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The Color Questionnaire for Dreamwork

Developing The Color Questionnaire

In performing my investigation on color it became apparent to me that the Lusher test might provide an interesting tool for enhancing personal dreamwork. Because it seemed to correlate so well with the results from role-play, it could perhaps provide insight into the possible emotional associations with color recalled from dreams. I did not want it to be used as a color dictionary to interpret or even suggest that a dream color represents a certain emotional condition. I did, however, want to capture the emotional themes that the Luscher test associated with each color, and use those to trigger the dreamers own personal associations with an emotional situation in their lives that the dream might be dealing with.

I therefore restructured the Luscher statements so as to preserve the original emotional themes and wording as much as possible, but alter the wording from that of an interpretation to that of suggested emotional statements. The original Color Test provides both positive and negative statements regarding a color, depending on the order in which a color preference is chosen by the subject. Red for example can relate to energy as well as a need for energy depending on how it is chosen in the test. I accounted for this by providing both positive and negative themes in the questionnaire.

I also determined that the Luscher test did not adequately capture the symbolic essence of black and white and brown as Jung related it to the conscious and unconscious, so I refined the wording for those colors to add this avenue of self-exploration. I modified the table a bit from my own observations as it related to pastels. I found that the pastels (mixing with the “newness” of white) appear to relate to the new emergence of an emotion or the dreamers uncertainty or immaturity in dealing with that particular emotion that is represented by the base color.

The resultant “Color Questionnaire” is provided below for your personal dreamwork. Use the statements to stimulate associations with waking life situations that then can be further explored while working with the dream. It should NEVER be used as a “dictionary of color” to derive “meaning” for dream colors, it does not work that way. It is intended only to trigger emotional associations with your waking life situation that the dream might be dealing with. Follow the directions above the table.

Introduction to color in dreams

Do we all dream in color? I only dream in black and white, what does that mean? I dream in vivid colors every night, is that normal? What does color mean in dreams? These are frequently asked questions about the nature of color in dreams which this site will address as well as provide some surprising new information from a research effort into the significance of color in dreams.

Color appears in dreams in many ways: as a image that is completely or partly in color (a woman in a red hat); as colored shapes or areas (yellow square, or blue background); or as the recall of a total scene or entire dream in natural color (green grass, blue sky, brown and green trees, etc.). Many report their dreams are without color, or relate them as black and white. The recalling the color black, white or gray in dreams actually does have color significance. Recalling a black object for example represents the visual image of “blackness” which is different from simply recalling the image. Research in the sleep lab has shown that most of our dreams are in color (70% to 83%), and that it is a matter of recall that results in such a low report of dream color, just as it is a matter of recall that we remember so few of our dreams which occupy about 25% of our sleep time at night.

Color is as much a symbol as is the imagery in a dream. Color appears to represent the emotional conditions that stimulated a dream or dream image. As with any other symbol, color combines with the imagery to form a more complete "meaning" for the dream image. Just as the face of your son might combine with the body of a bird to represent some personal meaning such as "my son has left the nest", color will combine with a dream image to give it greater emotional significance. A red hat would be more expressive of passion, drive and vibrancy, for example, than a colorless hat.

We will see that the color our sleeping brain assigns to dream images, completes the dream image and is as meaningful as the dream image itself. Color in dreams can indeed have cultural or personal significance, but my research supports a notion that for the most part dream color comes from a normal brain function that associates emotion with sensory input. This is a process that is normally outside of our conscious awareness, whereby a center of the brain (called the limbic system) assigns an emotion or emotional memory to all sensory input that your brain receives. This is a natural part of our system that alerts us to danger. It is my premise that this system, perhaps working in conjunction with our autonomic nervous system, also assigns emotional significance to the colors that we sense. Because this part of the brain has been found to be highly active in the dream process, it is therefore likely that it plays a role in assigning dream color to the emotions and emotional memories that stimulate the dream. My research to date, as summarized herein, supports this notion.

The Research

 Do We Dream In Color?

 Research shows that the majority of our dreams are in color.  In the sleep lab, Robert Van de Castle, Ph.D. reports that when awoken from the REM state, distinct color was reported in 70% of the cases and vague color in another 13% [1].  The reason most people perceive dreams as colorless appears to be a matter of recall.  Spontaneous non-laboratory dream reports (normal daily dream recall) indicate that only about 25% (Van De Castle) to 29% (Hall) of dreamers recall color (partial or full color).  Color recall may have to do with the nature of our consciousness in dreams, as observed by the vivid colors usually associated with Lucid dreams [2]. Another important aspect of color recall may be the emotional intensity of the dream or the colored imagery.  People have a tendency to recall the most emotionally impacting or stimulating parts of a dream, and not so much the rest.  Perhaps there is emotional significance to the specific dream colors we recall.  This may explain why our brain assigns certain color to dream objects particularly when the color can be optional, for example dreaming of a red car versus a blue car.

