Dreams and adjustment following marital separation : implications for the function of dreaming

Sacre, Sandra M. (2006) Dreams and adjustment following marital separation : implications for the function of dreaming. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Arguably the most popular current theories of dreaming are the functional theories, including the emotional adaptation or problem-solving theory. These theories revolve around the idea that dreams may serve an independent adaptive function, helping us to adjust to, cope with, or resolve emotionally difficult life circumstances, problems and concerns. Contrary to these theories, other researchers have argued that dreams may have no function of their own, but are an epiphenomenon of REM sleep. The cognitive theories of dreaming suggest that dream content is continuous with waking concerns and preoccupations, and that dreaming about waking concerns is not adaptive but reflective, in a similar way that waking thought or daydreaming is reflective, of what is uppermost in the mind of the dreamer. A relatively small body of research (e.g., Barrett, 1993; Cartwright, 1991; Kramer, 1993) relating to individuals who have experienced major stressful life events, is often cited as support for the theory that dreams serve the specific function of helping us to adjust or adapt to current events. Until recently, this body of work has gone largely unexamined and unreplicated, though some have questioned the findings and their implications for the function of dreaming. The research presented in this thesis examined whether dream content reflects a process of adjustment in people who had recently experienced a marital separation, by investigating the relationship between their dream content in relation to measures of adjustment over time. In Study 1, 97 recently separated participants and 93 married controls were tested on personality and coping factors, asked to answer questions about their dream content, and then monitored over 12 months for change in their adjustment. In Study 2, a subset of 42 separated participants kept dream logs for a period of four weeks. Their dream reports were subjected to a qualitative analysis of thematic content, including threat and threat mastery, and analyses were conducted to explore the relationship between threat content, mastery and adjustment. In Study 3, a subset of eight Study 2 participants participated in a case study analysis which investigated contextual information about their individual situations in relation to their dream content and adjustment, in order to explore, in a more detailed way, the relationship between dream themes, adjustment, and waking concerns. Study 4 was designed to compare the findings of the previous studies with a separate sample, using three different methodologies for the collection of dream content data. This study was carried out to replicate the previous studies with the addition of a laboratory-based data collection technique. In Study 4, 18 separated participants spent one night in the sleep laboratory, monitored with a Nightcap, which allowed dream data to be collected from them via questionnaires, dream logs, and REM awakenings. Across all of the studies, and regardless of the method used to measure dream recall and content, there was a significant concurrent relationship between better adjustment and fewer dreams relating to participants’ marital situations. Those with the most distress were the same ones who were dreaming excessively about their separation. These findings suggest that dreams are continuous with waking preoccupation, and do not function to aid adjustment. As such, they did not support the functional adaptation theories of dreaming. The findings were more consistent with the cognitive theories of dreaming, including the theory that dreams have meaning, but no independent function of their own. A significant relationship was, however, found between ego strength, coping style and adjustment, highlighting the greater influence of internal personal resources in adjusting to difficult life circumstances. While these findings do not discount the suggestion that individuals derive significant personal meaning from their dreams, nor the possibility that dreams may reflect something of the function of REM sleep, they do suggest that “adaptationist” assumptions of functional theories of dreaming may be unfounded.

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ID Code: 20472
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Gow, Kathryn, Hansen, Julie, & Blagrove, Mark
Keywords: dream function, dream theory, marital separation, emotional adjustment, emotional adaptation, cognitive theories of dreaming, continuity theory, problem-solving, functional theories of dreaming, adjustment, personality, coping style
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Schools > School of Psychology & Counselling
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 14 May 2009 05:42
Last Modified: 20 Nov 2014 22:35

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