Repetition in Dreams
Preface (January, 2000)
This is an updated paper about the possibility that dreams have a "function," that is, that they play an adaptive role psychologically or physiologically. It was written in 1989 and then published in 1993 in an obscure book that was very late in coming out. The paper explores the topic of dream function by showing there is a considerable amount of dream content that is repetitive for each individual. This repetition is often overlooked by those who study one dream at a time in a clinical situation and by those who look at large samples of dreams from many individuals. Whether dreams have an adaptive function or not, this "repetition principle" can be useful in understanding them.
After exploring the various points along the repetition dimension, the paper concludes that dreams do not have a psychological function. However, as the evidence concerning the repetition principle shows, it seems very likely that dreams do have psychological meaning in that they are (1) coherent simulations of the real world and (2) relate to many other psychological factors. They reveal our self-concepts and our conceptions of people who are significant in our lives. For many readers, it may seem like a contradiction to say that dreams could have no function and still have meaning, but such is not necessarily the case. The best evidence for the no-function-but-meaning idea is to be found in the work of David Foulkes: Dreaming: A Cognitive-Psychological Analysis (1985) and Children's Dreaming and The Development of Consciousness (1999).
Furthermore, whether dreams have a psychological function or not, they do have "uses" that were created by people in many different cultures in the course of human history. In fancier terms, they have an "emergent" function within social groups. Most generally, they are considered to be a key link between human beings and the spiritual world by people in many different cultures, so they are used in healing, initiation, and religious ceremonies. There is a direct connection between shamans, who are the original psychoanalysts, and present-day psychoanalysts, who are modern-day shamans.
I must admit at the outset that I am wary of any argument about the "function" of anything. Functional arguments are notoriously hard to test or refute, and thus they abound on every subject, including dreams. All of the functional arguments I have read to date concerning dreams seem about equally plausible, and of course dreams (and dreaming) could have more than one function (cf., Hunt, 1986; Moffitt and Hoffman, 1987).
Even worse, it might be that dreams have no function at all. REM sleep seems to have functions, although no one has yet made a convincing argument on that score either.(As for the greater percentage of REM sleep in infancy, that may simply reflect the fact that the parts of the brain controlling NREM sleep have not matured yet.) However, even if REM sleep is shown to have a function, dreaming and REM sleep are not the same thing, as seen by the fact that: (1) many dreams occur in Non-REM (NREM) sleep; and (2) many people, including young children and neurological patients with certain kinds of brain injuries, do not have dreams during REM sleep (e.g., Foulkes, 1999; Solms, 1997). Thinking can be said to have a problem-solving function, generally speaking, but not all forms of thinking have this or any other function. Dreaming, which is a form of thinking, may be among those kinds of thinking without any function. It may be that dreams, although they contain consistent age, gender, and cross-cultural similarities and differences, are merely throw-away productions that happen to be revealing about both the human condition and individual personality (e.g., Domhoff, 1996; Hall and Nordby, 1972). Hunt (1986, p. 214) captures the point well in saying that dreams may not have a function "but rather many potential uses or lines of articulation."
Despite all this backing and filling, I examine the question of dream function in this paper, and I do so in a way that has become somewhat unusual in the past few decades. Rather than looking at the process of dreaming or the nature of REM sleep, I try to suggest that certain features of dream content might give us clues as to whether or not dreams have any function or functions. The main premises on which I rely in my argument are familiar and basic, but I have not seen them presented in the literature in quite the way I will organize them.
My argument derives primarily from Hall and Van De Castle's (1966, pp. 13-14) notion that the intensity of a preoccupation can be inferred from the frequency with which a particular dream character or dream activity appears. Generalizing this notion to include the frequency of certain types of dreams as well as dream elements, this leads to a general view of dreams as dealing with "emotional preoccupations" or "unfinished business."
The argument stems from the construction of a continuum of types of dreams and dream experiences that is based on what I call the repetition principle. This continuum runs from repeated dreams to repeated themes and repeated elements in dreams. It begins at one extreme with traumatic dreams that reproduce overwhelming experiences again and again, to the great discomfort of the dreamers. The continuum then moves to the recurrent dreams that puzzle or frighten many people at one time or another in their lives, but that do not always seem to be directly tied to any particular experience. From recurrent dreams it is only a small jump to repetitive themes within long dream series, examples of which will be given in the main body of the paper. The continuum ends with the mundane characters, activities, and objects that appear in ordinary dreams consistently over decades in long dream series, or appear more frequently in an individual or group's dreams than might be expected on the basis of norms for dream content (Hall & Van De Castle, 1966).
