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Exploring the Modern Dreamscape

Updated November 4, 2020

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People have been attempting to decode dreams for centuries – ancient civilizations carved their recollections into stone, psychologists linked dreams to repressed emotions, and modern researchers boil dreams down to memory reprocessing. But in the centuries of interpretation, exploration, and research, there have been prevailing themes across dreams. Whether it is losing teeth, falling from a great height, or being paid a demonic visit, people who live wildly different lives often have eerily similar dreams.

But what do these common dreams look like? We scraped text from Reddit posts about dreaming to see what the masses recall in terms of themes, celebrity appearances, lucid experiences, and even nightmares. Dreams may not be filled with encrypted messages like ancient civilizations once thought, but uncovering common images and themes brings us one step closer to understanding dreaming’s purpose. Keep reading to see what we found.

Decoding Dreams

What does your dream mean infographic

Dreams run the gamut from emotional rollercoasters to just plain strange. Of the 8,000 dreams that over 6,000 people asked to have interpreted, the most common were related to death and family. Compared to just 13.7% of dreams related to sex, 29.2% and 35.2% involved family and death, respectively.

Interestingly, the frequency of these dreams ebbed and flowed throughout the year. While dreams about death were the least common in March and October, sex dreams peaked during those same months. But the frequency of some categories might be tied to what’s occurring in real life – while dreams about school decreased in June, typically the first month of summer vacation, they increased dramatically between July and August, when school shopping is in full swing and students’ first day is on the horizon.

Dream interpretation is not a reliable science, but some psychologists can analyze symbols, deeper meanings, and overall themes while still cautioning people to forgo overanalysis. Nevertheless, to decode dreams about death, interpreters most often invoked the words “mind,” “relationship,” and “change.” Sex dreams were most associated with the words “feelings,” “friends,” and “relationship,” while “relationship,” “love,” and “house” were the most common words used to explain dreams of family. While many concepts were central to interpretations of multiple dream types (such as “mind,” “love,” and “relationship”), the word “control” was tellingly unique to sex dreams. Similarly, interpretations of political dreams were laden with emotionally charged verbiage that seldom appeared elsewhere, namely “end,” “angry,” and “evil.”

Familiar Faces

Dream Celebrities Infographic

Our brains pull elements and events from our daily lives to compose dreams, and while some dreams may involve people we don’t recognize, the majority of dreams consist of people we’ve seen at least once. This likely explains why famous people are frequent visitors. Surprisingly, the most common appearances weren’t from celebrities plastered all over social media. Instead, nearly 42% of dreams featuring celebrities included leaders or historical figures, while both musicians and actors or actresses appeared in around 25% of such dreams.

While athletes were significantly less likely to appear in dreams (athletes only accounted for 2.1% of celebrity dreams), Shaquille O’Neal was the most dreamed about athlete. As for musicians, Drake and Elvis Presley tied for first, followed by Eminem, Taylor Swift, and Michael Jackson. Interestingly, President Donald Trump was the most prominently dreamed individual overall. Decidedly more surprising was the occupant of third place: Adolf Hitler. The dictator was not only the most dreamed about deceased person, but he also appeared in more dreams than President Barack Obama.

In 2015, Donald Trump ranked ninth among the top celebrity appearances and jumped to first place upon his election in 2016. The leader of the free world held onto the top spot for dream appearances until 2019, which was dominated through October by Queen Elizabeth II. Notable nonleader changes in the pecking order include Keanu Reeves – the actor made himself relatively sparse in dreams from 2015 to 2018, but between 2018 and 2019, Reeves was the third most dreamed about individual.

Taking Control of Dreams

Favorite lucid dream activities infographic

Running into a celebrity (especially a deceased one) may make your dream-self realize you’re not actually awake. Upon this realization, you might be able to control the narrative and say or do whatever you want. This experience is referred to as lucid dreaming and can be used to reduce anxiety and nightmares or explore an alternate reality.

When describing their lucid dream experiences, people referenced violence roughly three times as often as sex. While fighting was incredibly common in both violence- and superpower-related lucid dreams, they were likely two different kinds of fighting. For every 100 lucid dreams, six involved murder, whereas magical powers were an element of four in every 100. Flight was the most referenced superpower and, indeed, the most popular of all lucid dreaming endeavors at a rate of over 1 in 6. Despite intimacy being significantly less common than violence in the lawless land of lucid dreaming, both kissing and intercourse were present in 3% of lucid dreams.

Filled With Fears

Nightmare timeline infographic

Nightmares may seem like a common occurrence – after all, everyone has had one at some point – but only between 2% and 8% of the adult population frequently has nightmares. Distressing dreams are typically reserved for children, but various factors can increase the occurrence of nightmares in adults. Interestingly, the frequency of adult nightmares also seems to depend on the time of year. While a spike in nightmares may make sense around October thanks to Halloween, nightmares actually hit lows in October and November. On the flip side, August was when bad dreams occurred most frequently, with 8.7% of dreams considered to be nightmares.

