Do you often dream about hitting? Fighting? Killing? What leads to aggression in a dream? What do they reflect? Who is more prone to aggressive nightmares? Read on to know.
KEY POINTS 1. Aggression appears to be a normal feature of human dream content, across different cultures. 2. Men seem to have more physical aggression in their dreams, although some women have high levels, too. 3. Dream of physical aggression can accurately reflect actual aggressions in waking life, so a sudden rise can be therapeutically significant.
Hitting, fighting, chasing, shooting, killing—these are not only common themes in the news each day, but they are also recurrent features of our dreams at night.
Few studies have focused specifically on aggression in dreaming, even though Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, claimed that “the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man” (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930). A combination of old and new methods of research can shed light on how this primal instinct plays out in our dream.
Who Has Aggressive Dreams?
The Hall and Van de Castle system (1966) of dream content analysis have codes for three kinds of social interactions: friendly, sexual, and aggressive. Research using the HVDC system has suggested a few basic patterns in the frequency of aggression in dream:
1. Men have more aggression, especially physical aggression, in their dreams than do women.
2. Women are more likely to be victims than initiators of aggression in dreams.
3. Children have more dream aggression than do adults, especially involving attacks by animals.
4. Older people have less dream aggression than do younger people.
Hundreds of studies have used the HVDC method over the past several decades, and their findings support the basic idea that aggression is an innate feature of human dreaming.
Why Do We Have Aggression In Dreaming?
An additional perspective comes from using word search technologies to identify significant patterns of meaning in dream content. The Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has a template with a category for physical aggression, and a large collection of dreams to study for a specific theme like this.
The SDDb Baseline dreams are a good place to start—a set of 5,321 dreams (3,227 females, 2,094 males) that represent a composite portrait of dreaming in general (the reports were given in response to a question about “your most recent dream”). Although limited in many ways, Baseline dreams offer an empirical basis for making comparisons across different sets of dreams. This can help in identifying trends and patterns that would be difficult to see otherwise.
Applying the word search category for physical aggression to the female Baselines, we find that 15.1% of the dreams include at least one word relating to physical aggression. Applying the same word search category to the male Baselines yields a result of 21.5% of the dreams with at least one reference to physical aggression. (The combined Baselines figure is 17.6%.)
So this analysis confirms the finding of the HVDC system that men’s dreams, on average, seem to involve more physical aggression than do women’s dreams. The top ten words used in these dreams were the following: Hit, kill, fight, chasing, killed, shot, fighting, chased, war, shooting.
Turning to individuals who have kept track of their nightmares for a lengthy period of time, a great deal of variation appears in the frequency of physical aggression. For example, “Tanya,” a young woman, has a relatively high proportion of physical aggression in her dreams (25.4%, in 563 reports), about the same as “Lawrence,” an older man (25.7%, in 206 reports. Another young woman, “Jasmine,” has low physical aggression in her dreams (10.5%, in 800 reports), just like “RB,” an older man (11.8%, in 51 reports).