This year I’ve had the honor of serving as an advisor for three doctoral dissertations in the study of dreams. Dianne Jackie Frost at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Cynthia S. Sauln at Sofia University, and Mary Walsh at San Francisco Theological Seminary have done highly innovative work in exploring some of the most important and potentially transformative aspects of dreaming experience. Each of them has shown amazing devotion and diligence, and their findings are truly original contributions to the field.
Dianne Frost’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology is titled “Engaging With the Imaginal: A Study of Women’s Dreamwork.” Her study focuses on six women at a counseling center who participated in a group process of sharing dreams, exploring their images, and following their changes over a seven-week period (using methods drawn from the works of Steven Aizenstat, Jack Zimmerman, Virginia Coyle, Mary Watkins, and others). Each of the women came to the process from a place of pain and crisis (interpersonal violence, depression, addiction, body image issues, etc.), and Frost shows how their dreams accurately reflect their emotional concerns and give witness to their suffering. More importantly for therapeutic purposes, the dreams point the way towards healing, towards potentials for new life and new growth beyond the challenging conditions of the present. As the women shared their dreams and discussed possible dimensions of meaning, Frost found they developed a new depth of trust in their own strength, resilience, and creativity.
My favorite quote comes from the woman using the pseudonym “Cadence.” Cadence told Frost she had always looked to outside sources for guidance and advice in her life, but the insights she was gaining from her dreams made her realize she has a reliable source within herself:
“I felt like I needed someone else to guide me through, and this process really allows me to do that on my own. It’s like I’m my own innate healer, with knowledge and images that only I can tap into and create a relationship with and learn from.”
Nothing in Frost’s approach limits it to women with these kinds of problems; her way of working with dreams could be usefully applied with many other groups of people who are striving for greater health and wholeness.
“In My Dreams I Am the Hero I Wish to Be: A Mixed Methods Study of Children’s Dreams, Meaning-Making, and Spiritual Awareness” is the title of Cynthia Sauln’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). Sauln recruited 32 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who were willing, with their parents’ permission, to describe a vivid or unusual dream. She invited the children to draw pictures of their dreams, and she asked them to fill out two surveys designed to assess their spiritual and religious beliefs. Sauln says in her introduction,
“For the purpose of this study, children’s spirituality is defined as an awareness of the divine or something larger than themselves that can provide meaning for waking life events and understanding of the world around them. Especially for children, it is a personal experience that may be expressed as a ‘knowing’ and an interpretation of the mysteries found in nature, animals, relationships and connections with people, dreams, and/or in their religious practices and beliefs.”
Drawing on the work of Kate Adams, C.G. Jung, and others, Sauln argues that dreams can play a vital role in children’s spiritual development. She shows the close connection between spirituality, health, and creativity in childhood, with dreams as a mode of experience bringing them all together. Ironically, many teachers and parents were so skeptical about dreams in general that they would not give their children permission to participate in Sauln’s study, even though the children themselves were invariably curious about their dreams and eager to discuss and draw pictures of them. This made the data-gathering process much more difficult than Sauln expected.
However, there was a silver lining to these difficulties. Her extra efforts to recruit participants led her to ultimately gather a group of children with an unusual degree of ethnic diversity. There were several Hispanic children in her study whose dreams seemed especially significant in relation to their waking spiritual beliefs. In my SDDb research I’ve found some evidence of relatively high Hispanic interest in spiritually meaningful dreams. I wonder if future research from Sauln or others might explore Hispanic dream experiences in more detail.
Mary Walsh’s dissertation for her Doctor of Ministry in Advanced Pastoral Studies from San Francisco Theological Seminary is titled “Prophetic Imagination and the Neuro-physiology of Trauma in Substance Abusing Adolescents.” Walsh is a practicing psychotherapist whose doctoral studies have examined the theological dimensions of suffering, caregiving, and healing. For two years she worked as a therapist at a high school for troubled adolescents, with a focus on their dreams in relation to several other measures of mental and physical health. The students at her school came from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of them were suffering multiple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to talking about their dreams, she measured the students’ heart rate variability to track their neuro-physiological coherence during the treatment process. Walsh’s use of sophisticated biofeedback technology will make it possible to illuminate new dimensions of dreaming and its role in mind-body healing. I’m very curious to see what further uses can be made of biofeedback technologies like these.
