Edward Cook, Brandwatch What’s in a dream? Understanding culture through the language of dreaming

Is dreaming our last remaining truly private experience? Why are we compelled to share our dreams? What can we learn from the aggregate dreams of almost five million people? Why should market researchers care?

How can dreams be used for market research? Edward Crook from Brandwatch shows how to access the dream world. (Bild: picture alliance / Bildagentur-online/Blend Images | Donald Iain Smith)

We’ve been pondering their meanings for millenia and still don’t know for sure. Dreams are elusive, fleeting, fickle. But looking en masse at dream content can tell us a lot about the state of society.

Last night I dreamt that I bought a $700 cheese knife set - what does it mean?

Why should market researchers care?

At the core of our profession is understanding what makes people tick, and dreams are rich sources of insight. They share similarities with Implicit Attitude Tests (IATs): participants may not know or articulate their feelings directly, but we can understand them through indirect means. Much analysis to date has focused on the individual, building on Jung or, perish the thought, Freud.

Simple definitions (teeth = death, fish = pregnancy) are tempting but best avoided. Instead, we can learn a lot about the health of a population in aggregate, their priorities and emotional state, from their sleep quality.

Learning from dreams

To be clear, I am referring here to learning from (rather than infiltrating) dreams. The latter may sound like science fiction, but ‘targeted dream incubation’ (TDI) made headlines in 2021 with warnings that brands would soon be able to deliberately hijack the dreams of the individual. Researchers at Harvard and MIT even claimed this Orwellian technology was ‘rapidly becoming a reality’, a questionable claim over which I will not be losing any sleep.

How do dreams work? Last night I got tattoos and then competed on Jeopardy.

So, what happens when we dream? Most of your dreams occur during REM, a phase that typically starts 90 minutes into your sleep cycle. Your thalamus (sensory information) and amygdala (emotion processing) spring into action, feeding your dreams with colour and content. Your mixed frequency brain waves at this time are similar to your waking state: your brain is busy.

During REM, the brain is starved of noradrenaline, giving us space to process emotional events with less anxiety. Dreams may serve a range of purposes: they can train our brains and help us to shift recent events into our long term memory vaults. There is also a growing case for dream-sharing as serving an evolutionary social function.

Dreams as a unique experience

I had a dream that I ran a marathon under the sea, and now I can’t wait to tell everyone.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise: humans are hardwired to share. It’s the underpinning of language, why babies learn to point and why, as adults, we are drawn to social media. In a world that for many of us is globally connected, our dreams are one of the final truly personal events we experience alone.

The web is full of shared dreams

Tell that, however, to the 4.9 million people in the sample of a recent Brandwatch study. I used Brandwatch Consumer Research to capture public discourse in which people described their recent dreams online. We did not need to look far: the public web is full of people wanting to share their (literal) dreams with the world. Brandwatch operates across languages, but to start I sampled global English discussion and used filters to zoom in on true first person narratives. Using Brandwatch AI, I then segmented each description by naturally occurring, common dream entities. I then visualised these in Gephi, a free, open source software:

Dreams can signal the health of a population

There is insight within these surreal descriptions. Dreams directly reflect our hopes and concerns and, in aggregate, can signal the health of a population. Studies of dreams in Italy during lockdowns, for example, found evidence of collective trauma in dream content in both survey and longitudinal designs.

Is anyone else having bizarre, vivid dreams since the lockdown started?

In the Brandwatch data, we found heightened fear and negativity at the start of the working week, with work-related dreams featuring 54.3% negativity (relative to 40.9% in the full corpus). Nudity anxiety, which until 2020 was full-frontal, has switched to nightmares of being caught in public without a face mask.

Cultural differences also shine through. Money, for example, featured more than twice as often in the UK as in US dreams, a potential outlet in a culture that often struggles to discuss financial matters, even during a cost of living crisis.

Last night I dreamt that cookies never existed, but I was the only one who could remember them. The bewilderment...

Our drive to share dreams competes with their deeply personal, hard-to-communicate nature. Generative AI can give us a closer look. Text-to-image generators, which have risen to fame in the past year, often produce surreal and psychedelic results that lend themselves nicely to dream prompts.

A new lens on the thoughts, hopes and fears

So what is next? As much as a decade ago, researchers in Japan claimed to have linked MRI scans to generative algorithms, collecting dreams directly from the brain. The idea resurfaced this year with fresh hopes that generative AI can make robust dream recording a reality. Until then, however, there is no shortage of dream discussion to analyse. In aggregate, this can give us a new lens on the thoughts, hopes and fears of the nation.


Über die Person

Edward Crook is the Chief Strategy Officer at Brandwatch and an executive member of the Strategy Outthinker Network. With a background in linguistics and CMC, Edward has built research, insights and consulting teams in the UK, DACH and the US and consulted many of the Fortune 500 on digital brand strategy. His work has been recognised in Information Age's Data 50, the Customer Success Collective and the Zero Distance awards. Now based in Berlin, Edward specialises in strategy and operations... mehr

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