A Festival of Dreams

A Festival of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleySeveral hundred people from all over the world gathered in Scottsdale, Arizona this week to discuss the latest findings and methods in dream research.  The 35th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams  featured five days of panels, workshops, and artistic events.  A lively mix of academic symposium, spiritual retreat, and collective self-experiment, the IASD conference offers a stimulating variety of approaches to the nature and meaning of dreams.

Here are several highlights from the sessions I attended.

Remington Mallet, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin, described exciting new research on “the ability to communicate in real-time between sleeping and waking.”  This theme has been explored in fictional form in various movies and television shows, from “Inception” and “The Matrix” to “Dream Corp. LLC.” Mallet analyzed the sleeping-waking communications portrayed in these popular media in relation to current scientific knowledge about what is and isn’t possible.  Mallet concluded that the media portrayals are far ahead of the actual science, but new technologies are moving quickly in the very same directions envisioned by the movies and television shows.

Sharon Pastore and Tzivia Gover of the Institute for Dream Studies gave a moving presentation on the common themes in the dreams of those who care for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  Building on research on dreams and bereavement, they described how simple methods of exploring dreams can be helpful for the caregivers, whether professionals, friends, or family members: “Dreamwork can guide decisions in the care and communication with loved ones, as well as coping/healing.”  In additional to academic research, Pastore and Gover drew on personal experiences of caring for a parent with dementia to illuminate the value of dreams for the caregiving process.

Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, gave a fascinating keynote address on the role of sleep and dreaming in memory formation.  This has been a controversial topic in the field, with some researchers questioning the connection between sleep, dreams, and memory.  Stickgold granted that dreams rarely include episodic memories (i.e., direct, unmodified re-playings of a waking event).  But he laid out extensive evidence to support the idea that different stages of the sleep cycle are important for memory stabilization.  Sleep seems to help people better remember the emotionally relevant aspects of a waking experience.  He didn’t talk a lot about dreams, but he did note some studies “demonstrating the explicit incorporation of waking learning experiences into dream content… [S]uch incorporation is accompanied by enhanced sleep-dependent consolidation of the learning task.”  In other words, the more people dreamed about the learning task, the better they remembered it the next day.  The best part of Stickgold’s address, from my perspective, was his willingness to admit he does not have an easy answer to the “hard question” of how to relate the psychological experience of dreaming with the neurophysiological processes of sleep.  It was a refreshing statement of epistemological humility, and quite a contrast to the views of his predecessor at the Harvard lab, J. Allan Hobson, who had no doubt about the right answer to the hard question.

Linda Mastrangelo, a psychotherapist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, explored in detail a series of her own dreams in which she found unexpected connections with her family heritage, ancestral roots, and places of origin.  She combined psychology, myth, art, and sacred geography to trace out a map of her dreaming landscapes.  The frequency of certain places in her dreams inspired her to learn more about her own spiritual grounding in special features of the land, and to deepen her awareness of the wisdom traditions and ecological teachings that have grown around these places over the ages.  As Mastrangelo made clear, this is a process that anyone can pursue in exploring their own symbolic connections between dreaming and place.

Mark Blagrove, a professor of psychology and director of the sleep laboratory at Swansea University in the UK, proposed a theory of dream function that centered on the evolutionary value of empathy.  Drawing on the studies of Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley about fiction and empathy, Blagrove presented evidence in favor of a theory that telling dreams has the effect of eliciting greater empathy towards the dreamer, which strengthens interpersonal bonding and thus enhances reproductive fitness.  Blagrove made thought-provoking use of Mar and Oatley’s psychological analyses of fictional literature as a powerful means of simulating social experience and boosting our capacity to understand other people who are different from ourselves—that is, boosting our capacity for empathy.  After exploring the connections between empathy and dream-telling, Blagrove passed the microphone to Katja Valli, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skvode, Sweden, who agreed beforehand to offer constructive comments on the proposed theory.  This was an admirable exercise in scholarly dialogue, and a valuable opportunity for everyone in the audience to observe the kind of critical scrutiny that can help improve our ideas and sharpen our awareness.

Next year’s IASD conference will be held June 21-25 in the Netherlands, at the Rolduc Abbey conference facility in Kerkrade, about 200 kilometers south of Amsterdam.  The Abbey is a glorious 12th century structure where the IASD has hosted two previous conferences.  I can’t wait!

Note: this post first appeared on June 21, 2018 in Psychology Today.

Preparing for the 2018 Dream Studies Conference

Preparing for the 2018 Dream Studies Conference by Kelly BulkeleyThe world’s biggest yearly gathering of dream researchers, teachers, artists, and therapists is less than two weeks away.

