A Factor Model of Dreams Reveals Universal Themes

And explains why school nightmares are so common

According to a study by Calvin Kai-Ching Yu (2009), the five most common dream scenarios are school dreams (95%), being chased or pursued (92%), falling (87%), arriving too late (81%), and failing an exam (79%). Honourable mentions go to Freudian content such as sexual experiences (70%, ranked within the top 10), toilet-related embarrassment (60%), and teeth falling out (49%). Horror filmmakers, you might like to take some notes.

Curiously, one-third of respondents reported dreaming of towers. In Tarot readings, The Tower card foreshadows danger and destruction but also change and liberation. I suppose it all depends on whether your dream tower is your defence or prison. Whatever it all means, it tickles my fancy to see something so positively medieval make the cut.

My most common dream is trying again and again to do something (74%, ranked 7th). Either I’m trying to leave my house but always find one more thing that needs doing, or I’m outside searching for a toilet but can only find ones on daises in plain view of passersby.

Another recurrent dream is arriving late to the airport sans passport, trying to make it to a subterranean cinema on time, and missing out on the wares of the world’s most enchanting market. This last one drives me crazy; I arrive as they’re packing up and glimpse some wondrous wares being rolled up in an oilskin. An elderly man patiently explains they close at four o’clock.

The market is hard to find; you have to take a left at the fork at the top of the grassy knoll and make your way through a sun-dappled forest. Taking the path on the right leads to an Ammophila-covered bank overlooking a rocky sea. (I thought I’d give you directions in case you were ever in the area and felt like dropping by.)

What are your most common dreams? And to which of the three themes (underlying factors) do they map? Keep reading to find out.

Übermensch, fugitives, and failures

Dreams, generated largely without any sensory input, can be likened to a hallucination. The dreamer finds him or herself in a psychotic state where reason takes a back seat, and everything takes on a preternatural significance. It’s not surprising, then, that the contents of dreams and delusions overlap. Two of the most common dream themes identified in Yu’s study were delusions of grandiosity and persecution. These also feature prominently in first-episode psychosis, as shown in the diagram below.

Those with paranoid schizophrenia frequently report delusions of persecution. Such individuals may believe that others are spying on them or conspiring against them. In the dream study, 67% of participants reported they were tracked or spied on, while 51% felt an unseen presence was watching them.

Delusions of grandiosity typically relate to having some great insight or talent or believing that one has a connection to/is a prominent figure such as Jesus Christ. In dreams, this sense of grandiosity manifests as having superior or magical abilities. More than half of respondents dreamt of being a big shot or celebrity. On the other hand, only 13% upped the ante by dreaming of being a god; religious delusions rarely occurred in the dream narrative.

The third dream theme relates to the ego ideal, comprising dreams where we fail to achieve our goals and self-actualise. Such dreams typically involve struggling in school or failing examinations, arriving too late to catch a train, and failing to find a toilet in time.

I have a reoccurring school dream where I have only a few hours to hand in my very overdue fourth-grade diorama. If I don’t finish on time, it means I never technically graduated primary school, and I’ll be hauled off in handcuffs for lying on my resume. As a consummate procrastinator and overthinker, my school dreams feature construction-paste-based assignments rather than trickier high school exams, which at least are a much shorter ordeal.

The explanation for the preponderance of school dreams is likely this: just as we fear persecution and desire power, we also aspire to be evaluated positively by those around us. And, of course, being formally assessed starts when we commence schooling, explaining the significance of such dreams to our collective (traumatised) psyche.

Further reading

Paolini, E., Moretti, P., & Compton, M. T. (2016). Delusions in first-episode psychosis: principal component analysis of twelve types of delusions and demographic and clinical correlates of resulting domains. Psychiatry Research, 243, 5–13. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2016.06.002

Waters, F., Blom, J. D., Dang-Vu, T. T., Cheyne, A. J., Alderson-Day, B., Woodruff, P., & Collerton, D. (2016). What Is the Link Between Hallucinations, Dreams, and Hypnagogic–Hypnopompic Experiences?. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 42(5), 1098–1109. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sbw076

Yu, C. K.-C. (2009). Delusions and the factor structure of typical dreams. Dreaming, 19(1), 42–54. doi:10.1037/a0014789

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