How the Enlightenment Went Astray on Dreaming

 Enlightenment philosophers helped to spark the scientific revolution, but they were not always accurate or justified in their assumptions about dreaming.

How the Enlightenment Went Astray on Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) played a vital role in promoting the ideals of the Enlightenment throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  These ideals included a trust in human reason, a corresponding distrust in authority and received opinion, and a demand that people who make theoretical claims about nature, society, the mind, etc., must offer empirical evidence to back up their assertions.

These powerful principles of the Enlightenment set the stage for the scientific and technological revolutions that have changed the world over the past few hundred years.  The digital technologies we use and enjoy today have emerged directly out of this cultural lineage reaching back to Locke and his contemporaries.  Unfortunately, many Enlightenment philosophers made false and misguided claims about dreaming that have also shaped the lineage of our digital world.  If we want to create a healthy ecosystem for technologically enhanced dream exploration, we have to make sure we accept and trust the philosophical assumptions built into that ecosystem.

In his greatest work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1690), Locke explains how the mind works and the process by which humans gain true knowledge about the world and themselves. Early in the book he delves into the topic of sleep and dreaming, because he recognizes that the functioning of the mind while awake is quite different from the functioning of the mind while asleep.  Locke is here confronting a key question that many philosophers before and after him have tried to answer: how does mental activity during sleep relate to mental activity while awake?

Unfortunately, Locke makes two false assumptions about human dreaming experience right at the outset, false in Locke’s own sense of being contradicted by empirical evidence.  These assumptions allow Locke to make several other claims that do not square with actual scientific research on sleep and dreaming.  I will address those further claims in a later post; here, I want to focus on the first two missteps, to see as clearly as possible where Locke initially goes astray.

The first comes in Book II, chapter 1, section 14, when Locke is discussing the nature of ideas and the issue of whether people can dream without remembering it.  In this section he asserts, “Most men, I think, pass a great part of their sleep without dreaming.” He then mentions a scholarly friend who never dreamed until he was in his mid-twenties, after a fever.  Locke goes on to say, “I suppose the world affords more such instances: at least everyone’s acquaintance will furnish him with examples enough of such, as pass most of their nights without dreaming.”

The empirical reality is more complex than Locke suggests.  Modern sleep laboratory research flatly contradicts his claim.  If someone sleeping in a laboratory is awakened at certain points in the sleep cycle, the chances are extremely high that the person will recall some kind of dreaming content.  Research on “non-dreamers” by James Pagel has shown the proportion of such people appears to be very unusual in the general population.  Dozens of studies have shown high levels of regular dream recall people from all demographic groups, all across the social and cultural spectrum.

Locke is right that many people rarely remember their dreams. But he is wrong to suggest that such people are somehow typical or normal, and he makes a major mistake in dismissing from his philosophical theory the mental activities of other people who do remember their dreams frequently.

It might seem unfair to judge Locke’s 17th century claims using 20th and 21st century research.  But he did mention, as evidence for his claim, the experience of one of his friends, which means he did at least this much investigation on his own.  Did he ever talk with anyone else about their sleep and dream experiences?  Did his circle of acquaintances include anyone who was a vivid dreamer? Apparently not, because Locke offered no other empirical support for his assertion than this one friend.  That strikes me as a weak foundation for building a larger argument about the nature of the mind.

The second assumption comes in section 16 of the same chapter, in which Locke describes the rational workings of the soul, which he insists occur only in the waking state:

“‘Tis true, we have sometimes instances of perception, whilst we are asleep, and retain the memory of those thoughts; but how extravagant and incoherent for the most part they are; how little conformable to the perfection and order of a rational being, those who are acquainted with dreams, need not be told.”

