Keeping a Dream Journal

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyFor anyone interested in learning more about dreaming, I have a simple piece of advice: keep a dream journal.  Record your dreams on a regular basis, track their themes and patterns over time, and you will discover through your own experience many of the key psychological principles that shape the general process of dreaming.  

Beyond that, you may find your journal becomes a unique personal treasure—an invaluable source of insight into your most important concerns, activities, and relationships in the waking world.

You can start a journal at any time by making some retroactive entries.  For example, write out the earliest dream you ever remember, even if it was just a tiny fragment or wispy image.  There it is, the beginning of a dream journal!

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyHave you ever had a dream of flying, or being chased, or having an intense sexual experience, or seeing someone who is dead appear as if they were alive again?  Write those out, too.  Do you remember any recurrent dreams?  That’s very important to note, because recurrent dreams provide one of the best points of entry for a study of the long-term themes and patterns in your dreaming.

Recording especially memorable dreams from the past can be a good way of initiating a dream journaling practice going forward into the future.  Regular journal-keepers typically place a pad of paper and a pen next to their bedside, and when they wake up with a dream in mind they immediately write it down.  Because these bedside notes are often scrawled in semi-legible form, people will usually transcribe their dreams later in the day, into either better handwriting or a computer word processing system.

People today may want to use voice-to-text programs on their cell phones, which can be just as effective for those who know how to manage the technology.  Whatever method is used, the main goal is to set up a smooth, friction-free process to record as much of the dream as can be remembered, as soon upon awakening as possible.

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyIt is worthwhile to include information about one’s sleep patterns in the journal, since the conditions of sleep often make a significant impact on the dreaming process.  Ideally, each entry has the date, the location where you are sleeping, the time you go to sleep, the time you wake up, and a subjective assessment of the quality of your sleep (e.g., good, fair, poor).  If you do not remember any dreams for that night, at least you have gathered some useful information about your sleep.

If you do remember a dream, the key is to record it in as much detail as you can manage, including aspects of your internal experience (e.g., what you were thinking or feeling during the dream).  When people narrate their dreams they typically leave out numerous details that seem too trivial or obvious to mention.  Yet it is precisely these seemingly worthless details that often become highly significant in later explorations.

Take your time when initially recording a dream, and don’t worry if some aspects of the dream are vague, fragmentary, or impossible to describe.  Just write them out as best as you can.  All of these fragments can be sources of unexpected significance when you look at the dreams over time.

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyAlong with the dream report, a journal will typically include thoughts, memories, and associations that come to mind in relation to the dream.  These comments can be brief or very extensive, depending on your time and inclination.

I find it helpful to give each dream a title, as if it were a poem or short story.  It’s a way of crystallizing in a phrase or image something important about the dream.  The titles also make it easier to refer back to the dreams and sift through the series for recurrent threads of meaning.

One of the greatest values of a dream journal is the way it grows in power and depth over time.  The ever-expanding pool of dreaming experience creates an evolving network of meaningful connections.

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyCarl Jung, one of the pioneers of Western dream psychology, proposed back in the 1930’s that a series of dreams can provide an extremely useful means of exploring an individual’s life.  In his essay titled “Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy,” he presented his analysis of “over a thousand dreams and visual impressions coming from a young man of excellent scientific education.” (116) Jung described his method in these terms:

“[H]ere we are not dealing with isolated dreams; they form a coherent series in the course of which the meaning gradually unfolds more or less of its own accord.  The series is the context which the dreamer himself supplies. It is as if not one text but many lay before us, throwing light from all sides on the unknown terms, so that a reading of all the texts is sufficient to elucidate the difficult passages in each individual one… Of course the interpretation of each individual passage is bound to be largely conjecture, but the series as a whole gives us all the clues we need to correct any possible errors in the preceding passages.” (119-120, italics in original)

Jung’s insight has been actively explored by many people who study dream series over time, and in a future post I will say more about their findings.

For now, I will leave you with this thought: keeping a dream journal is a priceless gift to your future self.



C.G. Jung, Dreams (trans. R.F.C. Hull), Princeton University Press, 1974.

This post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 27, 2017.

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content?

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyA word search analysis of a five-year selection from my own dream journal reveals the same consistent patterns of content in both shorter and longer reports.

