Typical Dreams

     It can be uncomfortable to realize that you are ordinary, that even your dreams (or nightmares) are typical.  It turns out that one of my frequent nightmares, during which my teeth shatter and fall out, and which feels uniquely horrible to me, is common as dirt.  More than that, it is apparently a bad personal indicator.  From ‘The Nightmare Encyclopedia’:

“Research has been conducted comparing the personality traits of people with chronic teeth dreams to the traits of those who frequently experience flying dreams.  While the “flyers” were calm, confident, and generally optimistic, those who dreamed about teeth were more anxious, prone to bouts of self-criticism, and more likely to feel helpless in situations with which they were unfamiliar.”

     I never have flying dreams.

     ‘The Nightmare Encyclopedia’ didn’t provide specific citations to this anti-teeth dreamer research.  I was unable to find it; however, I did stumble across a 2004 paper dealing with gender differences in dream frequency.  It was intriguing.

     The study, ‘Typical Dreams: Stability and Gender Differences’, employs something called the Typical Dream Questionnaire, which asks subjects to indicate how many of 50 ‘typical’ dreams they have experienced.  Apparently, men and women dream in roughly equal percentages of

  • “being chased or pursued” (89.1% of women; 86.8% of men)
  • “being frozen with fright” (56.7% of women; 54.4% of men)
  • “being nude” (43.1% of women; 42.7% of men)
  • “insects or spiders” (37% of women; 38.2% of men)
  • “lunatics or insane people” (17% of women; 17.7% of men)
  • “seeing an angel” (11.2% of women; 11.8% of men).

     Men are more likely than women to dream about

  • “being locked up” (37.2% of women; 47.1% of men)
  • “being killed” (34.8% of women; 44.1% of men)
  • “having superior knowledge or mental ability” (24.5% of women; 41.2% of men)
  • “killing someone” (16.2% of women; 32.4% of men)
  • “seeing a flying object crash” (10.9% of women; 17.7% of men)
  • “seeing a UFO” (3.5% of women; 10.3% of men).

     Women are more likely than men to dream about

  • “arriving too late” (70% of women; 60.3% of men),
  • “failing an examination” (63.8% of women; 44.1% of men)
  • “being unable to find, or embarrassed about using a toilet” (31.1% of women; 23.5% of men)
  • “losing control of a vehicle” (28.7% of women; 16.2% of men)
  • “being a member of the opposite sex” (17.8% of women; 5.9% of men).

     Perhaps the most interesting lesson of ‘Typical Dreams’ is how many of us have strange dreams.  Some of the items on the Typical Dream Questionnaire sound downright atypical:

  • “discovering a new room at home” (29.1% of the population)
  • “seeing a face very close to you” (26.1%)
  • “being an object” (2.5%)

And yet, significant percentages of the population are having them.  For the record, a lucky 63.5% of the general population gets to have dreams of “flying or soaring through the air”; the remaining 35.6% of us are stuck with dreams of our “teeth falling out/losing our teeth”.


Belanger and Dalley, ‘The Nightmare Encyclopedia: Your Darkest Dreams Interpreted’, New Page Books, 2006

Schredl et al., “Typical Dreams: Stability and Gender Differences’, The Journal of Psychology, 2004, 138(6), 485-494

‘The Nature of Love’

     In 1958, Harry Harlow gave the Address of the President to the 66th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.  The speech, called ‘The Nature of Love’, outlined for the first time Harlow’s now-famous ‘cloth mother’ experiments.

     “The position commonly held by psychologists and sociologists is quite clear: the basic motives are, for the most part, the primary drives — particularly hunger, thirst, elimination, and sex — and all other motives, including love and affection, are derived or secondary drives”, explained Harlow.  However, he found this explanation, that infants attach to their mothers for the sake of food alone, insufficient to explain the “lifelong, unrelenting persistence” of a child’s affection for its parent.

     Harlow’s experiment was elegant, if heart-rending: he took eight newborn rhesus macaque monkeys, and gave them each a choice.  Alone in their cages with them were two surrogate mothers.  Both had cylindrical wire-mesh frames, enclosed a light bulb to create a radiating warmth, and had affixed to them repulsive croquet-ball faces with bicycle-reflector eyes.  One of the mothers, however, was wrapped in sponge rubber and terry cloth.  This was the ‘cloth mother’; the other mother was left with her wire innards exposed, the ‘wire mother’.  In four of the cages, the wire mother held the food bottle; in the other four, the cloth mother.

