What the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine Means for Dream Research

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has an indirect but significant connection to dream research. For those of us who believe the scientific study of dreaming needs to be grounded in the evolutionary biology of sleep, the news of the 2017 Nobel should be a cause for celebration.

The prize was awarded to three Americans—Michael W. Young, Michael Rosbash, and Jeffrey C. Hall—in recognition of “their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm” (quoted from the Nobel committee’s public statement).  The key point, from a dream research perspective, is that these three investigators have shown we have a genetically hard-wired need to sleep.

What the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine Means for Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyAll life on earth is fundamentally oriented toward the cyclical presence and absence of the sun. Every kind of living being has evolved internal clocks of approximately 24 hours in length that guide and regulate their biological processes and behaviors. These internal clocks are known as circadian rhythms, and they have long been observed as powerful factors in plant and animal life.  But only recently have the details of how these clocks work become known, thanks to the work of this year’s trio of prize winners.  Their studies, going back to the 1980’s, explain how circadian rhythms are programmed into the genetic activities of each cell at the molecular level.

The researchers focused on the circadian rhythms of the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), as a model for understanding similar rhythms in the cells of other organisms.  They identified a specific gene in each cell whose activities oscillated in a 24-hour rhythm.  During the night, this gene encodes a specific kind of protein that accumulates in the cell.  It reaches a high point at the beginning of day, after which the gene shuts itself off and the protein slowly dissolves, reaching a low point at the beginning of night when the process repeats itself.  According to this year’s prize winners, the feedback loop involving this specific gene is a key part of the self-sustaining internal chronometer that shapes the functioning of all biological organisms, from flies to humans.

The committee that decides each year’s award made it clear in its statement that the work of Hall, Rosbash, and Young has important relevance for medical practice and social welfare:

“Our wellbeing is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock, for example when we travel across several time zones and experience ‘jet lag.’ There are also indications that chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases.”

Most commentators on the 2017 prize have highlighted this last point, about the diagnosis and treatment of illness.  Circadian rhythms influence the human body in numerous ways: via hormone levels, metabolism, temperature, and of course the sleep/wake cycle. Disruptions to the biological clock, whether through behavior (e.g., traveling across several time zones) or internal malfunctioning (e.g., a genetic mutation), can lead to a variety of serious health problems, including diabetes, obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression, bipolar disorder, memory defects, Alzheimers, and attention-deficit disorders.

The hope is that the more we learn about the elemental mechanisms of circadian rhythms, the better we can treat these problems, and prevent them from occurring in the first place.  Further research in chronobiology may show us there are better and worse times of the day for undergoing surgery, taking a medication, or participating in a psychotherapy session.

What the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine Means for Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyIt may also give us new insights into the rhythms, cycles, and recurrent patterns in human dreaming.  Anything that gives a new understanding of sleep has the potential to provide a new understanding of dreams, since dreaming naturally emerges out of the state of sleep.  The ubiquity of dreaming in human experience throughout recorded history, in cultures all over the world, strongly suggests it is a phenomenon deeply rooted in our evolutionary heritage.  It strengthens the argument in favor of this idea to show, as this year’s Nobel winners have done, that the circadian rhythms guiding our waking and sleeping behaviors are encoded in every cell in our bodies.   There can no longer be any question that sleep is an absolutely vital feature of healthy human life.  The study of dreams can build on this solid foundation in evolutionary biology to explore in more detail what exactly is happening in the mind and body during sleep that contributes so powerfully to human health.

Note: this was originally published in Psychology Today on October 23, 2017.

How the Enlightenment Went Astray on Dreaming

 Enlightenment philosophers helped to spark the scientific revolution, but they were not always accurate or justified in their assumptions about dreaming.

How the Enlightenment Went Astray on Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) played a vital role in promoting the ideals of the Enlightenment throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  These ideals included a trust in human reason, a corresponding distrust in authority and received opinion, and a demand that people who make theoretical claims about nature, society, the mind, etc., must offer empirical evidence to back up their assertions.

These powerful principles of the Enlightenment set the stage for the scientific and technological revolutions that have changed the world over the past few hundred years.  The digital technologies we use and enjoy today have emerged directly out of this cultural lineage reaching back to Locke and his contemporaries.  Unfortunately, many Enlightenment philosophers made false and misguided claims about dreaming that have also shaped the lineage of our digital world.  If we want to create a healthy ecosystem for technologically enhanced dream exploration, we have to make sure we accept and trust the philosophical assumptions built into that ecosystem.

