Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach

Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach by Kelly BulkeleyA new article I co-authored with Bill Domhoff is appearing in the latest issue of the APA journal Dreaming (vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 77-95).  The abstract is below.

What amazed me about this project was how easy it was to make accurate inferences about the waking life of our participant, “Van,” without ever reading his dream narratives–just by looking at the statistical frequencies with which he used certain words in reporting his dreams.

Our findings are additional evidence in favor of the idea that dreaming has meaningful psychological structure, and against the idea that dreaming is merely random nonsense from the brain during sleep.


Building on previous investigations of waking-dreaming continuities using word search technology (Domhoff and Schneider 2008, Bulkeley 2009a, 2009b), this article demonstrates that a blind analysis of a dream series using only word search methods can accurately predict many important aspects of the individual’s waking life, including personality attributes, relationships, activities, and cultural preferences.  Results from a study of the “Van” dream series (N=192) show that blind inferences drawn from a word frequency analysis were almost entirely accurate according to the dreamer.  After presenting these findings we discuss several remaining shortcomings and suggest ways of improving the method for use by other researchers involved in the search for a more systematic understanding of meaning in dreams.

Bulkeley, Kelly. 2009a. The Religious Content of Dreams: New Scientific Foundations. Pastoral Psychology 58 (2):93-101.

———. 2009b. Seeking Patterns in Dream Content: A Systematic Approach to Word Searches. Consciousness and Cognition 18:905-916.

Domhoff, G. William, and Adam Schneider. 2008. Studying dream content using the archive and search engine on Consciousness and Cognition 17:1238-1247.

Dreaming in Christianity and Islam

Dreaming in Christianity and Islam by Kelly BulkeleyAt a time when Christianity and Islam appear to be mortal enemies locked in an increasingly bloody “clash of civilizations,” new insights are needed to promote better mutual understanding of the two traditions’ shared values.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (edited by Kelly Bulkeley, Kate Adams, and Patricia M. Davis (Rutgers University Press, 2009) provides exactly that.  This new book is a collection of articles by international scholars who illuminate the influential role of dreaming in both Christianity and Islam, from the very origins of those traditions up to the present-day practices of contemporary believers.

Dreams have been a powerful source of revelation, guidance, and healing for generations of Christians and Muslims.  Dreams have also been an accurate gauge of the most challenging conflicts facing each tradition.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam is the first book to tell the story of dreaming in these two major world religions, documenting the wide-ranging impact of dreams on their sacred texts, mystical experiences, therapeutic practices, and doctrinal controversies.

The book presents a wealth of evidence to advance a simple but, in the contemporary historical moment, radical argument:  Christians and Muslims share a common psychospiritual grounding in the dreaming imagination.  While careful, sustained attention will be given to the significant differences between the two traditions, the overall emphasis of the book is on the shared religious, psychological, and social qualities of their dream experiences.

Throughout their respective histories Christians and Muslims have turned to dreams for creative responses to their most urgent crises and concerns.  In this book the contributors apply that same imaginative resource to the current conflict between the two traditions, seeking in the depths of dreaming new creative responses to the global crisis of religious misunderstanding and fearful hostility.  Included in the book are chapters on dreams in the Bible and Qur’an; on the early history of Christian and Muslim beliefs about dreaming; on religious practices of dream interpretation; on the dreams of children, women, college students, and prison inmates; and on the use of dreams in healing, caregiving, and creative adaptation to waking problems.

14 Weirdest Dreams in Hollywood

14 Weirdest Dreams in Hollywood by Kelly BulkeleyThe April 2010 issue of the British film magazine Empire includes a feature in which I interpret the dreams of 14 movie actors and directors: Robert Downey, Jr., Kate Winslett, Peter Jackson, Milla Jovovich, Judd Apatow, Kristen Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Steven Soderbergh, Marion Cotillard, Rachel Bilson, Robert Carlyle, Ray Winstone, and Sam Mendes. 

The editor and “dream wrangler” who gathered the reports, Nick de Semlyen, did not tell me who the dreamers were–all I had to work with were the dreams themselves. 

Below are the full commentaries I sent in response, the “director’s cut” as it were. A pdf of the slightly shorter published article can be accessed here:

14 Weirdest Dreams in Hollywood

This method of blind analysis appeals to me because it strictly focuses one’s attention on the themes, symbols, and emotional dynamics of the dream itself, without prematurely seeking connections with the known details of the dreamer’s waking life.  This was not a pure experiment, however, because I did know the dreamers were involved in the film industry in some way.