The 35th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) will be held June 16-20 in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.   I attended my first IASD conference in 1988 in Santa Cruz, California, and I have only missed two since then.   This year I am giving several presentations, covering a range of current and emerging interests.  The conferences offer an ideal place to share new ideas and test future plans.  Many of my projects over the years have been the outgrowth and flowering of seeds first sown at an earlier IASD conference.  Below are the seeds I’m planting this year.

June 17-20, 8:00-9:00 am

Morning Dream-Sharing Workshop, with Bernard Welt

“Dream Journaling for First-Time IASD Conference Attendees”

This morning workshop is for first-time IASD attendees, who will learn a variety of methods for starting a dream journal, exploring the dreams that accumulate over time, and discovering surprising potentials for creativity and insight.  Attendees will be able to share their experiences and discuss common themes and questions.  The initial meeting of the workshop will involve introductions, questions about the conference, a discussion of initial interests in dreams, and a list of topics people want to learn more about.  The presenters will take time to introduce the attendees to the basic practice of keeping a dream journal, which some of the attendees may already do.  Also discussed in introductory terms will be the role of dream journals in history, art, religion, and science.  The following sessions each morning will provide ample space for the attendees to process their experiences at the conference, ask questions, share impressions, and correlate different ideas from different sources.  The presenters will make sure in each session to devote at least half the group’s discussion to various practical aspects of dream journaling, and the list of interests and questions that arose from the first session.

 

Sunday, June 17, 4:15 to 6:15 pm

Arts Symposium: Dreaming, Media, and Consciousness

“The Mythic Roots of Cinematic Dream Journeys”

The presentation will start with a discussion of the idea of films as simulated dreams (with “films” also including works appearing on television, some shorter than typical movies, some longer).  The presentation will analyze the elements of cinematic experience in terms of its historical roots in theater, myth, religious ritual, and shamanic journeys.  The focus in this first section will be the creative interplay of art and dreaming within the formal features of cinematic experience.  The second section will focus on two dream-related themes in several films and television shows that have deep mythic roots.  One of these themes is the heroic journey into the realm of dreaming in quest for something of importance or value for the waking world.  The other theme is the danger of becoming trapped in the realm of dreaming and no longer knowing what is waking and what is dreaming, or who is dreaming whom.  These two themes have alternately enchanted and terrified humans throughout history, as witnessed in various myths, stories, and philosophies around the world, and now in the movies and tv shows of the present day.  The power, mystery, and wonder-provoking weirdness of dreaming emerges very clearly in several films and televisions shows, including Dead of Night, Dream Corp. LLC, The OA, and Twin Peaks: The Return.  These and other works will be considered in terms of the two mythic themes of heroic journey and identity paradox.

 

Tuesday, June 19, 11:30 to 1:00

Religious Research Panel: Dreams About God

“The Dreams of God of Lucrecia de Leon”

The dreams of God reported by Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain, included dangerously accurate prophecies that brought down the wrath of the Inquisition.  This presentation explores the religious, psychological, and political dimensions of her dreams, especially the theme of dreams as speaking truth to power (drawing on the historical research I did for Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition).  The presentation will start with the historical context of Lucrecia and the religious dynamics of her life and community.  It will then look at the 24 dream reports specifically mentioning “God” in the main collection of her dreams, and discuss the main themes and features of these dreams.  This discussion will include use of digital methods of data analysis, Jungian psychology, cognitive science, and metaphorical theology.  The presentation will conclude with reflections on the psychological, political, and religious dimensions of dreaming in historical circumstances and in the present-day.

 

Wednesday, June 20, 2-3:30 pm

Dreamwork Panel: Theories and Work of Jeremy Taylor

“Creating a Dream Library”

Following his death, Jeremy Taylor’s massive collection of books and papers have been entrusted to me, and in this presentation I will share plans for building a library that will provide a long-term archive for Jeremy’s books and papers, plus my books and papers and other dream-related resources people have shared with me.  I will discuss the plans for this library in relation to Jeremy’s tool-kit principle #1 that ALL dreams speak in a universal language of symbol and metaphor.  That principle offers a key for understanding the nature and significance of Jeremy’s library (a vast repository of the world’s mythic, religious, and artistic traditions). I will also address Jeremy’s personal practice of dream journaling and its importance for an appreciation of his life and work.

 

What Dreams Reflect in Your Waking Life

What Dreams Reflect in Your Waking Life by Kelly BulkeleyNew research highlights 13 areas of continuity between waking and dreaming.

