Posted by: beagle4 | March 6, 2011

Universality and Quantification of Dreams

Everyone dreams, that is known. After waking up from a dream, you can go to the magical internet and try to interpret the content of your dream. Why can you do this? The answer is clear, dreams are universal. Everybody dreams of the same content. Regardless of your class, culture, religion, race, gender, age, etc. people in every country of the planet are dreaming about the same things according to Patricia Garfield, President of the Association for the Study of Dreams. Not only are people dreaming about the same content today, but the dream content is the same as dreams from the past and will be the same as dreams in the future. Garfield believes that there are 12 basic dreams (themes) that a person can have, each of which can have either a positive or negative version (photographed in the image below).

Everyone remembers having to take biology at some point in their educational career and learning about taxonomy, the science of classification. This is when we learned about the plant and animal kingdoms, and learned about genus and species of a specimen. Garfield explains the necessity of a dream key (an index), which contains the general (genus) and the specific (species). According to her, once we have such an instrument, dreamers can easily locate one or more of the universal dreams they are experiencing. By comparing their individual dream to the variations of a worldwide dream theme, people will be able to grasp the most probable meaning of their dreams. (Article) In Garfield’s classification the twelve themes are labeled 1-12. They are then sub-divided into numbers which separate the negative from the positive dreams. The negative form appears first since it is more frequent (e.g. 1.0-1.49) and then the positive, or uplifting, form follows (e.g. 1.50-1.99).

Dr. Garfield is not the first person to attempt to classify the content of dreams. From the 1940s to 1985, Calvin S. Hall, a psychologist, collected more than 50,000 dream reports at Western Reserve University. In 1966, Hall and Robert Van De Castle published The Content Analysis of Dreams in which they outlined a system of coding rules in order to do a quantitative dream content analysis. From the coding, it was found that people all over the world dream of mostly the same things.

I found an online version of an in-depth book called Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach written by G. William Domhoff, Hall’s protégé, that explains in detail the very complex Hall/Van De Castle system. I obviously do not recommend reading the entire book, I just wanted to provide the link in case anyone was curious and wanted more information. The Hall/Van de Castle system consists of ten general categories, most of which are divided into two or more subcategories. The ten general categories are:

  • Characters
  • Social Interactions
  • Activities
  • Striving: Success and Failure
  • Misfortunes and Good Fortunes
  • Emotions
  • Physical Surroundings: Settings and Objects
  • Descriptive Elements
  • Food and Eating
  • Elements from the Past

For each category, there exists specific coding rules on how to code each dream report. The rules for each category can be found here. I decided to look over the rules on how to code characters present in a dream. From what I understand, you go through the dream report and code each character using the following table of coding:

The overall Hall/Van de Castle system seems complex and contains a lot of rules, but once the system is understood it appears that it is easy to use to code a dream report (i.e. steep learning curve at first, but then not so bad). I also noticed that not all of the general categories contain a nice easy to use summary table like the one provided for character coding.

This system was applied to 200 people total (100 men and 100 women) with each person writing down 5 dream reports (500 total dream reports). The results make up the normative tables for the coding system. The tables can be found here. The percentages for each category seem relatively the same for males and females. The Hall/Van de Castle system helps to quantify dreams in order to further study them. By having a general index of dreams, dreams can be compared easily.

The Hall/Van de Castle system is not the only coding system for the content analysis of dreams available. Over the years other systems have been developed including Foulkes and Rechtschaffen (1964) and Winget and Kramer (1979). Assigning a code system to dreams is the first step towards understanding the true meaning of dreams. By creating a collection of dreams, dreams can be quantified and hopefully we can reveal more about them.

*I apologize that the images in this post are small and hard to read. Due to the width of the blog that is the largest it will allow the text image to be (at least that I can figure out). In order to view the image more easily, please click on the image and it will open a larger version. Thanks.

Now just close your eyes and dream…



  1. That is really interesting. I guess I had always assumed our dreams were very subjective, very personal. And I guess elements of them are. But clearly they do fall into these particular themes…. A nice sign of our shared humanity.

  2. It’s interesting to see this point of view. I can’t say fore sure if I agree or not, but it is something I will think about now.

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