For more on the blind analysis”method of studying dreams, see the paper I recently co-authored with G. William Domhoff, “Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach,” which will appear in a forthcoming issue (June, I’m told) of the IASD journal Dreaming

1) “My favourite dream is one I had in college, I was a homeless person on a bridge, wearing very tattered layers of clothing and the world was cast in this sepia tone and I was fishing with a piece of string off the bridge into the Thames for worms, and I would pull them out and put them in my mouth.”

 (Gillian Anderson)
            For many people college marks the transition to adulthood, when we leave our families and begin living on our own.  Here the dreamer is cast as a homeless person, in a scene of apparent misery and hardship.  As a metaphor, this could reflect the concerns a typical college student might feel about difficult life changes and, in a real sense, becoming “home-less.”

            But much more seems to be going on.  Consider the setting: the River Thames is the most historic waterway in Britain, an ever-flowing source of collective life and cultural power.  The dreamer is sitting on a bridge that spans this epic river.  She is connected to the water with a string, just as the bridge connects the two sides of land.  It’s a remarkable image of elemental symmetry, with the dreamer positioned at the very center.

            Then there’s the strange business of backwards fishing. Instead of taking worms from the earth and putting them into the river to go into the mouth of a fish, the dreamer pulls worms out of the river and puts them into her own mouth.  It’s the complete reverse of normal fishing—as if she were the one being fished.

            The dreamer probably didn’t know it, but the color sepia originally derived from the brownish ink produced by a certain species of fish (sepia means “cuttlefish” in Greek).  Details like this may be just a coincidence, but sometimes they point to deeper unconscious meanings. 

            So this whole dream is enveloped in a strangely “fishy” atmosphere, with a superficial drabness masking a deeper structure and hidden purpose. 

            It sounds to me like the first chapter of a heroic myth: the youth who begins as the lowest of the low is drawing strength from the waters of her ancestors, getting ready to seek fame, fortune, and adventure out in the wide world.  

 2) “I had a really cool dream that I was doing a scene with the young Jack Nicholson.  Five Easy Pieces era Jack. We were in the desert, with this really rad-looking ’70s car, and I was really killing this scene, being super-great in it. And then the wardrobe people came over and said ‘Oh my God, he’s wearing the wrong colour shirt’ and I was really upset — all this good work I’d done was ruined because Jack’s shirt wasn’t the right colour.”

 (Millo Jovovich)

             When people dream of celebrities it usually reflects some degree of psychological identification with the public personas of those famous people.  The dreams envision us being in the company of powerful, talented people who embody the qualities and strengths we wish to possess ourselves. 

            When the theme of time travel enters the picture it suggests a quest for a deeper connection, something akin to what Australian Aborigines seek in the Dreamtime, when the ancestors still walked through a freshly created world.  An actor’s version today might be something like this dream, going back to a legendary time when movie-making was a daring, creative adventure.

            The dream turns into a nightmare, however, when the dreamer is confronted with the brutal fact of her lower status on the actor’s totem pole.  No matter how good her work may be, her career is still vulnerable to the whims of bigger stars.     

 3) “I was standing under a huge tree — it must have been on the Serengeti, somewhere in Africa — and I was watching my family being eaten by lions. I had that dream over and over again when I was a kid… I’m guessing it came from some programme I saw on the telly. For that reason I’ve never been to Africa and I would never take my family there. Even now I’m shit scared of lions and when I go to the zoo I get the feeling that they can smell me and they’re plotting to get me. I’ll tell you how ridiculous my fear of them is: my daughter had to go to South Africa last year to do a film and I was begging her not to go. Because of the lions.”

 (Ray Winstone)

              One can imagine exactly the same nightmare being experienced by our human ancestors thousands of years ago when they actually lived on the Serengeti and had to worry about real lions attacking them.  The instinctual imprint of that fear still echoes in the dreams of people today.  A TV show might spark it, but the unconscious mind is already primed to raise the alarm.  Even if they seem out of place in modern society, even if they seem entirely foolish and unreasonable, these hard-wired instincts still shape our perceptions of possible dangers in the world. 

            There might be something more to the symbolism of the lions for this dreamer, perhaps having to do with family aggression or masculine authority.  The persistence of this fear from a childhood dream into adulthood makes me wonder if this is a person who, for better or for worse, puts great trust in his instincts and gut-level reactions. 

4) “When I was nine years old, I dreamed I was a hippo in a ballerina skirt, like the one in Fantasia. It got worse, because I had to pee in my dream and when I woke up I’d wet my bed. That’s pretty embarrassing, right?

 (Rachel Bilson)

             It shouldn’t be.  Bedwetting in childhood is fairly common, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.  A precocious desire to perform in the movies comes through in this dream, and also perhaps a warning that too much “fantasy” can interfere with impulse control and taking care of one’s basic physical needs.

