Dream Content Analysis Explained
by Nori Muster

Dream content analysis is completely different from the traditional Jungian and Freudian systems of dream analysis. The fathers of modern psychology Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud believed dreams reflected psychological states, and speak in symbols, or metaphors. The world of dream content analysis gives credit to Drs. Jung and Freud, because at the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they were the first to recognize dreams are psychological, rather than religious or prophetic.

Dream content researchers do not concern themselves with symbols and metaphors in dreams. They prefer to dissect dreams for statistics. To get data, they count the occurrence of characters (male, female, child, family member, friend, unknown), settings (indoor, outdoor, familiar, unfamiliar), plots (fortune, misfortune, success, failure), social interactions (friendly, aggressive), activities (walking, talking, seeing, thinking), objects (clothing, money, nature, food, household, architectural, etc.), emotions (anger, apprehension, happiness, sadness, confusion), and other categories.

These categories are from the Hall/Van de Castle System of Quantitative Dream Content Analysis, and were established by dream researchers Dr. Calvin S. Hall and Dr. Robert Van de Castle in the 1960s. This was the standard established in the mid-twentieth century. The system gives element a code, for example Father (F) Mother (M) Parents (X) Brother (B) Sister (T) Husband (H) Wife (W) Son (A) Daughter (D) Child (C) (infant or Baby (I) Family member (Y).

In the computer age we now live in, researchers have modified the Hall/Van de Castle System to include many of the same criteria, but they count using computer keyword and word-string search functions. Although it is not pure Hall/Van de Castle, it's all based on the original work of Drs. Hall and Van de Castle.

Content analysis is based on statistics drawn from large samples of one hundred or more dreams. After coding a dream sample and establishing statistics, researchers compare the data to the statistical norms for adults, for women, men, and various other populations.

Dream content analysis seeks to establish whether there is continuity between dreams and waking life. Researchers have found dreams do not necessarily track our activities in waking life, but rather our concerns. Dr. William Domhoff, a leading researcher in this field, said dreams are dramatizations of our waking lives. He likens them to a play or soap opera version of daily life. Dreams emphasize how we feel about ourselves, the nature of our interactions, and our relationships. Calvin S. Hall said the images of a dream are the embodiment of thoughts.

Content researchers have found the frequency of people and situations in our dreams reveal the intensity of our concerns. Whatever interests a person or causes anxiety will most likely play a part in the person's dreams. For example, analysis of large dream samples often show consistent dreams about two or three key people in the dreamer's life.

Content analysis also shows there is a consistency in one person's dreams over time. The same characters may appear in one person's dreams over decades, including after the character dies.

Dream content analysis shows dreams are not bizarre, but usually concern everyday situations that could happen in waking life. Even if something bizarre happens, the dreamer usually realizes it as unusual. For example, a dreamer might report, “I saw my grandfather, but he died years ago, so it seemed strange I would see him.” Even if someone flies in a dream, the dreamer notes it as an unusual experience. Studies show, only two percent of dreams are contain bizarre elements. Some theorize that people with psychological pathologies would have a higher percentage of bizarre dreams.

Researchers in other fields of dream research may say dreams have something do to with processing memories, or dreams are just random thoughts from the sleeping mind, or dreams process negative experiences from the day and are therefore best forgotten. All these theories are outside of the study of dream content analysis. Content analysis has found consistency in three areas:

Commonalities in all people's dreams. Continuity in one individual's dreams over time. Continuity between dreams and waking concerns.

Dream content analysis also acknowledges dreams may play a part in life transitions or times of crisis. The images from dreams may provide insights, or beckon the dreamer to consider a new perspective. Dreams may also suggest creative images to artists, new music to musicians, plot ideas to writers, or breakthroughs to inventors. Dreams might also provide a good way to discuss personal issues. Instead of directly disclosing thoughts and feelings, people might feel more comfortable talking about a dream that covers the same issues. However, content analysis does not characterize dreams as a problem solving process.

Dream content analysis is a scientific approach to dream studies. The goal is to learn how dreams work and why we dream.

Learn More About Dream Content Analysis

DreamResearch.net - Index for the study of content analysis, by Prof. William Domhoff, University of California, Santa Cruz. The following links are available through this page.

Introduction to Content Analysis - discover an objective and quantitative system to analyze dreams.

The The Hall/Van De Castle system explained - learn how the Hall/Van de Castle System of Quantitative Dream Content Analysis is set up.

Examples of Coded Dreams - link here to see how coding is notated.

Papers by Nori Muster

Presentation summary of Nori's presentation at the 34th Annual Dream Conference, International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD).

Dream Sets for Content Analysis - Update on Nori's dream content studies.


Looking for jewelry in the waves, 2006.

Dream Index