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Strangers in dreams

Lets get rid of the continuity hypothesis once and for all.

The most frequently cited theory of dreams is the ‘continuity theory' or the idea that dreams reflect everyday experiences of the dreamer. I never liked this theory very much and I honestly do not understand why the majority of dream researchers still endorse it.

After all it has been decisively refuted any number of times. Ernest Hartmann back in the 90s showed that instances of reading, writing and arithmetic are virtually absent in dreams of people including college students (who presumably spend a lot of time reading, writing and summing). Although most of have sex on at least a weekly-monthly basis, sex hardly ever occurs in dreams. The continuity hypothesis would also predict that most of the characters that appear in dreams would be people we see on a daily basis but that is simply not the case.

The typical REM dream contains between two and three characters in addition to the dreamer, and these characters are very often complete strangers. According to the Hall/Van de Castle norms concerning dream content, about 50% of characters in dreams are not familiar to the dreamer. In some dream series, up to 80% of characters are unknown to the dreamer.

Empirical analyses of the properties and relationships of ‘unknown characters' in dreams reveals that they appear in rule-governed ways thus supporting claims that dream elements reflect ongoing memory editing procedures. For example, analyses of the appearance of strangers in dreams demonstrate that they most often appear as male, emotionally threatening, and aggressive!

In an early study of over 1,000 thousand dreams, Hall (1963) reported (1) that strangers in dreams were most often male, (2) that aggressive encounters were more likely to occur in interaction with an unknown male than with an unknown female or a familiar male or female, and (3) that unknown males appeared more frequently in dreams of males than of females.

Using the Hall/Van de Castle system, William Domhoff looked at the role of "enemies" in dreams. Enemies were defined as those dream characters who typically interacted (greater than 60% of the cases) with the dreamer in an aggressive manner. Those enemies turned out to be male strangers and animals. Interactions with female strangers are predominantly friendly in the dreams of both males and females. Domhoff (2003) has shown that when male strangers appear in a dream, the likelihood that physical aggression will occur in that dream far exceeds what would be expected on the basis of chance.

In short, male strangers occur very often in dreams and they invaribly signal physical aggression. This is an extremely important result of research on dream content, as it suggests that dream elements exhibit relible patterns of meaning and that these patterns of meaning have nothing to do with daily life. Instead male strangers appear to be a 'code' for aggressive impulses that are being processed in memory. These dream elements may encode selected emotional signals in rule-governed ways, and thus dream images may actually facilitate processes of emotional memory formation. These findings once again decisively refute the continuity hypothesis, it seems to me. Strangers by definition are characters that are NOT familiar to the dreamer.

Dreams, in short, do not reflect everyday experiences. Instead they appear to be about other matters, matters (and characters) that we cannot capture adequately with images derived from everyday life.


Domhoff, G. W. (2003). The Scientific Study of Dreams: Neural Networks, Cognitive Development, and Content Analysis. Washington: American Psychological Association.

Hall, C. (1963). Strangers in dreams: An empirical confirmation of the oedipus complex. J Pers, 31, 336-345.