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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Dream Influence

Q. Does a person's mood and their events of the day affect what they dream about? Do we have any control over our dreams?

A. This seems to be an area of little research and considerable controversy. It seems self-evident that daily events influence our dreams in some fashion--but the manner and degree of influence is not necessarily clear. In an interesting piece entitled, "The 'dream-lag' effect: a 6-day temporal delay in dream content incorporation," Nielson and Powell (Psychiatr J Univ Ott 1989 Nov;14(4):561-5) found a 6-day delay between event occurrence and incorporation of the event into the subject's dreams.

But, can we control the content of our own dreams? A study by Griffin & Folkes (Percept Mot Skills 1977 Oct;45(2):660-2) studied 29 subjects who attempted, over a period of 10 nights, to influence their dreams, using techniques described in Garfield's book, "Creative Dreaming" (1974). A target suggestion was selected from a list of six suggestions compiled by, or for, each subject. Subjects kept daily records during the experiment both of their efforts at dream influence and of the dreams they recalled. Four judges attempted to identify from the dream material the target suggestion on each subject's suggestion list. The results indicated that the judges were unable to do so at better than chance levels. Thus, the study found no reliable evidence that conscious presleep suggestions become incorporated into dream content.

On the other hand, Nikles et al (J Pers Soc Psychol 1998 Jul;75(1):242-55) hypothesized that suggesting topics associated with participants' current concerns would influence dream content more than suggesting other topics. Ten students spent 4 nights in a sleep laboratory: an adaptation night, a baseline night, and 2 nights under suggestions to dream about a concern-related or other topic. Concern-related suggestions did influence dream content--largely its central imagery--more than did other suggestions, which did not differ from nonsuggestion. So, it appears the jury is still out.

However, I can tell you that clinicians who treat sufferers with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) have been using dream alteration techniques to modify the often terrifying nightmares PTSD victims experience. Preliminary evidence suggests some benefits with this approach, but controlled studies are needed.

December 2001

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