Dream Color * Bob Hoss, M.S.
What does it mean to dream in color? A search for the answer to this question led me through a decade-long investigation into the nature of dream color. At first I wanted to determine whether color had any symbolic meaning as did all other dream imagery. What I discovered was that color indeed has a symbolic significance, which when it combines with other dream imagery, completes the meaning of that image. I found that color contains emotion, emotional associations that are rarely related to our learned opinions about color, but a deeper personal and instinctive emotional response to color. Color essentially "paints" a dream image with emotion.
Do We All Dream In Color?
Dreams have fascinated me ever since I was young, since my most memorable dreams have been in exciting vivid colors. This is not the case, however, for many who report that they "don't dream in color" or "dream in black and white." This is not unusual, since research shows that most of our dreams are in color (70 to 80%), but we only recall color about 25% of the time if we remember the dream at all. From the standpoint of working with your dream, recalling just one color (or a few) actually can be somewhat helpful in focusing on the most emotionally important dream image to work with. Color makes dreaming more interesting and can also be quite exciting when you understand what color is all about.
If dreams are in color, then what colors do we dream of? In order to find the answer I performed a content analysis on approximately 23,000 dreams (using the UCSC dream bank database and one other). This research revealed that black and white (not colorless dreams but the colors black and white) were reported most often and with nearly equal frequency. The second most reported colors (about half as frequent as black and white, but five times greater than most other colors) are what has been termed the "psychological primaries" red, yellow, blue and green. While the dominant appearance of these colors in our dreams might have a lot to do with the way brain processes color, they also have a striking similarity to the theories of both C.G. Jung and Fritz Perls (father of Gestalt therapy), regarding color in dreams. Jung described black and white patterns in dreams as symbolizing the integration of the unconscious and conscious mind, which he contends is one of the most basic processes taking place in dreams. It is therefore quite exciting to see that humans report black and white as the dominant color pairs in dreams. Both regarded the presence of a pattern of red, yellow, green and blue in a dream as a symbolic representation of a state of completion or balance within the personality. Jung even assigned what he called the four orienting functions of the conscious (feeling, intuition, sensation and thinking) to these four colors respectively.
What Does Color Mean to Us
As humans we respond emotionally to color but we may only be aware of liking or disliking a color or that it reminds us of something; yet below our threshold of awareness there is a lot more going on. Research has shown that our bodies, brains and nervous system all directly respond to color. Red for example has a measurable effect on increasing heartbeat and respiration, increasing appetite and arousing the brain, whereas blue has the opposite effect, calming those systems and relaxing the brain. This subliminal response to color, which influences our emotions, moods and appetites, is the basis for "color psychology" which has had a visible influence in our society on advertising, food packaging, art, style, decorating and the like. It is this subliminal response to color that also is behind the meaning of color in our dreams. This common emotional response to color is easy to demonstrate. If you illuminate a screen or room with red light, and ask those in the room how they feel inside when they look at the color, you will get a similar responses, with some personal variation, relating to energy, warmth, excitement, and other outwardly focused emotions. With blue light the cooler, calming, inwardly focused emotions emerge.
The key to understanding color is emotion and the reason for this has a lot to do with some recent findings about how our brain senses the outer world. A part of our brain (called the limbic system and the amygdala) governs attention and our instinctive safety system. Its role is to instantly ready us for action when a threatening situation occurs. In order to quickly activate our attention, the amygdala links an emotion to each image (and thus color) that enters from the outside world. This part of our brain is also very active in as we dream, likely dealing with unprocessed emotional business of the day. It follows that this limbic system would continue to link emotion with imagery and color - which appears as imagery and color in our dreams.
Although our primary response to color is an instinctive or emotional one, we do form learned associations as well. A certain pattern of color might stimulate a memory. We may acquire beliefs about the "meaning" of certain colors from what we have heard or read. Color associations can be culturally influenced particularly in the figures of speech we use in our daily lives ("I feel blue" for example). When working with dream color, therefore, it is useful to explore these learned associations, but it is most important to remember that dream color usually comes from a deeper level, a feeling level stimulated by personal emotional memories.
