The Significance of Color in Dreams
Robert Hoss, M.S. in collaboration with Curtiss Hoffman Ph.D.
Presented at the International ASD Conference in Copenhagen, June 2004
If color stimulates emotion in the waking state, do emotional memories stimulate color in the dream state?
This paper describes the results of an investigation into this question. It provides support for a hypothesis that color not only reflects emotions contained within a dream image, but that color recalled from a persons dreams responds to the occurrence of emotional events. Furthermore the investigation indicates that over the long term, the frequency of specific colors recalled by a person from their dreams, may possibly be influenced by personality traits.
Note: Those who have long term journals with color content please contact the authors if you wish to participate in further research (e-mal: email@example.com).
1.0 Sleep Research
1.1 We Generally Dream in Color
Research shows that
the majority of our dreams are
in color. In the sleep
lab, when awoken from the REM state, distinct color was reported in 70% of
the cases and vague color in another 13% . 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
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.
1.2 Color May Add Emotional Content to Dream Imagery
In my earlier investigations  I observed that color in a dream is a symbol much like any other dream image. Color appears to have meaningful symbolic associations with waking life feelings just as does other dream imagery. It appears to combine (or condense) with dream imagery, to add emotional content to the final composite image. This notion is supported by brain scans, which indicate that color processing occurs in a separate part of the brain than the processing of imagery . When we are awake the entire image is reconstructed from the external visual stimulus, so the final composite of all the information (color, shape, spatial placement) should match the physical source. When dreaming, however, color and shape and spatial placement is based totally on internal stimuli, which may come from various internal sources with associations that are of psychological importance to the dream and the dreamer. 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 considered color unimportant in dream studies. One might say the dream adds emotional “color” to the image.
2.0 The Human Response to Color
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 indicates that color illumination evokes a common physiological response in human subjects, which in turn evokes common psychological associations.
2.1 Past Theoretical work on Color in Dreams
Unfortunately, color is one area that was given little attention by most dream theorists and researchers. Jung and Perls discussed the four-color grouping of red, yellow, blue and green appearing in dreams as representing a balanced psychic structure emerging into consciousness, a focal pattern for wholeness or the natural inner balancing force [5, 6, 7]. This color grouping has been traditionally called the “psychological primaries” because it is thought that they are perceived as fundamental colors, rather than a mixture of other colors. Jung referred to the symbolic significance of color in dreams , and loosely related color associations to the unconscious (black), consciousness (white or light) and his four primary “functions”: intuition (yellow), thinking (blue), feeling (red), sensation (green). The lack of any actual research into the meaning of color in dreams, however, 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 the data on the waking response could be used to understand color content in dreams.
2.2 Our Unconscious Physiological Response to Color
The functioning of the eye itself may determine much about our instinctive associations with color. The eye has the highest visual acuity for yellow light, whereas with deep blue we have very low acuity and it is very difficult for the eye to focus [12,13]. Red, orange and yellow appears relatively light in bright illumination, whereas blues and greens appear relatively bright in dim illumination. Bright illumination, which makes activity more possible, would therefore create a natural association between outgoing activity and the colors on the red, orange and yellow end of the spectrum. Dim illumination, which makes activity less possible and initiates a restful state, would likewise create a natural association between inward focus and relaxation and the blue end of the spectrum.
Color illumination has been shown to affect the autonomic nervous system directly , as well as the brains electrical response , 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  also found that the brains response to red is that of alerting and arousal, whereas the response to blue is that of relaxation.
2.3 Our Unconscious Psychological Response to Color
Although our human associations with color are influenced to a degree by cultural and personal associations, the above physiological responses appear to form strong unconscious associations with emotional responses. Goldstein  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  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.
The mechanism for this is not well understood, but I speculate that emotional response to color is likely related by direct association to our physiological response. For example, when we are angry or excited, our body and brain reacts similarly to when it is illuminated with red light, thus natural association would be established between the three events: a) increased heart rate and breathing, b) red color, and c) anger/excitement. The emotion of anger thus naturally would be associated with red, and so forth.
