Dreamers and Their Dreams
These demographics were developed through various studies of thousands of dreams. As with all generalizations, they might be true for the norm but not necessarily for a given individual.
Jump to the following topics:
- The dreams of men and women.
- The dreams of children.
- The dreams of substance users.
- The dreams of psychologically disturbed people.
- The dreams of "challenged" people.
- Other dreamers.
The dreams of men and women. The topics of dreams have followed the stereotyped traditional image of male and female. However, since dreams tend to parallel our waking life, researchers have found that the dream-content of men and women has become more similar in recent years; this corresponds to the trend of wakeful American culture in which we see less-rigid gender roles.
- Men. Men's dreams tend to feature outdoor settings, aggression and violence, working (and identification of dream characters by occupation), physical activity, money, strangers, sex, cars, weapons, and competition. They dream primarily about other men, in situations which generally feature belligerence. When women are in the dreams, they are usually treated kindly. (Most of my dreams differ from the macho themes listed above; the same disparity might be experienced by other men who are interested in inner realities such as dreams, emotions, and spirituality.)
- Men - fathers-to-be. They have more nightmares during this period. (See "Women - pregnant.")
- Women. Again, studies have shown that the dreams mirror a
wakeful gender stereotype: Women's dreams predominantly include
the themes of home, shopping, conversations, indoor settings,
people's appearances (clothes, faces, jewelry) -- and emotional
reactions to those elements. Their dreams have more characters
(and more friendly ones) than do those of men; the women are
usually socializing with friends and family rather than
confronting strangers. Approximately half of the characters are
men (and those who are strangers are likely to cause trouble),
but both the male and female characters are equally capable of
hostility (although female aggression is primarily verbal, not
physical); the dream persona is more often the victim than the
aggressor. Women have sexual dreams less often than do men; the
partner is generally a familiar person rather than a stranger.
- Women - pregnant. Some women dream about pregnancy before it is suspected or confirmed; certainly their body is aware of the condition before any symptoms would be detectable. During the pregnancy, they can expect intense dreams which are laden with anxiety and nightmarish situations -- but this is good, because the nightmares are a rehearsal and psychological preparation for the rigors of childbirth; women who experience more nightmares during pregnancy (and manage them with daytime dreamwork) generally have a delivery which is shorter and easier. All of the dreams are not nightmares; some contain symbolic signs of life, with themes of water, little animals, and gardening.
- Women - breast-feeding. Their dreams occur at the same time and continue for the same duration as those of the baby. Women who do not breastfeed do not experience this concurrence.
- Women - during menstruation. During this time, they have a larger percentage of REM sleep, particularly if they are experiencing emotional upset. Their dream persona is more congenial with women than with men.
- Fetuses. A fetus in the womb experiences REM sleep during perhaps 100% of its sleep-time.
- Babies. An infant's sleep is a hefty 50% REM -- probably because this newcomer has so much information to process regarding this unfamiliar world. REM starts as soon as the baby falls asleep. (A premature baby spends about 75% of his or her sleep in REM.) By the age of six months, the REM-time has decreased to approximately 25%, where it stays until late middle age.
- Children. As children develop psychologically, their dreams follow a pattern of growth in subject matter and sophistication.
- Dreams' association with wakeful reality: During children's first few years of life, they believe that dreams occur in the same world as their wakeful reality; for example, when they awaken, they might hit a sibling for an infraction which occurred within the dreamscape. By the age of 5 to 8, they realize that the dream's reality is only within their mind.
- Complexity of dreams: Around the age of three, dreams are short, literal, and elementary (usually with only one image). As the child matures psychologically, the dreams become more complex, with more characters and a distinct plot.
- Themes: Very young children frequently dream about animals, family members, and other children. They grow into their normal "nightmare phase" around the age of 6. Throughout childhood, their dreams often depict their persona being victimized. Generally their dreams show them at home or at play.
