The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

A new study of a long-term dream journal from a woman who belonged for many years to a physically and spiritually abusive religious cult.

Earlier this year a dream research colleague, G. William Domhoff, told me about a new series of dreams available from a person willing to participate in a new experiment with “blind analysis.”  Blind analysis involves bracketing out all personal information about a dreamer and focusing only on the patterns of word usage frequency in the dreams.  These patterns become the basis for making inferences about the dreamer’s waking life concerns, relationships, and activities, which the dreamer is then able to confirm or disconfirm.  I like this method because it provides a very rigorous way of testing and refining my hypotheses about dreaming-waking connections.

According to Domhoff, the dreams came from a woman who is an “ex-cultist” and who has been keeping a regular dream journal for more than 30 years.  This immediately catapulted the project to the front of my research queue.  Here was a rare opportunity to study the dreams of someone from what sounded like an extremely unusual religious background.  What might a blind analysis of the dreams of such a person reveal?

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

The following is an initial progress report on what I’ve found so far.  A more detailed discussion will be part of a talk I will give in June at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Anaheim, California.

To make the analysis more manageable we asked “Beverly” (a pseudonym) to provide four subsets of her dreams, one each for the years 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016.  Apparently she has recorded a total of more than 6,000 dreams recorded over this whole time period, which works out to an average recall rate of about four dreams a week for 30 years.  Quite a prolific dreamer!  And quite an amazing personal document for her to reflect on the long and winding course of her life.

We uploaded the four sets of dreams into the Sleep and Dream Database and I used the SDDb’s 2.0 word search template to analyze each set.  The 2.0 template has 40 categories of word usage organized into 8 classes: Perception, Emotion, Cognition, Characters, Social Interactions, Elements, Movement, and Culture.  After creating a large spreadsheet with all the word search results, I compared the frequencies in Beverly’s dreams with the frequencies of the SDDb baselines—a large, high-quality set of dreams from many sources that I use as a standard of “normal” frequencies of dream content (presented in chapter 6 of my book Big Dreams).  I also looked at variations between the four sets of Beverly’s dreams, noting any frequencies that seemed markedly higher or lower than others in the same category.

A special challenge with Beverly’s dreams is their relatively short length.  The 940 total dreams across the four sets have an average length of 54 words, with a median of 43 (meaning half the reports are more, and half are less, than 43 words in length).  I typically use this method with much longer dreams, so I went into the analysis with even more caution than usual.

As it turned out, and as I will describe in more detail at the IASD conference in June, the short length of Beverly’s dreams did not impede the process.  On the contrary, this has been one of the most successful experiments of blind analysis I’ve done to date.

After I calculated Beverly’s word usage frequencies and made my baseline comparisons, I formulated a total of 26 inferences about her waking life.  To be clear, at this point I only knew three details about Beverly’s personal life: she was a woman, an avid dream journaler, and an ex-cultist.  Other than that, I was “blind” to her waking life circumstances and personality.

Of the 26 inferences I sent to her, Beverly confirmed 23 as accurate.  These included predictions about her personality, relationships, financial concerns, physical health, and cultural interests.

The three inferences she did not affirm are interesting, and may help me further refine the blind analysis process.  I’ve found in past experiments that I often learn more from mistaken inferences than from successful ones.

In the 1986 set of dreams there are five dream reports that use the word “earthquake”; none of the other sets of dreams use this word, which prompted my inference that in 1986 Beverly was “impacted by an earthquake.”  This was her response: “This must be symbolic of what I went through with the group in 1986. That was the year they hit bottom, including the murder.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

This aspect of meaning was not really part of my inference, so I don’t count it as a successful one, but it does shed light on the possible use of a natural disaster like an earthquake as a recurrent symbol for strong emotional concerns that feel profoundly disruptive and foundation-threatening.

The 1996 set of dreams had remarkably low frequencies of perception words, which struck me as significant.  My inference suggested that during this time the dreamer was “less perceptually stimulated.”  Beverly responded, Not sure what this means, but I was smoking tons of pot that year.”  Maybe that’s the connection, or maybe it’s something else. I didn’t phrase the inference very precisely, which made it hard for her to definitively confirm or disconfirm it.

