Meditation and Dreaming

Meditation and Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyA new study suggests that people who are experienced meditators have dreams that differ in at least two interesting ways from non-meditators.  The study was conducted by Elizaveta Solomonova, Tore Nielsen, and their colleagues at the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at the Universite de Montreal.  Their findings shed new light on the interactions between meditation and dreaming consciousness. The results appear in the latest issue of the journal Dreaming (volume 28, number 2, pp. 99-121).

Twenty-two people (11 male, 11 female) with training in Vipassana meditation were given a procedural learning task, and then slept for a daytime nap in the laboratory.  Their dreams at sleep onset and upon awakening were gathered, and they were given a follow-up test on the procedural learning task.  The same protocol was used with a control group of twenty people (10 male, 10 female) who were not active meditators.

The researchers found many more similarities than differences between the dreams of the two groups.  Both meditators and controls were basically the same on measures of dream content, and their performances on the procedural learning task did not vary significantly.  This in itself is an interesting finding, insofar as it testifies to the steadiness and consistency of basic patterns in dream content across variations in personal circumstance.  It takes a lot to alter the fundamental rhythms of human dreaming.

The researchers found two main differences between the two groups.  The meditators had longer dreams, and more instances of friendly interactions with other characters.

The lengthening of the dream reports makes sense as a reflection of the meditators’ greater experience and skill at introspection, which would make it easier and more natural for them to describe their dreams in detail.  It might also correlate with longer dream experiences (i.e. not just longer descriptions of ordinary-length dreams), but that’s hard to determine based on this evidence.

The higher frequency of friendly interactions in the meditators’ dreams also makes sense as a reflection of the main tenets of the Vipassana tradition, emphasizing compassion towards others.

Perhaps the most interesting negative finding was the lack of higher degrees of lucid dreaming among the meditators.  Many studies by Tracey Kahan, Jayne Gackenbach, Stephen LaBerge and others have made connections between meditation and lucid dreaming, so the lack of a correlation in this study was a surprise.  And yet the researchers offer a plausible explanation, based again on the characteristic features of the Vipassana tradition:

“It may be that Vipassana meditation does not increase the frequency of lucidity qualities during dreaming because of its particular emphasis on bodily experience. Rather, lucid dreaming might be more prevalent among practitioners of dream yoga or Shamatha meditation because these are more directly focused on the cultivation of metacognitive skills, such as the observing of thoughts, images, and other explicit mental contents.  In other words, Vipassana meditation may be less likely than other forms of meditation to induce lucid dreaming because of its greater dependence on bodily self-reflection and lesser dependence on cognitive self-reflection.” (113)

This is a very important and helpful distinction to make, whether or not it’s the best explanation for the results of this study.  It’s always good to think about the influence of cultural variations.  There isn’t just one kind of meditation; there are many different traditions and lineages.  Once we acknowledge this, it becomes less surprising perhaps that a form of meditation emphasizing metacognition will lead to more lucid dreams, while a form of meditation emphasizing embodiment and compassion will lead to more dreams of friendliness with others.

 

Note: this was first posted in Psychology Today, July 11, 2018.

Plane Fiction

Plane Fiction by Kelly BulkeleyThe satisfying nightmares of Paula Hawkins’ novel “Into the Water.”

I mean it as high praise when I call a book “perfect for a long plane ride.”  To qualify for this lofty accolade, a book must meet every one of several demanding criteria.  The prose can’t be too dense, conceptual, or experimental; the reading has to feel effortless.  The plot should be driven by an ever-mounting sense of intrigue, mystery, and suspense.  There should be lots of dialogue, action, scene changes, and sudden revelations.  The characters should feel like a living presence in the reader’s mind.  The story must be emotionally intense, but it can’t be relentlessly gross, cruel, or perverse. This is the only time I consider reading contemporary realist fiction, which usually feels boringly mundane.  But for the purpose of totally immersing myself in a vivid literary world when cooped up in a plane for hours on end, this kind of fiction can do the trick.

