What Do People Think About Dreams? Preview of a New Survey

What Do People Think About Dreams? Preview of a New Survey by Kelly BulkeleyA new survey reveals the wide range of attitudes that contemporary Americans hold towards dreaming. 

It might seem that in dreams you enter a purely subjective realm, a world of total solipsism in which nothing exists but the individual self.  Yet the more we learn about dreaming, the more we realize how deeply it is shaped by cultural forces and collective realities.

We live, waking and dreaming, within a dynamic cultural matrix of beliefs, ideas, symbols, and values.  Out of this matrix we form attitudes that help us make sense of the world and our experiences within it.  Cultural attitudes can have a huge impact on people’s experiences with dreaming, influencing how often people remember their dreams, how often they share their dreams with other people, and what kinds of meanings they look for in their dreams.

To explore the nature of these cultural factors at a large scale, I commissioned YouGov, a professional opinion research company, to conduct an online survey. A total of 5,255 American adults participated in the survey, and they were asked a standard set of demographic questions (gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, etc.) along with several other questions targeted to my research interests, including religious affiliation, political ideology, and social policies about climate change and immigration.  In addition to these questions, participants were asked about their sleep quality, dream recall, frequency of sharing dreams with others, and their agreement with a set of six statements about dreaming:

  1. Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.
  2. Dreams are a good way of learning about my true feelings.
  3. Dreams are random nonsense from the brain.
  4. Dream can anticipate things that happen in the future.
  5. I am too busy in waking life to pay attention to my dreams.
  6. I get bored listening to other people talk about their dreams.

For each statement, the participants were asked if they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, neither agreed nor disagreed, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed.

Michael Schredl and I are currently working on an article that analyzes people’s responses to the six attitudes statements in relation to gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, and religious affiliation.  Michael is a researcher at the sleep laboratory of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, and he has done lots of previous research on people’s attitudes towards dreams.  We are planning to submit the article soon to the International Journal for Dream Research.

A second article will follow, focusing on people’s responses to the attitudes statements in relation to political variables (ideology, beliefs about immigration and climate change).  A third article may focus on the sleep question (“How many nights in an average week do you experience insomnia or have trouble sleeping?”) in relation to the other demographic variables.

The Sleep and Dream Database currently has available for public study the survey responses for several questions: gender, age, age group D (18-34-35-54, 55 and older), US region F (West, South, Northeast, Midwest), dream recall, and the statement “Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.”  All survey responses will be made available once the initial analyses are finished.

If you have any hypotheses about what the survey results will show, please let me know!

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly BulkeleyIn an interview with the New York Times on August 16, the visionary technologist Elon Musk described the grueling work schedule he forces himself to endure in order to achieve his goals. He rarely takes any significant time away from work, and when he does, it’s often for exotic vacations requiring long travels. Recently he has been working up to 120 hours a week at his Tesla automobile plant, never going outside the factory for days at a time. He keeps a sleeping bag in his office, and when he does decide to try getting some shut-eye, he apparently makes frequent use of strong sleep-inducing medications.

Musk is a very prominent public figure and a true leader in creating the technologies of the future.  As such, his words carry great weight and influence.  It matters when Elon Musk says that his professional success requires a chronic state of sleep deprivation.

The interview prompted the sleep advocate Arianna Huffington to post an open letter to Musk on her Thrive.com website on August 17.  Huffington praised Musk’s intellectual brilliance, and she appealed to that same scientific mentality to recognize that healthy sleep is a vital element in true creativity:

You’re a science and data-driven person. You’re obsessed with physics, engineering, with figuring out how things work. So apply that same passion for science not just to your products but to yourself. People are not machines. For machines — whether of the First or Fourth Industrial Revolution variety — downtime is a bug; for humans, downtime is a feature. The science is clear. And what it tells us is that there’s simply no way you can make good decisions and achieve your world-changing ambitions while running on empty. It doesn’t depend on how many hours you’re awake. Tesla — and the world (not to mention you and your beautiful children) — would be better off if you regularly built in time to refuel, recharge and reconnect with your exceptional reserves of creativity and your power to innovate. Working 120-hour weeks doesn’t leverage your unique qualities, it wastes them. You can’t simply power through — that’s just not how our bodies and our brains work. Nobody knows better than you that we can’t get to Mars by ignoring the laws of physics. Nor can we get where we want to go by ignoring scientific laws in our daily lives.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

This prompted Musk to respond on August 18 at 2:32 a.m. via Twitter:

Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.

The tweet was removed a few hours later, but Huffington saw it and responded in an interview on August 20 by trying again to appeal to his own highest ideals:

This is not [just] about sleep, or about slowing down, or about asking Elon to chill out under a mango tree. It’s about how we can unlock and sustain our peak performance, and see solutions and opportunities where others can’t.

Those are precisely the virtues that Musk takes pride in having—a capacity for peak performance and visionary problem-solving.  Huffington is gently but firmly suggesting that if he truly wants to strengthen those abilities, then he must give up the false heroism of denying his body’s need for sleep, rest, and recuperation.  Chronic sleep deprivation takes your mind and body in exactly the opposite direction, towards degraded functioning in our most important human faculties.  The empirical research on the negative effects of sleep deprivation is very clear on this point.  Yet Musk remains in thrall to an unscientific attitude about the need to sacrifice sleep as the price of success.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

Is that too harsh a conclusion? Perhaps, but it seems more plausible following another article in the NYT, on August 28.  This one focused on the increasing number of problems at the Tesla factory, many of them caused by Musk’s own mercurial behavior.  More than 30 senior executives have left the company in recent years, citing his excessive micro-management, and the factory’s automated systems have suffered a never-ending stream of technical glitches, which he insists on fixing himself.  The Tesla factory was designed for maximal automation and minimal human involvement, and it seems that Musk is slowly but surely imposing that same design on himself.

