What We Dream About

A recent study investigated the stuff of dreams throughout the lifespan.

Posted Apr 05, 2020

We all dream while sleeping, even if some of us cannot remember what they dreamt about the next morning. For those who do, the content of their dreams sometimes can be beautiful and reassuring but also confusing, or even downright terrifying, such as a dream about the death of a loved one. Most of us have at least once experienced a weird or embarrassing dream. 

So have you ever wondered whether your dreams are unusual or whether many other people dream of the same things? A new study from Italy published in the International Journal of Dream Research (Maggiolini et al., 2020) tried to answer this question by analyzing the dream content of 1,546 volunteers. Unlike previous, smaller studies that were mostly focused on young adults, the scientists investigated dream content all over the lifespan, with the volunteers who participated in the study ranging in age from 8 to 70.

All volunteers were tested with the Typical Dreams Questionnaire (TDQ), a commonly used measurement instrument in dream research.

So what did the researchers find out?

The study revealed that 55.8% of the analyzed dream reports expressed one or more typical themes. Here are the top 20 most common dream themes across all age groups with the percentage of dreams these were included in:

  1. Being chased or pursued, but not physically injured (9.26%)
  2. School, teachers, and studying (7.83%)
  3. Trying again and again to do something (5.37%)
  4. Falling (5.37%)
  5. Being physically attacked (5.11%)
  6. Sexual experiences (4.34%)
  7. A person now dead as alive (3.69%) 
  8. A person now alive as dead (3.11%) 
  9. Wild and violent beasts (3.04%)
  10. Killing someone (2.52%)
  11. Having magical powers, but not flying (2.46%)
  12. Swimming (1.88%)
  13. Being locked up (1.49%)
  14. Flying or soaring through the air (1.42%)
  15. Losing control of a vehicle (1.42%)
  16. Being killed (1.42%) 
  17. Being at a movie (1.29%)
  18. Failing an examination (1.17%)
  19. Vividly sensing a presence (1.10%)
  20. Being a child (1.04%)

All of these themes had a probability of more than 1% to occur in people’s dreams. In addition, there also were a lot of dream themes that occurred in far fewer people. Let us have a look at some of the rarest dream themes: 

  • Being nude (0.26%) 
  • Having superior knowledge or mental ability (0.26%) 
  • Seeing an angel (0.19%) 
  • Seeing creatures that are part animal and part human (0.19%) 
  • Encountering insane people (0.19%) 
  • Seeing yourself in a mirror (0.19%) 
  • Someone having an abortion (0.19%)
  • Discovering a new room at home (0.13%)
  • Encountering God in some form (0.13%) 
  • Being an animal (0.06%)

Were there any age differences in dream content?

Generally, the prevalence of dream themes was quite stable, but there were a few clear differences between age groups. In general, there was a decrease in themes of attack and threat with increasing age, as well as a decrease of dreams about school, teachers and studying. Dreams with themes of sex and nudity were most common in young adults, while dreams about trying again and again to do something increased with age. Most strikingly, children dreamt more often about the loss of a living person than adults, while older adults dreamt more often about a dead person being alive than other age groups.

Were there any gender differences in dream content?

In general, there were only very few statistically significant differences between men and women. The following five dream themes were significantly more common in males than females:

  • Being physically attacked 
  • Killing someone
  • Having magic powers
  • Losing control of a vehicle
  • Vividly sensing a presence in the room

There were no dream themes that were more common in females than in males.

Taken together, the results of the study indicate that there is a high diversity in dream content. None of the dream themes in the top 20 list occurred in more than 10% of dreams. Most of them occurred in decidedly less than five percent. Also, across the life cycle, dream content to some extent relates to developmental tasks (e.g., children and adolescents dream a lot about school), but most dream themes are fairly universal across the life span. 

Facebook image: DedMityay/Shutterstock


Maggiolini, A., di Lorenzo, M., Falotico, E., & Morelli, M. (2020). The typical dreams in the life cycle. International Journal of Dream Research, 20(1), 17-28. https://doi.org/10.11588

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