It is also possible to place "common" or "typical" dreams along this dimension, such as flying dreams, nudity dreams, or dreams of teeth falling out. Such dreams do not happen very frequently in the dream life of any one person, but they are common in that a great many people around the world report having them at least once (e.g., Harris, 1948; Hall, 1955; Griffith, Miyago, and Tago, 1958; Kramer, Winget, and Whitman, 1971). Since my focus is on repetition by individuals or certain types of people (e.g., Vietnam veterans), I will not deal with common dreams in this paper.
At the very least, this paper poses a new question for dream theorists. Just as no theory of cognition should be taken seriously if it cannot encompass dreaming, as Antrobus (1978) and Foulkes (1985, 1999) have argued, so too should no theory of dreams be taken seriously if it cannot deal with the repetition principle that I show to be very prominent in dream content.
Traumatic dreams, now understood as a major symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder,are experienced by soldiers in the aftermath of war, people engulfed in natural catastrophes, individuals involved in terrible accidents, and men, women, and children who have been raped or assaulted. They are notable because they tend to return to the traumatic event in all its emotional horror. People suffering from traumatic dreams often dread the thought of going to sleep. Nightmarish dreams, along with waking flashbacks, are the major symptoms of this disorder, and the repeating dreams may prolong the condition.
Despite the dramatic and overwhelming nature of traumatic dreams, they have not been at the center of theoretical attention. They are often seen as atypical and peripheral. Freud's thinking may be the ideal example on this point. Although he was well aware of the role of infantile trauma in neuroses almost from the outset of his work, traumatic dreams did not figure at all in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Instead, he came to his insights there through analyzing free associations to everyday dreams that were complex and puzzling. Just how far traumatic dreams were from his attention can be seen in the fact that he began his theoretical argument about dreams as wish fulfillments by pointing to the most simple of dreams, namely, children's short dreams of things they longed for the day before.
In the years between 1900 and 1914 many critics suggested that certain types of dreams, such as anxiety and punishment dreams, did not fit the theory. But Freud vigorously argued that there were indeed wishes underlying these seemingly nonwishful dreams. It was only due to new material on "war neurosis" dreams brought to his attention during World War I that he came to believe there was a type of dream that may not fit his theory. Indeed, this realization was one reason for the major changes he made in his instinct theory after the war (Freud, 1920).
Still, when it came to dream theory, Freud (1920, p. 13) put war neurosis dreams to the side by saying that "the function of dreaming, like so much else, is upset in this condition [traumatic neuroses] and diverted from its purposes." In his final formulation on dreams, he admitted that traumatic dreams did not fit his theory but nonetheless stuck with the old theory by saying that in rare situations a more basic mechanism, aimed at mastering overwhelming stimuli, took control of psychic functioning (Freud, 1920, p. 32; 1933, p. 29).
In a way, then, my argument begins where Freud left off the second time around, with traumatic dreams and the phenomenon of repetition. Contrary to Freud, I am saying that we should not start with the easiest of dreams, such as young children's short dreams, which we now suspect may be mere sleeptalking during NREM sleep or brief awakenings on the basis of Foulkes' (1982, 1999) finding of virtually no dream recall in children under age 5 studied in the laboratory, and only 20-30% REM recall in children ages 5-8. Instead, we should begin with the most difficult of dreams, traumatic dreams, and search for a theory that encompasses them as well as wishful dreams.
The most systematic studies on traumatic dreams concern Vietnam veterans because they can be studied in large numbers due to their common experience; then too, they also make themselves available to researchers through VA hospitals. It is this work that makes it possible to go beyond a mere summation of a wide variety of individual instances in a search for generalizations. Focusing primarily on research by Hartmann (1984) and his associates and Kramer, Schoen, and Kinney (1987), which also summarizes and utilizes earlier studies by many investigators, the following things can be said about traumatic dreams and those who suffer them. First, the combat soldiers who suffer later from traumatic dreams were younger, less educated, and more likely to be emotionally involved with a close buddy who was killed or injured as compared with nonsufferers with similar combat experiences. Those who did not have such dreams put up a wall between themselves and other people while in Vietnam; they decided very early not to become close to anyone (Hartmann, 1984, p. 209).