Since 2009 I have been experimenting with word search technologies to identify meaningful patterns in people’s dreams, using an empirical method that others can test, replicate, and verify.  In a recent unpublished working paper I performed a “meta-analysis” of these studies to determine the strongest signals of waking-dreaming continuity I have found so far.  Below is a summary and condensation of the initial results, sorted into three broad groups: Self, Relationships, and Culture.

Self

Professional/public identity: Dreams accurately reflect a person’s main activity, profession, or job in waking life.  Based only on the content of dreams, we can tell whether someone is an educator, a journalist, a soldier, a student, a scientist, or a musician (as examples I’ve found in previous studies).

Health: Patterns in dreaming correspond to various aspects of the dreamer’s physical and mental health.  Dreams indicate when people are depressed or anxious, when they have suffered a trauma, when they are injured or disabled, and when they are facing the end of life.

Personality: At least some aspects of personality are accurately mirrored in dream content, including emotional temperament, either balanced or turbulent, and sociability, either high or low.

Gender: An individual’s gender is reflected in dream content, and so are the gendered aspects of an individual’s interactions in the social world, either more male-oriented or more female-oriented.

Death: There is a strong correlation between the appearance of death-related words in dreams and concerns about death in waking life.

Relationships

Family and Friends: Dreams offer an especially accurate reflection of the most important relationships in a person’s life.  The more frequently someone appears in your dreams, the more likely it is that you have an emotionally significant relationship with that person, whether or not the person is physically present in your current life, and whether your feelings toward that person are positive or negative.

Sexuality: Patterns in dream content accurately reflect the level of sexual activity in a person’s waking life, both physical and imagined.  Romantic relationships and falling in love make a discernible impact on dream content.

Animals: People who have strong relationships with animals in waking life also tend to dream frequently about those animals.

Culture

Reading & writing: People who enjoy reading and writing in waking life also have higher frequencies of these activities in their dreams.

School: People’s educational backgrounds can be discerned in the patterns of their dreams, either highly engaged with schools or far removed from schooling and formal education.

Sports: Dreams accurately reflect people’s engagement with sports and athletics. Patterns of dreaming can identify people who are actively involved in sports and enjoy watching it, or who have no interest at all in sports.

Artistic interests: People who are engaged with art in waking life tend to dream extensively about art, too.  I found correlations between people’s dreams and their interests in painting, music, theater, literature, and poetry.

Religion/spirituality:  Patterns of dream content reflect important aspects of the dreamer’s religious or spiritual concerns.  For some people, their dreams reveal a deep involvement with a formal religious tradition.  For others, their dreams reflect a sense of “unchurched” spiritual curiosity and eclecticism.  And for others, their dreams indicate a generally low level of interest in religion or spirituality in waking life.

There are many limits to the use of word search methods in the study of dreams, and many challenges that need to be overcome if this approach is to grow into a generally useful tool for dream researchers.  But even with these limits, we can identify several strong signals of meaning in dream content.  These are the simplest, most obvious ways in which dreams accurately reflect people’s concerns in waking life.  Future studies, using more sophisticated tools, will likely reveal even deeper levels of meaning.

 

Note: previous publications on this material include 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016.

Four Reasons Why You Should Take a Nap

Four Reasons Why You Should Take a Nap by Kelly BulkeleyNaps are not an indulgence or a sign of laziness, but a simple way of rejuvenating your mental and physical well-being. 

Here are four reasons why you should find a time and place for a brief daytime snooze.

1. You probably need it.

Many people today are sleep deprived at moderate to severe levels.  Long work hours, busy personal lives, noisy urban environments, and the stimulation of various personal devices are all making it harder than ever to get as much sleep as our minds and bodies require. A quick siesta cannot make up for all the sleep you’ve lost, but taking a nap whenever you have the chance will protect your health and diminish the long-term effects of sleep deprivation.

2.  You may be a naturally polyphasic sleeper.

Millions of years ago, our primate ancestors lived in trees, and they were polyphasic sleepers, meaning they slept at multiple times across the day and night.  When our species emerged we came down from the trees and became mostly monophasic sleepers, with one major period of sleep during the night.  But some humans have always had a strong innate tendency toward a polyphasic sleep cycle, and this is true for some people today, too.  Such people naturally need to take naps at various points during the day.  They are not lazy or slothful, they just have biological constitutions that function best with polyphasic sleep.  Unfortunately, they often have to conform with the work schedules of a monophasic society, just as naturally left-handed people have to adapt to the architecture and design of a right-handed world.

