The Dreams of a Sight-Impaired Person

The Dreams of a Sight-Impaired Person by Kelly BulkeleyA study from 2015 about the distinctive patterns in the dreams of “Jasmine,” a young sight-impaired musician.  First presented at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Introduction

This presentation demonstrates the use of a digital word search method to study 800 dreams recorded in a personal journal over a period of several years by a female participant.  A “blind” analysis, focusing exclusively on the frequencies of word usage in her dreams, enabled several accurate predictions about her waking life, including the fact that she has been sight-impaired since early childhood.

Methods

The word search method I will describe has relevance for researchers from any background who are interested in the systematic study of dream content.  The great advantage of quantitative approaches to the study of dreams, like the Hall and Van de Castle system, is that they provide objective statistical results that other researchers can compare, replicate, and extend.  However, there are serious disadvantages to traditional hand-coding methods—they are time-consuming, labor-intensive, hard to learn, and vulnerable to problems with inter-coder reliability.  Particularly when the coding systems being employed are untested or idiosyncratic, the results can be disappointing.  Digital word search methods provide a viable alternative: they are fast, easy to use and share, and reliably consistent in their results.  Of course, such methods do not supplant other approaches to dream research.  Digital tools are best used as complementary resources in the study of dreams, providing an empirically grounded assessment of basic patterns of dream content.

Over the past several years, and usually in collaboration with G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, I have pursued several studies using word search methods to analyze particular sets or series of dreams:

The Religious Content of Dreams: A New Scientific Foundation. Pastoral Psychology 58(2): 93-101.

[Merri, Barb Sanders]

Seeking Patterns in Dream Content: A Systematic Approach to Word Searches. Consciousness and Cognition 18: 905-916.

[Paul, HVDC Male and Female Norms]

Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach. (co-authored with G. William Domhoff).  Dreaming 20(2): 77-95.

[Van]

Dreaming in Adolescence: A “Blind” Word Search of a Teenage Girl’s Dream Series. Dreaming 22(4): 240-252.

[Bea]

Digital Dream Analysis: A Revised Method. Consciousness and Cognition 29: 159-170.

[The Engine Man, Barb Sanders, HVDC Male and Female Norms]

All of these studies, and several others not yet published, have led to new insights about using word search methods to identify meaningful patterns in dream content.  I have focused special attention on projects using a “blind analysis” framework in which I start with as little information as possible about the dreamers, focusing exclusively on the statistical frequencies of word usage in their dreams.  I make a point of knowing nothing about the dreamers’ personal lives, and I do not read the narratives of their dreams.  This approach imposes an artificial set of constraints that concentrates all my analytic attention on the word usage frequencies.  By bracketing out every other source of information, I try to glean as many insights as possible from the word usage patterns alone.  The present study is the latest in this series of word search investigations.

Participant

“Jasmine” (not her real name) contacted Domhoff in 2014 and offered to share her lengthy dream journal with him for research purposes.  He then contacted me, and with her permission we arranged a blind analysis process whereby I uploaded four sets of Jasmine’s dream reports into the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) in order to perform the subsequent word searches.  I knew nothing about Jasmine besides her being female, and my only other bit of knowledge was that the four different sets of her dreams followed a chronological order.

Procedure

Once the dream reports were uploaded, I used the SDDb’s 2.0 word search template to calculate the word usage frequencies for each of 40 categories (many of which overlap with Hall and Van de Castle categories), for each of the four sets of dreams.  I then compared the results with the SDDb Baselines, a large collection of “most recent” dreams from various sources that provides a measuring stick for looking at how a given set of dreams relates to what current evidence suggests are the normal patterns of ordinary dream content.  I also compared the four sets of dreams with each other, looking for patterns of consistency and variation from one set to the next.

Based on these word search findings, I formulated 21 inferences about Jasmine’s waking life.  These inferences derived from the continuity hypothesis that patterns of dream content accurately reflect a person’s concerns, relationships, and activities in the waking world.  I used as a working assumption the idea, supported by previous studies, that frequencies of word usage in dreams are continuous to some degree with the individual’s waking life concerns.  My inferences about Jasmine’s waking life were predicated on that assumption.

I sent the inferences to Domhoff, who forwarded them to Jasmine.  Once I received her responses, I was no longer “blind,” in the sense that now I knew a great deal about her personal life and could see where her waking life concerns had crossed over into her dreaming.  We engaged in several more email exchanges to answer her questions and learn more about various details of her personal upbringing and family background.

