Every adult on the planet spends around two hours each night in dreamland. And while your dreams may seem like unique visions, visited only upon you, they aren’t the special snowflakes you imagine. Your dreams are often a product of your culture.
But everybody dreams they can fly.
Actually that’s true, says Roc Morin, a psychology instructor at City College of New York. Morin launched the World Dream Atlas Project on Facebook — a collection of images and thoughts gathered (on his off-hours) while traveling as a journalist. Writing for The Atlantic, he describes collecting “dreams from hundreds of people in 17 countries” during a 10-month period. And while everyone flies, and dreams across cultures often invoke mysticism or the divine, Morin says he’s noticed “population-specific trends as well.”
That culture influences dreams makes sense, for obvious reasons. Much of the imagery and content conjured up while you’re asleep is drawn from your familiar, waking environment, which is probably different than that of, say, an East African tribesman. So while you dream that you’re back at college or in a maze of office hallways, the tribesman dreams of rivers and snakes and a rain forest canopy.
Cultural influences can also manifest themselves more subtly. Studies from the early 2000s comparing the dreams of Chinese, German and Canadian students found that the two most prevalent types of dreams among the German and Chinese had to do with schools, teachers and studying, followed by dreams about being chased or pursued.
The Canadian survey group, on the other hand, had far fewer dreams about school; what they dreamed about most was being chased, or sexual experiences. Curiously, both the Canadian and Chinese group dreamed of performing tasks over and over, a dream topic not shared by the Germans.
Finally, Morin observed that violent nightmares are common amongst those in the gang-ridden border towns of Mexico and the war zones of eastern Ukraine.
Are there other links between culture and dream content?
Some of the differences in dreams may also stem from how people sleep. A 2014 New York Times story quoted anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, who arrived in a small village deep in the Amazon, where people slept outdoors, in an open thatched structure, and in groups. They would awaken frequently to drink tea (to keep warm) or from the animal calls nearby.
“Thanks to these continuous disruptions,” he wrote, “dreams spill into wakefulness...and wakefulness into dreams in a way that entangles them both.” Surely the experience of dreaming would be different when you sleep in short bursts.
But even cultures that are geographically connected can still have variances in their dreams. For a study released earlier this year, Chinese researchers compared death related dreams of 470 Tibetan and Han Chinese subjects. Despite the common topic and nationality, the imagery and colors of the dreams differed between the groups. Chinese death dreams were shaded with black and featured funereal and birth imagery, while the Tibetan dreams were cast in red and white and focused on people dying.
It sounds like one common denominator the world over is that people love to share their dreams.
Not always. Morin approached a Latvian woman about his project and asked her to participate.
My dreams? Aren’t those very private? she asked.
Morin assured the woman he was a professional.
“It’s like undressing for a doctor,” he explained. “Strictly business.”
“Actually,” she countered. “I’m a stripper, so I have no problem taking off my clothes. But my dreams? That’s very different.”