I’ve been wondering about this question for a long time now.  Are shorter dreams different in any fundamental way from longer dreams?  Some people naturally remember only brief dream fragments and images, while other people can remember extremely elaborate and detailed dream scenarios.  Most researchers prefer to analyze reports in the “Goldilocks zone,” not too short or too long, just right in the middle.  That is a reasonable methodological choice, but it still leaves unanswered the question I’ve been pondering.

To continue developing the word search tools of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), I really need to get some clarity on this point.  The frequencies of word usage identified by the SDDb tools vary a great deal depending on whether the dreams have a smaller or larger number of total words.  Is this a problem, or not?

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyI also have a personal reason for wanting to explore the question.  In early 2015 I began a new approach to my own dream journaling practice, which has led to at least one remembered dream every night for more than two years.  This is approximately double my recall rate for the previous several years.  The 2015 dreams were also shorter on average (74 words) than the dreams from previous years (all averaging 100+ words).  This made me wonder about possible changes in the content patterns of my dreams before and after 2015.

With all of this in mind, I started by tabulating the distribution of my dreams over a five-year period of time (2012-2016), separating them into four categories of word length (less than 50 words, 50-99 words, 100-149 words, and 150 words or more). Here are the totals for each year in the four categories, from shortest to longest:

2012: 41, 67, 50, 43 (201 total)

2013: 68, 83, 51, 50 (252 total)

2014: 51, 54, 40, 41 (186 total)

2015: 145, 120, 56, 31 (352 total)

2016: 91, 134, 64, 77 (366 total)

As I already knew, the increased recall in 2015 happened at the shorter end of the word length spectrum.  My new approach to recall seemed to yield a lot of short dreams that I might not have remembered or recorded in previous years.  Then the 2016 dreams shifted again, with a more even distribution of word lengths, closer to the previous years but with higher total numbers.

Dividing the dreams into these subsets makes it possible to address the main question: what are the content differences between dreams of different lengths?

For each of the 20 subsets of dreams I used the SDDb 2.0 word search template to determine the frequencies for 40 categories of word usage, organized into 8 classes (Perceptions, Emotions, Characters, Cognitions, Social Interactions, Movement, Culture, and Elements).

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyThe results of this analysis suggest that shorter dreams are not dramatically different from longer dreams in terms of the relative proportions of their word usage.  The raw percentages of word usage do rise from shorter to longer dreams, of course, but the relative proportions generally do not.

Consider the following excerpt from the analysis, which shows the four subsets of dreams from 2013, and the results of searching these reports for references to “Perception” words, from shortest to longest reports.  The numbers are percentages of the dreams that have at least one reference to the words in the category.

Vision: 24, 54, 69, 76

Hearing: 1, 6, 18, 22

Touch: 1, 6, 16, 26

Smell/Taste: 1, 2, 0, 6

Color: 21, 42, 31, 56

The longer dreams have more references to “Touch” than do the shorter dreams, but the longer dreams also have many more references to “Vision” and “Color” than to “Touch,” which is the same pattern found in the shorter dreams.  It’s this kind of pattern—the relative proportions between the various word categories—that remains consistent regardless of the length of the dreams.

This finding suggests the proportions among the word categories do not, for the most part, dramatically change across word lengths.  These proportions can be found in short, medium, and long dreams.  Even very short dreams preserve the basic architecture of typical dream content.

I need to do a more precise mathematical analysis of these patterns, to illuminate subtler variations that may alter my conclusions.  But I’m reassured by these initial results indicating that shorter dreams are just as legitimate as longer dreams for data-driven research and theorizing.

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyThat’s the big picture.  Within this portrait of broad consistency, there are a few instances where the longer dreams do have an unusually high frequency of a particular word category.  The most prominent are Fear, Speech, Walking/Running, and Transportation.  These are the word categories that seem to be over-represented in longer dreams.  They are significant contributors to what makes long dreams so long.

Here is an example from the 2016 dreams to illustrate what I mean, using the Emotions class. The numbers are percentages of the dreams that have at least one reference to the words in the category, from shortest to longest reports.  Note the dramatic rise in Fear words across the four subsets.

