Do you recall ever dreaming of a rainbow, with its arc of spectral tones? Or the brilliant flaming reds and yellows of fall foliage? Think for a moment.
Most of us do dream in color, and it’s something we take for granted. After all, our world, which gives rise to our dreams, pulses with rich vibrant hues, at least for the 93 percent of our trichromatic species who actually perceive color.
But if you ask your parents, or friends over age 55, you might discover that some of them dream in black and white, according to dream research from University of Dundee Scotland, one of the UK’s leading educational centers. The reason, say the scientists, may have to do with the fact that those folks did not own a color TV in their early years.
“There could be a critical period in our childhood when watching films has a big impact on the way dreams are formed,” said Eva Murzyn, the study’s lead researcher. One reason for the impact “could be the heighten[ed] attention and emotional engagement” while watching TV or a movie, which could leave a “deeper imprint” on the mind.
Published several years ago in Consciousness and Cognition, a peer-reviewed international journal, the study found that our perception of dreaming in color or black and white is correlated with age and early childhood exposure to television.
For the research, 60 participants were rounded up; half of them were under age 25 and half over 55. Murzyn had them fill out a questionnaire about color in their dreams, and also their childhood exposure to film and TV. Subjects also kept a detailed dream diary.
What were the results?
The under-25 group reported dreaming in black and white just 4.4 percent of the time; those 55 and older who had access to color TV and films had monochromatic dreams just 7.3 percent of the time. But those 55-plus who only watched black and white media in their earlier years reported a quarter of their dreams were color-free.
When color television took off in the 60s it ushered in not only the NBC Peacock and the Land of Oz in living color, but perhaps a new aspect to dreams. “Television and films [are] by their very nature interesting, emotionally engaging, and even dreamlike. So when you dream you may copy what you have seen on the screen,” explained Murzyn.
On the other hand, she said, it’s yet to be determined whether the dreams were actually in black and white, or whether media exposure altered the way we reconstructed them once we woke up. And there has been previous evidence suggesting that before black and white TV, people did dream in color. So perhaps the media really does color — or un-color — our unconscious thoughts.
Or, maybe some people do only dream in black and white; or they dream in Technicolor but just don’t remember it. These many options have intrigued scientists for half a century.
Even when we’re awake, this color-recall business can be tricky. Back in 1973, Paul Simon wrote the song “Kodachrome,” an appreciation of the things in life that color our world. Sometimes he sang one of the lines “Everything looks worse in black and white” ; and other times “Everything looks better in black and white.” He claims he can’t remember which way he originally wrote it.