Immoral Behaviors in Dreaming and What They Mean

Recently wrote a post for Psychology Today about “Taboo Dreams,” meaning dreams that involve activities or behavior that violate the moral standards of the dreamer’s community in waking life. Over the years, several people have asked me questions about these kinds of dreams, and I get the sense that many more people would like to ask but are embarrassed to do so.

A key takeaway from the post: Just because you behave a certain way in a dream does not mean that is who you “really are.” Likewise, just because you dream of doing something, it does not automatically mean you should enact it in waking life. If you take even a few moments to reflect on your dream, you will almost surely find the meanings are more complex than that. In many of these dreams the “taboo” behavior is a metaphor that relates to something else in the dreamer’s waking life. If you can get past the literal images of shocking immorality and explore the metaphors with an open mind, new insights into the depths of your own psyche will become possible.


The Elsewhere Dream Journaling App

Elsewhere is a new dream journaling app, created by an international team of people who are avid dream journal-keepers themselves. Available for both iOS and Android systems, it’s a safe, private space to record your dreams, track them over time, and learn about their unfolding patterns of meaning. Elsewhere offers a variety of analytic tools and fun interactive features, with even better features soon to come.

There are many dream journaling apps in the world today, which is a positive sign of interest in this kind of widely-accessible oneiric resource. I believe Elsewhere stands out because of its singular focus on exploring the deepest, most dynamic dimensions of dreaming. The app can already do amazing things, providing users with:

  • The ability to record dreams by writing or speaking into the app
  • The ability to upload dream-related images (e.g., sketches, diagrams, photos)
  • Automatic tagging of each dream, with running statistics of what contents appear most often
  • AI-generated artistic images for each dream
  • AI-generated analyses of patterns relating to symbols, characters, and settings
  • Access to a set of more than 100 specially designed images of classic dream symbols
  • Symbolic interpretations from David Fontana’s 1994 book The Secret Language of Dreams
  • Multiple languages, with full functionality in English, German, Japanese, Indonesian, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish, and French

Soon Elsewhere will be available in a website version, for those like me who prefer typing at a desktop for dream journaling. The website version will look and function essentially the same as the app, making it easy to move from one device to another and back again.

Most exciting is the imminent arrival of the Groups function. This will allow Elsewhere users to create private online groups for sharing selected dreams together, with all the tools and resources of the app at their disposal. The first version of this function will be quite basic, but we’re hoping to expand and improve it over time. If you’re interested in being an early tester of the Groups function—especially if you already have experience with dream-sharing groups—please sign up for Elsewhere and let us know what you think. You can find it here.

Recurring Dreams

Many dreams contain recurrent elements that have appeared in previous dreams. These elements include characters you have encountered before, in settings where you have been before, doing things you have done before. The long-term consistency of your dreaming offers a unique window into the nature of your personality and the foundational realities of your waking life.

When specifically asked to describe a recurrent dream, people will usually share a common dream scenario with intense emotionality and/or counter-factual weirdness. For example:

“I’m speeding downhill in a car with no brakes…”

“I discover surprising new rooms in a familiar house…”

“I’m back in school taking a test on a subject I don’t know…”

These dreams can be extremely vivid and memorable just by themselves. As a repeating series, they become even more attention-grabbing.

To interpret recurrent dreams like these, it helps to look at them as metaphors, as attempts to understand something we do not know in terms of something we do know. With the no-brakes scenario, we might ask the dreamer, is there anything in waking life that feels like you’re speeding dangerously out of control? With new-rooms dreams, where in your waking life do you feel moments of wonder and growth, or unexpected insights? With the school-testing dreams, is something happening in waking life that makes you feel unprepared, or out of your depths, or judged by others?

In describing a recurrent dream, people will often say the same single dream has happened many times, but after further discussion it usually emerges that the recurrent scenario almost never appears exactly the same way in each dream. In most cases there are shifts, differences, and changes to the basic scenario, some small, some big, all of which can be considered as meaningful variations on the theme. For instance, the no-brakes dreams might shift over time in what kind of car is being driven, where is it going, and what happens at the end. The new-rooms dreams might vary in what kinds of architectural spaces are discovered and what the dreamer discovers inside. The school-testing dreams could differ in the school and class settings, the subjects being studied, and the results of the test.

These variations on the recurrent theme can be very helpful in understanding why the dreams come when they do. If the basic scenario of a recurrent dream has metaphorical meaning, how do the changed details in a particular dream connect the metaphor to something happening in the waking world right now? A key question with recurrent dreams is why they appear when they do. What is it in current life that has triggered another instance of this theme? Recurrent dreams are rarely about trivial matters. Something important is at stake, something so important that repeated efforts at sparking conscious attention are required. Perhaps the dream is a warning: watch out, you’ve been in this situation before! Perhaps the dream is highlighting an opportunity: hey, do you see that? Do you recognize its value?