Musk’s defense of his sleep-starved life highlights an often overlooked research finding that I believe has alarming implications for public health and civil society.  Below is an adapted quote from my 2016 book, Big Dreams. First, a general litany of the effects of sleep deprivation:

For humans the first signs of sleep deprivation are unpleasant feelings of fatigue, irritability, and difficulties concentrating. Then come problems with reading and speaking clearly, poor judgment, lower body temperature, and a considerable increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, the worsening effects include disorientation, visual misperceptions, apathy, severe lethargy, and social withdrawal.

Now comes the lesser known and more worrisome impact:

Surprisingly, even with these worsening deficits, sleep-deprived humans can still perform remarkably well on tests for certain kinds of repetitive motor and cognitive skills.  These abilities remain functional even when people no longer have any imaginative spark or feel actively engaged with the world.  According to sleep researcher Michael H. Bonnet, “responses [to performance tests] during sleep loss may occur as rapidly as before, but those responses tend to be more stereotyped and less creative.” Another researcher, Jim Horne, put it like this: “in effect, progressive sleep loss turns us into automatons and, in losing the ability to think independently, conscious awareness of ourselves is impaired and we are no longer prescient. Nevertheless, we can still run on ‘auto-pilot’ and perform routine behavior and other well-rehearsed tasks and procedures.” According to Horne, “Recent findings with clinically oriented neuropsychological tests suggest that one night without sleep causes particular impairment to tasks requiring flexible thinking and the updating of plans in the light of new information… [S]leep deprivation led to more rigid thinking, increased perseverative errors, and marked difficulty in appreciating an updated situation.”

In other words, people who are chronically sleep deprived can still perform routine, automatic, stereotyped behaviors. But they lose the ability to be innovative, adaptive, flexible, and capable of learning. They become less like humans, and more like robots. They can remain functional workers, but they are no longer creative people.

Is that really the path we want to follow, as individuals and a society?

Why It’s So Hard to Sleep in the NBA

Why It's So Hard to Sleep in the NBA by Kelly BulkeleyPro basketball players and coaches suffer chronic sleep deprivation. Can they find help in their dreams?

On January 8, 1964, a 17-year old high school student named Randy Gardner set the world’s record for continual wakefulness: 264 hours, more than eleven straight days without sleep.  Gardner was helped in his effort by Dr. William Dement, a pioneer of sleep medicine who stayed with him round-the-clock to help him achieve his goal.  The worst times came during the wee hours of the night, when Gardner’s resolve faltered, but Dement said they found a sure-fire way to keep sleep at bay:

Fortunately, playing basketball always worked. We almost had to drag him out to the backyard, but once he was there and got moving, he was much better.” 

This little anecdote from the early history of sleep research illuminates a problem at the heart of the modern National Basketball Association.  Professional basketball players are virtually guaranteed to suffer chronic sleep deprivation. For months on end they stay up late into the night and engage in intense, highly stressful physical competitions held in brightly lit, hyper-stimulating arenas full of thousands of screaming people.  They must endure a constantly changing schedule of long-distance travel, shifting time zones, and unfamiliar food and lodging.  It would be hard to intentionally design a system more likely to disrupt the natural, healthy rhythms of sleep.

Fortunately, a new awareness of the importance of sleep is growing among the players, coaches, and even the league schedulers. Two of the league’s premier players, Lebron James and Kevin Durant, have made their views on the subject clear:

James: “Sleep is the most important thing when it comes to recovery.  And it’s very tough with our schedule. Our schedule keeps us up late at night, and most of the time it wakes us up early in the morning. … There’s no better recovery than sleep.”

Durant: “Of course, on the basketball side, you have to fine tune your skills.  But on the other side, you have to fine tune your body. There’s a lot of remedies you can use as a basketball player to get better, but the easiest thing you can do is go to sleep.”

Much of the credit for the recent burst of attention to sleep and basketball goes to Dr. Cheri Mah, whose 2011 study of the Stanford University men’s basketball team found that increased sleep led to measurably better shooting, faster sprinting, and a higher sense of physical and mental well-being.  Mah’s findings have inspired men’s and women’s teams at all levels to take sleep more seriously as an integral factor in overall player health and performance.

Mah’s research has also spawned a method of predicting the winners of NBA games with alarmingly high accuracy.  ESPN writer Baxter Holmes has worked with Mah to devise a formula for evaluating how tired one team would be compared to another team on the night of a game against each other, especially on the second night of a back-to-back game.  Their formula takes many factors into account:

Whether the game is home or away, the time elapsed between tip-offs (including hours lost from flying east), how rested the opponent is from play or travel and whether it’s part of a longer run of four games in five nights, or five games in seven.

As Holmes reports, the formula has a success rate of about 75% in predicting the winner of a game when one team is likely to be very sleep deprived and the other team is likely to be very well-rested.  These predictions are made regardless of the team’s won/lost records, which is even more impressive in terms of identifying the direct competitive impact of healthy sleep.  If this formula were revised to include the won/lost records, it’s easy to imagine the success rate of the sleep-driven predictions rising to nearly 100%.

This season has also highlighted the sleep challenges of coaches as well as the players.  Two head coaches—Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets—have been forced by health concerns to leave their teams for several weeks of recuperation.  In both cases, doctors identified chronic insomnia as an important causal factor.

What can be done to help NBA players and coaches improve their sleep?  The league is under growing pressure to eliminate back-to-back games, which would surely remove a major cause of disrupted sleep.  But there’s only so much flexibility when trying to craft a season of 82 games for each of 30 teams in a time frame of 6 months.  Even if back-to-backs are eliminated, the NBA’s regular season schedule will continue to put enormous pressure on everyone’s ability to get a healthy amount of sleep.