The 2006 set of dreams had the highest frequency of animal references, which led me to infer that during this time period Beverly was “more concerned about animals (especially birds, cats, and dogs.).”  She replied, “Possibly. I had pet birds and was very attached to Rocky, my parents’ big orange tabby.”  I’m inclined to take this answer as a confirmation of my inference, since 1) she specifically mentions birds and a cat, and 2) she describes the kind of behaviors and feelings that I would generally include in defining the phrase “concerned about animals.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

What about the references to religion in Beverly’s dreams?  This whole series is an amazing chronicle of a lifelong spiritual journey.  Even if I had not known Beverly was an ex-cultist, I would have made it the top headline of my inferences that this dreamer had an extremely strong interest in religion in the early parts of her life.  It turns out that Beverly was deeply involved with a Hare Krishna group in the 1980’s, a group that took a very dark turn into abuse, violence, and murder, as she mentioned.  Her dreams track the course of her involvement with the group and her final escape from it, which has opened her life to a variety of new creative possibilities, also reflected in her dreams in remarkably accurate detail.

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

At the IASD conference I will talk more about the religious dimensions of her dreams, along with her social relationships and her “big dreams” (i.e., what she considers the most memorable dreams of her whole life).  I will then compare these results with those I’ve found in studying three other long-term dream journals—from Brianna, Jordan, and Jasmine (all pseudonyms, all in the SDDb).  My hope is to use this conference talk, and the feedback I receive from my colleagues, as a springboard for a deeper exploration of Beverly’s dream series.  Her journal is an incredibly valuable resource for the scientific study of religiously significant patterns in dreaming.

Note: This post was first published in Psychology Today on April 20, 2017.

Dreams and Healing in West Bengal

Dreams and Healing in West Bengal by Kelly BulkeleyThe close connection between dreaming and healing has a long and venerable history in Western civilization.  The ancient Greek healing god Asclepius was worshipped throughout the Mediterranean for many centuries, with people praying to the god for dreams to help cure their physical and psychological suffering.  The dream practices at the Asclepian temples became the deep spiritual basis for the Western medical tradition that many of us rely on today, although this fact is rarely acknowledged or appreciated.

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. June McDaniel, Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston, about dreams and healing.  Dr. McDaniel has expertise in the study of Hinduism and mystical experience, and she has done extensive field work among Hindu worship communities in West Bengal.  We were both attending the recent conference of the American Academy of Religion, for a panel discussion of my Big Dreams book, and in her comments she offered a fascinating glimpse of her findings among contemporary West Bengali Hindus:

“One of the most famous dream incubation temples in India is in Tarakeshwar in West Bengal- it was even the subject of a Bollywood film.  Crowds of people visit this temple to have big dreams, and the major goal is the miraculous healing of disease or misfortune.  People fast and bring the Bengali equivalent of sleeping bags to sleep at the temple before the statue of the god Shiva Taraknath, who will appear in dreams to directly heal the person, or inform them of what to do (which is usually to find particular herbs or go on a pilgrimage).  I spoke with some people there who were coming to thank the god for appearing in their dreams and helping them.   Some people will go to ask the god for favors (such as having a son or getting a better job), and the god will appear in the dream to let them know his answer.  Some had a series of dreams in which the god appeared.”

Dr. McDaniel’s description has remarkable similarities to the dream practices performed at the temples of Asclepius.  This suggests a truly cross-cultural recognition of the potential value of dreaming in efforts to heal people of their ills.  In West Bengal these practices are still an active part of people’s lives, as Dr. McDaniel found in her interviews with numerous healers and religious leaders.  I will be talking with her in more detail about this over the coming year, because findings like hers highlight a vital point: the future of dreams and healing depends in large part on learning the lessons taught by religious and spiritual traditions for thousands of years.  We do not have to perform other people’s rituals or worship their gods to recognize in their engagements with dreaming a shared set of interests and a potential storehouse of accumulated wisdom.


