If you dream in colour, you’re not alone: the majority of people today claim to have colourful dreams. But it wasn’t always thus. Research conducted in the early part of the last century consistently found that people reported dreaming most often in black and white.
According to Eva Murzyn at the University of Dundee, there are at least two possible explanations for this strange anomaly.
The first is methodological. The early studies tended to use questionnaires, whereas more modern studies use dream diaries (filled in upon rising in the morning) or so-called “REM-awakening”, which involves interrupting people’s dream-filled periods of sleep to find out what they were dreaming about. People’s memories of their dreams are likely to be less accurate using the questionnaire approach and more likely to reflect lay beliefs about the form dreams generally take.
The second explanation has to do with black and white television and film. It’s possible that the boom in black and white film and television during the first half of the last century either affected the form of people’s dreams at that time, or affected their beliefs about the form dreams generally take.
According to Murzyn’s findings, it’s the explanation based on media exposure that carries more weight. She used both questionnaire and diary methods to study the dreams of 30 older (average age 64) and 30 younger people (average age 21).
The methodological technique made no difference to the type of dreams people reported. Crucially, however, across both questionnaires and diaries, the older participants (who had had significant early life exposure to black and white media) reported experiencing significantly more black and white dreams over the last ten days than the younger participants (22 per cent vs. 4 per cent).
Another finding was that older participants reported black and white dreams and colour dreams to be of equal vividness. By contrast, the younger participants reported that the quality of black and white dreams was poorer. This raises the possibility that the younger participants didn’t really have any black and white dreams at all, but were simply labelling poorly remembered dreams as black and white.
Several awkward questions are left unanswered by this study. It’s not clear if the older participants really are experiencing more black and white dreams or if it’s their memories or beliefs about dreams that is influencing their reports. Related to this, we don’t know if early exposure to black and white media has really affected the form of the older participants’ dreams or simply their beliefs about dreams. Finally, if differences in media exposure really do explain the current results, we’re still left with the question of how and why early exposure to black and white TV and film has had such an effect on the older participants, even after so many years of exposure to colour media and given that they live every day in a colourful world.
E MURZYN (2008). Do we only dream in colour? A comparison of reported dream colour in younger and older adults with different experiences of black and white media Consciousness and Cognition. DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2008.09.002