Wire and Cloth Mothers

     If infant love is based on food production, Harlow reasoned, the babies should prefer whichever mother held the bottle.  They did not.  The baby monkeys overwhelmingly preferred the cloth mother, spending as much as eighteen to twenty-three hours a day clutching and rubbing her.  If the cloth mother held the bottle, the babies ignored the wire mother completely; if the wire mother held the bottle, the little monkeys would dash over to her to feed, and then dash back to the cloth mother, curling around her for support.  If the babies were separated from their cloth mother, they would “rush to the center of the room where the mother was customarily placed and then run rapidly from object to object, screaming and crying all the while.”  The wire mother could not pacify them.  They would rock and cry, wrapping their arms around themselves: “continuous, frantic clutching of their bodies was very common”.

Open Field Without Mother

     If the cloth mother was replaced, “the babies rushed to her, climbed up, clung tightly to her, and rubbed their heads and faces against her body”.

Baby with Cloth Mother

     Harlow compared the behavior of these monkeys with two babies whom he allowed to stay with their biological, monkey mothers.  He concluded that “love for the real mother and love for the surrogate mother appear to be very similar…whether the mother is real or a cloth surrogate, there does develop a deep and abiding bond between mother and child.”

     He concluded his talk with a persuasive and poignant anecdote.  The first baby monkey intended for the surrogate mother experiment was born a month earlier than they had expected, and they had not yet completed construction of the surrogates’ faces.  The head then placed on this monkey’s cloth mother was featureless; it was simply a ball of wood.  The baby was left with this faceless mother for 180 days, at which point the experimenters replaced both surrogates’ heads with decorated ones.

     “To our surprise the animal would compulsively rotate both faces 180 degrees so that it viewed only a round, smooth face and never the painted, ornamented face.  Furthermore, it would do this as long as the patience of the experimenter in reorienting the faces persisted.  The monkey showed no fear or anxiety, but it showed unlimited persistence.”

She wanted the face of her mother, blank or not.  As Harlow would later put it, “a mother’s face that will stop a clock will not stop a baby”.

Images are all taken from Harlow’s ‘The Nature of Love’ speech, and were shown at the speech itself.

For a very good scientific biography of Harlow and explanation of his social and scientific context, read Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.

Failure to Thrive

     Scientific language is so wonderfully circumlocutory sometimes.  Here, for example, is a masterpiece of euphemism:

     “It is difficult or impossible to study scientifically the impacts of culturally produced social isolation at the human level.  The variables are multitudinous and recalcitrant to experimental manipulation and control.” [emphasis mine]

     What that means is that, for ethical and logistical reasons, we cannot take two equal groups of human children, raise one in normal social and familial settings, raise the other alone in boxes with no human contact, and see what happens.

     This quote comes from the introduction of Harry Harlow’s famous 1965 paper, ‘Total Social Isolation in Monkeys’.  I have recently become obsessed with social isolation, an obsession triggered by an experiment on natural language carried out by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor (see previous post).  Frederick wanted to know what language, if any, human children spoke innately, so he took some infants and raised them alone in a room, with minimal care and no affection.  They all died.

     This is the most dire manifestation of a phenomenon, itself a marvel of medical delicacy, called ‘failure to thrive’ (in fact, ‘failure to thrive’ has been deemed too blunt, and is being phased out by ‘faltering growth’, which certainly does sound more hopeful).  ‘Failure to thrive’ refers either to insufficient growth, or inappropriate loss of weight, and among its many exogenous causes is extreme emotional neglect.

     The recognition that affection is a medical necessity for young primates came late to humanity, it seems, and Harry Harlow was one of the first people to scientifically document the fact.  His experiments remain extremely controversial; one of Harlow’s doctoral students, Gene Sackett, apparently attributed the genesis of the animal rights movement to reaction against them.

     For the 1965 paper, which does not contain his most extreme experiments, Harlow placed newborn macaques, only several hours old, in isolation chambers for periods of three, six, and twelve months, and then observed their reintroduction to social groups.  During the period of their isolation, the baby monkeys were fed adequately but deprived of any human or monkey contact.  Despite Frederick’s grisly precedent, none of the monkeys died during isolation; however, when released, two of the three month isolates refused to eat, and one starved itself to death.  Harlow calls this “emotional anorexia”, and describes the effect of coming out of isolation as “emotional shock”.

     Harlow found that the social impairments of the three month isolation could be reversed, while some of those of the six month isolation could not.  Twelve months of isolation “almost obliterated the animals socially”; they were unable even to learn how to play.  Harlow had to stop testing them because the normal, control animals became so aggressive towards the “helpless isolate animals” that experimenters were afraid that they would kill them.

     The paper summarizes:

     “The findings of the various total-isolation and semi-isolation studies of the monkeys suggest that sufficiently severe and enduring early isolation reduces these animals to a social-emotional level in which the primary social responsiveness is fear.”

Harlow 1965 - Figure 4

Figure 4 from the 1965 paper, “autistic self-clutching”, one of the symptoms of “emotional shock”.

For a very good scientific biography of Harlow and explanation of his social and scientific context, read Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.