Ben Carson’s Illuminating Dream

Ben Carson's Illuminating Dream by Kelly BulkeleyBen Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and leading Republican contender for the Presidency, says that his life was changed by a shadowy figure who appeared in a dream and gave him special advice at a time of crisis. Not since Barack Obama’s 2004 memoir Dreams From My Father has a presidential candidate shared such valuable insight into his personal dreaming experience.

Carson’s 2009 autobiography Gifted Hands describes a pivotal moment during college when he was threatened with paralyzing doubt about his ability to reach the ambitious goal he had set himself, to become a doctor. Having escaped a dysfunctional family and a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood, Carson was a freshman at Yale University in the pre-med program. He felt overwhelmed by the difficulty of his classes and the competitive pressures from all the other super-bright, hyper-achieving students. Chemistry became a serious problem, and as the end of first semester approached Carson realized he was very likely to fail the class. That would knock him out of the pre-med program and ruin his plans for the future. The day before the exam he wandered about campus in deep despair, consumed by guilt and anxiety. Finally, he says, he prayed:

“My mind reached toward God—a desperate yearning, begging, clinging to Him. ‘Either help me understand what kind of work I ought to do, or else perform some kind of miracle and help me to pass this exam.’” (72)

Once he placed the matter in God’s hands, Carson says he “felt at peace” (72). He commenced to study as hard as he could in the few hours remaining before the test—“I scribbled formulas on paper, forcing myself to memorize what had no meaning to me.” (73) When midnight came, Carson “flopped into my bed and whispered in the darkness, ‘God, I’m sorry. Please forgive me for failing You and for failing myself.’ Then I slept.” (73)

And then comes the dream that changed his life:

“While I slept I had a strange dream, and, when I awakened in the morning, it remained as vivid as if it had actually happened. In the dream I was sitting in the chemistry lecture hall, the only person there. The door opened, and a nebulous figure walked into the room, stopped at the board, and started working out chemistry problems. I took notes of everything he wrote.” (73)

When he woke up, Carson quickly wrote down all the problems he could remember, even though the final few faded away before he could record them. He looked up the problems in his textbook, figuring that his mind “was still trying to work out unresolved problems during my sleep.” (74)

But what happened next made him question the prosaic explanations of psychology. He went to the chemistry lecture hall, took his seat, and waited with 600 other students for the teacher to pass out the exam booklet.

“At last, heart pounding, I opened the booklet and read the first problem. In that instant, I could almost hear the discordant melody that played on TV with The Twilight Zone. In fact, I felt I had entered that never-never land. Hurriedly, I skimmed through the booklet, laughing silently, confirming what I suddenly knew. The exam problems were identical to those written by the shadowy dream figure in my sleep.” (74)

Without pausing to reflect on the strangeness of what was happening, he set to work on the exam, going as fast as he could so he would not forget the information he had received in his dream. “God, You pulled off a miracle,” he said as finished the test and left the lecture hall.

Once again he wandered the campus, this time in wonder and elation, urgently trying to make sense of things.

“I’d never had a dream like that before. Neither had anyone I’d ever known. And that experience contradicted everything I’d read about dreams in my psychological studies. The only explanation just blew me away. The one answer was humbling in its simplicity. For whatever reason, the God of the universe, the God who holds galaxies in His hands, had seen a reason to reach down to a campus room on Planet Earth and send a dream to a discouraged ghetto kid who wanted to become a doctor. I gasped at the sure knowledge of what had happened.” (75)

Carson passed the exam with a score of 97. The only problems he got wrong were the ones at the end, when his memory of the dream had begun to fade. From that point on his path toward a stellar medical career never faltered, and by the age of 33 he had become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

But the significance of Carson’s miraculous dream extended far beyond helping him become a doctor. After this experience he was confident that God “had special things for me to do… I had an inner certainty that I was on the right path in my life—the path God had chosen for me. Great things were going to happen in my life, and I had to do my part by preparing myself and being ready.” (76)

What should we make of this story? First of all, we have to ask if he made the whole thing up. Aspiring politicians embellish their biographies all the time. It’s a rather neat little vignette, perfectly suited for a mass-market book. Carson had plenty to gain, and nothing to lose, by fabricating this feel-good tale of a dream of salvation.