Understanding Color in Dreams
The idea that our mental associations between imagery and emotion carry over into our dreams is not new. According to Dr. Ernest Hartmann, the "central image" (the image which stands out by virtue of being especially powerful, vivid, bizarre, or detailed) pictures the emotion of the dreamer; and the intensity of that image is a measure of the strength of the emotion it represents. Color adds emotional intensity. It makes sense that a red hat in a dream would express more energy and vibrancy than would the image of a colorless hat.
The form of a dream image certainly contains emotional associations, but what specifically does the color contribute? In order to separate the two and understand the associations in the dream image, I applied a Gestalt based role-play technique (affectionately called "the six magic questions") proven very effective in quickly revealing emotional associations. The dreamer pretends that they are the colored dream image ("becomes" that thing in the dream) and answers a series of six questions. Their answers nearly always evoke feeling statements that also describe emotional issues in their waking lives, issues that the dream is dealing with.
In order then to determine what color contributes to the image, I turned to color psychology and compared the associations from that literature, to the dreamer's associations during role-play. This was aided by the fact that our knowledge of color and emotion had been applied to the development of some early personality testing tools, including the Rorschach test and most significantly the Luscher Color Test. This test was developed in 1947 by Dr. Max Luscher, to create an emotional profile of a subject based on color preference. It not only agreed nicely with other research, but correlated exceptionally well with the role-play work on colored dream imagery. The Luscher associations and role-play statements by the dreamer, appeared to relate to the same emotional situation. I used the Luscher associations for the initial research and later developed a color questionnaire that converted color associations (from Luscher and other sources) into a series of emotional statements designed to trigger the dreamer's own emotional associations. It is this color questionnaire that I also use for working with color in dreams, and will discuss later.
While investigating color and dreams, I found that color influences the personal meaning of dream imagery in four basic ways:
1) Amplifies: Color often intensifies the emotions contained within the dream image. This is seen when dreamer's role-play statements are nearly identical to the associations they "connect with" on the color questionnaire. Example: "I dreamed of a woman going into town wearing a red hat; she suddenly sank into the ground." When the dreamer "became" the woman in the red hat she became excited and stated: "we're going out for the evening to have fun...I feel vibrant." The color questionnaire associations she "connected with" were: "I feel intense vital and animated, taking delight in action. I desire to live life to the fullest."
2) Complements: Frequently color adds new information, completing the "meaning" of the dream image. Example: "I dreamed of brown fish floundering on shore." When the dreamer "became" the brown fish she stated: "I feel I am out of my element." The color questionnaire statement for brown, that the dreamer "connected with", was: "seeking freedom from problems and a secure comfortable state." In life, the dreamer had mixed feelings about a recent promotion. She felt "out of her element" and "wanting to establish a more familiar state where she felt comfortable and secure." These two separate emotional statements came together in the form of the fish and the color brown.
3) Compensates: At times, color reveals a hidden context that is different from what is revealed by the form of the image alone. Example: "I dreamed of gray 4-wheel drive trucks." During role-play of the truck, the dreamer became uncharacteristically animated and appeared to enjoy the aggressive role, stating "I feel powerful." Oddly the color questionnaire statement she most "connected with" was: "I want to remain shielded or separated from the situation or feelings." I asked what she liked about being the gray truck and she answered: "Nothing - I don't like being that way, people wouldn't like me, I would drive them away." In this case the truck image represented a hidden characteristic of assertiveness and power, that she was afraid to express. In the dream essentially "painted over" that frightening side of herself (the trucks) with a color of separation and detachment.
4) Color as Emotion: Sometimes color appears alone, or in a geometric form, to represent an emotional condition. For example, a grouping of the color "primaries" might represent a state of balance or a missing condition that is required to achieve balance. Example: "I dreamed of four color spheres, red, yellow, green and blue. The blue one separated and landed on my finger." When the dreamer "became" the blue sphere he stated: "I need to complete this task to become part of the whole again," simply validating that the color blue relates to something he needs for balance. His color questionnaire association for blue was: "a need for rest and a chance to recuperate." The dream came on the first night of a much needed vacation, reflecting his need to rest and recuperate in order to re-achieve his balance.