While these brain, eye and nervous system responses are often below the threshold of awareness, they have over time created an evolutionary backdrop of association between color and emotional experience. Some early work has been done to try to quantify that association. The Rorschach test 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 research lead to the introduction in 1947 of a testing tool based on color preference, called the Luscher Color Test . It gained its beginnings on some work by Hering who established a link between physiological change within the eye and color contrast . 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 which I used in this investigation. The tool correlates an emotional state to the person’s selection of colors in a preferred sequence.
Figure 1 below illustrates the general relationships between the spectrum of color and a corresponding emotional spectrum according to the findings of Luscher (over simplified summary for brevity). Research findings described above as related to each part of the spectrum are placed in the right hand column for comparison. Figure 2 illustrates the relationships for the achromatic spectrum of black, gray and white using both Lucher and Jungian work. The details of all of this work have been incorporated in the color questionnaire table, used for my investigation and dreamwork, at the end of this paper.
Figure 1 -The Human Physiological and Psychological
Response to Color
Figure 2 –Associations with the Achromatic Scale
3.0 Individual Imagery - Investigation of Color Content
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 additional 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 common Gestalt role-play technique. This technique, tightly scripted for the investigation, results in spontaneous emotional responses from the dreamer, associated with the dream image. I then compared these responses with the Luscher Color Test associations for that as a first preference color. For simplicity I used the 8-color Color Test. I then confirmed the correlation of the role-play emotional responses, and the Color Test emotional associations, by asking the dreamer to relate the responses 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
3.2 Observation – Color in Dreams Contains Emotional Content
When the content of the dreamer’s statements, during role-play and/or the waking associations, were compared with the Color Test, a good correlation was observed in the greater majority of cases. 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 example below illustrates the 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
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.
There was more to the dream which when tested, indicated how color can add new information to the dream image and “complement” the image.
2) Compliments: Case 1b – Brown Wood
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 protection or distancing is the motive when you “paint” your dream image gray, which according to Luscher is the color of non-involvement, shielding and a barrier.
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. It may also appear in a group of four color “primaries”, as the collective pattern representing inner balancing forces (as Jung suggests).
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.
4.0 Color Recall as Related to Personality and Emotional Events – a Long Term Journaling Investigation
If the color of a dream image relates to emotional content, then could the more frequently recalled colors at any point in time 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 of these questions as he had maintained a long-term journal of his dreams over a period of 11 years, in a computer database he had developed, and was able to sort on colors. He also was part of a long-term journaling group from which we could obtain at least 3 other dreamers samples of color recall over long periods. In all we collected color frequency samples from roughly 8000 dreams.
The dream journals of the subjects were scanned for the mention of color. In the case of Curt’s journal he had entered it into a computer database where a word search could be performed to establish the number of times that a color is mentioned in the dream reports.
Color names from the dream reports were grouped to correlate with the 8 colors in the Luscher Color Test we used. Where a color was named to be a combination of multiple colors (tan, mauve, blue-green, teal, etc.) it was eliminated from this initial study in favor of artificially forcing it into a specific color category. 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 8 color testing tool was used as designed, to derive an emotional profile, based on a subject’s selection of color in a sequence from highest preference to lowest preference. The Luscher Color Test would be applied to the color data as if the highest frequency of color reported related to the greater color preference, and so on to the lowest frequency of color reported. The test is administered by clustering the colors in pairs, and referring to the Color Test for a specific analysis on each color pair based on relative location in the sequence. The composite of all the individual analysis makes up the profile, and contains roughly 12 to 20 statements per profile relating to emotional state or condition.
In order to correlate the Color Test results to the subjects perception of their emotional state at the time, a [bracket] was placed at the end of each statement for the subject to grade it. The subject would be sent the statements and asked to self-grade the statements 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). The scores were then assigned the following values: + = 1, 0 = .5 and - = 0, tallied and normalized to determine relative correlation.