Of course there is no direct way to validate the details of his experience. However, there are many indirect reasons, based on current scientific dream research, to indicate that what Carson described was not impossible but actually has some degree of plausibility. Setting aside his theological interpretation for a moment, we can look at the basic contours of Carson’s dream and identify several features that reflect well-known aspects of cognitive functioning during sleep.

To start, dream recall increases for many people during times of personal crisis. As clinical psychologists have long known, intensified dreams tend to emerge when a person is struggling with turbulent emotions and a fragile sense of identity. Increased dreaming is especially likely for people who perform pre-sleep prayers like Carson did the night before his dream. “Dream incubation” is the general term for rituals aimed at stimulating a revelatory dream, and religions all over the world have developed special techniques for this purpose. Modern researchers have found that if people go to sleep with an urgent question or concern in mind, they are highly likely to dream about it that night.

Indeed, those are the conditions that can generate a “big dream,” meaning a dream with unusual vividness, realism, and memorability. Carson’s experience would certainly qualify as a big dream in that sense.

Dreaming about a test or exam is among the most common types of recurrent dream. It has a history reaching back to ancient China and the dreams people many centuries ago had about passing, or failing to pass, the all-important civil service exams. People today often have exam nightmares long after they have been out of school, more evidence of the deep emotional power of these kinds of dreams.

There should be nothing surprising, then, about a college student who is very anxious about a test having a dream that relates directly to his waking concerns.

Although he later dismissed it, Carson’s initial psychological analysis of the dream has some merit. It seems likely that, after all that intense studying, he went to sleep and his unconscious mind made various connections that his conscious waking mind had not yet processed. The exam questions seemed familiar because it turned out that he actually understood the material much better than he thought he did. It would have been a much more miraculous story if he had received this dream and done well on the test without doing any studying beforehand.

In light of all this, we can recognize a plausible naturalistic core to Carson’s experience. We still cannot say with certainty that he really had this exact dream, but everything he described has a realistic basis in current scientific knowledge about sleep and dreaming.

Carson felt, however, that a naturalistic explanation of his dream was not enough. He adopted a theological interpretation that cast himself as a quasi-biblical figure of divinely sanctioned destiny. Strangely, he never said anything more about the “nebulous figure” who revealed the chemistry problems, and in most Christian contexts this would be a huge red flag. Any number of demonic temptations can enter people’s minds through dreams, and a “shadowy” character like the one in Carson’s dream would automatically be a target of suspicion. But Carson never has a moment’s doubt about the reliability of his mysterious dream teacher, trusting in the ultimate goodness of his desire to become a doctor. If the dream helped him reach that goal, it must be a dream from God.

Carson’s miraculous exam dream stands in dramatic contrast to the two dreams described by Barack Obama in his first book, Dreams From My Father. Obama’s dreams revolved around struggles with his complicated family history and efforts to reconcile himself with the haunting influence of his father. Both dreams occurred during a time of major life transition (after the death of his father, and on a journey to Africa to visit his father’s village), and both dreams are suffused with dark emotions of fear, anger, and sadness. Obama’s dreams led him to a more humble self-awareness of the enduring power of his family lineage, for good and for ill. In 2008, before Obama was elected, I wrote that a close look at these dreams “suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.”

Whereas Obama’s dreams had the effect of anchoring him more deeply in the communal traditions of his ancestors, Carson’s dream, or at least his interpretation of it, had the effect of elevating himself to a position of singular cosmic importance. It would not be too strong to say that Carson feels he is on a mission from God, a mission first revealed to him in a heaven-sent dream.


Note: This essay was first published in the Huffington Post on November 2, 2015.

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God?

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God? by Kelly BulkeleyA recent essay in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times made several observations about religion in contemporary America by analyzing a huge collection of Google search data. In “Googling for God,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examined the search results for various religious terms and questions in relation to where the people lived and when they performed the searches. Stephens-Davidowitz’s work offers an excellent illustration of the pros and cons of using big data analytics to study religion. Three quotes from his essay show where the biggest challenges can be found.

