People over 55 dream in black and white?

Psychology researchers have suggested that if you grew up on black and white TV, you are more likely to dream in monochrome than people who have watched color TV all their lives. Dundee university psychology student Eva Murzyn studied data on the color (or lack-thereof) of people's dreams dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. Then she ran her own survey on more than 60 people, half older than 55 and half under 25. My informal survey of a statistically insignificant number of people supports her thesis. From The Telegraph:
Only 4.4 per cent of the under-25s' dreams were black and white. The over-55s who had had access to colour TV and film during their childhood also reported a very low proportion of just 7.3 per cent.

But the over-55s who had only had access to black-and-white media reported dreaming in black and white roughly a quarter of the time.

Even though they would have spent only a few hours a day watching TV or films, their attention and emotional engagement would have been heightened during this time, leaving a deeper imprint on their mind, Miss Murzyn told the New Scientist.

"The crucial time is between three and 10 when we all begin to have the ability to dream," she said.

"Television and films which by their very nature are interesting and emotionally engaging and even dreamlike. So when you dream you may copy what you have seen on the screen.

"I have even had a computer game player who dreams as if he is in front of a computer screen."
"Black and white TV generation have monochrome dreams" (Thanks, Mathias Crawford!)


  1. Uhm. I’m not far short of that (I grew up with B&W TV though certainly color in other media), and I’ve definitely had dreams where color was present. So I’m less than convinced by the assertion.

  2. Technogeek @3, the assertion is “more likely”, not certainly.

    When I was a kid, I remember reading books that claimed that dreams were in black-and-white, or had no sound. I’m guessing these claims were based on the author’s own dreams, and they’d never bothered to compare experiences with people of other generations.

    My own dreams are in color and have sound, as well as other sense perceptions (including at least one non-existent sense).

  3. I’ve heard from other computer geeks that dreaming in C++ and other programming languages is a fairly common experience when working too hard on a project.

  4. FWIW, I had a dream once where I was in my house but interacting with the environment through an Infocom-like text parser (although otherwise my dream was in full-motion and color).

    Notably, the house was white; was east of its small yard; and of course had a mailbox. I didn’t check the mailbox for a strange leaflet. However I tried to do a lot of the things which text adventures drive you to do out of frustration, like pick up and break various objects. It didn’t work, and I wound up just setting them down carefully. My dream world obeyed the implicit rules of text adventures.

  5. Her survey’s sample size was only 60, divided into 2 groups of 30. If her data showed no statistical difference between her samples and previous studies, it’s likely because her sample size was way too low! She seems to be leaping to conclusions unsupported by her data, although I agree that it’s a fascinating hypothesis.

    I wonder what studies of people who haven’t been exposed to any TV or other media would show…?

  6. I’m skeptical about the theory, but it is interesting.

    Well, I’m not over 55 (I turn the magic 42 later this year), but my family didn’t get a color telly ’til I was about 11 or 12. I don’t think I ever had a dream in black-and-white. I do remember reading an article in a newspaper or magazine when I was young which had a line saying something to the effect of “…some people even claim to be able to dream in color…”, and kinda going “Bwhah?” to myself.

    Interestingly, my Dad said he usually dreamed in audio only. I don’t think they were much into TV, so it is possible he had more radio-centric experiences. I wonder if there is any data suggesting more people had B&W dreams before the invention of technicolor films, or if dreams without sound were common in the days before “talkies”?

  7. Any Black-and-White lucid dreamers out there?

    My last B/W dream was of a TV set that *somehow* had the tech to transform 2D images into holograms, and pull up detailed text info about the programming. “Watched” a Velvet Underground show with this rig.
    I’m 45 and don’t really believe the study…

  8. I want to know about the dreams of Amish people or people who were never exposed to TV or movies. Are their dreams as cinematic in form and content as the rest of ours? I’ve heard one theory alleging the opposite – that some aspects of cinema only make sense to us because they are similar to what happens in dreams, e.g. “cutting” suddenly from one time or place to another – which doesn’t happen in real life (unless you’re really drunk).