In his greatest work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1690), Locke explains how the mind works and the process by which humans gain true knowledge about the world and themselves. Early in the book he delves into the topic of sleep and dreaming, because he recognizes that the functioning of the mind while awake is quite different from the functioning of the mind while asleep.  Locke is here confronting a key question that many philosophers before and after him have tried to answer: how does mental activity during sleep relate to mental activity while awake?

Unfortunately, Locke makes two false assumptions about human dreaming experience right at the outset, false in Locke’s own sense of being contradicted by empirical evidence.  These assumptions allow Locke to make several other claims that do not square with actual scientific research on sleep and dreaming.  I will address those further claims in a later post; here, I want to focus on the first two missteps, to see as clearly as possible where Locke initially goes astray.

The first comes in Book II, chapter 1, section 14, when Locke is discussing the nature of ideas and the issue of whether people can dream without remembering it.  In this section he asserts, “Most men, I think, pass a great part of their sleep without dreaming.” He then mentions a scholarly friend who never dreamed until he was in his mid-twenties, after a fever.  Locke goes on to say, “I suppose the world affords more such instances: at least everyone’s acquaintance will furnish him with examples enough of such, as pass most of their nights without dreaming.”

The empirical reality is more complex than Locke suggests.  Modern sleep laboratory research flatly contradicts his claim.  If someone sleeping in a laboratory is awakened at certain points in the sleep cycle, the chances are extremely high that the person will recall some kind of dreaming content.  Research on “non-dreamers” by James Pagel has shown the proportion of such people appears to be very unusual in the general population.  Dozens of studies have shown high levels of regular dream recall people from all demographic groups, all across the social and cultural spectrum.

Locke is right that many people rarely remember their dreams. But he is wrong to suggest that such people are somehow typical or normal, and he makes a major mistake in dismissing from his philosophical theory the mental activities of other people who do remember their dreams frequently.

It might seem unfair to judge Locke’s 17th century claims using 20th and 21st century research.  But he did mention, as evidence for his claim, the experience of one of his friends, which means he did at least this much investigation on his own.  Did he ever talk with anyone else about their sleep and dream experiences?  Did his circle of acquaintances include anyone who was a vivid dreamer? Apparently not, because Locke offered no other empirical support for his assertion than this one friend.  That strikes me as a weak foundation for building a larger argument about the nature of the mind.

The second assumption comes in section 16 of the same chapter, in which Locke describes the rational workings of the soul, which he insists occur only in the waking state:

“‘Tis true, we have sometimes instances of perception, whilst we are asleep, and retain the memory of those thoughts; but how extravagant and incoherent for the most part they are; how little conformable to the perfection and order of a rational being, those who are acquainted with dreams, need not be told.”

Locke offers nothing to support this claim; he suggests it is self-evidently true to anyone who is “acquainted” with dreams.  The assumption that dreams are characterized by rampant bizarreness continues into the present day, despite there now being several decades of solid empirical research showing that most dreams are, in fact, rather mundane and non-bizarre.  Most dreams, it turns out, revolve around familiar people, familiar places, and familiar activities.  Many dreams are indistinguishable from people’s descriptions of ordinary events in waking life. Of course there are strange and outlandish things happening in dreams, too, but research on dream content shows that such bizarre elements are not a pervasive and overwhelming quality of dreaming as such.

Again, Locke could have gained this insight if he had taken the time to talk with a few different people about their actual dream experiences.  It would not have been difficult for him to reach the empirical conclusion that dreaming includes a mix of both bizarre and non-bizarre elements. But Locke evidently felt his philosophical ideas required him to mute or eliminate entirely the possibility of significant mental activity in sleep, and so he did his best to discourage any further attention to this realm of the mind.

The irony is that this topic of bizarreness is actually an excellent example of where dream researchers have put Locke’s principles into practice, to wonderfully liberating effect.  Empirical studies of thousands of dream reports, using careful and systematic methods of analysis, have produced results that have overturned an authoritative but irrational assumption, transforming a false opinion into true knowledge.  Locke’s powerful method is an excellent means of refuting Locke’s weak assumptions.

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Note: all the references to research findings are cited in Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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.

 

Reference:

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

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

The Study of a 32-Year Long Dream Journal

The Study of a 32-Year Long Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyThe latest series to be uploaded into the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) is the biggest yet: the “Brianna Journal 1984-2016,” 2,448 dream reports from a woman who kept a journal fairly consistently for 32 years.  This series offers an amazing opportunity to observe in unusually close detail the emotional contours of an individual’s life as she makes her way through a challenging and often dangerous world.

