Issue date: 19 January 2009
A researcher from the University of the West of England was inspired by her own nightmares and a chance encounter at a lecture to examine more closely the stuff that dreams are made of. Her PhD study has focused on an astounding discovery that women suffer more nightmares then men.
As a mature student Dr Jennie Parker was interested in looking at some aspect of psychology for her PhD study and it was at a lecture about dreams, given by former UWE researcher Dr Susan Blackmore that she had a moment of epiphany.
Dr Parker explains, “My own nightmares had two reoccurring themes, one concerned standing on the beach at Weston Super Mare, my home town, when the tide suddenly goes out very fast and returns as a huge tidal wave that is about to engulf me. The other dream includes a dinosaur roaming the streets at night and looking in at my window. I wondered if my experience was common amongst women.”
Several years on and Dr Parker has completed a study that looks set to turn Dream Research on its head and expand its potential as a subject with multi faceted possibilities hitherto unrealised. In the course of her work she found that research into sleep and dreams had used data collection techniques that discounted entirely the role of emotions in dreams. She believes that this 'discovery' opens up a whole new raft of research possibilities into the psychology of dreaming.
Dr Parker explains, “My most significant finding is that women in general do experience more nightmares than men. An early study into dreams lead to my discovering that normative research procedures into Dream Research often considered the structure of dreams but that there is a gaping hole in terms of academic study that investigates emotional significance in the analysis of dreams.
“To discover more about women's dreams I asked participants in my project to fill out a structured dream diary. The evidence was collected in a very different way to that used in previous dream analysis projects that largely depended on recall after the dream has happened. The participants in my study were all primed to record their dreams before the dreams happened. I took a sample of 100 women and 93 men. They were aged between 18 and 25 and were predominantly Year 1 Psychology students at UWE.
“I found that women's nightmares can be broadly divided into three categories, fearful dreams – being chased or life threatened, losing a loved one or confused dreams."
By corroborating dreams with actual life experiences for each participant it became evident that the anxieties about things that have happened in the past can reoccur many times as 'emblem' dreams. Dr Parker continues, “It is these emblem dreams that are particularly significant. If women are asked to report the most significant dream they ever had they are more likely than men to report a very disturbing nightmare. Women reported more nightmares and their nightmares were more emotionally intense than men's.
“We explored the dream reports by whether they were pleasant or unpleasant and this significantly changed findings. Both men and women were more likely to be the victim of aggressive interactions in unpleasant dreams. In pleasant dreams the dreamer was more often the aggressor. Women had more unpleasant dreams than men and unpleasant dreams contained more misfortune, self-negativity and failures.
“Women's dreams contained more family members, more negative emotion, more indoor settings and less physical aggression than men's dreams."
The research discovered that when the natures of these categories were explored more interesting differences in reported behaviour during dreaming emerged. Men made more references to attacks, or serious threat but reported fewer verbally aggressive or covert acts of aggression. Men and women's friendly behaviour in dreams was the same; most often they reported helping other dream characters.
Men's dream contained more references to sexual activity. Differences between men and women's sexual behaviour were that men reported more actual intercourse, while women reported more kissing and sexual fantasies about other dream characters.
Dr Parker concludes, “Each of these dream types has its own distinct subjectivity. It would not have been possible to identify this complexity using traditional approaches to dream investigation. The implication of these findings are far reaching for dream researchers and suggest that we need to think in more complex terms when describing dream report content.”