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Experiencing Level in Dreams: An Individual Difference Variable[1]

MARION HENDRICKS University of Chicago[2]
ROSALIND D. CARTWRIGHT University of Illinois at Chicago Circle








ABSTRACT: An Experiencing variable along which dream reports could be scaled was proposed. Twenty subjects were studied in a sleep laboratory three consecutive nights. Awakenings were made to collect REM reports on nights two and three. 104 dreams were rated for level of Dream Experiencing. High EXP reports include explicit references to feelings or to some reflective activity by dream characters. Low EXP reports are descriptive of events, devoid of personal response or involvement. The Dream EXP level was found to be highly stable for individuals. Predictions that Dream EXP would be positively related to a measure of waking cognitive style, Psychological Differentiation, and unrelated to the personality trait of extroversion-introversion were both supported. Contrary to the prediction of a negative relationship between Dream EXP level and Defensiveness, no significant relation was found to the measure employed. Four subjects participated in a dream workshop designed to manipulate the Dream EXP level to increase it. Workshop dreams are discussed in light of the success or failure of this manipulation and the implications for psychotherapy.

In the light of the findings that dreaming mentation is a regularly occurring and plentiful phenomenon, the question of its relation to waking mental activity becomes pertinent. Are there some functional interactions which make it possible to predict the character of one type of thought from a knowledge of the other? Are there both trait-like and state-like properties of dreaming and are they similar or complementary to the state and trait characteristics of waking cognitive activity?

In order to explore these questions productively it is necessary to define some variables applicable to samples from both waking and sleep which are relevant to the theoretical issues that have been raised about dreaming and its functions. Starting most simply, the first such issue must be: Are there stable individual differences in the cognitive style of the night as there are in waking mental activity?

Most studies of dreams have been concerned with their content, rather than their thought structure (Hall and Van de Castle. 1966; Hall and Nordly, 1972). In contrast, this study approached dream data from the point of view of a theory of style, that of Experiencing, (Gendlin, 1962). The concern is with how dream events are experienced rather than with what occurs. Experiencing theory refers to the manner in which an event's meaning is experienced, that is, the degree of explicitness the meaning of an event reaches. A low experiencing manner is identified by behaviors or thoughts being expressed without any symbolization of what difference they make to the subject. A high manner of experiencing, on the other hand, is characterized by the subject's symbolizing the meanings of situations so that their significance to him is also experienced. The symbols may be feeling statements as well as cognitive activity. The significance of any experience can be felt whether it originates from within the organism like a daydream or an anxious feeling, or is a perception of an external stimulus. Symbolization articulates that feeling into terms that can be thought about or talked over.

The concept of Dream Experiencing was developed to refer to the way in which the events of dreams are explicated during the dream by the characters. The level of symbolizing activity internal to the phenomenal world of the dream can best be studied by working from the report of a dream given immediately on awakening from a Rapid Eye Movement (REM) period. The meaning of a dream event can be implicit in what the dream characters do, or it can be expressed explicitly by a dream character. For example, a dream report might be strictly a narrative of events; who was present and what happened.

I was at my house. I had just walked into my room. A few minutes before, my father, mother and sister and I had gone shopping. I bought a pair of sandals and I was getting ready to go out and eat. My mother was cleaning. She had rearranged some furniture so I had to walk around that. There were some red roses in a vase. I had just bought stockings and I put a huge hole in it somehow and I was trying to get on a sweater just when you woke me up.

When questioned, some persons claim there were no feelings involved in the dream. Events were just happening.

In contrast there are dreams in which much internal responding and feeling is specifically reported to have gone on. The event as felt or thought about takes up time in the dream.

I met him somewhere and we kind of made up and then D----- said she had felt that I just didn't know how to defend myself . . . that I was giving up all the time and all this could have been avoided if I would have defended myself more. All this while I was kind of thinking that I really didn't like to be aggressive back even though it was to defend myself . . . and then I remembered being very happy about being back with M----- and feeling that things were going to go much better because he realized that he was being aggressive to me and I also realized that he wasn't doing it to be cruel, that I was just really sensitive . . .

In between these two examples there are dreams with definite emotions, but in which the feelings do not become the focus of attention. In other words there is a continuum of how explicit personal meanings are made.