I have two additional criteria that are probably peculiar to me.  The book should not be too focused on dreams and dreaming, lest I have to find a pen and start underlining passages and taking notes.  That would pull me out of the fictional world for sure.  Yet the book shouldn’t completely ignore dreams, either, because then I’m going to start wondering if the author has an adequate understanding of human nature, consciousness, desire, etc., and I’m pulled out of the story again.

All of which is to say, Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water (2017) is a perfect book for a long plane ride.  The new novel from the writer of The Girl on the Train (2015), Into the Water has everything I’m looking for in this infrequent but high-pressure situation.  Hawkins weaves an emotionally complex narrative about the experiences, memories, and dreams (more often nightmares) of a community of people living, and dying, along the banks of a river in rural England.  I didn’t take notes while reading the book, so I’m not going to quote specific lines, but at several points I remember feeling pleasantly satisfied as a character slipped into a reverie or was consumed by a terrifying dream.  In each instance it seemed just the right time for that character to have that kind non-rational experience.   Authentic moments of dreaming flowed in and out of their waking lives, enhancing the overall sense of enjoyable fictional immersion.

I finished the book about a half hour before landing,  giving me time to ponder the surprise ending and figure out how the story ultimately hangs together.

Exactly what I was looking for!

Note: Thanks to the bearded dude with the Blue Oyster Cult tattoo on his right shoulder working at the Casa del Libro bookstore in San Sebastian, Spain for pointing me and my wife to their small but excellent selection of English-language books.  He also recommended for plane reading the magically engaging Career of Evil (2016) by Robert Galbraith.

A Festival of Dreams

A Festival of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleySeveral hundred people from all over the world gathered in Scottsdale, Arizona this week to discuss the latest findings and methods in dream research.  The 35th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams  featured five days of panels, workshops, and artistic events.  A lively mix of academic symposium, spiritual retreat, and collective self-experiment, the IASD conference offers a stimulating variety of approaches to the nature and meaning of dreams.

Here are several highlights from the sessions I attended.

Remington Mallet, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin, described exciting new research on “the ability to communicate in real-time between sleeping and waking.”  This theme has been explored in fictional form in various movies and television shows, from “Inception” and “The Matrix” to “Dream Corp. LLC.” Mallet analyzed the sleeping-waking communications portrayed in these popular media in relation to current scientific knowledge about what is and isn’t possible.  Mallet concluded that the media portrayals are far ahead of the actual science, but new technologies are moving quickly in the very same directions envisioned by the movies and television shows.

Sharon Pastore and Tzivia Gover of the Institute for Dream Studies gave a moving presentation on the common themes in the dreams of those who care for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  Building on research on dreams and bereavement, they described how simple methods of exploring dreams can be helpful for the caregivers, whether professionals, friends, or family members: “Dreamwork can guide decisions in the care and communication with loved ones, as well as coping/healing.”  In additional to academic research, Pastore and Gover drew on personal experiences of caring for a parent with dementia to illuminate the value of dreams for the caregiving process.

Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, gave a fascinating keynote address on the role of sleep and dreaming in memory formation.  This has been a controversial topic in the field, with some researchers questioning the connection between sleep, dreams, and memory.  Stickgold granted that dreams rarely include episodic memories (i.e., direct, unmodified re-playings of a waking event).  But he laid out extensive evidence to support the idea that different stages of the sleep cycle are important for memory stabilization.  Sleep seems to help people better remember the emotionally relevant aspects of a waking experience.  He didn’t talk a lot about dreams, but he did note some studies “demonstrating the explicit incorporation of waking learning experiences into dream content… [S]uch incorporation is accompanied by enhanced sleep-dependent consolidation of the learning task.”  In other words, the more people dreamed about the learning task, the better they remembered it the next day.  The best part of Stickgold’s address, from my perspective, was his willingness to admit he does not have an easy answer to the “hard question” of how to relate the psychological experience of dreaming with the neurophysiological processes of sleep.  It was a refreshing statement of epistemological humility, and quite a contrast to the views of his predecessor at the Harvard lab, J. Allan Hobson, who had no doubt about the right answer to the hard question.