Color as a Symbol

 In my earlier investigations [3] I observed that dream color is a symbol much like any other dream image.  Color appears to have meaningful symbolic associations with waking life as does other dream imagery.  It appears to combine (or condense) with dream imagery, to add emotional content to complete the final composite image.  This notion has some biological support, since color processing occurs in a separate part of the brain than the processing of imagery [4]. When we are awake the entire image is reconstructed from the external visual stimuli, and although color, shape and spatial placement might be processed in different parts of the brain, the final composite is combined to match the original sensory source.  When dreaming, however, the dream image is based totally on internal stimuli, so a dream image (its color and shape and spatial placement) might result from separate but associated emotional stimuli.   Paying attention to the color of a dream image, as well as its shape and identity, may reveal important information that would be lost if we ignored the color. 

 Dream Theory

 Jung and Perls discussed the four-color grouping of red, yellow, blue and green appearing in dreams as representing a symbol of completeness or a focal pattern for order [5, 6, 7].  Jung related color associations to the unconscious (black), consciousness (white or light) and his four primary “functions”: intuition (yellow), thinking (blue), feeling (red), sensation (green).  Unfortunately color has been given little further attention by most dream theorists and researchers.

 The Human Response to Color

 The lack of any research into dream color, lead me to initiate an investigation based on understanding the waking human response to color.  Here there was more test data and some established tools.  I speculated that if I could establish a correlation between the human waking response to color, and the appearance of color in dreams, then I might better understand the color content in dreams.  This is particularly the case if the brain processes are similar for both. 

 Over the last 50 years or so there has been a small, but notable, degree of research into the human and animal response to color [8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16].  The impact of this research in the field of “color psychology” is primarily seen today in the influence it has had in the field of advertising, food packaging, art, style, decorating and such.  Much of the research indicated that color illumination evokes a common physiological response in human subjects, an automatic response that is below our level of awareness.  Color illumination has been shown to affect the autonomic nervous system directly [8], as well as the brains electrical response [14], responses that change with color across the spectrum.   Blue, for example, calms the parasympathetic branch, while red excites the sympathetic branch, causing decreases and increases respectively in heartbeat and respiration.  Brown [14] also found that the brains response to red is that of alerting and arousal, whereas the response to blue is that of relaxation. 

 As mentioned previously there is a part of our brain called the limbic system, which plays a role in alerting us to danger and initiating fight, flight or freeze response.  This system performs its function by assigning emotions to all the sensory input it receives, which would naturally include color.  Early laboratory work revealed some of the common human emotional associations likely assigned by this system.  Goldstein [16] found that red stimulation corresponds to the experience of being disrupted, attracted to the outer world, inciting activity, aggression, excitation and emotionally determined action.  He found green to correspond to withdrawal from the outer world and retreat to ones own center, to a condition of meditation and exact fulfillment of the task.  Ertel [15] conducted a 3-year study on room color and its effect on learning with children.  He found that yellow, yellow-green, orange and light blue increased learning while white, black and brown caused a decrease in learning; and orange improved social behavior.

 Color and Personality Testing

 Color response has also been used in the development of some early personality testing tools.  The Rorschach test, for example, uses the various ways that a subject names or projects color, on color and monochrome test cards, in the associative scoring. Another psychological testing tool, that more directly associates color with emotional experience, was created by Dr. Max Luscher, Professor of Psychology at the University of Basel.  His work lead to the introduction in 1947 of a testing tool based on color preference, called the Luscher Color Test [8].  While it is little used today, it gained broader usage in the 50’s and 60’s in the medical and psychological field, and in industry as a job applicant-screening tool, and was supported by over 140 clinical investigations and papers.  The full Luscher test is based on making 43 choices against seventy-three different colors with norms established on a 1000 person sample.  There is a simpler version using only eight colors that I used in my investigations. The tool correlates an emotional state to the person’s selection of colors in a preferred sequence. 

 Researching the Emotional Content in Dream Color

 I found the Luscher Color Test to be valuable in my investigation and to have a surprisingly good correlation with dreamwork results.   In my research, I did not attempt to validate the Color Test but proceeded on the premise that it represents a reasonable characterization of the human waking response to color.  I designed my investigation to find a relationship between the dreamer’s association with color imagery in dreams, and the waking response to color as represented by the Color Test.  I hoped to show that the color contained emotional content that was important to the overall “meaning” of the dream image.  In order to establish the emotional associations within a dream image itself, I used a role-play approach derived from Gestalt therapy, that I have refined and for use with personal dreamwork.  The technique, described below is one that I teach as part of what I term “image activation dreamwork”, which permits a dreamer to quickly reveal the emotional content with in a dream image. 

