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Visualizing the Emotional Content of Dreams

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In this series I devised a system whereby I could attempt to quantify emotions reported in different subject’s dreams and then create visualizations from the data I gathered. 

Methodologically, the project is a nightmare! The quantification of emotion is entirely subjective, the development of a suitably scaled register of emotions extremely tricky, the sample sizes (nine dreams per subject) are small, and it is next to impossible to assign visibly distinct colors and patterns to a range of emotions large enough to do some justice to the complex human psyche! 

Of course, part of the project involves the absurdity involved in attempting to quantify subjectivity, so difficulty is part of the point. Nevertheless they do present at a glance a general “gestalt” of a dreamer, and it is much easier to note certain features in this format than from a chart of numbers. 

For example, Phil, a retired humanities professor, has no positive encounters with anybody in the dreams I happen to have selected, while Toby, a young “party animal” has many. Meanwhile Joan, a college student, has dreams that are almost as anxiety-filled as the nightmares of an anonymous Vietnam war veteran. And Barb Sanders has dreams that range all over the emotional scale. In these images, dream reports are transformed into peculiar geometries resembling crop circles, with only the subtle hints of names to indicate their manifest content.

All the dreams analyzed here are taken from “The Dreambank“, a dream report repository maintained by Adam Schneider & G. William Domhoff at the Department of Psychology, UC Santa Cruz.

See the dreams of "BARB SANDERS"
See the dreams of "JOAN"
See the dreams of "TOBY"
See the dreams of "PHIL"
See the dreams of a VIETNAM VET
#0662, 01-04-1985


In the dream on the left, “Barb Sanders” goes through seven distinct emotional states, each represented by a ring of color progressing outward from the center. It starts with strong affection, but ends in anxiety. The size of each ring represents the intensity of that feeling. Two other actors are present in the dream, who are both strangers (the dotted lines), but there is a romantic element in one of them (the wavy line). Her interaction is negative with the “Bad Guy Neighbor”(he is placed on the left), while she has a positive interaction with the other (on the right). Here the size of the circle represents the relative importance they play in the emotional state of the dreamer. In this case they are both quite large, indicating they each play an important role. All diagrams begin with a circle of white, the unknown emotional state that precedes the dream. Note that in general “cool” colors, (greens, blues and also browns) indicate more negative feelings, while “warm” colors (reds, purples, yellows) indicate more positive feelings – this dream moves from generally positive to generally negative.