Keeping a Dream Journal

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyFor anyone interested in learning more about dreaming, I have a simple piece of advice: keep a dream journal.  Record your dreams on a regular basis, track their themes and patterns over time, and you will discover through your own experience many of the key psychological principles that shape the general process of dreaming.  

Beyond that, you may find your journal becomes a unique personal treasure—an invaluable source of insight into your most important concerns, activities, and relationships in the waking world.

You can start a journal at any time by making some retroactive entries.  For example, write out the earliest dream you ever remember, even if it was just a tiny fragment or wispy image.  There it is, the beginning of a dream journal!

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyHave you ever had a dream of flying, or being chased, or having an intense sexual experience, or seeing someone who is dead appear as if they were alive again?  Write those out, too.  Do you remember any recurrent dreams?  That’s very important to note, because recurrent dreams provide one of the best points of entry for a study of the long-term themes and patterns in your dreaming.

Recording especially memorable dreams from the past can be a good way of initiating a dream journaling practice going forward into the future.  Regular journal-keepers typically place a pad of paper and a pen next to their bedside, and when they wake up with a dream in mind they immediately write it down.  Because these bedside notes are often scrawled in semi-legible form, people will usually transcribe their dreams later in the day, into either better handwriting or a computer word processing system.

People today may want to use voice-to-text programs on their cell phones, which can be just as effective for those who know how to manage the technology.  Whatever method is used, the main goal is to set up a smooth, friction-free process to record as much of the dream as can be remembered, as soon upon awakening as possible.

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyIt is worthwhile to include information about one’s sleep patterns in the journal, since the conditions of sleep often make a significant impact on the dreaming process.  Ideally, each entry has the date, the location where you are sleeping, the time you go to sleep, the time you wake up, and a subjective assessment of the quality of your sleep (e.g., good, fair, poor).  If you do not remember any dreams for that night, at least you have gathered some useful information about your sleep.

If you do remember a dream, the key is to record it in as much detail as you can manage, including aspects of your internal experience (e.g., what you were thinking or feeling during the dream).  When people narrate their dreams they typically leave out numerous details that seem too trivial or obvious to mention.  Yet it is precisely these seemingly worthless details that often become highly significant in later explorations.

Take your time when initially recording a dream, and don’t worry if some aspects of the dream are vague, fragmentary, or impossible to describe.  Just write them out as best as you can.  All of these fragments can be sources of unexpected significance when you look at the dreams over time.

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyAlong with the dream report, a journal will typically include thoughts, memories, and associations that come to mind in relation to the dream.  These comments can be brief or very extensive, depending on your time and inclination.

I find it helpful to give each dream a title, as if it were a poem or short story.  It’s a way of crystallizing in a phrase or image something important about the dream.  The titles also make it easier to refer back to the dreams and sift through the series for recurrent threads of meaning.

One of the greatest values of a dream journal is the way it grows in power and depth over time.  The ever-expanding pool of dreaming experience creates an evolving network of meaningful connections.

Keeping a Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyCarl Jung, one of the pioneers of Western dream psychology, proposed back in the 1930’s that a series of dreams can provide an extremely useful means of exploring an individual’s life.  In his essay titled “Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy,” he presented his analysis of “over a thousand dreams and visual impressions coming from a young man of excellent scientific education.” (116) Jung described his method in these terms:

“[H]ere we are not dealing with isolated dreams; they form a coherent series in the course of which the meaning gradually unfolds more or less of its own accord.  The series is the context which the dreamer himself supplies. It is as if not one text but many lay before us, throwing light from all sides on the unknown terms, so that a reading of all the texts is sufficient to elucidate the difficult passages in each individual one… Of course the interpretation of each individual passage is bound to be largely conjecture, but the series as a whole gives us all the clues we need to correct any possible errors in the preceding passages.” (119-120, italics in original)

Jung’s insight has been actively explored by many people who study dream series over time, and in a future post I will say more about their findings.

For now, I will leave you with this thought: keeping a dream journal is a priceless gift to your future self.

 

Reference:

C.G. Jung, Dreams (trans. R.F.C. Hull), Princeton University Press, 1974.

This post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 27, 2017.

Jared Loughner’s Dream Journal: A “Golden Piece of Evidence”?

Jared Loughner, the alleged gunman in the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was fascinated by lucid dreaming and kept a dream journal, according to an interview with Nick Baumann in Mother Jones magazine with Loughner’s close friend Bryce Tierney: “He [Tierney] also describes Loughner as being obsessed with ‘lucid dreaming’–that is, the idea that conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can inhabit and control–and says Loughner became ‘more interested in this world than our reality.’  Tierney adds, “I saw his dream journal once.  That’s the golden piece of evidence,” the friend said.  “You want to know what goes on in Jared Loughner’s mind, there’s a dream journal that will tell you everything.”

Jared Loughner seems to be a mentally ill person plagued by a variety of paranoid beliefs and anxieties.  For someone so scared of shadowy, unseen powers, it makes sense that Loughner would consider his dreams (and nightmares?) to be another source of existential danger requiring extreme force to combat and control.

As someone who has devoted considerable time and energy to studying the dream journals of both healthy and mentally disturbed people, I would caution against treating Loughner’s dream journal as evidence to be used against him in a legal proceeding.  The metaphoric, multi-layered aspects of dreaming do not allow for interpretations that can be sufficiently precise for courtroom purposes. 