Results

Appendix 1 presents the results of the word search analysis using the SDDb 2.0 template.  Below are the 21 inferences I formulated based on the word search results, and Jasmine’s initial responses to them (in bold italics):

1. Jasmine is blind or sight-impaired. yes

2. Hearing is an especially important sense for her. yes

3. Jasmine has very close relations with her family.

Well, it’s complicated.  I would say that I’m close to some of them, particularly on my mom’s side.  My siblings live far away, and so sometimes I miss them and remember things we used to do together.  I have complicated relationships with those on my dad’s side in general. 

4. Her most important relationship is with her mother. Yes!

5. She is very involved with birds, especially chickens.

Yes, I had pet chickens almost my whole life growing up, and other feathered pets as well. J 

6. She enjoys books, reading, and writing. Yes

7. She is very active musically, especially singing and playing

piano.    Yes!

8. She is, or recently has been, a student in college. yes

9. She was raised as a Christian and she now regularly attends church.

Well, this is complicated too.  My family wasn’t really that religious, but sometimes we would go to church when I was little. 

Domhoff also asked that, in addition to making general inferences, I make some specific inferences based on comparing the first two sets to the third set, and the third set to the fourth set.

Looking at the time period covered by the third set compared to the earlier two sets of dreams, Jasmine was:

10. More fearful and anxious. Not sure, I can’t really remember.

11. But also happier than before.

           This is possible.  I started to gain more independence in this period, so I think 10 and 11 might both be true, to a degree. 

12. Less involved with her family. Yes, this jives with the above. J

13. Drinking more coffee. I don’t remember starting then, but I like coffee now.

14. More involved with piano music. yes

15. More involved with religion and church. Yes, because I started playing the organ. 

Looking at the time period covered by the fourth set of dreams compared to the time period covered by the third set, Jasmine was:

16. Less fearful and anxious. Not sure

17. More involved with her family. No, not really.

18. More involved with birds.

No, I didn’t have any pets, and my last chicken and my cockatiel died before this time.  This didn’t really happen, but I can remember dreaming a lot of dreams centering around forgetting to feed, or otherwise take care of them. 

19. More actively engaged with the public world (indicated by more references to movement, travel, work, clothing).   Yes, we could say that I gained even more independence at this time. This is when I got my first real job!

20. Still very musically active with piano and singing. yes

21. Even more involved with a Christian church. Yes, playing the organ and attending regularly, but not always seeing things like they do. 

 

Discussion

Of the 21 dream-based inferences about her waking life, Jasmine confirmed 15 of them as accurate (and 9 of 9 for the general inferences at the beginning).  She said she was not sure about four of the inferences, although she allowed that two of those “might both be true, to a degree.”  That would raise the total number of correct inferences to 17 out of 21. Either way, this is an accuracy ratio comparable to previous studies of the Van series (12 of 14 inferences correct) and the Bea series (11 of 15 inferences correct).

On the issue of her blindness, I based my inference on the fact that her frequency of vision-related words was lower than her frequency of hearing-related words.  That is a very rare pattern that I have only found in one other group—the blind people whose dreams Hurovitz and his colleagues wrote about in their 1999 study.  I’m not sure this will hold up as a universally valid principle, but in Jasmine’s case the relatively low frequency of vision-related words combined with the high frequencies of other sensory terms made it led me to infer that she was blind or sight-impaired in waking life.

In their 1999 study Hurovitz et al. found some evidence of continuity between blind people’s difficulties moving around in waking life and their dreams of movement and transportation.  I did not think of that when formulating my inferences, but now that I look at the findings with Jasmine I do see elevated levels of references to walking & running, falling, and transportation, compared to the frequencies in the SDDb baselines.

The accurate inferences about her family and her mother underscore the strong continuities between waking and dreaming in terms of social relationships.  This is one of the areas where dream content most directly mirrors the feelings and concerns of a person’s waking life.  Further evidence of the same point comes with the correct inference about chickens.  Such a high frequency of words relating to chickens and other birds is quite rare, and in this case it accurately reflects the emotional importance of her relationships with these creatures over the course of her life.

Jasmine’s extremely high frequency of references to art-related words involving music, combined with her high frequency of hearing words, suggested that music plays a big role in her waking life, as indeed it does.  It turns out that Jasmine is quite gifted musically; she sings, plays piano, and in recent years has been playing the organ at churches.  Her religious activities have in fact increased in recent years, as I inferred, but she expressed some discomfort with the doctrinal teachings at these churches.

