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Why Some People Dream in Black and White

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Flying, jumping across rooftops, running from someone or something terrifying – being back in your old childhood house but it wasn’t quite your house, your teeth falling out, failing an exam you didn’t even know you were supposed to take; frantically hunting for something really important; red-nosed killer clowns…

These are a few of the ‘typical’ and most common themes of our dreams. Weird and wonderful aren’t they? While we can’t profess to be experts in the complex metaphors that make up dreams, a conversation with a client alerted us to the fact that not everyone dreams in full-on colour.

Some don’t recall anything but the haziest of minor details the next morning, some think they don’t dream at all (although it’s been proven that they do, they just don’t remember), and some dream in black and white only.

What’s a dream?

Dreams are the experience we have when we are asleep and in a state of consciousness. They occur in a person who is sleeping and on the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle  (around 90 minutes). During sleep, dreams are indicated by high-frequency electrical activity in the brain.

A dream resembles in many ways a waking experience to us in that we hear, see, feel emotion etc. Generally speaking, dreams feel real while we experience them, but are relatively easy to differentiate in the morning from real life. Which is a good thing because if we remembered our dreams as though they were the same as our waking experience, we would start getting very confused between dreams and reality.

In 1895, Sigmund Freud had a dream that was to form the basis of his wish fulfilment theory as to why we all dream. Writing in The Interpretation of Dreams, he suggested that dreams were ‘just wishes that we have formed in our waking lives’. He has been widely criticised for this theory and yet decades later the ‘why’ behind dreaming is still very much up for debate.

There are other hypotheses too. Antti Revonsuo  explores whether dreams are a function to practise survival scenarios while sleeping and unable to move. ‘The body gets the rest it needs and we can live out simulations without putting it in danger.’ 

Most theories, however, seem to come back to the ‘filing cabinet’ analogythat the brain is going through a kind of nightly sorting process while we sleep. It’s constantly shifting and shuffling through the events, sounds, emotions and sensory details of the past waking day.

According to Snooze.net, it rummages through all this information and decides what to keep (file) for later and what information to delete. It seems that our dreams have a starring role in this nocturnal act.

What dreams mean?

Naked in your school assembly? Still can’t escape that killer clown? Are breathing issues due to a giant sitting on your chest while juggling three tabby kittens and singing Dolly Parton’s 9–5 in Russian? No matter which way you look at it, dreams are weirdThankfully since ancient times, there’s been something called dream interpretation.

A lot of importance is placed on our dreams. More so than waking thoughts perhaps. A study once showed that more people were likely to cancel a flight if they ‘dreamed’ of the plane crashing the night before, than if they ‘thought’ of it crashing during their waking day – or even if the government had issued a warning. 

So going back to the original question, why do some of us dream in colour? While others are strictly black and white? Well, it’s possible it’s just a question of memory: we remember our dream as black and white because of the vivid details from the night before fade throughout the day. Some suggest that dreaming in black and white is down to creativity  – the more creative you are, the more vivid the colours and crazy adventures you have while asleep.

A recent study, however, offers an alternative hypothesis: People who had access to black and white media before colour media experienced more greyscale dreams than people with no such exposure. Moreover, there were inter-group differences in the recall quality of colour and black and white dreams that point to the possibility that true greyscale dreams occur only in people with black and white media experience. 

Colour vs black and white

So we know that we all dream when we’re asleep. We know why (sort of), how and when. We know that meaning and interpretation can be taken from our dreams no matter how trivial they appear or how little detail we remember of them. We know that dreams are personal to our own circumstances, feelings and our individual state of mind. An anxious or worrying day can result in fraught dreams and we know that frankly, nobody knows where the killer clowns come from! What we do know is that there’s no right or wrong way to dream.

Jo Hodges began her career some 20 years ago after gaining a BA Hons in Performance and Media.  

In 2010 while listening to an all too familiar story from a colleague, Liz Bell realised more and more of the people around her were consistently burnt out and stressed.  

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