​What Dreams Reveal About Different Cultures

The inner web of a dream catcher pulls in bad dreams at night and discharges them during the day. The dangling feathers allow good dreams to trickle down to the person sleeping. Jane Rix/Shutterstock

We tend to think of our dreams as being uniquely personal — nighttime narratives built from our own experiences that help us process our day-to-day lives. While dreams can give us a glimpse into the rich tapestries of our personal selves, anthropologists have culled data that suggests dreams weave their way into our cultural fabric, manifesting themselves in ways that shape societal beliefs and reveal collective anxieties.

When the Society for Psychological Anthropology held its biennial conference in April in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico, anthropologists specializing in psychology and dreams explained their cultural dream research. It was a discussion that not only showed how culture and dreams are intertwined, but also the differences across various cultures, according to Psychology Today

Dreams, belief and consciousness

a open door reveals a landscape with a big moon
Dreams shape our beliefs and our actions. Dmitry Bruskov/Shutterstock

Roger Ivar Lohmann of Trent University conducted research with the Asabano people of the rainforest of Papua New Guinea, a unique group who didn't have outside contact until 1963. His studies looked at how dreams shape their beliefs and actions.

According to Lohmann's research, dreams act as a sort of motivator or determinant of Asabano behavior. For instance, a dream may affect the way an individual hunts or goes about treating medical conditions. The way dreams determine behavior is due to what Lohmann calls the "night residue" effect. This simply means that specific memories of dreams can affect the way a person acts when awake and inform their belief system. Lohmann suggests that incorporating dream memories over time into waking life can result in an "autonomic culture updating process" — meaning that when newer cultural experiences (such as those related to colonization), make their way into the memories of dreams, those dream memories can alter the path of a particular culture.

Bruce Knauft of Emory University looked at the role of dreams in Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the practice of dream yoga, which is essentially an extension of lucid dreaming, however, in dream yoga the dreamer practices meditation during the dream state instead of merely entertaining himself once he realizes he's in control of his dreams.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the dreams serve as another opportunity for enlightenment beyond general meditative practices. In this way dreams can be seen as a sort of mechanism for multi-layered processing that goes deeper than making sense of daily events.

As Kelly Bulkeley Ph.D, described in Psychology Today:

Western psychologists are slowly realizing that cognitive processes like these are indeed possible in the sleeping state, in ways that religious traditions have been actively teaching, cultivating, and documenting for centuries.

Anxiety and cultural identity

Vietnamese mother with a baby on her back in Mu Cang Chai Yen Bai Province
How a country is seen in a cultural sense can affect the individual. Suriya99/Shutterstock

Dreams also seem to have an impact on the way many define (or struggle to define) themselves within their own cultures, and how sometimes reaching a distinct definition can cause inner turmoil.

Matt Newsom of Washington State University spoke with college students in Berlin, and found that many students had dreams surrounding conflicting views about their own identities in relation to what they saw as a resurgence in German nationalism. For many younger Germans in predominantly liberal cities, nationalism is a particularly sensitive subject especially when we think of German identity as its defined even many years after World War II.

Many students had dreams that centered around anxieties like "Where do I belong?" A large number of students never talked with one another about identity struggles in their dreams, yet many reported having such dreams. Newsome noted that dreams can be helpful "for identifying unspoken social and historical anxieties present in a given society."

Anxieties surrounding cultural and mental models also make themselves apparent in dreams. Jeanette Mageo of Washington State University looked at image-based metaphors within dreams and what those metaphors say about cultural models that serve as a basis for identity.

Mageo spoke with American college students and found that cultural models can make it difficult for the students to develop a sense of identity. The students Mageo spoke with said their dreams sometimes featured gender models through metaphors such as "super masculinity" or "Cinderella." Mageo suggests these models can be changed if we introduce new metaphors that go against the typical representations of certain cultural models.

Robin Sheriff of University of Hampshire, working with a sample of young American women, learned they were consistently dreaming about being murdered by strangers or serial killers. Sheriff believes these dreams reflect the popularity of podcasts about serial killers. Sheriff says that by exploring our dreams, we can take a closer look at this inner turmoil.

All of this research suggests that dreams can do more than help explain the psyche of an individual; we can learn about entire cultures and collective attitudes as well.