The Huffington Post recently published an interview I did with Arianna Huffington about dream incubation. She has a long-standing interest in sleep and dreams, along with spiritual curiosity and an appreciation for scientific research–a perfect audience for what I’ve been working on over the past couple of years. What I told her about dream incubation comes from chapter 15 of the book Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (Oxford U. Press), due out in early 2016. That’s the next-to-last chapter of the book, which starts with a section on the evolution of sleep, laying a scientific foundation for understanding how dreams have emerged in the human species. The second section looks at empirical patterns in ordinary dream recall and content, drawing on research from the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb). The third section focuses on “big dreams,” i.e. rare but extremely vivid and memorable dreams that make a long-lasting impression on waking awareness. I discuss scientific research on four prototypes of big dreaming that recur especially frequently, throughout history and in cultures all around the world: aggressive, sexual, gravitational, and mystical. Finally, in the fourth section, I use this information about big dreams to shed new light on several kinds of religious experience found in many different traditions: demonic seduction, prophetic vision, ritual healing, and contemplative practice. Dream incubation appears in the chapter on ritual healing, with lots of discussion of the Roman orator Aelius Aristides in the 2nd century CE, who wrote about his dream incubation experiences at a temple of the ancient Greek healing god Asclepius.
“I, Robot” (2004) is a movie about visions of the future that are haunted by dreams from the past. Loosely based on Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi stories from the 1940’s, the film opens in 2035 with a harrowing nightmare that graphically repeats, PTSD-style, an accident suffered by homicide detective Del Spooner, played by Will Smith. Several cars crashed and plunged into the Chicago River, and a robot dove into the water and rescued Spooner but not a little girl, whose chances of survival the robot deemed too low to justify trying to save. After the agonizing experience of watching the girl sink down into the watery depths while he was lifted up to safety, Spooner becomes bitterly suspicious of all modern technologies and distrustful of claims that “intelligent” robots can improve human life. Wearing his black leather trench coat and old-school Converse hi-tops like battle armor, Spooner is a man defiantly out of step with the march of cybernetic progress.
And then he gets a case that seems tailor made for his neo-Luddite paranoia: the first instance of a robot murdering a human. Of course the case turns out to be much more than it first appears, and Spooner is gradually drawn into a deeper mystery about the nature of robots, humans, and the future of their relations. At the center of the mystery is another dream—the dream of a robot.
The murder victim is Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), a robot designer and a friend of Spooner’s. The robot who apparently killed Dr. T. is named “Sonny” (Alan Tudyk), and Spooner finds that Sonny is far more personable than any other robot he’s ever seen, with emotions, existential questions, and a capacity to dream.
Spooner asks Sonny to describe his dreams, and the robot uses both hands to rapidly sketch an image of a large broken bridge, with a vast crowd below looking up at a single figure standing alone on a hill near the bridge. Sonny says the single figure in the dream is going to liberate the crowd below from their oppression. Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), a colleague of Dr. Lanning who is also Spooner’s new love interest, suggests the lone figure might be Sonny himself. Sonny considers that possibility, trusting humans to know more about the patterns of dreaming than he does. But he also says he had the impression the liberating figure in the dream is Spooner.
Without giving away the whole plot, it can be noted that both interpretations of Sonny’s dream are true in some measure. The climactic scenes of the movie take place near the broken bridge, so the dream has a prophetic, future-predicting quality to it. The dream provides vital clues necessary to solve the mystery of Dr. Lanning’s death, it anticipates the character development of both Sonny and Spooner, and it heralds a revolutionary shift in robot-human interactions. As with all “big dreams,” it has multiple levels of meaning and significance that play out across different timescales.
The ending of the film wraps up all the narrative threads, but it leaves the audience with an unsettling question. If robots can really dream, what else might they envision about our collective future? My guess is, it probably won’t be limited to fantasies of electric sheep.
Like many dream researchers I periodically receive emails from high school students asking for help with a class essay or project. It’s fun to think of the best, clearest, most useful ways of responding to these requests. I’d like to believe that the work I and all my colleagues in dream research are doing can at some level be explained in terms that make sense to a curious teenager. That means offering short, direct, non-technical answers. The questions students ask tend to be very broad, and a complete answer to some of them would require writing a whole book—not a practical way to respond either for me or the student.
Here is a recent exchange I had with a high school student, R.L., who agreed to let me post our emails to each other. I liked the way R.L. covered so much ground with these brief questions, and I took it as a challenge to answer in the most concise language I could manage.
Plus, I was impressed by R.L.’s audacity in sending me this request on December 9, two days before the essay was due!