The Experiencing Scale was developed by Klein, Mathieu, Gendlin, and Kiesler (1970) as an instrument for rating the explicitness of personal meanings in therapy interviews. In this context the level of experiencing has been found to be predictive of the ability to do productive therapeutic work. From these studies it is known that the experiencing level is relatively stable within persons and varies between individuals. It is one purpose of the present study to investigate whether the experiencing level in dreams also has the properties of an individual difference variable. It is possible that since dreams are formed out of affective and private meaning data, there will be very little variability in experiencing level—that it will be high in all persons. If it is an individual difference variable is it consistent with the waking level or inverse? If the subject is low in waking and high in dreaming is he a better candidate for psychotherapy?

Although this dimension of dreams has not been studied previously, some related work has been done. Hall and Van de Castle (1966) counted emotions in 1,000 dreams. They reported the frequency of emotions to be low. They comment, "It is surprising to us who have read and analyzed thousands of dreams that more emotions are not experienced by the dreamer. There are many dreams that should produce fear, anger, grief or joy that do not. A person may undergo a grueling set of experiences while he is dreaming and remain emotionally indifferent." Snyder (1970) counted the incidence of emotion and reflection in 635 laboratory dreams of young adults. No emotions were identified by the reporter in two thirds of the dreams. On closer analysis Snyder found the incidence of "reflection" increased with the length of the dream report. It was present in about 25% of short dreams, 40% of those of medium length and in 75% of long dreams. In neither study were the data analyzed in terms of individual differences, although the infrequency of emotions and occurrence of reflection in only some dreams suggests a potentially significant variability.

A study to test the presence of such a dream variable should also include measures of theoretically related waking behavior. In this way, the place of different types of dream experience in the total organization of the individual may be clarified. One possibility would be to apply the original Experiencing scale to a sample of analogous waking verbal behavior, like the response to a TAT picture. The problem with this is that a high correlation might be explained as only reflecting a similar language style. For this reason it seemed wise to use a measure which would sample a different behavioral parameter.

Witkin's concept of Psychological Differentiation (Witkin et al., 1962) has considerable overlap with the EXP construct. It refers to a person's separate sense of self, in terms of which he or she experiences the world. Poorly differentiated people behave and react in terms of the present event context without much ability to reflect upon or feel the events from an independent frame of reference. Witkin also hypothesized that the dreams of more differentiated subjects would include observations by the self of the ongoing events. It seems logical then to predict that Dream Experiencing will correlate positively with a measure of waking Psychological Differentiation.

The relation of Dream EXP and defensiveness is predicted to be inverse since high experiencing is an awareness of the felt dimension of events and defensiveness is defined as a denial of feelings and meanings to awareness.

Finally Dream EXP level was predicted not to be related to an Extroversion-Introversion personality dimension. It is a central contention of the Experiencing theory that any events can be experienced in a high or low manner, regardless of their source. Although defined in this content-free way, it is possible to confuse the high experiencing style with "internal" events, such as fantasy or images. However an endogenous mental event, such as a dream. image, or fantasy, will not necessarily be experienced along with its associated personal meanings. Events from both sources, internal and external, can be experienced with feeling and in a reflective manner. or as bare events. The person's dominant data source, implied by the terms introvert or extrovert, should be unrelated to the level of his evaluative awareness of that data.

Procedures have been developed in the therapy context to manipulate the level of experiencing. Experiential Focusing (Gendlin, 1968), and Image Focusing (Gendlin and Olsen, 1970) both attempt to train the discrimination of the inner response or felt level of events. This study will also attempt to increase dream EXP level by means of intensive work with the dreams. Although there have been attempts to influence dream content by means of presleep or during sleep stimulation, there are no research studies of the ways in which dreams change when they are worked with directly. It has been noted that dreams reported over the course of psychotherapy change, especially in those treatments which emphasize self-observation, but whether these changes precede or follow waking progress is not clear, nor how regularly this occurs. Most interesting would be to study changes in the dreams in relation to the timing of waking insight. Working directly to affect the dream EXP level might be an indirect way to approach those patients whose level of self-observation is poor and who are resistant to psychotherapeutic change. This study includes a test of the effect of this kind of manipulation on dreams.