At this point, most teams have a sleep consultant of some kind, so players and coaches already have access to basic information about behavioral changes one can make for improving sleep.  Unfortunately, knowing what you should do is not as easy as actually doing it.  According to one coach quoted by David Aldridge at NBA.com,

“We’re all told what to do, but we don’t do it.  We’re all told we have to eat healthy, we have to exercise and we have to get our sleep. All of us. Every coach. This is not like, ‘oh, wow, I never thought of that.’ But it’s hard to do it.”

What else is there?  What other options exist for promoting better sleep, besides the standard methods of appealing to guilt and fear, focusing on behavioral markers, and relying on external authorities?

There is another approach, one that works well for some people and might work very well for NBA players and coaches.  This approach draws on a new source of motivation for getting as much good sleep as possible: Better sleep is important because it leads to better dreaming. 

When you sleep, your mind does not simply shut down.  Rather, it enters a different mode of functioning, a mode that can be described as a kind of play.  Liberated from the constraints of the external world, your sleeping mind is free to imagine, explore, and experiment.  Sometimes, during the phase known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which occurs four or five times a night for most people, your brain becomes intensely activated, as much as when you are wide awake. These complex bursts of neural activation are an automatic, hard-wired feature of your sleep cycle, and they stimulate the psychological process of dreaming.

But why should anyone, let alone those who play or coach professional basketball, care about dreams?  There are at least three reasons.

First, even if you never remember any of your dreams, the process of dreaming still contributes to your mental welfare in waking life.  Researchers have found that dreaming promotes more efficient learning, memory formation, and the emotional integration of new experiences.  The “bizarre” aspects of dreaming—strange settings, odd characters, impossible events—can be understood as playfully stretching your mind’s abilities, with the beneficial effect of increasing your mental flexibility and improving your readiness to deal with unexpected situations in waking life.  In this way, dreaming is like mental yoga.  It loosens the rigid boundaries of your waking ego, expands the range of your imagination, and keeps your mind open and alert to new possibilities.

This means that sleep is especially important for basketball players and coaches who are continuously trying to optimize their performance, because if they sleep well, their dreams will naturally boost their mental health and adaptive flexibility, whether or not they consciously remember any of them.

Second, chances are you that do remember at least a few of your dreams.  If you pay even a little attention to them, you’ll notice they often revolve around your current emotional concerns.  Whatever preoccupies you in waking life—whatever you care most about—is very likely to show up in your dreams. In this way, dreams offer a surprisingly honest mirror of how you’re feeling about the most important people, challenges, and conflicts in your waking life.  Every dream you remember is an opportunity to expand your self-awareness and strive for greater emotional balance.

For pro basketball players, good sleep can open the door to a valuable source of fresh information about how they’re playing, how their bodies are responding, and how they’re getting along with teammates, coaches, opponents, fans, and the media.  Dreams are a powerful tool for identifying hidden fears and emotional obstacles that get in the way of peak athletic performance.

Third, if you actively engage with your dreams by writing them in a journal, several things will happen.  Your recall will likely increase, as you become more consciously attuned to the rhythms of your sleeping mind.  Your sense of time will expand, as you understand more of your past and envision more of your future.  You will notice the emergence of creative insights and innovative ideas that offer new ways of problem-solving in waking life.  Eventually, your dreams will begin changing as you psychologically “level up,” discovering new challenges and new opportunities for growth. You may become “lucid” or self-aware in some of your dreams, and able to interact more intentionally with the characters and settings.  You can practice dream incubation, a method of formulating a question before sleep and then observing any subsequent dreams for possible responses to the question.

Looking at these potentials in a basketball context, good sleep combined with keeping a dream journal can set the stage for developing advanced forms of mental strength and clarity that will empower players to actualize their talents to the fullest.  Dreaming can be a path towards deeper mindfulness, as Hindu and Buddhist meditators have known for many centuries.  For NBA players and coaches, who need to keep their focus laser sharp despite constant distractions, a regular dialogue with their dreams can be a grounding practice that connects them with their core motivations and ultimate center of balance.

None of this is possible if the basic rhythms of one’s sleep cycle are badly out of sync.  But once you start making an active effort to improve your sleep, you will also be improving the conditions for your dreams.  And once you start actively exploring and cultivating the immense powers of your dreaming mind, the sky is the limit.

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, April 5, 2018.

Dark Times and the Powers of Dreaming

Dark Times and the Powers of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyI’ve been thinking a lot recently about a new book, Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought, by Sharon Sliwinski, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Sliwinski approaches dreaming as a powerful resource for political theory and action, especially in times when basic human freedoms are most at risk. That we today are living in such times has become impossible to ignore.

But throughout history, in times of collective crisis, people’s dreams have often responded with a surge of imagery, emotion, and insight that help people respond more effectively and creatively to the pressing challenges facing their group in waking life. This is also true in the modern era, as Sliwinski’s fascinating and beautifully written book makes clear.

As she explores the political sociology of the dreaming imagination, Sliwinski’s main guides are Sigmund Freud (as interpreted by Michel Foucault) and Hannah Arendt. It is the deep dive into Arendt’s philosophy that gives Dreaming in Dark Times its inspiring vision and potent timeliness. Arendt was a twentieth-century political theorist born in Germany who fled the Holocaust in World War II and lived in the United States until her death in 1975. Her writings focused on such topics as totalitarianism, freedom, authority, and revolution. Sliwinski draws her book’s title from Arendt’s notion of “dark times,” which Sliwinski describes as follows:

“Dark times are turbulent political moments in which the public realm has been infected with a kind of black light… [Arendt] marked these eras by a certain kind of suppression of speech and public declaration, and simultaneously, by an all-too-public display of evildoing. In dark times, social and political violence is both overtly visible and yet oddly difficult to recognize… She noticed that human speech becomes divested of its power to represent and transmit the truth during these periods. A kind of perverse language emerges instead that tends to serve those who wish to prolong the distorted political situation… This kind of language is designed to obfuscate reality, thwarting the citizenry’s capacity for thought.” (xviii)

I cannot think of a more apt analysis of the current American political environment. But the frightening realization that we are indeed living through dark times is immediately tempered by Sliwinski’s inspiring appeal to the potency of dreaming:

“This book aims to show how dream-life can serve to reanimate a world that has been flattened by dark times. Dreams are a crucial resource for regaining a measure of freedom in our thought and speech, serving as a vital landscape to recover our fundamental human capacity to assign meaning to the world.” (xix)

I encourage not only dream researchers but anyone concerned about current politics to read this book and study it closely. I will have more to say about it at the upcoming online conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, September 25.