Second, the dreams begin to change slightly over time as the person recovers, gradually incorporating other elements and becoming less like the experience itself. Put another way, the traumatic dreams slowly come to resemble ordinary dreams (Hartmann, 1984, p. 219). Third, there seems to be a decline in traumatic dreams if they are discussed in groups with other veterans who suffer from them (Wilmer, 1982). Hartmann (1984, pp. 238-239) notes that early discussion also seems to decrease such dreams for many of those who suffer from other kinds of traumas as well. However, not all people benefit by talking about their traumas, and such individual differences are very important clinically.
Finally, it is noteworthy that those who have recovered often suffer a relapse to the old dream content when faced with new stressors. Kramer, Schoen, and Kinney (1987) provide good examples of this phenomenon for veterans dealing with marital disruption; war scenes from the past then return with all their pain and anxiety. Thus, "the Vietnam experience serves as a metaphor to express the difficulties" (Kramer, Schoen, and Kinney, 1987, p. 79). It is at this point that we can see how the study of traumatic dreams and their aftermath illuminates the general study of dreams, for dreams as a metaphoric expression of our conceptions and emotional preoccupations is an important strand of dream theorizing (Antrobus, 1977; Baylor, 1981; Baylor and Deslauriers, 1985; Hall, 1953b, 1953c).
I draw the following implications from the work on traumatic dreams. First, such dreams should not be put aside as exceptions of one sort or another. They are legitimate, "real" dreams that occur in all stages of sleep, including REM, and they are experienced as dreamlike by the dreamers. Second, these dreams deal, quite obviously, with emotional problems that have overwhelmed the person. Third, to the degree that the experience is gradually assimilated, to that degree the dreams decrease in frequency and become altered in content. Fourth, the way in which the experience sometimes reappears when new problems arise suggests that the old traumas have become metaphors for new stressful situations.
Traumatic dreams, then, reflect a preoccupation with problems we have not resolved. This is a possible starting point for understanding the nature of dream content. However, such dreams can hardly be called "functional" in that they are so disturbing to the dreamers. Most posttraumatic stress disorder patients say they would prefer not to have them. They think that these dreams set them back. Indeed, it may be that such dreams serve to perpetuate the condition by reminding the person of the terrible experience.
Before making too much of one type of dream, however, it is necessary to look at the closest relative of traumatic dreams, the recurrent dream, to see what conclusions can be drawn from studying it.
Recurrent dreams have not been studied with the depth and intensity of traumatic dreams. Most of the studies have been clinical-anecdotal in nature or based on brief surveys. However, the combined results of several of these studies provide the basis for generalizations and inferences about recurrent dreams (e.g.Cartwright and Romanek, 1978; D'Andrade, 1985; LaRue, 1970; Robbins and Houshi, 1983). On questionnaires, 50 to 65 percent of college students report that they have experienced a recurrent dream at one time or another in their lives (Cartwright and Romanek, 1978; D'Andrade, 1985). There is great variation in the length of the period in which they occur, ranging from a few months to decades. There also is great variation in the frequency with which the dream appears within that time period--from once or twice a week to once or twice a year (D'Andrade, 1985).
Recurrent dreams are most often reported to begin in childhood. Adolescence is also a frequent time of onset, with only a few beginning in adulthood (D'Andrade, 1985; Robbins and Houshi, 1983). The affective tone of recurrent dreams is negative in 60-70 percent of the cases, making them in that sense very reminiscent of traumatic dreams (Cartwright and Romanek, 1978). Two content analyses find that recurrent dreams are much more likely than ordinary dreams to contain only the dreamer (D'Andrade, 1985 LaRue, 1970). The most frequent content theme of recurrent dreams is being attacked or chased, accounting for 43 percent of recurrent dreams in one study. A content analysis of recurrent dreams reported by students revealed that only one type of dream occurred with any frequency, an anxiety dream in which the dreamer was being threatened or pursued. The threatening agents were wild animals, monsters, burglars, or natural forces such as storms, fires, or floods. The dreamer was watching, hiding, or running away. (Robbins and Houshi, 1983, p. 263).
