Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Uncanny dreams and deathly sleep haunt the most famous lovers in literary history.

The woeful story of Juliet and her Romeo has several ominous references to beds, sleep, and dreams.  These nocturnal elements reflect the tension between the passionate yearnings of the young lovers and the tragic fate that awaits them.  As Friar Laurence vainly warns, “these violent delights have violent ends.” Romeo and Juliet discover both ecstatic delights and annihilating ends in the darkest, dreamiest realms of night.

Romeo’s First Dream and Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” Speech

In one of the early scenes of the play (currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with Emily Ota as Juliet and William Thomas Hodgson as Romeo), a moment of witty banter suddenly turns into a long, weirdly unsettling monologue about the nature of dreaming.  It is, I believe, the most extensive treatment of dreams in all of Shakespeare’s works, and it encapsulates in a single surreal passage the inspiring-yet-terrifying energies of human dream experience.

At the start of Act I, scene iv, Romeo meets with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio on a street outside the family house of the Capulets, sworn enemies of Romeo’s family, the Montagues.  The Capulets are hosting a feast and masquerade ball, and Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo have decided to wear masks and sneak into the party.  Just before entering the house, however, Romeo abruptly stops and questions the wisdom of their plan.  Even though the woman he desperately loves, Rosaline, will be attending the festivities, he worries that something bad will happen if they go forth.  Mercutio demands that Romeo explain his sudden misgivings, and the following exchange ensues:

Romeo: I dreamt a dream tonight.

Mercutio: And so did I.

Romeo: Well, what was yours?

Mercutio: That dreamers often lie.

Romeo: In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.

(1.4.51-56)

Romeo believes his dream is warning him of danger in the future.  Mercutio is more interested in the party, however, and he tries to deflect Romeo’s gloomy prognostication with a sharp-edged jest: he lures Romeo into asking him if he really had a dream, and then calls into question the veracity of anyone who claims to have a dream to tell.  But Romeo has a strong feeling about the potential significance of his dream, and he tries to persuade Mercutio to take it seriously.

Romeo gets more than he bargained for.  Mercutio launches into an elaborate and fanciful speech that covers more than forty lines of text, starting with this:

Mercutio: O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone…

(I.iv.57-59)

What follows is a strange, magical journey into the realm of the fairies and their nocturnal activities.  As he does at greater length in the romantic fantasy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” also written around this same time (1595-1596), Shakespeare draws upon popular folklore to envision a colorful world of tiny tricksters who, hovering just outside the range of our ordinary awareness, are busily influencing our lives in ways both fair and foul.  Despite her miniscule size and delicate nature, Queen Mab wields total power over us when we sleep and dream.  Mercutio goes on describe what happens when she visits various kinds of people in their slumber:

Mercutio: And in this state she gallops night by night through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; O’er courtiers knees, that dream on curtsies straight; O’er lawyers fingers, who straight dream on fees; O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream.

(I.iv.74-78)

What Mercutio describes is quite similar to the continuity hypothesis of dreaming, which states that people tend to dream most frequently about things that emotionally concern them in waking life. Lovers dream of love, courtiers dream of kneeling in court, lawyers dream of receiving money from clients—whatever is most important in a person’s life, that’s what they’re most likely to dream about.  Mercutio describes other examples of Queen Mab’s dream-stimulating activities: she tickles a minister’s nose, and he dreams of a financially secure job; she drives over a soldier’s neck, and he dreams of cutting enemy throats.  The common thread throughout these examples is that dreams are personalized reflections of people’s current concerns and not, as Romeo assumes, prophecies about the future.  In this regard, Mercutio’s speech is a remarkable anticipation of a modern psychological theory about dreaming.

Queen Mab takes mischievous delight in causing chaos and disorder, a fairy trait she shares with Puck, Oberon, and Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  As Mercutio continues his speech, this quality comes to the fore, and at a certain point Mercutio seems to lose control of his own story:

Mercutio: This is the very Mab that plaits the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs, which once untangled much misfortune bodes. This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage. This is she—

(I.iv.92-98)

Here, Shakespeare condenses several folk-beliefs about the dark forces behind dreaming. Queen Mab morphs into a relentless incubus or night hag who tangles hair, presses on bodies, preys on fears, and forces sexual submission.  She is the embodiment of all the nightmarish powers set loose within our sleep, and she devotes especially malicious attention to the torments of “sluttish” young women.  The physiological effects described here could, in modern terms, be diagnosed as night terrors, with the sensation of pressure and feelings of overwhelming fear.  They could also be explained in terms of psychoanalytic theory: Queen Mab is the primal Id of the human unconscious, running wild through our dreams while the ego slumbers in blissful ignorance.

