What Words Best Describe Your Dreams?

New research shows the language people use to put their dreams into words.

Posted Jul 07, 2018

You awaken with the most fleeting of images from the dreams you had during the night, if you’re able to recall anything at all. Perhaps you’ve gone so far as to keep a pad and pencil by your bedside so that you can capture the gist of a dream before it leaves your consciousness altogether. There may also be some dreams you can’t get out of your head, conversely, and wish that you could. Perhaps a dream involved reliving a serious accident or a breakup with your long-term romantic partner. As the day wears on, your memory from the dream begins to morph with your memory of the actual event, but you wish you could go back to the actual dream to see if you can gain any insight from the way it replayed the event in your mind.

Research on dreaming suffers from the obvious problem of obtaining participants' reliable reports of their experiences. There is no objective reality to which your memories can be compared, and even if participants are forced to wake up just after transitioning out of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, this doesn’t insure that they can find the right words to describe their experiences. Developing a lexicon for dreams, then, would seem to provide a possible solution to the problem by allowing researchers to build a database of similar terms to classify what participants in dream studies are able to say about their nightly travels through the unconscious state.

Kelly Bulkeley, of the Sleep and Dream Database in Portland Oregon teamed up with Fuller Theological Seminary’s Mark Graves (2018) to adapt a computer program designed to code natural language using predetermined sets of categories. The Sleep and Dream Database was actually launched by Bulkeley in 2009 as a digital archive intended to expand on the already existing “Dreambank,” an online searchable repository of dream material. Bulkeley added several features to his database, hoping to improve the ways that dream data can be analyzed to produce “the strongest and most significant patterns of content” (p. 44).

The Bulkeley and Graves report describes the adaptation to dreams of the Linguistic Inventory and Word Count (LIWC) system developed by University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker and colleagues in the 1990s. Most recently reported on in 2015, the LIWC includes 100 different analytic categories to apply to expressive writing. Given that people aren’t always able to put their dreams reliably into words, any textual analysis presents a significant challenge. It’s also not clear whether using a standard word count analytic system would allow for the distinction among different types of dreams.

With these cautions in mind, Bulkeley and Graves analyzed a collection of dreams in their database amounting to a total of 5,208 separate reports of “average” or “normal” dreaming reported on by dreamers across the previous night or two. A second collection of dreams involved 625 reports of people’s “worst nightmares,” and 388 more were drawn from reports of lucid self-awareness in which people consciously know that they are dreaming. The comparison set of verbal materials included writings obtained from personal blogs, expressive writing by college students, English novels written between the 17th century and 2008, natural speech recorded during people’s daily experiences, New York Times articles written between 2010 and 2014, and Twitter posts. This eclectic group of writings should provide, the authors reasoned, a broad set of comparison materials.

The main question of interest in this comprehensive and innovative study was whether the language people use to describe their dreams differs from the language they use to describe their waking experiences. The categories used for comparison with examples of each included “linguistic processes” (tone, words/sentence, dictionary words, personal pronouns, common verbs), “psychological processes” (positive and negative emotions, female and male references, sexuality, eating), “time orientation” (past, present, future), “personal concerns” (work, leisure, home, money, religion, death), and punctuation. 

Across the comparisons between the baseline and dream reports, Bulkeley and Graves observed that there were robust differences in the ways that people describe their dreams compared to the other broad categories of language surveyed in the baseline material. Categories highest in dreams vs. baseline included a focus on the past and the use of “I” statements; function words, such as pronouns; references to motion, space, and home; and dictionary words. Importantly, dreams were also higher in so-called “authentic language,” defined as “the degree to which a person actively filters what he or she is saying for an audience.” The unusually high percentage of such authentic language, they go on to explain, “seems to be a reflection of the unconscious origins of dreaming and its free expression of uncensored thoughts, feelings, wishes, and fears” (p. 54).  The fact that people in dream reports spoke about words related to home supports the finding of earlier studies about the tendency for people to reference familiar aspects of their environments in their dreams. The language of dreams seems, the authors conclude, most like novels and least like natural speech, suggesting that dreams serve the same purpose as narrative storytelling.

Having established the difference between dreams and speech in other contexts, the dream researchers then went on to determine whether they could distinguish among types of dreams. Nightmares, as you might expect, had the most references to anxiety, anger, sadness, death, and family members. The involvement of family members, the authors point out, relates to “the common nightmare motif of an invasion of intimate personal space, which often involves family members as aggressors or victims” (p. 56). Lucid dreaming, in contrast, involved the most use of cognitive references in language and few words about visual perception. As Bulkeley and Graves conclude, “Dreamer’s attention on his or her own awareness may come at the expense of attention to visual apprehension of the environment” (p. 56).

Given the many vagaries in the ways that people experience and report their dreams, it is impressive that the authors were able to distill the three types of dream-related states into these predominant categories. The richness and complexity of this altered state of consciousness is one that can provide endless fascination, and with these tools, the possibility for insight into your own personal story.

References

Bulkeley, K., & Graves, M. (2018). Using the LIWC program to study dreams. Dreaming, 28(1), 43-58. doi:10.1037/drm0000071