Color groupings, mixtures and patterns in a dream are significant, since dreams combine or relate images in a way that represents complementary or conflicting emotions. The Jungian principle that black and white patterns relate to the integration of conscious and unconscious material, is one example of this. White can also combine with other colors to add a newness, pacification or a transformative nature to the emotions represented by the color with which it combines. White pairing with another color often relates to a new emergence of the emotions represented by that color. Pink is an example where white transforms the aggressive outgoing energy of red to a nurturing, anti-aggressive color. The appearance of a pair of colors often represents a pair of conflicting emotions. For example the following dream, "I dreamed I was flip-flopping a red and blue change purse trying to decide which color I liked best," related to a conflict with this dreamer between wanting to "win and succeed" (red) and simply "rest and relax" (blue). Working with Dream Color
Incorporating the power of color into our dreamwork is a matter of exploring our emotional connections, although a brief exploration for a possible metaphor ("I see red" for example) is useful. Exploring your feelings about a color could be as simple as asking yourself how you feel when imagining yourself bathed in that color then relating those feelings to a recent waking life situation. I found, however, that a trigger mechanism works best when dealing with emotions. The color questionnaire, designed to trigger personal associations, seems to quickly surface emotional associations in a way that also expresses the waking situation they pertain to.
You can start by working on color alone, but I recommend first exploring the content within the dream image, then exploring the color associations, and comparing the two. For dream image exploration I recommend my simple role-play technique (the "six magic questions") whereby you imagine yourself as the dream image ("become" it) and as that image answer these six questions: 1) who or what are you (describe yourself); 2) what is your purpose; 3) what do you like about being that dream image; 4) what do you dislike about it; 5) what do you fear most and 6) what do you desire.
These questions are specifically designed reveal the situation the dream is dealing with and to relate your dream role to your waking life role, reveal any inner conflicts, and surface fears and desires that feed those conflicts. The answers will nearly always relate as analogies to feelings about events in your waking life.
After you have compared your answers to the "six magic questions" to your waking life situation, then work on the color by using the color questionnaire to trigger additional emotional associations. Compare the two sets of associations to see how the combination reveals more about your situation, the inner motivations driving the situation and your feelings towards it. The full procedure and further color questionnaires can be found in Dream Language. Visit www.dreamscience.org.
The color questionnaire is designed with statements related to emotional themes intended to trigger your own personal associations, it is not a table of color meaning. Note that although there is an different set of emotional themes for each color, the statements for each color covers a range from enjoying to needing a particular emotional condition - so it is normal that only one or just a few statements would apply to any one dream. 1) Pick the color below that best matches the color of the dream image you select. 2) Read each expression for that color, pausing and reflecting after each asking, "does this statement relate to a way I have felt recently in a waking life situation?" 3) Recall the waking situation and your feelings at the time. How might that situation and your feelings relate to the dream? Does the color statement put the situation or your behavior in that situation, in a different perspective?
1) I feel intense, vital or animated. 2) I feel transformed. 3) I feel assertive, forceful. 4) I feel creative. 5) I want to live life to its fullest. 6) I want to win, succeed, achieve. 7) I feel sexy or have strong sexual urges. 8) I have a driving desire. 9) I need something to make me feel alive again. 10) I need to be more assertive and forceful. 11) I need to get out and enjoy myself. 12) If red appears as blood or inflammation - it may relate to an illness or injury
1) I want to expand my interests and develop new activities. 2) I want a wider sphere of influence. 3) I feel friendly and welcoming. 4) I want more contact with others. 5) I feel enthusiastic, outgoing and adventurous. 6) I am driven by desires and hopes toward the new, undiscovered and satisfying. 7) I feel driven but need to overcome my doubts or fear of failure. 8) I must avoid spreading myself too thin.
1) I feel a sense of joy and optimism. 2) I feel alert. 3) I am seeking a solution that will open up new and better possibilities and allow my hopes to be fulfilled. 4) I feel the new direction I am taking will bring happiness in my future. 5) I am hopeful. 6) I need to find a way out of this circumstance or relationship. 7) I need a change. 8) I may be compensating for something. 9) I am acting compulsively.
