Monday, December 6, 2010

Dream Themes Reach Across Cultures

Afraid to share your dreams with others because you think you are alone? Chances are, if you have dreamed it, others have too. But do you have these dreams regularly?

This is what Calvin Kai-Ching Yu wanted to explore in a new study published in the November issue of Dreaming. He set out to analyze not only what dreams are most common, but what dreams recur regularly.

Yu reviews interesting findings from past studies and performs his own study to measure dream prevalence (what percent of people have ever had a dream), dream recurrence (what percent have had the dream more than three times in their life), and dream regularity (what percent have had the dream at least several times a year).

First up: the broad basics of dreams.

Dreams can transcend cultural differences. Past researchers have found that the most common dream themes were the same across different ethnic groups.

The most common? Being chased. Teeth falling out, losing control of a vehicle, flying and not being able to find a toilet make up about half of the most commonly recurring dream themes.

But dreams also have a darker side.

Yu cites a prior study that compared dream themes to psychosis. Traits common in psychotic and schizophrenic patients, such as delusions of grandiosity, persecution and religion, are very common in dreams. In fact, delusions such as "being tracked" and "becoming a celebrity" occurred more prevalently than common dream motifs such as "teeth falling out" and the classic "being nude."

Next, Yu designed his own study on a slightly different aspect of dreams: regularity. What type of dreams do we repeatedly have night after night?

Over 600 participants joined the study, conducted in Hong Kong. They were given a questionnaire which included 78 dream themes. Respondents then answered if they had never dreamed of the subject or if they had dreamed of it only once or twice, three times or more, several times a year or once a month or more.

So what dreams did participants revisit the most often?

The age old school/teacher/studying trope ranked number one. Not only had over 80 percent ever had a dream on that subject, but also over 50 percent said they dreamed about it regularly. Over half of the sample also repeatedly dreamed of "searching for a certain place" and "falling."

Some of the more surprising findings? "Eating delicious foods" was the fifth most regularly dreamed theme, higher ranked than flying or being chased. Perhaps dieters are seeking out their shunned treats in regular nightly escapes.

Most interestingly, the study found that dream prevalence, recurrence and regularity do not always correspond. For example, 68 percent of respondents dreamed "of being a child again," but hardly any have that dream repeatedly.

On the contrary, most had never dreamed of being physically attacked, but those who had were regularly dreaming of it. Likewise, "teeth falling out" rated significantly higher on regularity than on prevalence or recurrence. Ouch.

Back to the delusions. While most people wouldn't want to admit experiencing delusions in their waking lives, delusions in dreams were very common. Yu's study found six of the top 20 regular dream themes were delusions. Erotomania, or believing a famous person is in love with you, was one of the most common. One half of participants had dreamt of having a love affair with a celebrity. Romance trumps sex here, because only 22 percent dreamed of having a sexual relationship with a celebrity.

Day, Liz. 2010. "Dream Themes Reach Across Cultures". Discovery News. Posted: November 24, 2010. Available online:

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