Learning from our dreams


In this post, I describe how dreams are associated with people’s behavior after waking up, especially in the context of their close relationships. Have you ever felt upset at someone after what they did in your dream? There are several theories to explain how and why this happens, along with some references to Friends and The Matrix

“Have you ever had a dream that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” – Morpheus, The Matrix

Dreams are inherently fascinating to people. As a professor and scientist who studies dreams, I often get questions from friends and students about why we have dreams, where they come from, what they mean (and then I usually get some intricate descriptions of a recent weird dream they had about their teeth falling out).

The “continuity hypothesis” suggests that people have dreams about stuff that happens to them while they’re awake. In other words, dreams are a “continuation” of our waking lives. In fact, what appears in people’s dreams is often what they did or experienced before they went to sleep. For example, I’ve been dreaming about basketball recently, which makes sense because I’ve been watching a lot of the NBA playoffs.

But my research examines the opposite question, which is, how do dreams affect our behavior after we wake up?

Before we go any further, ask yourself, have you ever had a dream about someone you are close with, and then you were mad at them the next day because of what they did to you in your dream? Or, has someone ever been mad at you because of something you did to them in their dream? This phenomenon was captured in an episode of Friends, when Phoebe was mad at Ross all day and couldn’t figure out why. Then she realized it was because he said something mean to her in her dream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EomKbf9gks

In my dissertation study, my colleagues and I were interested in examining how people’s dreams about their romantic partners are associated with their activity after they wake up. We asked 61 participants (undergraduates at Stony Brook University) to keep track of their dreams for 2 weeks. We asked them to record their dreams immediately after waking up, and to tell us everything they remembered in their dreams (regardless of content or perceived meaning). We also asked them to keep track of their activity with their partners while awake during the same 2 week period; we asked them questions about how much love/closeness they felt each day, and how much conflict they had.

My colleague Adela Apetroaia and I went through each dream (we collected just under 850 in total!) and coded the dreams for relational content. Most participants (about 85%) had at least 1 dream about their partners during the 2-week study period. On average, people reported about dreaming about their partners about 25% of the time, and of those dreams, about half had some positive interaction and about a quarter contained conflict. In addition, people also dreamt about hooking up with other people who weren’t their partners! We called those “infidelity dreams.” For a few examples of dreams from my study, check out this article.

When people had dreams about conflict or negativity, including feelings of jealousy and betrayal, they had more conflict with their partners after waking up from those dreams.  When people had infidelity dreams (they dreamt about hooking up with someone else), they had less love/ intimacy with their partners after waking up from those dreams.

Those effects remained even after we statistically controlled for alternative explanations, including (a) relationship length (how long couples were together), (b) relationship health (how satisfied people felt with their relationships), (c) whether people tended to have an insecure personality, (d) their gender, and (e) the previous day’s activity. This suggests that there was something unique about these dreams that predicted what people did or felt with their partners after they woke up. Although, it is also true that people who are more insecure in their relationships tend to have more jealousy and betrayal in their dreams.

A likely mechanism for this association between dreams and behavior is that the dreams “primed” people, activating thoughts/feelings that spilled over into behavior the following day. In other words, the dreams produced a domino effect—for example, having a conflict dream triggered thoughts about conflict with that person, then when people woke up and remembered those dreams, the conflict schema was still active. This influenced people’s behavior.

But that “priming” explanation still doesn’t explain why we have those dreams in the first place, or what purpose they serve in terms of changes in our behavior after waking up. And the truth is, we still don’t know the answers to those questions. Dreams are one of the great unsolved mysteries of science. There are some theories that might shed light on these questions. Patrick McNamara proposed the idea that REM sleep and dreams evolved to promote attachment bonds in close relationships. There is some evidence to support this theory. For example, in my study when people in satisfying relationships had dreams about having sex with their partner, they felt more love/closeness the following day. But what about all of those conflict dreams? Those would seem to suggest the opposite of bonding!

Another theory is that dreams promote problem solving and emotional adaptation. It’s important to remember that not all conflict in relationships is bad. Approaching conflict constructively is a very important ingredient for successful relationships. Dreams may reflect concerns about relationships, and they may prompt you to think deeply about those concerns. Sometimes there’s something unpleasant that needs to be dealt with, and the dream might serve as a motivator to have that difficult conversation with your partner.

So going forward, my strong recommendation to you is that you pay attention to your dreams. Dreams are an incredible untapped resource, a reservoir of information and insight into yourself, your work, your relationships, and even your health. So keep a dream journal. Your dreams might be trying to tell you something really important...so, wake up! 


Barrett, D. (2007). An evolutionary theory of dreams and problem-solving. In D. Barrett, P. McNamara (Eds.), The new science of dreaming: Volume 3. Cultural and theoretical perspectives (pp. 133-153). Westport, CT US: Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.

Cartwright, R., Agargun, M. Y., Kirkby, J., & Friedman, J. K. (2006). Relation of dreams to waking concerns. Psychiatry Research, 141, 261–270.

McNamara, P. (1996). REM sleep: A social bonding mechanism. New Ideas in Psychology, 14(1), 35–46.

Selterman, D., Apetroaia, A., Riela, S. & Aron, A. (2014). Dreaming of you: Romantic behavior and emotion in dreams of significant others predict subsequent relational behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(1), 111-118.

Selterman, D., & Drigotas, S. (2009). Attachment styles and emotional content, stress, and conflict in dreams of romantic partners. Dreaming, 19(3), 135-151.