Locke offers nothing to support this claim; he suggests it is self-evidently true to anyone who is “acquainted” with dreams.  The assumption that dreams are characterized by rampant bizarreness continues into the present day, despite there now being several decades of solid empirical research showing that most dreams are, in fact, rather mundane and non-bizarre.  Most dreams, it turns out, revolve around familiar people, familiar places, and familiar activities.  Many dreams are indistinguishable from people’s descriptions of ordinary events in waking life. Of course there are strange and outlandish things happening in dreams, too, but research on dream content shows that such bizarre elements are not a pervasive and overwhelming quality of dreaming as such.

Again, Locke could have gained this insight if he had taken the time to talk with a few different people about their actual dream experiences.  It would not have been difficult for him to reach the empirical conclusion that dreaming includes a mix of both bizarre and non-bizarre elements. But Locke evidently felt his philosophical ideas required him to mute or eliminate entirely the possibility of significant mental activity in sleep, and so he did his best to discourage any further attention to this realm of the mind.

The irony is that this topic of bizarreness is actually an excellent example of where dream researchers have put Locke’s principles into practice, to wonderfully liberating effect.  Empirical studies of thousands of dream reports, using careful and systematic methods of analysis, have produced results that have overturned an authoritative but irrational assumption, transforming a false opinion into true knowledge.  Locke’s powerful method is an excellent means of refuting Locke’s weak assumptions.

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Note: all the references to research findings are cited in Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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.

The Technology of Dreaming

For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream.”

So said the famously hard-working inventor Thomas Edison in 1921 in his Diary and Sundry Observations.  Edison claimed the only truly restful sleep was totally unconscious, and he regarded dreaming as a waste of mental energy that could be put to more productive use in waking life.

Nearly a century later Larry Page, another iconic figure of technological progress, offered a very different approach to dreams.  In a 2009 commencement address at the University of Michigan he said, “You know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know how, if you don’t have a pencil and pad by the bed to write it down, it will be completely gone the next morning? Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23.”  Page awoke from his dream and immediately began writing notes about downloading the entire worldwide web with all links intact—the seed idea for what he later built into Google.  His advice to the graduates: “When a really great dream shows up, grab it!

Which of these two world-changing innovators had it right? Should we strictly limit our sleep and ignore our dreams as Edison did?  Or should we listen to our dreams and try to follow them as Page recommended?

The Technology of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe Technology of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe Technology of Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

The world is filled with people trying to be like Edison, working nonstop and vowing to “sleep when I’m dead,” but this behavior appears foolish and self-defeating in light of current research in sleep medicine. Numerous studies over the past several decades have shown that inadequate sleep has a negative impact on human health, with harmful effects on our emotional, cognitive, physical, and immunological well-being.  What counts as “adequate” differs for each individual, but only a tiny portion of the population can sleep four or five hours a night and function the next day in an optimally healthy way.

The basic message of this research: A sure way to make yourself less productive is to artificially limit your individual sleep needs.

We can’t do without sleep.  But can we do without dreams?

The scientific evidence is less clear on this point.  Some people insist they never remember their dreams, although closer investigation usually finds they can recall a few dreams, just very infrequently.  (Even Edison mentioned a couple of dreams in his diary.)  Demographic surveys indicate most people remember one or two dreams a week.  Women tend to remember more dreams than men, and younger people more than older people.

Intriguingly, researchers have found that dream recall can be dramatically increased with little more than simple encouragement and having a pad of paper and pen by one’s bedside, as Page did.  It’s fairly easy, in other words, to remember more dreams if that’s what you want.  Build it and they will come.

Neuroscientists have begun to fill in the picture of what happens in the brain while we’re dreaming.  During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreams seem to occur, activity slows down in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for focused rational thought.  Activity increases in the limbic system, an older part of the brain involved with emotions, memory formation, and instinctual responses (e.g., fight/flight, sexual arousal).  Neural activity also increases in regions of the brain devoted to visual processing.

These findings make perfect sense in relation to empirical studies of dream content showing it to be loosely structured, highly associative, emotionally varied, and filled with intense visual images. The neuroscience of REM sleep matches up well with people’s subjective experiences of dreams, giving us more confidence there’s a real connection here between brain and mind.

