't very scientifically oriented themselves, but they might be willing to let you use their dream diaries for scientific purposes.

For these kinds of studies -- where you are looking at a single person's dreams -- you need to have at least 75 to 100 dream reports. Once again, we know this from drawing subsamples of varying sizes from much longer dream diaries where we know the overall percentages and rates for our various categories.

People write their dreams into a journal for all kinds of different reasons -- to use as artistic raw material; for personal enrichment; because they think dreams predict the future; or as part of their therapy with a psychologist influenced by the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who put a great emphasis on the usefulness of dreams in his approach to helping people. That may not sound like a very "representative" sample of people, but dream journals are legitimate data in the social sciences even though they are not from a representative sample of people. Basically, that's because people write their dreams down for many different reasons and the we analyze those dreams for our own reasons. That means the journals may have all different kinds of "biases," but are not influenced by our research purposes. They are therefore called "nonreactive archival data."

Since we did not ask or tell these people to write down their dreams, there's no way we could have biased those journals in favor of our own purposes, and that's a plus. By contrast, in an experiment human beings are "reacting" to our request that they do this or that. They therefore may try to guess our purposes and respond in such a way as they think will please us. More rarely, they may try to mess us up by doing the opposite of what they think we are hoping they will do in order to support our hypothesis.

So, as powerful and useful as experiments are, they are not without their perils when done with people as the subjects. Social scientists therefore have reserved a niche for "nonreactive archival data" like dream journals, because they know that they need every systematic method they can find to make any advances in understanding their perplexing subject matter: humans.

If you decide to do a study using someone else's dream journal, you have to go back to your teacher or professor with another question: "For my content analysis, can I use nonreactive archival data?"

(And of course, he or she will be so flabbergasted to hear you using that kind of serious language that he/she will immediately say "Sure, why not," and be glad that you are reading something scientific on the Internet.)

For the most interesting kind of study with someone else's dream journal, it is best that you know little or nothing about the person before you study the dream reports. We call that a "blind analysis." It is the closest we can come to approximating an "experiment" with archival data. If you know nothing about the dreamer, then you can formulate several inferences about him or her on the basis of your analysis, and then have the person tell you if he/she thinks the inferences are right or wrong. Can you tell if the person loves animals? Likes his older brother better than his younger brother? Is afraid of authority figures? Feels a lot of sadness? Several studies of this kind have shown that we can indeed make some powerful inferences.

If you already know a great deal about the person who gave you the dream journal, all is not lost. In this case you simply formulate some hypotheses about what you are likely to find in the dreams. You formulate these hypotheses on the basis of what we call the "continuity hypothesis." That is, previous studies suggest that people dream about what they think about and worry about and like in waking life. If you know they talk all the time about basketball or horses, then it is likely that they dream about basketball or horses. If you know they still miss their cat or dog that died last year, they probably are still dreaming about it. If they like the outdoors, then the settings for their dreams will more often be outdoors. And so on.

Keeping your own journal

Your own dream journal can be a very valid source of dream reports because our method is objective enough that your personal biases will not cloud your analysis in the way they might if you used a subjective method. Furthermore, you could have one of our expert dream coders do an analysis of some of the dream reports to see if you are using the content analysis system well with your own dreams.

A study of your own dreams can be especially good if (1) you wrote down dreams once before in your life, or (2) you have been writing them down for a long time and have hundreds.

If you decide to keep a dream journal, just write them down each morning and don't even look at them until you have finished the collection period. If you can type them or put them on a computer disk, all the better, because then you can analyze them by doing word searches with the program we have for such a task.

Remember, though, that you need at least 75 to 100 dreams in your dream journal for your study to be based on what we are fairly sure is a "representative" sample of your dream life. Be sure to write down every dream. If you are selective for seemingly "interesting" ones, then you won't have a sample that can be compared with our normative findings.

What will you find if you study an individual dream journal, whether yours or someone else's? Well, we have some results in our "Findings" section. For example: Lucile, an older woman who wrote down her dreams for several years. Or "Mark," the college student. Or the "Engine Man," so named because he loved train locomotives; he wrote down his dreams faithfully for three months back in 1939, and then never did another thing with them -- but a psychiatrist who studies dreams found them at an antiquarian bookstore in the 1980s and saved them for posterity.

How to make sense out of the dreams you collect

Once you have collected a number of dreams, your next step is to do a data analysis. First, you read the dreams and mark certain people, things and events which are "codeable." Second, you add up frequencies in the content categories you are using. Third, you do various arithmetic and statistical procedures that are fairly simple. Fourth and finally, you compare the results with our typical findings for either young men or young women, called "norms."

All of the counting and statistics can be performed by the DreamSAT spreadsheet that we have available for download in our site; thanks to DreamSAT, the whole process is automated except for the original coding of the dream narratives.

