Why the Heck Did I Dream That: The cultural implications of dream content.

Sometimes I have the most insane, outlandish dreams.  One time I was being chased around a library by a tiny man on a huge crane because I forgot to return a library book.  The next night I’m rowing an inflatable canoe through my school’s hallways.  How do our brains come up with such ridiculous scenarios?  Do blow up canoes even exist?

While I may not buy into this notion that dreams have any meaning beyond the meaning we inscribe upon them once we wake, and while I may think dream interpretation is a little whack, the actual content of my dreams nonetheless fascinates me.  Is my outside world influencing the content of my dreams, or am I spontaneously coming up with this material?

I started thinking about the culture implications of dream content the other day when I learned that the hallucinations often associated with schizophrenia are very much culturally informed.  I’ve linked a pretty cool article about this down below, but long story short, this study focused on the auditory hallucinations (hearing voices) that many people with schizophrenia experience across cultures.  While hearing voices was consistent regardless of where the patient was from, what was really interesting was how the “attitude” of the voices varied depending on culture.

  While in the United States the voices people hear may be hostile and violent, telling them to harm themselves or others, it was found that in places such as India and Ghana the voices are often much more gentle and offer guidance, or lightly scold.  While the participants from the U.S. described the voices as similar to being in battle, those in India regarded the voices as good, and those in Ghana described the voices as entirely positive.

While hallucinations stemming from schizophrenia are certainly not the same things as the dreams we experience during REM sleep, there has to be something to this.  Surely if culture can pervade hallucinations, affecting the content of them so significantly, it must have some influence on our dream content as well.  I poked around through the literature quite a bit and found a fascinating piece about the influence of culture on dream content.  I’ve linked the study down below, as well as an abstract from an additional similar study.  This study was specifically concerned with comparing the types of aggressive behavior reported in the dreams of both Zapotecs and Americans, and the findings are really cool.  Okay, so basically aggression is one of the most common dream “themes,” and while there were some similarities between the two culture’s dreams, the differences were striking: less sex and age variation appeared in the Zapotec dreams, aggression was more physical than verbal in the Zapotec dreams, and in the Zapotec dreams the aggression was aimed more at non-humans than in the American’s dreams.

Of course, the study is more nuanced and complex than those three differences, but I think what is most noteworthy is simply that there was such difference.  Regardless of whether we think dreams have meaning, or that they are just the result of random neuron firings in the brain as we sleep, it is still utterly fascinating that one’s culture can have such a profound impact on the content of these dreams.  It just goes to show how deeply engrained in us culture is that it permeates even our most subconscious thoughts.

Check these out!

Article about hallucinations:


Study on cross-cultural dream content: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/002076407702300107




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