Why People Have Similar Dreams

Hispanic woman sleeping with empty thought bubble
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Dreams can be mysterious, strange, confusing, or even amusing. Have you ever shared a dream with your friends and noticed that many people report having the same or similar types of dreams? The content of dreams can vary from one person to the next, but some people have suggested that certain types of dreams tend to be more common.

It is important to recognize, however, that this an evolving field that still has a great deal of uncertainty. More research is needed to understand why people dream about certain things.

Common Dreams

What do people dream about most often? In one study looking at the content of dreams, researchers found that some of the most common dream themes included:

  • Being attacked
  • Being chased
  • Being late
  • Death of a loved one or the return of a deceased loved one
  • Falling
  • Flying
  • School-related activities (taking exams, studying, going to class)
  • Sexual activity

Dreams Reflect Concerns About Daily Life

According to dream researcher Calvin Hall, who collected and analyzed more than 10,000 dreams, the majority of our dreams tend to reflect concerns about daily life. Money, school, work, family, friends, and health are just a few of the most common things that people dream about.

One study found that psychological needs may play a part in determining the content of dreams. People who were experiencing frustrations caused by having their psychological needs undermined were more likely to experience negative dream themes and emotions. This suggests that the concerns of daily life are indeed reflected in the content of our dreams.

Another study found that almost 84% of participants dreamed about events from their waking lives, and around 40% involved mundane events from the previous day.

Research has also suggested that the contents of our dreams are not invented out of thin air. One study found that of characters that appeared in dreams:

  • More than 48% were identifiable as a person that the dreamer knew by name in real life.
  • Another 35% of characters appearing in dreams were identifiable by their social or occupational role in the community.
  • Only around 16% of the characters appearing in dreams were not recognized by the dreamer.

What researchers have also noticed is that there are a number of "dream themes" that tend to be quite common across different cultures. Events such as being chased, falling, or being naked in public are surprisingly common among people from all over the world.

Other Discoveries by Dream Researchers

Dream research has also revealed a number of other interesting results about what people tend to dream about:

  • People tend to dream about negative events a lot more frequently than they do about positive events. For example, people are more likely to dream about an attack or an argument than a friendly exchange with another person.
  • External stimuli often influence dreams. For example, a person sleeping in a really hot room might dream about being in a sauna or being trapped in a sweltering desert with no water. If your alarm clock goes off, you might simply incorporate the noise into the story of your dream rather than actually waking to the sound.
  • Men's dreams tend to contain more aggression and negative emotions, while women's dreams are more likely to contain positive emotions and friendly interactions.

The difficulty in studying the content of dreams is that it is impossible to objectively look at exactly what people dream about. Instead, researchers must rely on self-reports from dreamers. This then leads to questions of whether these reports can accurately convey the subjective experiences of the dream. Particularly since many dreams are forgotten immediately or shortly after awakening.

A Word From Verywell

The next time you have what seems like a really unusual dream, remember this: you're definitely not alone. There are a lot of books out there that try to interpret the symbolic imagery of dreams in order to search for hidden, unconscious meanings. But in all probability, your dream probably relates to some element of your daily life and it most likely shares common elements with many other people's dreams.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Empson J. Sleep and dreaming (3rd ed.). New York: Palgrave/St. Martin's Press; 2002.