U of T anthropologist explores how dreams vary across cultures and environments

“Dreams are a universal human experience, but their content and significance can differ widely"
a black woman is sleeping in bed at home

(photo by Johnce/Getty Images)

We’ve all had dreams that have left us feeling anxious – whether about losing a loved one or writing an exam we’re unprepared for.

But if you’re from a forager community in East or Central Africa, your anxiety-inducing dreams are more likely to have included a resolution achieved with the help of social support – which may shed light on how culture influences the emotional function of dreams.

That’s according to a study, published in Nature Scientific Reports and led by David R. Samson, an associate professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, that explored how dreams play out across different socio-cultural environments.

David R. Samson (photo by Blake Eligh)

“Dreams are a universal human experience, but their content and significance can differ widely,” said Samson. “We wanted to explore how the content and emotional function of dreams might vary across different cultural contexts. By comparing dreams from forager communities in Africa to those from Western societies, we aimed to understand how cultural and environmental factors shape the way people dream.” 

For their research, Samson and colleagues from the University of Geneva recorded the dreams of the BaYaka people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Hadza in Tanzania over a two-month period. For Western dreamers, they looked at journals and accounts of dreams from people living in Switzerland, Belgium and Canada, collected between 2014 and 2022.

They found that Western subjects’ dreams tended to focus more on individual stress and anxiety, while dreamers from forager communities in Africa experienced more social support.

“The dreams of the forager communities often began with threats but ended with resolutions involving social support, reflecting their strong social bonds,” Samson said. “In contrast, Western dreams tended to focus on less social aspects. This suggests that dreams are not solely products of neurophysiology, but are influenced by the cultural and social contexts of the dreamers.” 

For example, a person from a forager community might dream that they are facing a threat such as being attacked by a wild animal, or falling down a well. That dream was usually resolved with the person being rescued by a member of their community – which highlights the role of social support within their communities.  

In contrast, when individuals from Western societies faced a threat in their dream – like failing an important test or learning that a loved one had died – there was less emphasis on social support, and more on the stress and anxiety that the person was feeling within their dream. 

While the research doesn’t answer the question of why people dream, Samson said it sheds light on how culture influences the emotional function of dreams. 

“The ultimate purpose of dreaming is still a subject of ongoing research and debate,” he said. “Some theories suggest that dreaming serves to simulate threatening or social situations, helping individuals prepare for real-life challenges. However, the exact function of dreams continues to be a fascinating and evolving area of study.”  

Samson hopes the findings will encourage more studies on the relationship between culture, society and the emotional function of dreams – which he says could help inform mental health research.

“Understanding these connections can offer insights into the human mind and emotions,” said Samson. “Additionally, it may have practical applications in fields such as psychology, where dream analysis could provide a culturally sensitive approach to understanding and addressing mental health issues.” 

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