The Cultural Dimensions of Dreaming

The Cultural Dimensions of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyPsychologists and anthropologists share a lot of common ground when it comes to the study of dreams. Dreaming clearly emerges out of the brain, mind, and personal life experiences of each individual. Yet dreaming also clearly reflects the individual’s cultural environment–the languages, customs, concepts, and practices of his or her broader community. To understand dreams, we have to find ways of understanding both of these dimensions of meaning.

A new wave of anthropological research is expanding our knowledge of how dreams reflect and actively respond to cultural, social, political, and religious influences in people’s lives. Especially in times of collective change and crisis, dreams become a powerful source of insight into the dynamic interplay of psyche and culture.

At a recent gathering of professional anthropologists with an expertise in psychology, dreams were the subject of a lively panel discussion. The Society for Psychological Anthropology (SPA) held its biennial conference in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico in early April, and the session titled “New Directions in the Anthropology of Dreaming” was convened by Jeannette Mageo and Robin Sheriff. I was the lone non-anthropologist on the panel, and even though I knew most of the presenters beforehand, I was not really up-to-date with current thinking in their field. What transpired at this panel makes me very excited for the future of anthropological dream research and its potential to contribute to bigger interdisciplinary conversations about the nature and function of dreaming.

Bruce Knauft (Emory University) explored how the practices of dream yoga and deity-identification among practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism produce qualities of consciousness that Western psychologists have recently recognized as “lucid dreaming.” Knauft described the meditative practices, elaborate visualizations, and mantra recitations that Tibetan Buddhists use to achieve dreams of transcendent consciousness. Such dreams, he argued, can fundamentally alter people’s experiences of subjectivity and facilitate the realization of greater levels of self-awareness. Western psychologists are slowly realizing that cognitive processes like these are indeed possible in the sleeping state, in ways that religious traditions have been actively teaching, cultivating, and documenting for centuries.

Roger Ivar Lohmann (Trent University) shared a conversation he had about dreams and religion with one of his informants from the Asabano people of Papua New Guinea. The Asabano live in small hamlets in the forest, where colonial missionaries have converted many of them to Christianity, although with numerous hold-over characteristics from their traditional spiritual beliefs and practices. The Asabano take their dreams very seriously and regard them as valuable evidence supporting their fundamental beliefs about death, heaven, and the spiritual conditions necessary for good hunting. Lohmann described how the reality of dreaming for the Asabano creates a “night residue” effect in their lives—their memories of dreaming directing influencing their waking behaviors and personal ontologies. Especially during times of cultural crisis (e.g. the imposition of colonial ideologies and governmental controls), such dreams creatively integrate new experiences with past memories and traditions to produce what Lohmann called an “autonomic culture updating process.”

Matt Newsom (Washington State University) described his study of a collection of dreams from contemporary college students in Germany, with a focus on collective memories and identity formation in the shadow of World War II. Newsom gathered several hundred dreams from a school in Berlin and found that many of them revolved around struggles with resurgent German nationalism and violence towards immigrants and refugees. In this sample from people living in a predominantly liberal city, the students felt profoundly anxious about these cultural tensions, and they were trying to develop identities that were grounded in some other source of collective meaning and social connection. The question of “where do I belong?” seemed to be at the forefront of their dreaming minds, even though this concern was rarely discussed openly in their waking lives. Newsom said these findings supported the idea that dreams have value “for identifying unspoken social and historical anxieties present in a given society.”

Jeannette Mageo (Washington State University), the co-convener of the session, focused on the importance of image-based metaphors in dreams, and what they can reveal about the mental models we use to make sense of our lives. These models derive from cultural sources, and they shape how we think, feel, and behave. We do not accept them passively, however. Cultural models can produce tensions in an individual’s life, and these tensions are revealed with special clarity and eloquence in dreams. Mageo’s work with contemporary American college students has revealed that problematic cultural models of gender make it painfully difficult for some young adults to develop a strong and authentic sense of identity. In their dreams these models of gender (e.g., “super-masculinity,” “Cinderella”) can be observed, and they can potentially be changed through the introduction of novel metaphors and spontaneous imagery that challenge or defy the models’ strictures.

Robin Sheriff (University of Hampshire), the other co-convener, has been exploring dreams as a source of insight into the experiences of contemporary American college students with social media, celebrity culture, digitally-mediated realities, and emerging adult identities. In this presentation Sheriff described a subset of dreams from young women dealing with the theme of “stranger murder,” e.g., being randomly attacked by a serial killer. Sheriff explored the anxieties, tensions, and conflicts being expressed in these dreams, which relate in complex ways to the highly popular podcast genre of lurid stories about stranger murders. At one level, the dreams function as threat simulations in Revonsuo’s sense of the term, preparations in dreaming for a danger that might actually strike in waking. At another level, Sheriff showed how these dreams critique the cultural practices and social pathologies that give rise to those threats and dangers. Her larger claim was that dreaming offers a special window into the turbulent developmental dynamics of 21st century digitally-mediated subjectivity.

Douglas Hollan (UCLA) was the panel’s designated respondent, and he acknowledged that in recent years, the field of anthropology has not paid enough attention to dreams. The present panel was thus an important step forward towards encouraging anthropologists to pay more attention to a truly cross-cultural phenomenon, one that is deeply rooted in the minds and cultural environments of all humans. Hollan noted the recurrent theme of dreaming as a powerful resource during crises and conflicts, with both personal and collective aspects of meaning. To the degree that these meanings are brought into conscious awareness and integrated with waking life identity, a kind of natural therapeutic process can emerge with potentially transformative effects for individuals and communities. All of the panel presentations gave evidence of this possibility, suggesting many new paths for inquiry, exploration, and research.

Anyone interested in dreams will find the works of these scholars enormously helpful in understanding the cultural dimensions of dreaming. Based on the quality of this panel’s presentations and the mutual enthusiasm of the presenters, it seems likely the future will bring more discoveries and insights from this group and their colleagues.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on April 19, 2019.