Dreaming LifeDreaming Life

In dreams, people often behave in ways they find disturbing.   They dream of performing sexual acts that they would never perform in real life, with people they would never think about sexually in real life.  People dream about murdering close friends and family members or performing other horrible, violent acts on loved ones. These dreams shock them.

Dream interpreters of all stripes have said such dreams do not predict behavior.  In your dreams, your victims can be symbolic – when you murder your father in your dream you are, in fact, protesting against authority that you do not have the power to fight against in waking life.  Perls’ declared that every person in your dream is part of you; his method of interpretation would say that when you dream or raping your impulsive brother, you are really telling yourself that you need to control your own impulsive behavior.


Those who examine dreams from a physiological perspective might say that dreams in which you behave violently come from the buildup of stress hormones that occurs as you experience stressful situations throughout the day.  There are number of studies that show that dreaming is associated with activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is involved with emotional processing. With your brain’s higher functions shut down (unless you are a lucid dreamer), your reactions to stressful waking life events become more primitive in your dreams.  Instead of writing an angry letter to the editor, you stab someone through the heart.

There are, in fact, cases where a violent action in a dream can reflect an act that has actually taken place.  However, in these dreams, the dreamer is usually the victim, and they usually involve a traumatic event that the dreamer has experienced. These dreams are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Suppose someone dreams they have committed a violent act. Could this be legal evidence that they were considering such an act?

In 1993, police arrested Carol Glenn Scott of Texas for burglarizing the home of his ex-wife, Monika Scott, and attempting to murder her and their daughter, Christine.  Carol had a gun and shot through the doorframe of the master bedroom. Scott claimed that he was simply trying to retrieve his will, which was in the bedroom, and was not trying to kill anyone.  He was only trying to shoot at the lock so he could enter the bedroom.

During the trial, Monika testified that Carol had told him several times that he was always dreaming about killing her and killing himself.  Christine said he once told her about a dream in which he killed Monika and then committed suicide.

However, there was other, more direct evidence implicating Carol. When he entered the house with the gun, he had threatened to kill everyone inside:  Monika, Christine, their son Glenn and Monica’s new boyfriend, Jay Hicks.  Carol also knew that Monika and Jay were in the bedroom.

The jury convicted Carol of attempted capital murder.

At the appeal, Carol argued that the trial court should not have accepted reports of his dreams evidence.  He said that the use of his dream reports as testimony unfairly prejudiced and confused the jury, so the trial jury’s decision should be overturned. Nevertheless, the appeals court upheld the decision of the jury, stating the dream evidence did not create an unfair prejudice. Besides, there was enough direct evidence to convict.

What if the direct evidence hadn’t been so clear?  Could a dream be all that stands between a guilty and a non-guilty verdict?

In the Scott case, all we know about the defendant’s dreams are what he told his wife and daughter.  There is no proof that what he told them is what he actually dreamed.  Psychologist Charles Pierce, who had provided expert testimony at the trial, had stated that it was not normal for someone to discuss their dreams with intended victims. He also admitted that he wasn’t an expert in dream analysis and said that he wasn’t sure that the thoughts Carol had been sharing with his family “could be characterized as dreams.”

Today, however, neuroscientists are learning how to record images of the brain during dreams.  Perhaps one day, they will be able to watch other people’s dreams the way we watch BluRay videos. If this happens, could your dreams about assault, rape or murder get you into trouble?  Will dream interpreters and psychologists still be able to say, “Don’t worry about it – it was only a dream”?