Most productions of the play have Mercutio delivering these final lines of his speech in a manic frenzy, as the fairies’ malevolent mayhem threatens to overwhelm him.  The OSF version, with the incandescent Sara Bruner as Mercutio, follows that traditional staging, but with an intriguing gender twist that gives the speech a deeper level of emotional resonance.

At this point, Mercutio has become so unhinged that Romeo steps forward to interrupt him and snap him out of the psychotic spell of his own words.  Now it’s Romeo’s turn to play down the significance of dreams, in an effort to calm his friend’s frazzled nerves:

Romeo: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.

(I.iv.100-101)

Mercutio responds with another unexpected shift of tone and attitude:

Mercutio: True, I talk of dreams; which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy; which is as thin of substance as the air, and more inconstant that the wind…

(I.iv.102-106)

After dwelling at such length on the wondrous exploits of Queen Mab and her fairy consorts, Mercutio abruptly concludes with a rejection of dreaming as a whole.  A modern materialist could not express any more eloquently the idea that dreams are sheer nonsense.  Here, Mercutio is anticipating the basic themes of neuroscientific reductionism, another strand of current thinking about dreams that treats them as the disordered and meaningless by-products of an “idle brain” during sleep.

In the context of the play and this particular scene, Mercutio’s claim is not very persuasive, since he just spent several minutes giving a highly detailed account of the meaningful connections between people’s dreams and their waking lives.  Indeed, his belated rejection of dreaming seems more like a desperate attempt to deny what he has just openly acknowledged to be real and true.  He’s trying to put the lid back on the magic box, but it’s too late.  The fairies have already escaped.

Benvolio finally draws their attention back to the matter at hand, and on they go to the party.  But Romeo has been deeply rattled.  More than ever, he feels a prophetic sense of darkening gloom ahead and the inescapable prospect of “untimely death.”

So this is Romeo’s frame of mind when he puts on his mask and walks into the party at the Capulets.  He is deeply depressed about his unrequited love for Rosaline; he just had a very worrisome dream portending some future ill; and his friend nearly goes mad talking about the supernatural powers of malicious mischief set loose in our dreams.  Plus, he knows that if his true identity is discovered, he will likely be killed.  By entering the party, Romeo is entering a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Juliet’s Merging of Beds, Sleep, and Death

We do not know what Juliet dreams about.  We only know what she does not dream about.  In her first appearance, Juliet’s mother calls for her to discuss an important question:

Capulet’s wife: Tell me, daughter Juliet, how stands your disposition to be married?

Juliet: It is an honor that I dream not of.

(I.iii.68-70)

Juliet’s reply is both modest and diplomatic.  As an obedient and virtuous daughter, she accepts that her parents will decide when, where, and to whom she will be pledged in the sacred bond of marriage.  Until that time, the topic is the farthest thing from her mind, something that does not even appear in her dreams.  Her reply also includes a subtle degree of reluctance to think about marriage at this stage of life.  Her nurse has just given a long and rambling speech, the upshot of which is that Juliet is not yet 14 years of age, barely past childhood.  But Juliet’s mother insists that other “ladies of esteem” in Verona are married by this age and already bearing children, as did she when she first married Juliet’s father.

This is preamble to dramatic news.  Her mother says that a well-regarded gentleman by the name of Paris has shown marital interest in Juliet (he “seeks you for his love”), and he has come to their house that very evening to win her hand.  Juliet’s mother gives her virtually no time to react—“speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?” Juliet dutifully answers that she will try to like him, but no more than her mother says she should. The nurse shows no such reluctance, as she makes abundantly clear the sexual implications of this sudden turn of events: “Women grow by men… Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days.”

