The Impact of Dreams on Your Social Life

Dreams can affect your waking social interactions, daytime mood, and behavior.

Posted May 07, 2011 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Do dreams have an impact on our daily lives? While we know a lot about brain correlates of dreaming (e.g. REM-rapid eye movement sleep) we know little about the social psychology of dreams or of the nature, content, and social functions of dreams.

It has become increasingly evident in recent years that dreams have social functions, as studies of dream content and dream sharing have become more frequent and rigorous (see review in Barrett & McNamara, 2007). The nature of those social functions and the specific links between dream content and social behaviours, however, remain unclear and under-studied.

I suggest that the impact of dreams on waking social interactions is profound — yet completely unappreciated. It may be that dreams have a significant role to play in shaping interactions between people. They certainly did in ancestral populations and certainly did so even in pre-modern hunter-gatherer populations (e.g., Lohmann, 2007). They may even be doing so in modernized, literate populations today.

It is therefore important to understand how strongly dreams influence social interactions. I and my colleagues have consistently found (via an analysis of over 700 sleep mentation reports) that both REM and NREM dreams function to simulate social interactions.

Mentation reports from REM, for example, exhibit greater numbers of aggressive social interactions than NREM, and NREM exhibits greater numbers of cooperative or friendly interactions than REM. Indeed, in the most extensive analysis of this kind to date we found that there were absolutely no (zero) simulations of aggressive interactions in NREM reports.

You might ask, why should dreams specialize in simulating social interactions? What else can they do?

Social interactions are the things people are most interested in. It is therefore not surprising that dreams are about social interactions. When subjects awaken from REM, they generally report a narrative involving the dreamer, with vivid visual detail, unpleasant emotions, an aggressive social interaction, and occasional bizarre and improbable events. But does this content influence waking life?

REM is certainly in a position to influence a person's waking mood state. REM involves regular, periodic, and intense activation of the limbic system and the amygdala—the two major emotional centers of the brain. As the night progresses, activation patterns become more intense and likely color the person's mood for the day upon awakening. If the sleeper awakes and remembers an emotional dream, waking-related mood states are that much more likely to be influenced by REM.

Most, but not all, of spontaneously recalled dreams are from the late-night, early-morning REM period. Specific dream content variables (such as the number of characters appearing in early-morning dreams) have been shown to have significant links with daytime mood (Kramer, 1993).

Often the emotions associated with a dream persist throughout the day, thereby exerting their effects on mood and behavior during waking life. Kuiken and Sikora (1993) for example, found that 13 percent of 168 respondents to a questionnaire on dream recall reported that they, at least 12 times in the past year, had had dreams that significantly influenced their daytime mood; 25 percent of respondents indicated that they had had such dreams at least 4 times in the past year and 44 percent at least twice in the past year.

Dreams can further affect daytime mood and behavior by being shared with others. Given what we know concerning the centrality of group dream-sharing in pre-modern tribal groups (Tedlock, 1992; Gregor, 2001), we can assume that dream-sharing was a common practice in early human groups in the "environment of evolutionary adaptation." 

Even today, young adults recall one to two dreams per week, with 37 percent of them reporting that they recall a dream "every night" or "very frequently" (Goodenough, 1991). In representative samples of the general population, between 40 and 75 percent recall between one to five intense and "impactful" dreams per month (Kuiken & Sikora, 1993; Stepansky et al., 1998). 

Once recalled, a dream is typically shared with another person (Vann & Alperstein, 2000; Stefanikis, 1995). For example, Vann and Alperstein reported that 98 percent of the 241 individuals they interviewed reported telling dreams to others, particularly friends and intimates.

Once shared, it has the potential to influence daytime mood and behavior. In short, dreams are a huge source of influence on daytime waking behaviors but we do not know precisely how that influence works.


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