Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mad science: The tepid dream-lives of children.

It's a well-worn cultural trope that the dream-lives of are rich wonderlands (or Oz's, as the case may be) of unbounded, raw, liberated emotion and creativity. New research suggests, however, that this is a back construction of some sort, an adult colonization of the pint-sized Land of Nod that reflects our needs to see children as uniquely innocent and free. In fact, says the cruel, demystifying ogre of science, the dreams of young children are remarkable mainly for their incredible dullness and simplicity.

Only the the abstract is available online, but here's an extract with some revealing data:

When do children start dreaming, and what kind of dreams do they have? Given that children often show signs of emotion in sleep, many assume that they dream a great deal. However, a series of studies by David Foulkes showed that children under the age of 7 reported dreaming only 20% of the time when awakened from REM sleep, compared with 80–90% in adults.

Preschoolers’ dreams are often static and plain, such as seeing an animal or thinking about eating. There are no characters that move, no social interactions, little feeling, and they do not include the dreamer as an active character. There are also no autobiographic, episodic memories, perhaps because children have trouble with conscious episodic recollection in general, as suggested by the phenomenon of infantile amnesia.

Preschoolers do not report fear in dreams, and there are few aggressions, misfortunes and negative emotions. Children who have night terrors, in which they awaken early during the night from SWS [slow-wave sleep] and display intense fear and agitation, are probably terrorized by disorientation owing to incomplete awakening rather than by a dream. Thus, although children of age 2–5 years can see and speak of everyday people, objects and events, they apparently cannot dream of them.

Between the ages of 5–7 years, dream reports become longer, although they are still infrequent. Dreams might contain sequences of events in which characters move about and interact, but narratives are not well developed. At around 7 years of age, dream reports become longer and more frequent, contain thoughts and feelings, the child's self becomes an actual participant in the dream, and dreams begin to acquire a narrative structure and to reflect autobiographic, episodic memories.

It could be argued that perhaps all children dream, but some do not yet realize that they are dreaming, do not remember their dreams, or cannot report them because of poor verbal skills. Contrary to these intuitive suggestions, dream recall was found to correlate best with abilities of mental imagery rather than with language proficiency... Put simply, it is children with the most developed mental imagery and visuo-spatial skills (rather than verbal or memory capabilities) that report the most dreams, suggesting a real difference in dream experience.

The cartoon is from See Mike Draw.


Curt Purcell said...

Apparently, dreams are a lot less "bizarre" than we tend to think, period.

zoe said...

scientists can have such a narrow perception of what they're seeing. the land of nod is full of amazing stuff...
it might even be that the children they studied were better able than adults to translate the images they saw in dreams into the day-time issues that they represented. or maybe they don't remember the dreams, and simply make up stories about their night-time adventures in the same way they do their daytime adventures (though it's true i don't have that much exposure to children, i've been surprised several times by the blandly untrue tales they come up with about their days at school when asked).
i dunno. maybe i just like what i believe more than i do what the above scientist believes :)
but curt--my dreams are super-bizarre :D

Sasquatchan said...

anecdotal data suggests it's a real hard tell.. Little man can't tell/explain/understand time. 2.5 yrs, and tonight/tomorrow/yesterday/3 months ago is all the same to him.

So at breakfast, some times I can't tell if he's describing a dream he had, or something we did months ago, so I have to tease extra context out of him, but he's an entirely unreliable narrator. ("Did we jump in the volcano this morning ? " "ohhh yeah!").

Thus, despite the ability to measure brain waves blah blah (IT'S SCIENCE! YOU CAN'T ARGUE WITH SCIENCE), I doubt their conclusions.

CRwM said...

zoe and sassy,

There's certainly a phenomenological problem with the study - ultimately the only record we have of dreams is a dubiously reliable retelling. It's hard to claim that you're making a study of dreams rather than claiming that your making a study of retold dreams.

That said, they did control for verbal ability out of concern that the problem would be that they were talking to kids who were just worse at retelling their dreams. And they did admit to the problem of forgetting: children seem to forget dreams at a greater rate than adults. They factored those into the design.

Though you, Sassy, of all people - deciding to throw out science because of personal anecdotal evidence! Bill and Mary should demand you degree be returned!

Aaron White said...

The link to the abstract isn't working for me... it's taking me to a Blogger signin page.

CRwM said...

Thanks for the heads up Mr. White. The link should work now.

Albert Cumberdale said...

I found it very interesting, especially the explanation they give of night terrors.

Anecdotically, of the five dreams or so that I have remembered the most after some time, two were had before I was seven and one when I was eight.

I guess I will never forget running away from a ghost, falling into a pool, sinking, being attacked by a pirate who could breathe underwater and waking up, keep seeing the pirate and being unable to scream "mom".

Sasquatchan said...

Now that the link is fixed, how'd you get the article ? Pony up the $31 to buy it ?

Anyway, I'd challenge anyone to spend some time with a 2 year old, and try to get most any coherent, straight story out of them. Heck, get any story out of them, and try to see what's real and what isn't. I don't think you can control for those things.

It's NOT the verbal ability. It's the reasoning and comprehension ability, the understanding reality versus imagination while also being highly suggestible. Heck, I'm afraid my kid could easily be made to say I do all sorts of evil things to him by merely suggesting it to him. "Does daddy put you in boiling oil?" "oh yeah!!!!" etc. Every question is a leading question with them.

From TFA: Thus, although children of age 2–5 years can see and speak of everyday people, objects and events, they apparently cannot dream of them. Yeah, and kids that age can see and speak of imaginary people, objects and events, and seemily have trouble distinguishing the real from imaginary (monsters under the bed, or for our kid, "the big bad wolf" etc)

(And I'm curious what imaging they're talking about -- brain wave is well understood, but the abstract hints at "imaging" which means things like fMRI, and fMIR has come under great fire recently for essentially being bogus.. PET is slightly more useful.. )