Brianna (not her real name) shared these dreams with me and Deirdre Barrett last year, which we initially studied for a presentation at the 2016 conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  Using the word search functions of the SDDb, I performed a “blind analysis” on three subsets of Brianna’s dream journals, meaning I 1) tabulated the frequencies of word usage for several categories of dream content, 2) compared her frequencies with baseline averages for each category, and 3) made inferences, based on nothing other than her dream patterns, about her concerns and activities in waking life.  For instance, I inferred that Brianna is closer to her mother than her father, is interested in books and writing, is not interested in sports, and has significant involvement with issues of death and dying.  Brianna herself, who attended the conference presentation, confirmed these and other inferences, which helped demonstrate the general idea that patterns in dreaming can accurately reflect people’s waking life concerns.

Now I have finally uploaded the complete collection of dreams Brianna shared with me, which provides a broader overview of her dreaming experiences over the span of more than three decades.  I will share more details from my analysis at the upcoming 2017 IASD conference (held in Anaheim, California, June 16-20).  For now, here are some of the initial findings of my study of this remarkable series.

Length: This is a long series in at least three ways: total number of dreams (2,448), time span covered by the journals (32 years), and average number of words per report (292).  The median word length is 168 words, meaning half the reports are shorter than that, and half the reports are longer.  Looking at the distribution of word lengths in the series as a whole, 851 of the dreams have between 1 and 99 words, 794 of the dreams have between 100 and 299 words, and 803 of the dreams have 300 or more words.  A series with this many dreams at both the short and long ends of the spectrum poses special challenges for analysis.  For now, I will study the series as a whole, but at some point I will look at subsets of varying lengths (e.g., the dreams of 50-300 words in length, of which there are 1,192).

Cognition: The series as a whole has a remarkably high frequency of dreams with at least one word relating to thinking (71%), speaking (56%), and reading/writing (19%).  The dreams have lots of strange, irrational material, too, but much of the content is oriented around normal cognitive activities that are also important in her waking life (Brianna is, in fact, a literate, well-educated, and sociable person).  The high proportion of cognition references could be a result of the unusual length of her dreams, and/or it could be an accurate reflection of her waking personality.  Either way, this is a topic worth further investigation.

Death: One out of every seven (15%) of Brianna’s dreams has a reference to death.  That is quite high compared to other dream series I have studied, and it strongly suggests that death and dying are major concerns in Brianna’s waking life.  I know enough about her to confirm the general accuracy of this inference, and now I am curious to look more closely at how this theme weaves its way through her series as a whole.

Religion: The frequency of references to religion is also unusually high in this series, and the list of specific words used in the dreams makes it fairly easy to accurately infer that Brianna is Jewish.  In previous studies I have found that patterns in dreaming offer good clues to a person’s beliefs and attitudes towards religion.  The Brianna series seems to be another illustration of that premise, and through deeper analysis I hope to understand better how religious and spiritual themes in the dreams track with Brianna’s waking life interests, concerns, and experiences.

Note: this post was originally published in Psychology Today, March 10, 2017.

Dreaming Is Play: A New Theory of Dream Psychology

Dreaming Is Play: A New Theory of Dream Psychology by Kelly BulkeleyThe scientific study of dreams has fallen on hard times.  In an era dominated by cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoactive drugs, and computer models of the mind, dreaming seems less relevant to psychology today than at any time since Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900.

The problem, ironically, is not a lack of empirical evidence about the nature and function of dreams.  Rather, the problem is too much evidence that does not seem to add up to a coherent theory or a useful guide for therapeutic practice.

Psychoanalysts from Freud onwards have used clinical case studies to argue that dreams, despite their cryptic symbolism, are meaningful and can be tremendously helpful in therapy.  In the 1950’s, however, neuroscientists discovered that dreaming correlates with automatic processes in the brain during sleep, suggesting that dreams are in fact nothing but neural nonsense.  At about the same time, quantitative researchers began using statistical methods to analyze tens of thousands of dream reports.  Instead of bizarre symbols or random nonsense, these researchers found a large number of clear, straightforward continuities between dream content and people’s emotional concerns in waking life.

The results from each of these areas of research appear to contradict the other two, making the quest for common ground all the more difficult.

New developments in cognitive science offer a better way forward, by illuminating the evolutionary features of the human mind as they relate to the survival needs and adaptive challenges facing our species.  When we look at dreaming in this broader context, a simple yet powerful thesis emerges: dreaming is a kind of play, the play of the imagination in sleep.