Juliet speaks very few lines in this scene, which is fitting since she really has no say in any of these choices or decisions.  She dreams of none of this because she has no agency, no creative investment in any of it; it all happens to her, by decree of her parents, leaving her imagination no reason to wonder about alternative possibilities.

So this is Juliet’s frame of mind when she puts on her mask and joins her family’s feast.  After dwelling on the fact that she is currently 13 years old, she is informed by her mother that she has reached a marrying age, that a particular gentleman has already expressed his romantic interest in her, and that said gentleman is present in their home right now, ready to secure her affections.  Thanks to the nurse’s bawdy commentary, she cannot avoid the reality that she will be expected to engage in sexual relations with him.  Thus when she goes to the party, Juliet enters a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

And once there, she meets Romeo.  Their magical first encounter surprises them both; this is not what they were expecting when they walked into the party.  Completely forgetting the people they were supposed to seek (Rosaline for Romeo, Paris for Juliet), they almost instantly fall in love with a masked stranger, in a moment of mysteriously intense romance.

When the gathering ends, Juliet anxiously begs the nurse:

Juliet: Go ask his name.—If he be married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed.

(I.v.73-74)

This is the first of many instances in which Juliet and other characters make symbolic connections between beds, sleep, and death.  These references are also intertwined with the bed as a physical space for passion, love, and the creation of new life.  The grave and the wedding bed—they occupy opposite ends of an existential spectrum, and yet in this story they inexorably draw towards each other and finally merge into a tragic unity.

The early references are the happiest.  As Romeo stands beneath Juliet’s balcony exchanging vows of love, he marvels at the incredible magic of the moment:

Romeo: O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard, being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial.

(II.ii147-149)

A few moments later he bids a final farewell to Juliet at her balcony:

Romeo: Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast! Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!

(II.ii.202-203)

After the friar performs their secret wedding, Juliet eagerly anticipates her first opportunity to be alone with her husband:

Juliet: Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night; for thou wilt lie upon the wings of night whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back. Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night; give me my Romeo…

(III.ii.17-21)

Romeo and Juliet finally get to celebrate their marriage with a “love-performing night” together in her bed (III.v), and they lament the coming of the day (Romeo says, “I must be gone and live, or stay and die”).

Now everything darkens, and fate closes in on the young couple.  After they part, Juliet learns that she will soon be wedded to Paris, while Romeo finds he has been exiled from Verona for the killing of Juliet’s brother Tybalt in a street brawl.  With the friar’s help, Juliet decides to take a sleeping potion that will “wrought on her the form of death”:

Friar Laurence: And in this borrowed likeness of shrunk death thou shalt continue two and forty hours, and then awake as from a pleasant sleep. Now, when the bridegroom [Paris] in the morning comes to rouse thee from thy bed, there art thou dead.

(IV.i.106-110)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

The friar promises to tell Romeo to go to Juliet in the Capulet tomb after she has revived, so they can secretly escape the city together.  Alas, the plan goes badly awry.  Paris gets to the tomb first, and mourns at what he believes to be the dead Juliet’s side:

Paris: Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew—O woe! Thy canopy is dust and stones.

(V.iii.12-13)

Then Romeo enters the tomb.  Paris draws his sword and attacks; Romeo kills him.  He then goes to Juliet’s motionless body and falls for the deception, too: he thinks she is truly dead.  Unable to distinguish death from sleep, Romeo decides to join her in death.  Immediately upon his doing so, Juliet awakens.  The friar arrives at this point, and he urges Juliet to leave at once:

Friar Laurence: I hear some noise. Lady, come from that nest of death, contagion, and unnatural sleep.

(V.iii.156-157)

Juliet refuses.  Instead, she decides to join her beloved Romeo in eternal slumber.  After a final kiss, she takes his dagger and presses its point against her chest:

Juliet: This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.

(V.iii.175)

Romeo’s Joyful Dream

The agonizing conclusion to the story makes it all the more peculiar that, just before he learns of Juliet’s apparent death, Romeo awakens with a happy dream.  His speech at the start of Act V is a final beam of light in the gathering darkness:

Romeo: If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep, my dreams presage some joyful news at hand. My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne, and all this day an unaccustomed spirit lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts. I dreamt my lady came and found me dead (strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!) and breathed such life with kisses in my lips that I revived and was an emperor. Ah me! How sweet is love itself possessed, when but love’s shadows are so rich in joy!