Recurrent dreams are often reported to begin at times of stress, such as the death of a loved one, separation from parents, or the divorce of parents. However, the content usually does not reflect the stress situation directly. The following recurrent dream, reported by a woman in college as beginning at age 14 when she left her mother's house to live with her father and stepmother, is typical in this regard, as well as in its lack of any characters except the dreamer:
I am asleep in my bed at home. I know I'm in bed, in my room-but I have no tangible sensations in regard to my surroundings. It is pitch black and like a vacuum. There is a vague feeling of dizziness. A large, hairy (masculine) hand reaches out and pushes me into my closet. The door cannot be opened. The hand sets the closet on fire and I suffocate and die in the heat and smoke. (LaRue, 1970, p. 7) Still, there are occasional recurrent dreams that deal exactly with the emotional problem facing the dreamer, as with a virgin woman who was anguished about whether or not to sleep with her boyfriend. In the dream she is making love with her boyfriend: "The dream is very active and does not involve climax, merely tension, fear and a subsequent shame and day of headaches on awakening" (LaRue, 1970, p. 4).
There is reason to believe from clinical studies and surveys that recurrent dreams often disappear when the problem is resolved (Cartwright, 1979). Systematic evidence related to this observation has been provided by Brown and Donderi (1986), who gave a battery of well-being measures to recurrent dreamers, former recurrent dreamers, and non-recurrent dreamers. They found that the current recurrent dreamers scored significantly lower on well-being measures than former recurrent dreamers. They also found that the everyday dreams of the current recurrent dreamers contained "larger proportions of aggressive, anxious, and dysphoric dream content, relative to the other two groups" (Brown and Donderi, 1986, p. 619).
The conclusion I draw from this work on recurrent dreams is that most of them are very similar to the dreams of posttraumatic stress disorder. More exactly, they are watered-down versions of such dreams. They have their origins in some sort of stressful situation, usually in childhood or adolescence, they are repeated, and they are mostly unpleasant. They differ from the dreams of those diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder in that they usually do not contain elements or memories from the stressful situation. Instead, they seem to be more metaphoric in content, with wild animals, monsters, scary strangers, or natural disasters chasing, attacking, or entrapping the dreamer.
However, the fact that all recurrent dreams cannot be tied to obvious stressors, as in the case of posttraumatic stress disorder dreams, presents a problem for linking the repetition dimension with emotional preoccupation. In some instances the stressors may be buried, but findings from a study of an unusual type of recurrent dream suggest a new angle: what is ordinary for some people may be stressful for others. The unusual recurrent dreams to which I refer are the nightmares of the small number of people who suffer from lifelong nightmares. These dreams and those who dream them have been studied by Hartmann (1984) through psychiatric interviews and a battery of psychological tests with fifty subjects. The participants were the most extreme from among many who responded to a newspaper ad asking for interviews with those who suffer from frequent nightmares.
Although lifelong nightmare sufferers do not have exactly the same nightmare each time, there tends to be a thematic pattern that makes the nightmares very similar to recurrent dreams. As Hartmann (1984, p. 61) notes, "Some of the subjects described having had 'some form of this nightmare' or 'something like this' many times." Moreover, there are only a few themes that make up most nightmares for most of the subjects. As was found with the college students who reported recurrent dreams in the aforementioned survey studies (e.g. Robbins and Houshi, 1983; D'Andrade, 1985), by far the most important theme is of being chased and attacked.
Typically, a subject would recall childhood nightmares in which he or she was chased by a monster, something big, strange, and unknown. Later on, the chaser was more likely to be a large unidentified man, a group of frightening people, a gang, or a troop of Nazis. Often, the dreamer was not only chased, but attacked, or hurt in some way. Sometimes there was only a threat that something would happen and the dreamer awakened in fright. However, in many cases the dreamer was actually caught, beaten, stabbed, shot, or mutilated (Hartmann, 1984, p. 60).
In terms of their content, as well as in their repetition and emotional intensity, the nightmares of those who are lifelong sufferers from an early age are very similar to traumatic dreams. And yet, these people do not recall any obvious traumas. Nor do they suffer from excessive anxiety, anger, or guilt according to personality tests and psychiatric appraisals. Instead, they are relatively normal people who work mainly as artists, teachers, and therapists; some are in graduate school. They are creative and service-oriented people who responded to the ads because they wanted to help others by helping science.
