Dream Study Intro -
One simple yet powerful approach to examining to what extent dream themes vary or are similar across regions, cultures, and time periods is by having sample populations respond to the Typical Dreams Questionnaire (TDQ), a forced-choice list of dream themes. In contrast to Hall and Van de Castle’s (1966) comprehensive dream coding system which scrutinizes complete individual dreams for such criteria as characters, aggression, fortune and misfortune, failures and successes, etc., the TDQ supplies a list of succinct themes which the participant acknowledges as having had or not. Unlike the pain-staking method of coding entire dreams for specific content, the use of TDQ’s in research allows for the rapid acquisition of useful information from many participants. The TDQ can be used to assess the lifetime prevalence of particular dream themes in a population or reveal the frequency for earliest, most personally meaningful, or other types of dreams.
Griffith, Miyagi, and Tago (1958) administered a TDQ listing 34 possible dreams to 250 American (134 males, 116 females) and 223 Japanese (132 males, 91 females) college students, comparing typical dreams between and within sexes and regions. This early use of a TDQ was intended to differentiate to what extent typical dreams are influenced by cultural variations or are a product of common human conditions (including biology). Typical, or universal dreams, were noted by Freud for being resistant to psychoanalytic interpretation, their source a mystery, perhaps stemming from early childhood experiences shared by most persons (Griffith, et al., 1958).
Although the 1958 TDQ was designed with an American population in mind, many similarities were found between the American and Japanese sample populations. With male and female participants combined the Pearson r correlation for item selections on the TDQ between Americans and the Japanese was +.84. Five of the top six most common selections of the American students were also in the top six for the Japanese: “Falling,” “being attacked or pursued,” “trying again and again to do something,” “school or teachers,” and “sexual experiences” were all selected by more than 66% of both populations. Between genders within regions, correlations were also high, with male and female Americans’ r equaling +.77; Japanese r = +.84. Although many parallels were observed between the sexes and regions, there were notable differences. “Sexual experiences” was selected by 92.5% of American males and by 85.6% of Japanese males, but by only 36.2% of American and 42.8% of Japanese females.
Nielsen, et al., (2003) modified the 1958 TDQ for examining the typical dreams of Canadian university students, arriving at not only a snapshot of their sample, but also a cultural and temporal comparison against the 1958 study. Several TDQ items were removed in the 2003 study due to their very low endorsement in the 1958 study. “Falling”, “falling with fear” and “falling without fear” were combined into a generic “falling” choice and “being attacked or pursued” was split into “being physically attacked” and “being chased and attacked but not physically injured.” Twenty-four new items were added to the contemporary TDQ drawn from the authors’ observations in other studies of dream content. In addition to life-time presence of TDQ items, participants were also asked which theme comprised their earliest recalled and their most important dream, and frequency of dreams and nightmares per month.
In the Nielsen et al. (2003) study the most frequent response was “being chased or pursued, but not physically injured” (81.5%), followed by “sexual experiences” (76.5%), women choosing the former the most and men the latter. Both gender groups landed “falling” in the third highest ranking. Compared to Griffith et al.’s (1958) American sample, for the 28 TDQ items which could be correlated, the mean Spearman rho was .79 (.77 for women, .68 for men). A stark difference occurred between females’ responding to “sexual experiences” in Griffith’s 1958 sample (36.2%) and females in 2003 (73.0%), perhaps indicating how changes in the cultural milieu can influence “Universal” dream frequencies (or at least reports of such).
Earliest themes endorsed in the 2003 TDQ study were “chased or pursued but not injured,” “falling,” and “flying or soaring,” and the mean age for Earliest Dream was 7.3-years (SD = 3.08). In addition to being the most common item endorsed as ever having experienced in dreams, “being chased or attacked but not physically injured” was also chosen as the most frequent theme in participants’ dream lives, as well as the second Most Important theme (9.1%). Seeing “a person now dead as alive” and “a person now alive as dead” were the first and third highest ranked Most Important dream themes, selected by 9.7% and 7.6% of participants, respectively. Average number of recalled dreams per month was 9.60 (SD = 10.16) and nightmares was 1.97 (SD = 3.40). Overall, Griffith et al. (1958) and Nielsen et al. (2003) show a remarkable consistency for typical dream themes across both time and culture. See Figure 1 for the endorsement percentages of all 55 TDQ themes in the Nielsen, et al. 2003 study.
In her book The Universal Dream Key: The 12 Most Common Dream Themes Around the World, Garfield (2001) reports on the results of her online survey investigating dream theme frequencies. Dream themes endorsed by the survey’s first 500 respondents were led by “Being chased or attacked”, with over 80% of participants choosing this theme. “Falling or drowning” was selected by 64% and “Being lost or trapped” was chosen by 60% of her international participants. Indeed, all of the most frequent themes were of negative events.