The Cultural Dimensions of Dreaming

The Cultural Dimensions of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyPsychologists and anthropologists share a lot of common ground when it comes to the study of dreams. Dreaming clearly emerges out of the brain, mind, and personal life experiences of each individual. Yet dreaming also clearly reflects the individual’s cultural environment–the languages, customs, concepts, and practices of his or her broader community. To understand dreams, we have to find ways of understanding both of these dimensions of meaning.

A new wave of anthropological research is expanding our knowledge of how dreams reflect and actively respond to cultural, social, political, and religious influences in people’s lives. Especially in times of collective change and crisis, dreams become a powerful source of insight into the dynamic interplay of psyche and culture.

At a recent gathering of professional anthropologists with an expertise in psychology, dreams were the subject of a lively panel discussion. The Society for Psychological Anthropology (SPA) held its biennial conference in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico in early April, and the session titled “New Directions in the Anthropology of Dreaming” was convened by Jeannette Mageo and Robin Sheriff. I was the lone non-anthropologist on the panel, and even though I knew most of the presenters beforehand, I was not really up-to-date with current thinking in their field. What transpired at this panel makes me very excited for the future of anthropological dream research and its potential to contribute to bigger interdisciplinary conversations about the nature and function of dreaming.

Bruce Knauft (Emory University) explored how the practices of dream yoga and deity-identification among practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism produce qualities of consciousness that Western psychologists have recently recognized as “lucid dreaming.” Knauft described the meditative practices, elaborate visualizations, and mantra recitations that Tibetan Buddhists use to achieve dreams of transcendent consciousness. Such dreams, he argued, can fundamentally alter people’s experiences of subjectivity and facilitate the realization of greater levels of self-awareness. Western psychologists are slowly realizing that cognitive processes like these are indeed possible in the sleeping state, in ways that religious traditions have been actively teaching, cultivating, and documenting for centuries.

Roger Ivar Lohmann (Trent University) shared a conversation he had about dreams and religion with one of his informants from the Asabano people of Papua New Guinea. The Asabano live in small hamlets in the forest, where colonial missionaries have converted many of them to Christianity, although with numerous hold-over characteristics from their traditional spiritual beliefs and practices. The Asabano take their dreams very seriously and regard them as valuable evidence supporting their fundamental beliefs about death, heaven, and the spiritual conditions necessary for good hunting. Lohmann described how the reality of dreaming for the Asabano creates a “night residue” effect in their lives—their memories of dreaming directing influencing their waking behaviors and personal ontologies. Especially during times of cultural crisis (e.g. the imposition of colonial ideologies and governmental controls), such dreams creatively integrate new experiences with past memories and traditions to produce what Lohmann called an “autonomic culture updating process.”

Matt Newsom (Washington State University) described his study of a collection of dreams from contemporary college students in Germany, with a focus on collective memories and identity formation in the shadow of World War II. Newsom gathered several hundred dreams from a school in Berlin and found that many of them revolved around struggles with resurgent German nationalism and violence towards immigrants and refugees. In this sample from people living in a predominantly liberal city, the students felt profoundly anxious about these cultural tensions, and they were trying to develop identities that were grounded in some other source of collective meaning and social connection. The question of “where do I belong?” seemed to be at the forefront of their dreaming minds, even though this concern was rarely discussed openly in their waking lives. Newsom said these findings supported the idea that dreams have value “for identifying unspoken social and historical anxieties present in a given society.”

Jeannette Mageo (Washington State University), the co-convener of the session, focused on the importance of image-based metaphors in dreams, and what they can reveal about the mental models we use to make sense of our lives. These models derive from cultural sources, and they shape how we think, feel, and behave. We do not accept them passively, however. Cultural models can produce tensions in an individual’s life, and these tensions are revealed with special clarity and eloquence in dreams. Mageo’s work with contemporary American college students has revealed that problematic cultural models of gender make it painfully difficult for some young adults to develop a strong and authentic sense of identity. In their dreams these models of gender (e.g., “super-masculinity,” “Cinderella”) can be observed, and they can potentially be changed through the introduction of novel metaphors and spontaneous imagery that challenge or defy the models’ strictures.

Robin Sheriff (University of Hampshire), the other co-convener, has been exploring dreams as a source of insight into the experiences of contemporary American college students with social media, celebrity culture, digitally-mediated realities, and emerging adult identities. In this presentation Sheriff described a subset of dreams from young women dealing with the theme of “stranger murder,” e.g., being randomly attacked by a serial killer. Sheriff explored the anxieties, tensions, and conflicts being expressed in these dreams, which relate in complex ways to the highly popular podcast genre of lurid stories about stranger murders. At one level, the dreams function as threat simulations in Revonsuo’s sense of the term, preparations in dreaming for a danger that might actually strike in waking. At another level, Sheriff showed how these dreams critique the cultural practices and social pathologies that give rise to those threats and dangers. Her larger claim was that dreaming offers a special window into the turbulent developmental dynamics of 21st century digitally-mediated subjectivity.

Douglas Hollan (UCLA) was the panel’s designated respondent, and he acknowledged that in recent years, the field of anthropology has not paid enough attention to dreams. The present panel was thus an important step forward towards encouraging anthropologists to pay more attention to a truly cross-cultural phenomenon, one that is deeply rooted in the minds and cultural environments of all humans. Hollan noted the recurrent theme of dreaming as a powerful resource during crises and conflicts, with both personal and collective aspects of meaning. To the degree that these meanings are brought into conscious awareness and integrated with waking life identity, a kind of natural therapeutic process can emerge with potentially transformative effects for individuals and communities. All of the panel presentations gave evidence of this possibility, suggesting many new paths for inquiry, exploration, and research.

Anyone interested in dreams will find the works of these scholars enormously helpful in understanding the cultural dimensions of dreaming. Based on the quality of this panel’s presentations and the mutual enthusiasm of the presenters, it seems likely the future will bring more discoveries and insights from this group and their colleagues.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on April 19, 2019.

 

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.