New research in Scientific Reports provides evidence that the way people think and feel during their waking hours strongly related to the content and characteristics of their dreams during sleep. Specifically, dreams are most similar to thoughts that are unrelated to ongoing tasks (e.g. mind wandering), supporting the idea that our daytime experiences are psychologically intertwined with our dreams at night.
Despite advancements in scientific understanding, the reasons behind why we dream remain elusive. Previous research has drawn parallels between the content of dreams and waking thoughts, hinting at possible connections. However, most studies have been limited by small sample sizes and a lack of exploration into which types of waking thoughts are most similar to dreams. This study aimed to address these gaps and gain insights into the underlying mechanisms of dreaming.
“My doctoral work revolved around the topic of the thoughts that emerge in contexts when environmental demands are minimal,” explained study author Quentin Raffaelli, a PhD in Psychology affiliated with the Neuroscience of Emotion and Thought Lab at the University of Arizona.
“In daily life, this includes situations when one performs a task that is extremely easy, based on rote memory (e.g., doing the dishes), or passive (e.g., waiting for the bus). These situations demand very little cognitively from us. What’s fascinating is that in these situations the mind has a tendency to produce a lot of unrelated content, what is usually called mind wandering. An extreme form of such a situation is dreaming, when the mind generates content that is available to consciousness in a situation where the body is (almost) entirely decoupled from the environment and has no task to perform beyond the recuperative and maintenance activities that require sleep.”
“A lot of work suggest some sort of continuity between ‘day-dreams’ (i.e., mind wandering as defined by task-unrelated thought) and dreams, a theory known as the Continuity Hypothesis. Our goal with this study was to demonstrate with a large and diverse sample that this continuity includes the phenomenological characteristics of such experiences, that is, that the way we daydream is predictive of the way we dream.”
To explore the relationship between dreams and waking thoughts, the researchers conducted a study involving 719 young adults. Participants were recruited from the University of Arizona’s undergraduate student pool. They were required to download a smartphone app called “Mind Window,” which prompted them to answer questions about their thoughts and feelings throughout the day. This ecological momentary assessment was conducted over a period of one week.
The researchers categorized waking thoughts into four distinct categories:
- Stimulus-Independent Task-Unrelated Thoughts: These are thoughts that spontaneously arise in your mind without any connection to external events and are not related to the task you are currently doing.
- Stimulus-Dependent Task-Unrelated Thoughts: These thoughts are triggered by external stimuli or events but do not pertain to the task you are engaged in, often serving as distractions.
- Stimulus-Independent Task-Related Thoughts: These thoughts are generated independently of external influences and are focused on the specific task or activity you are currently performing, representing spontaneous insight.
- Stimulus-Dependent Task-Related Thoughts: These thoughts are both influenced by external stimuli and directly related to the task you are currently working on, indicating full engagement in the task and responsiveness to the environment.
Additionally, participants were asked to complete a self-report questionnaire about their typical dreams, covering various characteristics such as intentionality, awareness, vividness, valence, and more.
The most striking finding of the study was the significant similarity between dreams and task-unrelated thoughts, particularly those that were stimulus-independent. Participants perceived their dreams as resembling these thoughts in terms of valence, vividness, self-focus, and social content.
Furthermore, the researchers discovered that task-unrelated thoughts, especially those that were emotionally charged, correlated positively with dream characteristics at the individual level. This suggests that individuals with more emotionally significant concerns in their waking life tended to experience similar emotional content in both their dreams and daytime thoughts.
Another intriguing aspect of the study revealed that individuals who engaged in rumination, a repetitive and passive focus on distressing thoughts, exhibited more negative and unconstructive dreams. This trait rumination was found to be linked to both negative dream characteristics and the degree of concern individuals had about the COVID-19 pandemic. The study demonstrated that those prone to rumination were more likely to experience distressing dreams, particularly when they were highly concerned about global issues like the pandemic.
“The main take-away from our study is that there is a relationship between the characteristics of mind wandering and dreams,” Raffaelli told PsyPost. “We found that the phenomenological profile of participants’ daydreams was predictive of the phenomenological profiles of their dreams. In simpler words, the way we daydream is the way we dream.”
“Our results also suggest it may be related to the way one deals with their current concerns or unfinished businesses, all the short and long-term problems and worries that seem to make up a lot of what we think about when we mind wander. Individuals that were more worried about the COVID-19 pandemic experienced more negative dreams, and this tendency was worsen for individuals who tend to ruminate, a maladaptive approach to dealing with one’s problems and worries.”
The findings of the study are in line with the Continuity Hypothesis of dreams, which posits that there is a fundamental relationship between waking cognitive processes and dreaming, implying that the thoughts, concerns, and experiences people have during their waking hours are often reflected in their dreams during sleep.
“What I learned about dreams in preparation to this project was fascinating,” Raffaelli said. “The work on the Continuity Hypothesis in particular, which suggests various sorts of similarities between waking life and dreams, was very interesting. Multiple lines of works for example show that individuals with particular mental health conditions have dreams that reflect their wakeful idiosyncratic way of thinking and that one can see the characteristics of dreams evolve as mental health status improves or worsens.”
While this study provides valuable insights into the connections between dreams and waking thoughts, it is not without limitations. One limitation is that participants’ self-reporting of their dreams may be influenced by their personality traits, potentially skewing the results. Moreover, the study focused on a specific age group (young adults), limiting the generalizability of the findings.
“No research design is perfect, and ours is no exception,” Raffaelli told PsyPost. “It is difficult to get very precise assessment of dreams and here we add to make a compromise between having a very large sample and precision of assessment, favoring the former over the latter. It would be necessary to strengthen our results with a follow-up that captures more carefully the characteristics of dreams in particular.”
“People interested in the topic may consider the book ‘When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep’ by Zadra and Stickgold,” Raffaelli added. “Chapter 8 in particular proposes an explanation as to why mind wandering and dreams appear to share so much and was an important inspiration of this work.”
The study, “Dreams share phenomenological similarities with task-unrelated thoughts and relate to variation in trait rumination and COVID-19 concern“, was authored by Quentin Raffaelli, Eric S. Andrews, Caitlin C. Cegavske, Freya F. Abraham, Jamie O. Edgin, and Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna.