Dream Research in Applied Behavior Analysis

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By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

Lucid dreaming — we’ve all done it at some point in our lives.  That’s the type of dreaming in which you realize you are dreaming inside of the dream.  The experience is usually pretty enjoyable as you can consciously control what you do, where you go, and who you interact with.  Better still, the latter aren’t bound by the laws of nature, meaning you can fly or travel long distances in the blink of an eye.

IFLscience recently reported on a study on this very topic. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute screened participants for lucid dreaming ability and assigned them to groups of high- and low-skilled lucid dreamers.  The main finding?  The area of the brain known as the anterior prefrontal cortex was significantly larger in the skilled lucid dreamers.  The latter region is important in important cognitive processes including metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking.  B. F. Skinner would refer to the latter in terms of self knowledge — a type of behavior.

In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis, dreaming has received virtually no attention.  However, an article by Dixon and Hayes (1999) is a must-read for behavior analysts interested in the topic.  Their article, “A Behavioral Analysis of Dreaming,” reviews the history of scientific thought on the phenomenon and links it to B. F. Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism and J. R. Kantor’s Interbehaviorism. 

Those familiar with Skinner’s writings recall his numerous discussions of perceptual behavior, conceptualized as seeing or hearing in the absence of the things themselves.  Kantor’s analysis of implicit behavior is vaguely similar, though different in many important ways discussed by Dixon and Hayes. 

Unfortunately, the article is not freely available to those without access to a scholarly database.  If you would like to know specifically how one comes to engage in dreaming as behavior, you can find it in The Psychological Record Vol. 49(4).

Empirical dream research is untouched in behavior analysis. However, at the level of theory and philosophy, there is nothing stopping behavior analysts from pioneering an entirely new field. Will it be you?

Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21.org via email to receive the latest articles, and free monthly issues, directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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3 Comments on "Dream Research in Applied Behavior Analysis"

  1. Has anyone ever thought about relational frame theory and dreaming? Something I’ve contemplated…

    • Can you be more specific?

      • I’ve thought about if relational frame theory could be tested within the behavior of dreaming….so looking at stimulus equivalence, relation of stimuli across dimensions while dreaming, rule-governed behavior (both overt and covert) while dreaming to name a few. Just some questions I thought I’d propose to the community as a whole!

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