 5) “I’m coming into a modern city and the buildings are charging each other with electricity, like big Tesla coils. Then I go on a date with two twins and they kill me at the end. Analyse that.”

 (Robert Downey, Jr.)

             This sounds like the dream of a maniacal super-hero! Or someone with extraordinary creative talents he struggles to control.  Or perhaps just someone who’s pulling our leg. 

            The vivid image of an electrically surging city, followed by the lustful fantasy of dating twins, leads to an abrupt end with the dreamer’s death.  As a brief set of images, whether from a dream or not, it does accurately portray the up-and-down psychology of a manic episode.  During such episodes the cognitive line between waking and dreaming can effectively disappear.

 6) “I have this dream about falling all the time. People say that if you ever hit the ground in a falling dream you’ll have a heart attack and die. So I try to stay with the dream and see what happens. I’ve actually fallen from very high distances, hit the ground, gone through and ended up in water. But I can still breath and finally end up in air again. Then I start flying. It’s a very cool dream; I kind of look forward to it now.”

 (Samuel L. Jackson)

              To actually die in a dream, rather than waking up just a moment before death, is indeed unusual.  When it occurs it tends to be very memorable and thought-provoking.     

            One of the general functions of dreaming is to expand our conscious sense of possibility and keep our minds flexible, adaptive, and open to alternative perspectives.  In this case the dreamer pushes the process further than most people are willing to go.  In many religious traditions these would be considered mystical experiences, and the dreamer might be taken aside for special training as a healer or shaman.

            Some research has suggested that people who can guide their dreams like this have better physical balance and spatial coordination in waking life.  Perhaps this dreamer is a dancer or an athlete of some kind?

 7) “The recurring one from my childhood was the witch of the west walking up my road, bending each lamp post over and blowing out each lamp one by one as she got closer and closer, and when she blew out the last lamp I woke up…like wailing. It happened over and over again.”

 (Sam Mendes)

             Recurring dreams from childhood often stem from problems and conflicts destined to last a lifetime.  Sometimes the dreams have a personal context, but often they draw upon collective images that express the shared concerns of all humankind (what Jung called “archetypes”). 

            I don’t know anything about the dreamer’s personal life, but his nightmares reveal a painful truth: death is coming to get us.  The reference to the Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” indicates an early turn to movies as a refuge from this fear.  Movies offer the fantasy of immortality—if death is cast as the wicked witch, perhaps the dreamer can be like Dorothy and escape her clutches.

            Although it might seem cruel for a child to be confronted so early with the dark specter of mortality, such dreams mark a valuable step in the development of mature consciousness.  Most of the world’s religious traditions regard an acceptance of death as the key to true wisdom.

What do Dreams of Snakes Mean?

What do Dreams of Snakes Mean? by Kelly Bulkeley

Below is a chapter about the history of snake dreams, using psychology and religious studies to explore their meanings.  It comes from my book Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey.

If you are interested in how to interpret a dream of a snake, you might take a look at this post.

If you’d like to know what Carl Jung said about snake symbolism in The Red Book, read this post.

To learn more about actual snakes, check out the East Bay Vivarium.

Chapter 2: Snakes

Animals of various kinds appear in spiritually meaningful dreams. Birds, dogs, bears, wolves, fish, and even insects have come in people’s dreams to deliver important messages from the divine. But the animal that makes perhaps the most powerful spiritual impact in dreams is the snake. People from cultures all over the world report dreams in which they have intensely vivid encounters with snakes. Content analysis studies performed by Robert Van de Castle indicate that even in the dreams of modern Americans, who presumably have little direct contact with snakes, these animals appear with surprising frequency. [i] Many reports of snake dreams emphasize their strange, uncanny quality; the dreamer feels both attracted to and yet repelled by the serpent. As the following examples suggest, many people through history have regarded snake dreams as deeply spiritual experiences–for these dreams reveal the ambivalent nature of the sacred, its capacity to be a force of joyful creativity and violent destructiveness in human life.

