Do We Think Dreams Are in Black and White due to
Michael Schredl, Aylin Fuchedzhieva, Heike Ha¨mig, and Verena Schindele
Central Institute of Mental Health
The present study was designed to investigate whether memory processes play
a role in why some persons say their dreams are black and white. The ﬁndings
indicate that the percentages of black and white dreams are related negatively
to color memory and dream recall frequency. When colors were recorded
immediately after the dream was recorded, the percentage of black and white
dream elements dropped to 2.7%. When participants were presented the
option that dream colors might not be remembered, the percentage of explicit
black and white dreams became very small, and the ﬁndings are thus in line
with the continuity hypothesis of dreaming. Future studies might use extensive
training of color memory and dream recall in order to investigate whether
highly trained persons still have some dreams or dream elements that are in
black and white.
Keywords: colors, dream content, memory, dream recall frequency
Several studies (Bentley, 1915; Middleton, 1933; Husband, 1936; Tatibana, 1938)
carried out in the ﬁrst half of the 20th century had large numbers of persons who
reported that they did not see colors in their dreams, for example, 40% (Middleton,
1942). Schwitzgebel (2003) repeated the Middleton study over 50 years later and found
that only 4.4% of the participants reported no colors in their dreams. If participants
were speciﬁcally asked whether they dream in color or black and white, the percentage
of persons with black and white dreams was extremely low: 0% (Schwitzgebel, 2003),
4% (N⫽40.000 American online poll, cited in Schwitzgebel, 2002), 6.6% (Okada,
Matsuoka, & Hatakeyama, 2005), 10% to 22% (Chinese students; Schwitzgebel,
Huang, & Zhou, 2006). On the other hand, Stepansky et al. (1998) reported that 47%
of 1000 subjects answered no to the question “Do you have colored dreams?” This
clearly indicates that the wording of the question is important with regard to the results.
Laboratory research (Kahn, Dement, Fisher, & Barmack, 1962; Snyder, 1970; Re-
chtschaffen & Buchignani, 1983, 1992) showed that—even if the participants were
asked immediately upon awakening about colors in their dreams—about 20% of the
dreams did not include any color. So, the question whether there are dreams in black
and white is still unanswered.
Michael Schredl, Aylin Fuchedzhieva, Heike Ha¨mig, and Verena Schindele, Sleep Laboratory,
Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim, Germany.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michael Schredl, Sleep Laboratory,
Central Institute of Mental Health, PO Box 12 21 20, 68072 Mannheim, Germany. E-mail: Michael.
Dreaming Copyright 2008 by the American Psychological Association
2008, Vol. 18, No. 3, 175–180 1053-0797/08/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1053-0722.214.171.124
Schwitzgebel (2002) hypothesized that dreams might be neither colored nor
black and white, that the color modality is indeﬁnite. That would explain why
persons in the era of black-and-white movies often said their dreams were black
and white whereas today most people say their dreams are in color. The continuity
hypothesis of dreaming (cf. Schredl, 2003), which states that dreams reﬂect waking
life, would predict that all dreams include colored elements in the same way our
waking world does (with the exception of black-and-white objects, of course).
According to this hypothesis, objects that are normally colored (e.g., skin, sky,
water) should not appear as black and white within dreams. The marked percentage
of persons who report that they do not remember whether their dreams are colored
or not (Schwitzgebel, 2003) suggests that memory might play a role. If the color is
not outstanding or important for the dream action, it might be difﬁcult to remember
the colors; for example, the clothes’ colors of a person one talked to in the dream.
The present study was designed to investigate whether memory processes play
a role in explaining why some persons state that their dreams are black and white.
First, a new item eliciting color in dreams was developed, explicitly explaining that
dream colors might not be remembered, so that the participants can estimate the
percentage of dreams without remembered colors—in addition to colored dreams
and black and white dreams. Second, it was tested whether the percentage of black
and white dreams are related to color memory tasks carried out during the day.
Third, the participants were asked to write down a dream immediately upon
awakening at home and report the colors of all major dream elements. If memory
plays a role, one would expect that the number of black-and-white dream elements
would be smaller in this condition.