By looking closely at the metaphorical dimensions of your recurrent dreams, at both their basic themes and their many variations, you can gain more insight into the ongoing psychological relevance of these lifelong companions of your sleeping mind.

Note: if you have distressing recurrent nightmares about a single repetitive theme with no variations, you might consider consulting with a mental health professional.

(This post was originally published on the website of Psychology Today, January 23, 2023.)

Four Ways to Keep Dreaming Into Old Age

Many adults dream less as they get older, and they miss it. They miss the pleasantly curious feeling of waking up with an alluring new message from the unconscious in their minds. A drastic drop in dreaming is not, however, an inevitable feature of aging. People can continue having vibrant, inspiring dreams all through their lives if they follow a few simple practices.

The typical trajectory of dreaming through the life cycle starts with the highest levels of dream recall in childhood and adolescence, and usually diminishes in the later stages of adulthood. According to a 2018 survey of 5,255 American adults on their attitudes towards dreams (available in the Sleep and Dream Database), 57% of men between 18 and 34 years of age remember at least one dream a week. For men between 35 and 54 the figure is 50%, and for men 55 and older it’s 45%. For women, recall is even higher in early life, with 60% between 18 and 34 remembering at least one dream a week, then the drop-off is sharper, with a figure of 53% for women between 35 and 54, and 41% for women 55 and older.

For both men and women, the percentage of people who say they rarely or never remember their dreams increases with age. With men, 27% of 18-34 year olds have little or no dream recall, but that rises to 30% for men between 35 and 54, and 36% for men 55 and older. With women, little or no dream recall is reported by 23% of 18-34 year olds, 28% for women between 35 and 54, and 36% for women 55 and older. It’s also important to note that many older people still have very frequent dream recall: 7% of men and 8% of women age 55 and older remember a dream nearly every morning.

These survey findings indicate that age is not destiny with your powers of dreaming. If you follow the four simple practices below, you will be able to remember more of your dreams and discover new ways of bringing their creative energies into your waking life, no matter what your age.

  1. Wake up slowly. When we are asleep and dreaming, our brains operate in a distinctive mode that’s different from normal waking consciousness. If you wake up too abruptly (for instance, to a loud alarm clock), your mind does not have enough time to transfer your experiences from the dreaming mode into the waking mode. So try this: when you wake up, either after a long night’s rest or an afternoon nap, give yourself a few calm moments to make the sleep-wake transition. Try not to jump out of bed, turn on the light, or check your phone for at least a minute or two, so the dreams you were just experiencing have a better chance of crossing the memory threshold into your waking awareness.
  2. Keep a dream journal. Even the most vivid dreams can fade soon after waking. If you place a pad of paper and a pen or pencil by your bedside, you can record your dreams quickly and conveniently. Voice-to-text apps can also work well for dream recording, but they have the downside of relying on a phone, with its many distracting features. Keeping a dream journal has at least two big benefits. One it enables you to preserve your dreams over time so you can study them for meaningful patterns. Two, it invites new dreams by making it easier for them to enter into the waking world.
  3. Share your dreams with others. One of the most natural forms of human communication is dream-sharing. Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, people have made a regular practice of sharing and discussing their dreams with family, friends, and members of their community. Sharing dreams can provide unique opportunities for developing more empathetic understanding between different people, with more emotional honesty and authentic self-expression. Talking about dreams with people who are important to you will deepen your relationships with them, and further stimulate your recall capacities.
  4. Welcome visitation dreams. The one exception to the age-related decline of dreaming is the experience of visitation dreams, in which someone who has died appears as if alive again in a dream. All other typical dreams (flying, falling, being chased, sexuality) tend to diminish through the life span, but visitation dreams become more frequent later in life. This makes sense, because older people are more likely than younger people to have close friends and family members who have died, and who can thus appear in these kinds of dreams. Although strange and uncanny, visitation dreams often bring positive feelings of reassurance and consolation to the dreamers regarding the death of their loved ones. Even if it remains uncertain where these otherworldly dreams ultimately come from (is it a ghost? A spirit? An image from the unconscious?), their emotional benefits make them among the most meaningful types of dreams people experience in the latter years of life.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, March 15, 2022.