Fears tend to be shared across the general population, and nightmare themes are no different. One-third of nightmares involved death and pain, while just over 20% included falling or flying and blood and gore. Murder, school, and imaginary creatures ranging from zombies to demons were also relatively common, all appearing in at least 15% of nightmares.

While recurring nightmares were incredibly uncommon (accounting for less than 1% of all nightmares) and can indicate underlying disorders, the majority of recurring nightmares involved death and transpired in a home setting. More than 1 in 5 recurring nightmares made mention of transportation, demonstrating our persistent fear of violent automobile accidents or plane crashes. Almost as many took place in or involved school and college.

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

crowdsourcing sleep paralysis

Demons may pop up in nightmares frequently, but once the dreamer wakes up, the demon and fear associated with it typically dissipate. Nightmares attributed to sleep paralysis, on the other hand, are something else entirely. The “sleep demon” and related malicious visitors are global phenomena that date back centuries. Today, they are understood to be hallucinations that occur when a person is jolted awake in the middle of the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. During these episodes, the person is completely conscious, yet unable to move, and so at the mercy of whatever is standing at the end of the bed.

While episodes of sleep paralysis generally only last a few seconds to a few minutes, people tend to experience similar hallucinations. Thirty-six percent of sleep paralysis accounts described a visit by a demon, while a third recalled the presence of a monster. Black and red were the most mentioned colors during accounts of sleep paralysis, and descriptions of the presence’s age and mass were clear; characteristics like “old” and “thin” were much more ubiquitous than their alternatives. Putting all of the common features together, the creature depicted above is what you may expect to see the next time sleep paralysis strikes.

You may be interested in: At What Stage of Sleep Do You Dream?

Sleeping Soundly

Despite centuries of interpretation and decades of research, scientists are still unsure of the purpose or meaning behind dreams. The only thing we seem to know for certain is that people tend to have eerily similar dreams, nightmares, and even dream-related hallucinations. From dreams of death and celebrity appearances to lucid fighting and old sleep demons, specific themes stick out from the rest.

While the meaning of dreams remains largely unknown, some nightmares could be a sign of an underlying issue. Dreaming of Drake or flying with Superman may not be a cause for concern, but recurring nightmares or frequent episodes of sleep paralysis might not only be a sign of sleep deprivation, they could also cause your sleep quality to suffer. Once you’ve ruled out any underlying issues, though, it may be time for a new mattress or different type of pillow.

At The Sleep Judge, we understand the value of quality sleep. Our experts have spent countless hours reviewing and analyzing sleep products to give you the best advice. We may not be able to interpret your dreams, but we can help ensure you have good ones. To learn more, visit us online today.

Methodology and Limitations

The data presented here were scraped from Reddit and examined using text analysis software.

For all results that identify commonly used words, only contextually informative words were considered. Nondescriptive words, such as “and,” “I,” and “every,” were not included despite high representation. Words implicit to the subject of analysis, such as “dream,” “nightmare,” and “sleep,” were also excluded. Synonyms, derivatives, or sufficiently similar words were grouped together where appropriate. The metrics “appearance rate per dream” and “appearance rate per nightmare” were calculated by dividing the total number of times a given keyword (or derivative or synonym of said keyword) was used by the number of Reddit posts in the subset being analyzed.

Nightmare and celebrity data were retrieved by matching relevant keywords or phrases to the titles or bodies of any posts made in the subreddit r/Dreams since October of 2012. Further analysis was conducted by identifying commonly used language within those subsets. Dream interpretation data were retrieved by gathering all posts and comments from the subreddit r/DreamInterpretation since July of 2013 and associating them by post ID. Posts were categorized by matching their content against pertinent keywords. Trends in the interpretation of dreams in those categories were identified by analyzing verbiage used within the corresponding comments. Lucid dreaming data were retrieved from any posts under the flair “Experience” within the subreddit r/LucidDreaming since April of 2016.

Certain limitations are inherent to any text analysis that is performed on a large volume of text. Although every effort was made to exclude incidentally matched keywords and to avoid similar misattributions of meaning or intent, some percentages of our findings may be resultant of the presence of homophones, misspellings on the part of the post or comment author, or extraneous information within the data.

Fair Use Statement

We may not know what our dreams mean, but it helps to know that the dreams we have are more common than we think. If someone you know would benefit from our findings, we grant you permission to share our graphics and content for any noncommercial reuse. Our only request is that you link back to this page so that people can view the study in its entirety and see the methodology. This also gives credit to our hardworking contributors.