Sleep Care

The Dream Series, Part 3: The Developmental Perspective

It’s easy to think back to when we were young and remember how things were different: what we thought of parents and adults, trips to a doctor’s or dentist’s office, first day of school. Do dreams fall into this category as well? Are the dreams we have as children significantly different from those we have as adults? We continue the Dream Series to look at the developmental perspective of dreams throughout the different stages of life. Is dreaming an ability that people are born with, or does it develop as they grow through childhood and adolescence? Psychologist David Foulkes has spent most of his life conducting research to answer these question.

Dreaming in Children and Adolescents

Foulkes set up a longitudinal study with participants which allowed him to see how dreaming occurred at various ages through childhood and adolescence. His initial group included seven boys and seven girls ages two through four that he followed for a span of five years, looking at dreaming between the ages of three and nine. He also studied a second group of participants—eight boys and eight girls ages nine and ten—for five years to examine dreaming during the ages of nine to fifteen.

In the first, third, and fifth years of the studies, Foulkes had the participants come into the lab to sleep for a total of nine nights. While in the lab, they were awakened three times—from either NREM or REM sleep—and were asked about any dreams that they had or were having at those moments. To ensure experimenter consistency, Foulkes conducted all 2,711 awakenings himself.


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the data he collected, Foulkes found that for children under five years of age, dreaming primarily consisted of static or bland images. By ages five to eight, dreams had a sequence of events to them but lacked a well-developed narrative. Compared with adults, dreams of young children showed lower levels of aggression, misfortunes, and negative emotions. Gender differences in dream content showed up in late childhood but really didn’t become significantly prevalent until adolescence.

Another significant development occurred at the nine to eleven age range: the recall rate of dreams for children approached those of adults. Compared to adults, dreams of young children showed lower levels of aggression, misfortunes, and negative emotions. Other studies investigating children’s dreams found they have a higher number of animal characters than those of adults, particularly wild or frightening animals such as snakes, spiders, or insects. Interestingly, there were less domesticated animals (dog, cat, horse) present for children than adults.


The Dreams of Adults

Given their greater cognitive and verbal abilities, it is reasonable to think that collecting dream reports from adults in a lab setting would be significantly easier than doing so with children. In practice, however, this is not always the case. Being awakened from sleep and asked to give a report (while likely a little groggy) of what was just being dreamt about is difficult for adults just as it can be for kids. Additionally, adults can be motivated to tell the researchers something (as opposed to admitting they can’t recall anything) if they’re being compensated in some manner for their time and participation. Adults may also be less likely to confess embarrassing or troubling elements in their dreams, as compared to children—who are notorious for their lack of inhibitions and blunt descriptions.

Despite these challenges, much information has been gained about the dreams of adults. The biggest finding is that the vast majority of dreams are rather mundane and typically involve everyday tasks. Adult dreamers are rarely alone in their dreams—about half of the time family members or friends and acquaintances are involved, with strangers or unknown persons present the rest of the time. Compared to the other senses, auditory (sound) cues are present most frequently, and may show up in a large variety of ways: conversations, doors opening or closing, dogs barking, traffic sounds, etc. Negative emotions—particularly when they can be explicitly recalled—outnumber positive emotions in dreams by a 2:1 ratio. This may help explain why, while bizarre dreams are a minority compared to mundane ones, they often stand out so readily and are usually thought of quickly when adults are asked to recall a dream from their past.


Dreaming as Part of the

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Developmental Process

In evaluating different developmental tasks as predictors for dream reporting, Foulkes found that the development of visuospatial skills was the only reliable predictor in children ages five to nine. This suggested that having a visual imagination may be a requirement before dreaming (as we think of it as adults) can really occur. Foulkes also noted that once children had the ability to dream, their linguistic and descriptive skills started to correlate with the length and narrative complexity of their dream reports.

The results of these studies led Foulkes to develop a new discipline called “psychoneirics”, which is the cognitive psychological study of the processes of dreaming. Noting that dreaming develops alongside various mental skills needed for waking consciousness, Foulkes determined that REM dreaming is a skilled cognitive act where memories and knowledge are reprocessed, leading to the generation of consciously understood and organized dream narratives. Because of their developmental similarity, the dreaming process can be modeled after the system people use to produce language. First, an input is selected—in other words, what do we want to dream? Next, the structure and elements of the dream are filled in—for example, what are the scenes? Who are the characters? What happens? Once these are put together, all the elements are stored as a complete dream, then sent to the areas of the brain that will produce the content as an actual dream that we are capable of recalling and narrating when we’re awake.

Continue to Part 4 of the Dream Series.

Look back at Parts 1 and 2 of the Dream Series.

Part 1: The Psychological Perspective

Part 2: The Neurological Perspective

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