 This technique also worked nicely for the research since it is tightly scripted to preserve standardization, and results in spontaneous emotional responses from the dreamer that are associated with the dream image.  I then compared these role-play responses with the Luscher Color Test associations for color preference.  The correlation was then confirmed with the dreamer as to how they might relate to an associated waking life situation.  The procedure is as follows:

 1) Emotional Content within the Image - Role Play technique:

a) Subject “becomes” the dream image

b) Subject speaks as the image:

• I am (identity and characteristics)____________

• My purpose or function is ___________

• What I like about what I am and what I do is_______

• What I dislike about what I am and what I do is______

• What I fear most is _________

• What I desire most is _________

2) Emotional Content within the Color - Luscher Association:

a) Subject picks the statement from the Luscher Test (or alternatively the color questionnaire - see below) that they feel emotionally

b) Examiner: also notes any statement that relates to the role-play statements, or the actions or situation in the dream

3) Correlation and Confirmation: Subject: relates the two statements to a waking life situation or feelings

 My early research [3] revealed that the Color Test developed by Dr. Luscher, had a very good agreement with what was revealed when working with dreams using the Gestalt approach.  Specifically, the words in the Color Test tables correlated well with the emotions expressed and the phrases used by subjects when in role-play, as well as the dream related waking life experiences.  These results are summarized in the section below “How Dreams Incorporate Color”.  They appeared to support my premise that color imagery in dreams contains emotional content that relates in some way to the content within the dream image, and the emotional situation in the dreamer’s life.

 Does Recall of Dream Color Relate to Waking Emotional Events

 The second phase of my research was to determine whether the more frequently recalled colors in dreams, relate to emotional events in a person’s life at that point in time?  Extending this reasoning further, might the frequency of colors recalled over a lifetime (or long period of time) correlate to key traits in the dreamer’s personality?   Dr. Curtiss Hoffman joined with me in the investigation.  In all we collected color frequency samples from roughly 8,000 dreams.  The results were reported at the 21st annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, 2004 in Copenhagen [18].  For a copy contact the author at robertjhoss@aol.com .  Summary results are presented here.

 The dream journals of the subjects were scanned for the mention of color.  Color names from the dream reports were grouped to correlate with the eight colors in the Luscher Test we used.  Color frequency reports were sorted into monthly or yearly aggregates based on the correlation being tested for.  Monthly or yearly aggregates, for example, would be tested against specific emotional events during that timeframe. The sum total of all reports would be used to test against baseline personality profile.

 The Luscher Color Test derives an emotional profile based on a subject’s selection of color in a sequence from highest preference to lowest preference.  We applied the test to the color data, under the premise that the highest frequency of dream color reported might also related to a greater color preference, and so on to the lowest frequency of color reported.  Each resultant profile contained roughly 12 to 20 statements relating to emotional state or condition.  The subject would then be asked to self-grade each statement against what they perceive as their emotional state during the period being tested (+ = yes it fits, 0 = sometimes or partial fit or it fits but not exactly as stated, - = does not fit as a statement or theme). Scores were then assigned to determine relative correlation.

 The first analysis was performed on a subject that had collected 11 years of data and close to 4,800 dream reports containing color.  A year-by-year Luscher profile was performed on the sequence of the total frequency of colors reported in the dreams each year.  The results were promising.  There was one particular emotional period during this 11 year period that the Luscher profile described with an average accuracy of 81%.  A second emotional period within this 11 years, was represented by the Luscher profile with perfect 100% correlation.  In the intervening periods, which were described by the dreamer as not having a lot going on, contained a color profile that was somewhat constant and closely matched the dreamer’s baseline personality profile with 75% accuracy.  This provided a promising indication that the colors that we recall from our dreams might indeed be influenced by emotional events in our lives.

 Secondly I wanted to establish whether there might be a correlation between which colors are most often recalled by a dreamer, and a dreamer’s overall personality.  For this work we looked at 3 subjects who had provided color recall frequency for their dreams over many years.  The total frequency of recall of each of eight colors was added over the total period that the dreams represented by each subject, and the Luscher test performed on each subjects color profile, in sequence from the highest frequency of color recall to the lowest.  Again the  resultant Luscher personality profile was given back to the subject for self-grading of each statement as to its accurate depiction of the subjects own perception of their personality. 