Friendly Dreams

Dreams with explicitly sexual and/or violent interactions tend to get the most attention, but dreams actually tend to have surprisingly high proportions of friendly content, too. According to an analysis of the nearly 35,000 dream reports collected in the Sleep and Dream Database, 47% of the women’s dreams have at least one reference to a friendly social interaction (the most used words: friend, friends, boyfriend, help, party, love), as do 36% of men’s dreams (most used words:  friend, friends, girlfriend, help, love, party. For both genders, those figures are greater than the combined percentages for sexual interactions (4% for women, 6% for men) and physically aggressive interactions (15% for women, 22% for men).  If we add in non-physical aggressions (for example, saying or thinking mean things about a person), the relative proportions change, but the key fact remains: Friendly social interactions are a prominent feature of the content of most people’s dreams. If dreams offer a “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious mind,” as Sigmund Freud famously claimed in The Interpretation of Dreams (2nd ed.), giving evidence of our deepest sexual and aggressive instincts, then dreams also provide evidence of our friendly, prosocial instincts.

Although much less studied than sex and aggression, researchers have identified several patterns in dreams with friendly social interactions. As illustrated above, women tend to have more friendliness in their dreams than do men. Whether this is nature (women are innately more friendly than men) or nurture (women are socialized to be more friendly than men)  is unclear; perhaps aspects of both factors are involved. According to G. William Domhoff in Finding Meaning in Dreams (1996), almost all friendliness in dreams involves the dreamer; there is very little “witnessed” friendliness. Men have more aggression in relation to male characters in their dreams, and more friendliness towards female characters. Women tend to have more friendly interactions in their dreams with men they know, and more aggressive interactions with men they do not know. All of these findings are tendencies, of course, which may or may not apply to specific individuals. But these patterns of friendly content in dreaming do seem consistent with common aspects of people’s social interactions in waking life.

Similar aspects of friendly dreaming occur with several individuals whose long-term dream journals are collected in the SDDb. For example, Jordan, an artist in her forties, has friendly interactions in 43% of her dreams; for Jasmine, a musician in her twenties, it’s 42%; for Mike, a veteran who served in Vietnam as a medic, it’s 40%. My own collection of dreams from 2012 has a friendly interactions figure of 42%; in my dreams from 2020, it’s 44%.

Not everyone has this much friendliness in their dreams. The “Natural Scientist,” whose 1939 journal of 234 dreams was analyzed by J. Allan Hobson in The Dreaming Brain (1987), has friendly interactions in 24% of his dreams. This may reflect the limited social contacts in his waking life (he was a bachelor and a laboratory scientist who studied insects). This seems to reflect the continuity principle of dreaming: the frequency of an element in dreaming reflects the emotional importance of that element in the individual’s waking life. The Natural Scientist may not have dreamed a lot about friendly social interactions, but he did dream about insects more often than anyone else in the SDDb, which was certainly continuous with his waking life.

Some variations in the friendliness of dreaming can be observed over time. During the phase in her twenties when “Beverly” belonged to a secretive religious cult, she had friendliness in 30% of her dreams. After leaving the cult and regaining control of her life, the friendliness in her dreams grew to 34% in her thirties, 36% in her forties, and 40% in her fifties. As she has described in her own writings on the experience, it took a long time for Beverly to liberate herself from the mental shackles of the cult. Her dreams seem to reflect that slow and arduous but ultimately positive journey.

Not surprisingly, nightmares tend to have low frequencies of friendliness. In a survey asking several thousand people to describe their “worst nightmare,” only 8% of the reports of 15 or more words had a reference to friendliness. Similarly, in surveys asking people about their dreams of work, just 8% have a reference to friendliness. By contrast, surveys asking about visitation dreams (in which someone who is dead appears as if alive) have friendliness in 23% of the reports, and surveys asking about “the most memorable dream you’ve ever had in your life” yield references to friendliness in 29% of the reports. It seems the more spiritually-charged a dream becomes, the more likely it will have a friendly social interaction.

Although much more will emerge from future studies, the research so far on friendliness in dreaming has several practical implications.

First, you can learn about the depth and quality of your relationships with your friends by considering who does and doesn’t appear in your dreams, and how you interact with them when they do appear.

Second, you can observe the patterns of who in your dreams initiates a friendly act, versus who receives the friendly act. Are you always on the giving end, or the receiving end? Do some of your friends only appear in one or the other role?

Third, you can see in dreams when feelings of friendliness become mixed with feelings of romantic and sexual desire. In some dreams it’s hard to tell if an interaction is friendly or romantic—which may be exactly the point, in terms of bringing to conscious awareness your ambiguous feelings towards someone else.

Fourth, if you notice that the frequency of friendliness in your dreams diminishes drastically, that might be a sign of difficulties with your social life. Everyone has their own baseline of “normal” friendliness in their dreams, so it’s worth paying enough attention to your dreams over time and becoming familiar with your own regular patterns, to enable you to recognize worrisome changes when they occur.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, 9/11/21.

The Ethical Challenges of Dream Video Technologies

New technologies are making it possible to use brain data to create video reconstructions of people’s dreams while they sleep. Is this thrilling, terrifying, or both?