Dreaming now seems best understood as the psychological expression of a distinctive mode of brain functioning devoted to memory, emotion, and playful meaning-making. It is inherently and powerfully creative, not only in producing experiential worlds of astonishing depth and realism but also in stretching our minds to make surprising new connections between disparate ideas, feelings, and impressions.  Contrary to the stereotype of dreams as nothing but random nonsense, current research shows their content is meaningful at many levels, accurately reflecting our most important concerns and activities in waking life.

Edison was right to this extent: We can ignore our dreams, if we so choose.  But Page was right on the bigger point.  Dreaming is not wasteful; it has its own neurological integrity and psychological value.  It taps into a deep inner wellspring of creative thinking that leads us beyond what is to imagine what might be.

In this sense we can think of dreaming as a kind of innate technology of the mind, a natural tool of creative consciousness.

The question for dream researchers then becomes, how can we use that tool better?  How can we refine it, improve it, make it stronger?

This might sound like the start of a Dr. Frankenstein tale, with mad scientists rashly meddling in mysteries they don’t understand.  But we are not the first to ask these questions.  Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, people have used a variety of techniques to actively stimulate their inborn capacity for powerful dreaming.

For example, the Native American ritual of the vision quest involves several days and nights of solitary fasting in the wilderness as a means of inviting a revelatory dream.  The Muslim practice of istikhara uses special prayers, purifications, and sleep positions to elicit a dream that helps resolve an important question or decision.  The Indian sage Naropa taught his followers how to control their dreams through yogic methods of chanting, breathing, visualizations, and bodily postures.  Temples devoted to the Greek god Asclepius thrived for centuries as holy sites where people came to worship, diet, exercise, and sleep in hopes of receiving a healing dream.

Cultural practices like these represent time-honored, ethically sensitive techniques for intensifying dreams and deriving more insight from them.     

Eventually we will integrate our best models of dream content with highly advanced neuroscientific maps of brain activity during sleep, and this will set the stage for a new generation of technologies that directly stimulate the brain to produce more creative dream experiences.  By fine-tuning the neural parameters of sleep we’ll be able to filter out the noise and amplify the signals of the dreaming imagination.

The Technology of Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

Undoubtedly this will be good news for the movie business.  As George Lucas recently said at the USC School of Cinematic Arts when asked to predict the future of film, “The next step is to be able to control your dreams. You’ll just tap into a different part of your brain. You’re just going to put a hat on or plug into the computer and create your own world… We’ll be able to do the dream thing 10, 15 years from now. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky thing.”

That timeline seems about right to me, although I would envision devices that generate a more interactive and mutually respectful process between waking and dreaming, with a focus on awareness and growth rather than control for control’s sake.

Beyond their entertainment value, these dream technologies of the not-so-distant future will help us cultivate a more unified consciousness that takes advantage of our brain’s amazing creativity throughout all phases of the sleep-wake cycle.

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Note: This essay also appears on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-bulkeley-phd/the-technology-of-dreaming_b_4378041.html

 

 

 

Dream Recall: The Highs and the Lows

Dream Recall: The Highs and the Lows by Kelly BulkeleyWhy is it so hard to remember dreams?  Scientific evidence dating back to the 1950’s has shown the brain is active in various ways throughout the sleep cycle.  Yet when we wake up we often can’t remember more than a few fleeting images that disappear from our minds almost immediately.  Why can’t we recall more of what we experienced while asleep?

 

As a partial answer to that question, try this thought experiment.  Imagine you are a star basketball player.  It’s the final moments of a championship game. The score is tied, the crowd is screaming, and victory hangs in the balance. Just before time expires you make a brilliant play that wins the game.

Then, the second the game’s over, a reporter pulls you off the court, thrusts a microphone in your face, and says, “What was going through your mind when you made that play?”