The subjects were 22 young adults, equally divided for sex, ranging in age from 18 to 32 years. All were interviewed by the experimenter who estimated their waking EXP level on the basis of 10-minute interviews. Subjects were selected to insure a distribution on that variable. If waking and dream EXP are correlated, a homogenous population on waking EXP level would prevent finding a distribution on the dream EXP variable.


Subjects slept in the Sleep Laboratory, University of Illinois at Circle Campus, three consecutive nights. Their sleep was EEG monitored according to the procedures standardized for sleep studies by Rechtschaffen and Kales (1968). The first night was a non-experimental night for adaptation to the procedures. The subjects were awakened in the morning from a REM period, and asked for a report of their mental content at that time. This was to familiarize them with the awakening and reporting procedure. If a dream was reported but no feelings, they were asked if any were present in the dream. "These dreams were for training and not part of the data analysis. On the remaining two nights, awakenings were made from each REM period except the first. The first awakening was made 10 minutes after the onset of the second REM period, the second fifteen minutes after the onset of the third REM and the third and any subsequent awakenings twenty minutes into the succeeding REM periods. Four subjects were selected for an additional workshop intervention. Those were chosen on the basis of having initially low waking experience levels. They met individually with the experimenter for four, one-hour sessions. Each session was four or five days apart. After the three original nights, workshop subjects slept in the laboratory for one night before the workshop sessions, and for one final night following the last session. All of the dream reports and the workshop sessions were taped. The interval between the original lab-nights and the first pre-workshop night varied from three weeks for one subject and five months for two others.


The scale for rating dream experiencing was adapted from the original EXP scale. Two raters were trained separately by written instruction, and use of a model rating of sample dreams. Each dream was later assigned a peak and an overall dream EXP score. The peak was the highest score of any segment of the dream received on the six-point scale. Each subject received an average peak score over all dreams. An overall dream EXP was obtained by multiplying the frequency of each score by its scale value and obtaining the mean score for all dreams.

The dreams were transcribed, coded and randomized for order. Interjudge reliability was computed for the first 66 dreams. This coefficient was .80. Since the obtained level of interjudge reliability met the criterion which was set at .75, the remaining dreams were rated by only one or the other of the two judges.

Psychological Differentiation was measured by Witkin's Body Sophistication Scale (1962). Each subject was asked to draw a person and then to draw a second person of the opposite sex. The drawings are given a single rating based on form level, sexual differentiation and detailing. The drawings were rated by the second author, an experienced rater.

Defensiveness was measured by Leary's procedure (1956). Subjects filled out the Interpersonal Adjective Checklist. They were then given ten TAT cards and asked to make up brief stories to each picture. The stories were rated by two judges. Using Leary's formulae, scores for the ICL and the TAT were obtained and discrepancy between them calculated, a higher score representing greater defensiveness.

Extroversion was measured by Eysenck's short form of the Maudsley Personality Inventory.


A total of 104 dreams was scored for Dream EXP level. Thirty-nine dreams fall into stage three on the Dream EXP scale, the stage in which emotional involvement with ongoing events is reported. Thirty-six dreams fall into stage four, in which thinking and complex feelings take up time during the dream. Although the majority of scores fall into these two stages, the dreams are distributed among all the scale categories except six, the highest. Twenty-two dreams were scored in stages one and two.

A consistency Index (CI)[3] was derived for this study to measure the stability of Dream EXP level within individuals. With a limited range rating scale the variance and the mean of a set of ratings are not independent. For any given mean, there is a maximum limit on the possible variance. The only way a set of ratings can have a mean of six on a six-point scale for example, is for all of the individual ratings in the set to be six. In such a case there can be no variance. For such a scale, the maximum variance of a set of ratings with mean M is given by:

Maximum Variance =  − M2 + 7M − 6

To derive a measure of consistency the actual variance for each subject is divided by that subject's maximum possible variance and subtracted from one. This gives the percentage of consistency across dreams. While the Consistency Index is similar to the intraclass correlation, it does not require violation of any assumptions for its use with these data.