Here’s how it works. Researchers are learning how to observe an individual’s brain while viewing a specific image (let’s say a cat) and how to identify neural patterns correlated with that image. Then the researchers observe the individual’s brain while sleeping, and watch for a recurrence of the “cat” neural pattern. If it appears, a signal can be sent to a video monitor to show an image of a cat—presumably what the sleeping person is dreaming about at that very moment.

Does this mean we will soon be able to sit in front of a “dream-viewer” (an iDreamer?) to watch videos of our own dreams, along with the dreams of other people?

Soon, probably no. But someday, possibly yes. Many technical challenges have to be overcome first. Lots of time and effort are required to train the computer algorithms to recognize the patterns of an individual’s brain. The patterns for “cat” from one person’s brain do not necessarily match the “cat” patterns from another person’s brain, so the system has to be trained and calibrated anew for each individual.  The nearly infinite variety of dream content magnifies the learning challenge for this kind of technology (how many images of different kinds/colors/sizes of cats need to be incorporated into the system?). Efforts to model the contents and experiential qualities of dreams have to find some way to reckon with a boundless, unpredictably varied set of data.

Advocates will emphasize the potential benefits if these methodological challenges can be overcome. Researchers would, for the first time, have “objective” dream data, unfiltered by the subjective biases and limited memories of the dreamer. For anyone who looks to dreams for personal insight and guidance, this technology offers a quantum leap in the depth and range of access to one’s dreaming experience. For example, psychotherapists would have a powerful new resource for understanding the unconscious conflicts, fears, and concerns of their clients.

All of these potentially positive applications sound appealing, of course. But no less time should be given to considering the potentially negative applications, too. Between now and the invention of a true “dream-viewer,” we should consider several ethical questions raised by this technology.

Does the process of training and calibrating the system disrupt the natural rhythms of people’s sleep and dreams? If yes, what are the long-term health risks and psychological dangers of that disruption? This basic question is too rarely asked in discussions of new dream technologies, perhaps because of an unspoken assumption that dreams themselves aren’t really “real,” so nothing that harms dreaming does any real harm to a person.

What is the source of the images used to reconstruct people’s dreams? Who chooses those images? Is there transparency in the algorithms that correlate specific images to specific neural patterns? Are measures taken to prevent biases from excluding the appearance of certain kinds of images and favoring others?

Does the technology distort and flatten the contents of people’s dreams? It seems likely a dream-viewer will be incapable of representing bizarre or anomalous experiences for which there are no images. It will struggle to represent essential elements of dreaming like feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It won’t be able to convey non-imagistic qualities of intensity, atmosphere, or awareness. Jorge Luis Borges noted these qualities when he described a nightmare of an ancient King standing by his bed: “Retold, my dream is nothing; dreamt, it was terrible.” (Seven Nights, 1980) Will a dream-viewer ever be able to convey the ineffable terror in a nightmare like the one Borges experienced? It seems unlikely. Videos will show what videos show, not what dreams are in any full or objective sense.

Who gets access to the dream-viewers? What is done with this incredibly personal source of information? It takes little imagination to envision potential abuses of this technology for commercial, political, governmental, and/or criminal purposes. The prospect of bad actors gaining access to private details so secret even the individual does not consciously know them should be a red-flag concern for any technology that is openly offering an unfiltered view into people’s dreams.

Can this technology be re-engineered to manipulate the process and contents of dreaming itself? What if a tool designed to identify neural patterns associated with dreaming could be re-purposed to selectively target specific patterns either for suppression or stimulation? This seems to lead into Inception territory, making people vulnerable to an unprecedented depth of external control and manipulation.

How much dream awareness can people handle? An earlier and even more direct film reference to this kind of technology appears in Wim Wenders’ futuristic film Until the End of the World (1991), in which the equivalent of a dream-viewer has been invented. The CIA is determined to steal the device, which of course is not a fantastical idea at all. If and when a dream-viewer is created, CIA interrogators would surely be at the front of the line to get one. More unexpectedly, the characters in the movie who use the device become lost in the narcissistic labyrinths of their own fantasies. They detach from the rest of the world, retreating into a video womb of reconstructed dreaming. Here, the technology’s danger is not from abuse by others, but from our own abuse of it. We assume that more insight into our dreams is a good thing, but is that true for everyone? Do each of us have a healthy limit of dream awareness, beyond which we become lost in ourselves?

Final Thought

Dreaming is an innate function of the brain-mind during sleep. It is also an experience that humans from around the world and all through history have considered vitally important, meaningful, and useful in their waking lives. Any new technology that has the potential, whether intended or not, to disrupt the natural rhythms of people’s sleep and dreaming needs to be publicly evaluated in terms of its long-term risks and benefits.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, 6/8/21.