Linda Mastrangelo, a psychotherapist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, explored in detail a series of her own dreams in which she found unexpected connections with her family heritage, ancestral roots, and places of origin.  She combined psychology, myth, art, and sacred geography to trace out a map of her dreaming landscapes.  The frequency of certain places in her dreams inspired her to learn more about her own spiritual grounding in special features of the land, and to deepen her awareness of the wisdom traditions and ecological teachings that have grown around these places over the ages.  As Mastrangelo made clear, this is a process that anyone can pursue in exploring their own symbolic connections between dreaming and place.

Mark Blagrove, a professor of psychology and director of the sleep laboratory at Swansea University in the UK, proposed a theory of dream function that centered on the evolutionary value of empathy.  Drawing on the studies of Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley about fiction and empathy, Blagrove presented evidence in favor of a theory that telling dreams has the effect of eliciting greater empathy towards the dreamer, which strengthens interpersonal bonding and thus enhances reproductive fitness.  Blagrove made thought-provoking use of Mar and Oatley’s psychological analyses of fictional literature as a powerful means of simulating social experience and boosting our capacity to understand other people who are different from ourselves—that is, boosting our capacity for empathy.  After exploring the connections between empathy and dream-telling, Blagrove passed the microphone to Katja Valli, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skvode, Sweden, who agreed beforehand to offer constructive comments on the proposed theory.  This was an admirable exercise in scholarly dialogue, and a valuable opportunity for everyone in the audience to observe the kind of critical scrutiny that can help improve our ideas and sharpen our awareness.

Next year’s IASD conference will be held June 21-25 in the Netherlands, at the Rolduc Abbey conference facility in Kerkrade, about 200 kilometers south of Amsterdam.  The Abbey is a glorious 12th century structure where the IASD has hosted two previous conferences.  I can’t wait!

Note: this post first appeared on June 21, 2018 in Psychology Today.

Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition

Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition

Stanford University Press, 2018

This book describes an amazing yet true historical tale of Lucrecia de Leon, a poor, uneducated young woman from 16th century Madrid whose uncanny prophetic dreams brought down the violent wrath of King Philip and the Spanish Inquisition.

“Structured like a police procedural and delightful to read, Lucrecia the Dreamer applies concepts from history and the social sciences to a broader human story about the power of dreaming. A most impressive achievement.”

Leslie Tuttle, co-editor of Dreams, Dreamers, and Visions: The Early Modern Atlantic World

“It is an excellent scholarly work, but it reads like a novel of political and religious intrigue, for the scenes are stranger than fiction—even though they are a matter of historical record. Lucrecia comes through in the book as an uncommon person to say the least… Anyone interested in dreams should read this book.”

Patrick McNamara, author of An Evolutionary Psychology of Sleep and Dream

“While Lucrecia’s personal story becomes the framework on which the fault-lines of Spanish society are displayed, Bulkeley sees a bigger picture. Lucrecia had a special psychical talent for realistic and symbolic dreaming. There is evidence that she trained herself to go further, not only improving the power and duration of her dreams but also developing some control over the act of dreaming. This is important because every culture has stories of the transformative power of intense dreams. It is this last prospect that really excited the author and he leaves us with the picture of a neglected talent – one he calls ‘future oriented dreaming’ – that may, in the future, be cultivated and put to use in ways we have yet to fully understand.”

Bob Rickard, Fortean Times, four star review (out of five)

 

 

Link to a brief post I wrote about the book on the Stanford University Press author’s blog:

http://stanfordpress.typepad.com/blog/2018/02/the-prophetic-dreamer.html

 

Link to purchase the book on the SUP website:

http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=27061

 

Link to purchase the book on Powell’s:

http://www.powells.com/book/-9781503603868

Preparing for the 2018 Dream Studies Conference

Preparing for the 2018 Dream Studies Conference by Kelly BulkeleyThe world’s biggest yearly gathering of dream researchers, teachers, artists, and therapists is less than two weeks away.

