This post is written by Circadia Research Analyst, Rachel Korn, Ph.D.

Sometimes we get to do what we want, and sometimes we feel like we don’t have a choice. There are two types of motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated, we make our own choices about what to do. When we are extrinsically motivated, we act for external reasons (such as, feeling forced to by others or the situation). Just like in waking life, we can feel these two types of motivation in our dreams. To illustrate, let’s look at some dream snippets: 

Intrinsic Motivation: 

“We’re walking up a high road in the mountains – there aren’t any trees, just rock, reddish dirt and some gravel. I see a large dusty quartz crystal sticking out of the dirt. I want to pull it out and bend over to do so. As I’m holding the crystal, two brightly colored large lizards come out of the hole, one is bright orange, and the other is a rich butterscotch color.” 

This dreamer is actively choosing to pull out the crystal while walking along a road.

Extrinsic Motivation: 

“I had a dream that I was very pregnant. I was at the mall in a store, crying because I didn't want the baby. I didn't remember how I got pregnant and I was panicking because at this point, I had no choice but to give birth to a child that I didn't want.”

This dreamer feels no choice or control in her pregnancy. 

In waking life, intrinsic motivation feels good, and is tied to positive things like more creativity. At the opposite end of the spectrum, extrinsic motivation doesn’t feel great, and is tied to negative things like less enjoyment of activities. Intrinsic motivation is linked to positive mental health outcomes like less depression, less anxiety, and better overall quality of life. Intrinsic motivation is also linked to better physical health outcomes like healthier diet, getting more exercise, and longer life expectancy. Given the amount of research done in waking life, and the instinctive notion that we feel good and have better mental and physical health when we are able to make our own choices, we were curious if we might (a) be able to discern motivational differences in dreams, and (b) see any interesting relationships with the language, emotions, and style of dreams.  

We manually coded a set of 600 dreams to indicate whether the dreamer felt that they were making their own choices or that they were being controlled by external forces. We found that about one third felt like they were following intrinsic motivation - or actively making choices, while two-thirds of the dreams were described in a way that demonstrated extrinsic motivation, or being forced to do certain things. Then, we used computer-automated text analysis software to examine the themes associated with each type of dream. 

We found that when people dream about intrinsic motivation, they are more likely to talk about positive emotions, affective processes (e.g. happy, cried), and leisure activities. When people dream about extrinsic motivation, they talk more about negative emotions, anxiety, anger, death, and family. This sounds strange: why is family seen more often in extrinsic dreams? Think about it this way: when we do things for our family, we are choosing to act for other people. It doesn’t mean we are unhappy, but it does mean we are not making choices that are purely for ourselves. 

Now we know a little bit more about what goes on in dreams: when individuals share dreams where they get to make their own choices, they are also talking about positive emotions and doing fun things. When people talk about dreams where they don’t get to make choices, they are also talking about negative emotions like anger and anxiety, and experiences related to death. So, we have some preliminary evidence that intrinsic motivation in dreams feels good, while extrinsic motivation doesn’t. 

Now, we want to keep exploring to find out whether these experiences of choice in dreams also have implications in waking life. Could motivation in dreams be associated with waking life health outcomes like anxiety or getting more exercise? Are people more likely to experience intrinsic motivation in dreams if they get to make their own choices in waking life, or is the opposite true?