 3. You can boost your performance with a well-timed nap.

The greatest athlete-napper in the world right now has to be Mikaela Shiffrin, the gold-medal winning alpine skier from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.  She regularly naps between runs on race days, keeping her mind and body at maximal freshness.  Many top-level athletes also give themselves the opportunity to nap before a competition.  For example, the basketball player J.J. Reddick of the Philadelphia 76ers takes a nap between 2 and 4 pm every day before an evening game.  When he wakes up, he begins a pre-game routine that leads him right to tip-off.  These athletes know the power generated by healthful sleep, and they have learned to focus that power on optimizing their performance.  You can apply this same principle in your own life, by letting yourself nap before facing a major challenge or task that requires you to be at your best.

4. You can explore lucid dreaming.

Many people find it easier to enter into lucid dreaming during a nap than during a regular night’s sleep.  (A “lucid” dream is one in which you know you are dreaming within the dream).  During a nap the mind is still fairly close to waking consciousness, which allows for more cross-fertilization between different modes of awareness.  This is actually a widespread practice through history for people seeking creative insights and alternative perspectives towards waking life challenges.  Artists, scientists, and advanced meditators have all drawn inspiration from brief, lucid spells of daytime sleep that open new ways of looking at reality upon awakening.

 

This post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 7, 2018.

 

The Power of Rebound Dreaming

The Power of Rebound Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThere is a surprisingly easy way to stimulate an intense phase of dreaming, if you’re willing to take advantage of the “rebound effect” of sleep deprivation.  The rebound effect is a term for when a person sleeps longer than usual after a period of sleeping shorter than usual.  The magnitude of the rebound depends on 1) the severity of the sleep deprivation and 2) the freedom to sleep without awakening after the deprivation.

I just had a personal experience of this process, although I didn’t exactly plan for it.  My wife and I had seen a play the night before (the excellent “Astoria, Part 2” at Portland Center Stage), and I didn’t get to sleep until much later than I usually do.  I had to get up early the next morning, so my overall sleep that night was less than 2/3 of my usual sleep.  Not drastic sleep deprivation at all, but enough to set the rebound effect in motion.

The next night I went to bed at my usual time, but I made the mistake of not bringing my phone with me, which has the clock I use at night.  I woke up after being asleep for a long time, and figuring it was morning I got out of bed, left the bedroom, went to the kitchen—and saw from a thermostat clock that it was 3:30 am.  I didn’t want to disrupt my wife, so I went to another bedroom and buried my head under the pillows, hoping I’d fall asleep again.

I did, for another four hours without interruption, during which time I had a phase of unusually intense and dynamic dreaming.  Most of my dreams are in the range of 70-80 words per report; this dream was more than 400 words in length.  It had instances of all five major emotions (fear, anger, sadness, happiness, wonder/confusion), characters from three different ethnicities, a wild golden lion, and a fast-moving skunk.  Suffice it to say, it was quite a memorable dream.

This is exactly what the science of sleep and dreaming would predict: after a period of diminished sleep, the brain responds with a period of enhanced sleep, which naturally includes more energetic and extensive dreaming.

You can benefit from this process in your own life, the next time you have a night or two of shortened sleep then get to sleep without interruption.  The key is allowing your dreaming imagination as much freedom as possible on the “rebound” night, especially at the end of the sleep cycle, when the brain is most active and dreams are most likely to occur.  If you can let yourself sleep until you naturally awaken the next morning, you will very likely be rewarded with a stellar creative effort by the inner artist who creates your dreams.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today.

The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points

The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points by Kelly BulkeleyThe most important findings of scientific dream research can be summarized in nine key points.  Many important questions about dreaming remain unanswered, but these nine findings have solid empirical evidence to support them. 