Here, I’d like to mention four other writers and journalists who are trying to make sense of today’s frightening political and cultural trends by using dreams and dream-related modes of thought and reflection. I want to give an admiring tip of the cap to those who are pushing back against the flattening and dehumanizing effects of dark times, and doing so in ways that emerge organically out of human dreaming experience.

1. Kathleen Parker’s op-ed column on August 1, 2017, begins with this:

“Insidious is the force that causes us to dream of things we wish (or don’t wish) were so. Thus, on the eve of this column’s creation, I dreamed of Donald J. Trump. We were seated at a dinner table for eight, but the other six chairs were empty. We spoke of many things, from education to globalization and the near-universal crisis of identity. The president was courtly, humble, erudite and wise. I awoke suddenly to the harsh sounds of braying asses (I had left the TV on), only to realize that I was actually dreaming of Adlai Stevenson, the twice-defeated presidential candidate who lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in part because of his excess erudition. In today’s clever-ish jargon, he was too thinky. Mine was a dream of wishes, obviously, for we suffer no such excesses now.”

Parker goes on to contrast the brilliant, intellectually curious Stevenson with the humble, plain-spoken General Eisenhower, and she observes that Trump falls far short of both men. For years Parker has bemoaned the rise of Twitter as a means of political communication, so the new regime is truly the apocalypse for her. She worries that “civilization doesn’t seem as securely tethered as it once was,” a process of social unraveling that started decades ago (for conservatives this usually means the liberal reforms of the 1960’s), but has accelerated in recent years because of technology and the chaotic pace of modern life, with damaging effects on people’s cognitive capacities for sustained attention and clear thinking.

I don’t entirely agree with her account of how the 2016 election was won and lost, but that doesn’t matter because the heart of her column, and I suspect the concern left in her mind after her dream, came in the final paragraphs:

“But what now? In just over six months in office, Trump has managed to alienate our allies, shatter our international standing, demonstrate no leadership ability or essential knowledge, fire or replace people in key positions, and exacerbate global tensions with his lack of discipline, maturity and self-control. Who can save us from ourselves? There are still plenty of deep thinkers out there, but who is listening? Who is reading? Who among those who can contemplate the future — as opposed to retweeting this-just-happened — is even willing to lead? And what, finally, is leadership in an era when centuries-old institutions are failing and commonly shared beliefs are no longer common or shared? Well, somebody. Someone who has consulted history to understand present and future challenges, who understands the role and risks of technology — and who can help people understand the daily chaos with the erudition of Stevenson, the humanity of Eisenhower and the wisdom of one we’ve yet to know.”

If we take Parker at her published word, her strangely wishful dream of Donald Trump and Adlai Stevenson prompted her to write a searing cry of political conscience and a prophetic call for true leadership in a time of gathering darkness. For other conservatives who claim to care about preserving traditions and promoting moral character, her dream is a direct challenge to their continued support of someone who is clearly intent on tearing all of that down.

2. In “The Transformation of the ‘American Dream’” economist Robert Shiller examines a problematic shift over the past few decades in the cultural meanings attached to the hallowed phrase “the American Dream.” At the time of its earliest documented usage, the phrase evoked the ideals of “freedom, mutual respect, and equality of opportunity.” But in recent times the emphasis on freedom and equality has diminished, and in its place has arisen a singular material focus on purchasing real estate and owning a private home, a trend the Trump regime has strongly promoted. Given his long expertise as an academic analyst of the housing industry, Shiller’s stern warning against this approach is worth taking seriously: “One thing is clear: bringing back the fevered housing dream of a decade ago would not be in the public interest.” Instead, Shiller calls for economic policies guided by the original, dynamic sense of the American Dream as “a trajectory to a promising future.”

3. A review by Chris Richards of Lana Del Rey’s new album “Lust for Life” takes the phenomenology of dreaming as an interpretive key to understanding not only artistic creativity but also the political cross-currents of a radically destabilized world. Richards’ review, titled “Lana Del Rey Suddenly Sounds Like the Poet Laureate of Post-Truth,” initially takes Del Rey to task for the insular, detached dreaminess of her previous work (i.e., “the old stuff, which only ever made Del Rey sound like she was dream-journaling on Xanax”). But now, Richards suggests, the head-spinning surrealism of modern society has reached a point where Del Rey’s dreamy, free associational songs are surprisingly relevant. I don’t know her music very well, but I do appreciate Richards’ final words, which seem consistent with Del Rey’s aesthetic: “Parsing our dreams teaches us how to separate what’s real from what’s unknowable. As imaginative beings, exercising that literacy is one of life’s great pleasures. As citizens, it’s suddenly become one of our greatest responsibilities.”

4. An op-ed by Charles Blow, “America’s Whiniest ‘Victim’”, catalogs the various ways in which the new President has complained about unfair treatment by others. Blow is a relentless and passionate critic of the President, and the intensity of his language may seem extreme. But in the final third of the column Blow makes reference to the psychological process of projection, a process quite familiar to anyone who works closely with dreams. Suddenly, using this concept of projection, Blow’s insights come into sharp relief. He says Trump is “a projectionist: He is so consumed by his insecurities that he projects them onto others… The flaws he sees are the ones he possesses.” This isn’t a dream analysis per se, but it illustrates the power of using concepts and methods honed in the study of dreams to analyze political and cultural realities.