Walsh has gathered an extremely valuable set of data that provides unique insights into the life experiences of young people at the most neglected margins of society. Although she still has some writing to do, her project is putting together a compelling argument in favor of the therapeutic effectiveness of group dreamsharing for this poorly-served population.
It should be obvious I’m very proud of these three researchers! Each of them has stayed true to her original vision and persevered in her scholarly work despite all manner of obstacles and static from uncomprehending administrators, teachers, etc. Their success bodes well for the future of dream studies.
Many years ago a student told me a story about her childhood dreams that still haunts me. It’s not a happy story—in fact I find it incredibly sad—but it’s kept me thinking about what we know, and don’t know, about the potentials of dreaming.
Wanda (a pseudonym) was a student in a religious studies course I taught for upper level undergraduates at Santa Clara University. The topic of the class was religious and psychological perspectives on dreaming, and we covered the history of Western dream theories from ancient Greek myths to modern sleep laboratory research. I encouraged the students to think about how the various theories related to their own dream experiences as one way of testing the validity of those theories.
After class one day Wanda told me that when she was a child, she often had dreams that seemed to anticipate future events. She didn’t think it was a big deal, and the predictions were often about trivial things, but she was always intrigued by the possibilities her dreams revealed.
One night when she was thirteen-years old, a few weeks before her 8th grade prom, she dreamed that her mother would be in a car accident the very night of the dance. In the dream Wanda saw that, for some unknown reason, her prom dress was in the car, and so was her mother’s collection of record albums.
She shared the dream and its strange details with her best friend, and they were both stunned when, right before the prom, Wanda’s mother did indeed have a car crash. Without telling Wanda, her mother had taken her prom dress to be hand-tailored, and on the way to the tailor she was taking her stereo and albums to loan to a friend. Fortunately no one was injured, but the accident seemed to conform very closely to what Wanda had recently dreamed.
At this point I should note something Wanda had mentioned in earlier class discussions, namely that she was raised in a strictly fundamentalist Christian family.
Excited by the weird accuracy of her dream, Wanda told her mother about it, and also about other dreams she felt had accurately foreseen future events. To her surprise, her mother became frightened and angry. She said she didn’t want to hear any more dreams like that. “I am not going to be the mother of a witch!” she shouted.
Realizing how upset her mother was, Wanda simply stopped having such dreams. She said it was like she chose to shut something off inside her.
And now, many years later, she didn’t know how she could turn it back “on” again even if she wanted.
In other cultural contexts, Wanda’s extraordinary dreams would be taken as indications of her natural aptitude for training as a shaman, healer, or diviner. But in the cultural context of Wanda’s fundamentalist Christian family these kinds of powers, especially when emerging in a female, were harshly repudiated as “witchery.”
It’s possible, of course, that Wanda made up her story. I have no way of independently verifying what she told me. She certainly seemed honest and sincere to me, and I saw nothing in her behavior during the class to make me doubt her character. She was a good but not spectacular student, quiet and reserved among her peers. She gained no special favor by telling me what she did. Actually, given that SCU is a Catholic school, it probably wasn’t a wise thing for her to share such a heretical experience with a teacher.
There’s no compelling scientific evidence proving that dreams can predict the future, although there is an argument to be made that dreaming has the adaptive function of simulating potential threats that may arise in waking life (Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli have done research in this area). But Wanda’s dream was so accurate and so detailed, and it involved a threat not to her but to someone else. How is that possible? We just don’t know. Current science cannot explain this kind of ability.
We do know, however, that humans vary widely in their dream recall, with some people naturally much more receptive to the products of their nocturnal imaginations than others.
We also know that some Christian authorities have a troubled history of demonizing unusual dream experiences and persecuting people, especially women, who show an interest in them.