  1. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is a trigger for dreaming, but is not identical with dreaming. All mammals have sleep cycles in which their brains pass through various stages of REM and non-REM sleep.  Dreaming seems to occur most often, and most intensely, in REM sleep, a time when many of the brain’s neuro-electrical systems have risen to peak levels of activation, as high as levels found in waking consciousness.  However, dreaming occurs outside of REM sleep, too, so the two are not identical; REM sleep is neither necessary nor sufficient for dreaming.
  2. REM helps the brain grow. The fact that REM sleep ratios are at their highest early in childhood (newborns spend up to 80% of their sleep in REM, whereas adults usually have 20-25% of their sleep in REM) suggests that REM, and perhaps dreaming, have a role in neural maturation and psychological development.
  3. Dreaming also occurs during hypnogogic, hypnopompic, and non-REM stage 2 phases of sleep. In the transitional times when a person is falling asleep (hypnogogic) or waking up (hypnopompic), various kinds of dream experiences can occur.  The same is true during the end of a normal night’s sleep cycle, when a person’s brain is alternating exclusively between REM and non-REM stage 2 phases of sleep, with a relatively high degree of brain activation throughout.  Dreams from REM and non-REM stage 2 are difficult to distinguish at these times.
  4. The neuro-anatomical profile of REM sleep supports the experience of intense visionary imagery in dreaming. During REM sleep, when most but not all dreaming occurs, the human brain shifts into a different mode of regional activation.  Areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in focused attention and rational thought become less active, while areas in the limbic system (involved in emotional processing, memory, and instinctive responses) and the occipital lobe (involved in visual imagination) become much more active.  This suggests that the human brain is not only capable of generating intense visionary experiences in dreaming, it has been primed to do so on a regular basis.
  5. The recurrent patterns of dream content are often continuous with people’s concerns, activities, and beliefs in waking life. This is known as the “continuity” hypothesis, and it highlights the deep consistency of waking and dreaming modes of thought.  People’s dreams tend to reflect the people and things they most care about in the waking world.  A great deal of dream content involves familiar people, places, and activities in the individual’s waking life.  The dreaming imagination is fully capable of portraying normal, realistic scenarios. This means dreaming is clearly not a process characterized by total incoherence, irrationality, or bizarreness.
  6. The discontinuities of dreaming, when things happen that do not correspond to a normal waking life concern, can signal the emergence of metaphorical insights. Research on the improbable, unreal, and extraordinary elements of dream content has shown that, on closer analysis, this material often has a figurative or metaphorical relationship to the dreamer’s waking life.  Metaphorical themes and images in dreams have a long history in the realm of art and creativity, and current scientific research highlights the dynamic, unpredictable nature of dreaming as an endless generator of conceptual novelty and innovation.
  7. Dream recall is variable. Most people remember one to two dreams per week, although the memories often fade quickly if the dreams are not recorded in a journal.  On average, younger people tend to remember more dreams than older people, and women more than men.  Even people who rarely remember their dreams can often recall one or two unusual dreams from their lives, dreams with so much intensity and vividness they cannot be forgotten.  Dream recall tends to respond to waking interest.  The more people pay attention to their dreams, the more dreams they are likely to remember.
  8. Dreaming helps the mind to process information from waking life, especially experiences with a strong emotional charge. From a cognitive psychological perspective, dreaming functions to help the mind adapt to the external environment by evaluating perceptions, regulating emotional arousal, and rehearsing behavioral responses.  Dreaming is like a psychological thermostat, pre-set to keep us healthy, balanced, and ready to react to both threats and opportunities in the waking world. Post-traumatic nightmares show what happens when an experience is too intense and painful to process in a normal way, knocking the whole system out of balance.
  9. The mind is capable of metacognition in dreaming, including lucid self-awareness. During sleep and dreaming the mind engages in many of the activities most associated with waking consciousness: reasoning, comparing, remembering, deciding, and monitoring one’s own thoughts and feelings. Lucid dreaming is one clear example of this, and so are dreams of watching oneself from an outside perspective.  These kinds of metacognitive (thinking about thinking) functions were once thought to be impossible in dreaming, but current research has proven otherwise.  Dreaming has available the full range of the mind’s metacognitive powers, although in different combinations from those typically active in ordinary waking consciousness.

The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points by Kelly Bulkeley

For further reading:

Barrett, Deirdre and Patrick McNamara, ed.s.  The New Science of Dreaming.  Westport: ABC-Clio, 2007.

Bulkeley, Kelly.  Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Domhoff, G. William.  Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach.  New York: Plenum, 1996.

Hurd, Ryan and Kelly Bulkeley, ed.s.  Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep.  Westport: ABC-Clio, 2014.

Kryger, Meir H., Thomas Roth, and William C. Dement, ed.s. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine.  Fourth Edition.  Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders, 2005.

Maquet, Pierre, Carlyle Smith, and Robert Stickgold, ed.s.  Sleep and Brain Plasticity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Pace-Schott, Edward, Mark Solms, Mark Blagrove, and Stevan Harnad, ed.s.  Sleep and Dreaming: Scientific Advances and Reconsiderations. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Pagel, James.  The Limits of Dream: A Scientific Exploration of the Mind/Brain Interface. New York: Academic Press, 2010.

Solms, Mark.  The Neuropsychology of Dreams: A Clinico-Anatomical Study.  Mahway: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997.