Cognitive Daily

How many hours did you spend watching TV news coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks on that day?* Now, did you have dreams about it in the following days and weeks?

According to a newly published study, the more hours you spent watching news coverage, the more likely you were to have dreams with specific references to the attacks. Ruth Propper had been asking her psychology students at Merrimack College to keep dream journals for several weeks before September 11, and they continued to maintain them afterwards. In class on September 12, the students filled out questionnaires about how much time they’d spent listening to coverage on the radio or watching TV coverage of the attacks.

The average TV viewing time was 6.5 hours, with some students watching up to 13 hours. How did this correspond to dream content?

“When we compared these responses with the dream journal entries, we discovered that for each hour of TV viewing a subject reported, there was a statistically significant six percent increase in the proportion of the dreams containing a specific reference to the attacks,” says Propper. Among the individuals who watched less than three hours of television there were no specific references at all.

They also found that the more time students spent talking with friends and family about the attacks, the less likely dreams were to have specific images associated with the attacks (as opposed to generally related themes).

Of course, it’s also possible that the TV viewing did not cause the dreams. Some other factor might have caused both the increased TV viewing and the dreams. Undaunted, Propper and her coauthor conclude that the news media should avoid repeatedly broadcasting traumatic events in order to spare their viewers the psychological problems TV viewing might cause.

We’ve reported on other studies related to September 11 here and here.


* Probably more than me: I was at work and in class until 10 p.m. When I finally arrived at home everyone was so sick of watching that I didn’t end up watching it at all.

Comments

  1. #1 Max Sang
    April 16, 2007

    Certainly echoes my own experiences. At the time I was living in Switzerland and (by choice) had no TV. I learned of the attacks through the written word, a few still photos and no more than a few seconds of video (many days or weeks after the attacks). Though certainly disturbed and horrified by them, I was able to maintain a detachment that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d been glued to the TV. And I have never dreamed about it.

  2. #2 Scott Belyea
    April 16, 2007

    According to a newly published study, the more hours you spent watching news coverage, the more likely you were to have dreams with specific references to the attacks.

    Hmmm … somehow, this strikes me as one of the less surprising conclusions I’ve seen recently.

    …the news media should avoid repeatedly broadcasting traumatic events in order to spare their viewers the psychological problems TV viewing might cause.

    “Sorry that you were at work and couldn’t watch the two broadcasts of this event, but that’s enough and we’re not going to show it again.”

    I usually dislike characterizations such as “pointy-headed ivory tower academics,” but it just might apply in this case. Good grief …

  3. #3 Aaron Couch
    April 16, 2007

    I find it somewhat surprising that people who spend more time talking to others about the attacks would have fewer dreams about them. In light of last week’s posting comparing visual images and imagination in movies and books, I would think that talking about the attacks would utilize the imagination more for creating mental images of the attacks, resulting in more dreams related to the attacks.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    April 16, 2007

    “Sorry that you were at work and couldn’t watch the two broadcasts of this event, but that’s enough and we’re not going to show it again.”

    I believe the reports were “sanitized” later that same day — images of people jumping off the building, for example, were removed from later broadcasts.

    TV and print journalists routinely exclude the most gruesome war images from their reporting as well. I’m not sure if they’re doing this so much because of psychological research but simply due to pressure to “be in good taste.”

  5. #5 Sobex
    April 16, 2007

    Aye, I barely watched coverage that day, for a different reason — I worked (and still work) 5 blocks away from Ground Zero. I arrived at work at 9:05AM (a few minutes late *cough*) and by that time, both towers had been hit. I had no idea what was going on until I got into my office. When I found out both towers had been hit, I took the elevators back down (hey, they were still working in my building at 9:20AM) and started walking uptown, hoping to catch some transportation. I was at about Canal Street and Broadway (about a mile away? more or less) when the first tower fell, but I couldn’t see that that was happening, all I saw was tons of smoke. No one’s cell phones were working, land lines were out, and I had no idea what was happening until I finished walking home 6 hours later.

    My parents finally reached me on the phone and they were crying. I was wondering why they were crying (they know roughly where I work), and then they told me to put on the TV. I couldn’t believe what I saw on the TV, I knew the towers had been hit, but they fell? And I was that close? I would have watched lots of it, but my feet were screaming for relief after all that walking on shoes not meant for long walking, and I tuned out after 30 mins of watching the news that day. So I didn’t have dreams filled with violent destruction. Did I have dreams of endless walking? Probably :)

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    April 16, 2007

    Wow, that’s an amazing story, Sobex. Even though I have friends in New York and in Washington, it’s easy to forget that millions of people were physically impacted by the attacks, even if they weren’t working in the WTC or the Pentagon.