 The results were that each of the color profiles were quite different, and thus each of the Luscher personality profiles were also very different.  The three subjects graded the resultant personality profiles, derived purely from the colors they recalled from their dreams, as 75% accurate, 78% accurate and 91% accurate respectively.  Much more work must be done to validate these results, but it appears promising that our personality might influence the colors we recall in our dreams.  These color to emotional associations might be those that are most significant to us, emotional themes that we are most sensitive to.

 Note: Those who have long term dream journals containing color content, please contact the authors if you wish to participate in further research  e-mail: robertjhoss@aol.com


How Dreams Incorporate Color

 A common characteristic of dream imagery is the combining of two or more image fragments to form a total image. This is called condensation. My investigation revealed that color, like any other symbol, condenses with other dream imagery to complete the meaning of the image.

  I observed color to condense with dream imagery in four ways:

1) the role-play and Luscher statements were similar (thus color seemed to “amplify” the emotional content of the dream image);

2) the color association adds new content to the image, revealing a more complete representation ( it “compliments” the associations within the image alone);

3) the color association sometimes revealed hidden meaning within the dream image not revealed in the image work alone.  The color often reveals a rejection or suppression of the emotions or characteristics associated by the image (particularly gray), or how the dreamer reacts of feels toward the situation the image represents. (color “compensates” for the content within the image); 

4) sometimes colors appear outside of any object attachment seemingly to represent a general emotional environment associated with the dream story at that point. 

 The examples below illustrate the research method and some sample results, and supports the premise that: a) color in dreams contains emotional associations that are similar to our waking emotional associations with that color, and b) that the color adds emotional content to dream imagery that relates to the waking emotional situation that stimulated the dream.  

 1) Amplification - Case 1a  - Woman in Red Hat

 If the color of an image and the image itself, emerge in the dream from the same emotional stimuli their associations should be similar. The color associations from the questionnaire is observed to match the statements and feelings expressed during role-play work on of the image. 

 Dream: “In  the dream I was one of three women, and was wearing a red hat.  We were going into town, walking along a road, when suddenly we sank into the ground.” 

Emotional Content in the Dream Image:  Role Play of woman in the red hat =  "we're just going out on the evening to have fun“,  "I feel vibrant."   Body Language: the dreamer became suddenly lively and animated in this role, as she “became” the woman wearing the red hat.

Emotional Content in the Color – Color Test:  “Intense vital and animated, taking delight in action.  Desire to live life to the fullest.”

Confirmation - Waking Situation:  In this case both statements supported the same emotional state, that of being animated and going out to have fun and living life, thus the color and the image appeared to support or “amplify” each other.  As the dreamer reviewed these statements she indicated that this is a way she had not felt for a very long time since she had suppressed her social life and desires, to take care of a personal situation.  Note that the action in the dream of sinking into the ground, or disappearing below, is a common metaphor or motif for suppression.

2) Compliments: Case 1b – Brown Wood

 Sometimes the color and the image complement each other and must be understood together to provide a complete understanding of the dream image. The role-play imagery work may reveal one set of emotional associations or conflicts, while the color work may reveals a different set which provides further information or further explanation for the first. In this example the dream in case 1a continued.

  Dream continues: “Later a flood came by.  I tried to save my dog who was in the water, but he would not let go of a piece of wood held tight in his teeth.  The only color was the brown wood.”

 Emotional Content in the Dream Image: Role-Play of Dog with Wood:  “I must hold on to this wood with all my strength or I will drown.” 

 Emotional Content in the Color – Color Test:  Here the statement in the Luscher test for brown that the dreamer most resonated with was “Concern about matters of family, home, or ones roots”.

 Confirmation - Waking Situation: The dreamer revealed that it was indeed a family member she was trying to support that was the issue.  She feared that if she “let go” and “had fun”, and did not “hold on tight” to this family member, that person would leave and she would drown in the flood of emotions.  Here the color brown added the element of the concern for a family member to the image which related to the fear of having to hold on tight, in order to create the composite image containing the struggle of holding on tight, the fear of letting go and drowning in emotion, and the object of the struggle, the family member.

 3) Compensates:  Case 2 - “gray trucks”

 Often the color of an image does not directly represent the feelings represented by the image itself, but rather acts as a compensation or shielding, "coloring" the image as one might paint over an object to modify its appearance. Observation of color appearing in this manner can be a key to uncovering conflicting emotions.  Gray imagery is particularly important here since, according to Luscher, gray is a color of non-association, non-involvement and shielding.   Gray coloring of an imagery in dreams may be a painting over it with a mood of non-involvement in order to shield the dreamer from the emotions or side of self represented by the dream image.  The following dream is an example:

 Dream:  “I dreamed of looking down on a sandy beach area where there were three gray 4-wheel drive trucks.”  