The 35th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) will be held June 16-20 in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.   I attended my first IASD conference in 1988 in Santa Cruz, California, and I have only missed two since then.   This year I am giving several presentations, covering a range of current and emerging interests.  The conferences offer an ideal place to share new ideas and test future plans.  Many of my projects over the years have been the outgrowth and flowering of seeds first sown at an earlier IASD conference.  Below are the seeds I’m planting this year.

June 17-20, 8:00-9:00 am

Morning Dream-Sharing Workshop, with Bernard Welt

“Dream Journaling for First-Time IASD Conference Attendees”

This morning workshop is for first-time IASD attendees, who will learn a variety of methods for starting a dream journal, exploring the dreams that accumulate over time, and discovering surprising potentials for creativity and insight.  Attendees will be able to share their experiences and discuss common themes and questions.  The initial meeting of the workshop will involve introductions, questions about the conference, a discussion of initial interests in dreams, and a list of topics people want to learn more about.  The presenters will take time to introduce the attendees to the basic practice of keeping a dream journal, which some of the attendees may already do.  Also discussed in introductory terms will be the role of dream journals in history, art, religion, and science.  The following sessions each morning will provide ample space for the attendees to process their experiences at the conference, ask questions, share impressions, and correlate different ideas from different sources.  The presenters will make sure in each session to devote at least half the group’s discussion to various practical aspects of dream journaling, and the list of interests and questions that arose from the first session.

 

Sunday, June 17, 4:15 to 6:15 pm

Arts Symposium: Dreaming, Media, and Consciousness

“The Mythic Roots of Cinematic Dream Journeys”

The presentation will start with a discussion of the idea of films as simulated dreams (with “films” also including works appearing on television, some shorter than typical movies, some longer).  The presentation will analyze the elements of cinematic experience in terms of its historical roots in theater, myth, religious ritual, and shamanic journeys.  The focus in this first section will be the creative interplay of art and dreaming within the formal features of cinematic experience.  The second section will focus on two dream-related themes in several films and television shows that have deep mythic roots.  One of these themes is the heroic journey into the realm of dreaming in quest for something of importance or value for the waking world.  The other theme is the danger of becoming trapped in the realm of dreaming and no longer knowing what is waking and what is dreaming, or who is dreaming whom.  These two themes have alternately enchanted and terrified humans throughout history, as witnessed in various myths, stories, and philosophies around the world, and now in the movies and tv shows of the present day.  The power, mystery, and wonder-provoking weirdness of dreaming emerges very clearly in several films and televisions shows, including Dead of Night, Dream Corp. LLC, The OA, and Twin Peaks: The Return.  These and other works will be considered in terms of the two mythic themes of heroic journey and identity paradox.

 

Tuesday, June 19, 11:30 to 1:00

Religious Research Panel: Dreams About God

“The Dreams of God of Lucrecia de Leon”

The dreams of God reported by Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain, included dangerously accurate prophecies that brought down the wrath of the Inquisition.  This presentation explores the religious, psychological, and political dimensions of her dreams, especially the theme of dreams as speaking truth to power (drawing on the historical research I did for Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition).  The presentation will start with the historical context of Lucrecia and the religious dynamics of her life and community.  It will then look at the 24 dream reports specifically mentioning “God” in the main collection of her dreams, and discuss the main themes and features of these dreams.  This discussion will include use of digital methods of data analysis, Jungian psychology, cognitive science, and metaphorical theology.  The presentation will conclude with reflections on the psychological, political, and religious dimensions of dreaming in historical circumstances and in the present-day.

