Are the common elements in our dreams the result of basic biology, or something deeper?
Elizabeth Svoboda | NAUTILUS
I was naked. So was Laura,” begins one dream of the more than 20,000 collected in G. William Domhoff’s DreamBank. “I was re-stringing an unvarnished electric bass, so I guess it was naked, too. At one point I put a screw in to secure a string, but then realized I wasn’t holding the bass but Laura…” The dream is one of many “naked” entries in the database, and Domhoff says dreams about being naked or exposed in public in ways that betray a fear of embarrassment are widely reported. But why?
Domhoff, a distinguished professor emeritus specializing in psychology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, has spent years collecting self-reported dreams in journals and laboratory settings, meticulously tagging and cataloguing each one. An outdoor setting, for example, is marked with an OU, a familiar character with a K, and physical activity with a P. Individual dreams can then be described with their own idiosyncratic combination of labeled elements. Domhoff calls this coding system “quantitative content analysis.” He’s concluded that at least some dreams have universal elements related to common human preoccupations and concerns.
The psychoanalysts have a vested interest in destroying my argument.
Some “typical” dreams long studied for their figurative meaning—such as dreams where you fly under your own power, or where your teeth fall out—don’t occur nearly as often as people think (flying dreams, for example, make up only about one-half of 1 percent of all dreams). But many people dream about being naked, or about physical journeys that might stand in for fraught everyday dilemmas, such as being thwarted in a quest for success. “We are walking down hall after hall,” one of the dreams in Domhoff’s database reads. “We are looking for a restaurant. We climb laboriously up ladders and get to a top floor to find out the restaurant is closed. I am upset and afraid of going back down.”