Deconstructing dreams: Purdue researcher investigates the networks we create while our eyes are closed

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

You’re sitting at your desk, scrolling through emails, and suddenly your teeth start falling out. You wake up in a panic, hands immediately flying to your still-intact teeth. Relief washes over you. It was all a dream.

Richard Schweickert, professor of psychological sciences. Photo provided.
Richard Schweickert, professor of psychological sciences. Photo provided.

Teeth falling out is one of the most common themes in dreams; among some of the others are falling, flying, being chased and death. Richard Schweickert, professor of psychological sciences in Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences, is an expert on dreams, with his research taking a scientific approach to interpreting the content of dreams, a passion that began in high school when he was first introduced to Sigmund Freud’s work.

“I read his book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams,’ which was very popular, and many people still read it,” Schweickert said. “I found it quite intriguing but very unsatisfying because it really wasn’t very scientifically grounded. So I hoped for a way to pursue dreams from a scientific point of view.”

Schweickert’s research focuses primarily on the people one sees and interacts with within their dreams and who make up the dreamer’s social network. The social networks that are created from dreams offer a way for researchers like Schweickert to code the content of dreams using the Hall and Van de Castle system. This coding method allows two people to look at the same dream and objectively agree upon what the content of that dream was and the people who appeared in it.

“I think for most people who remember dreams, the most salient elements are the people in the dreams,” Schweickert said.

Building the network

Researchers often construct waking-life social networks by adding a link between two people who attended the same event, regardless of whether they talked to each other, such as sorority members who were at the same dance at the same time. In Schweickert’s research, social networks in dreams can be reliably constructed in a similar way.

Schweickert and his team use a collection of techniques for analyzing social networks that took off with social media platforms like Facebook and apply them to the social networks that appear in dreams.

While the description of what exactly a person was doing in their dream can be hazy — especially when the individual is writing a report about their dream while they are half-asleep — it is much easier to confirm that two individuals were in the dream together, Schweickert noted.

However, while the two social networks may be tracked in a similar way, we may be more “social” in dreams than we are in waking life.

“It turns out that when people have done studies on the frequency of social interactions in dreams compared with the frequency of social interactions in waking life, social interactions are actually more prevalent in dreams, which has led some people to propose that maybe a function of dreams is to provide simulations of social situations for us to practice our social skills,” Schweickert said.

The individuals one regularly interacts with each day, such as a partner or spouse, often appear as central characters in that person’s dreams, and the interactions they have with their partner in dreams often mirror those they have with them in waking life, Schweickert noted. However, dreams often favor remote connections, which is a way that dream social networks differ from those that occur in waking life, according to Schweickert’s research.

“In dreams, people from different periods of the dreamer’s life sometimes appear in the same dream,” Schweickert explained.

One example of this is that a dreamer Schweickert and his team studied dreamed that one of her ex-boyfriends and her granddaughter were sitting together with her in a chair; however, in real life, the two had never met and their places in the timeline of the woman’s life were decades apart. In this way, dreams are not limited to the same timelines as those that occur in waking life.

Schweickert also noted that while our dreams are heavily influenced by our daily interactions and happenings, there are other components that factor into our dreams as well, such as the things and people we’re thinking about rather than encountering. His team observed this in one dreamer whose sister appeared as a recurring character in her dreams, despite that her sister had died in a jogging accident months prior to her reporting these dreams.

Stressful slumbers

Not everything we dream is positive, though, especially during a global pandemic.

As people complied with stay-at-home orders and weren’t required to wake up to their usual early alarms, there were more opportunities for dreaming and remembering those dreams, Schweickert said. However, as more stressful news and uncertainty built up as the pandemic progressed, the possibility for unpleasant dreams increased.

“It does seem that dreams do reflect a person’s overall concerns, maybe not on a day-by-day basis, but if someone is anxious over a period of time, then the dreams will reflect that anxiety,” Schweickert said. “Certainly during the pandemic, there is an increase in stress and anxiety for most people, so that would lead people to remember dreams.”

There was one study, Schweickert noted, that examined the dreams of nurses who were working with COVID-19 patients in China, and they reported having far more nightmares than people ordinarily do, which offered an indication that unusual amounts of stress could lead to more unusual dreams that reflect the stressful circumstances.

Schweickert said this kind of phenomenon can also be seen with unpleasant recurring dreams. One study, he noted, compared the well-being of people who were having negative recurring dreams with those who no longer had them or had never had recurring dreams. The study revealed that on average those who were having the recurring dreams had a worse overall well-being than those who had previously had them or had never had them at all, which offers the hypothesis that recurring dreams could be an indicator of something troubling a person.

However, because dreams are difficult to interpret with certainty, many of the explanations as to why we dream what we do or what causes common dream themes are guesswork to some degree, Schweickert said.

Looking for a moral

While many of the “why’s” and “how’s” of dreams are somewhat of a mystery, Schweickert suggested there is still value and knowledge that people can gain from their dreams on an individual level. For instance, it has been suggested that Dmitri Mendleev’s organization of the periodic table fell into place in a dream, and the plot of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” came to him in a dream.

“I think with dreams, they have often provided a person with insight into a problem,” Schweickert said. “I also think they’re somewhat perhaps like music or poetry — that they do have an emotional content — and that can sometimes — just like music — be calming, even though it might not make a lot of sense. I do think we get quite a bit out of them.”

Discover more from News | College of Health and Human Sciences

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.