Zoologists have found evidence of play behaviors in all mammals, especially among the youngest members of each species.  Play occurs within a temporary space of pretense and make-believe where actions are not bound by the same constraints that govern the normal, non-play world.  A major function of play, most researchers agree, is to practice responses to survival-related situations in a safe environment, so the young will be better prepared when they become adults to face those situations in waking reality.  Creativity, flexibility, and instinctual freedom are the hallmarks of play, in humans as well as other animals.

All of these qualities of play are prominent in dreaming, too.  Dreaming occurs within sleep, a state of temporary withdrawal from the waking world in which the imagination is given free reign to wander where it will.  Dreaming tends to be more frequent and impactful in childhood; young people experience dreams of chasing, flying, and lucid awareness much more often than do older people.  The contents of dreams often have direct references to survival-related themes like sexuality, aggression, personal health, social relations, and the threat of death.  Although dreams in general are not as wildly bizarre as often assumed, they do have the qualities of spontaneous creativity and rich variation that stimulate the mind to look beyond what is to imagine what might be.

Thinking about dreaming as a kind of play has many advantages, foremost of which is overcoming the conflicts between the different branches of dream research.  Dreaming is indeed rooted in natural cycles of brain activity, as neuroscientists have argued, but it no longer makes sense to treat dreams as meaningless by-products of a sleep-addled mind.  If we saw a group of children playing an imaginary game of house, would we be justified in assuming their brains are somehow malfunctioning?  Not at all.  In the same way, we should recognize the playful qualities of dreaming as integral to healthy cognitive functioning.  In the language of computer programming, dreaming should be appreciated as a vital feature of the mind, not a bug to be fixed or eliminated.

A dreaming-is-play perspective has clear benefits for the practice of psychotherapy.  Rather than laboring to uncover deep hidden messages, therapists can explore the imaginative dynamics of their clients’ dreams for useful clues to their emotional concerns and waking life challenges (while still pursuing deeper symbolic levels, if so desired).

This can be especially helpful in caring for trauma patients.  Research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has shown that during successful treatment the patients’ recurrent nightmares gradually become less fixated on the trauma and more open to an increasing variety of dream themes, characters, and scenarios.  In other words, the more playful their dreams become, the more progress the patients are making towards psychological health.

I once did a research project with a woman, “Nan,” who was nearly killed in a car accident and spent several days in intensive care with severe spinal injuries.  Her dreams following the accident were filled with fear, aggression, and misfortune, exactly what we would expect of someone with acute PTSD.  But Nan told me she put her hopes on one unusual dream, which came about four months after she was hurt.  In this dream there was a magical paintbrush that allowed her to paint the colors of the rainbow, just like a beloved character she remembered from a childhood story.  This was the first time since Nan’s accident that one of her dreams had so many references to colors, positive emotions, and good fortunes.  The green shoots of playfulness that emerged in this dream anticipated, and perhaps even stimulated, her eventual recovery of health.

The evolutionary success of our species is largely due to the tremendous flexibility and adaptive creativity of our minds.  Current scientific evidence is telling us that dreaming is a powerful, neurologically hard-wired process that strengthens precisely those distinctively human psychological abilities.  Our playful reveries during sleep function like mental yoga: stretching our cognitive abilities in new directions, exploring the boundaries and potentials of awareness, and preparing us for whatever the waking world may bring.

Review of the 2016 Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams

Review of the 2016 Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyAt this year’s annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), held June 24-28 in Kerkrade, the Netherlands, the world’s leading dream researchers gathered to share their latest findings. The conference ran for four and a half days, with six or seven simultaneous tracks of events going on from morning through the evening. It was truly a feast of dreaming!

Every year it takes me a while to process and digest all the events, conversations, and impressions that occurred during the conference. It’s way too much to take in while there, so I try to keep notes and then reflect on them over the summer and fall. As I look through my notes from this year, these strike me as the highlights from the latest IASD gathering:

Iain Edgar, an anthropologist at Durham University in the UK, gave a chilling presentation on his investigations into the dream beliefs and practices of Islamic jihadists, who are using social media with remarkable effectiveness to share their violent dreams and encourage others to do so as well.

Pilleriin Sikka, a lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skovde in Sweden, described the challenges of accurately measuring emotional content in dreams. (A current debate in the field: are dreams predominated by negative emotions, or do dreams have a roughly even balance of positive and negative emotions?) Her study highlighted the importance of transparency in the methods used for studying this aspect of dreaming, because different methods often yield different results.