  1. “If people somewhere are searching a lot about a topic, it is overwhelming evidence those people are very interested in that topic.”

This is the key methodological principle used in Stephens-Davidowitz’s analysis: the frequency of Google searches correlates to the intensity of personal interest. At one level this seems like a reasonable premise. In fact, this principle is very close to the “continuity hypothesis” used by dream researchers to correlate frequencies of dream content with personal concerns in waking life. Many dream researchers, myself included, have pursued studies of dream content using the continuity hypothesis to make inferences about people’s waking lives—if a person dreams a lot about sports, for example, we can confidently predict that sports are an important concern in the person’s waking life.

Stephens-Davidowitz does something similar when he connects Google search data to people’s religious concerns and questions. The problem, however, is defining “very interested.” What exactly can we infer about a person based on their entry of a Google search term? They are “interested,” of course, but interested in what way, and how strongly? What prompted their search? Is there anything distinctive about people’s searches for religious terms compared to non-religious terms?

Until these kinds of questions can be answered (ideally with lots of systematically analyzed empirical evidence, not just one-off studies), the use of Google search data to draw conclusions about religion remains on shaky ground.

In dream research we have many decades of studies that have helped us hone in on “emotional concerns” as a primary point of continuity between dreaming and waking. We also have statistical baselines of typical dream content to help us identify meaningful variations in the frequency of certain aspects of dreaming (see, for example, the Dreambank of G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, and the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) that I direct). If the use of Google search data included these kinds of analytic aids, the results would be much stronger and more convincing.

  1. “Sometimes Google search data, because of Google’s status as a kind of universal question service, is perfectly suited to give us fresh insights into our offline lives.”

The idea of Google as a “universal question service” has great appeal, not the least because so much of the information is easily accessible for public study. This is one of the great boons of the era of big data, and new studies of this treasure trove of information are bound to increase in future years.

A potential problem, however, is a tendency to blur the distinction between a) what Google offers its users and b) who those users are. The fact that Google enables people to ask all kinds of questions does not mean that all kinds of people are asking those questions. Google users are not necessarily representative of the US population as a whole, and we do not know how representative the Google users are who are searching specifically for religious terms. We do know that when people perform a Google search they are connected via technology to the internet, they are interacting with a global corporation, and they are being shown numerous commercial responses to their search. These circumstances should qualify our assumptions about who uses Google and how they engage with the search function.

  1. “There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.”

This quote comes at the end of the essay, and it perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of explaining the significance of Google search results. According to the findings cited by Stephens-Davidowitz, Kim Kardashian gets ten times the search results of Jesus Christ. What exactly does that mean? That Kim Kardashian is ten times more interesting than Jesus? That she is ten times more popular, or more important, or more influential?

The problem is that Google search data do not meaningfully measure any one thing, other than the tautological fact of having entered a specific search term. The results of analyzing these data seem admirably clear and quantitative—4.7 million vs. 49 million!—but they do not easily or self-evidently map onto the actual beliefs, feelings, and attitudes of the general population.

The good news is that these are tractable problems. Real progress can be made by more detailed studies and more systematic correlations of the data with genuinely meaningful aspects of people’s lives. This fascinating essay by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz helps people who study religion see where these new analytic endeavors can be most fruitfully pursued.


Note: first published September 24, 2015 in the Huffington Post.