(V.i.1-11)

What are we to make of this dream?  At one level it seems horribly misleading—Romeo is about to receive absolutely terrible news about Juliet, and death will soon consume them both.  The dream seems like a cruel hoax, and a painfully ironic example of why we should not “trust the flattering truth of sleep.”

But at another level, perhaps the dream is leading Romeo towards an awareness of a different realm of union with Juliet, a transcendent realm where he will be “an emperor,” and where life will conquer death.  For the truth is, there is no hope in the present waking world for him and Juliet, not with their families’ violent hatred of each other.  Romeo’s dream offers him an alternative way of understanding what the future is about to bring.  Their love is, by its very existence, a miraculous triumph over the rigid constraints that govern their lives.  They have successfully defied the social authorities and asserted their own desires for romantic fulfillment.  Their kisses have the power to transport them beyond the petty feuds of this world to a beautiful and joyful world all their own.

Romeo notes the strange element in his dream of a dead man thinking living thoughts.  Today we might call this a variation on metacognition in dreaming, a type of “thinking about thinking.”  Here, it’s Romeo thinking about what he would be thinking if he were dead.  This seems impossible from a conventional waking perspective, just as it’s impossible that he could ever actually become an emperor in the waking world.  But these things are possible in the realm of dreaming, and this suggests an expansion of normal awareness, a dissolving of ordinary boundaries, and the discovery of new potentials beyond the limits of the present.  That does seem to be the tangible effect of the dream on Romeo once he awakens.  It breaks through his fears, lifts his spirits, and stimulates a welcoming attitude towards the future. For one last moment he feels pure lightness and joy, and he revels in the wonders of his love for Juliet.

Is that a cruel deception, or a profoundly truthful vision?

Earlier in the play, Mercutio gives a variety of reasons why we should ignore dreams: dreamers lie, the fairies manipulate people’s minds, and anyway it’s all nonsense from the sleep-addled brain.  But by the end of the play the references to dreams shift towards an emphasis on their accuracy in reflecting reality.  After killing Paris in the Capulet tomb, Romeo briefly wonders about something his servant, Balthasar, said to him on the way to the tomb:

Romeo: I think he told me Paris should have married Juliet: Said he not so? Or did I dream it so?

(V.iii.78-79)

Balthasar probably did say so, but for Romeo it could equally have been a dream; all are one in his mind now.

A few moments later, Friar Laurence encounters Balthasar outside the tomb.  Romeo had told Balthasar to wait for him, and under no circumstances to follow him into the tomb.  Now Balthasar anxiously tells the friar he fears something terrible has happened:

Balthasar: As I did sleep under this yew-tree here, I dreamt my master and another fought, and that my master slew him.

(V.iii.141-143)

The staging of the scene leaves Balthasar’s exact position unclear (“I’ll hide me hereabout”), so we don’t know if he saw or heard Romeo and Paris while they were fighting; either way, Balthasar’s dream accurately reflects what did in fact happen in the tomb.

In both instances during this final climactic scene of the play, the distinction has dissolved between dreaming and waking reality.  Dreams have become transparent to the actuality of what’s happening in this world.  That is the final, spiritually illuminating context for Romeo’s joyful dream and its flattering truth about the eternal love he shares with Juliet.

 

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Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Yew tree photo is from Roi.dagobert

 

The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points

The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points by Kelly BulkeleyThe most important findings of scientific dream research can be summarized in nine key points.  Many important questions about dreaming remain unanswered, but these nine findings have solid empirical evidence to support them. 