  9. Doing quick computations, the SD for difference of proportion between over-55 versus under-25 is over 6%, which dwarfs the reported difference of (7.3-4.4)%=2.9%. (p-value=0.31)

    Looking only at the over-55s who had black-and-white TV versus not, a quick computation suggests that even (very generously) assuming the best division of the sample among those 30, the standard deviation of the difference of the proportions is about 12%, giving this result a one-sided p-value of ~0.06. (By the way, the “best” sample would be that 20 had a black-and-white TV whereas the other 10 didn’t.)

    But: if only 5 of the over-55 sample had a black-and-white TV (the smallest possible number since the article says that of that sample, “about a quarter” had BW dreams), the standard deviation becomes about 20%, making her result meaningless with p-value ~0.18.

    Conclusion: wait for replication.

  10. I’ve heard many theories about this. Some are good, some aren’t. Personally, I dream in both.
    This is gonna seem a little stick with me. I ‘dream’ in black and white, but I ‘see’ in colour. Anything that is ‘new’, made up in my imagination appears as black and white, but anything that I’ve already ‘seen’ appear as colour. Example, a tree in black and white, but the apples on it appear in colour. I only do full colour if it’s something I’ve already seen (more remembering than dreaming), or (and this is the wierd part) if it’s pre-cognitive.

    Most of the things I’ve seen state that most people dream in black and white, but perceive colour. This is, in my opinion, due the awesomeness of the brain.

  11. Gilbert Anonymous sez:
    I’m almost 60, and I dream in color, which is great because my dreams have storylines. You should’ve seen the dream I had where I was a downed pilot in the Flying Tigers making my way through the Japanese lines.

  12. I’ve never been able to check if I dream in colour or black and white, because I seem to dream in events, scenes, and words rather than visuals. When there is a visual, I’ve never thought to check.

    The one time I remember dreaming about colour was a very vivid nightmare about blood.
    “… and they loaded their guns with the blood of their own children…”
    I realize that makes no sense, but that’s dreams for you.

  13. There’s some cool research about this.

    See Eric Schwitzgebel’s papers here: (1) (2) (3).

    See also this paper of mine, which attempts to make sense of Schwitzgebel’s: (4).

    Also this article in the latest issue of Dreaming, “Do We Think Dreams Are in Black and White due to Memory Problems?”, which I am unfortunately unable to link here.

  14. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who actually dreamed in black and white, although I’ve repeatedly heard it claimed that dreaming in black and white is normal and people who dream in color are unusual. Always wondered where that came from and how true it was.

    I always dream in saturated, contrasty color (think Fight Club or Amelie) — always have, as far as I can remember (I have specific memories of lots of my dreams, all the way back to when I was little). My boyfriend, a designer and photographer, says he dreams in various visual styles depending on the subject of the dream.

  15. And if you grew up before TV, did you dream in radio? Or perhaps silent movies with title cards? Please. The world has been in color for a long time now.

    Although if I play too much of a video game before bed, I dream about it. I wish my characters got XP for all the monsters they slaughter in my sleep…

  16. ever dream empires? Whole lost worlds and civilizations, lifetimes of experience in intricate cultures with every vivid nuance of sensation?

  17. Interesting.

    Freud, I believe, claimed people dreamed in black and white. (I don’t know if he said they only dreamed in black and white, or not. Freud was, of course, before television[1], so the black and white television hypothesis may simply be a matter of correlation, not cause.

    I normally dream in colour, though I have had at least one black and white dream. (It was noteworthy in that it was the exception.)

    [1] Except for the Onion News Network.

  18. @ 7 and 28:

    I have dreamt in SketchUp while working on a competition project.

    So, ABB3W, I can sympathize with the programmers

    And Takuan, I might not have dreamt a whole Empire. But it was a Utopia for sure.

  19. I worked sorting potatoes for 10+ hours a day in front of a conveyor belt. During that time all my dreams scrolled past my vision just like the conveyor. This stopped as soon as I finished working there.

  20. The nature of my dreams has changed a number of times over the years due to some fairly specific causes.

    As a child and during most of my teen years I dreamed in monochrome still shots. The tints were black and a depressing muted green. However, I could feel things, taste things, smell things. I’ve had bad dreams where I’ve been crushed or eaten alive. I’ve been woken up by dream stinks!