Dream Incubation: An Interview with Arianna Huffington

Dream Incubation: An Interview with Arianna Huffington by Kelly BulkeleyThe Huffington Post recently published an interview I did with Arianna Huffington about dream incubation.  She has a long-standing interest in sleep and dreams, along with spiritual curiosity and an appreciation for scientific research–a perfect audience for what I’ve been working on over the past couple of years.  What I told her about dream incubation comes from chapter 15 of the book Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (Oxford U. Press), due out in early 2016.  That’s the next-to-last chapter of the book, which starts with a section on the evolution of sleep, laying a scientific foundation for understanding how dreams have emerged in the human species.  The second section looks at empirical patterns in ordinary dream recall and content, drawing on research from the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb).  The third section focuses on “big dreams,” i.e. rare but extremely vivid and memorable dreams that make a long-lasting impression on waking awareness.  I discuss scientific research on four prototypes of big dreaming that recur especially frequently, throughout history and in cultures all around the world: aggressive, sexual, gravitational, and mystical.  Finally, in the fourth section, I use this information about big dreams to shed new light on several kinds of religious experience found in many different traditions: demonic seduction, prophetic vision, ritual healing, and contemplative practice.  Dream incubation appears in the chapter on ritual healing, with lots of discussion of the Roman orator Aelius Aristides in the 2nd century CE, who wrote about his dream incubation experiences at a temple of the ancient Greek healing god Asclepius.

Neuro-Nonsense: The Perils, and Promise, of Cognitive Science for the Study of Religion

Neuro-Nonsense: The Perils, and Promise, of Cognitive Science for the Study of Religion by Kelly BulkeleyThis is the text of a paper I presented at “The Psychology of Religion/Religion of Psychology” conference held at the University of Chicago Divinity School  on March 6, 2015.  My paper was the first in a panel devoted to “Disjunctions Between Contemporary Psychology and Religion.”

On July 17, 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced in Proclamation 6158 that the 1990’s were to be officially designated as the “Decade of the Brain.”  The Proclamation began with these lines:

“The human brain, a 3-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells that controls our activity, is one of the most magnificent—and mysterious—wonders of creation.  The seat of human intelligence, interpreter of senses, and controller of movement, this incredible organ continues to intrigue scientist and layman alike.”

President Bush’s Proclamation accelerated scientific efforts to learn more about how the brain works, with a special focus on finding new treatments for devastating neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.  To achieve that goal, powerful technologies were developed to analyze, measure, and influence the brain.  These tools are primarily aimed at addressing the growing medical needs of an aging population, but they have been applied in other areas of research as well, including the psychological dimensions of religion.

Other speakers may talk in more detail about the positive aspects of this turn towards the brain, and so will I.  But first, we should consider the casualties and costs of this historical shift, which has in many ways been disastrous for the psychology of religion.  Three particular losses—of historical awareness, therapeutic engagement, and interest in mysticism—will be the focus of my presentation, which Peter Homans, who taught here at the Divinity School for many years, might have considered a work of mourning, in the sense of responding to loss by the creation of new meanings.  If we can gain more clarity about what has been lost in this field since the “Decade of the Brain,” we can more fairly assess the potential benefits of neuroscientific research for religious studies.  We can also, at that point, consider the potential benefits of religious studies for brain research.

Let me briefly define some terms.

The psychology of religion, as we have already heard, comprises a multifaceted research tradition going back more than 100 years to the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud, William James, Carl Jung, and others.

Cognitive science is an alliance of six disciplines—neuroscience, psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and anthropology—that together, beginning in the 1970’s and accelerating in the 1990’s, have tried to improve on psychoanalytic and behaviorist models of the mind.

The cognitive science of religion, or CSR, is a 21st century development in the psychology of religion, drawing on contemporary scientific studies of brain-mind functioning.

CSR appeals to many researchers because it emphasizes experimental evidence and testable hypotheses, helping researchers escape the hazy hermeneutics and overly thick descriptions too often found in the contemporary study of religion.  CSR offers a bracing, forward-looking response to the tired and fruitless meanderings of post-modern scholarship.

Unfortunately, the cost of this approach has been a loss of interest in, or even awareness of, the findings of earlier researchers who carefully investigated many of the same topics as those found in CSR.  Anything that happened before the “Decade of the Brain” no longer seems relevant now that we have such powerful neuroimaging tools at our disposal.  This leads to CSR researchers claiming new explanations of phenomena that actually have a long history in the psychology of religion.  This is what Jeremy Carrette has called “disciplinary amnesia,” and our field has a bad case of it.