  1. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is a trigger for dreaming, but is not identical with dreaming. All mammals have sleep cycles in which their brains pass through various stages of REM and non-REM sleep.  Dreaming seems to occur most often, and most intensely, in REM sleep, a time when many of the brain’s neuro-electrical systems have risen to peak levels of activation, as high as levels found in waking consciousness.  However, dreaming occurs outside of REM sleep, too, so the two are not identical; REM sleep is neither necessary nor sufficient for dreaming.
  2. REM helps the brain grow. The fact that REM sleep ratios are at their highest early in childhood (newborns spend up to 80% of their sleep in REM, whereas adults usually have 20-25% of their sleep in REM) suggests that REM, and perhaps dreaming, have a role in neural maturation and psychological development.
  3. Dreaming also occurs during hypnogogic, hypnopompic, and non-REM stage 2 phases of sleep. In the transitional times when a person is falling asleep (hypnogogic) or waking up (hypnopompic), various kinds of dream experiences can occur.  The same is true during the end of a normal night’s sleep cycle, when a person’s brain is alternating exclusively between REM and non-REM stage 2 phases of sleep, with a relatively high degree of brain activation throughout.  Dreams from REM and non-REM stage 2 are difficult to distinguish at these times.
  4. The neuro-anatomical profile of REM sleep supports the experience of intense visionary imagery in dreaming. During REM sleep, when most but not all dreaming occurs, the human brain shifts into a different mode of regional activation.  Areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in focused attention and rational thought become less active, while areas in the limbic system (involved in emotional processing, memory, and instinctive responses) and the occipital lobe (involved in visual imagination) become much more active.  This suggests that the human brain is not only capable of generating intense visionary experiences in dreaming, it has been primed to do so on a regular basis.
  5. The recurrent patterns of dream content are often continuous with people’s concerns, activities, and beliefs in waking life. This is known as the “continuity” hypothesis, and it highlights the deep consistency of waking and dreaming modes of thought.  People’s dreams tend to reflect the people and things they most care about in the waking world.  A great deal of dream content involves familiar people, places, and activities in the individual’s waking life.  The dreaming imagination is fully capable of portraying normal, realistic scenarios. This means dreaming is clearly not a process characterized by total incoherence, irrationality, or bizarreness.
  6. The discontinuities of dreaming, when things happen that do not correspond to a normal waking life concern, can signal the emergence of metaphorical insights. Research on the improbable, unreal, and extraordinary elements of dream content has shown that, on closer analysis, this material often has a figurative or metaphorical relationship to the dreamer’s waking life.  Metaphorical themes and images in dreams have a long history in the realm of art and creativity, and current scientific research highlights the dynamic, unpredictable nature of dreaming as an endless generator of conceptual novelty and innovation.
  7. Dream recall is variable. Most people remember one to two dreams per week, although the memories often fade quickly if the dreams are not recorded in a journal.  On average, younger people tend to remember more dreams than older people, and women more than men.  Even people who rarely remember their dreams can often recall one or two unusual dreams from their lives, dreams with so much intensity and vividness they cannot be forgotten.  Dream recall tends to respond to waking interest.  The more people pay attention to their dreams, the more dreams they are likely to remember.
  8. Dreaming helps the mind to process information from waking life, especially experiences with a strong emotional charge. From a cognitive psychological perspective, dreaming functions to help the mind adapt to the external environment by evaluating perceptions, regulating emotional arousal, and rehearsing behavioral responses.  Dreaming is like a psychological thermostat, pre-set to keep us healthy, balanced, and ready to react to both threats and opportunities in the waking world. Post-traumatic nightmares show what happens when an experience is too intense and painful to process in a normal way, knocking the whole system out of balance.
  9. The mind is capable of metacognition in dreaming, including lucid self-awareness. During sleep and dreaming the mind engages in many of the activities most associated with waking consciousness: reasoning, comparing, remembering, deciding, and monitoring one’s own thoughts and feelings. Lucid dreaming is one clear example of this, and so are dreams of watching oneself from an outside perspective.  These kinds of metacognitive (thinking about thinking) functions were once thought to be impossible in dreaming, but current research has proven otherwise.  Dreaming has available the full range of the mind’s metacognitive powers, although in different combinations from those typically active in ordinary waking consciousness.

The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points by Kelly Bulkeley

For further reading:

Barrett, Deirdre and Patrick McNamara, ed.s.  The New Science of Dreaming.  Westport: ABC-Clio, 2007.

Bulkeley, Kelly.  Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Domhoff, G. William.  Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach.  New York: Plenum, 1996.

Hurd, Ryan and Kelly Bulkeley, ed.s.  Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep.  Westport: ABC-Clio, 2014.

Kryger, Meir H., Thomas Roth, and William C. Dement, ed.s. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine.  Fourth Edition.  Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders, 2005.

