REMcloud: Adventures in Social Dream Networking

REMcloud: Adventures in Social Dream Networking by Kelly BulkeleyI’ve just joined REMcloud, a new social networking site devoted to dreaming.  It’s an idea whose time has come.  As a technophobic introvert it pains me to say this, but sharing dreams in a Facebook-like setting has a lot of appeal.  It allows you to connect your personal dreams with dreams of countless other people all over the world.  It’s quick, easy to use, and free, and it provides tools to explore recurrent themes in your dreams and the dreams of others. 

The space for writing a dream is limited to 400 characters (about 70 words), which is enough for many dreams but inadequate for the ones that are really detailed and elaborate.  Some of the dreams reported by other people are written in text-messaging style, making it hard to understand what the heck they’re talking about. 

There’s an option to get interpretations for particular words based on typical dream dictionary meanings (e.g. a cellar means a subconscious place where problems are hidden).   This kind of interpretation can be helpful if taken as one possibility among others rather than as definitive fact, a point that could be made more clearly somewhere on the site.

The most intriguing possibility opened up by REMcloud is the ability to observe in real time the macro-trends of collective human dreaming.  The “Dream Mosaics” on the site bring together people’s dreams of celebrities, sports, news events, and potentially other subjects of broad social interest.  Of course there’s no guarantee that people aren’t just making shit up when they type in a supposed “dream,” so this wouldn’t be good data for a scientific study.  But as an entertaining mirror of the kaleidoscopic world of human dreaming, REMcloud is worth checking out.

Proud to Be a Primate

Proud to Be a Primate by Kelly Bulkeley“Our goodness is as deep as our darkness”—that was Kimberley Patton’s gloss on the findings of Franz de Waal, a primatologist who spoke on Saturday at the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta.  De Waal’s new book, Age of Empathy (2010), shows that cooperation, reciprocity, and conflict-resolution are just as natural in primates as are aggression and competition.  Contrary to the Social Darwinist assumption that nature is bloody “red in tooth and claw,” de Waal’s research proves that non-human animals have all the basic building blocks of morality.  This means that human morality is not just a matter of controlling our violent, selfish instincts, but rather enhancing and refining our other instincts for empathy, compassion, and sociability.

 Also commenting on de Waal’s research was Armin Geertz, who highlighted the core idea of evolutionary biology that “all life is continuous.”  What seems unique about humans is actually an extension of abilities and behaviors we find in other animals.  Looking ahead to the future of primate research, de Waal said, “the trend is toward the continuity of humans and animals.”

 Is this true of religion? When elephants mourn their dead, chimpanzees dance in rainstorms, and wolves howl at the moon, are we seeing the building blocks of spirituality? Can animals have mystical experiences?   De Waal said it was difficult as a biologist to address such questions, but he did not rule out the possibility of affirmative answers. 

 Score a point for scientific open-mindedness.  

 What about dreaming? Both Patton and Geertz, professors of religious studies, mentioned dreaming as a universal human experience that factors into all religious traditions.  De Waal did not talk about dreams directly, but the cognitive abilities he has identified in non-human primates (empathy, imagination, pretend play, etc.), combined with the similarities in brain functioning across all primate species, strongly suggest that humans are not the only dreamers in nature.

 In his earlier book Chimpanzee Politics (1998) de Waal talked about the dreams of people who study primates:

 “That chimpanzees are experienced in the first place as personalities is evident from the dreams of those of us who work with them.  We dream about these apes as individuals, in the same way that other people dream about their fellow human beings as individuals.  If a student were to say that he or she had dreamed of an ape I would be no less surprised than if someone claimed to have dreamed of a human.

 “I clearly remember the first dream I had about the chimpanzees.  In it my preoccupation with the distance between them and me was apparent.  During this dream the large door to their quarters was opened for me from the inside.  The apes were pushing each other aside in order to get a good look at me.  Yeroen, the oldest male, stepped forward and shook my hand.  Rather impatiently he listened to my request to come in.  He refused point blank.  That was out of the question, he said, and besides, their society would not suit me: it was much too harsh for a human being.” (41)

Reading Jung’s Red Book

Reading Jung's Red Book by Kelly BulkeleyI’ve never read a book before that made my desk shake and tremble when I set it down.  That caused a minor atmospheric disturbance in my study every time I opened and closed the cover.  That required several changes of physical posture to view the contents of each page.  That should be considered, due to its alarming weight, a hazard to children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

My ambivalence starts here.  The florid design and gargantuan size of The Red Book by C.G. Jung (edited by Sonu Shamdasani) insists that we take this work Very, Very Seriously.  But we have to ask, is this how Jung wanted his unfinished private collection of fantasies and paintings to be presented to readers? 

He plainly did not want to publish it during his lifetime.  He left no clear directive one way or another about its fate after his death. 

By not expressly forbidding its posthumous publication, and by sharing the original text with his inner circle of family and friends, Jung indicated some willingness to make The Red Book a part of his public literary corpus. 

I doubt, however, that he would have felt comfortable with the grandiosity of this back-breaking tome, which literalizes to an almost absurd degree the metaphors of prophecy and revelation he used to describe his “confrontation with the unconscious” during the years 1913-1930.

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.