As a brief example, consider Pascal Boyer’s 2002 book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.  This is an admirable work in many ways, and highly influential in CSR, but it takes strangely little account of earlier research in the psychology of religion.  In a passage late in the book Boyer comments on the similarities between religious rituals and obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD).  He describes several neuroscientific studies, all conducted in the 1990’s, on dysfunctions in the brain associated with OCD.   Although he does not insist that all religious rituals are pathological, Boyer uses this neurological evidence to support his book’s overall argument that religious beliefs and behaviors are “parasitic” on normal processes of the mind.

I don’t want to engage right now with Boyer’s “mental parasite” theory of religion.  Rather, I want to point out that in two detailed pages of text comparing religious rituals and OCD, Boyer never once mentions Freud, whose 1907 article “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices” addressed exactly the same topic.  Indeed, Freud’s prescient article was crucial in defining the clinical syndrome of OCD itself, which Boyer now “explains” in CSR terms.

Why does this loss of history matter?  Maybe it doesn’t.  There is an argument to be made that a scientific field should not be overly concerned with or reverential towards its past.  After all, we don’t make people study alchemy before they can start learning chemistry.

But it’s not that simple in the psychology of religion.  Not only does the loss of historical self-awareness lead to unwarranted claims of novel discoveries, it also makes it harder to avoid going down paths that earlier researchers have found to be dead-ends.  Here again, the case of Freud is helpful.  Too few people know or appreciate the fact that Freud was originally trained as a neuroscientist, receiving his education from some of the best medical research institutions in the world at that time.  Freud knew as much about the brain as anyone, and in 1895 he began drafting “A Project for a Scientific Psychology,” in which he planned to use neuroscientific evidence to explain mental life in purely physical terms.  But then, a couple years later, he gave up on this plan, and turned to the study of dreams.  Why did Freud abandon his neuroscientific vision?  Not because he lacked hi-tech brain scanners.  Freud gave up on the 1895 Project because he realized that experimental neuroscience was not enough, and would never be enough, to understand the human mind.  Focusing on the material workings of the brain can only take us so far, before we have to include the analysis of emotion, desire, consciousness, family, culture, and many other dimensions of psychological experience that are difficult to measure or experimentally manipulate.

Paul Ricoeur, in his 1970 book Freud and Philosophy, gave Freud credit for developing a “mixed discourse” between force and desire, energetics and hermeneutics, the workings of the brain and the meanings of the mind.  Freud may have been limited in his view of those forces and desires, but he had the right idea: we need hybrid theories and concepts that can clarify, rather than obscure, the subtle, multidimensional complexities of the human psyche.

This kind of approach has been eclipsed in recent years by the emphasis on brain science as the ultimate source of explanatory truth.  We seem to be going back to a place that Freud abandoned at the end of the 19th century.  It’s worse than just reinventing the wheel, it’s forgetting why we ever needed a wheel in the first place.

The second loss, of therapeutic engagement, reflects another adverse consequence of the “Decade of the Brain.”  Throughout the 20th century the psychology of religion was stimulated by the clinical work of Freud, Jung, and many, many other skilled therapists who delved deeply into the mental worlds of their clients, and in the process gained remarkable insights into the religious and psychological dynamics of their lived experiences.  Both medical psychiatrists and pastoral counselors found useful information here, and their shared interest inspired many fruitful conversations about the role of religion in healthy human development.

In recent years, however, these interpersonal, humanistic practices of therapy have been swept aside and replaced by the increasingly widespread use of psychoactive drugs.  The mental health system, in the U.S. at least, has turned into an impersonal delivery service for prescription medications and short-term cognitive behavioral therapy.  This bears little resemblance to the rich, intimately detailed clinical practices that for so many years were integral to the psychology of religion.

To be clear, many psychoactive drugs save lives and help people stabilize enough to benefit from other treatments.  But the skyrocketing use of these medications has severely undermined the efforts of psychotherapists and pastoral counselors to practice their healing crafts.   Unfortunately I see few people in CSR who regard this as a problem for the field.

