What Are the Most Common Dream Themes?
...and what do they mean?
Posted Nov 13, 2014
You’re in your bedroom looking for your favorite necklace. You check behind the dresser thinking maybe it fell through the cracks. Running your hand along the floor, you hit something round and cold…it looks like an old doorknob protruding from the wall. You open the door and are stunned as you enter a beautiful arched walkway with stained glass windows on all sides, flooded with colorful sunlight.
This is an example of a typical dream theme where the dreamer discovers new rooms or passages in their house or apartment. Sometimes, this dream plays out in a fantastic way, like discovering magical doors to another world; sometimes, it’s much simpler, and only entails noticing a new closet in the hallway or a useful dishwasher in the kitchen. Many people report experiencing some variation of this dream at least once in their life—thus, it is considered a "typical" dream theme, one whose symbols or narrative are found repeatedly in dream reports across time and cultures. It is thought that these dreams are common because they contextualize certain universal aspects of human experience.
Research has shown several cross-cultural similarities in typical dream themes (Griffith et. al, 1958). One study used the Typical Dreams Questionnaire, a 55-item questionnaire of dream themes that you can see here, to assess the most prevalent themes in Canadian University Students (Nielsen et. al, 2003).
They found four themes that were the most common, exceeding 60 percent prevalence in both men and women:
- being chased or pursued
- sexual experiences
You can view the order of prevalence for all 55 typical dream themes here (Figure 1). Feel free to answer the questionnaire yourself to see where you fall in comparison to their results.
The authors found that across the 55 questions, presumably each distinct, that there were in fact clusters of items that often co-occurred in subjects, and these clusters seemed to be groups of dream symbols that expressed a similar emotion. For example, embarrassment seemed to be the common thread to a cluster of items including being inappropriately dressed, being nude, or unable to find a toilet; failure seemed common to failing an exam or arriving too late. In other words, within one person we might see a diversity of particular dream symbols, but all of these symbols might be an expression of a predominant and personally meaningful underlying emotion.
This finding resonates with previous work by Ernest Hartmann, who proposed the idea of a "Central Image," a powerful dream image that contextualizes a given emotion for a dreamer (Hartmann, 1998). His classic example is the tidal wave dream, a dream that a terrifying massive wave is approaching and inevitably going to crash over you. This specific dream (or nightmare) is very commonly reported following traumatic experience; Hartmann suggests that the tidal wave may represent the overwhelming helplessness, panic, and confusion of the dreamer. The tidal wave dream will often take on a recurrent nature following trauma—though with time, the dream may be resolved.
While many of the typical dream themes are negative, there are also positive dream themes, such as finding money, eating delicious foods, or discovering a new room, as in the example above. Another seemingly universal positive dream experience is flying, though the specific method of flying does vary between people. Preferred method of flying tends to hold individual consistency and is probably related to early fantasies or memories associated with flying, a concept first introduced by Freud (1955), who considered all typical dream themes to reflect early childhood experiences.
For example, a young boy who reads comics might dream of soaring through the sky like Superman; a young girl who first learns to swim and is marveled by the weightless sensation of floating, soon dreams of swimming through the air. Some fly like dolphins; some fly with mechanical wings or bicycle planes. No matter the method, the theme is the same. Generally, the dream is a positive, if not euphoric, experience, which is thought to embody a feeling of confidence and success (Brink et. al, 1977).
In sum, these typical dream themes, sometimes considered universal because they are found in so many cultures across time, seem to reflect certain consistencies in human experience and contextualize prominent or regular emotional experiences in a person's life (Nielsen, 2003; Hartman, 1998).
In the next post, I will discuss how a typical dream can take on a recurrent nature, repeating many times over many nights, and reflecting an unresolved conflict or an overwhelming emotional concern in an individual's life.
Brink, T. L., Brink, G. S., & Hunter, K. L. (1977). Flying dreams: Four empirical studies of manifest dream content. International Journal of Symbology.
Griffith, R. M., Miyagi, O., & Tago, A. (1958). The universality of typical dreams: Japanese vs. Americans. American Anthropologist, 60(6), 1173-1179.
Hartmann, E. (1998). Dreams and nightmares: The new theory on the origin and meaning of dreams. Plenum Trade.
Nielsen, T. A., Zadra, A. L., Simard, V., Saucier, S., Stenstrom, P., Smith, C., & Kuiken, D. (2003). The Typical Dreams of Canadian University Students. Dreaming, 13(4), 211.