It has been a few weeks since I focused on a specific researcher/psychologist, so this Science Friday is going to focus on Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg was an incredibly intelligent American psychologist (he completed his bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in just one year!) who became extremely interested in the work of Jean Piaget while completing his graduate degree. The majority of Kohlberg's research is an extension of work started by Piaget. Unfortunately, Kohlberg struggled with depression throughout life and drowned himself in a swamp at the age of 59.
Those of you who have studied psychology or child development very likely have read about Kohlberg's stages of moral development. But, for this post, I want to focus on one of his lesser own projects- his work on dreams. Like his work on moral development, his studies of dreams were a continuation of Piaget's initial studies which established a that a child's understanding of dreams unfolds in set, pre-determined stages. Piaget and Kohlberg used the study of dreams as an extension of their work in overall cognitive development, namely in determining a child's ability to distinguish "real" from "unreal."
Occasionally, Q-ball sleeps, and Daddy and I wonder what she dreams about. Babies are very well known for talking, crying, and moving about in their sleep. Unfortunately, infants are not well known for their ability to describe their experiences for scientific study. Thus, they are not included in Kohlberg's work which relied upon interviewing children about their dreams. But, other researchers have explored the topic of infant dreams. It is known that newborns have much more active or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep than adults. (One-hundred percent of a fetus's sleep is REM, while only 25% of a 2-year old's is!) During REM sleep, the brain is sorting through a person's past experiences through dreams. Many researchers believe that newborns, then, are dreaming of being in mama's belly. In fact, some researchers claim that SIDS is actually a result of an infant dreaming about life as a fetus as fetuses don't breathe. In very sharp contrast, some researchers don't believe that infants dream at all as some tests show little brain activity during infant REM sleep. I've personally always like the theory in Dr. Karp's book that babies experience so many new ideas every day that they have lots and lots to process (i.e. dream) about.
So, Piaget and Kohlberg's research starts with children who are about 4-5 years old. Kohlberg defined an "invariant" six-stage sequence of dreaming that does not necessarily correspond to specific ages. At first, a child believes dreams are 100% real. A 4-year old who was asked about a giant in her dream told Kohlberg, "It was really there but it left when I woke up. I saw its footprint on the floor." Soon, a child realizes dreams are not real, but happen outside of himself, as if he were watching a movie. As time goes on, he knows that dreams are invisible, originate inside himself, and, finally, that dreams happen completely within them. This full understanding of dreams typically occurs around age 6 or 7. (For those familiar with Piagetian theory, this corresponds to the onset of concrete operations.
Photo credit: spaciousplanet.com
In line with other Piagetian developments, Kohlberg believed that the understanding of dreams is something that a child develops completely independently. What parents teach or explain to him about dreams, Kohlberg theorizes, has no impact on a child's understandings of his dreams. Kohlberg supports this position by explaining that it is very unlikely that all parents would present the six-stages to their children; yet, all children Kohlberg researched experienced all six stages. Additionally, and this was my favorite part of the study, Kohlberg conducted his dream interview of the Atayal people, an aboriginal tribe in Taiwan most known for their tattoos. Adults in this tribe believe that dreams are real. Still, despite their teachings, the children within the tribe still experienced Kohlberg's six-stages of dream understanding. But, when these children reach Kohlberg's final stage, the impact of the adults in their understandings starts to emerge, and they all believe their dreams are real.
What to take from this? Mainly, that your child will outgrow any night terrors or other thoughts of dreams. But, according to Kohlberg, it will happen in his own time. While your child absolutely needs your comfort, your reassurances that dreams are not real will not help speed up his understanding.
Christos, G.A. (1995). Infant dreaming and fetal memory: a possible explanation of sudden infant death syndrome. Medical Hypothesizes, 44(4). 243-50.
Crain, W. (2011). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. Boston: Prentice Hall.
Dreams and babies (2012). Retrieved from http://www.professorshouse.com/Family/Babies/Articles/Dreams-and-Babies/
Graz, D. (2009). Lawrence Kohlberg: An introduction. Farmington Hills, MI: Barbara Budrich Pubslishers.