Section 2 - Dream Content



2.1 The Dream Experience


Strauch, Meier, and Foulkes (1966)13  indicate that dream reports are largely dominated by visual content (about 100%) and auditory (about 40 to 60%) where movement and tactile sensations are relatively infrequent (about 15 to 30%) and smell and taste very infrequent (less than 1%). The following set of dream characteristics was based on a compilation by Hobson,39 with some paraphrasing.  Thus it roughly represents a set of characteristics which researchers most consistently attribute to the experience of dreaming:


1. Dreams mainly involve visual and motion perceptions, but occasionally other senses.

2. Dream images can change rapidly (particularly numbers and words).

3. Dreams are often bizarre in nature, but also contain many images and events that are relatively commonplace.  Faces are a common feature.

4. We believe that we are awake in our dreams.

5. Self-reflection is infrequent or involves illogical explanations of the events and plots.

6. Dreams lack orientation stability. People, times and places are fused, plastic, incongruous and discontinuous.

7. Story lines integrate all the dream elements into a single confabulatory.  

8. Dreams contain increased, intensified emotion, especially fear-anxiety that can integrate bizarre dream features and shape the dream story.  

9. There is a tendency toward more negative emotion in dreams.

10. There is an increased incorporation of instinctive emotions (especially fight-flight), which also may act as powerful organizers of dream cognition.

11. Dreams are concerned more with emotionally prominent content than current events.  Exception: dream incubations which focus on recent emotional events can increase their occurrence in the dream.

12. Control by the will of the dreamer is greatly reduced. A dreamer rarely considers the possibility of actually controlling the flow of dream events, and on those infrequent occasions when this does occur (lucidity), the control may be only for a few seconds.  

13. Self-control of thoughts, feelings and behavior is fairly common.


  2.2 Content Analysis

In 1966 Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle published the book The Content Analysis of Dreams.57  This provided a comprehensive standardized system of classifying and scoring the content of dream reports.  With this new tool, a true measure of cultural, gender and other differences in the nature of dreams and dreamers could be achieved.  

It was found that women dream equally of men and women, but 67% of the characters in men’s dreams are other men (Hall 1984) and the gender difference in favor of male characters appeared in almost every culture (there was one finding from a study in India where the male % was lower than the female %).  For both men and women across cultures, dreams usually contain more aggression than friendliness, more misfortune than good fortune and more negative than positive emotions.  Men have a higher degree of aggression in dreams than women.40  Some cultural influences were found. For example, dreamers from small traditional societies have a greater percentage of animals than do those of larger industrial societies. Studies of dream journals reveal continuity between the emotional preoccupations of the dreamers and their waking thoughts.40  The dreams of older dreamers do not differ much from college students with the exception of a decline in physical aggression and negative emotions, nor does dream content change much according to long-term journaling studies.  

 2.3 Nightmares

 Nightmares can be distinguished from “normal” dreams by their overwhelming anxiety, apprehension and fear.  Ernest Hartmann, author of The Nightmare60 and Dreams and Nightmares 72 has performed one of the most extensive studies of frequent nightmares. Hartmann states that the dream, especially the central image (CI), pictures the emotion of the dreamer and that the intensity of the central image is a measure of the strength of the emotion. This might be seen in nightmares when there is a single powerful emotion such as in a tidal wave dream following a traumatic event.  Although negative content and emotion appear frequently in most dreams, we do not usually report the dream as a nightmare unless it is extremely upsetting.  Van de Castle37 reported that a study by Bixler on sleep problems, which surveyed 1,006 households, found that only 11 percent reported being troubled by nightmares.  

 Nightmares can fall into various classes regarding their cause, including: a) the result of trauma; b) long-term nightmare sufferers; c) medical problems requiring attention; d) daily events that create heavy stress or a severe threat to one’s self-image. Nightmares are different from night terrors, which may be accompanied by screaming before awakening with extended disorientation afterwards.37  Night terrors occur (if at all) during the first two hours of sleep in deep sleep (sleep state 4) and the dream itself is generally not recalled.  Although research has shown that personality factors such as thin boundaries are related to nightmare frequency, Schredl found that there is a greater relationship with current daily stress factors than with personality factors.53  

 Nightmares are often a direct result of extreme trauma. Trauma related nightmares are often a repetitive replay of actual experiences the dreamer had encountered, with only minor distortions.  Deirdre Barrett in her book Trauma and Dreams74 indicates that a pattern evolves in which the trauma is dreamed repeatedly, much as it happened, and becomes more “dreamlike” and surreal over time.  These begin to change into “mastery” dreams for people who recover from the trauma. “Mastery” dreams show an evolution over time with themes of mastery over the situation in the dream. The repetitive, unchanging replays may continue, however, in those who develop severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their waking life.  The book describes how coaching to develop “mastery” dreams can aid in the resolution of PTSD.