Over half of the subjects were found to be more than 90% consistent in dream experiencing level across dreams. Three-fourths of the subjects are more than 80% consistent and the most variable subject is still 76% consistent. Dream EXP level is highly consistent over the time period involved for these individuals across dreams.

The second part of this study was correlational. The .05 level was accepted as significant. Correlations of relevant variables are given in Table 1.

Table 1
Correlation of Variables

    1 2 3 4 5
1. Dream EXP Peak X .75b .47a .12 −.07
2. Dream EXP Mode   X .43a .23 −.02
3. Psych. Differentiation     X .36 .00
4. Defensiveness       X −.33
5. Extroversion         X

a p < .05.
b p < .01.

The fact that Dream EXP peak and mode correlate significantly at beyond the .001 level, lends support for the validity of the EXP scale and concept, modified for use with dreams. An individual's mean of highest ratings gives us much the same information as a mean for all ratings of all categories.

Body Sophistication scores and Dream EXP scores are significantly related at beyond the .05 level in the predicted direction. The hypothesis that higher Dream Experiencers tend to be more psychologically differentiated is supported. Defensiveness as measured is not significantly related to Dream EXP level, either to the mode or peak.

Two post-hoc analyses were performed to discover if Dream EXP is related to sex of subject or to their having had previous psychotherapy. There was no significant difference in Dream EXP level between men and women. Half the group (N= 10) who had some experience in psychotherapy were significantly higher (t = 1.065, p < .01) in Dream EXP level than subjects who never had been in psychotherapy. It is not known at this time whether this finding means that psychotherapy increases Dream EXP level, or that people who go into psychotherapy have higher Dream Experiencing levels, or that both are related to some third variable.

Results of the workshop procedure are found in Table 2. All four subjects are low in experiencing manner on the pre-workshop night, on both mode and peak measures. With the exception of subject 6 on the peak score the subjects were also low dream experiencers on their original nights. This comparison of original with pre-workshop means, is a further indication of consistency of individuals in dream EXP level over an extended period of time. Although subject 6 decreased in peak score prior to the intervention, her mode scores are almost identical (8.5 and 8.0). Dream EXP appears, like waking EXP, to be stable over time. With the manipulation only one subject, 7, increased in both mode and peak measures indicating a change from low to high experiencing. Subject 10 increased on the peak measure, but not on mode. The other two subjects remained low on both measures.

Both of subject 7's post-workshop dreams were about the laboratory situation. One takes place in the laboratory, "in a room like this." The other is in the building "the size of one of the buildings around here." EEG machines appear in both dreams, and the experimenter is with the subject in both dreams. The feeling quality in both is of "curiosity, wondering fascination." In the first dream, the experimenter and subject are "walking around together . . . so fascinated by the things there in the building." In the second dream the experimenter is experienced as "reassuring . . . she was really nice . . . very very friendly . . . almost infatuated with me . . . I loved every minute of it."

Table 2
Comparisons of Pre And Post-Workshop Dream EXP Levels

Lab Nites

Lab Nite

Lab Nile

Subjects EXP


6 3.4 8.5 2.3 8.0 2.5 2.5
7 2.5 7.8 2.5 4.0 4.0 11.0
10 2.5 8.4 2.3 4.3 3.3 7.6
21 2.4 7.5 1.7 3.2 1.7 2.7

Overt references to experimenter appear in two other subjects' dreams, but are in marked contrast to the positive role in the above dreams. Subject 21 dreams:

. . . you were on a movie screen showing people how you connect the electrons to the head. So then you connected mine to the socket and it blew up when you let me into the socket . . . You were . . . on the movie screen but you were behind a glass of red. And for the deaf children you were making sign language.

There is a rather obvious message in this dream that I am communicating with someone who is deaf. The subject is also afraid of the laboratory procedure. Later in the same night, this subject produces another dream which repeats the message that she is unable, or unwilling to "hear" or find out about herself.

I had a dream about my boss and he taped my voice on a tape cassette and he was playing it back to me. And didn't want to hear what was on the tape. So he erased them. And gave it back to me.

She was aware that her dreams were being taped. She had also discussed personal problems in a brief interview with the experimenter just before going to sleep. This was recorded on a cassette tape. The attitude of not wanting to know is an extreme opposite of subject 7's curious, wondering attitude. Both these dreams were from the pre-workshop night and seem to give the experimenter fair warning that her workshop interventions were meeting resistance.