Emotion within the Image – Role Play:  When the dreamer role-played the trucks, she became animated, powerful, assertive and really appeared to enjoy the role.  

Emotion within the Color – Luscher:  Luscher relates gray to a barrier or “wanting to remain shielded or separated from the situation”. 

Confirmation with Waking Life: When asked what she liked about being gray trucks she surprisingly answered: “nothing - I don't like being that way, assertive and aggressive, I would drive others away.” 

Here was a case where the truck image represented the characteristics of assertiveness and power that she had within her, but the gray indicated a conflict in her need to shield herself from those characteristics, for fear they would “drive others away” (also an interesting pictorial metaphor represented by the trucks).  Here the dream appeared to be "coloring" the dreamer’s powerful assertive side, or painting over it with a mood of noninvolvement in order to avoid that part of self. 

 4)  Color as the Dream Symbol: Case 3 – “Blue Sphere”

 Sometimes color appears alone, not associated with any definable object.  It can appear as an undefined color shape or color background or as in the case below a ball of color.  In this case the color is the symbol itself, perhaps relating to an emotional environment being set for that segment of the dream. Dreams also may reveal what Jung, Pearls and Luscher called the "psychological primaries", that is the grouping of Red, Yellow, Blue and Green. Jung theorized that the appearance of this four-color motif represented a pattern for order and completeness, or the emergence of a balanced condition or concept.

 Dream:  “I dreamed of a blue sphere which was part of a group of four spheres colored red, yellow, blue and green.  The blue sphere separated and landed on my finger like a "magic" ring that I perceived would give me the power to solve all my problems.” 

 Emotion within the Image – Role Play: In this case there is no definable image to role-play, only the color blue.  The image was only a sphere for which the dreamer could only state the notion of :  “wanting to rejoin the others to become whole”.  This was like the Jungian notion that the 4 color primaries represented a condition of wholeness, and the restoring of the blue is what the dreamer needed to become whole again.

 Emotion within the Color – Luscher:  the dreamer identified most with the statement; " I need rest, peace and a chance to recuperate." 

 Confirmation with Waking Life: The dream occurred on the first day of a much-needed vacation, and the dreamer admitted that recuperation indeed was what he really needed right now.  Blue indeed seemed to represent what the dreamer needed in order to reestablish a stable state - in this case a chance to rest and recuperate.




[1] Robert L. Van De Castle, Our Dreaming Mind, Ballantine Books, New York 1994

[2] S. LaBerge,  Lucid Dreaming, 1985, Ballantine Books

[3] Hoss, “The Appearance of Color in Dreams”, Dream Time, a Publication of the Association for the Study of Dreams, volume 16, Number 4, 1999, page 10

[4] John J. Ratey, A User’s Guide to the Brain, Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York, 2001

 [5] C.G. Jung,  Man and His Symbols, Dell Publishing Co. NY, NY, 1973

 [6] C.G. Jung, Mandala Symbolism, Princeton University Press, 1972

 [7] F. S. Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Bantam Books, Real People Press, 1974

 [8] Dr. Max Luscher, The Luscher Color Test, edited by Ian A.  Scott, Pocket Books, New York, 1971

 [9]  F Birren,  The Symbolism of Color, 1988, A Citidel Press Book

 [10]  F. Birren, Color Psychology and Color Therapy, University Books, Inc. New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1961

 [11] Charles A Riley II, Color Codes, University Press of New England, 1995

 [12] Faber Birren, Color and Human Response, John Wiley & Sons Inc, New York, 1978

 [13] C.E. Ferree and Gertrude Rand, “Lighting and the hygiene of the Eye”, Archives of Ophthalmology, July 1929

 [14] Barbra Brown, New Mind New Body, Harpers & Row, New York, 1974

 [15] Henner Ertel, Time, 17 Sept 1973

 [16] Kurt Goldstein, “Some Experimental Observations on the Influence of Color on the Function of the Organism”, Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation, June 1942

 [17]  Hobson et al, “Dreaming and the Brain”, Sleep and Dreaming, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003, pp 1 - 50.

 [18] Robert Hoss, M.S., Curtiss Hoffman Ph.D., The Significance of Color in Dreams, presented in the panel “What I Have Learned from My Dreams” at the 21st International ASD Conference in Copenhagen, June 2004

Copyright - Bob Hoss 2006, for permissions write to:  bob@dreamscience.org


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