 Nightmare sufferers are individuals who have a long history of nightmares.  Unlike trauma cases, the nightmares do not repeat the same literal event, although the themes might be similar. Frequent nightmare sufferers report their typical non-nightmare dreams as vivid and detailed, filled with very bright colors and distinctive sounds, along with tactile sensations such as pain, taste and smell, which are seldom present in typical dreams.37  In the Hartmann study, many of the long-term nightmare sufferers had stormy personal relationships, difficult adolescent years, a high suicide attempt rate and many were in therapy.60

  2.4 Color

 Research in the sleep lab determined that the majority of our dreams are in color.37  Bob Van de Castle reports that when dreamers were awakened during a dream, distinct color was reported in 70% of the cases and vague color in another 13%. Why then do most people perceive dreams as colorless?  It appears to be related to recall.  Spontaneous non-laboratory dream reports (normal daily dream recall) indicate that only about 25% to 29% of dreamers recall color, based on studies by Van De Castle and Hall respectively.  This increased to 50% for art students in one study cited by Van De Castle.  

 So why don’t we recall the color in our dreams?  Recalling color is likely subject to the same mechanisms as recalling any image in a dream, or remembering the dream at all!  Perhaps the sleep stage prior to waking has something to do with color recall.  Hartmann1 reports that people awakened from REM sleep report more story-like and colorful dreams, whereas reports from the deeper NREM state of sleep are more thought-like with little story line or color.  The nature or degree of our dream consciousness may also affect color recall.  LaBerge8 has indicated that the EEG state during lucid dreaming (when you are conscious that you are dreaming), is in many ways similar to the conscious waking state, and lucid dreams are frequently reported in full color. It is possible that we tend to recall dream imagery, and thus color, that contains the more significant emotional content. This is supported in principle by Hartmann’s contention that emotional content increases the intensity of a dream image.72   If this is the case, then the colors that remain dominant in your dream report might be those that are the most revealing when working on the dream.  

 Elsewhere on this site I have included papers that discuss in more detail an investigation that I performed over about a 10-year period on the significance of color in dreams. The investigation led me to conclude that color in dreams is stimulated by emotional associations that are both collective (instinctive) and personal in nature.  Much of my investigation was based on relating a subject’s association to dream color to the human response to color in the waking state.  Over the last 50 years or so there has been a notable degree of work in the human waking state response to color.17-35  This research (typically referred to as color psychology) has had its greatest influence on advertising, food packaging, art, style, architecture, decorating and such. Whereas it is not surprising that color evokes feelings and memories, what is significant is that some of the laboratory research with color in the waking state reveals that the human brain and nervous system responds directly to color at an autonomic level, below the threshold of awareness.25,33  Our autonomic nervous system regulates  involuntary functions such as heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.25 Blue has been observed to have a calming effect on the parasympathetic branch, thus reducing heartbeat and breathing rate.  The color red has been observed to have the affect of exciting the sympathetic branch, and causing certain processes such as heartbeat and breathing to speed up and appetite to increase.25  The experiments of Barbara Brown,33 which were designed to understand the associations between color and brain wave activity, supported these findings.  She determined that the brain’s electrical response to red is one of alerting and arousal, whereas the response to blue is that of relaxation.