    When I began practicing lucid dreaming I began to experience color and motion in my dreams for the first time. I had to stop lucid dreaming when it kicked off some fairly terrifying hallucinatory experiences that made my early twenties a distressing time…

    Then when I learned to draw I began experiencing vivid hypnopompic visions. I would love to be able to remember them clearly enough to draw them.

    And my first experience with kava kava took these visions to the next level — while I was drifting off I found that I was able to guide myself visually through a consistent and beautiful landscape — it’s like having a flying camera. I still experience this periodically.

    Many of my dreams has been so vivid as to leave me with long-term memories — I still remember dreams I had in early childhood. Frequently my dreams have coherent storylines. And about half the songs I’ve written came to me in dreams. I just get up and write ’em down. Sometimes they even come with music that I can pick out on my bass. Some of my best stuff comes this way.

    I find that whatever is on my mind when I go to bed influences my dreams. That’s why I read a lot of stuff like Lord Dunsany and Clarke Ashton Smith…

  21. I read the headline and misunderstood, thought the implication was that around the time you turned 55, the color started leaching out of your dreams. I thought, oh no, isn’t it bad enough that your hair goes gray? Please, not dreams too!

  22. abb3w @7: I’ve heard from other computer geeks that dreaming in C++ and other programming languages is a fairly common experience when working too hard on a project.

    I had a friend who worked on multimedia projects. He got woken at night by a wrong number. Didn’t remember it in the morning, but his girlfriend told him he had said (returning to bed) “It’s just a text file”.

  23. As a kid growing up watching black and white TV, I remember having dreams in color with TV characters in black and white.

    One dream (with a flying saucer landing) had title cards: “Continued next week”.

  24. abb3w @7, I can totally relate to that. I’ve had many dreams that were a mashup of reality and programming languages. The weirdest bit is trying to reconcile the dream-coding with reality when you wake up.

    I can also relate to the last part of this bb post, I have have had several dreams that are normal in every respect except my entire visual field is pixelated – not randomly but in a continuous infinite grid. I could see the whole picture but the detail was not there because I could distinguish individual pixels.

  25. Wow. This is a terrific thread! Thank you all for posting! I recently listened to this 2007 episode of Radiolab in which Harvard professor Robert Stickgold talks about his fascinating dream research, including experiments where people had Tetris dreams after playing it during the day.

  26. I watched black and white TV until I went to college (when I didn’t watch at all). The only time I ever dreamed in black and white was when I was a child and dreamed I was watching TV. Which was rare. My dreams have always been in color.

  27. One of my favourite lines from the Garry Shandling Show:
    “I dream in black and white, much the way our parents must have before there was colour”

  28. I’ve always thought the “processing your experiences” theory of dream genesis was the most credible — as for b&w vs. colour, well depends on circumstance and individual. I had undiagnosed progressive vision loss as a kid, so by the time I got my first pair of glasses at 10, everything was audio and other cues — I probably dream in coloured blotches, though I only remember story.

  29. There’s some cool research about this.

    See Eric Schwitzgebel’s papers here: (1) (2) (3).

    See also this paper of mine, which attempts to make sense of Schwitzgebel’s: (4).

    Also this article in the latest issue of Dreaming, “Do We Think Dreams Are in Black and White due to Memory Problems?”, which I am unfortunately unable to link here.

  30. I’ve noticed that I almost always dream in third person, as if I’m watching myself.

    Recently I had a dream in first person perspective
    and it was terrifying!

    -David W.

  31. At different times, I have had dreams in programming languages (although this is a waking phenomenon as well), I have had dreams in French, as well as an African language that I learned at a young age. By the way, I speak French very poorly and I no longer speak Lingala (the African language), yet I still dream in them. Also, I have had the occasional dream in a language that does not exist in the real world.

  32. Sometimes I’ll dream in third person and my dreams are always in color. I had a third person dream like that last night. The new thing for me is dreams heavily influenced by Second Life. I’ve had dreams with people flying around in the background like avatars and with having to wait for objects to rez. I need to spend more time outside, apparently.

  33. i’m only 16 i never watched the
    old school black and white t.v’s
    but i have had alot of dreams lately
    in black in white… is that normal ?

  34. I am 19 and I dream in monochrome (blue and white strangely), I’ve never even watched a B&W tele.

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