The sample included 49 persons whose mean age was 21.8 years (SD ⫽3.4).
These 40 women and 9 men were mainly psychology students. The participants
were recruited at the University of Mannheim.
Overall dream recall frequency was measured by a 7-point rating scale, 0
(never), 1 (less than once a month), 2 (about once a month), 3 (twice or three times
a month),4(about once a week),5(several times a week), and 6 (almost every
morning). The retest reliability of this scale for an average interval of 70 days is high
(r⫽.85, N⫽196; Schredl, 2004a). In order to obtain units of mornings per week,
the scale was recoded using the class means (0 30, 1 30.125, 2 30.25,
330.625, 4 31.0, 5 33.5, 6 36.5).
A brief description regarding colors in dreams was given before presenting three
rating scales (0% to 100% in 10% steps) eliciting the percentage of colored dreams,
176 Schredl, Fuchedzhieva, Ha¨ mig, and Schindele
black and white dreams, and dreams without explicit memory of colors. The descrip-
tion included comments regarding the three types of dreams. The color dreams could
include colors as they were in waking life but also colors that are bizarre, that is, those
of a red-white-dotted bird. The perception in black and white dreams was, compared
to looking at a black and white ﬁlm. If no explicit color perception was remembered the
dreams were to be labeled as ones without explicit memory of colors. The total of the
three percentages should amount to 100%. The same three questions were given to
evaluate the color perception of dream elements.
The ﬁrst color memory task was a picture from a children’s book displaying a
large, complex circus scene with different objects in different colors. After looking
at the picture for three minutes, the participants had to answer nine questions about
the color of speciﬁc objects, for example, the color of the musicians’ hats. The sum
score ranged from 0 to 11 because two questions elicited two colors.
The second memory task consisted of 24 cards displaying different objects: 12
were black and white and 12 were colored. Six of the colored pictures showed
objects with a typical color like bananas, a strawberry, and a ﬁre engine whereas the
other six pictures showed objects that might have a variety of colors (car, house
etc.). The cards were presented to the participants for 2 min. They were allowed to
scan them one by one but were not allowed to sort the cards or to look at more than
one picture at once. Between presentation and recall, the participants were asked
to read a text (about 15 min) and answer several questions about its content to
ensure that the participants had concentrated on the text. For measuring color
memory, the number of correctly recalled colored objects without typical colors was
included in the analysis.
Dream Record Sheet
Immediately upon awakening in the morning the participants were to record
the next dream they recalled as completely as possible. Next, they should list the
objects of the dream and state the color—if any—or whether the object was black
and white (like watching a black and white movie) or whether they are not able to
recall the color of the object. The sum of all objects per dream was computed as
well as the number of colored objects, black and white objects, and objects without
remembering the color.
Design and Procedure
First, the participants completed the dream questionnaire. Then the two visual
memory tasks were carried out. At the end of the session the participants received
the dream record sheet which they were to return to one of the experimenters.
Of 49 participants, 32 persons returned their dream record sheets.
Dreams in Black and White 177
Statistical analyses were carried out with the SAS 9.1.3 software package for
Mean dream recall (recoded) for the total sample was 3.43 (SD ⫽2.10) mornings
with explicit dream recall per week. The percentages of colored dreams or dream
elements (questionnaire) and dream elements (dream report), respectively, are de-
picted in Table 1. The participants rated most of their dreams and dream elements as
being colored but for a large number of dreams they could not remember the colors.
The percentage for colored objects, however, was signiﬁcantly higher for the dream
reports where the colors were elicited directly upon awakening (d⫽0.837, t⫽4.7, p⬍
.0001), whereas the percentage of black and white objects (d⫽0.560, t⫽⫺3.2, p⫽
.0034) and objects without remembering the color (d⫽0.537, t⫽⫺3.0, p⫽.0049)
decreased. Overall, 178 objects were reported in the 32 dream reports (word count:
M⫽93.8, SD ⫽70.4). All dreams included at least one colored element. None of the
participants reported that all of his or her dreams were black and white; the highest
percentage of this questionnaire item was 70%.