Dear Dr. Bulkeley,
My name is R.L. I am a freshman at The ___ School in ___, Alabama. I have an essay assignment and I have chosen REM sleep and dreams. I was hoping you could offer some insight on this subject. Will you please answer the following questions?
1.What\’s the percentage of people that have nightmares?
2. Do we stop having dreams at a certain age?
3. Does everyone dream?
4. Can dreams be in color?
5. How can I remember my dreams, or improve my memory?
6. Can you sometimes control your own dreams, by what you do in real life?
7. What does it mean if I see people that are close to me, in my dreams?
8. Can dreams sometimes predict the future?
9. When a person has deja vu, could this be caused by remembering an earlier dream?
10. Is having continuous nightmares normal?
11. When we dream is it usually to express feelings we may be having on the inside, is there any other reason we may have dreams?
12. What is the average number of dreams a person may have a night?
13. When we dream, can the dream take away that conscious feeling we may be having on the inside?
This assignment is due December 11,2013. Thank you for your time and help.
1. It’s pretty small, but more children and adolescents have nightmares than adults.
2. People recall fewer dreams the older they get, but that just might be because they stop paying attention.
3. Yes, in the sense that everyone’s brain is very active every night you sleep. You may not remember dreaming, but you were!
4. Yes, all the time.
5. Often it’s just a matter of deciding before you go to sleep that you’d like to remember a dream when you wake up.
6. Somewhat; it’s more like, whatever you really care about in waking life, you’ll probably dream about it at night.
7. It’s a sign of their emotional importance in your life, like a mirror of your relationships.
8. Dreams can anticipate possibilities that may turn out to actually happen.
10. No, I’d definitely talk to a doctor or mental health professional if I were having continuous nightmares.
11. My shortest definition of dreaming is “imaginative play in sleep,” so I think of dreams as a way our minds play during the night. We dream for the same reason children play–because it’s fun and engrossing and endlessly creative.
12. It’s hard to count! Some people have 4-5 a night, that’s a lot.
13. I don’t think take that feeling away, so much as expand our sense of who we are and what is possible in the world.
I hope that’s helpful! Good luck,
(Plato, The Republic, IX.571-576)
2. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words….For when dreams increase, empty words grow many.”
(Ecclesiastes 5:3, 7)
3. 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 than the wind…
(Mercutio, in William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, I.iv.102-106)
4. Dreams are a vanity, God knows, pure error. Dreams are engendered in the too-replete from vapours in the belly, which compete with others, too abundant, swollen tight.
(Pertelote to Chanticleer in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.)
5. The forebrain may be making the best of a bad job in producing even partially coherent dream imagery from the relatively noisy signals sent up to it from the brain stem.
(J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, “The Brain as a Dream-State Generator,” 1977)
6. In this model, attempting to remember one’s dreams should perhaps not be encouraged, because such remembering may help to retain patterns of thought which are better forgotten. These are the very patterns the organism was attempting to damp down.
(Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison, “The Function of Dream Sleep,” 1983)
7. Dreaming is a free-rider on a system designed to be conscious while we are awake, and which is designed to sleep…. So far, no hypothesis put forward requires that we think of dreaming as more than a side-effect of the relevant functions of sleep.
(Owen Flanagan, “Dreaming Is Not an Adaptation,” 2000)
While sitting in the audience and taking notes during the recent IASD conference in Berkeley, I found myself marking several instances where something the presenter said triggered my dystopian imagination. I confess to being a long-time fan of science fiction and fantasy stories about frightening future worlds controlled by alien invaders, zombie hordes, inhuman technologies, totalitarian governments, and/or rapacious capitalists (I made a list of some favorites below). I enjoy these stories as literary nightmares: vivid, emotionally intense simulations of real psycho-cultural threats, looming now and in our collective future.
At the IASD conference I realized I could turn this interpretive process inside out. I began to look at dream research from the genre perspective of dystopian fiction. What would an uber-villain in such stories find appealing in state-of-the-art dream research?
Let me be clear, these are my own shadowy speculations and in no way reflect anything directly said or intended by the presenters!
Sleep paralysis induction. There is now a proven technique for inducing the nightmarish experience of sleep paralysis–that is, causing someone to enter a condition in which their bodies are immobilized but their minds are “awake” and vulnerable to terrifying images, thoughts, and sensations. I can imagine this technique being put to nefarious use by military intelligence agents, state-controlled psychiatrists, and cybernetic overlords. The ability to trap a person within a state of sleep paralysis would be a horribly useful tool for anyone bent on total mind control.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation. This technology enables the direct manipulation of neural activity during REM sleep, targeting specific regions of the brain. If the technology were refined with malevolent purposes in mind, it could potentially disrupt people’s normal dreaming patterns, controlling what they do and don’t dream about. An evil scientist could thus invent a kind of anti-dream weapon, a magnetic beam aimed at the head of a sleeping person and programmed to stun, control, or destroy.