 Color has also been found to affect us psychologically and emotionally. (Hemphill, 1996; Lang, 1993; Mahnke, 1996).  Goldstein35 found that red stimulation corresponds with the experience of being disrupted, thrown out, attracted to the outer world, and being incited to activity, aggression, excitation and emotionally determined action.  Goldstein concluded that the color green corresponds with withdrawal from the outer world and retreat to one’s own center, to a condition of meditation and exact fulfillment of the task.  Evolutionary factors may play an important role in this basic “objective” color response by humans. Many scientists believe that blue and yellow color vision evolved first based both on the physical structure of the eye (these colors are sensed at the extremes of the retinal structure near the more primitive receptors)78 as well as evidence that most mammals remain dichromats (can only distinguish between bright versus dark and blue versus yellow).29  Although humans eventually evolved an extra class of photoreceptor enabling us to discriminate between reds and greens, we still exhibit the highest visual acuity for yellow illumination, and the lowest for deep blue (making it difficult for the eye to focus).31,32 Yellow illumination thus makes activity more possible, whereas blue illumination makes it less so.  Thus the human instinctive association with yellow would lean more toward outward activity, and with blue toward the more passive or limited physical activity.

 A primary mechanism, involved in the human emotional response to color, may be the role the limbic system plays in associating emotion with sensory input.  One role of the limbic system, principally the amygdala, is to assign an emotional “tag” to incoming information and images that we sense, which would include color.  When we consider the limbic system and the autonomic nervous system working together, it is not surprising that there would be a meaningful association between human emotional response and color.

 Color response has also been used in the development of some early personality testing tools.  The Rorschach test, for example, uses associative scoring based on the various ways that a subject names or projects colors, on color and monochrome test cards. Dr. Max Luscher, Professor of Psychology at the University of Basel, created another psychological testing tool, that more directly associates color with emotional experienceHis work led to the introduction in 1947 of a testing tool based on color preference, called the Luscher Color Test.25   It was first based on work by Hering, who established a link between responses in the eye-brain system to color contrast.  What is important to note is that Luscher made a distinction between the “objective” (physiological and instinctive) and the “functional” meaning of color (whether we are drawn to it, indifferent toward it or find it distasteful).  To Luscher, a person’s choice of color, in a particular circumstance, was based on both factors, psychological preference  and physiological need.  I found the Luscher tool to be useful in studying dream color, possibly because the Luscher color response closely resembles the way the limbic system might respond to color.  The Limbic system appears to use both instinct as well as subliminal experience/memory factors to create the emotional “tag” that focuses our attention and our reaction according to the nature and intensity of the emotion (engaging with a colored object or retracting from it).

 What is important when discussing or researching the human emotional response to color is to carefully consider this difference between: 1) the “objective” response which is primarily driven by autonomic and instinctive associations that operate below the threshold of awareness;  2) the “functional” response which also may be subliminal but likely originating from memories or experiences; and 3) a third factor, cultural symbols and teachings (black and orange associated with Halloween, red used to symbolize “stop”, for example).  When we ask a person “how they feel” in the presence of a color we may get a very different response than if we ask them “why” or “what does the color remind you of?”  The “how does it make you feel” evokes more of a “limbic” emotional response, the origins of which may lie below our threshold of awareness.  The “why” or “what does it remind you of” demands a cognitive interpretation of what is being felt, thus evokes memory associations or cultural symbols which may only have a loose association with the deeper emotions that were invoked.   In my own studies with dream color I found it important to focus primarily on “how” a subject feels in the presence of the color, because the resulting emotional associations more closely related to those found when working on the rest of the dream.  Sometimes the “why” would provide useful connections, but not as useful as exploring the primary, subliminal emotional response.  I found that the “what does the color remind you of” question, least often relates to other information that comes from the dreamwork.