What seemed to differentiate these people from various control groups utilized by Hartmann was their extreme sensitivity and openness from early childhood onward. They were likely to be upset by little things as children; they thought of themselves from the start as unusual and they seemed to be exceptionally self-conscious and aware for youngsters. Hartmann concludes that these people remain especially "thin skinned," as the common expression goes, whereas most people are rather "thick skinned." Hartmann makes the contrast in terms of thick and thin "boundaries" and provides many examples of how this distinction holds, whether it be in the rejection of rigid sex roles or the lack of strong psychological defenses.
These findings suggest that there is a small percentage of highly sensitive people for whom many everyday experiences are in effect highly traumatic. Their genetic make-up or early life experiences have made daily life a trial for them. If we conceive of the thin-thick dimension of the human personality interacting with a dimension of experience that ranges from very nonthreatening to overwhelming, then we can conjecture that many dreams might be reactions to traumatic experiences, even if the traumatic experience for some people is no more than thinking about an interview with a potential employer. Put another way, what is traumatic is a relative matter, and many dreams therefore may be seen as reflecting traumatic experiences of differing degrees.
The findings on recurrent dreams thus seem to reinforce the idea that dreams relate to our emotional preoccupations. However, a theory based on traumatic dreams and recurrent dreams is not broad enough--there are too many people who do not report having either of these types of dreams, and there are too many dreams that are neither traumatic nor recurrent. It is therefore necessary to search for the repetition principle in the everyday dreams of everyday dreamers.
Repetitive Dream Themes
Clinical researchers, especially Jungians, have given us some intimations of the degree to which certain themes may repeat themselves in dreams. However, it was Hall's systematic work with long dream series, some stretching over several decades, that revealed just how pervasive and consistent repeated themes are in dreams. I would go so far as to call the finding astonishing and suggest that they are not fully appreciated for their theoretical implications.
Hall analyzed about 20 series of over 100 dreams, some of which are reported in Hall and Nordby (1972, pp. 80-102), others of which are summarized in Domhoff (1996). All show the same general results. Perhaps the most persuasive of the published findings concern a woman who gave herself the code name Dorothea. She wrote down 649 dreams over a fifty-year period, the first in 1912 when she was 25 years old, the last in 1963 when she was 76 years old (Smith and Hall, 1964, p. 66; Hall and Nordby, 1972, p. 82). Ten themes appeared with considerable regularity in Dorothea's dreams. Six appeared with basically the same frequency throughout the entire fifty years. In one out of every five dreams she was eating or thinking of food. The loss of an object, usually her purse, occurred in one out of every six dreams. Dorothea was in a small or disorderly room, or her room was being invaded by others, in every tenth dream. Another 10 percent of her dreams involved the dreamer and her mother. She was going to the toilet in one out of every twelve dreams, and she was late, concerned about being late, or missing a bus or train in one out of every sixteen dreams (Hall and Nordby, 1972, p. 83). These six themes alone account for at least part of the content in about 76 percent of her dreams.
In addition, three themes declined over the years and one showed an increase followed by a decrease. She dreamed more of being ill in her younger years, when she was in fact more often ill. She also dreamed more of traveling, which she actually did more of at that time. There were also more babies in her dreams when she was younger. Being left out, not waited on, or ignored was the theme that increased in frequency as she grew into middle age, then declined in her later years. Hall and Nordby (1972, p. 83) suggest that her middle years were a problem for her in terms of being left out because she was unmarried and "also because, being a woman, her professional advancement had not been as rapid as she deserved."
However, it is not really possible to attempt to explain in any detail how these themes might relate to stresses in Dorothea's life. This is simply because we do not know enough about her beyond the fact that she grew up in a large missionary family in China, came back to the United States as a teenager, earned a Ph.D. in psychology at age 38, taught in a normal school that became a university for many years before retiring, and had no interest in any of the psychodynamic theories of dreams (Smith and Hall, 1964, p. 66). She just liked to write down her dreams in her diary and had done nothing with them until she wrote to ask Hall in 1963 if he wanted them. The important point to be drawn from this series is the sheer repetition of themes over five decades, for this appears to have echoes, however emotionally faint, of traumatic dreams and recurrent dreams.
The analysis of 1,368 dreams written down over a four-year period by a man in his mid-thirties who turned out to be a child molester gave Hall the opportunity to make inferences about his personality make-up that could be corroborated by the dreamer, his therapist, or clinical records. Knowing nothing about the man at the start except his age and involvement with a therapist, Hall quickly inferred the infantile nature of the dreamer's sexuality from his wide range of sexual practices, and the large number of friendly and sexual interactions with children. There was a greater focus on young girls as compared to boys (Bell and Hall, 1971, pp. 20-24, 33-34; Hall and Nordby, 1972, pp. 30-31).