- The dream persona: A three-year-old typically experiences his or her dream persona as an animal; the sense of "self" is usually not yet sufficiently developed to view the persona in its childlike form until around the age of eight.
- Boys. Their dreams are oriented more toward objects than people. Most of those people are women.
- Girls. In contrast to boys' dreams, the girls experience more people (50% of whom are women), more social gatherings, more pleasant feelings -- and longer dreams.
- Alcohol drinkers. Even a small amount of alcohol keeps people from experiencing REM during its early cycles; later in the night, they compensate by having an unusually large amount of REM (and a tendency toward nightmares). This effect is more pronounced for an alcoholic; the REM deficit is so severe that the withdrawal period is characterized by sleep which is nearly 100% REM -- and the wakeful hours are possessed by delirium tremens (DTs) and hallucinations which are apparently a further attempt by the REM-starved mind to offset its previous deficit (by imposing the dream-like hallucinations into wakefulness).
- Drug users. The amount of REM sleep is diminished by such drugs as tranquilizers, antidepressants, antihistamines, barbiturates, amphetamines, marijuana, sleeping pills, cocaine, muscle relaxants, tobacco, and other stimulants or depressants. If the drug wears off during sleep, people have an opportunity to compensate with more REM-time during the later hours. But when people withdraw from long-term use of sleeping pills (and perhaps other drugs), the compensation is so fervent that the next few nights will be filled with prolonged REM periods of very rapid eye movements, and imagery which is emotional and perhaps nightmarish. In contrast to those REM-disrupting drugs, penicillin and antibiotics enhance the first two REM sessions of the sleep period; psychedelic drugs heighten REM sleep in general.
- Depressed people. Their dreamscape is generally a malicious, unsatisfying world. Their first REM period of the night tends to be the longest; for non-depressed people, the first REM period is the shortest. Some depressed people enter their first REM period after only 20 minutes or so, following a stage of light sleep; non-depressed people experience all four stages of light and deep sleep before entering REM, and their first REM period occurs after 90 minutes. Depression has been successfully treated by depriving patients of their excessive REM (through drugs or frequent awakenings); apparently, those people are engaging in so much activity during their dreams that they are left with insufficient drive to seek fulfillment during their wakeful life.
- Mentally retarded people. Their first REM period occurs later than it does for non-retarded people. Proportionally, they have less REM-time during sleep, and fewer eye movements; this proportion is lowest for the most severely retarded people. Perhaps the deficiency of REM activity worsens the people's mental condition since REM is a period of information processing, or maybe the small amount of REM is appropriate for the meager amount of data which was absorbed during wakefulness.
- Schizophrenics. If the symptoms are worsening, the amount of REM decreases; when the condition stabilizes, this time-period is comparable to that of non-schizophrenic individuals -- and during recovery, REM increases. When schizophrenics are deprived of REM, they do not compensate for it later, as would be the case for non-schizophrenics. The dreams of schizophrenics are typically lackluster, less weird and less active than those of non-schizophrenics, and containing simple plots with no human characters. We might theorize that schizophrenia involves (but is not necessarily caused by) a displacement of the dream mechanism; "normal" people would experience a "normal" wakeful routine, and then, during sleep, perhaps experience a nightmare in which they are dodging death-rays from Martians; a schizophrenic might see those death-rays during wakefulness and then enter sleep for an uneventful dream about working at a job. However, the correlation between dreams and hallucinations is not exact; hallucinations tend to be auditory and fragmented, unlike the visual stories expressed by dreams.
- Deaf people. Some of them have dreams in which the characters communicate via sign language.
- Stutterers. In a survey that included one person, a stutterer said he does not stutter during dreams except in the rare circumstances where the speech impediment is relevant to the plot.
- Blind people. If the people were born blind, they have no REM and no visual imagery; the dreams consist of impressions from the other senses -- touch, hearing, smell, and taste. If the people were sighted and then became blind, they have REM (if the eye muscles have not yet atrophied), and their dreams contain visual imagery -- but these visual dreams might cease to occur eventually.