Maquet, Pierre, Carlyle Smith, and Robert Stickgold, ed.s.  Sleep and Brain Plasticity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Pace-Schott, Edward, Mark Solms, Mark Blagrove, and Stevan Harnad, ed.s.  Sleep and Dreaming: Scientific Advances and Reconsiderations. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Pagel, James.  The Limits of Dream: A Scientific Exploration of the Mind/Brain Interface. New York: Academic Press, 2010.

Solms, Mark.  The Neuropsychology of Dreams: A Clinico-Anatomical Study.  Mahway: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997.

 

 

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God?

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God? by Kelly BulkeleyA recent essay in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times made several observations about religion in contemporary America by analyzing a huge collection of Google search data. In “Googling for God,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examined the search results for various religious terms and questions in relation to where the people lived and when they performed the searches. Stephens-Davidowitz’s work offers an excellent illustration of the pros and cons of using big data analytics to study religion. Three quotes from his essay show where the biggest challenges can be found.

  1. “If people somewhere are searching a lot about a topic, it is overwhelming evidence those people are very interested in that topic.”

This is the key methodological principle used in Stephens-Davidowitz’s analysis: the frequency of Google searches correlates to the intensity of personal interest. At one level this seems like a reasonable premise. In fact, this principle is very close to the “continuity hypothesis” used by dream researchers to correlate frequencies of dream content with personal concerns in waking life. Many dream researchers, myself included, have pursued studies of dream content using the continuity hypothesis to make inferences about people’s waking lives—if a person dreams a lot about sports, for example, we can confidently predict that sports are an important concern in the person’s waking life.

Stephens-Davidowitz does something similar when he connects Google search data to people’s religious concerns and questions. The problem, however, is defining “very interested.” What exactly can we infer about a person based on their entry of a Google search term? They are “interested,” of course, but interested in what way, and how strongly? What prompted their search? Is there anything distinctive about people’s searches for religious terms compared to non-religious terms?

Until these kinds of questions can be answered (ideally with lots of systematically analyzed empirical evidence, not just one-off studies), the use of Google search data to draw conclusions about religion remains on shaky ground.

In dream research we have many decades of studies that have helped us hone in on “emotional concerns” as a primary point of continuity between dreaming and waking. We also have statistical baselines of typical dream content to help us identify meaningful variations in the frequency of certain aspects of dreaming (see, for example, the Dreambank of G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, and the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) that I direct). If the use of Google search data included these kinds of analytic aids, the results would be much stronger and more convincing.

  1. “Sometimes Google search data, because of Google’s status as a kind of universal question service, is perfectly suited to give us fresh insights into our offline lives.”

The idea of Google as a “universal question service” has great appeal, not the least because so much of the information is easily accessible for public study. This is one of the great boons of the era of big data, and new studies of this treasure trove of information are bound to increase in future years.

A potential problem, however, is a tendency to blur the distinction between a) what Google offers its users and b) who those users are. The fact that Google enables people to ask all kinds of questions does not mean that all kinds of people are asking those questions. Google users are not necessarily representative of the US population as a whole, and we do not know how representative the Google users are who are searching specifically for religious terms. We do know that when people perform a Google search they are connected via technology to the internet, they are interacting with a global corporation, and they are being shown numerous commercial responses to their search. These circumstances should qualify our assumptions about who uses Google and how they engage with the search function.

  1. “There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.”

This quote comes at the end of the essay, and it perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of explaining the significance of Google search results. According to the findings cited by Stephens-Davidowitz, Kim Kardashian gets ten times the search results of Jesus Christ. What exactly does that mean? That Kim Kardashian is ten times more interesting than Jesus? That she is ten times more popular, or more important, or more influential?

The problem is that Google search data do not meaningfully measure any one thing, other than the tautological fact of having entered a specific search term. The results of analyzing these data seem admirably clear and quantitative—4.7 million vs. 49 million!—but they do not easily or self-evidently map onto the actual beliefs, feelings, and attitudes of the general population.

The good news is that these are tractable problems. Real progress can be made by more detailed studies and more systematic correlations of the data with genuinely meaningful aspects of people’s lives. This fascinating essay by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz helps people who study religion see where these new analytic endeavors can be most fruitfully pursued.

 

Note: first published September 24, 2015 in the Huffington Post.

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.”