Photograph by Timothy Archibald Forget Freud and his interpretations. Statistics are the key to unlocking the meaning of dreams, says Bill Domhoff, a psychologist and sociologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Along with his colleagues, Domhoff has broken thousands of dreams into coded elements such as characters, emotions, settings, and types of social interactions. By performing statistical analyses of these elements, the researchers can study what we dream about and perhaps begin to develop data-driven theories about why we dream. Domhoff discussed his work with Discover associate editor Kathy A. Svitil.
Do we know why we dream? I'm unimpressed with any evidence that dreams have a function or a purpose. I think they are an accidental by-product of two great evolutionary advances: sleep and improved cognitive abilities. Dreaming is a kind of freewheeling thinking that the mind goes through when there is no external input to bring it back to reality.
If that is true, then is there any value in dream interpretation? I think it is a scam. I recently went through Freud's masterwork, pulling out every assertion and comparing it with the systematic empirical studies conducted over the past 75 years, including my own. I don't find support for a single one of Freud's specific claims. Freud said all dreams are wishful, for instance, but there is a lot of evidence against that. I've given up on Jung as well. It's sad that these theories continue to attract so much attention when they are clearly not adequate. We ought to move on.
So what determines the things we dream about? Dreams express our conceptions of ourselves and of people close to us. If I take 100 of a person's dreams, and I study his interaction patterns with his parents, siblings, and friends in those dreams, I can then predict his relationships in waking life.
Do you find any larger patterns in the content of people's dreams? There's a lot of overlap, but there are differences by age, by gender, by personality, and by culture. The most striking differences have to do with physical aggression. There is little of it in the dreams of children, but it increases in the teenage years. Men's dreams have more aggression than women's. Almost invariably, smaller societies have more physical aggression in their dreams than do Americans: They are killing animals, being attacked by animals, which is much closer to their daily life. But Americans have more physical aggression in their dreams than do the Swiss and the Dutch.
Does that mean our society is more aggressive? It certainly fits with the fact that we kill each other far more frequently.
You've found that people have the same basic dreams over and over. What does that tell you? I don't know, but no dream theory can account for it. A person suffers a trauma—say September 11—and several months later starts having an upsetting dream about it. Five or 10 years later, the same person may be doing well in his waking life, but he is still having that dream. The Freudians would say the dream proves the problem is unresolved. But does it prove anything? Dreams may simply run on their own track.
What is the biggest misconception people have about dreams? That they are often about sexuality. Most dreams are about aggression. Only 10 percent or less of dream content involves sexuality. Dreams don't have much eroticism, and certainly not much pleasant eroticism. People dream they are with the wrong person, someone is watching, they feel guilty. When people talk about having great sex dreams, they are usually talking about daydreaming, not actual dreams.