1) A fifty year-old woman named Rosie Plummer, of the Paviotso people living on the Walker river reservation in Nevada, told anthropologist Willard Park of her shaman father. Rattlesnakes frequently came to him in his dreams and told him how to cure snake bites and other illnesses. Eighteen years after his death, Rosie started to dream about her father. “She dreamed that he came to her and told her to be a shaman. Then a rattlesnake came to her in dreams and told her to get eagle feathers, white paint, wild tobacco. The snake gave her the songs that she sings when she is curing. The snake appeared three or four times before she be lieved that she would be a shaman. Now she dreams about the rattlesnake quite frequently and she learns new songs and is told how to cure sick people in this way. [ii]

2) Lilias Trotter, a Christian missionary who worked in Algeria in the early part of the twentieth century, had these two dreams reported to her by Muslims who were converting to Christianity. A) Trotter says that an Algerian she knew named Boualem had been involved in an angry conflict with a neighbor. She wanted to help Boualem, but didn’t know how; then she says, “now God has dealt with the matter. Boualem told us that a dream had come. ‘I dreamed that a great snake was coiling round my foot and leg, and you [Trot ter] were there, and in horror I called to you. You said to the snake: “In the name of Jesus, let go.” It uncoiled and fell like a rope, and I woke almost dead with joy.’ And the shining of his face told that his soul had got free.” B) Trotter says, “Blind Houriya came this morning with ‘I want to tell you something that has frightened me very much. I dreamt it Saturday night, but I was too frightened to tell you yesterday. To-day my husband told me, “You must tell them.” I dreamed that a great snake was twisting round my throat and strangling me. I called to you [Trotter] but you said: “I cannot save you, for you are not following our road.” I went on calling for help, and one came up to me and loosened the snake from off my neck. I said: “And who is it that is saving me, and what is this snake?” A voice said: “I am Jesus and this snake is Ramadan [the Muslim ritual fasting period].”‘” [iii]

3) Henry Shipes was the son of an English father and a mother from the Maidu Indians of the Sierra Nevada mountains of Califor nia. He grew up at the end of the nineteenth century, during the gold rush era, when the indigenous Maidu culture was coming into conflict with white culture. Henry told anthropologist Arden King of various dreams in which he fought against native shamans who were jealous of his power. In one of these dreams, Henry “had a dream contest with a shaman who was also the headman at Quincy [a Sierra Nevada town]. In this dream Henry and the shaman were contesting with each other to see who had the most power. This was a fight to the death. The shaman acted first. He loosed a snake which pursued Henry Shipes, but was unable to catch him. Henry then tried his white power. This was stated by him to be specifically white. By ruse he caused the shaman to attempt the lifting of a bucket. The bucket exploded and the dream ended.” [iv]

4) The Egyptian Pharaoh Tanutamon is reported to have had the following dream experience in the first year of his reign, as presented by philologist A. Leo Oppenheim in his work on dreams in the ancient Near East: “His majesty saw a dream in the night: two serpents, one on his right, the other on his left. His majesty awoke, but he did not find them. His majesty said: ‘Why has this happened to me?'” His interpreters told him that the dream means that both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt now belong to him. “Then his majesty said: “True indeed is the dream; it is beneficial to him who places his heart in it but evil for him who does not know it.” [v]

5) In Carthage in 203 A.D. Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of twenty-two years, and mother to an infant son, was imprisoned and sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. As she waited in prison for the day when she and other Christians would be cast into the arena and killed by wild beasts, her brother came and told her to ask God for a vision to reveal her fate. Perpetua agrees, and says she’ll tell him what she learns tomorrow. “And I asked for a vision, and this was shown to me: I saw a bronze ladder, marvellously long, reaching as far as heaven, and narrow too: people could climb it only one at a time. And on the sides of the ladder every kind of iron implement was fixed: there were swords, lances, hooks, cutlasses, javelins, so that if anyone went up carelessly or not looking upwards, he would be torn and his flesh caught on the sharp iron. And beneath the ladder lurked a serpent of wondrous size, who laid am bushes for those mounting, making them terrified of the ascent. But Saturs [a fellow martyr] climbed up first… And he reached the top of the ladder, and turned and said to me: ‘Perpetua, I’m waiting for you–but watch out that the serpent doesn’t bite you!’ And I said: ‘He won’t hurt me, in Christ’s name!’ And under that ladder, almost, it seemed, afraid of me, the serpent slowly thrust out its head–and, as if I were treading on the first rung, I trod on it, and I climbed. And I saw an immense space of garden, and in the middle of it a white-haired man sitting in shepherd’s garb, vast, milk ing sheep, with many thousands of people dressed in shining white standing all round. And he raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘You are welcome, child.’ And he called me, and gave me, it seemed, a mouthful of the cheese he was milking; and I accepted it in both my hands together, and ate it, and all those standing around said: ‘Amen.’ At the sound of that word I awoke, still chewing some thing indefinable and sweet.” Perpetua tells her dream to her brother, and they both understand that she is to die for her faith. [vi]

The American Dream

The American Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“The American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.  It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position….[T]he American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily.  It has been much more than that.  It has been a dream of being able to grow to the fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

From The Epic of America (1931) by James Truslow Adams

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

Joe Lieberman's Farewell Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term. 

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next. 

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]