As with most athletes facing this situation, you’d probably be at a loss for words.  You’d find it difficult if not impossible to communicate the full experience of what it felt like while you were in the game.  So soon after the game’s end, your brain would still be somewhat disoriented by the abrupt transition, and it would be a challenge to form a linear, grammatically proper thought.

This is more or less what it’s like when we wake up in the morning.  Our brain has just been operating in a very different mode from waking consciousness. It’s extremely difficult to convey the experiences of the former state of awareness into the linguistic terms of the latter.

That’s a general reason for the limits of our dream recall.  But still, a question remains: Why do some people remember several dreams every night, while others remember virtually none at all? Sometimes I hear this posed as a challenge—“I don’t remember any of my dreams and I’m just fine, so what’s the point of paying attention to them?”  Other times it’s more of a request for advice—“I know dreams are valuable, but I barely remember any of them, so how can I improve my recall?”

Current scientific research suggests that some degree of dream recall is a normal part of human life.  According to Michael Schredl’s thorough review of the research literature in The New Science of Dreaming:

“On average, students recall one to two dreams per week at home… In representative samples of the general population [in Austria], dream recall frequency is slightly lower, but about 68% recall at least one dream per month.” (1)

Similar results appeared in a demographic survey of 2970 American adults I commissioned in 2010, when 67.81% of the participants said they recalled at least two or three dreams per month.

A very small percentage of people say they remember no dreams whatsoever.  The only research I know that has directly focused on “non-dreamers” was done by James Pagel from the Rocky Mountain Sleep Clinic in Colorado.  Pagel found that 6% of his lab’s incoming patients said they never remembered any dreams.  After further questions and experiments, Pagel found that most of these people could remember at least a few dreams from earlier in life.  He concluded that “true non-dreaming was very rare in our sleep lab population (0.38%)—1 of every 262 patients.” (2)

It’s not clear why some people remember an extremely high number of dreams.  Gender may have something to do with it, since females tend to remember more dreams than males.  The difference is not absolute—there are high-recalling men and low-recalling women—but many researchers have found the same modest difference.  In the 2010 demographic survey, 10.21% of the women vs. 6.64% of the men said they remembered a dream almost every morning.

Age is also a factor, as children and young adults tend to remember more dreams than do older people.  This pattern seems to be more pronounced among women than men: Young women have the highest frequencies of dream recall, with a big drop-off for older women, while young men have only slightly more recall than older men.

Many other factors can influence an individual’s dream recall frequency, including sleep quality, medications (some increase dream recall, others decrease it), and stressful circumstances in waking life.

The most intriguing factor is encouragement by others.   Michael Schredl refers to this as an “experimenter effect,” in which

“[T]he expectations of the participants and the expectations of the experimenter can affect DRF [dream recall frequency] as measured in the sleep laboratory.  In the high expectancy conditions [of one study], dreams were recalled more often.  Similarly, other studies have demonstrated how sensitive DRF is to comments of the experimenter; simple encouraging comments produced a marked increase in DRF.  Even the completion of a short dream questionnaire yielded a higher DRF after four weeks.” (3)

It seems the mere act of encouraging people to remember more dreams leads to an increase in recall frequency.  This isn’t just a function of compliant participants trying to please their experimenters.  It’s an indication that dream recall depends to a large degree on a person’s conscious attitude towards dreams.  A low interest in dreams correlates with low recall, and high interest in dreams correlates with high recall.  As the research reviewed by Schredl shows, even a slight positive change in attitude can yield a higher frequency of remembered dreams.

If you build it, they will come.

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Notes:

1. Michael Schredl, “Dream Recall,” in Patrick McNamara and Deirdre Barrett (ed.s) The New Science of Dreams (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007), vol. II, p. 80.

2. J.F. Pagel, The Limits of Dream: A Scientific Exploration of the Mind/Brain Interface (London: Academic Press, 2008), p. 152.

3. Schredl 2007, p. 89.