Counterfactual cognitive operations in dreams

Patrick McNamara, Jensine Andresen, Joshua Arrowood, Glen Messer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


We hypothesized that counterfactual (CF) thought occurs in dreams and that cognitive operations in dreams function to identify a norm violation or novel outcome (recorded in episodic memory) and then to integrate this new content into memory by generating counterfactuals to the violation. In study 1 we compared counterfactual content in 50 dream reports, 50 pain memory reports and 50 pleasant memory reports (equated for word length) and found a significantly greater number of CFs in dream and in pain memory reports relative to pleasant memory reports. In study 2 we used a more liberal method for scoring CF content and analyzed 34 dream reports obtained from elderly individuals engaged in an ongoing study of neuropsychologic, health and religiosity variables. Study 2 also examined neuropsychologic associations to CF content variables. In the elderly sample and with our more liberal scoring procedures we found that norm violations along with counterfactual-like attempts to correct the violations occurred in 97% of qf reports. In 47% of these cases (roughly half of all reports), attempts to undo the violation obeyed at least one constraint on mutability typically observed in laboratory studies of CF processing. Cognitive operations associated with attempts to undo the norm violation (e.g. transforming focal actors or the most recent causal antecedent of the violation) were significantly correlated with measures of right frontal function. We conclude that dreaming may involve a process of learning from novel outcomes (particularly negative outcomes) by simulating alternative ways of handling these outcomes through counterfactual cognitive processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)121-133
Number of pages13
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported, in part, by a grant from the Templeton Foundation. We thank Dr. Brian McGeenly for help in collecting data from the pain patients. We thank Dr. Michael Zborowski for allowing us to analyze dream reports collected from his students.


  • Counterfactuals
  • Dreams
  • Mental simulations
  • Norm theory
  • Right frontal cortex


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