In order to evaluate dream color recall against personality factors, the total aggregate of colors recalled over all dream reports was profiled, and the subject is asked to grade how closely the statements match how they perceive their overall personality. In order to evaluate dream color recall against emotional events occurring during a period of time, the total aggregate of colors recalled over each time period tested were profiled, and the subject is asked to grade how closely the statements match how they perceive their emotional experience at the time (how they felt or acted).
4.2 Data Collection
Figure 3 illustrates the nature of the frequency profile of colors recalled for one subject for 4791 dreams over an 11-year period. It is aggregated by year but for shorter periods of study it could be profiled by month. Note that although more colors were recorded each year this is likely a result of more dream records or better record keeping over time.
Figure 3 Color Frequency Aggregations over Time
5.0 Does Dream Color Recall Reflect Emotional Events?
In order to establish whether there might be a correlation between color recall and emotional events, the data in figure 3 was normalized to establish a table that indicates relative percentage of one color versus another by year. This establishes the sequence of color preference by year as needed to apply the Luscher Color Test. The following graph was established.
Figure 4 – Color Recall Correlation to Waking Emotional Events
1 – uneventful period (poor correlation may be due to small sample size)
2 – crisis period: Luscher profile = exaggerated emotional intensity and opposition (note Red/Blk pair) self-esteem and relationship issues (note blue/green reversal)
3 – Lucher profile = virtually same as baseline, this was an uneventful average period
4 – Luscher profile = worn out emotionally or physically
5 – Luscher profile = disappointment, determination and stressful relationships
In order to establish whether there might be a correlation between color recall and emotional events, the Luscher Color Test was administered on the sequence of colors reported in each year period, from highest to lowest percentage. Only the 8 colors that were in the Luscher Test were used since it did not seem valid to force fit the others and the number of other colors were noted to be relatively small. Note that the first few years were not analyzed with the degree of detail as the remaining because the number of dream reports were relatively low and therefore the results not accurate as in later years. The year-by-year analysis results are summarized on the graph by the arrows and numbered timeframes. The numbers in (brackets) indicates the average self-grading correlations between the Luscher profile and the subject’s recall of events in that timeframe bounded by the arrows, with the profile summarized (over simplified) in the words below the chart. A correlation of 1.0 means the Luscher analysis of the color profile matched the recall of events during that timeframe perfectly. Note that (after the earliest few years, which had less data and lower recall) the correlation between color profile and recalled events is very high (.75 to 1.0) for all periods.
The subject in this case indicated that there was one particular emotional period during this 1 year period and challenged the Luscher test to find and describe that event. That two-year event was indeed described with an average correlation of 0.81 as shown in the timeframe marked with a 2. Another emotional period in 2003 (number 5) was perfectly represented by the Luscher profile with a correlation of 1.0. The intervening period of ’99 through ’02 was described as having not a lot going on and notice that the color profile closely matched the dreamer’s baseline personality profile (which was correlated at 0.75) as described in the next section.
Although the results were derived from the somewhat subjective self-grading of the subject, the degree of correlation is quite striking, providing a promising relationship between the color a person recalls from their dreams and the emotional events occurring in their lives at the time.
6.0 Does Dream Color Recall Reflect Personality?
In order to establish whether there might be a correlation between which colors are most often recalled by a dreamer, and that dreamer’s personality, the sum total of all colors recalled were sorted by recall frequency.
For the subject above the color frequency from the 11 years of data was plotted in the chart and table shown below in figure 5.
Figure 5 – Color Profile Correlated to Personality Profile
The table shows the relative sequence of colors (ranking) in terms of frequency of recall over this 11-year period. The Luscher Color Test tool was applied against this ranking as if it were the sequence of color preference. The resultant analysis was given back to the subject for self-grading of each of the statements in the analysis against the subjects perception of their own personality. In this case there were 12 personality profile statements and the subject self-graded them as 75% accurate.
