As any intro psychology student can tell you, Freud theorized that dreams represent the wishes that we fear admitting to others, and ourselves, because their content is so dangerous. However, at the time of Freud’s writing, the only data he had to go on were (a) his own and (b) those of the patients he was treating for “hysteria” (today’s clients with anxiety or somatic symptom disorders). Dreams remain elusive entities to study because their reporting is so notoriously unreliable. However, researchers determined to get to the bottom of these fascinating flights of the unconscious mind continue to pursue their content, and their ultimate meaning.
Calvin Kai-Ching Yu, of Hong Kong Shue Yan University, is one of the more recent dream researchers trying to figure out the source of our nighttime flights of fancy. He believes that by capturing the totality of data about people’s dreams, researchers can eventually discover the “motifs,” or prominent themes, of the dreaming experience. According to Yu, some themes appear with astonishing regularity. These motifs are not only remarkably consistent across people, but also consistent within individuals over time. Furthermore, people can start recalling their dreams as early as the age of eight, have similar dreams across cultures, and most surprisingly, bear a startling resemblance to the delusions of people with psychotic disorders.
To be able to make these claims, Yu had to study a great many people over time and have data that transcended particular nationalities. As he reports in a 2012 study in the journal aptly named “Dreaming,” Yu has accumulated a vast amount of data from his own research and that of colleagues around the world in which researchers probe the dream content of participants using similar survey methodology.
According to Yu, many dreams fall into the relatively mundane categories of daily life experiences. For students, who are participants in many of these studies, the dream content naturally enough includes such topics as “school, teachers, studying,” but also “being chased or pursued,” “falling,” and “arriving too late” (sound familiar?). People also dream about someone now alive who is dead and flying through the air (also presumably familiar to you). The least frequent dreams that people tend to have are having an abortion and being “an object.” What most interests Yu are not these seemingly realistic aspects of daily existence but those dreams that come closest to delusional states. Perhaps it’s in dreams that we’re allowed to push the boundaries beyond our mundane realities of existence.
Yu has developed a Dream Themes Inventory (DTI) that classifies dream content into categories that Freud himself would have to love: Grandiosity, Persecution, and Ego Ideal. In grandiose dreams, you see yourself as being superior to others or being a celebrity. People plotting against you fall into the persecutory categories. So far, this is sounding psychotic indeed. What about the ego ideal? Not psychotic according to Yu, but still involving your falling short of society’s expectations for you and being suspicious that you haven’t achieved those goals.
Recognize yourself in these dream themes? If not, Yu suggests that there are 10 subtypes of typical dreams. These include more Freudian-like content as erotomania, sex, fighting, oral symbolism, and appetite-instinct. Yu believes that he can predict who is most likely to have dreams with this content from their scores on measures of overall “hysteria” in the true Freudian tradition—namely, people who tend to use defense mechanisms of repression, score high on neuroticism measures, and have poor psychological boundaries. Brain circuits involved in pleasure and inflated feelings of self-worth seem to be activated in dreaming, providing a neurological substrate for the explorations of our nighttime dabbling in delusional imagery and content.
While dreaming, we also explore the deepest relationships we have with others; namely, the object relations that form the “working models” of our views about ourselves and those closest to us. This is why we dream of people who are dead as alive and, occasionally, those who are alive as dead. While dreaming, we “relive and rewrite” these relationships by imagining the way they were, and the way we would have liked them to be.
Freud believed that not only do we live out our deepest fantasies in dreams, but that we may work mundane features of daily life in our dreams just so that we stay asleep. These “dreams of convenience” include those in which we imagine ourselves eating, going to the bathroom, eating, drinking, or washing. If we dream that we’re engaging in those activities, then we don’t have to wake up… at least until the urge completely overcomes us. Other theories, such as the “dreams for survival” approach, assume that we practice the skills in our dreaming lives that we need to use to accomplish important life tasks.
To test his delusional theory of dreaming against the object-relations, dreams of convenience, and dreams of survival approaches, Yu has developed the Dream Motif Scale (DMS), a 110-item scale that asks participants to rate their perceived frequency of experiencing particular dream content. In the study reported in the 2012 Dreaming article, Yu also tests the relationship between dream motifs and personality as measured by the Five Factor Model. His participants were nearly 1200 high school students visiting campus on a university admission day. Thus, they were young and possibly preoccupied with school-related themes. Nevertheless, the results provide perhaps the most complete compendium of dream themes ever reported.
Of 110 possible dream themes, nearly half (51) were dreamed by over half the sample. The themes of these dreams were similar to those that Yu had previously described, such as the dreams of convenience and dreams related to school. However, new content emerged which Yu believes follow “rules that govern the formation of dream images.”
Proving that defense mechanisms are alive and well in our dreams, being blamed was more prevalent than blaming yourself. In other words, during dreaming, guilt manifests itself in the form of being criticized by someone else. In relationship to personality, the dream themes corresponded well to extraversion (being outgoing), neuroticism (being unduly anxious and worried), and openness to experience (willingness to entertain new ideas). Many of the items fit statistically into the delusional patterns of grandiosity, being persecuted, and fitting an ego ideal.
Dream motifs, however, do not tend to fit neatly into one category. You may dream of being inappropriately dressed in front of others not only for the sexual excitement factor, but also due to its relation to your ego ideal. Feeling so tired you can’t move but continuing to walk may reflect the paradoxical nature of REM sleep but also the predisposition toward wanting to fulfill your desires for sensory stimulation.
Yu notes that, in addition to dreams about bodily functions, relationships with others, and overcoming threats or disasters, we do occasionally dream about those things we want and enjoy- Freud’s classic wish fulfillment themes. Dreams can create “pleasant scenarios” that allow us to fulfill our wishes without gaining a single ounce, taking something away from someone else, or risking getting caught with our hand in the cookie jar.
When it comes right down to it, Yu concludes that we may use dreams to provide solutions in our sleep that we can’t achieve in our waking life. We may not remember our dreams, but while they’re going on, we’re in a world that feels good, helps us solve problems and may even give us the chance to explore, safely, our delusions.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Yu, C. (2012). Dream Motif Scale. Dreaming, 22(1), 18-52. doi:10.1037/a002617