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Gender Differences in Dream Content

Aug 18, 2020
Gender Differences in Dream Content

We recently completed a deep analysis of thousands of dreams and the findings on gender differences in dream experiences are compelling and ought to pique your interest. Here’s the summary:

Gender differences in dream experiences

Our data indicate that dreams share many characteristics across gender, age and educational level. Despite these remarkable similarities, what makes dream experience so fascinating is the ways in which it differs between women and men. Specifically, there are gender differences in dream characters, the type of interactions that occur in dreams, the role of the dreamer, the emotions expressed by the dreamer and, importantly, the actions taken in response to the dream experience upon waking. However, it is important to point out that the gender differences are in degree, not in kind. Also, it is possible that gender differences may result from differences in dream recall frequency between women and men. While some of the gender differences are small, they seem to form a pattern that we believe are salient because of their potential impact on waking life. It is also important to note at the outset that our data comprises mainly dreams of American men and women. Consequently, the results cannot yet be generalized globally.

While there are many differences, here are the primary ones:

Characters in dreams. The differences begin with the cast of characters American men and women see in their dreams. Women tend to dream more about familial characters - their mothers, sisters, relatives and romantic interests. On the other hand, men dream about celebrities, classmates, fictional characters, unknown characters and colleagues. For non-human characters, women dream more about pets and animals than men. Interestingly, and for reasons yet unknown, women dream more about dead people than men.

Emotions in dreams. Both genders often go through an emotional rollercoaster of happiness, anxiety, sadness, helplessness, frustration, fear, and the like. We call this the “restless dream syndrome.” But when compared to men, the dream records of women are characterized by a high degree of negative emotional interactions, including helplessness, sadness, frustration, despair, shame, guilt, disgust, anger, fear, jealousy and anxiety. Why? We looked to other findings on gender differences to see why this might be the case.

  • When we look at the type of social interactions American women engage in in their dreams, we find that women have fewer friendly interactions than men. Further, women are more often the victims than the aggressors in aggressive interactions in their dream reports. Even in dream life, women feel threatened and vulnerable. This may lead to feelings of anxiety, fear, frustration, despair, anger and sadness.
  • In addition, women dream of indecent public exposure (e.g. naked in public) more than men. This vulnerability may lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, confusion, helplessness and disgust.
  • Women dream of the inability to reach a destination (e.g., can’t find a classroom, restroom, etc.) more often than men, which may lead to a sense of failure and feelings of helplessness, anxiety and despair.
  • Women dream of physical inhibition (e.g. can't move fast enough) more often than men. This may evoke a sense of limitations and engender feelings of frustration, despair and helplessness.
  • Women have more bizarre dreams than men (dream bizarreness may be defined as impossible or improbable transformations or unusual circumstances). For example, women dream of unlikely visitations (e.g. visit from a dead relative), unnatural animal behavior (e.g. flying pigs), time dilation (e.g. time travel) and other unusual circumstances such as transformations from place to place and people to people. This could trigger a sense of loss, confusion and anxiety.

What explains the gender difference in negative dream emotions?

We can draw from contemporary theories of dreaming to shed light on dream emotions.

From the perspective of the cognitive theory of dreams, the continuity hypothesis suggests that dream emotions reflect people's emotional state during waking. Therefore, we might infer that the lived lives of women in the US involve unresolved conflicts, negative concerns and experiences, threats and stresses which result in negative emotions they carry forward to bed each night, and which subsequently fill their dreams. It is known that women face greater vulnerability and exposure to workplace harassment, social and economic inequality and domestic abuse in society, which then permeates into their dreams. What is worrisome is that research has shown that dream emotions tend to stay with us throughout the day, thereby affecting our waking moods and behavior. This is a vicious spiral for women if they are burdened in both waking and dreaming.

From the viewpoint of the mood-regulating theory of dreams, which posits that dreaming is a mechanism for regulating negative emotions accumulated from awake experiences, dreaming serves a useful purpose of preparing women, better than men, to cope with stress and conflicts in everyday life.

Resolutions: Another important gender difference is what men and women do in response to their dreams. Women resolve to take more waking actions in response to their dreams than men. Some of the actions taken include: resolving personal internal conflict; facing or overcome fears; being a better friend, sibling, spouse; and seizing opportunities.

What makes dream emotions salient and potent is that, unlike waking emotions, they are unencumbered by waking events and distractions, they are sourced from memory traces of which the dreamer is unaware. What we are learning is that dreams, far from being a meaningless experience, are especially informative about the emotional state of the dreamer. Since emotions shape behavior, to understand human behavior, broadly defined, we believe that we must understand dream contents.

We recast dream and waking life as a mutually dependent duality - both producing and reproducing each other. Dream imitates life and life imitates dream. In some ways, it appears that our dreams are indeed both a product of and potentially a solution to our waking concerns.

On-going research.

There are so many things we want to know about dreams. We are running machine learning research using our dream data to investigate whether and to what extent we can infer psychopathology from dream data. The question is: can dream content be a potential indicator of psychological dispositions to act, feel and think in a certain way. For example, if dream emotions are consistent with waking moods, can we infer emotional wellbeing or the onset of psychopathological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders? If someone frequently dreams of aggression and being victimized, abused, and traumatized, is this a sign of latent psychological issues? Should primary care doctors be trained on how to use dream content as part of the patient diagnostic procedure? Should everyone have a dream record as part of their annual physical checkup? We have all this free and abundant data on the individual (and global) unconscious, but we don’t currently use it as a society. What a waste.

In addition to the cognitive investigations, we need to learn more about the underlying neurological mechanisms that explain these gender differences. Thus, as brain-machine interfaces (BMI) become more precise, safe, and consumer-friendly, our understanding of dreams (and our opportunity to leverage them for the good of the individual and of society) will only increase.