 This difference in how our association with color depends on how we ask the question is illustrated in a study by N. Kaya and H. Epps (2004)44 of ninety-eight college students.  Students were asked both “how a color made them feel,” then asked “why”. For example, questions about red evoked mostly positive (64.3%) feelings such as happiness, excitement, energy and love. When asked “why” red made them feel that way many answers related to love and romance, with one respondent stating that the color red “reminded her of” Valentine’s Day and the shape of heart.  The “how” response seemed to evoke pure emotion, but the cognitive “why” brought up mostly cultural symbols associated with red (valentines and love symbols) which seem only loosely related to the rich range of deeper emotions.  Likewise the color yellow-red was often associated with the color of autumn or Halloween. One respondent said that yellow-red made her happy because “it reminds me of school buses and my childhood.”  Furthermore, the color blue-green was associated not only with the ocean and the sky, but also reminded some respondents of cool mints and toothpaste.  Although the color white mostly evoked positive feelings of innocence, peace, and hope, the “reminds me of” responses included; bride, snow, dove, and cotton – all being culturally related symbols (innocent bride, dove of peace etc.) with only vague ties to the basic emotional response from the “how” question.  Cultural or “reminds me of” associations can at times have nothing to do with our deeper emotional response to a color.  Sutton and Whelan24 point out that colors such as purple and white are commonly associated with wealth, not for any physiological reason, but because these colors during much of our history were so difficult to create or maintain, that only the most wealthy could afford them.  A study of Asian subjects by Saito (1996)21 found that although most of the subjects responded positively to white, some Taipei subjects expressed a seemingly negative feeling and association with the image of death; death being associated with white in that culture.  Perhaps the most striking cross-cultural difference, and difficulty in cross cultural research, lies in the naming of color.  Research by Debi Roberson, PhD, of the University of Essex28 found that while humans establish a continuum of color terminology the same way around the world (in keeping with the structure of our visual system), the specific names we give these colors are learned relative to language and culture. It has been recently found that the brain maps different wavelengths of light (what the brain interprets as color) together in a stripe formation or grouping of cells.  Felleman, Xiao and Wang,80 at the University of Texas at Houston Medical School found three different groups of cells in the V2 region of the brains of macaques (which are identical to that part of the human brain) having a high proportion of cells interested in color, and are the main source of our color-recognizing abilities. The stripes themselves contain a map for the ROYGBIV color spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet).  Therefore if our mammalian brains map the full color spectrum, it is likely that all human cultures see the full spectrum, the colors are simply named differently based on cultural learning.  It is therefore necessary to take into account that naming variation when doing research on color.

 In my investigation of dream color what I observed was that, indeed, specific dream colors appeared to relate to specific groupings of emotional associations, similar to our subliminal emotional response to those colors in the waking state.  In particular, dream color seemed to relate to a mixture of the “objective” (instinctive/autonomic) response and  “functional” (subliminal experience based) emotional associations that Luscher describes. I therefore based my color dreamwork research on the emotional themes associated with color, as derived from studies in the field of color psychology referenced above. In particular I found the Luscher test to be well suited to the investigation since it provided a well studied combination of “objective” and “functional” associations while eliminating cultural symbols (although the color naming convention was of a “Western” culture).  In order to establish the emotional content of the dream image, I used a Gestalt based role-play technique, using a standardized script, which had proven effective in revealing emotional content within dream imagery.  I then compared the dreamer’s responses as they role-played color imagery from the dream, with the Luscher Color Test associations for the same specific color preference. The correlation was then confirmed with the dreamer as it related to an associated waking life situation.

 The result was that the Color Test correlated well with the dream image role-play statements, as well as the dream-related waking life experiences.22, 23  The results support the notion that dream color relates primarily to emotion or emotional associations that are similar to our waking life emotional response to color – more specifically it is our subliminal emotional response (the “limbic” response) and not so much to our cognitive memories or cultural associations. The research further provided some interesting and surprising insight into how colors combine with dream imagery to create a larger set of meaningfully connected dream imagery associations. A description of the research can be found in the Color in Dreams link on this web site.

  2.5  Effect of External Stimulus

 The input to and output from the portions of the brain that process external stimulus are blocked in the dream state.39   Therefore, external stimulus will not find its way into our dreams unless it is fairly strong, with stimulus of a tactile nature having the most effect.  Van de Castle37 reports that of three external stimuli applied during REM sleep, a spray of cold water was incorporated in 42 percent of the recalled dreams, light flashes in 23 percent and an auditory tone in only 9 percent.   When there is an external stimulus, the dream generally incorporates it into the ongoing story line, but it rarely becomes the defining plot of that night’s dreams.  