Note: this essay first appeared on HuffPost, August 24, 2017.

199 Dreams of Donald Trump

199 Dreams of Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyA new collection of dreams about the new US President sheds light on his psychological impact in the minds of those who support him and those who oppose him.

These dreams were gathered via a website I manage, idreamoftrump.net, which has been active since early 2016.  A total of 143 came from people living in the U.S., and 56 came from people living in countries outside the U.S.  In terms of gender, 124 reports come from females and 75 from males.  I asked a question about how the individual would describe his or her political ideology, and 43 said they were progressive, 44 liberal, 50 moderate, 8 libertarian, 37 conservative, and 9 very conservative.  

This is certainly not a representative sample of people from the U.S. or the human population, so I want to be cautious in drawing conclusions from the data.  This sample represents a self-selected group of people who woke up remembering a dream of Donald Trump, found my site online, and shared the dream with me (for which I am very grateful!).  The results of analyzing these dreams can illuminate several possible dimensions of meaning which are interesting and important, though not definitively proven or established using current research methods.  What I’m going to lay out is more than mere speculation, but well short of settled knowledge.

199 Dreams of Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyThe good news, from a research perspective, is that this set of 199 dreams turns out to be remarkably consistent with the content patterns of average or typical dreams.  In my 2016 book Big Dreams I describe the “SDDb baselines,” a set of more than 5,000 dream reports I gathered from normal, healthy people to create a portrait of the baseline frequencies of average dreaming.  I analyzed the 199 Trump dreams using the same word search template I used with the SDDb baselines (which includes classes for Perception, Emotion, Cognition, Movement, Characters, Social Interactions, Culture, and Elements), and I found the results match up very closely with the frequencies of the baselines.

What this means is that the Trump dreams are not radically different from ordinary dreams.  The same general currents that shape regular dreaming also shape the dreams in which Trump appears as a character.

199 Dreams of Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyThis also means the few differences I did find are worth special attention.  The close parallels between the Trump dreams and the SDDb baselines on so many categories of content casts into sharp relief the areas where the Trump dreams had unusual variations from the baselines.

The Trump dreams had a very high frequency of references to male characters, which makes sense given that the Trump is present in all of them.  But these 199 dreams also have an unusually low frequency of references to female characters, which is more striking.  Compared to the baselines, the dreams of Trump also have remarkably high frequencies of references to the act of speaking, to the perceptual sense of touch, and to the cultural domain of money and work.  

For the males, their dreams of Trump had unusually high friendliness, low physical aggression, and low references to weapons.  For the females, their dreams of Trump had unusually high physical aggression and sexuality.

To summarize these findings, it seems that when Trump appears as a character in people’s dreams, he does not disrupt the whole process; people continue dreaming more or less the way they typically do.  But he does have a tangible and measurable impact on certain aspects of those dreams.  A dream about Donald Trump typically involves fewer women and more talking, touching, and references to money and work.  Men seem to become pacified around Trump in their dreams, while women seem to become more instinctually primed.  

199 Dreams of Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyI can provide the spreadsheet with the detailed results to anyone who requests it, and I will go into more detail about these and other politically-related dreams at the upcoming conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, to be held June 20-24 in Anaheim, California.  I am giving a presentation on dreams in relation to current U.S. politics, and the analysis of this set of 199 Trump dreams will be featured in the presentation.  

The dream reports are currently available in the SDDb for further study and exploration.  I have selected twenty-three reports to include in this post, all of which came post-election, as a way of illustrating the personal experiences behind the statistical comparisons I’ve been discussing so far.  Each report includes the age, gender, country/state of residence, and political ideology of the dreamer, along with their SDDb participant ID codes.  The dreamer’s associations to the dream follow the report, responding to my question about what they thought the dream might mean, and whether it altered their view of the new president.  I made up the titles with an eye towards highlighting what I think are the most interesting themes.

 

He Put a Ring on My Finger

A female, 32, from Iowa, moderate – Td107

I dreampt I was in his house, a really large one. There were threats that he was going to be assassinated all around and I was crying. He was acting like everything was okay and he had a lot of security. Everyone was dressed casual, and I think his family was there too. Suddenly the dream shifted and everyone was saying he was dead. I couldn’t stop crying, and as I was about to go he stood in front of me and told me I was worried for nothing, he was smiling and totally confident. This part is weird and embarrassing. …He then proposed to me and put a ring on my finger! I grabbed him and was sobbing into his chest while he was rubbing my back. I have NO idea why I dreampt it lol. That’s what prompted me to search if anyone else has dreams of him. 🙂

Idk, I voted for him..and I think he’s great! It doesn’t change my opinion of him at all, it made me feel a little closer to him perhaps…which is weird to say.

 

I Could Mess With Trump If I Wanted to

A female, 14, from Louisiana, liberal – Td123

I was is a car, one with black leather material. The car has three rows of seats and Donald Trump and my brother resided in the middle set and I sat in the back row. I sat behind Trump and he reclined is chair to touch my knees. I give him a dirty look and received the same back but he soon put his chair back. Then, not immediately after, almost like some time had past, Trump asked me to get something from the seat next to me that was him and he reclined his chair and I gave his item to him and the very slightest bit of our fingers brushed past each other and I was disgusted so much that I quivered. My brother gave me a dirty look and Trump put his seat back on. I realized that I could mess with Trump if I wanted to and texted my friend and asked “Should I shout I’M GAY!” And my dream ended at that.

Perhaps the dream means how I feel scared about what could happen to my friends that are not all white men.

