Have you ever wondered how the content of your dreams differs from that of your friends? How about the dreams of people raised in different countries and cultures? It is not always easy to compare dreams of distinct individuals because the content of dreams depends on our personal experiences. This is why dream researchers have developed standardized dream questionnaires in which common thematic elements are grouped together. These questionnaires can be translated into various languages and used to survey and scientifically analyze the content of dreams. Open-ended questions about dreams might elicit free-form, subjective answers which are difficult to categorize and analyze. Therefore, standardized dream questionnaires ask study subjects "Have you ever dreamed of . . ." and provide research subjects with a list of defined dream themes such as being chased, flying or falling. Dream researchers can also modify the questionnaires to include additional questions about the frequency or intensity of each dream theme and specify the time frame that the study subjects should take into account. For example, instead of asking "Have you ever dreamed of…", one can prompt subjects to focus on the dreams of the last month or the first memory of ever dreaming about a certain theme.
Any such subjective assessment of one's dreams with a questionnaire has its pitfalls. We routinely forget most of our dreams and we tend to remember the dreams that are either the most vivid or frequent, as well as the dreams which we may have discussed with friends or written down in a journal. The answers to dream questionnaires may therefore be a reflection of our dream memory and not necessarily the actual frequency of prevalence of certain dream themes. Furthermore, standardized dream questionnaires are ideal for research purposes but may not capture the complex and subjective nature of dreams. Despite these pitfalls, research studies using dream questionnaires provide a fascinating insight into the dream world of large groups of people and identify commonalities or differences in the thematic content of dreams across cultures.
The researcher Calvin Kai-Ching Yu from the Hong Kong Shue Yan University used a Chinese translation of a standardized dream questionnaire and surveyed 384 students at the University of Hong Kong (mostly psychology students; 69% female, 31% male; mean age 21). Here are the results: Ten most prevalent dream themes in a sample of Chinese students according to Yu (2008):
- Schools, teachers, studying (95%)
- Being chased or pursued (92 %)
- Falling (87 %)
- Arriving too late, e.g., missing a train (81 %)
- Failing an examination (79 %)
- A person now alive as dead (75%)
- Trying again and again to do something (74%)
- Flying or soaring through the air (74%)
- Being frozen with fright (71 %)
- Sexual experiences (70%)
How do the dreams of the Chinese students compare to their counterparts in other countries? Michael Schredl and his colleagues used a similar questionnaire to study the dreams of German university students (nearly all psychology students; 85% female, 15% male; mean age 24) with the following results: Ten most prevalent dream themes in a sample of German students according to Schredl and colleagues (2004):
- Schools, teachers, studying (89 %)
- Being chased or pursued (89%)
- Sexual experiences (87 %)
- Falling (74 %)
- Arriving too late, e.g., missing a train (69 %)
- A person now alive as dead (68 %)
- Flying or soaring through the air (64%)
- Failing an examination (61 %)
- Being on the verge of falling (57 %)
- Being frozen with fright (56 %)
Tore Nielsen and his colleagues administered a dream questionnaire to students at three Canadian universities, thus obtaining data on an even larger study population (over 1,000 students). Ten most prevalent dream themes in a sample of Canadian students according to Nielsen and colleagues (2003):
- Being chased or pursued (82 %)
- Sexual experiences (77 %)
- Falling (74 %)
- Schools, teachers, studying (67 %)
- Arriving too late, e.g., missing a train (60 %)
- Being on the verge of falling (58 %)
- Trying again and again to do something (54 %)
- A person now alive as dead (54 %)
- Flying or soaring through the air (48%)
- Vividly sensing . . . a presence in the room (48 %)
The strength of these three studies is that they used similar techniques to assess dream content and evaluated study subjects with very comparable backgrounds: Psychology students in their early twenties. This approach provides us with the unique opportunity to directly compare and contrast the dreams of people who were raised on three continents and immersed in distinct cultures and languages. However, this approach also comes with a major limitation. We cannot easily extrapolate these results to the general population. Dreams about studying and school may be common among students but they are probably rare among subjects who are currently holding a full-time job or are retired. University students are an easily accessible study population but they are not necessarily representative of the society they grow up in. Future studies which want to establish a more comprehensive cross-cultural comparison of dream content should probably attempt to enroll study subjects of varying ages, professions, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Despite its limitation, the currently available data on dream content comparisons across countries does suggest one important message: People all over the world have similar dreams.
Yu, Calvin Kai-Ching. "Typical dreams experienced by Chinese people." Dreaming 18.1 (2008): 1-10.
Nielsen, Tore A., et al. "The Typical Dreams of Canadian University Students." Dreaming 13.4 (2003): 211-235.
Schredl, Michael, et al. "Typical dreams: stability and gender differences." The Journal of Psychology 138.6 (2004): 485-494.
Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on 3Quarksdaily.
Yu, C. (2008). Typical dreams experienced by Chinese people. Dreaming, 18 (1), 1-10 DOI: 10.1037/1053-0722.214.171.124