- Elderly people. During their earlier adulthood, they experienced REM sleep during approximately 25% of their sleep-time. But as they enter old age, this percentage gradually decreases.
- Creative people. Their dreams display more imaginativeness, unconventionality, humor, color, and sexuality than do the dreams of less-creative people.
- Identical twins. Their REM periods occur at the same time and continue for the same span. Sometimes even the topics are identical on a given night.
- Short sleepers. The REM cycle adjusts for a person's typical sleep period; someone who typically sleeps five hours per night experiences approximately the same amount of REM as someone who sleeps nine hours per night.
- Long sleepers. REM periods become longer as the sleep-period progresses, so the final period may last for approximately an hour. Because of the intense mental activity which occurs during REM, this concluding period can leave us exhausted; thus, people who sleep for an exceptionally long time usually wake up feeling tired. Also, these people's dreams contain an usually large amount of sex and aggression -- but their wakeful lives exhibit less than the average, perhaps because they are depleting these drives in the dreamscape. (A similar drive depletion has been noted among depressed people, as explained previously.)
- Enlightened yogis. Some yogis claim that they do not dream -- but in experiments, they did exhibit REM. However, their reported "dreams" were unusual; the experience could be described as samadhi, or a unity with "the light" -- without images, emotions, senses (hearing, etc.), a dream-body, or a sense of space or time. Because of the contrast to our usual dreams, we might agree that they do not "dream."
- Meditators. Long-term users of Transcendental Meditation have shorter REM periods than do non-meditators, and they have less of a need to compensate for a lack of REM following sleep-deprivation experiments. (See the chapter on meditation.)
- Animals in general. When my dog slept, it would have periods of twitching, growling, and rapid breathing. The dog may or may not have been "dreaming," but many species of animals do exhibit REM sleep (and we might dare to assume that they are experiencing imagery and feelings similar to those of a human dream). REM sleep -- and the corresponding physiological states -- has been discovered in many animals which have a sophisticated nervous system (and a neocortex -- or a wulst, which is a comparable structure in birds); this would include virtually every species of mammal and bird -- and some authorities say that REM might be present in fish and reptiles.
- Other animals. The "lower" animals, such as reptiles, presumably have no need for the information-processing function of dreams because their brains are capable of little more than habitual, instinctive responses, and they have virtually no capacity for learning -- so there is hardly any new information to be processed. However, all animals, and even plants, have cycles of metabolic and electrochemical activity during sleep; these cycles resemble the REM cycle.
- Mammals without REM. The only mammal which is known not to exhibit REM sleep is Australia's echidna (spiny anteater), which has a prefrontal cortex which is proportionally bigger than that of a human; we might speculate that this animal developed a large cortex to manage the information-processing function which is performed by other species during their dream state.
- Cats. Cats have been studied in many dream experiments, with the following results:
- When cats are in REM sleep, their brain-wave patterns exactly match the patterns of wakefulness.
- REM has been induced in a cat experimentally via an electrical charge.
- Shortly after birth, kittens (as well as puppies and rats) have sleep which is 100% REM.
- A cat's REM cycle takes 30 minutes, in contrast to the 90 minutes of a human REM cycle. (A rat's cycle is only 12 minutes.)
- An experimenter induced the EEG readings which correspond to REM sleep in a cat by introducing a drug similar to the neurotransmitter (brain chemical) acetylcholine; the REM readings were then turned off through the use of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
- One study examined sleep paralysis, which is caused by "neural inhibitors" in the bloodstream. In experiments where these inhibitors were blocked (chemically or by surgically removing the parts of the brain which inhibit motor activity during dreams), cats dramatized their REM sleep with vigorous movement.
- Cats were deprived of sleep through the use of a drug (PCPA). After a period of sleep-deprivation, they appeared to be hallucinating; they stared at blank walls as though they were watching something, and they pounced where there was nothing on which to pounce.