Analysing Dream Data

Once we’ve collected some dream reports, what next?

Content of Dreams

Maybe we want to try and understand the content of the dream itself, i.e. what things occurred in the dream. Two main methods of analysing dream content are often used in research: content analysis, and self-report.

Content Analysis

Content analysis really simply does mean just looking at the content of the dream. With this method, a few people who were not involved with collecting the dreams are given a set of dreams and asked to rate the content of them. This means they make note of who was in the dream, where it took place, what happened, how the people in it felt, and so on. It’s a useful way of looking at dream content because it’s reliable, meaning that if Person A and Person B rated a set of dreams using the same content analysis method, they’d get the same, or very similar results. In other words, we’re looking for a method that removes as much subjective interpretation as possible. 

The most widely used content analysis method in oneirology was developed by researchers Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle in 1966, and became known as the Hall-Van de Castle method. Using this method, we can find averages of different aspects of dream content, which helps us understand what dreams are generally like.

Content analysis’ main problem is that it requires people who have not actually had the dream themselves to make judgements on the dream content, which can mean we might miss subtle things about the dream that are not written down. For example, people don’t always write down how they felt in their dreams, meaning that emotions are often accidentally overlooked.


Since content analysis may miss some of the content of the dream, what other options are there? The obvious answer is we should ask the dreamers themselves to rate the content of their dreams, since they experienced it and have the best knowledge of it.

To do this, we can use the ‘affirmative probe method’ (don’t worry, no physical probes involved). This involves asking participants questions about specific aspects of the dream that the researchers are particularly interested in. For example, I have done quite a lot of research about emotions in dreams, so I often ask my participants to tell me how emotional their dream was, and I may ask them whether they experience specific emotions in their dream, like anger, fear, or happiness. In other studies, participants may be asked questions about how bizarre the dream was, or how it related to their waking life, or any other feature of the dream. This method doesn’t get a picture of every aspect of the dream, but it does have the advantage of being completed by the person who is the greatest authority on the dream content: the dreamer themselves.

Comparing Dreams from Different People and Situations

When collecting dream reports, one thing we may wish to learn is how dreams differ from person to person, and or from situation to situation. Why does person X have so many aggressive, violent dreams, while person Y has so many dreams about being late for work? Why did person Z have multiple dreams about having surgery when they were 50, but not when they were 25? To find out why dreams vary in these ways, we can collect dreams deliberately from different groups of people, or in different situations, and compare them.

Here’s just a few examples of comparisons we could do:

  • Do the dreams of women differ from those of men?
  • Are children’s dreams different to older adults’ dreams?
  • Do dreams from REM sleep differ from those of non-REM sleep?
  • How do dreams change after a traumatic experience?
  • Do dreams differ in people with psychiatric disorders?
  • How are lucid dreams different from ordinary dreams?

These kinds of analyses are best done with statistical analysis. By using a computer programme that will perform statistical tests for us, we can find out whether there are differences like the ones outlined above, and many others too. To do this kind of analysis, we have to convert everything to numbers. Using these kinds of quantitative analyses, we can find out all kinds of things, such as what affects how we dream, and how dreams in turn affect our waking lives; and we can discover how dreams differ across people, situations, and cultures.

Dreams and Waking Life

To better understand dreams, we can look at how they relate to our waking lives. For example:

  • Which aspects of waking life tend to be dreamt of the most often?
  • What do our dreams tell us about ourselves?
  • Does dreaming of something from waking life have any effect of us – for example, if we dream of an unpleasant experience we’ve had, does that help us to feel better about it?
  • Why does waking life appear in dreams in a different way to how we originally experienced it?

Qualitative Analyses

If we’ve collected the kinds of rich, detailed data we can get from interviews or dream groups, however, we can’t perform statistical analysis on this, because this type of data is not quantitative: there are no numbers to crunch. Rather, the data we have here is word-based. We’re analysing what our participants have said to us. Again, however, we’re not interpreting dreams here. Rather, we’re figuring out what patterns there are in what our participants have said to us. We can use a few different qualitative analysis techniques for this. For example, a Thematic Analysis would enable us to look for the themes that come up in the interviews we’ve recorded.

There are many other ways that oneirologists analyse dreams, but these are some of the main types of analysis.

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