New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThis 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.

How Not to Raise a Witch

How Not to Raise a Witch by Kelly BulkeleyMany 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.

The Distinguishing Features of Big Dreams

The Distinguishing Features of Big Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyIf someone presented you with two sets of dreams, one of most recent dreams and one of highly memorable dreams, you could predict with a high degree of confidence which type of dream was in which set, based only on word usage frequencies.

The set with more references to flying, air, family, animals, fantastic beings, Christianity, and death is more likely to consist of highly memorable dreams.

This is a testable hypothesis that emerges out of a comparison of the SDDb baselines for most recent dreams (MRDs) and highly memorable dreams (MemDs), available here.  To be clear, it’s a prediction of probability, not certainty.  Some highly memorable dreams have none of these elements, while some most recent dreams have several of them.  But according to the SDDb baselines, it is the statistical tendency of highly memorable dreams to contain significantly more of these elements than we generally find in most recent dreams.

Whether or not this hypothesis has any practical application, it adds new evidence in support of the theoretical claim that dreams are meaningfully structured not just for the individual dreamer but also in relation to each other.  There really are different types of dreams, and their differences can be expressed in increasingly precise terms.

Other researchers such as Harry Hunt and Don Kuiken have proposed psychological models to account for different types of dreams (what Hunt calls “the multiplicity of dreams”).  I am not yet at the point with the SDDb baselines to feel comfortable engaging directly with their approaches, but that is definitely a long-term goal.

At this stage I want to look more closely at the higher-frequency MemD elements and try to understand what they might contribute to the dreams’ long-term impact on waking awareness.

Flying: Not all dream references to flying involve magical powers–some relate to the flight of birds, or flying on airplanes, or floating in water, or time “flying” by.  But many of the references are indeed about people flying magically, and I think it makes good sense that overall, MemDs have significantly more flying references than MRDs.  I would be surprised if it were otherwise, based on the recurrence of magical flying dreams through cross-cultural history.  Genuine flying dreams tend to be quite vivid and realistic, and it’s reasonable to assume that such unusually stimulating sensations would make a lasting impact on waking awareness.

Air: Some of the air references occur in flying dreams, but in most MemDs the air references appear in different contexts: the dreamer is struggling to breathe, or facing a tornado, or noticing the wind blowing.  I don’t know about dreams of wind, but certainly with dreams of tornados and potential suffocation the memorability of the experience is likely to be very high.  A tornado is the most powerfully destructive form of air in nature, and suffocation is a perennial threat to human life, perhaps especially in sleep for people who snore or have apnea.

Family: References to family members appear often in MRDs; they appear even more often in MemDs.   I think it’s fair to say that most people’s strongest emotional relationships (both positive and negative) are with family members.  Thus it makes sense that their appearance in a dream correlates with high memorability.  Looking in more detail at the word search results, references to parents (e.g., mother, father, mom, dad) tend to be the highest, suggesting that dreams in which the individual is cast as a child or in a child’s role are more likely to be memorable.

Animals: Based on any of several different theories (psychoanalytic, developmental, evolutionary), it could be expected that MemDs would have a higher proportion of animals than MRDs.  Psychoanalytically, animals symbolize powerful instinctual energies. Developmentally, animals appear more often in children’s than in adults’ dreams, and MemDs are often recalled from early in childhood. In evolutionary terms, animals in dreams may reflect ancestral threats that we are innately primed to notice and remember.

Fantastic Beings: This category by definition includes characters who are not “real,” so their appearance in dreams naturally arouses some degree of heightened awareness and emotional impact.  Many of them are perceived as extremely frightening and dangerous to the life of the dreamer.  I was surprised by the SDDb baseline results that the MemDs do not have more fear-related emotions than the MRDs, but perhaps what makes some MemDs different is the supernatural source of the fear. There is a connection to be made here with the notion of “minimally counterintuitive supernatural agents” as used in the cognitive science of religion–dreaming is a rich experiential source of people’s religious and spiritual beliefs about such beings.

Christianity: Many references to Christianity in both MRDs and MemDs are relatively trivial references to Christmas, or mild oaths, or a person’s name.  But more often in the MemDs there are direct references to interactions with Jesus, battles with demons, visiting heaven, and worshipping in church.  In a majority-Christian country like the U.S., where all the SDDb baseline participants reside, this seems like an expectable result.  Insofar as Christianity, like most religions, is concerned with deep questions of morality, suffering, and faith, any dream that refers to religious teachings is likely to register more memorably in the dreamer’s awareness.

Death: Whether considered in religious or secular terms, death surely counts as a major existential concern of human life.  Dreaming itself has long been mythologically associated with death, and cultural traditions all over the world have stories about dreams as a portal to the afterlife.  In MemDs the theme of death takes many forms: other characters dying or being killed right in front of the dreamer, dead relatives appearing as if alive (i.e., visitation dreams), and, more rarely, the dreamer him or herself dying.  When the prospect of mortality arises in a dream, it’s not surprising that the individual takes notice and remembers.

What do these seven higher-frequency MemD elements have in common?