The inferences about changes in her life from one period of time to another were less successful than the inferences about her waking life in general.  Jasmine disagreed with two of my inferences predicting that between the third and fourth sets she became “more involved with” her family and with birds.  One possible explanation for the mistaken inference is that I used the word “involved” ambiguously in the question.  Jasmine seemed to take it as asking whether or not she had more direct physical interactions with her family and birds.  To that question she answered no, she was not more involved with them in that literal sense, in large part because she had just started a new job and was away from her usual home setting more than ever before.  However, if I had phrased the inference to include not only “physical interactions with” but also “thoughts or emotional concerns about,” she may have responded differently.  At this key transitional time in her personal development, the rise in dream references may have reflected a greater emotional concern about her relations with family and birds, even though she was not actually interacting with them as much as in the past.  As Jasmine herself said in her response, her dreams at this time had many instances of worrying about her birds, despite no longer having any actual birds in her life.

A similar phenomenon arose in the study of Bea’s dreams, when she dreamed more often of her family and her pet dogs when she left home to go away to school.  Here’s a quote from the Bea paper: “In college Bea was physically present with her parents less than before, but she was thinking and worrying about them more than ever. Her anxious feelings, not her physical interactions, carried over into her horrible dreaming.” (248)  The two mistaken inferences I made in analyzing Jasmine’s dreams may, in retrospect, be consistent with what I found in the Bea series, namely that “dreams accurately reflect emotional concerns but not necessarily actual events.” (248)  They are more like a poetry journal than a newspaper article.

Limitations

There are several limitations to this study.  Jasmine’s dream reports were unusually long, so it’s unclear to what extent we can compare her word usage frequencies with those gathered from shorter dreams.  There may have been demand effects in terms of influencing Jasmine to give us socially pleasing answers (although she did disagree with two of my inferences and expressed uncertainty about four others).  The word search method does not distinguish between literal and metaphorical uses of words, and the analysis is vulnerable to distortions from dream reports that include spelling mistakes, non-dream associations, and extraneous comments.  These limits add a note of caution to any conclusions drawn from this approach.

Conclusion

This study of Jasmine’s dreams has shown that a blind word search method can accurately identify many important concerns in a person’s waking life, including her relationships, interests, activities, and personal attributes.   The results add evidence to support of the continuity hypothesis, and they shed new light on patterns in dream content among sight-impaired people.

Looking at the findings of this study in the context of the other word search projects mentioned earlier, I would like to close with the two observations.

First, these methods are helping to lower the cost of entry for innovative dream research.  Databases like the SDDb and Domhoff and Schneider’s DreamBank offer free and open access to large collections of dreams from various sources, along with powerful tools of word searching and statistical analysis.  In coming years there will hopefully be more online resources like these, with even better analytic tools.  This bodes well for our field in terms of enhancing accessibility and stimulating creativity among scholars from various backgrounds.

Second, blind analysis studies are the incubators of proto-algorithms for future technologies of digitized dream interpretation.  What I am doing when I perform a blind analysis is essentially the same as what a well-designed computer program could potentially do when presented with the same information.  My inferences are attempts, using high-quality data and systematic methods of analysis, to identify the highest-probability correlations between dream content frequencies and waking life concerns.  The more of these correlations we identify using blind analysis and other methods, the better those interpretive algorithms of the future will be.

 

Note: this paper has been posted on Academia.edu as SDDb Research Papers #4.

The accompanying appendix has been posted here.

 

 

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

A new study of a long-term dream journal from a woman who belonged for many years to a physically and spiritually abusive religious cult.

Earlier this year a dream research colleague, G. William Domhoff, told me about a new series of dreams available from a person willing to participate in a new experiment with “blind analysis.”  Blind analysis involves bracketing out all personal information about a dreamer and focusing only on the patterns of word usage frequency in the dreams.  These patterns become the basis for making inferences about the dreamer’s waking life concerns, relationships, and activities, which the dreamer is then able to confirm or disconfirm.  I like this method because it provides a very rigorous way of testing and refining my hypotheses about dreaming-waking connections.

According to Domhoff, the dreams came from a woman who is an “ex-cultist” and who has been keeping a regular dream journal for more than 30 years.  This immediately catapulted the project to the front of my research queue.  Here was a rare opportunity to study the dreams of someone from what sounded like an extremely unusual religious background.  What might a blind analysis of the dreams of such a person reveal?