And we know, thanks to works like Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams, a study of dream reports gathered in 1933-1939 Nazi Germany, that extremely oppressive cultural forces can disrupt people’s capacity to dream, scaring them away from their own inner lives.
In light of all that, I’m left thinking that Wanda was likely telling me the truth. She was a “big dreamer” with the misfortune to be born in a cultural context that was hostile to her gift.
I’ve just started writing a blog on sleep and dreams for the Huffington Post—let me know what you think! Initially I’ll focus on children’s dreams, using material from the book I co-wrote with my mother, then eventually I’ll broaden the scope and write about new developments in dream research and cultural expressions of dreaming.
Here’s a link to the first post, titled “Hey Parents, It’s Not ‘Just a Dream.’”
A couple of weeks ago Anne Hill, host of Dream Talk Radio, invited me to talk about the book I recently co-authored with my mother, Children’s Dreams: Understanding the Most Memorable Dreams and Nightmares of Childhood (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). Here’s a Youtube link to our discussion, which I thought was really fun. Below I’ve posted some additional review and endorsement comments about the book. I’m curious to hear from anyone else who gets a chance to read it!
“Dream researchers Kelly Bulkeley and Patricia Bulkley incorporate Carl Jung’s dream psychology in their new book to help children and adults understand why we dream and how dreams can unlock our creativity and make sense of our lives. Introducing readers to the basic psychology and neuroscience of dreaming, and offering analysis of several children’s dreams, this intriguing guide offers practical advice for adults to communicate better with children about their dreams, and how they can cultivate a child’s imagination.”
(ForeWord Reviews )
“The authors (Preparing Beyond Death) clearly state their mission in writing this book: to remedy the dearth of information children receive today about dreams and understand their dreaming experience. They also want to help parents, teachers, and other caregivers to respond to children’s conversations about their dreams as “an experience of emotional truth” and to help children use dreams to develop their powers of imagination. To that end, the authors offer a brief primer on Jungian concepts like “collective unconscious” archetypes. The book takes a more engrossing turn when relating authentic dreams and their interpretations, including fanciful dreams like “My good monster angel” (who fights the bad monster in a boy’s dream) or “the girl of the rainbow.” (a girl dreams she climbs a rainbow up to heaven). The most helpful section in the book explains techniques to help children discuss and understand their dreams, and touches on topics such as expressing their dreams through journaling, art, and talking to other people about them….Educators, psychologists, medical personnel will best understand and appreciate the presentation.”
(Publishers Weekly )
“Honest talk about dreams—this is exactly what this book invites. Why? Because dreams are essential to healthy development. Grounded in a wealth of research but written for a wide public, this book provides guidelines and illustrations to help parents and educators unleash the creative potential that lies within the nightly slumber of our children and youths.”
(Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Vanderbilt University, author of In the Midst of Chaos: Care of Children as Spiritual Practice)
“What a wonderful book! The Bulkel(e)ys, mother & son, have done it again—just like their brilliant book on the dreams of the dying, Dreaming Beyond Death, they have written another elegant, ground-breaking work—this time on the dreams and especially the nightmares of childhood—particularly the ones we remember for our whole lives. The prose is elegant and precise, and the insights are both gentle and breathtaking. This book belongs in the hands of everyone who is interested in the profound mysteries and prodigious gifts of dreams, whether they have children, or simply were children once themselves.”
(Rev. Jeremy Taylor, author of Dream Work and The Wisdom of Your Dreams; cofounder and past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD); and founder-director of the Marin Institute for Projective Dream Work (MIPD) )
“Children’s Dreams takes the reader on a beautifully crafted journey into the rich world of children’s nightly encounters. The book provides a step by step guide to help readers understand the many facets of children’s dreams and nightmares; an approach which is both well informed and sensitive. In so doing, the authors skilfully intertwine adult interpretations with the children’s responses, opening up these captivating and meaningful worlds to all. The authors’ impressive knowledge combined with a commitment to valuing the dreams of young people shine through on every page. The outcome is an indispensable overview of the underappreciated and often neglected world of children’s dreaming.”
(Kate Adams, author of Unseen Worlds: Looking through the Lens of Childhood)
In 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.”