The third loss I want to mention regards an appreciation for the multiplicity of religious experiences, from mystical visions and dreams to possession, trance, and ecstasy.  These phenomena are difficult to measure using brain scanning technology, and in any case such “altered states of consciousness” obviously deviate from the mind’s functioning in a normal waking condition—the state to which most psychoactive drugs and cognitive therapies are trying to return a person.  Hence, CSR researchers have tended either to ignore mystical experiences or treat them as pathological failures of normal brain functioning, like bad pieces of neural code. The result is a shallow, homogenized view of human religiosity that excludes precisely those unusual, intensified experiences that William James said more than 100 years ago were key to a psychological understanding of religious life.

On this count we should be no less skeptical toward supposedly “pro-religion” researchers like Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, whose brain imaging studies of people in meditation allegedly reveal a common neurological core of all mystical experiences (what they refer to as “absolute unitary being”).  Their claim does not stand up to either empirical or conceptual scrutiny, and yet many people have accepted it because it seems to give a neuroscientific “seal of approval” to the study of mysticism.  This to me is the worst of all worlds: taking poor practices from neuroscience and using them to dumb down the psychology of religion.

So, these three losses, of history, therapy, and mysticism—that’s the bad news of recent years.  But there is good news, too.  For instance, a new branch of research, known as social neuroscience, is taking more seriously the idea that we cannot just study brains, we have to study brains in bodies that live within families, who live within broader social and cultural contexts. It turns out that normal, healthy brain development depends fundamentally on a supportive social environment, on a lively stream of interpersonal relationships.  I know that in the last years of his life Don Browning, who taught religion and psychological studies here at the Divinity School, was having conversations with social neuroscientists in the University, and he engaged with them as Paul Ricoeur might have done, seeking new prospects for a mixed discourse.  Following Browning’s example, I encourage the psychology of religion and CSR to pursue more engagement with this area of brain research.

Still, even the good news has an asterisk attached.  I’ve begun wondering if the appearance of social neuroscience is actually a sign that the brain boom has peaked.  There seems to be a kind of self-deconstructing process at work here.  If we cannot understand the brain without looking beyond the brain, then neuroscience loses its status as an ultimate source of explanatory authority.

The future of the psychology of religion will not, I venture to say, center on brain research, or for that matter on genetics, or evolutionary biology, or the latest findings from any other scientific discipline.  Rather, the future will depend—and I’m sorry, this isn’t going to sound very exciting, but I think it’s true—on data management, meaning our ability to gather, sort, analyze, and creatively integrate information from many different sources.  The Decade of the Brain is over, but the Century of Big Data is just beginning.

I don’t know about each of your different areas of specialization, but in mine the “Moneyball” changes are happening very fast, with torrential volumes of new information and the emergence of amazingly powerful tools of analysis.  In 2009, motivated in large part by a fear of being left behind, I began developing the Sleep and Dream Database, an online digital archive and search engine for empirical dream research.  (With the help, I should say, of software engineer Kurt Bollacker, U.C. Santa Cruz psychologist Bill Domhoff, and his coding colleague Adam Schneider.)  At this point the database includes more than 15,000 dream reports from a variety of sources, including demographic surveys, personal journals, psychology experiments, and historical records.

There are many different analytic paths a psychologist of religion could follow using these materials.  [All of the following examples have links to sample data in the SDDb.]

For example, one could sort through all the dream reports in the SDDb with words relating to religion.

Or, one could look at just the dream reports of people who identify themselves as Born-Again Christians.

Or one could compare the dream recall frequencies of people (American adults) who do or do not consider themselves more “spiritual than religious.”

I mention the SDDb because it is a small but practical example of how to make adaptive use of big data technologies rather than becoming overwhelmed by them.  Of course, there are many limits to this kind of quantitative analysis of what Freud would call “manifest” dream content, along with many questions about personal privacy, interpretive authority, and data security.  But I would like to close my presentation by at least gesturing beyond the critique of neuro-nonsense, and offering the hint of a more constructive response to the question that has drawn all of us here, namely how to promote a more prosperous future in the psychological study of religion.

Thank you.