“The biggest myth about dreams is that they are frivolous manifestations reflecting basic occurrences of our daily experiences,” said Chicago psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber.
But dreams are actually an important part of self-discovery. (More on that later.) Below are a few fascinating facts and findings about dreams.
1. People with disabilities dream as though they don’t have them.
The following is an excerpt from a person who participated in a dream study:
“I was supposed to and wanted to sing in the choir. I see a stage on which some singers, male and female, are standing… I am asked if I want to sing with them. ‘Me?’ I ask, ‘I don’t know if I am good enough.’ And already I am standing on the stage with the choir. In the front row, I see my mother, she is smiling at me… It is a nice feeling to be on stage and able to chant.”
What’s particularly curious about this dream is that the dreamer was born deaf and doesn’t speak. Recently, two studies published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition have found that people with disabilities still dream as though their impairments don’t exist.
One of the studies explored the dream diaries of 14 people with impairments (four born with paraplegia and 10 born deaf who can’t speak). Thirty-six able-bodied individuals served as controls. August 2011’s New Scientist featured the research, stating that findings showed that:
About 80 percent of the dream narratives of the deaf participants gave no indication of their impairment: many spoke in their dreams, while others could hear and understand spoken language. The dream reports of the people born paralyzed revealed something similar: they often walked, ran or swam, none of which they had ever done in their waking lives.
Even more interesting, the article states that: “…there was no difference between the number of such bodily movements in the dream reports of the people with paraplegia and in those of the deaf and able-bodied subjects.”
The second study found similar results. Researchers looked at the dream reports of 15 people who were either born with paraplegia or had it later in life (because of a spinal-cord injury). They also included 15 able-bodied controls. Their reports revealed that 14 of the participants with paraplegia had dreams that they were physically active. And they dreamed about walking just as often as the able-bodied participants.
One of the researchers, Ursula Voss at Germany’s University of Bonn, believes that “dreams are tapping into representations of limbs and movements that exist in the brain and which are independent of our waking reality,” she told the New Scientist. She and researcher Alan Hobson at Harvard Medical School speculate that the key is genetics. According to the magazine:
The pair say the recent dream studies suggest that our brain has the genetically determined ability to generate experiences that mimic life, including fully functioning limbs and senses, and that people who are born deaf or paralysed are likely tapping into these parts of the brain when they dream about things they cannot do while awake.
2. Younger people report dreaming in color more often than older adults.
In a recently published study (one survey conducted in 1993; the follow-up in 2009), researchers found that about 80 percent of participants younger than 30 years old dreamed in color. But by 60 years old, only about 20 percent said they did. (How often participants dreamed in color increased from 1993 to 2009— but only for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.) The researchers speculated that color TV might play a role in the generational difference.
Another study using both questionnaires and dream diaries found older adults also had more black and white dreams than the younger participants. What seemed to be particularly noteworthy is that older people reported that both their color dreams and black and white dreams were equally as vivid. The younger participants, however, said that their black and white dreams were of poorer quality. As the BPS Research Digest blog noted, “This raises the possibility that the younger participants didn’t really have any black and white dreams at all, but were simply labelling poorly remembered dreams as black and white.”
The blog raised various questions and concerns about the study:
Several awkward questions are left unanswered by this study. It’s not clear if the older participants really are experiencing more black and white dreams or if it’s their memories or beliefs about dreams that is influencing their reports. Related to this, we don’t know if early exposure to black and white media has really affected the form of the older participants’ dreams or simply their beliefs about dreams. Finally, if differences in media exposure really do explain the current results, we’re still left with the question of how and why early exposure to black and white TV and film has had such an effect on the older participants, even after so many years of exposure to colour media and given that they live every day in a colourful world.
Sumber speculates in general why we dream in color and black and white. His theory is that we dream in color “when the process of learning about an aspect of one’s life requires a color association or symbolic, significant color for learning.” He explained that sometimes it might feel like we’re dreaming in black and white, which he attributes to another interesting reason. He said that this “can suggest that the dream content is fading back into the unconscious realm or that we are being symbolically encouraged to associate the dream content or lesson in terms of stark contrasts like black and white.”
3. Dreams are clues to our identity.
Many of us dismiss our dreams as useless or view them in a negative light. “…Some folks might feel that their dreams are scary, anxiety-provoking and that they’d rather just wake up and feel fine again. Those folks tend to avoid the feelings that the unconscious is pushing them to confront in their dreams,” said Sumber, who also studied global dream mythology at Harvard University and Jungian dream interpretation at the Jung Institute in Zurich.
But dreams can actually lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves. Sumber added, “Dreams represent the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our path in life. Dreams are typically the unconscious mind attempting to bridge understanding with the conscious mind.”
So how do you make sense of your dreams? In another Psych Central article, Sumber offered valuable tips on analyzing your dreams. (By the way, he suggested ditching the dream dictionaries. While there are universal themes, the symbols in a dream depend on the dreamer.)
Record your dreams. This is the first and most important step in analyzing your dreams, Sumber said. “Taking notes, even a few sentences that encapsulate the dream, literally draws the content of the unconscious out into the realm of the concrete.”
Think you don’t dream or can’t remember your dreams? He suggests simply keeping a journal by your bed, and writing “No dream to record” every morning. “Within two weeks of this process, the person will begin to remember their dreams.” (In fact, “you might open the floodgates!”)
Identify how you were feeling in the dream. For example, Sumber suggests asking yourself: “Was I scared, angry, remorseful, etc.? Do I still feel those feelings the morning after? How comfortable am I feeling these feelings?”
C.G. Jung referred to dreams as “feeling-toned complex of ideas.” In other words, according to Sumber, “We are always being called by our unconscious self to feel into our ideas, thoughts and actions so as to gain a deeper sense of who we are and where we are going in our lives.”
Consider all the elements of a dream. You can show up in your dreams in various ways. Many times, “we can find ourselves, our personalities, in many elements of a dream, even if there is a clear distinction between us and another character in the dream.”
You can ask yourselves these questions, Sumber said: “What is it like to be the villain in the dream? What is it like to be the aggressor, or be passive?”
You can learn a lot from even the most mundane dreams. You may be thinking that your dreams just aren’t fascinating, flashy or profound enough to explore. But even dreaming about having oatmeal for breakfast can yield thoughtful results, Sumber believes.
As examples, he lists the following questions you can ask:
“Am I alone with my oatmeal? Am I inside or on a veranda with a gentle breeze? Are the oats organic? Overcooked? Is there a horse nearby? How do I feel about the oats? What do oats typically symbolize for me? Are there any memories that I can tie to eating oatmeal? When was the first time I remember eating oatmeal for breakfast? How did my mother make oatmeal and do I make it the same way as an adult?”
As Sumber concluded, “People need to have fun with their dreams and take an interest in their dream life as this reflects their level of participation, interest and input in their own life and their own process of self-discovery!”