New Algorithm Sifts Through 24,000 Dreams To Unravel Their Meaning


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockAug 26 2020, 23:50 UTC


There’s scarcely been a culture on Earth that hasn't pondered the meaning of dreams. For many ancient cultures, they were seen as a direct line to the divine or perhaps some form of supernatural premonition. For the more recent Freudian psychoanalysis, dreams were a sneak peek into the deepest, darkest depths of our unconscious. In a similar vein to this Freudian idea that dreams reflect ourselves and our lived experience, a new study suggests that dreams are effectively just a continuation of our waking reality.  

Researchers have recently developed an algorithm that picks out common themes and patterns in dreams. Using the automatic dream analysis on over 24,000 dream reports, they confirm a longstanding theory that dreams are a continuation of what happens in everyday life.


The research was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science this week. 

A team from Roma Tre University in Italy and Nokia Bell Labs in the UK developed an algorithm that’s able to analyze the words used in written reports of people's dreams. For example, it’s possible to identify people, animals, and fictional characters by looking for nouns, and classify interactions in terms of friendly interactions or acts of aggression by looking at the verbs. Using this method, they sought to highlight three components of the dream: characters, social Interactions, and emotions.

"These three dimensions are considered to be the most important ones in aiding the interpretation of dreams as they define the backbone of a dream plot: who was present, which actions were performed and which emotions were expressed," the study authors write in the paper. 

The algorithm was then applied to over 24,000 accounts of dreams found on Dream Bank, an online public database of dreams collated from psychological research studies. This bank contained dreams of hundreds of people from the 1930s to 2017, but it also contained a number of sets from people that were of particular interest to the researchers. This included a young adult named Izzy who recorded her dreams between the ages of 12 and 25, a Vietnam war veteran, and a set of 400 dreams reported by people with blindness.


According to the researchers, their findings provide some supporting evidence for the “continuity hypothesis”, the idea that a dream’s contents closely reflect the dreamer’s current thoughts, feelings, and salient experiences, effectively acting as a continuation of what is happening in their everyday life.

“We found that most dream reports were indeed a continuation of what our dreamers were likely to experience in real life,” the researchers conclude. 

“As much as in their real lives, in their dreams, women tended to be friendlier and less aggressive than men; Izzy experienced negative emotions during her adolescence, followed by sexual interactions in later years; our war veteran experienced uncommon levels of aggression; and individuals in the US experienced high levels of aggression in the 1960s, in line with official crime statistics,” they added. 

“All these results support the idea that there is indeed continuity between what individuals experience in real life and what they dream.”