Most of the statistics we use are based on percentages and ratios. As we explain more fully in our page entitled "Our statistical approach", we use percentages and rates because they are the best and simplest way to correct for the fact that the dream reports you will receive will be of differing lengths. Since longer reports are more likely to have more of everything, we need to take that into account, and percentages and rates do so in a clear and explainable way.

To see what we mean, take a look at the table and figure to the right. They both compare findings with 12- and 13-year-old girls to the norms we've developed on the dreams of young adult women. We show here only a few of the categories you can use, but this keeps it simple for now.

Start with the "Friends percent" under the general heading "Characters." Note that we expect the friends percent for women to be 37%, which means that 37% of all the human characters in women's dreams are people whom they know. Now look at the bar graph, or "h-profile." We arbitrarily call it the "h-profile" because the length of the bars is determined by "h" points, which are about twice as large as a percentage difference. We have to make this mathematical transformation of percentages into "h's" for complicated statistical reasons, which are explained briefly in our statistics page; you can look at if you are mathematically inclined, but for now it is enough to know that "h" is about twice as large as a simple percentage difference.

So, anyways, when you look at the h-profile by "Friends percent," you notice that the bar goes out to the left, which means that girls have a lower friends percent than women. How much lower? Well, only six "h" points, which you recall means about three percentage points. It's not a very big difference. We are not impressed with a difference until it is at least .20 to .30, and we don't become excited until the difference reaches .40 or higher.

Now take a look at some of the other indicators and findings for "Characters." Whether we look at the percentage and "h" differences under "animal percent," "male/female percent," or "family percent" in the table, or at the length of the bars in the h-profile, we see that girls and women do not differ very much as far as the characters in their dreams.

But look at the various categories under "Social Interactions." For the thoughts and actions that we define as "aggressions," girls are higher than women, especially on the subset that are called "physical aggressions," like stealing, chasing, hitting, and killing.

The rest of our findings on how 12- and 13-year-old girls differ from young women can be found in a research paper that we've put on this web site as one example of the kind of study you can do.

You might be wondering what our findings are with girls between 14 and 18... And the answer is that we don't have any! No one has done a good and convincing study. Maybe that's where you come in?

Where do you go from here?

If you think you might want to do a content analysis of Most Recent Dreams or a Dream Journal, here's the further material that can be of use for your own study:

First, if you are interested in trying a Most Recent Dream study, then read our article, "The Most Recent Dreams of 12-13 Year-Old Boys and Girls," by Deb Avila-White, Adam Schneider, and G. William Domhoff. As we said, it can serve as a general model of what you might do. In the conclusion, the article suggests some other kinds of studies that can be done. Once you've looked at the article, then you probably should click to the Most Recent Dream Form to become familiar with it, and maybe download a copy so you can make photocopies.

If you are interested in studying a Dream Journal, whether your own or someone else's, then it would be a good idea to click to our section on Interesting Findings and look at the sketches of Mark, Lucile, the Engine Man, and George Weldon. Each has examples of different analyses you can make.

Third, whether studying Most Recent Dreams or a Dream Journal, at some point you need to look at the coding system. It can look daunting at first glance, but it really isn't that bad.

For example, with characters there are basically three general categories: people, animals, and creatures (although we don't record many creatures after early childhood).

We break "people" down according to four different categorization schemes:

  • individual (1) or group (2)
  • male (M) or female (F)
  • role/relation to you (e.g., family, friends, strangers)
  • age (B for baby, C for child, T for teenager, A for adult).
Then each character has a "code" -- a number or letter for each of the four categories. So your father is 1MFA: 1 for individual, M for male, F for father, A for adult. And your 9-year-old twin sisters are 2FTC: 2 for group, F for female, T for sister, C for child.

Social interactions aren't very difficult to code either. An aggression is one of the following:

  • angry thoughts (A1)
  • a nasty or critical remark (A2)
  • a rejection or refusal (A3)
  • a serious verbal threat (A4)
  • stealing or destroying a possession (A5)
  • chasing or capturing (A6)
  • physical attack (A7)
  • murder (A8)
When we do an analysis, we count up the total number of aggressions (A1 through A8) and divide by the total number of characters in the dreams to determine a "rate" of aggressions per character. We call it the "A/C index."

We also total up the "physical" aggressions (A5 through A8) and divide them by the total number of aggressions; that gives us the "physical aggression percent."

Those are just examples, but it doesn't become any more difficult. The problem is not how hard it all is, but how much of it there is when you do a good job on five or six general categories. Here's the ones we use most frequently and recommend to you:

  • Characters
  • Social interactions (aggression, friendliness, sexuality)
  • Misfortunes and good fortunes
  • Striving (success and failure)
  • Settings (indoor/outdoor, familiar/unfamiliar)
  • Emotions (happiness, anger, sadness, confusion, apprehension)

So that's the story. As we said at the outset, we'd be glad to help if you've read through all this background material and still have questions.

If you'd like more details about the topics that were touched on in this page, we highly recommend that you check out our Resources for Scientists page; there, you'll find links to all of the more "advanced" sections of this Web site.

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