 

Wednesday, June 20, 2-3:30 pm

Dreamwork Panel: Theories and Work of Jeremy Taylor

“Creating a Dream Library”

Following his death, Jeremy Taylor’s massive collection of books and papers have been entrusted to me, and in this presentation I will share plans for building a library that will provide a long-term archive for Jeremy’s books and papers, plus my books and papers and other dream-related resources people have shared with me.  I will discuss the plans for this library in relation to Jeremy’s tool-kit principle #1 that ALL dreams speak in a universal language of symbol and metaphor.  That principle offers a key for understanding the nature and significance of Jeremy’s library (a vast repository of the world’s mythic, religious, and artistic traditions). I will also address Jeremy’s personal practice of dream journaling and its importance for an appreciation of his life and work.

 

What Dreams Reflect in Your Waking Life

What Dreams Reflect in Your Waking Life by Kelly BulkeleyNew research highlights 13 areas of continuity between waking and dreaming.

Since 2009 I have been experimenting with word search technologies to identify meaningful patterns in people’s dreams, using an empirical method that others can test, replicate, and verify.  In a recent unpublished working paper I performed a “meta-analysis” of these studies to determine the strongest signals of waking-dreaming continuity I have found so far.  Below is a summary and condensation of the initial results, sorted into three broad groups: Self, Relationships, and Culture.

Self

Professional/public identity: Dreams accurately reflect a person’s main activity, profession, or job in waking life.  Based only on the content of dreams, we can tell whether someone is an educator, a journalist, a soldier, a student, a scientist, or a musician (as examples I’ve found in previous studies).

Health: Patterns in dreaming correspond to various aspects of the dreamer’s physical and mental health.  Dreams indicate when people are depressed or anxious, when they have suffered a trauma, when they are injured or disabled, and when they are facing the end of life.

Personality: At least some aspects of personality are accurately mirrored in dream content, including emotional temperament, either balanced or turbulent, and sociability, either high or low.

Gender: An individual’s gender is reflected in dream content, and so are the gendered aspects of an individual’s interactions in the social world, either more male-oriented or more female-oriented.

Death: There is a strong correlation between the appearance of death-related words in dreams and concerns about death in waking life.

Relationships

Family and Friends: Dreams offer an especially accurate reflection of the most important relationships in a person’s life.  The more frequently someone appears in your dreams, the more likely it is that you have an emotionally significant relationship with that person, whether or not the person is physically present in your current life, and whether your feelings toward that person are positive or negative.

Sexuality: Patterns in dream content accurately reflect the level of sexual activity in a person’s waking life, both physical and imagined.  Romantic relationships and falling in love make a discernible impact on dream content.

Animals: People who have strong relationships with animals in waking life also tend to dream frequently about those animals.

Culture

Reading & writing: People who enjoy reading and writing in waking life also have higher frequencies of these activities in their dreams.

School: People’s educational backgrounds can be discerned in the patterns of their dreams, either highly engaged with schools or far removed from schooling and formal education.

Sports: Dreams accurately reflect people’s engagement with sports and athletics. Patterns of dreaming can identify people who are actively involved in sports and enjoy watching it, or who have no interest at all in sports.

Artistic interests: People who are engaged with art in waking life tend to dream extensively about art, too.  I found correlations between people’s dreams and their interests in painting, music, theater, literature, and poetry.

Religion/spirituality:  Patterns of dream content reflect important aspects of the dreamer’s religious or spiritual concerns.  For some people, their dreams reveal a deep involvement with a formal religious tradition.  For others, their dreams reflect a sense of “unchurched” spiritual curiosity and eclecticism.  And for others, their dreams indicate a generally low level of interest in religion or spirituality in waking life.

There are many limits to the use of word search methods in the study of dreams, and many challenges that need to be overcome if this approach is to grow into a generally useful tool for dream researchers.  But even with these limits, we can identify several strong signals of meaning in dream content.  These are the simplest, most obvious ways in which dreams accurately reflect people’s concerns in waking life.  Future studies, using more sophisticated tools, will likely reveal even deeper levels of meaning.

 

Note: previous publications on this material include 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016.