Subject 6 dreamed:

I was dreaming I was here (laughs). Only it was different. There was three girls in one room. And instead of going to sleep we kept talking and making Koolaid. And you guys were having a party out there. There were a whole bunch of people and music and stuff  . . .

This pre-workshop dream reflects an attitude that the whole experience is a party, particularly for the experimenter. The experimenter is drinking and listening to music, etc. . . certainly not an attitude of concern or interest in the subject. The subject, for her part, "goofs around," refuses to go to sleep and makes her own party. This dream seems to indicate a lack of rapport between the two and an attitude not conducive to an exploration of the subject's dreams. The "instead of going to sleep" problems indicates an unwillingness to produce dreams, the material for the workshop. The subject is not willing, under these conditions, to reveal or reflect upon her "unconscious" and articulate personal meanings.

Subject 10's dreams contain no direct reference to the experimenter or the lab situation. However, on the pre-workshop night, she does dream about sleeping.

I was just having this party and I fell asleep, and I woke up and everyone was gone except this one kid. His name is M-------. And I was real confused. I didn't understand why everybody left 'cause I thought they were having a good time . . . And in my dream when I fell asleep I dreamt something about the Kitty Hawk . . .

Again there is the theme of a party. This time the subject does go to sleep and does produce a dream. While asleep the partying ends, everyone leaves except one friend whose name begins with an M (as does experimenter's) and who talks with her about her past. Although she does not have the excited curiosity of subject 7, there is some puzzlement about what has taken place while she slept. Her dreams indicate some willingness to reveal and wonder about personal material, and she does increase in peak experiencing level on the post-workshop night.

This vivid portrayal of transference and countertransference material in the dreams surrounding the workshop raises the issue of the relationship between rapport and experiencing level. If the subject is on guard in a potentially threatening situation he may not have attention free to be self-experiencing in a high manner.


The findings of this study support that Experiencing level varies in dreams and that it has the properties of a trait, being stable for individuals over the time periods involved. As predicted, Dream EXP has a significant positive relationship to a measure of waking Psychological Differentiation, and is independent of the personality trait of extroversion-introversion.

The present study shows that dreams vary in style from including the personal affective implications of the events to being a series of occurrences with no personally symbolized involvement. The variability may lead to further interesting questions. For example, instead of asking, "What is the function of dreams?" as if all dreams are equivalent and serve the same single function, this question might better be asked as: "What is the function of a dream with a high experiencing manner?" Or, "Does waking behavior change occur when the content area has been dealt with in a high experiencing manner during dreaming?" "Does a high experiencing manner in a dream signal a coming ability for waking insight in a particular respect?"

The dream workshop case study indicates that experiencing level during dreaming is difficult to raise, just as waking experiencing level has been. However, the subjects' dreams suggest some reasons why this variable does not change more easily. They indicate that strongly held attitudes toward the therapist, and toward the process of exploring the self are crucially involved in the response to the training to raise this level. One subject's dreams clearly stated that she did not want to hear herself, and did not trust the experimenter's competence to insure her safety. Another subject's dream exposed an attitude of noncooperation. The dreams of the subject in whom an increase did occur showed an attitude of fascination, wanting to know, a trust in the experimenter and a perception of her as having positive feelings toward him. The susceptibility of the experiencing level to change may depend very directly on the state of the therapist-client relationship. It Is unlikely that the subjects could have communicated consciously the attitudes that their dreams reveal. The dream material seems valuable precisely in that it gives information about the internal emotional response to the waking situation. This "immediate feedback" capacity of dreams and its usefulness in monitoring attempts to increase self-awareness level should be further explored. A current study is exploring the effect of a dream training program in making noninsightful, poor risk patients more accessible to psychotherapy.


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[1] This paper is based on the dissertation of the first author submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree at the University of Chicago. The research was conducted at the Sleep Laboratory at the University of Illinois directed by the second author and was supported by grant MD-23450 to Dr. Cartwright.

[2] Presently at Illinois School of Professional Psychology.

[3] Thanks are due to Stephen Lloyd for this derivation.

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