  7. #7 Scott Belyea
    April 16, 2007

    I believe the reports were “sanitized” later that same day — images of people jumping off the building, for example, were removed from later broadcasts.

    Well, that’s not my recollection from the TV coverage I watched. I don’t recall seeing anything other than print descriptions of the more horrific jumping scenes.

    TV and print journalists routinely exclude the most gruesome war images from their reporting as well. I’m not sure if they’re doing this so much because of psychological research but simply due to pressure to “be in good taste.”

    Yes, very true, as it also is of car accidents, suicides, and so on. I’ve never been quite sure either. Mind you, I doubt that “good taste” is nearly as significant as “losing readers/viewers.”

    And in terms of war coverage from (say) Iraq, my suspicion is that the “imbedded” reporters would not be allowed to transmit pictures/videos of the really ugly parts of reality.

  8. #8 Jay
    April 16, 2007

    I don’t remember watching an inordinate amount of coverage that week. But I still have nightmares about large-scale terrorist attacks, probably 2-3 times a year.

  9. #9 Baratos
    April 16, 2007

    I started watching at about 3pm, which was about the time I came home from school. I watched it for about half an hour, then went off to do homework and read a book. Never had a dream about it.

  10. #10 Dave Group
    April 16, 2007

    I think I’m missing something here. Isn’t this really restating the obvious? I’m sure if you lay on the couch all day watching a Spongebob marathon, you’d be dreaming Spongebob.

    As for Scott Belyea’s comment about reporters not being allowed to transmit the uglier aspects of the war in Iraq, I don’t think that most people could handle the fact that, after some of our troops are killed by a roadside IED, the rest of the unit may spend up to ten hours photographing and collecting body parts. Of course, things like this inevitably end up on some website.

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    April 16, 2007

    Dave Group:

    Your points have merit, but I don’t completely agree with you. Although I didn’t watch the events of 9/11 on TV, I certainly heard about them throughout the day. I had a heart-wrenching phone conversation with Greta about how to tell our then 2nd- and 3rd-grade children about the catastrophe. Yet I didn’t dream about it.

    And the researchers found that talking about the tragedy helped mitigate the very specific imagery about the day’s events. It would be surprising to find that if you watched SpongeBob all day and talked about SpongeBob all evening, you had less graphic dreams than if you just watched the program and then talked about something else.

  12. #12 allison
    April 16, 2007

    Well, that’s not my recollection from the TV coverage I watched. I don’t recall seeing anything other than print descriptions of the more horrific jumping scenes.

    I saw the footage. I was still in college and the term hadn’t started, so I did nothing that day but watch the news and cry. I think the other poster is right that it was broadcast earlier but not later. I didn’t think it was all that horrific, quite frankly, in comparison to the view of the plane going into the building. It looked – upsetting, but not real. It was more abstract than the plane footage. I always thought it was retired because it was less emotionally jarring.

    As for dreams – I know watching repetative other stuff can lead to dreams about it, for example the research referenced in “Everything Bad is Good for You” which says that Tetris players dream about Tetris. The big difference is of course, dreaming about Tetris isn’t a nightmare (although it is annoying).

    I find the bit about talking about it makes the dreams less likely – which makes sense, if your mind is trying to work out exactly what something so horrific, but also so very distant means to our primate-y brain, then maybe you can do it in waking by making it a shared experience and thus less abstract.

    I spent a lot of time talking to friends, family, and most interestingly, strangers, about the whole thing and I didn’t have any dreams with the imagery. It does continue to make me cry so automatically upon seeing the footage again, than I wonder if it’s become a conditioned response.

  13. #13 Keri Morgret
    April 16, 2007

    We were on vacation and traveling in a VW campervan, we didn’t arrive back home until two weeks after the attacks. I saw very little footage, and never had any dreams about it. I live in California, and only barely knew one person who died in the attacks. I did listen to NPR a lot though, and wish I had taken signs of all of the messages of support on churches, drive thrus, and any other place with movable letters.

  14. #14 Ted
    April 16, 2007

    I have a TV in my office, and watched more than 15 hrs of TV that day (while working).

    Mostly I wondered when the president would show up on TV to brief the nation and preclude insipid media speculation. It seemed that all day, the government was in hiding.

    For the record, no bad dreams that I remember.

  15. #15 Dave Group
    April 19, 2007

    Dave Munger:

    Thanks for the clarification.

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