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Emotions in Dreams vs. Real Life

By Emily Wilson • March 24, 2015

Andy Martens is a current student of the Data Science Bootcamp at Metis. The following entry is about a project he recently completed and is also published on his website, which you may find here.

How are the emotions we typically experience in dreams different than the emotions we typically experience during real-life events?

We can get some clues about this question using a publicly available dataset. Tracey Kahan at Santa Clara University asked 185 undergraduates to each describe two dreams and two real-life events. That's about 370 dreams and about 370 real-life events to analyze.

There are all sorts of ways we might do this. But here's what I did, in short (with links to my code and methodological details). I pieced together a somewhat comprehensive set of 581 emotion-related words. Then I examined how often these words show up in people's descriptions of their dreams relative to descriptions of their real-life experiences.

The graph below shows the 25 emotion words that appeared most frequently in the dream descriptions as compared to real life descriptions. The higher the number, the more "dream-representative" the word

We can also plot the reverse - the emotion words that appeared more frequently in descriptions of real life than in dreams.

Most apparent from these results, people used more negative emotion-words in their descriptions of dreams relative to real life events. Almost all--96%--of the dream-representative emotions are negative (if we treat "shocked" as a neutral word). Whereas only about 50% of the real-life emotions are negative. In the same vein, if we just look at the negative words in both graphs, the negative words representative of dreams appear more intense. This pattern for dreams to have darker and more negative emotional content than descriptions of waking life is consistent with other research (e.g., Kemp & Burt, 2003).

What do these differences mean? Who knows. But it's conceivable that the differences we see between the two graphs can tell us about the unconscious, about the emotions that are buried beneath the surface during the day but that have an opportunity to express themselves during sleep while people's defenses and inhibitions are relaxed.

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