(Santa Clara Magazine, Spring 2003, 8-11)
Are dreams meaningful revelations of truth, or just deceptive gibberish? That is a question humans have been debating for thousands of years. Some of the earliest written documents from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India are texts on dream interpretation that provide instructions on how to separate the sense from the nonsense in dreaming. Most cultures through history have agreed that at least some dreams are genuinely meaningful and relevant to people’s lives.
Over the past century, Western psychologists have used new methods to study this age-old question, and their research has confirmed the basic meaningfulness of dreaming. Clinical psychotherapists from Sigmund Freud on have found that dreams bear strong relevance to people’s emotional concerns and personal conflicts. For example, psychotherapists have repeatedly found that if a client is going through a divorce, or suffering an illness, or experiencing a crisis situation at work, the client’s dreams are likely to provide informative, insightful reflections of his or her emotional situation in waking life.
In addition to the abundant clinical evidence from psychotherapists, the meaningfulness of dreams has also established by cognitive psychologists who have studied long-term dream journals—personal diaries in which people have recorded their dreams over a period of years or even decades. Content analysis of these journals has revealed a remarkable continuity between people’s dreams and their waking lives. The characters, settings, and modes of social interaction in the dreams have clearly identifiable connections with journal keepers’ everyday waking experiences. Thus students frequently dream about school, parents about their children, athletes about their sports, artists about their creations, etc. The upshot of this research is, whatever it is you do in waking life, you probably dream about it, too.
Taking the last 100 years of psychological research as a whole, the evidence is quite strong that dreaming is not deceptive gibberish (at least not entirely), and it does have genuinely meaningful relevance to people’s lives.
Now that we have a well-grounded answer to that initial question, a new question can be addressed: What kinds of meaning does dreaming convey? Most researchers have focused on the personal dimensions of dream meaning—how dreams relate to the private life concerns of the individual dreamer (health, sex, family relationships, etc.). While I value and appreciate the work of these researchers, my own studies have followed a different path. I have become increasingly interested in the communal dimensions of dream meaning. My research over the past several years has been building a case for the idea that dreams offer meaningful reflections of the broader cultural, political, and economic environment in which people live.
As you might expect, this idea has struck many people (including a number of my fellow researchers) as highly implausible. How can dreams, the bizarrely idiosyncratic products of an individual’s sleeping mind, have any significance for the waking world of public life?
One way I have tried to answer that question is by studying people’s dreams during times of unusually intense political activity—namely, Presidential elections. I have done research during the past three election cycles (1992, 1996, 2000), and each time I have found numerous instances of dreams with explicit themes and images from the waking world political scene. By 1996 I had gathered a sufficiently large number of politically-related dreams from people all over the country to begin sorting them by theme and content into three broad groups:
Political cartoons of the mind: Dreams expressing in succinct and sometimes very humorous ways the dreamer’s waking life political perspective. Here’s an example from a 36-year old man from Florida: “I’m playing golf with Bill Clinton. I’ve heard people say he cheats, and I understand what they mean, because he frequently improves the lie of his ball. But he encourages the people he’s playing with to do the same. He says, ‘It’s just a game, and just for fun!’” This dreamer voted enthusiastically for Clinton in 1992, but in 1996, when he had this dream, he wasn’t sure if he would vote for Clinton in the upcoming election. The dreamer saw the golf imagery of his dream as an expression of his concern that President Clinton is a “cheater” who frequently “improves his lies” and then tries to smooth-talk other people into letting him get away with it.
Personal symbols: Dreams using the figures of politicians as “personal symbols” to express strong emotions that the dreamer is feeling toward some matter in his or her waking life. Here’s an example from a 55-year old woman from New Mexico: “I’m back in college, in one of the classrooms, and Bill Clinton is one of the students. Then he’s the teacher, and he asks me how alcohol manufacturers get us to drink so much. I say I haven’t given the question much thought.” This dreamer had long struggled with alcoholism, and in her dream she sees the President as voice of “executive authority” within her, a voice that is prompting her to think more carefully about why she drinks.
New political perspectives: Dreams directly calling into question the dreamer’s waking life political attitudes, leading the dreamer to think anew about his or her accustomed beliefs about a politician or a political issue. This example comes from a 44-year old man from New York: “I’m on a camping trip with the President and his party in a heavily wooded area. Suddenly, Clinton darts up a hill into the woods. He sees a bear approaching the camping area. None of us moves, as the President confronts the bear; Clinton is very expert and competent as he does this, not wild or frightened. He manages to drive the huge bear, the size of a Grizzly, into a snare set for him. The FBI in the entourage are angry at the close call, but the President seems unperturbed.” This dreamer said that from the start he had been skeptical of Bill Clinton’s leadership qualities, but he awoke from this dream surprised by Clinton’s swift, assertive, and fearless response to the threat of the huge bear. As a result of his dream, this man reconsidered his generally dim view of Clinton’s executive abilities, wondering if he had been overlooking the President’s skills as a fighter.
My next research project tried to build on those earlier findings by taking a different approach to the general question of dreaming and politics. Beginning in the Fall of 1996 I began gathering most recent dream reports from college undergraduates of varying political persuasions. In addition to writing down their most recent dreams, I asked the students a series of questions about their political beliefs and activities: were they registered to vote? If so, in which party? Did they vote in the election? If so, for whom? How would they describe their political views, as conservative, liberal, moderate, other? I then compared the dreams of 28 highly conservative people and 28 highly liberal people (half men, half women in both groups) and found the following:
People on the right had more nightmares and dreams in which they lacked power. They had a greater frequency of lifelike dreams. Female rights were especially anxious about family relationships, and male rights had dreams almost devoid of girlfriends.