 

He Gives Me a Necklace to Wear for Our Wedding

A female, 63, from New York, progressive – Td124

I’m getting married! I am preparing for my upcoming wedding. My fiance, Donald Trump, has given me a necklace to wear for our wedding. The necklace has a large oval moonstone set into a square platinum setting surrounded by diamonds, on a small link platinum chain. I am not sure I want to wear this necklace. I have another necklace given to me by my last partner, John. It is a gorgeous platinum necklace set with baguette (rectangular shape) emeralds, and diamond pave (tiny diamonds). It is a series of ¼” links and has an elaborate clasp as a focal point; it’s more dimensional with the same design. While deciding which necklace I will wear my ex-husband, Peter shows up. We go to the local nursery with a container with two plants in it; we own together. One of the plants has died. The man at the nursery says the problem is the two plants need different environments – one needs sun and lots of water, the other less water, and no bright sunlight.

While writing the dream down, I had a big ah-ha about why my ex-husband and I did not get along. This dream made me take a look at my disowned shadow showing up as Trump. I’m still processing it. The jewelry to me represents some accomplishments in my life which point to speaking up (necklace around throat). Integrating Donald will probably help that too, but at this moment I have a difficult time with admitting I am that too, but dreams don’t lie. LOL!

 

I Note That He Is Circumcised

A female, 69, from Colorado, liberal – Td125

I’m in a bathtub with Donald Trump. He tells me to wash my hair. Melania sits on the toilet with the cover down and tries to make nice. He’s not being sexual with me. Maybe I’m not attractive enough for him to notice. I tell Melania he’s my father. I know no good will come of this. I note that he is circumcised because I know people will ask. Why won’t he let me take a shower? I need to rinse my hair. There’s not much water. Should I pull the white shower curtain? I decide not to. It’s no use. He cannot win, I think to myself, trying to make it so.

Trump has invaded my private space, yet is not as aggressive or fearful as he seems in waking life . I don’t want him there but he’s more of a bumbler than a threat.

 

Working Very Closely With Him

A female, 53, from Mississippi, conservative – Td127

It was very good dream.Donald hired me to work very closely with him full time and most of what my job consisted of was entertainment. It seemed like many people were flocking around him at something like a resort/? Donald seemed to be so appreciative of my opinion 24/7. It was a very vivid dream and people were a little jealous of me and/or confused about the situation.

Yes my dream did change my perspective of Donald in a better way. He seems very kind and giving.

 

A Soft Kiss on the Lips

A male, 67, from Virginia, progressive – Td133

I am a trump supporter.. maybe more didnt want the alternative the night before the election he came to me in a dream and kissed me on the lips…his lips were very soft. i felt very close to him. I’m not overtly attracted to him in a sexual way

it engendered a feeling of paternal trust

 

I Am His Disgruntled Spouse

A female, 50, from Georgia, liberal – Td141

I dreamt I was in the White House as First Lady and he was my husband. Even in my dream I was disgusted by his presence and felt compelled to do everything in my power to keep him from becoming our President. I was a disgruntled spouse who was complaining about everything he was doing. Every time I looked at him I loathed being with him! We were getting ready to go to a show and he kept trying to convince me it was going to be ok? ?Strangely I had the upper hand and he was pretty much agreeing to everything I said and actually trying to be extra nice to me. Very vivid in my mind-Everything was pale pink like the drapes, and layers underneath were white with hints of old shimmering. Even the furniture was upholstered in sand pink and gold thread, the wood works had gold shimmery accents to it! He wore a black suit, with a white shirt and red tie. I was dressed in a white suit with gold shimmer..

I was just so disturbed by it it mortified me that we were even in the same dream! He seemed absolutely puzzled about his every move, almost apologetic about everything he said and I had a dog that was sleeping in my bed and I remember being very mean and saying I’ll just take the dog with me you can stay here in the White House and be president. It was a room with large glass panels all over and I felt like I had no privacy and then I pushed him out and locked the doors. He said, “at least give me the dog! Please be ready, I’ll see you down stairs.”

 

I’m His Girlfriend and Melania Is Super Jealous

A female, 26, from Nebraska, libertarian – Td155

I’ve been having basically the same dreams about Donald since before he was even president. It’s always where I’m like his girlfriend lol. Melania is always super jealous of me and everyone don’t get why he chose me. But I’m always super for it! He’s always very nice and treats me like a princess. It isn’t so real and I can like feel him lol there’s so many details I can’t even tell them all. It’s like it’s real life. Always me and him together like in a relationship. Very good dreams

Well. I have always been a fan of trump. Like his number on every fan lol. And his sons wife followed me on Instagram and we’ve talked online about her horse and dogs. And she personally thanked me for going up to vote for him. I love that family

 

He Accepts Me As I Am

A female, 54, from California, conservative – Td176

I was supposed to be at a formal presentation but, I was dressed in shorts and a tank top. I was standing in front of a beautiful building but, was anxious about going in due to my attire. As I stood there, President Trump comes over like we’ve known each other forever, takes my hand ever so gently and he sort of waves his individual fingers against mine. He then looked right at me and said “Don’t worry about how you are dressed, you have the same right to be here as everyone else.” That’s it. It made me feel good. Accepted.

I have been scared to death about the direction of this beautiful country. Too many agendas will only lead to chaos. I feel like the dream Trump was telling me that things will be OK and that all people eventually will be treated with courtesy and respect.

 

I’m His Child, and Powerless to Stop His Plans

A female, 49, from West Virginia, liberal – Td180

I was at a cocktail party at a swanky mansion, and Trump walked in, and had a different wife, blonde, and a different child, I guess that was me, although I felt like myself. He wanted u us to go see his property down by the river, so we got in the car and the blonde drive us around till we came upon a big Greek revival type building, sort of looked like mausoleum actually, and he said it was an apartment building he had bought and did I like it? I said yes, it was beautiful, and then several young women came bounding out, wearing bikinis and talking about what they had made for dinner. We almost hit the off kilter gate backing out of the driveway. Then I woke up. Earlier in the dream, I was being chased in my car by one of his security officers, and I sped up to get away and lost control of my car and went down a wooded cliff in the dark and thought I was going to die. I landed safely in a bunch of bushes, at the house that became the other dream.

