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What Does the Latest Dream Research Tell Us? Not Much

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

What is the earliest dream you can remember? Mine was a precarious encounter with death in a swimming pool. I was quite small at the time. In the dream, I was happily swimming underwater in an outdoor pool until I heard a slow, loud THWUMP above my head. Curious, I swam toward the surface, only to hit my head on something that felt like cold plexiglass. As I repeatedly tried to stick my head above water (I couldn’t hold my breath much longer), a dull panic swept over me as I realized that the entire pool was covered with this layer of clear yet immovable material. I was trapped.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I then heard a screeching, sliding noise underneath me. I looked down and saw the bottom of the pool opening up to a deep, dark hole beneath. To my horror, there was something rising up out of the dark depths. It was a very large, very hungry shark.

It was at this point that panic hit. Here I was, a tiny girl, about to die either by drowning or by getting mutilated by a creature from the deep. Thank goodness for that little part of the brain that allows us to recognize, on some level, that we are dreaming and violently shake ourselves awake. And that’s exactly what I did – just as the shark widened its sharp-toothed mouth under my feet. I don’t think I slept the rest of the night.

What do dreams like this mean, and why do we have them? For centuries, theories have been tossed about in an attempt to analyze this puzzling part of our subconscious. If dream analysis seems passé to you, think again. Dream research is still alive and well in the fields of psychology and neurology. In fact, there’s an International Association for the Study of Dreams that assembles each year to discuss the latest scientific findings on dreams.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune summarized some of this research. Alas, I was expecting a little more. Here’s a sample of what we know about dreams these days:

  • We’re more likely to dream about dead relatives during the holidays.
  • Most dreams are negative.
  • Kids tend to dream about being chased by big, bad monsters (like sharks).
  • Adults dream mostly about public embarrassments or personal failures.

That’s it, you say? Yep – nothing very earth shattering here. And yet researchers are determined to uncover the answers to mysteries behind our dreams by compiling a massive “dream bank” containing dream content as well as characteristics about the dreamers. They hope that their findings can ultimately serve some practical application.

I hope so too. I know that vivid nightmares are experienced by many struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example. If we could use dream research to help facilitate the recovery process, then this type of inquiry would be highly worthwhile.

But as far as understanding my “swimming pool of death” dream, I think I need to let go of any hope of uncovering an earth shattering revelation. Instead, I’ll just continue to check the bottoms of swimming pools whenever I go for a dip.


Dribben, M. (January 8, 2014). Research awakens the world of dreams: Computerized “banks” collect data for study. Chicago Tribune (Online Kindle version).

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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