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

The following is an initial progress report on what I’ve found so far.  A more detailed discussion will be part of a talk I will give in June at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Anaheim, California.

To make the analysis more manageable we asked “Beverly” (a pseudonym) to provide four subsets of her dreams, one each for the years 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016.  Apparently she has recorded a total of more than 6,000 dreams recorded over this whole time period, which works out to an average recall rate of about four dreams a week for 30 years.  Quite a prolific dreamer!  And quite an amazing personal document for her to reflect on the long and winding course of her life.

We uploaded the four sets of dreams into the Sleep and Dream Database and I used the SDDb’s 2.0 word search template to analyze each set.  The 2.0 template has 40 categories of word usage organized into 8 classes: Perception, Emotion, Cognition, Characters, Social Interactions, Elements, Movement, and Culture.  After creating a large spreadsheet with all the word search results, I compared the frequencies in Beverly’s dreams with the frequencies of the SDDb baselines—a large, high-quality set of dreams from many sources that I use as a standard of “normal” frequencies of dream content (presented in chapter 6 of my book Big Dreams).  I also looked at variations between the four sets of Beverly’s dreams, noting any frequencies that seemed markedly higher or lower than others in the same category.

A special challenge with Beverly’s dreams is their relatively short length.  The 940 total dreams across the four sets have an average length of 54 words, with a median of 43 (meaning half the reports are more, and half are less, than 43 words in length).  I typically use this method with much longer dreams, so I went into the analysis with even more caution than usual.

As it turned out, and as I will describe in more detail at the IASD conference in June, the short length of Beverly’s dreams did not impede the process.  On the contrary, this has been one of the most successful experiments of blind analysis I’ve done to date.

After I calculated Beverly’s word usage frequencies and made my baseline comparisons, I formulated a total of 26 inferences about her waking life.  To be clear, at this point I only knew three details about Beverly’s personal life: she was a woman, an avid dream journaler, and an ex-cultist.  Other than that, I was “blind” to her waking life circumstances and personality.

Of the 26 inferences I sent to her, Beverly confirmed 23 as accurate.  These included predictions about her personality, relationships, financial concerns, physical health, and cultural interests.

The three inferences she did not affirm are interesting, and may help me further refine the blind analysis process.  I’ve found in past experiments that I often learn more from mistaken inferences than from successful ones.

In the 1986 set of dreams there are five dream reports that use the word “earthquake”; none of the other sets of dreams use this word, which prompted my inference that in 1986 Beverly was “impacted by an earthquake.”  This was her response: “This must be symbolic of what I went through with the group in 1986. That was the year they hit bottom, including the murder.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

This aspect of meaning was not really part of my inference, so I don’t count it as a successful one, but it does shed light on the possible use of a natural disaster like an earthquake as a recurrent symbol for strong emotional concerns that feel profoundly disruptive and foundation-threatening.

The 1996 set of dreams had remarkably low frequencies of perception words, which struck me as significant.  My inference suggested that during this time the dreamer was “less perceptually stimulated.”  Beverly responded, Not sure what this means, but I was smoking tons of pot that year.”  Maybe that’s the connection, or maybe it’s something else. I didn’t phrase the inference very precisely, which made it hard for her to definitively confirm or disconfirm it.

The 2006 set of dreams had the highest frequency of animal references, which led me to infer that during this time period Beverly was “more concerned about animals (especially birds, cats, and dogs.).”  She replied, “Possibly. I had pet birds and was very attached to Rocky, my parents’ big orange tabby.”  I’m inclined to take this answer as a confirmation of my inference, since 1) she specifically mentions birds and a cat, and 2) she describes the kind of behaviors and feelings that I would generally include in defining the phrase “concerned about animals.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

What about the references to religion in Beverly’s dreams?  This whole series is an amazing chronicle of a lifelong spiritual journey.  Even if I had not known Beverly was an ex-cultist, I would have made it the top headline of my inferences that this dreamer had an extremely strong interest in religion in the early parts of her life.  It turns out that Beverly was deeply involved with a Hare Krishna group in the 1980’s, a group that took a very dark turn into abuse, violence, and murder, as she mentioned.  Her dreams track the course of her involvement with the group and her final escape from it, which has opened her life to a variety of new creative possibilities, also reflected in her dreams in remarkably accurate detail.