Nils Sandman, a doctoral student at the University of Turku in Finland, reported on a national demographic study in Finland that found higher nightmare frequency is associated with insomnia, depression, low life satisfaction, suicidality, and generally poor health. This supports clinical theories that recurrent nightmares are possible symptoms of mental and physical illness.

kitt price, a senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Queen Mary University, London, described their historical and cultural analysis of the use in 19th and 20th century Britain of mass media to gather public reports of precognitive types of dreams. The BBC and other media outlets gathered thousands of such reports, many of which remain available for study today. price’s research suggests that interest in paranormal dreaming does not diminish in modern Western societies, but expresses itself through different kinds of media.

Alaya Dannu, an MFA student in creative nonfiction from the UK, discussed the ongoing influence via dreams of the beliefs and customs of civilizations that no longer exist (e.g., from pre-colonial Africa). She brought together art, anthropology, history, and her own personal experiences to illustrate the way dreaming helps to shape a personal and collective sense of identity over time.

Alison Dale and Joseph DeKonick, psychologists from the University of Ottawa, presented findings on gender differences in the dreams of Canadians that showed males have more dreams of aggression while females have more dreams with family and friend characters and more negative emotions. These findings fit with those from research on the dream patterns of other nationalities, adding strength to the idea that some tendencies of dreaming have roots in deep psychological processes shared by many if not all humans.

Don Kuiken, a psychologist from the University of Alberta, talked about his ongoing work on “impactful dreams,” focusing in this presentation on what he calls “existential” dreams of intense sadness, often following a loss or death of a loved one, which can paradoxically lead to “sublime disquietude” and greater aesthetic appreciation for life. Kuiken’s research has been an inspiration to me for many years, and this new development brings his impactful dreams work into dialogue with his earlier studies of dreams and the philosophical aesthetics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Wojciech Owczaraski, from the University of Gdansk in Poland, described a project devoted to gathering dream reports from survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII. This promises to be an important and heart-wrenching collection of dreams.

Caroline Horton and Josie Malinowski, psychologists at Bishop Grosseteste University and University of Bedfordshire, respectively, both in the UK, described their research testing the role of dreams in emotional assimilation. They found the strongest effects in dreams with greatest emotional intensity and personally important material. Researchers continue to debate the issue of how much of a role, if any, dreaming plays in memory, learning, and information processing. Several studies at the conference reported negligible results in experiments involving dreams and memory consolidation, and Horton and Malinowski’s project was the only one that found an angle of approach that might be promising.

Antti Revonsuo and Katja Valli, cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Turku in Finland, gave talks about their “social simulation theory” of dreaming, whereby dreams function to provide simulations of social situations that have relevance for evolutionary fitness and survival. This theory grew out of Revonsuo’s earlier studies of “threat simulation” in dreaming. The main advantage of Revonsuo and Valli’s current approach is that it builds on empirical research about dream content—quantitative data about the actual dreams of a large and wide variety of people. This kind of research has shown that dreams are filled with characters, social interactions, and verbal communications. These are the features of dreaming Revonsuo and Valli are trying to explain in terms of the evolutionary history of human cognitive functioning.

These are only some of the sessions I personally attended; there were many other great presentations I didn’t get to see but only heard about from other people.

The conference as a whole left several general impressions about the state of dream research.

First, new advances in various areas of investigation make it clear the mind’s activities in sleep are much more complex and sophisticated (“high-level”) than mainstream psychologists have long assumed. The numerous presentations on lucid dreaming and cognition during the sleep state support this deepening of our understanding of how the mind works (and plays) during sleep and dreaming.

Second, there has been tremendous growth in empirical data, but not as much progress in theoretical understanding. Researchers have more detailed dream material to look at than ever before, but they have very little to say that’s new about what dreams mean or how they function. My concern is that the real gains that have been made in describing the neurocognitive processes involved in dream formation are not improving our understanding of the role of dreaming in healthy human functioning. Very few researchers (Revonsuo and Valli being exceptions) try to locate their studies within a bigger theoretical framework. Perhaps this is simply the stage we’re at, following the demise of psychoanalysis and brainstem reductionism; we know that was wrong, but we’re still not sure what’s a better model. So in the meantime, we gather more data.

Third, and in tension with the second, the practical use of dreams in clinical and therapeutic contexts continues to expand and diversify. Professionals and laypeople involved in caregiving, whether in hospitals, school health centers, private therapy practices, hospice groups, churches, or non-governmental organizations, are using dreams as a valuable resource in helping people gain insights into their suffering and find their way back towards health and wholeness. Many conference presentations described the positive healing effects of bringing dreams into the therapeutic process, in almost every kind of clinical modality.

At some point the researchers and the clinicians are going to have to talk to each other…. perhaps with new technologies for studying dreams as the mediating link.