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The Continuity Hypothesis of Dreams: A More Balanced Account

Dream elements are both continuous and discontinuous with waking life.

The continuity hypothesis of dreams suggests that the content of dreams are largely continuous with waking concepts and concerns of the dreamer. In my previous posts on the continuity hypothesis, I have been a bit unfair presenting only a case against the hypothesis and not laying out the facts and arguments that support the hypothesis. So I want to begin to redress that imbalance the best I can in the present post.

Calvin Hall was the first dream researcher to argue that some contents of dreams reflected the daily concerns and ideas of the dreamers rather than the hidden libidinal wishes or compensatory emotional strategies that psychodynamic theorists like Freud and Jung advocated. Through creation of standardized dream content scoring inventories (building on the work of Mary Calkins and others), Hall demonstrated that the most frequently appearing content items of dreams were not bizarre images at all but rather mundane social interactions between the dreamer and people he or she interacted with on a daily basis. One did not need to invoke theories concerning elaborate dreamwork to disguise latent libidinal and aggressive wishes buried in the dream.

Instead simple counts of characters, interactions, objects, actions and events in the dreams could yield a pretty accurate picture of what the dream was about and it wasn’t dramatically different than the daily life of the dreamer. Many dream researchers since Calvin have confirmed that the bread and butter of dreams are the quotidian daily social interactions and concerns most people experience on a daily basis. Domhoff’s (2003) impressive content analyses of a longitudinal dream series collected from a middle aged woman dubbed “Barb Sanders” very convincingly shows that her pattern of aggressive and friendly interactions with key characters in her dreams matched the ups and downs of those same relationships between her and them in waking life.

Thus the empirical support for some degree of continuity between dream content and waking life is strong. The database supporting the theory has been considerably strengthened by many dream researchers over the years since Hall’s pioneering efforts back in the 1950s-1970s. It is therefore clear that any complete theory of dreams must accommodate the data demonstrating substantial continuities between dream content and waking concepts and concerns.

But as every supporter of continuity theory acknowledges there are also dreams that contain some significant discontinuities between dream content and waking concepts/concerns. For example, most people have had dreams that are like long adventure stories or movies. These “narrative-driven” dreams are less quotidian than everyday dreams. They contain more bizarre elements and imagery and have the dreamer engaged in actions and events that are decidedly not like their ordinary ideas, actions and concerns. In addition, there is a significant minority of dream reports that have few or no familiar characters, settings, or activities. Can these sorts of dreams be explained with continuity theory approaches? If attempts are made to do so how can one avoid special pleading, circular reasoning or ad hoc additions to the theory?

What's needed is a theory that accommodates both continuities and discontinuities, but I don't see one of the horizon. In the meantime, one proponent of the continuity hypothesis suggests that building toward such a theory should start with the assumption of continuity, followed by a search for discontinuities that might be of varying types, such as narrative/adventure dreams, unusual elements that reveal figurative thought, and incongruous elements that may reveal that there are cognitive defects of various sorts in dreams (Domhoff, 2007).


Domhoff, G. W. (2003). The scientific study of dreams: Neural networks, cognitive development, and content analysis. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Domhoff, G. W. (2007). Realistic simulation and bizarreness in dream content: Past findings and suggestions for future research. In D. Barrett & P. McNamara (Eds.), The new science of dreaming: Content, recall, and personality cor¬relates (Vol. 2, pp. 1-27). Westport, CT: Praeger.