I felt powerless to stop his plans, like a robot, or a slave. Even acting like I was a relative or a child made me feel annoyed because I am my own person wanting nothing to do with him. I don’t agree with him at all in real life but in my dreams he was like you will do it my way and be impressed or I will chase chase you off a cliff.

 

A Neighbor in NYC

A male, 50, from New York, progressive – Td158

I was walking down an avenue in Midtown Manhattan and I saw Trump walking alone. He didn’t have any protection or staff flanking him. He was wearing black sweat pants and a sweatshirt and he looked a bit forlorn. As he passed me I said, “Good afternoon, Mr. President.” He didn’t react. I think someone behind me said hello to him as well. I remember thinking why isn’t he wearing his usual suit? In real life, I have seen him in my neighborhood twice before. His daughter lives around the corner from me on 59th and Park and I have seen her frequently over the years since she was a youngster.

The dream did not increase any negative feelings re trump

 

An Honored Guest in the Great White Plaza

A male, 35, from Colorado, conservative – Td153

There I was with my good friend Eric. We were way up high on some kind of structure and seemed to be boarding a ride or a craft of some kind. Eric was steering the craft at first to show me how to do it. Then it was my turn. I took over the craft and started to bring it down to the ground below. It seemed like some kind of helicopter but very small as it only fit me and Eric side by side. When we landed I jumped off and Eric stayed on taking the craft back up. The moment I turn around I notice that I am now in an all white setting. The walls were white with columns leading to curved arches and they stretched around an enormous square plaza that had what looked like a white woven carpet for a floor. I then noticed that I was being guided around this area by Donald Trump, who seemed to be treating me as an honored guest. He showed me around and introduced me to people. We seemed to be talking candidly but I cannot recall what about. After we left the great white plaza Donald guided me through what seemed to be a naval vessel. We kept going up until we reached a compartment that appeared to be multi-functional. Donald left me at a table with close to a dozen people, all who had communication devices in their ears. They were testing these devices and one of the devices had a distorted sound. Everyone there seemed to know me as they looked to me to figure out what was wrong with the device. I spoke into the microphone and made a few comments and then woke up.

I am not sure what the dream means, but after waking from it I certainly felts interested in the meaning. The feeling I had while in the dream was excitement and admiration as it seemed that I was being treated with great honor and respect in what seemed like a setting full of very important people.

 

Something 14.5 Inches Exactly

A female, 29, from US, moderate – Td188

I wasn’t going to share this but here it goes… I was at some political/social event and happened to meet President Trump. He said that he wanted to show me something that was 14.5 inches exactly. He then began pulling down his pants and said, “See, I told you it’s huge.” In reality it (his penis) was not. This is making me want to throw up typing this and I do not know why I had this dream. In reality I would never want to see that! LOL However, I specifically remember seeing the number 14.5, so that could mean something. I don’t recall ever seeing anything that connects to the number 14.5 in relation to Trump or in my life.

I think this dream is hinting at exaggeration of some kind. Maybe making something out to be bigger than it actually is or expecting too much of a certain situation. I’m not really sure what triggered me to have this dream.

 

I Cannot Bring Myself to Say the Words

A female, 55, from California, moderate – Td194

In my dream, my 7/8th grade students are to be heading out on a field trip. I am standing in the parking lot waiting for the drivers to file out. Donald Trump has his driver-side door open standing between it and the car gesticulating to the bystanders. I want him to get in the car and drive my students to the destination. However, I cannot bring myself to say the words, “President Trump” in order to get his attention and tell him to get in the car and drive it. Instead, I call out, “The car needs to be moving; we need to get to our destination.” Nothing happens. Trump keeps talking and waving his hands and is standing wedged between the open black car door. I try again. I yell out, “Get in the car and get it moving; the students need to get to their field trip.” He doesn’t stop talking. I turn to someone standing next to me and I ask them, “Could you walk over to him and tell him he needs to drive the car – I can’t get his attention, and I just can’t bear to call out the name ‘President Trump.'” I woke up and my dream was so real I am still bothered by it.

As far as what triggered it, well I have been watching lots of youtube videos regarding Trump, so that could have triggered it.

 

A Game of Him Trying to “Win” Me Over

A female, 22, from Georgia, moderate – Td195

He was coming to an event and he was driving through a body of water. The water would part and people would walk through then a wave would come and then it would part and his limo drove through. We were in a huge colosseum listening to him talk. Then there was an after party and he came up to me wanting my number- I am not a Trump fan and I expressed that. It then turned into a game of him trying to “win” me over. My old boyfriend was there, he is a Trump supporter, and Trump told him he wasn’t interested in talking. This went on the entire night until I left the party.

I have no idea what triggered the dream. I did not run into my ex and I try to avoid Trump news.

 

Married to the President with a Baby Carrot Penis

A female, 54, from Florida, moderate – Td197

I dreamt I was married to Donald Trump and he wore pajamas that look like his regular clothes and his penis was a baby carrot. He also sent me to Victoria’s Secret to buy my inauguration dress with a black American Express card that said president of the United States of America. I told him Victoria secret didn’t carry plus size clothes and he said they do now. I went to Victoria’s Secret and they do not carry plus size clothes and they said they would get them I had my own American Express card that said Mrs. president of the United States of America and paid for peoples dinner at the mall where the Victoria’s Secret’s was with my black American Express card. I also dreamt of the inauguration in the White House inside was kind of tacky and dirty. The funniest part was Barbara Bush was sleeping in a cot in the hallway and blue pajamas with her pearls on her neck. And as I walk down the hallway all the other first ladies are sleeping on cots in the hallway

I’m pretty sure that I manifested trumps hatred of fat women and the tackiness of his wife’s clothing. I’m also pretty sure that the baby carrot penis had to do with eating some before bed and having a diverticulitis attack in real life. It’s also the first time I have proof that o dream in color! The carrot was orange

 

From participants living in countries outside the US:

Everyone Is Blindly Praising Him

A male, 17, from Denmark – Td140

I dreamt that I was in a high school class and donald trump was also attending this class, it was an older version of him and he had a lot more wrinkles and his skin was more orange, he seemed like he was disgusted of everyone in that class and started criticizing us and telling us what to do but indeed everyone was blind about it and started praising him and saying the famous sentence: make America great again. AWKWARD

I think it really reflects the reality of things, in a more concrete way and that a lot of people are blind about the bad deeds of Donald trump.