Urinating and defecating were very frequent themes in these dreams. There also was a theme of gender confusion in which women had beards, or disguised themselves as men. At the same time, the dreamer sometimes saw himself as a woman. From these varying themes Hall concluded that the man had poor impulse control and confusion about gender Further, Hall guessed that the man was a child molester. All of these inferences, along with others, proved correct according to the therapist and the dreamer (Bell and Hall, 1971, pp. 26-27, 36-37, 40-41, 50-52; Hall and Nordby, 1972, pp. 39-41, 109-110).
Clearly, more work needs to be done on the connection between repetitive themes and specific traumas within long dream series. For now, though, I think the casesof Dorothea and the child molester, when seen in the light of consistent themes in other long dream series, provide the basis for concluding that repetitive themes in dreams are very likely the residues of experiences that were emotionally upsetting. This conclusion links repetitive dream themes with recurrent dreams and traumatic dreams.
It is now time to see if and how the usual content of ordinary dreams from average dreamers might relate to the repetition principle.
Repeated Dream Elements
Most clinical theorists, with the exception of Jung (1974) and French and Fromm (1964), tend to focus on one dream at a time, and they attempt to understand each dream in terms of material from outside of it, such as events of the previous day, biographical information, free associations, or amplifications. This approach does not lend itself to finding that a person dreams consistently about certain elements or has higher frequencies for some dream elements than most people.
The quantitative content analysis system developed by Hall (1951; 1953a; 1969) and his associates (Hall and Van De Castle, 1966; Hall and Nordby, 1972) takes a different tack. By constructing carefully defined categories for settings, objects, emotions, characters, activities, social interactions, and many other elements in dreams, and then tabulating frequencies for each of these categories, this method provides a way to study dreams without going outside the dreams themselves.
Quantitative content analysis has led to many reliable and interesting findings simply by comparing dreams with other dreams, either other dreams in a long dream series or with norms derived from the dreams of many different people. It is now known, for example, that in most countries around the world men in general dream twice as often about men as they do about women, whereas most women dream equally about women and men (Hall and Van De Castle, 1966; Hall, 1984). It is also known that men in the United States tend to have more aggressive than friendly interactions with other men and more friendly than aggressive interactions with women, whereas most American women tend to have equal amounts of friendly and aggressive interactions with both men and women (Hall and Domhoff, 1962, 1963b, 1964; Hall and Van De Castle, 1966; Hall et al., 1982). These findings lend themselves to many possible interpretations.
To relate the quantitative findings on repeated elements to personal preoccupations, Hall and Van De Castle (1966, pp. 12-14) make the crucial assumption mentioned at the beginning of the paper. They postulate that the frequency with which an element appears is an indicator of how intensely the dreamer feels about either the element itself or the emotional preoccupation for which the element might be a metaphor. This assumption, which is supported by every personality study Hall and his associates have done (Hall and Nordby, 1972, pp. 103-127), also underlies the discussions in the earlier sections. I have generalized the Hall-Van De Castle assumption to explore the repetition dimension.
The repetition of elements in dreams can be demonstrated in two different ways. First, there is repetition in long dream series, where the comparison is of earlier with later dreams. Second, it is possible to compare the dreams of an individual, or a class of individuals, with normative findings on people in general.In this case, the norms are for American college students, but there is evidence that they are useful with older adults as well because dreams changes very little with age, except possibly for aggressive interactions (Domhoff, 1996).
The Hall/Van de Castle norms are based on five dreams from each of 100 male and female college students between the ages of 18 and 25 who attended Western Reserve University and Baldwin Wallace College between 1947 and 1950 (Hall and Van De Castle, 1966, pp. 158-194). They have been replicated with men and women at the University of Cincinnati (Riechers, Kramer, and Trinder, 1970) and the University of Richmond (Hall et al., 1982), and with women students at Salem College (Dudley and Swank, 1990) and the University of California, Berkeley (Tonay, 1990-91) with the finding that there have been very few changes.