 2.6  Paranormal or Extraordinary Content

 Some of the first pioneering scientific work in this area was performed by Ullman, Krippner and Vaughan, who in their classic book, Dream Telepathy,5 discussed the results of scientifically controlled experiments in paranormal dreaming.  Much of the work was performed in the dream laboratory at Maimonides Medical Center in New York.  The book studies telepathic dreaming (dreaming of what someone else is thinking or experiencing) and precognitive dreaming (dreaming of an event in the future) in a sound and systematic basis.  A more recent book Extraordinary Dreams and How to Work with Them, co-authored by Stanley Krippner,67 provides a wealth of knowledge and research into paranormal and extraordinary dreams, as well as a discussion on how to work with the nature of each type of dream to enhance your life.  An extraordinary dream of a paranormal nature might fall into one of the following classifications according to Krippner: a) Collective dreams – whereby two persons report the same or similar dreams on the same night; b) Telepathic dreams – relating to the thoughts of another; c) Clairvoyant dreams – perceiving distant events; d) Precognitive dreams – providing information about an event that has not yet occurred; e) Past life dreams – which appear to detail events in a past life we have no way of knowing about; f) Spiritual dreams – whereby we are visited by spirits, deities or those from the other side. G) Out-of-Body – which involves the sensation of leaving your body.  

 a) Collective Dreams – Sometimes two persons will report having dreams on the same night, with the same identical elements in them.  For example, Stanley Krippner67 cites a dream in which the two dreamers, on the same night, dreamed of being in identical locations, describing the same hotel lobby with its unique pillars.  

 b) Telepathic – Dreaming of the thoughts or perceptions of other people at a distance has been the subject of a good degree of quantitative research, because it is relatively easy to administer, control and judge, following the experimental process that Ullman, Krippner and Vaughan had pioneered.5

 c) Precognitive – Evidence that these phenomena can occur in the dream state also comes from a number of research studies at the dream lab at Maimonides Medical Center, reported in the book Dream Telepathy. 5    Successfully avoiding an event that appears precognitive in a dream may be difficult, however, since the dream rarely depicts the scene as it is in reality – they appear as metaphors or symbolically and are hard to distinguish from dreams that are simply projecting one’s own inner fears.  However, Krippner et. al.67 report on work by Louisa Rhine with 191 apparent precognitive experiences, in which 69% of the people were successful in attempting to prevent the foreseen event.

 d) Out of Body – One form of paranormal dream, which is strikingly different than any other, is the out-of-body experience (OOBE).  Here, the dreamers perceive themselves consciously present outside their body, perhaps in another location, sometimes as a whole person or as just a ball of consciousness.  The OOBE experience is similar to some reports of near-death experiences, which are filled with accounts where persons saw themselves float above their body and were able to accurately report on events at a distance, which were later verified.6  Ceilia Green, in her book Out of Body Experiences,68 indicates that most of these experiences occur when a person is ill, perhaps in surgery, or is resting in bed.  Work has been done to substantiate that the phenomenon occurs,7 but little is known about the mechanism or whether it is a true separation, or simply another form of the telepathic experience.  Krippner67 reports that it occurs across cultures, and that all six countries included in his 1,666 dream database, reported out-of-body dreams.  La Berge cited in 67 indicates that out-of-body dreams occur at sleep onset (when the sensory input is shutting down) and during certain lucid dreams (he reports a study in which 9% of the lucid dream reports included out-of-body experiences).  A popular theory is that when we are asleep, with our body immobilized and essentially paralyzed, and we then become partially or fully conscious with the sleep paralysis remaining, we experience the sensation of being out-of-body.  However, this does not account for laboratory reports5 in which the person in this state was able to perceive a target that they had no way of perceiving from the vantage point of their physical body.