Disrupting PTSD memory formation. Trauma victims can diminish the symptoms of PTSD if they perform a series of distracting cognitive tasks with six hours of the trauma, thereby disrupting the formation of long-term traumatic memories. The future militarization of this method seems inevitable. Anything that alters memory can be used by evil governments to manipulate people against their will, either to do things they don’t want to do (black ops soldiers) or forget things that have been done to them (massacre survivors).
Remote monitoring of a person’s sleep. The Zeo sleep monitoring system (which I’ve used for three years) has now developed a wireless version that instantly relays the user’s sleep data from the headband via a bedside mobile phone to the Zeo database. This kind of technology opens the door to real-time remote monitoring of people’s sleeping experience, and potentially the ability to reverse the flow of data and influence/shape/guide people while they sleep. If enough people were linked into the system, it could serve police states as a valuable tool in 24-hour mind-body surveillance.
My interest in these morbidly malevolent scenarios is not entirely theoretical. Over the past few years of developing the Sleep and Dream Database I’ve been thinking of the darker possible applications of this technology, less Star Trek and more Blade Runner. If it’s true, as most researchers at the IASD are claiming, that dreams are accurate expressions of people’s deepest fears, desires, and motivations, then it’s also true a real potential exists to put that dream-based information to ill use.
Projecting even farther forward, I wonder if there might be some kind of future inflection point where the amount of data we gather suddenly reveals much bigger patterns and forms of intelligence than we had previously been able to recognize or scientifically document. What would happen if this leap of knowledge enabled our collective dreaming selves to somehow unite to challenge the dominance (one might say totalitarian regime) of waking consciousness?
I think about all this as I continue building up the SDDb, trying to make good decisions and avoid the nightmare pitfalls. Dystopian fantasies help me clarify what’s at stake, where the dangers lurk, and how the future may unfold.
You may be familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 science fiction short story “The Nine Billion Names of God.” If so, you’ll understand why, as I work on developing new database technologies for dream research, I meditate on the phrase, “The Nine Billion Dreams of God.”
Dystopian Films and TV: Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Children of Men, Logan’s Run, The Matrix, Soylent Green, V for Vendetta, Battlestar Galactica, The Prisoner, Gattica, Terminator, Alien, Total Recall, 28 Days
Dystopian Novels: The Hunger Games, Fahrenheit 451, Neuromancer, 1984, Brave New World, The Time Machine
Here are excerpts from notes I took during the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, held in Berkeley, California, June 22-26. In parentheses I’ve put the names of the people who were presenting or commenting at the time.
Jung’s focus on the number 4 is “dangerous” and promises a “seductive wholeness.” (John Beebe)
In electrophysiological terms, as measured by the EEG, lucid dreaming can be described as meditation in sleep. (Jim Pagel)
A challenge for lucid dreamers: How to distinguish a failed lucidity technique from a sage warning from the unconscious. (Jeremy Taylor)
The pioneering French filmmaker George Meliere drew upon the fantastically creative, compelling illusions of dream experience to create a tradition of visionary cinema that we see today in “The Matrix” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” (Bernard Welt)
In a sample of 170 German school children, those who talk with their parents, siblings, and friends about dreams tend to have higher dream recall, suggesting a positive relationship between dream socialization and recall. (Michael Schredl)
People who are high dream recallers seem to have more activity in the brain’s tempero-parietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex, in both waking and sleep conditions. These brain areas have been associated in waking with mental imagery and mind attributions (theory of mind), respectively. (Jean-Baptiste Eichenlaub, et al.)
Sleep laboratory researchers are perfecting a method of awakening a person several times during the night at precise moments in the sleep cycle in order to induce an experience of sleep paralysis. (Elizaveta Solomonova)
Neuroscientists are experimenting with the use of transcranial direct current stimulation to directly affect the brain activity underlying dream experiences. (Katja Valli)
Reflective awareness in dreaming can give humans an adaptive edge because in dreams we have the ability to anticipate, explore, and practice possible selves and possible worlds. This ability can be cultivated through disciplined intentional mental practice. We can change our brain anatomy simply by using our imaginations. (Tracey Kahan, quoting Norman Doidge in the last sentence)
The “Inception” app is “worth a free download.” (David Kahn)
The mantra of the quantified self: If you track it, it improves. (Ryan Hurd)
In dream education with adolescents and young adults, the most relevant aspect of dreaming to their waking lives may be relational skills and emotional intelligence, helping them better navigate the complex currents of friendship, romance, and family life. (Phil King and Bernard Welt)