Suppressed thoughts rebound in dreams

Try not to think about a white bear and suddenly there it is, haunting your thoughts. A new study indicates that attempting to suppress specific thoughts also has a delayed effect by bringing them out in dreams.

The findings elaborate on Sigmund Freud’s century-old idea that wishes suppressed during the day find expression in dreams, says Harvard University psychologist Daniel M. Wegner. Now, it appears that consciously squelched thoughts often reappear in dreams, whether or not those thoughts incorporate wishes, he says.

Wegner and his coworkers studied the dreams of 295 college students. Before going to sleep at home volunteers spent 5 minutes writing down their thoughts. The participants had been given one of the following instructions: Don’t think about a specific person whom you either regard as a friend or have a crush on, do think about that person, or simply write his or her initials.

Each type of exercise before sleep prompted many volunteers to report, upon waking in the morning, that they had dreamed about the person they had thought about or tried not to think about the night before, the researchers say in the April Psychological Science. About one-third of those who tried not to think about the designated person then dreamed about him or her, compared with only one-quarter or so of those in the groups encouraged to think about that person or asked to write initials.

Wegner says that the findings have no bearing on Freud’s controversial notion that unconsciously repressed thoughts, like consciously suppressed ones, reappear in dreams.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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