Before looking at how short dream series or the dreams of a given group compare with the norms, however, it is useful to supplement the previous section on repetitive themes in long dream series by looking at the repetition of specific elements in two long dream series not previously discussed. First, Maria kept a record of her dreams when she was single in her early twenties and then again in her sixties when she was widowed and all her other relatives were also dead. As Hall and Nordby (1972, p. 84) summarize:
Virtually all the frequencies were the same in the two sets of dreams. There were the same number of males and females, and the same kinds of objects. There was the same proportion of friendly and aggressive interactions with each class of character. There were even the same number of prominent persons and Negroes in the two sets of dreams. There was an amazing amount of consistency despite a forty-year difference in age.
Not all categories remained constant, however. When she was younger, Maria was more often a victim of aggression, especially from males, but in her sixties she was more often the aggressor. Parenthetically, "Maria felt this change was due to more self-confidence and assertiveness," which would mean that the change fits with a change in her preoccupation with herself as a weak person (Hall and Nordby, 1972, p. 84). There also was a great decline in sex dreams, which may have reflected an operation that left her with "no sexual outlets whatsoever" (Hall and Nordby, 1972, p. 84).
The dreams of Jeffrey cover a twenty-five-year period between the ages of 37 and 62. Here, too, most categories remained constant in their frequencies even though Jeffrey moved from one coast to another, left his wife and "came out" as a gay man, and retired from his teaching position. Once again, as with Maria, there were some gradual changes. More strangers began to appear in his dreams after he left his wife and family, and the number of sex dreams increased, which paralleled an increased number of sexual outlets (Hall and Nordby, 1972, p. 84). However, even some of the changes occurred within a context of consistency. For example, he dreamed of a more narrow range of male characters, but the overall ratio of male to female characters in his dreams remained the same: "Fewer characters in a class are compensated by more frequent appearances of each character" (Hall and Nordby, 1972, P. 91). Cultural stereotypes portray dreams as irregular and infinitely varied, but as the findings on repeated themes and repeated elements in long dream series clearly establish, dreams are in fact extremely regular and repetitive.
The dreams of Franz Kafka contain repetitive elements that seem to reveal his major preoccupations as compared with the typical man. Hall and Lind (1970) culled thirty-seven dreams from the diaries and letters of Kafka that had been published in English up until that time. They found that Kafka differed from the Hall and Van De Castle male norms, and from most male dream series, in that there was less sex, less aggression, less involvement in the aggression that did occur, and less involvement in a variety of activities as compared with other dream characters. In addition, there was a heightened concern with watching or looking. These high frequencies, in conjunction with the low frequencies on sex, aggression, and dreamer-involved activities, suggest that Kafka was a passive person. The content of his diaries and the testimony of his friends provide abundant evidence for that inference (Hall and Lind, 1970, pp. 47-48).
Then too, Kafka is three times as likely as the average male dreamer to make reference to the body or body parts; for example, hair, eyes, face, extremities, or internal organs. Moreover, the bodies are often disfigured. There is also a greater mention of clothing and of nudity. These findings together suggest that Kafka was preoccupied with his body, and that indeed turned out to be the case. Although his pictures suggest suggest he was tall and handsome, he thought of himself as skinny and weak, and compared himself unfavorably to his more muscular father. There are constant aspersions about his body in his diaries, and one of his friends wrote that "every imperfection of the body tormented him, even, for example, scurf [dandruff], or constipation, or a toe that was not properly formed" (Hall and Lind, 1970, pp. 41-42). Kafka was a fastidious dresser who also concerned himself with what other people were wearing. He was interested in the nudist movement and in natural health practices (Hall and Lind, 1970, pp. 42-43).
Other elements in Kafka's dreams relate to his personality and waking concerns, but they need not detain us here. The passivity and preoccupation with the body that can be inferred from high or low scores in a number of categories are the most striking features of Kafka's dreams.
Freud's dreams as reported in The Interpretation of Dreams (1953) also have some unusual differences from those of the typical man. In the twenty-eight available dreams analyzed by Hall and Domhoff (1968) most of the aggression occurs with females and most of the friendliness with other men, which is just the opposite of the usual male pattern reported at the outset of this section. Freud is also much more likely to be befriended by the males than he is to befriend them in his dreams, whereas most males give as much friendship as they receive. Hall and Domhoff (1968) conclude that Freud had a passive attitude toward men and a hostile attitude toward women, inferences that are amply supported in Ernest Jones' (1953, 1955, 1957) three volume biography.
