What Dreams Reflect in Your Waking Life
New research highlights 13 areas of continuity between waking and dreaming.
Posted May 25, 2018
Since 2009 I have been experimenting with word search technologies to identify meaningful patterns in people’s dreams, using an empirical method that others can test, replicate, and verify. In a recent unpublished working paper I performed a “meta-analysis” of these studies to determine the strongest signals of waking-dreaming continuity I have found so far. Below is a summary and condensation of the initial results, sorted into three broad groups: Self, Relationships, and Culture.
Professional/public identity: Dreams accurately reflect a person’s main activity, profession, or job in waking life. Based only on the content of dreams, we can tell whether someone is an educator, a journalist, a soldier, a student, a scientist, or a musician (as examples I’ve found in previous studies).
Health: Patterns in dreaming correspond to various aspects of the dreamer’s physical and mental health. Dreams indicate when people are depressed or anxious, when they have suffered a trauma, when they are injured or disabled, and when they are facing the end of life.
Personality: At least some aspects of personality are accurately mirrored in dream content, including emotional temperament, either balanced or turbulent, and sociability, either high or low.
Gender: An individual’s gender is reflected in dream content, and so are the gendered aspects of an individual’s interactions in the social world, either more male-oriented or more female-oriented.
Death: There is a strong correlation between the appearance of death-related words in dreams and concerns about death in waking life.
Family and Friends: Dreams offer an especially accurate reflection of the most important relationships in a person’s life. The more frequently someone appears in your dreams, the more likely it is that you have an emotionally significant relationship with that person, whether or not the person is physically present in your current life, and whether your feelings toward that person are positive or negative.
Sexuality: Patterns in dream content accurately reflect the level of sexual activity in a person’s waking life, both physical and imagined. Romantic relationships and falling in love make a discernible impact on dream content.
Animals: People who have strong relationships with animals in waking life also tend to dream frequently about those animals.
Reading & writing: People who enjoy reading and writing in waking life also have higher frequencies of these activities in their dreams.
School: People’s educational backgrounds can be discerned in the patterns of their dreams, either highly engaged with schools or far removed from schooling and formal education.
Sports: Dreams accurately reflect people’s engagement with sports and athletics. Patterns of dreaming can identify people who are actively involved in sports and enjoy watching it, or who have no interest at all in sports.
Artistic interests: People who are engaged with art in waking life tend to dream extensively about art, too. I found correlations between people’s dreams and their interests in painting, music, theater, literature, and poetry.
Religion/spirituality: Patterns of dream content reflect important aspects of the dreamer’s religious or spiritual concerns. For some people, their dreams reveal a deep involvement with a formal religious tradition. For others, their dreams reflect a sense of “unchurched” spiritual curiosity and eclecticism. And for others, their dreams indicate a generally low level of interest in religion or spirituality in waking life.
There are many limits to the use of word search methods in the study of dreams, and many challenges that need to be overcome if this approach is to grow into a generally useful tool for dream researchers. But even with these limits, we can identify several strong signals of meaning in dream content. These are the simplest, most obvious ways in which dreams accurately reflect people’s concerns in waking life. Future studies, using more sophisticated tools, will likely reveal even deeper levels of meaning.