For one thing, several of them involve “counter-factuals,” i.e., phenomena that are literally impossible in ordinary waking life.  Magically flying in the air, encountering fantastic beings, seeing people who are dead appear as if alive–these are strikingly anomalous experiences that stand out from ordinary life and make a big impression on memory.

Secondly, several of the MemD themes involve dire threats to the individual’s life and well-being.  Dreams of death, demons, monsters, wild animals, suffocation, and tornados naturally arouse a host of psychological and physiological responses that can literally seize the dreamer’s attention and hold it long after waking.

Thirdly, a few MemD themes relate closely to the prominent themes of children’s dreams generally, with more animals and higher family references.  As I noted earlier, the SDDb baseline for MemDs includes numerous childhood-era dreams reported by children and adults, so it is definitely skewed toward children’s dream content.  That means the differences between MRDs and MemDs could be explained as artifacts of the differences between adults and children.  I grant there will be a large degree of overlap between highly memorable dreams and children’s dreams–precisely because the most memorable dreams people often recall are dreams from childhood.

Not all children’s dreams are big dreams–but many big dreams are dreams that have been remembered from childhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art and Science of Dreaming

The Art and Science of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhy do we have dreams?  Where do they come from?  What, if anything, do they mean?  These mysterious questions have puzzled humankind since the earliest days of history.  The best answers, I suggest, come from integrating the insights of art and science.  Dreaming is rooted in the physical workings of our brains, and it expresses our highest spiritual yearnings and deepest psychological concerns.  In dreams the mind, body, and soul come together in a creative ferment, giving us new perspectives on the emotional realities of our lives.

Looking first at art, people throughout the ages have regarded dreams as a source of creative inspiration.  A number of famous works of Western art and literature were directly influenced by their creator’s dreams. 

Among writers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dreamed up several key scenes in her novel Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson had a dream about a divided soul at war with itself that gave him the core plot idea for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte drew upon their dreams for bizarre, symbol-laden images of melting clocks and floating bowler hats. In more recent years, a number of prominent movie directors have experienced dreams that influenced their films, including David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, and Akira Kurusawa in Dreams.  Contemporary musicians have also described their dreams as creative inspirations.  Paul McCartney had a dream that gave him the tune for “Yesterday,” and Sting’s song “The Lazarus Heart” came from a personal nightmare.

If we consider religion as another realm where humans express their deepest creativity, then we can see even more evidence of the inspiring power of dreaming.  In the Hebrew Bible, visionary dreams come to Abraham and Jacob, while Joseph saved his people by his ability to interpret dreams.  In the New Testament, prophetic dreams of guidance help Jesus’ parents before their child’s birth and Paul during his missionary travels.  The Muslim Prophet Muhammad told of his dreams in the Qur’an, and each morning he asked his followers what they had dreamed, so they could better discern God’s will.  Hindu and Buddhist mystics consider all of life to be a dream, a great illusion shaped by our desires.  Many indigenous cultures around the world have myths (e.g., the Australian Aborigine’s “Dreamtime”) and rituals (e.g., the Native American vision quest) to help their members learn more about the creative potentials of their own dreaming.

Do the insights of artists and mystics stand up to the findings of modern science?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  Based on the latest evidence from research in cognitive psychology, it appears that dreaming is a natural and normal aspect of healthy brain/mind functioning.  Not all dreams are heaven-sent revelations or artistic breakthroughs, but in general dreaming is an accurate and meaningful expression of our fears, concerns, conflicts, and desires in waking life. 

Since the 1950’s scientists have known about the different stages of sleep, and it appears that dreams occur most often during the stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  During REM sleep our brains are very active, but in a different configuration than in waking.  In REM the brain centers for instinctual emotions and visual imagination are highly activated, while the parts of the brain responsible for focused rational attention are less active.  This evidence fits the general qualities of many dreams—less rational, more emotional and visual—and it supports the idea that our capacity for dreaming is hard-wired into the human brain.

However, it is important to recognize that dreams occur in stages of sleep other than REM.  REM sleep may be the most common trigger for dreaming, but research has shown that dreams can occur throughout the sleep cycle.  This means that we still do not have a complete picture of the dreaming brain.  We cannot “reduce” dreams to REM sleep.

Most people remember one or two dreams a week, but that can vary depending on many factors.  Some people remember at least one dream almost every night, while others say they have never recalled a dream in their whole life.  Researchers have found that small efforts to pay more attention to dreams can lead to big increases in dream recall.  It’s like the movie “Field of Dreams”: If you build it, they will come—if you open your waking mind to the possibility that your dreams have something meaningful to say, you’re likely to start remembering more dreams.

When people ask me how to interpret their dreams, I start by emphasizing that only the dreamer can know for sure what his or her dreams really mean.  “Experts” like me can offer ideas and possibilities based on our research, but ultimately you are the final authority on your own dreams.

Sometimes dreams speak in direct and literal terms.  For example, you may be scared of flying, and thus you might have a nightmare of crashing in an airplane.  But sometimes dreams speak indirectly, in a language of metaphor and symbol.  Your nightmare of a crashing airplane may symbolically reflect your waking anxieties about your finances, your health, or a personal relationship.  To understand your dreams you need a flexible mind that can perceive these kinds of metaphorical connections between dream imagery and your emotional concerns in waking life.