The same kind of point can be made with group comparisons. To take the most general example, it has been found that people in hunting and gathering societies dream more frequently of animals than do those who live in small agricultural societies. There is also more physical aggression in their dreams, which often involves their attacks on animals or the attack by animals on them (Domhoff, 1996).
These kinds of findings on individuals and groups, and many more that could be recounted, are all provocative, and they all point in the same direction--people most often dream about their emotional preoccupations, about what concerns them. More specifically, there is a continuity between waking concerns and dream content. This continuity suggests there is a "continuity principle" that works alongside the repetition principle to determine a significant portion of a person's dream life.
It has been my contention that there is an overlooked dimension that runs from the most dramatic and frightening of dreams to some of the most mundane elements in everyday dreams, I have tried to demonstrate this claim by using findings from the literature on traumatic dreams, recurrent dreams, lifelong nightmares, long dream series, and quantitative content analysis.
I have concluded from an examination of such literature that repetition does indicate preoccupation with a problem in all these different instances. People dream about emotional hang-ups, fixations, unfinished personal business. The occasional intellectual, creative, or lucid dream is a rarity. This conclusion brings the argument very close to the question of a possible function for dreams because they seem to reflect personal preoccupations. The idea that dreams may have a problem-resolving function is not new. It has been suggested in one form or another by several theorists using different kinds of research evidence (e.g., Breger, 1967; Cartwright, 1977, 1979; Hartmann, 1984, p. 215; Fiss, 1986).
Still, as I said at the outset, I am not comfortable with functional explanations. Furthermore, there are reasons to doubt that dreams have any function-so few are remembered, have even a trace of the previous day's events, or contain anything approaching a solution to a problem. The fact that some people live and sleep adequately without them is also a strong argument against a function for dreams. I therefore conclude that evolution did not provide us with a form of thinking during sleep that is "meant" to help us solve our personal problems.
However, if dreams do reflect our emotional preoccupations, as the evidence presented in this paper suggests, then it can be argued that dreams can come to have a psychological "function" in some cultures for those people who remember and study their dreams. In that case, it might be better to talk about problem-resolving as a possible "use" of dreams (cf., Hunt, 1986). Put another way, dreams were not conserved by natural selection to be problem resolvers, or anything else for that matter, but they nonetheless can be used to understand people's unfinished emotional business. Dreams as we are dreaming them, whether in REM or NREM sleep, have no function, but dreams can be "useful" to waking consciousness in a variety of ways. In that sense, people in many cultures, including Western civilization, have invented "functions" for them. From that angle, dreams have an "emergent function" that develops through culture and history.
In closing my argument, I want to emphasize that I have not said that all dream content is repetitive and oriented to the past. I recognize that new elements appear in dreams and that people can dream about concerns in the future. The painful dreams that some young unmarried women report about fouled-up weddings spring to mind here (Hall, 1953a, pp. 134-135; Garfield, 1988, pp. 134-142). So do the anxious dreams about deformed babies and difficult labor suffered by many pregnant women (Van De Castle, 1971, pp. 39-40; 1986; Stukane, 1985; Maybruck, 1989). 1 have argued that the repetition principle suggests that dreams often reflect emotional concerns, but that does not preclude emotional concern with the new as well as the old, or the trivial as well as the profound, for that matter. Mine is a view consistent with Hall's metaphorical definition of dreams as the kaleidoscope of the mind:
Dreams objectify that which is subjective, they visualize that which is invisible, they transform the abstract into the concrete, and they make conscious that which is unconscious. They come from the most archaic alcoves of the mind as well as from the peripheral levels of waking consciousness. Dreams are the kaleidoscope of the mind (Hall and Nordby, 1972, p. 146).
The repetition principle is a major factor in shaping the dream kaleidoscope. I think it is an important topic for future theorizing about dreams.
Copyright G. William Domhoff
NOTE: This article is a 2000 revision of a paper that first appeared in 1993. If you use this on-line version in research, please use the following citation:
Domhoff, G. W. (2000). The Repetition Principle in Dreams: Is It a Possible Clue to a Function of Dreams? http://www.dreamresearch.net/Library/domhoff_2000b.html
The citation for the ORIGINAL article is as follows:
Domhoff, G. W. (1993). The repetition of dreams and dream elements: A possible clue to a function of dreams? In A. Moffitt, M. Kramer, & R. Hoffmann (Eds.), The Functions of Dreaming (pp 293-320). Albany: SUNY Press.
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