Emotions and Color in Dreams*
Professor Deirdre Barrett
Dream experts are often quoted as saying that most dreams are negative, but is this true? A recent analysis of DreamBoard suggests not.
In the 1950’s, Calvin Hall and Bob van de Castle published ratings of emotion in dream reports. They used a scale with 5 categories: 1) apprehension including fear & anxiety 2) anger 3) sadness, 4) happiness, and 5) confusion. The first 1000 dreams they rated yielded a very unpleasant profile: 80% of total dream emotions for all dream characters were negative and 81% of the dreamer-as-character’s were. Their emotion scales have now been used in dozens of dream studies totaling tens of thousands of dreams. All of the ones based on large numbers of subjects find this same extremely negative emotional pattern.
However, when Angela Oh and I looked at 200,000 of the first DreamBoard dreams and the dreamer’s ratings of their own emotions, joy was the single most common emotion at 25% of the dreams. Fear was present in 21%, anger in 12%, sadness in 8%. When totaled, negative emotions did surpass joy, but by a much smaller margin that in those earlier, rater-scored studies.
There has also been controversy about color in dreams. Nineteenth century dream authors often claimed that dreams were never in color. Early psychoanalysts publicized the idea that only psychotics dreamed in color—a claim making it way less likely that people were going to report their color dreams. By the time Hall and van De Castle were doing research in the 50’s, however, they realized that dreams may contain color. Nine percent of the dreams in their study were rated as containing “color” and 4% as having “achromatic color” (black, gray, & white).
Angela and I found DreamBoard’s dreams have much more color when scored by the dreamer themselves: 46% contain at least one color—some much of the rainbow.
Some dream researchers still see the third-party ratings as the gold standard. They argue that when dreamers rate their own dreams, “demand characteristics” of inquiring about color and emotion lead dreamers to imagine ones which weren’t there. That may happen occasionally, but we believe that the main difference is a flaw in third-party ratings. Even when you ask someone to describe a dream “in all its detail,” people leave a lot out. This is true of waking life, too. If you were asked to write down everything you’d done yesterday, you wouldn’t include the color of the walls of the room you were in or colors in people’s clothing. And perhaps you’d be likelier to mention being cross with someone you disagreed with or scared when a car nearly hit you than that you were feeling happy sitting around with your friends. Details from dreamers themselves via DreamBoard, give us a fuller, more accurate picture of typical dreams—and they’re more colorful and happier than researchers thought.
*Barrett, Deirdre & Oh, Angela (2014) Talk presented at Dream Content Analysis from the Online Application DreamBoard Paper presented at the 31st Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, June 4-8, Berkeley, CA.