Dreaming LifeDreaming Life

Many people believe that dreams reflect experiences in waking life.

A hypothesis known as the Continuity Hypothesis of Dreams says that dreams are a continuation of waking life.  You dream about what you have been thinking about or what you have been doing in waking life. Your personality in dreams is the same as your personality in waking life.

Freud said that when you analyze a dream, you should check to for the day's residue in the dream. The day's residue consists of dream elements that reflect events that happened to the dreamer in waking life on the previous day.

The opposite of the Continuity Hypothesis is the Compensation Hypothesis of Dreams, which says that dreams are a form of compensation - in dreams you can do things you can't do and be the person you can't be in waking life.

Alfred Adler thought that compensation played an important role in dreaming. If you can't or won't deal with a problem that you have in waking life, you deal with it in your dreams.

Dream researchers have been able to learn more about just how much continuity there is between our waking lives and our dreams with the development of modern dream research methods, such as studies of dream journals and studies of dreamers in sleep laboratories.

Michael Schredl, a psychologist at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, performed an analysis of some of these studies and summarized their results. His report was published in the journal Sleep and Hypnosis in early 2003.

Dream Lag

Schredl was interested in whether there tended to be a delay between an event happening in waking life and it being incorporated in a dream - a phenomenon known as "dream lag".

He examined studies that measured how long it took a waking life event to show up in someone's dream.

These studies showed that people were very likely to dream about an event the night after it happened. From the second to the fifth days, the likelihood of dreaming about it decreased. However, on the sixth and seventh days the likelihood of incorporating the event into the dream increased.

This happened whether the waking life event was something that happened naturally, such as having an argument with a partner, or it was something that happened as part of the study, such as being forced to watch a violent film.

Michel Jouvet, who is famous for his research on REM sleep in cats, found that when he went on a journey, he only began dreaming of his new surroundings after he had been there for six days.

Time of Night

Schredl looked at whether dreams about waking life events were more likely to occur early in the night, at the middle of the night or towards the end of the night.

In one study, dreamers were awakened during REM sleep and made to record their dreams. They were then told to look through their dream reports and try to remember if any of the elements of the dream was something that had happened during waking life.

The study showed that dreamers are more likely to dream about events related to their distant pasts late at night. This suggests that your process your more recent experiences earlier in the night.

How Waking Life Events Are Incorporated Into Dreams

Other studies have examined exactly how we incorporate waking life events into our dreams.  Are we more likely to dream about the actual events or to dream about the emotions that these events engender?

Studies show that the feelings associated with an event is more likely to be incorporated in dreams than the actual event itself.

In one study, students were told that the following day, they would be participating in an electroshock study.   They were made to hear the (faked) sounds of people being shocked in the next room.

That night, these students showed more hostility in their dreams than a group of students who had not been told they would be subjected to electric shocks.

Subjects in another study were given an intelligence test and then told that they performed poorly. That night, they dreamed about being injured, about failing and about behaving inadequately.

Some men were shown an erotic film before going to sleep, as part of a different study.

In general, they did not dream about things they saw in the film, such as penises or breasts, any more than usual.

However, they were much more likely to dream of phallic symbols, such as guns and knives, and vaginal symbols, such as boxes and tunnels, than they would normally.

A study was performed on women who hated snakes.

The subjects were divided into four groups.

Each of the women in the first group was told to imagine that it was a pleasant, sunny day. She was calm and relaxed.  She was watching a snake that was in a relaxed state.

The women of the second group were told to imagine a day when the weather was bad.   They were panic-stricken. Each woman was to imagine that a snake was close to her feet.

In the third group, the women were told to imagine being calm and relaxed on a sunny day. Like the women of the first group, they were told to imagine that they were watching an animal that was relaxing. This time, however, the animal was not a snake but a squirrel.

Each of the women in the fourth group of women was told to imagine bad weather, panicking, and a squirrel close to her feet.

When these woman's dreams were studied, it was found that whether the animal was a snake or a squirrel had no effect on the dreams.

However, the women who were told to imagine being calm had more positive emotions in their dreams, while the women who were told to imagine being panic-stricken had more negative emotions in their dreams.

Women who were told to imagine experiencing intense negative emotions actually had more negative emotions in their dreams than women who were shown a live snake before they went to sleep.

Effects of Stress and Trauma on Dreams

Stress and trauma in real life has been shown to effect dreams.

In one study, the dreams of five people who were awaiting major surgery were examined. In general, their dreams tended to be more hostile than usual. They dreamed about body parts and about being in a hospital.

The psychologist Robin Cartwright studied the dreams of divorced women. She found that immediately after women experienced a divorce, they had more negative dreams than married women did. However, once they had been divorced a year, their dreams were almost no different from married women's dreams.

Cartwright also found that children between 10 and 13 years old whose parents had divorced in the past year had dreams involving inadequate coping behavior.  However, these children's dreams were not generally negative.

It is known that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause recurring nightmares.

However, people who experience a trauma but do not develop full-blown PTSD still experience changes to their dreams.

Women who are sexually assaulted often have nightmares about their experiences.

Adults who were sexually abused as children have nightmares more often than adults who were not sexually abused.  Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often dream about burglars or about their own deaths.

Link Between Remembering Dreams and Creating Waking Life Memories

In 2011, Cristina Marzano and her colleagues performed a study, reported  in the Journal of Neuroscience, in which it was discovered that the brainwave patterns that are associated with remembering dreams are also associated with the formation of episodic memories in waking life. (Episodic memories are memories of events and their associated emotions.)