5.2 Further Support
This same methodology was applied against two other subjects who submitted sets of color reports from their long-term journals. Correlation of the Luscher personality profile, based on their dream reports, was even higher, 78% and 91% respectively as shown below in figure 3.
Note that the color profiles, and the resultant Luscher emotional profiles, were strikingly different between all three, yet the self-grading correlations were high. If the self-grading was even close to accurate, it appears promising that colors most often recalled from a persons dreams, may indeed be influenced by the dreamer’s own personality traits or long term emotional issues.
Figure 6 – Color Profile Correlated to Personality Profile
The Color Questionnaire for Dreamwork
As previously discussed, my investigation revealed that the Luscher Color Test agreed very well with content revealed through dreamwork, using the Gestalt approach. Therefore, I restructured the Luscher Color Test, which contains interpretive statements, into a spectrum of personal emotional statements. The statements in this questionnaire table therefore contain the original Luscher content and emotional theme, but are worded in a format intended to trigger associations rather than to interpret color choice.
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 degrees for most colors in the table. I also found that the pastels (mixing with the “newness” of white) can also relate to the new emergence or uncertainty in dealing with of the emotion represented by that color. Using the works of other researchers (particularly Jung), I added some additional meaning to certain colors or color combinations, particularly the colors black, white, brown and the grouping of “psychological primaries.” For example black and white relate to the Jungian motifs for conscious and unconscious forces natural that emerge and interact in dreams, a factor not considered in the Luscher test.
The table below is useful for both researching color associations (as in the examples above) or for use as a color questionnaire for personal dreamwork 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 suggest and stimulate personal associations with waking life events, based on a set of emotional statements that are reportedly related to our unconscious associations with that color.
Using the Questionnaire for Personal Dreamwork
1) Select from the dream the colored images you feel are the most important or that you feel most drawn to.
2) Pick the color below that best matches the color of the dream image. If it was a mixed color you might even try the dominant color then the secondary color to see if the associations trigger waking life feelings.
3) Read each expression for that color pausing and reflecting, asking the question below.
4) Question: Does this statement relate to a way I have felt recently in waking life?
5) Recall the situation that the statement reminds you of, and your feelings and decisions at the time.
6) How might the color statement relate to or clarify the dream and/or the dream imagery role-play work?
COLOR QUESTIONNAIRE FOR DREAMWORK
 Robert L. Van De Castle, Our Dreaming Mind, Ballantine Books, New York 1994
 E. Hartmann, The Functions of Sleep, 1973, Yale University Press
 S. LaBerge, Lucid Dreaming, 1985, Ballantine Books
 John J. Ratey, A User’s Guide to the Brain, Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York, 2001
 C.G. Jung, Man and His Symbols, Dell Publishing Co. NY, NY, 1973
 C.G. Jung, Mandala Symbolism, Princeton University Press, 1972
 F. S. Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Bantam Books, Real People Press, 1974, pp. 27-76
 Dr. Max Luscher, The Luscher Color Test, edited by Ian A. Scott, Pocket Books, New York, 1971
 F Birren, The Symbolism of Color, 1988, A Citidel Press Book
 F. Birren, Color Psychology and Color Therapy, University Books, Inc. New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1961
 Charles A Riley II, Color Codes, University Press of New England, 1995
 Faber Birren, Color and Human Response, John Wiley & Sons Inc, New York, 1978
 C.E. Ferree and Gertrude Rand, “Lighting and the hygiene of the Eye”, Archives of Ophthalmology, July 1929
 Barbra Brown, New Mind New Body, Harpers & Row, New York, 1974
 Henner Ertel, Time, 17 Sept 1973
 Kurt Goldstein, “Some Experimental Observations on the Influence of Color on the Function of the Organism”, Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation, June 1942
 Hobson et al, “Dreaming and the Brain”, Sleep and Dreaming, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003, pp 1 - 50.
 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