1) I need to establish myself, my self-esteem, my independence. 2) I want recognition. 3) I need to increase the certainty of my own value and status, through acknowledgment by others of my achievements or my possessions. 4) Hard work and drive will gain me recognition and self esteem. 5) My opinion must prevail. 6) I must hold on to this view in order to maintain my self-esteem. 7) I want what I am due. 8) I must maintain control of the events. 9) Things must not change. 10) Detail and logic are important. 11) I need to increase my sense of security. 12) I need more money to feel secure. 13) I want to withdraw or retreat into my own center. 14) I feel healed or need healing.
1) I feel tranquil, peaceful and content. 2) I feel a sense of harmony. 3) I feel a meditative awareness or unity. 4) I feel a sense of belonging. 5) I need rest, peace or a chance to recuperate. 6) I need a relationship free from contention in which I can trust and be trusted. 7) I need a peaceful state of harmony offering contentment and a sense of belonging.
1) I like to win others over with my charm. 2) I feel an identification, an almost "mystic" union. 3) I have a deep intuitive understanding of the situation. 4) I feel a sense of intimacy. 5) The feeling is erotic. 6) I seek a magical state where wishes are fulfilled. 7) I yearn for a "magical" relationship of romance and tenderness. 8) I seek to identify with something or someone. 9) I need intimacy. 10) I engage in fantasy in order to compensate for my feelings of insecurity.
1) I seek a secure state where I can be physically comfortable and relax or recover. 2) I am uneasy and insecure in the existing situation. 3) I need a more affectionate environment. 4) I need a situation imposing less physical strain. 5) I want to satisfy the physical senses (food, luxury, sex). 6) If it is a Natural or wood brown: a) I am concerned about matters of family, home, or my "roots". b) I am concerned with a son or daughter. c) I am searching for my true self or natural state of being. 7) If Dirty Brown: it may relate to a physical problem or illness.
GRAY (Free of Color)
1) I want to shield myself from those feelings. 2) I feel emotionally distant, only an observer. 3) It is as if I am standing aside, watching myself mechanically go through the motions. 4) I want to remain uncommitted, non-involved, shielded or separated from the situation. 5) I do not want to make a decision that will require my emotional involvement. 6) I have put up with too much and wish to avoid any further emotional stimulation. 7) I am trying to escape an anxious situation. 8) I am compensating for something.
BLACK (Negation of Color) The unconscious realm. Moving into darkness = suppression, "death of the ego" (first stage of transformation). Beautiful shiny black = a positive view of the unconscious from which a new self emerges. Try:
1) I am anxious and don't know why. 2) I am fearful of or intimidated by the situation. 3) I have been dealt an unacceptable blow. 4) Nothing is as it should be. 5) I refuse to allow it/them to influence my point of view. 6) I can't accept the situation and don't wish to be convinced otherwise. 7) I feel the need for extreme action, perhaps in revolt against or to compensate for the situation.
1) This is a new experience. 2) I'm becoming aware of new feelings. 3) I'm experiencing a new beginning, a reawakening a transformation. 4) I have a new outlook, a new awareness. 5) I feel pure and innocent. 6) I feel open and accepting. 7) I feel unprepared. 8) I feel alone, isolated. 9) It feels cold or sterile.
White grouping or mixing (pastels) with other color represents a transformation of the emotions represented by those colors, adding a peacefulness, or a newness, emergence or re-emergence theme to the emotion.
(Jung) RED/YEL/BLU/GRN - a grouping of the 4 "primaries" represents a state of completion within the personality. A missing color, may be associated with an emotional element missing from the dreamers life needed for closure. BLACK & WHITE (patterns) - may represent the forces of unification, an integration of conscious (white) and unconscious (black) from which a greater self emerges; a unity of opposites; an internal change. GOLD & SILVER - Integration of the masculine & feminine qualities of the conscious & unconscious.
Bob Hoss is the author of the book Dream Language: Self-Understanding through Imagery and Color, and a number of articles on dream studies.
** All material extracted from Dream Language, copyright provided by permission of the author. February/2006. www.dreamlanguage.org