 

Trapped at School by a Gunman

A female, 18, from Canada, liberal – Td184

I was watching a movie in what seemed like an elementary school classroom. It was brightly lit, and someone was handing out fruit leather to us in our desks. When I left the classroom, I found myself in a stairwell as all the doors mechanically snapped shut. I somehow knew that there was a man with a gun in the building, and that I was trapped in that particular flight of stairs. I also knew that Melania Trump was a few flights above me, also locked in. Somehow I sensed that the gunman was Trump, but he didn’t know that Melania was trapped in the stairwell along with the rest of us. I should mention that the stairwells were sparsely populated, with only about 3 people locked in each flight of stairs. I woke up before anything more could happen.

I am firmly liberal (democratic to Americans), and staunchly oppose Trump’s policies. Since he has been inaugurated I have felt extremely uneasy, and it grows with each day. It’s possible that this dream was an expression of that anxiety, or perhaps it foreshadows the destruction of the school system under Trump? Haha not sure.

 

Does He Have Manipulative Superpowers?

A male, 31, from Malta, progressive – Td172

Donald Trump was my Flatmate, which in my dream was more of a background information, because the dream setting was some private party of his somewhere else. Everything was super luxurious, sunny, nice snacks, and he was really nice to me, showing me around and being attentive. In my dream I knew that I actually am against Donald Trump, but for some reason meeting him in person I actually liked him. I was wondering if he had manipulative superpowers of some sort, because it didn’t make any sense that I got along with him so well. I met his family, all were very nice too. I kept my resentments against them hidden and took part in conversations. I had the feeling I saw the human sides in them, everyone thinking they are actually doing the right thing, being good people, but getting it all wrong because they live in this super rich bubble, disconnected from the real world. Later more people joined the party, even an old friend of mine. We got a bit drunk and at one point I told him that Trump is actually sharing a flat with me at the moment and we both laughed at the absurdity of it.

I was surprised to see how quickly I somehow changed side, just by being invited to a party of his, apparently lulled in by the luxury of it all (I actually don’t even like luxury very much). There was this nagging feeling in the back of my head that it is wrong to be nice to them, but it felt extremely difficult to take a position in that setting (or even remember what my position really was).

 

Sleeping With Him

Female, 15, from Ireland, moderate – Td131

I had to sleep with Donald trump. There were no beds left to sleep in so i had to sleep with Donald.

Maybe because i thought about donald trump a lot and I’m still okay with Donald.

 

He Was Very Sweet

A female, 21, from the Philippines, moderate – Td112

It was a very long dream, and Donald Trump was only a part of it. I remember he was courting me, he was very sweet to me, and wanted to have an affair with me. I knew we had so much age gap, and that I am not suited to be his wife, so I just laughed but I was flattered that he was being that way to me. I dont want to have an affair with him though. Lol

I dont know what it means, and I didnt even think of him the night before. But that dream made me ponder that he has a soft but impulsive side to him.

 

Trapped in a Marriage With a Narcissist

A female, 26, from New Zealand, liberal – Td181

I was married to Trump and we were at some kind of social gathering. I was sitting next to an old school friend, talking to her, when I heard a verbal attack outside and saw that a group of African people were fighting with Trump. They appeared to be insulted by what he was saying and then they left and Trump came back inside. He sat down next to me and I asked him whether it had been taken out of context or had he said something insulting? He answered that it had been insulting but that he didn’t care. I was mortified that I could be married to someone like this and I angrily expressed my feelings, and then I said something like “Donnie, Sean, whatever your name is!” (Sean is the name of my partner – who is nothing like Trump!) – I then left and spoke to my old school friend and described how trapped I felt. It then changed to another aspect of this gathering… Melania Trump was there and she was ordering me drinks, and then she was standing on the bar table and dancing. I remember eating lots of cake.

Thoughts of narcissism may have triggered it – my mother in law is a narcissist (has tried to ruin my relationship with her son) and I’m reading a book titled ‘the narcissist next door’ published in 2014, it talks about Trump in its beginning pages (before he became president!) and describing him as a kind of poster boy narcissist (which I think he is) and he is using fear to divide and conquer. It’s very sad.

 

His Head Looks Like Crumbly Rubber With a Bad Toupee

A male, 63, from Thailand, moderate – Td151

I’m on Trump Island. It’s supposed to be a big luxury celebrity deal, a kind of trip to fantasy island, but it’s just a rough, flat, windswept space surrounded by gray sea with some decrepit buildings on it. People in long overcoats are moving around with no sense of direction, and there’s a feeling of something going on, something important but unclear. Trump is in a kind of lounger next to me, and he’s really anxious and upset that it isn’t going well. He’s on the verge of tears. His head looks like it’s made of crumbly rubber, with a bad toupee, but I know it’s really him. He’s started clinging to me, and crying. I’m embarrassed to be there, but I try to comfort him. Later I’m crying out “Donny! Donny!” because they’re asking me for a ticket I don’t have.

The dream means I’m seeing too damn much Trump on the internet. I’ve never dreamt about a world leader before. I still hate the fucker. Slightly more, if anything, for wasting my valuable dream time.

 

Note: this essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on April 26, 2017.