The mean score for the circus picture task was 4.84 (SD ⫽1.85) and correlated
substantially (r⫽.366, p⫽.0096) with the score of the colored objects without
typical colors of Test 2. The mean number of correctly recalled objects was 3.92
(SD ⫽1.24). In Table 2, the correlations between percentages of black and white
dreams/dream elements, dream recall frequency, and color memory scores are
shown. Dream recall frequency and the score of the circus picture task were related
signiﬁcantly to two of the percentages regarding black and white dreams whereas
the memory task including colored objects did not correlate with the percentage of
black and white dreams.
The ﬁndings of the present study indicate that memory processes might play a role
in explaining why some persons say that some of their dreams are black and white.
First, the application of a new questionnaire item that included explicit in-
structions about color perception in dreams showed that the colors of dreams or
dream elements were often not remembered. None of the participants stated that
all of his or her dreams are in black and white, thus conﬁrming the results of
Schwitzgebel (2003). Asking retrospectively about colors in dreams, only about
Table 1. Percentages of Colored Dreams and Dream Elements
Dreams Dream elements
Colored (%) 55.1 33.2 59.2 29.2 82.8 22.4
Black and white (%) 9.4 15.6 9.2 12.0 2.7 5.8
Without color memory (%) 35.5 29.7 31.0 27.4 14.6 20.8
178 Schredl, Fuchedzhieva, Ha¨ mig, and Schindele
10% of the dreams and dream elements were rated as black and white. This ﬁgure
decreased signiﬁcantly to 2.7% if the colors have to be reported immediately after
recall and recording of the dream. It seems very plausible that memory processes
affect the retrospective estimates elicited with the questionnaire. The percentage
of 82.8% of colored elements within the dream is comparable to the laboratory
studies (Kahn et al., 1962; Snyder, 1970; Rechtschaffen & Buchignani, 1983, 1992)
explicitly asked for colors after the dream was reported to the experimenter. The
present study indicates, however, that the previously reported ﬁgure of 20% for
black and white dreams/dream elements was not valid because the participants
were not given an option for stating that they did not remember the colors of the
dreams or dream elements. The actual number of black and white dreams or dream
elements (seeing a colored object in shades of gray) seems to be quite small.
The ﬁndings also indicate that the percentage of black and white dreams/
dream elements is related to waking-life color memory if a task that is similar to
remembering dreams is applied (complex scene with a lot of colored elements).
Due to a relatively small sample size, future studies are needed to corroborate this
ﬁnding. In addition, the percentage of black and white dreams was related to dream
recall frequency. Persons with high dream recall estimated their dreams and dream
elements as being black and white less often. Previous research has shown that high
recallers remembered more details of a dream, for example, more words per dream
report (Schredl, 2000; Schredl, 2004b; 2004c). A speciﬁc training program enhanced
dream recall frequency and the ability to remember dream details, too (Reed,
1973). This link between dream recall frequency and recall of dream details further
support the notion that memory processes play a role in explaining the occurrence
of black and white dreams since their percentage decreases in trained persons.
Overall, the ﬁndings do not support the hypothesis formulated by Schwitzgebel
(2002) that dream elements might not have distinctive colors but rather are in line
with the continuity hypothesis (Schredl, 2003) which assumes that colors in dreams
are comparable to the colors in waking life.
To summarize, the present study indicates that memory plays an important
role in explaining why some persons say their dreams are black and white. It would
be very interesting to carry out studies including extensive training of color memory
in waking life and in dream recall in order to investigate whether highly trained
persons still have some dreams or dream elements that are in black and white. In
order to control for all possible biases, it would be necessary to elicit whether the
participants have ever watched black and white ﬁlms (since the age of ﬁrst regular
Table 2. Correlations Between Percentage of Black and White Dreams, Dream Recall Frequency,
and Color Memory
Black and white dreams ⫺.164 ⫺.321
Black and white dream
Black and white dream
elements (dream report)
.075 ⫺.224 ⫺.368
Note. One-tailed test of the correlation coefﬁcient.
Dreams in Black and White 179
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the participant. In the same way wearing red goggles affected the colors of the
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