Fear: 3, 11, 36, 55

Anger: 2, 4, 9, 17

Sadness: 4, 2, 8, 5

Wonder/Confusion: 23, 40, 63, 75

Happiness: 11, 22, 20, 26

The shortest dreams have scarcely any references to fear, whereas more than half the longest dreams have a reference to fear.

What I think this means is that when a dream introduces a reference to fear, it heightens my awareness of what’s going on in the dream space.  It stimulates an expansion of what I notice and find significant, and after awakening this requires a lengthier report to describe adequately.

What about the unusual increase in Speech references in longer dreams?  Perhaps a dream in which people start talking with each other is more likely to deepen the interaction and extend the overall experience.

Same with the increased references to Walking/Running and Transportation: a dream in which people are moving from one place to another is probably going to include additional details about what happens before, during, and after the movement.

So here’s a more refined conclusion: Shorter dreams are mostly similar to longer dreams in their basic content patterns, except that longer dreams tend to be scarier, more mobile, and more conversational.

Looking specifically at the 2015 dreams, I found the word usage frequencies were mostly lower compared to previous years, but they generally stayed the same in terms of their relative proportions to each other.  Even though the 2015 dreams were much shorter than the dreams of previous years, they shared with the other dreams a consistent profile of relative frequencies across all the word categories.  So my increased recall that year did not significantly alter the content patterns of the dreams.

Finally, I thought it would be fun to try a “blind analysis” of my own dreams.  Now that I have identified this remarkably stable profile of my dream content over five years of time, including both short dreams and long dreams, what do the patterns reveal about my life?

If I pretend that these dreams came from a stranger about whom I have no biographical knowledge, I would predict that in waking life this person:

Is male

Is visually oriented

Often experiences wonder/confusion

Is sexually active

Cares about his wife

Cares about cats

Has equal relations with men and women

Likes running

Is not concerned about death

Has lots of interactions with cars and streets

Likes basketball

Likes music and movies

Has lots of interactions with water and earth

All of these inferences are grounded in the statistical results of the word searches, and I would have to affirm every one of them as accurate.  Indeed, this is a remarkably concise summary of my concerns, interests, and activities in waking life.

Most importantly for the topic of this essay, the content patterns that helped me generate these inferences are observable in the shortest dreams.  I would have made most of these same accurate predictions if I had only been looking at the dreams of less than 50 words.

This means the answer to the opening question is no, there is not a significant difference in patterns of content between short and long dreams.  Perhaps dreams should be conceived as having a kind of fractal quality: even at a small scale they reflect the same basic structures that shapes things at a larger scale.

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyI will close by noting the three most striking discontinuities between the word usage frequencies in my dreams and the concerns, interests, and activities of my waking life.  These are instances where my blind analysis predictions would have been wrong.

First, I have very few references in my dreams to “Fantastic Beings,” which might lead to the inference that I do not like the cultural genres of science fiction or fantasy.  This is not true; I have always loved books, movies, and tv shows in the sci-fi and fantasy realm.  Perhaps what I like about these stories are not the odd characters (vampires, zombies, aliens, robots, etc.) but rather the spirit of unpredictable novelty and imaginative adventure.  Putting it in those terms, my high frequency of “Wonder/Confusion” words might be a better sign of my cultural interests in this direction.

Second, I have only moderate references to “Reading/Writing,” which might suggest I do not engage much with these activities.  This is not true; I am a voracious reader and prolific writer, and have been so for several decades.  What strikes me as discontinuous is that my dreams don’t have far more references to reading and writing, given their central importance in my waking life.  Ernest Hartmann’s notion that we typically do not dream of the three R’s might be a factor here.

And third, I have very few references to “Religion,” which would prompt the inference that I have little or no concern about religion.  At one level this is definitely false; I have a Ph.D. in religious studies and I read and write about religion very frequently.  One would never know this about my waking life based only on the patterns of my dreams.  And yet, at another level this inference is surely true; I was not raised in a religious household, I do not personally identify with any official religious tradition, and I rarely attend religious worship services.  Perhaps this all makes sense in that religion is an important intellectual category for me, but it is not a personal concern.  My spiritual pursuits are more likely to be expressed in dreams with references to other word categories like water, art, sexuality, animals, and flying.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten.  The next step will be trying this same process of analysis with other sets and series of dreams.


Note: this post was originally published in Psychology Today on May 4, 2017.