 e) Lucid Dreams – This is the dream experience of knowing you are dreaming while in the dream.  Often there is enough consciousness that willpower is activated and the dreamer can change the dream by intention.  Flying dreams are more likely to be reported by subjects who also report lucid dreams, according to Deirdre Barrett73 who examined 1,910 dreams from 191 subjects.  Contrary to previous anecdotes, when flying and lucidity occurred in the same dream, lucidity preceded flight rather than being triggered by it.   The degree of lucidity can vary in a lucid dream.  The lowest degree of lucidity can be simply a sense that “this is a dream,” without taking action on that awareness.  With a higher degree of lucidity, you might take some personal action in the dream or even wake yourself.  At the highest levels of lucidity, you may take full control over your actions in the dream, impose your will on the dream characters, or transform the very environment of the dream itself.  Deirdre Barrett72 examined the lucid dreams of 50 subjects for degree of lucidity based on the following corollaries: 1) awareness that people in the dream are dream characters, 2) awareness that dream objects are not real, 3) the dreamer does not need to obey waking-life physics to achieve a goal, and 4) memory of the waking world. Though many were too brief to evaluate on all corollaries, she found that only about half of the lengthier accounts were lucid for any particular corollary and less than a quarter were lucid on all four. Experienced lucid dreamers tended to be lucid about more corollaries. Research by individuals such as Stephen LaBerge, PhD,8 has revealed that the lucid dreamer is maintaining a high level of consciousness, as if awake, even though the sensory input from the outside is cut off.  EEG tracings are similar to the waking state, even though the dreamer is asleep.  Stephen LaBerge and Keith Hearne cited in 67 independently discovered ways that lucid dreamers could communicate with researchers in the outside world, by moving their eyes or flexing their muscles in predetermined patterns.  There appears to be a relationship between lucidity and the parts of the brain that are more or less active during the dream.  Reports using PET scans49 indicated a greater sense of control over the dream (lucidity) when the medial frontal cortex (involved in consciousness) was active, and a greater sense of the dream being out of control when the amygdala (involved in emotional processing) was more active.  

  2.7  Dream Content as we Age

 Our dream recall changes as we age. Interestingly, even though children exhibit more REM sleep than adults, the dream recall in children is lower than in adults according to Domhoff.40  In research studies, the average rate of dream recall is only 20% to 30% from REM awakenings until the child reaches the age of 9 to 11 years. At that age recall rate increases to the adult level of around 79%.  

 Dream content matures with age, up until 13 to 15 years.  Early dreams (ages under 5) are primarily bland with static images and thoughts about daily events.  At ages 5 to 8 dreams become more story-like with movement and interaction, but are not well developed.  The dreamer only appears as an active participant at around 8 years.  The structure of children’s dreams do not become adult-like until the ages 9 to 11 and they are noted to have less aggression, misfortune and negative emotions than adult dreams.  The length or content don’t become adult-like until the pre-teens (about 11 to 13), nor does the dream content show a good correlation to their personality until about this time.

 Domhoff speculates that dreaming is a cognitive achievement which, like most cognitive abilities, develops as we grow.  In particular, visual imagination may develop gradually and be a necessary prerequisite for dreaming.  Young children don’t dream well until their visuospatial skills are developed.  The part of the brain responsible for visuospatial skills and constructing the dream space (the inferior parietal lobe) is not functionally complete until about ages 5 to 7.54

 Patricia Garfield,56 in her book Your Child’s Dreams collected 247 dreams from schoolchildren in the US and a few in India.  She found that 64% were considered “bad” dreams and the remaining “good” dreams.  Of the bad dreams, almost half had a theme of being chased or attacked, and in the remaining dreams about 40% had a sense of danger or some character being injured or killed, even though there was no direct threat.  Of the “good” dreams, about half of the themes fell into two categories. The most frequent category was just “having a good time,” and the next was of the child receiving a gift or having some desired possessions.

 Alan Siegel, another researcher of children’s dreams, speaks of the content and evolution of children’s dreams in his book Dream Wisdom59 and the book Dreamcatching,58 which he co-authored with Kelly Bulkeley.  He indicates that dreaming begins in the womb and that up to 80% of sleep in premature infants is devoted to REM sleep.  He discusses how dream content changes as children grow and experience transitions, from first dreams, through coming of age dreams, to leaving home dreams.  Siegel speaks of the appearance of two imposing figures as representing the child’s image of the power of their own parents.  One of the first dreams recalled by one of my daughters was of two giant hands reaching for her.  

 In Dreamcatching,58 Siegel and Bulkeley list the most frequent types of dreams among children of all ages as: being threatened by animals or insects; being chased by monsters; flying; falling; being paralyzed or trapped; appearing naked in public; and being tested or examined. He indicates that for toddlers and preschoolers, the most common dream characters are animals.  Van de Castle37 also found this to be true, with almost 40% of young children’s dreams at ages 4 to 5 containing animals, a percentage which dropped to less than 14% by the time they were teenagers.  Like Garfield, he states that being chased or threatened in dreams, and nightmares with threatening creatures, appear to be the most common negative themes in children’s dreams.  This indicates that they symbolize a wide variety of early childhood fears and insecurities.

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 Dream Masters