- Dreaming of deceased loved ones is a natural and healthy part of the mourning process.
- Visitation dreams prompt deep reflections on existential questions of death, the soul, and the afterlife.
- People with fixed ideas about religion, either pro or con, tend to have fewer visitation dreams.
A fascinating new study from the Pew Research Center reveals the high proportion of Americans who have dreamed of deceased relatives. The findings correspond closely to other findings in dream research, which indicate that visitation dreams are a broadly historical cross-cultural phenomenon with surprisingly powerful effects on the dreamers.
The survey included 5,079 adults answering questions as part of the Center’s American Trends Panel, between March 27 and April 2, 2023. As reported by Patricia Tevington and Manolo Corichi, panelists were asked if they have ever felt that a family member who is dead has visited them in a dream or any other form. The analysis included the dream-only results, which showed that 46 percent of all adults have been visited by a dead family member in a dream, with responses divided into the following subgroups:
- Women are more likely (56 percent) than men (36 percent) to report a visitation dream.
- Blacks (54 percent) and Hispanics (53 percent) are more likely than Whites (42 percent) to report a visitation dream.
- People with a high commitment to religion (38 percent) or a low commitment to religion (33 percent) are less likely to report a visitation dream than people with moderate or “medium” religious commitments (54 percent).
The first two findings are consistent with other sources of research on gender and race/ethnicity differences in dream experience. Indeed, the gender finding is remarkably close to the results of a 1958 study by Griffith et al., showing that 53 percent of American women and 40 percent of American men reported having a visitation dream, along with the results of surveys I conducted in 2007 and 2010, with 51 percent of American women and 38 percent of American men reporting a visitation dream.
Visitation Dreams and Religiosity
The last of their findings is worth underscoring: “People who are moderately religious seem to be more likely than other Americans to have these experiences.” Tevington and Corichi note that we could also conclude that the most intensely committed members of traditional religious groups, like evangelical Protestants, and the least religious Americans, such as atheists and agnostics, are much less likely to report these kinds of dreams. Overall, it seems fair to read these findings as an indication that, in a contemporary American context, people whose minds are more made up about the value of religion, either for it or against it, tend to have fewer visitation dreams than people who are less fixed and more open in their views about religion.
The Pew survey did not ask for dream reports or details about the experiences. However, historical and cross-cultural studies are full of examples of visitation dreams with several recurrent features, including hyper-realism, emotional intensity, and strange variations in the appearance and behavior of the dead person. People often awaken from these dreams with a vivid sense that they really saw their deceased loved ones, that it was as real an encounter as anything they experience in waking.
The Effects of Dreaming of the Dead
Broadly speaking, visitation dreams can have both a psychological impact and a spiritual impact. In psychological terms, these kinds of highly memorable dreams are part of the process of mourning the loss of a beloved person. (Or an animal; pet visitation dreams are a widespread phenomenon, too.) People often awaken from these dreams feeling deeply reassured by the experiential evidence of their ongoing emotional relationship with the dead person, despite the loss of their physical presence. To be clear, visitation dreams can include a host of negative emotions—sadness, anger, fear—which are part of the mourning process, too. Through these dreams, people learn how to renew their sense of living a psychologically coherent life in which the dead person is both gone forever and yet always present.
The spiritual impact emerges after awakening, when the dreamer’s conscious mind is filled with an urgent set of existential questions: What is the nature of death? Of the soul? Of the afterlife? Of reality itself? Humans throughout history have wondered about the bigger implications of their dreams of the dead, and a strong argument can be made that dreaming is a primal source of religious beliefs and ideas. Here is anthropologist E.B. Tylor from his 1873 work, Primitive Cultures:
“That this soul should be looked on as surviving beyond death is a matter scarcely needing elaborate argument. Plain experience is there to teach it to every savage; his friend or his enemy is dead, yet still in dream or open vision he sees the spectral form which is to his philosophy a real objective being.”
Tylor’s condescending attitude toward the credulous “savage” treats the connection between visitation dreams and spirituality in negative terms, as superstitious irrationality. Interestingly, visitation dreams have also been condemned through history from the opposite side, by traditional religious authorities (e.g., missionaries, theologians) who regard such phenomena as misleading and potentially dangerous demonic temptations.
And now we have circled back to the concluding result of the Pew survey. People who are highly detached from, or highly attached to, a traditional religion are less interested in visitation dreams than people who fall into neither of those camps. In light of the broader research literature on this topic, it seems possible that “less interested” can also shade into “hostile toward.” Despite his superior airs, Tylor is absolutely right: Visitation dreams are a natural and universally accessible source of compelling evidence about spiritual realities. It’s no surprise, then, that people who want to eliminate religion, or channel it in a single fixed direction, will find the irrepressible power of visitation dreams to be a worrisome threat.
Considered more positively, however, the results of this new survey suggest that visitation dreams play a distinctive role in the spiritual lives of a large proportion of Americans. Indeed, for people who feel uncomfortable with the absolutism of both atheists and religious fundamentalists and yet remain curious and open to spiritual possibilities, dreams may offer a unique source of authentic religious experience.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
LinkedIn image: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock
Bulkeley, K. (2016). Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.