I would predict, however, that Loughner’s dream journal will indeed provide a “golden” opportunity to understand his concerns, conflicts, fears, and desires.  The recent paper that Bill Domhoff and I wrote in the IASD journal Dreaming on the “Van” dream series showed that a systematic statistical analysis of long-term dream content can accurately identify an individual’s personality attributes, relationships, waking activities, and cultural preferences.  (Abstract below.)  Our paper builds on lots of previous research indicating that dream content is continuous with many important aspects of a person’s waking life. 

A more speculative prediction would be that Loughner’s dreams will contain a high frequency of weapons and physical aggression.  Over the years I’ve noticed a few young men who might be described as “loners”  having elaborate dreams of using very specific weapons to fight their enemies.  As Domhoff and I found with the Van series, the influence of video games may play a role here.   I don’t know if Loughner played video games, but either way I’m guessing his dreams will reflect a familiarity with, and enthusiasm for, various kinds of weaponry.

Update 1-12-11: Today’s New York Times includes an interview with another of Loughner’s friends, Zane Gutierrez, which confirms that the alleged killer took great interest in his dreams:

“[E]very day, his friend said, Mr. Loughner would get up and write in his dream journal, recording the world he experienced in sleep and its possible meanings. ‘Jared felt nothing existed but his subconscious,’ Mr. Gutierrez said. ‘The dream world was what was real to Jared, not the day-to-day of our lives.’  And that dream world, his friend said, could be downright strange.  ‘He would ask me constantly, “Do you see that blue tree over there?” he would admit to seeing the sky as orange and the grass as blue,’ Mr. Gutierrez said. “Normal people don’t talk about that stuff.'” (p. A14)

The mention of synesthesia (the merging of sensory qualities) adds more detail to the general impression that Loughner suffers from severe mental instability.  Likewise, his solipsism (only I truly exist) indicates a possible breakdown in the ability to distinguish between waking and dreaming realities. 

Religious mystics, particularly in Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist traditions, have frequently questioned the boundaries of waking and dreaming (e.g., Zhuangzi’s paradoxical “butterfly” dream) as a way of opening the mind to new possibilities and expanding one’s sense of compassion for all forms of life.  That does not seem to be the path Loughner followed.  The evidence so far suggests he tried to control his dreaming reality as a way of fighting off the painful, confusing pressures of waking reality.   

A warning from Plato’s Republic comes to mind: “[T]he most evil type of man is…the man who, in his waking hours, has the qualities we found in his dream state.” (IX.576.b)


Abstract for “Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach”:

             Building on previous investigations of waking-dreaming continuities using word search technology (Domhoff and Schneider 2008, Bulkeley 2009a, 2009b), this article demonstrates that a blind analysis of a dream series using only word search methods can accurately predict many important aspects of the individual’s waking life, including personality attributes, relationships, activities, and cultural preferences.  Results from a study of the “Van” dream series (N=192) show that blind inferences drawn from a word frequency analysis were almost entirely accurate according to the dreamer.  After presenting these findings we discuss several remaining shortcomings and suggest ways of improving the method for use by other researchers involved in the search for a more systematic understanding of meaning in dreams.

 Keywords: dreams, content analysis, word search

 (Domhoff and Schneider 2008; Bulkeley 2009, 2009)

 Bulkeley, Kelly. 2009. The Religious Content of Dreams: New Scientific Foundations. Pastoral Psychology 58 (2):93-101.

———. 2009. Seeking Patterns in Dream Content: A Systematic Approach to Word Searches. Consciousness and Cognition 18:905-916.

Domhoff, G. William, and Adam Schneider. 2008. Studying dream content using the archive and search engine on DreamBank.net. Consciousness and Cognition 17:1238-1247.





Dreaming with the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach

Dreaming with the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach by Kelly BulkeleySince August of 2009 I have been using the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach, a new consumer electronics device that allows you to monitor your sleep cycles at home.  It involves wearing a headband with a wireless sensor on your forehead that transmits data to a bedside clock while you sleep.  The Zeo system then calculates the length of your sleep and the contours of your sleep cycle, divided into four stages: waking, light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep.  Zeo has a website where you can upload your data and track the patterns over time. 

The motto of Zeo is “The more you know, the better you sleep.”  I was skeptical at first, as I assumed the headband would be uncomfortable and distracting.  Now, after 350+ nights of using the Zeo, I’m convinced it’s true.  I already slept pretty well before using the Zeo, but the information I get from it has made me much more sensitive to factors affecting my sleep, for good and for ill.  Zeo calculates a single number, the “Z Score,” to summarize the overall quality of your night’s sleep.  100 is the baseline and represents a good night’s sleep (calibrated according to your answers in the introductory survey).  A Z score below 100 is a less-than-optimum night’s sleep, and a Z score of 100 or more indicates an excellent night’s sleep.

My worst Z score is 68, the night after hosting a big party at our house.  My best Z score is 125, which came just last week on the first night of a vacation in Mexico.  I seem to average in the high 80s and low 90s during a regular week. 

During this same time period I have, as usual, been keeping a dream journal.  My goal has been to gather at least a year’s worth of Zeo and dream material to work with before trying to correlate the two sources of data.  On a parallel track, I’ve been developing a digital archive and search engine (the Sleep and Dream Database) to provide new analytic tools for engaging in this kind of comparative study. 

So I’m just about ready to address my primary question about the Zeo: Do the patterns of your sleep match up in any way with the patterns of your dreaming?