One of the most important functions of dreaming is to look ahead, to anticipate what might happen in the future and prepare us for possible dangers and threats.  This isn’t a simple matter of “prophecy,” although that’s what ancient people called the same basic process.  Scientists today have found that many of our most memorable dreams revolve around visions of worst-case scenarios, and it seems that these kinds of dreams are like fire drills, getting us ready in case those dangers actually occur in the waking world.  Even though many of our dreams are negative and disturbing in this way, they are still promoting our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

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This article appears on pp. 22-23 in the August 2011 special issue on Sleep and Dreams in Vintage Newsmagazine, a publication in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Thanks to editor Betsy Troyer for inviting me to contribute.

Religious and Non-Religious People: A Survey of their Dreams

Religious and Non-Religious People: A Survey of their Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyPeople who are not Christian and not religiously observant report higher dream recall and a higher frequency of most typical dreams. That’s one of the initial findings from a study I’m doing on the demographics of dreaming, based on survey results from 2992 American adults.  Most religious traditions regard dreams as spiritually significant.  But the people who are most engaged with their dreams in present-day America tend to be those who are not affiliated with mainstream Christianity and who rarely or never attend worship services.

Compared to Protestant and Catholic Christians, people who answered “Other/None” to the question of their religious affiliation reported the highest frequency of dreams of chasing, sexuality, falling, flying, and being able to control their dreams.  Similarly, people who never attend religious worship services have higher dream recall and higher frequencies of many types of dreams as compared to people who attend worship services once a week or more.  These findings are consistent with the results presented in chapter 3 of my 2008 book American Dreamers:

“Non-religious people report more of every type of dream, especially sexual dreams.” (91)

That finding came from a survey in 2007 of 705 American adults.  The appearance of the same pattern in the 2010 survey suggests the correlation may be worth pursuing for the new light it can shed on the psychology of religion.

The new survey has the advantage of including narrative dream reports from many of the participants.  I’m just beginning to sift through this data using word searches and other methods of analysis.

Here are a couple of short nightmares from the “Other/None” people who never attend worship services:

“I often have nightmares about spaceships, or unknown forces coming across a horizon, often with a sense of impending doom. The anticipation of death lasts and lasts and lasts…eventually i wake up.”

“I was being chased by a huge blob monster that looked like purple jello. I shot it with a rifle, but it broke up into several monsters. I ran into a house that looked like a Disney castle, and it swallowed the house.”

Here are two from Born-again Christians:

“I was falling in a fast freefall with no end in sight and as I went further I know I was trying to scream but only a low gutteral sound was coming out. I heard myself make that noise and sat up sweating and scared.”

“I was chased and attacked by demons. I tried to “rebuke” them in the name of Christ, as I’ve heard you should do in real life if ever confronted by demons, but they just kept coming toward me. They were hitting me, throwing me around and otherwise tormenting me. I woke up in a cold sweat; only time I can remember that happening. I was a teenager at the time, but I was so freaked out, I woke up my mother. She came and slept in my bed the rest of the night.”

Dreaming in Christianity and Islam

Dreaming in Christianity and Islam by Kelly BulkeleyAt a time when Christianity and Islam appear to be mortal enemies locked in an increasingly bloody “clash of civilizations,” new insights are needed to promote better mutual understanding of the two traditions’ shared values.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (edited by Kelly Bulkeley, Kate Adams, and Patricia M. Davis (Rutgers University Press, 2009) provides exactly that.  This new book is a collection of articles by international scholars who illuminate the influential role of dreaming in both Christianity and Islam, from the very origins of those traditions up to the present-day practices of contemporary believers.

Dreams have been a powerful source of revelation, guidance, and healing for generations of Christians and Muslims.  Dreams have also been an accurate gauge of the most challenging conflicts facing each tradition.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam is the first book to tell the story of dreaming in these two major world religions, documenting the wide-ranging impact of dreams on their sacred texts, mystical experiences, therapeutic practices, and doctrinal controversies.

The book presents a wealth of evidence to advance a simple but, in the contemporary historical moment, radical argument:  Christians and Muslims share a common psychospiritual grounding in the dreaming imagination.  While careful, sustained attention will be given to the significant differences between the two traditions, the overall emphasis of the book is on the shared religious, psychological, and social qualities of their dream experiences.

Throughout their respective histories Christians and Muslims have turned to dreams for creative responses to their most urgent crises and concerns.  In this book the contributors apply that same imaginative resource to the current conflict between the two traditions, seeking in the depths of dreaming new creative responses to the global crisis of religious misunderstanding and fearful hostility.  Included in the book are chapters on dreams in the Bible and Qur’an; on the early history of Christian and Muslim beliefs about dreaming; on religious practices of dream interpretation; on the dreams of children, women, college students, and prison inmates; and on the use of dreams in healing, caregiving, and creative adaptation to waking problems.