People on the left had fewer nightmares and more dreams in which they had power. They had a greater frequency of good fortunes and bizarre elements in their dreams. Female lefts had an especially high frequency of good fortunes, and male lefts had an unusually high percentage of female characters.
What do these findings mean? When I presented this research finding at an academic conference in the summer of 2001, I said my pilot study was far too small to support any certain conclusions. However, to my surprise and amusement, this little research factoid—“Republicans have more nightmares than Democrats”—was quickly seized by the national news media and bandied about by pundits of all persuasion (Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Schneider, Bob Edwards, Peter Jennings, etc.). Despite my cautions, political partisans on both sides did not hesitate to assert their interpretation of my findings. As reported by UPI correspondent Mike Martin, Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman, declared “If George W. Bush were the leader of my party, I’d have trouble sleeping at night, too.” Not to be outdone in the game of “dream spinning,” Kevin Sheridan of the Republican National Committee quickly replied, “What do you expect after eight years of William Jefferson Clinton?”
As you can imagine, this episode taught me a humbling lesson about the manipulation of academic research by the mass media. But beyond that, it encouraged me to expand on this small but promising project and continue exploring dreams as a means of gaining new insight into the unconscious roots of people’s waking life political beliefs.
On a more sober note, I have over the past year been gathering dream reports related to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. As you can imagine, many of these reports have been nightmares—frighteningly vivid dreams of planes being hijacked, terrorists with bombs, tall buildings exploding, all the horrifying imagery of that unforgettable day. In a forthcoming book (Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares Into Visions of Hope, Paulist Press) I discuss these dreams both in terms of their relevance to the dreamer’s personal life and to the profoundly changed communal world in which we all now find ourselves. I have found that many of the post-September 11 dreams not only express the dreamer’s private emotions but also envision creative new possibilities for meaning and order in the life of the community.
This capacity of dreams to convey meanings of both personal and collective significance is beautifully illustrated in the experience of Mandy (not her real name), a twenty-nine year old artist from California. A couple of days before September 11 Mandy had flown to New York to visit a friend who happened to work in one of the World Trade Center towers. On the morning of the 11th her friend had gone to work as usual, leaving Mandy asleep in her apartment (right across the river from the towers), with plans to meet at the WTC for lunch. When the attack occurred, Mandy rode her bike to a spot where she witnessed the towers collapsing. It was several hours before she learned her friend had survived. That night, Mandy had this dream:
“I’m walking through a forest that has been chopped down. It is a sea of stumps. Every single tree has been cut. I stand in the middle, sobbing. Who could do this? I walk up to one of the stumps and see the huge beautiful spiral inside. I get lost in its magnificence. These trees are so old. I can see all of history in these trees, and I’m struck with the beauty and power of seeing this part of the tree. It’s a part that I don’t get to see. This spiral is taking me so deeply down into myself, to a place so powerful that it overwhelms me.”
Mandy knew right away that her dream was directly related to her harrowing personal experiences the previous day. She felt “so much calmer and clear-headed” when she woke up, and she said the beautiful image of the spiral helped her get through the agonies of the next day. She also recognized that her dream had a broader, almost allegorical dimension of meaning: Amid a scene of apparently total devastation and ruin, a previously hidden source of power, beauty, and strength is discovered. Mandy understood that this message was relevant not only to her but to everyone who was consumed by fear, confusion, and despair in the immediate aftermath of September 11. When she returned home she made a painting of her dream, and since then she has shown it in public exhibitions as a way of sharing its inspirational meaning with others.
My current research project on the social dimensions of dreaming is a collaborative effort with Prof. Tracey Kahan of the Psychology Department of Santa Clara University. Prof. Kahan has taught a class on Sleep and Dreams for several years, and one requirement of her course is to keep a sleep and dreams journal. At the end of Fall Quarter of 2001 Prof. Kahan and I gathered the journals of 22 students who volunteered to participate as anonymous subjects in our study. We are currently in the process of analyzing the journals for evidence of explicit incorporations of September 11-related imagery (e.g., hijacked airplanes, terrorists, Osama Bin Laden, etc.), and we will present our findings at the 2003 conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams, to be held in Berkeley from June 27 to July 1. In previous studies Prof. Kahan has examined the various types of thinking, awareness, and self-reflection that occur in dreaming, and one question we will be examining is whether dreams with clear incorporations of September 11 themes have distinct qualities of awareness as compared to dreams without such content. Do dreams with explicit images of terrorism have less self-reflection (because of overwhelming fear) or more self-reflection (because of heightened vigilance)? The results of our study should cast new light on this and other questions relating to the profound psychological impact of September 11.
My interest in how dream content relates to major events in public life is not intended to disparage the value of dream interpretation for personal insight. Particularly in the practical contexts of psychotherapy, counseling, and spiritual direction, dreams are a wonderful resource for individual growth and self-knowledge. My concern is to rather to complement the personal meanings with communal meanings by heightening people’s awareness of their deep and often unconscious relations to broader forces in their communities and in the world. Like many social commentators, I lament the tendency in American society to segregate private and public spheres of existence, and my research is providing evidence that even in the seemingly isolated realm of dreaming we are still dynamically involved with the political, economic, and cultural forces shaping our lives. My guiding belief is that the more aware we become of those forces, the better able we will be to guide them in creative and fruitful directions.