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

At the IASD conference I will talk more about the religious dimensions of her dreams, along with her social relationships and her “big dreams” (i.e., what she considers the most memorable dreams of her whole life).  I will then compare these results with those I’ve found in studying three other long-term dream journals—from Brianna, Jordan, and Jasmine (all pseudonyms, all in the SDDb).  My hope is to use this conference talk, and the feedback I receive from my colleagues, as a springboard for a deeper exploration of Beverly’s dream series.  Her journal is an incredibly valuable resource for the scientific study of religiously significant patterns in dreaming.

Note: This post was first published in Psychology Today on April 20, 2017.

The Religious Content of Dreams: A New Scientific Foundation

This is an article from the journal Pastoral Psychology 58 (2009), 93-106.  It was the first time I tried applying word search methods in the analysis of a specific aspect of dream content in a series of dreams from a particular individual.  Although I don’t foreground the idea, it’s an early attempt at “blind analysis” in terms of an approach to identifying continuities between dream content and the individual’s concerns and activities in waking life.

PP The Religious Content of Dreams 2009

Dreaming in Adolescence

Dreaming in Adolescence by Kelly BulkeleyIn the current issue of the IASD journal Dreaming (Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 240-252) I have an article with results of a blind word search analysis of a teenage girl’s dream series.  (Many thanks to the anonymous dreamer, “Bea,” and to Bill Domhoff for mediating our interactions.)  The article is my latest effort at developing a method of using statistical patterns in word usage frequency to identify meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns.  I think the results show that we’re making good progress. Here is the abstract of the paper:

 

“Previous studies of dreaming in adolescence have found that 1) shifts in dream content parallel shifts in cognitive and social development and 2) adolescent girls seem more prone than boys to disturbing dreams and recurrent nightmares.  This paper confirms and extends those findings by using a novel method, blind word searches, to provide results that are more precise, detailed, and objective than those offered by previous studies. The method is used to analyze a series of 223 dreams recorded in a private diary by an American girl, “Bea” (not her real name) from the ages of 14 to 21.  Accurate predictions about continuities between Bea’s dream content and waking life concerns included important aspects of her emotional welfare, daily activities, personal relationships, and cultural life.  The results of this analysis illuminate the multiple ways in which dream content accurately reflects the interests, concerns, and emotional difficulties of an adolescent girl.”

And here are the final two paragraphs:

“These findings underscore an important yet frequently misunderstood point about the continuity hypothesis: The strongest continuities between dreaming and waking relate to emotional concerns rather than external behaviors (Hall and Nordby 1972; Domhoff, Meyer-Gomes, and Schredl, 2005-2006).  Many of Bea’s nightmares do not reflect actual waking experiences, but they do accurately reflect the dire possibilities and worst-case scenarios that trouble her in waking life.  Bea’s nightmares mirror her worries about things that might happen, not necessarily any actual events that have happened.

“For clinicians, therapists, counselors, and teachers who work with adolescents, the Bea series adds new empirical depth to the idea that dreams are meaningful expressions of emotional truth, especially around issues of family history and personal relationships, and perhaps especially for adolescent girls.  It remains to be seen if word search analyses have any further practical value, but the results presented here should certainly encourage anyone who works with teenagers to listen carefully to their dreams for potentially valuable insights into their developmental experiences.”

 

 

Word Searching as a Tool in the Study of Dreams, or, Dream Research in the Era of Big Data

Word Searching as a Tool in the Study of Dreams, or, Dream Research in the Era of Big Data by Kelly BulkeleyI’m giving a presentation with that title on Saturday, June 23, at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, held in Berkeley, California.  The presentation is part of a panel session, “What’s New in the Scientific Study of Dreams.”  I’m giving an overview of the word searching method I’ve been developing over the past several years, with a special focus on four “blind analysis” studies I’ve performed with the help of Bill Domhoff.  A youtube video preview of the presentation can be found here.

Here’s how I define blind analysis in the paper:

A blind analysis involves an exclusive focus on word usage frequencies, bracketing out the narrative reports and personal details of the dreamer’s life and making inferences based solely on statistical patterns in word usage—not reading the dreams at all, and basing one’s analysis strictly on numerical data.  The aim is to assess the patterns of dream content with the fewest possible preconceptions, as objectively as possible, before reading through the narratives and learning about the individual’s waking activities and concerns.