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.

 

Your Dream Journal: A Gift to Future Researchers

Your Dream Journal: A Gift to Future Researchers by Kelly BulkeleySimple steps you can take to help the future study of dreams.

Sooner or later, people who keep a dream journal realize they are creating a document of more than just personal interest.  They realize their journal is an amazing window into the lived experiences of a unique individual, offering potential insights for psychology, history, anthropology, and many other fields. And they wonder if it would be helpful, under the right conditions, to offer their journals to researchers for study and exploration.

It’s true, dream journals can be profoundly helpful to researchers who want to better understand the powers of the human mind. Some of the most important questions about the nature and meaning of dreams can only be answered by looking closely at the natural flow of dreaming during the course of a person’s life—that is, by looking at a well-tended dream journal.

This, I believe, is the most exciting horizon in the future study of dreams, and we can make huge progress in this direction by gathering high-quality journals from diverse people and exploring them with a variety of creative methods of analysis.

Not everyone who keeps a journal wants to go down this path, and that’s fine. The primary audience of a dream journal is the dreamer him or herself, and it really doesn’t have to expand any further than that.

But if you do have an interest in contributing your journal to the general study of dreams, there are a few simple steps you can take to prepare your journal, and yourself, for the process.

1. Record your dreams well.

The goal is to record your dreams in a way that works best for you, and that researchers can understand and study. Legible handwriting is a good start; many great projects begin with nothing more than a collection of handwritten journals. Audio recordings are another possibility. A file written in a digital word processing format is ideal, and most researchers will want to study a digital transcription of the dreams, in addition to the original recordings.

Make sure to include the date of the dream with each report. Some people date each dream from the day of the morning they wake up; I date my dreams from the day of the night I go to sleep. Either way is fine, just be clear and consistent.

At this point, English is the most widely used language for scholarly analysis.  That will eventually change, but in the meantime, the ideal formatting of your journal would include the original language(s) of the dreams, along with an English translation if needed.

Each dream report should be just that, a report of a dream. It’s best if you include no associations, memories, or comments in the report. Just the dream, please. All of the further associations, etc., can be included in a separate file (see below).

The most helpful dream reports are written in as much detail as possible, especially about the settings, characters, thoughts, and feelings you experience within the dream. And, although it’s not necessary, I think it’s best to report the dream in the present tense—“I see my friend and we say hello,” rather than “I saw my friend and we said hello.”

2. Include additional material.

If you have the time and willingness to collect additional information about your dreams and their context in your life, that would of course be of great interest to anyone studying your journal. The key here is to be organized, and make it clear how the extra material is connected to the dream reports. Otherwise, a researcher could easily get overwhelmed by all the non-dream information, and lose track of the dreams themselves.

It’s helpful, both for the dreamer and for researchers, to know the following: 1) The location of where you were sleeping when you had the dream (the city is usually enough) and the level of familiarity (e.g. home vs. a hotel); 2) The length and quality of your sleep during the night of the dream; 3) The ages of the characters in the dream and their relations to you in waking life.

Drawings, sketches, and diagrams can be very effective for some people in describing their dreams.

Most researchers will be curious about your personal background, family upbringing, etc., so you might consider writing a brief account of your life, sharing whatever you think is most relevant for understanding your dreams.

3. Think about what you want.

Before contacting a researcher, make sure you’ve given some thought to the arrangements you would like to have in place. You should be aware that, sadly, there are very few institutional resources in the world devoted to the study of dreams. Most libraries, universities, and schools of psychology do not have the facilities or financial resources to accept donations of dream journals. However, there are individual scholars in various fields who have experience in working with participants in projects like this. Ideally they would be able to help you with expenses for formatting, translation, etc.

There is currently no commercial value to dream journal data.  Most people are content with two non-financial benefits from the research process. First, they receive a greatly expanded vision of the meaningful patterns in their dreams. No researcher can ever predict where exactly the process will lead, but most people find intrinsic satisfaction in learning more about the deeper meanings of their dreams.

Second, they enjoy the feeling of tangibly helping the cause of dream research and broadening public awareness of dreaming. Once someone learns from personal experience about the transformative powers of dreaming, they naturally wonder how the world might change if more people became familiar with this potent inner source of creativity….

Very important: Think about how much confidentiality screening you want for your dreams. Some people do not mind allowing others to read their “raw” dream reports, while other people prefer to delete some passages and change the names of people and places, to preserve their privacy and the privacy of others. Once the real names in your dreams have been replaced with pseudonyms, it becomes difficult if not impossible to identify with certainty the real characters in the dreams.

And if there are a few dreams in the journal you simply don’t want anyone else to see, that’s okay, go ahead and remove them from what you share.

4. Make sure the arrangements are fair, ethical, and mutual.

Only get involved with researchers you trust. Make sure they understand that if at any point you want to end the research process, that’s it, you’re done, no questions asked.

Take a look at the ethics statement of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and confirm that anyone you deal with is acting in accordance with these principles.

The researchers should report any significant findings to you, and they should consult with you on possible publications that reference your dreams. If you request, the researchers should treat you as a co-investigator, offering you regular updates and opportunities for your feedback and giving you as much public credit as you want to receive.

Your dreams, and your dream journal, are primarily for you. That’s a foundational principle, never to be forgotten. And, in addition to that, beyond the sphere of your personal life, your dreams have an amazing potential to teach many important lessons to other people, now and far into the future.

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Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on November 2, 2018.