Ben Carson’s Illuminating Dream

Ben Carson's Illuminating Dream by Kelly BulkeleyBen Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and leading Republican contender for the Presidency, says that his life was changed by a shadowy figure who appeared in a dream and gave him special advice at a time of crisis. Not since Barack Obama’s 2004 memoir Dreams From My Father has a presidential candidate shared such valuable insight into his personal dreaming experience.

Carson’s 2009 autobiography Gifted Hands describes a pivotal moment during college when he was threatened with paralyzing doubt about his ability to reach the ambitious goal he had set himself, to become a doctor. Having escaped a dysfunctional family and a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood, Carson was a freshman at Yale University in the pre-med program. He felt overwhelmed by the difficulty of his classes and the competitive pressures from all the other super-bright, hyper-achieving students. Chemistry became a serious problem, and as the end of first semester approached Carson realized he was very likely to fail the class. That would knock him out of the pre-med program and ruin his plans for the future. The day before the exam he wandered about campus in deep despair, consumed by guilt and anxiety. Finally, he says, he prayed:

“My mind reached toward God—a desperate yearning, begging, clinging to Him. ‘Either help me understand what kind of work I ought to do, or else perform some kind of miracle and help me to pass this exam.’” (72)

Once he placed the matter in God’s hands, Carson says he “felt at peace” (72). He commenced to study as hard as he could in the few hours remaining before the test—“I scribbled formulas on paper, forcing myself to memorize what had no meaning to me.” (73) When midnight came, Carson “flopped into my bed and whispered in the darkness, ‘God, I’m sorry. Please forgive me for failing You and for failing myself.’ Then I slept.” (73)

And then comes the dream that changed his life:

“While I slept I had a strange dream, and, when I awakened in the morning, it remained as vivid as if it had actually happened. In the dream I was sitting in the chemistry lecture hall, the only person there. The door opened, and a nebulous figure walked into the room, stopped at the board, and started working out chemistry problems. I took notes of everything he wrote.” (73)

When he woke up, Carson quickly wrote down all the problems he could remember, even though the final few faded away before he could record them. He looked up the problems in his textbook, figuring that his mind “was still trying to work out unresolved problems during my sleep.” (74)

But what happened next made him question the prosaic explanations of psychology. He went to the chemistry lecture hall, took his seat, and waited with 600 other students for the teacher to pass out the exam booklet.

“At last, heart pounding, I opened the booklet and read the first problem. In that instant, I could almost hear the discordant melody that played on TV with The Twilight Zone. In fact, I felt I had entered that never-never land. Hurriedly, I skimmed through the booklet, laughing silently, confirming what I suddenly knew. The exam problems were identical to those written by the shadowy dream figure in my sleep.” (74)

Without pausing to reflect on the strangeness of what was happening, he set to work on the exam, going as fast as he could so he would not forget the information he had received in his dream. “God, You pulled off a miracle,” he said as finished the test and left the lecture hall.

Once again he wandered the campus, this time in wonder and elation, urgently trying to make sense of things.

“I’d never had a dream like that before. Neither had anyone I’d ever known. And that experience contradicted everything I’d read about dreams in my psychological studies. The only explanation just blew me away. The one answer was humbling in its simplicity. For whatever reason, the God of the universe, the God who holds galaxies in His hands, had seen a reason to reach down to a campus room on Planet Earth and send a dream to a discouraged ghetto kid who wanted to become a doctor. I gasped at the sure knowledge of what had happened.” (75)

Carson passed the exam with a score of 97. The only problems he got wrong were the ones at the end, when his memory of the dream had begun to fade. From that point on his path toward a stellar medical career never faltered, and by the age of 33 he had become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

But the significance of Carson’s miraculous dream extended far beyond helping him become a doctor. After this experience he was confident that God “had special things for me to do… I had an inner certainty that I was on the right path in my life—the path God had chosen for me. Great things were going to happen in my life, and I had to do my part by preparing myself and being ready.” (76)

What should we make of this story? First of all, we have to ask if he made the whole thing up. Aspiring politicians embellish their biographies all the time. It’s a rather neat little vignette, perfectly suited for a mass-market book. Carson had plenty to gain, and nothing to lose, by fabricating this feel-good tale of a dream of salvation.

Of course there is no direct way to validate the details of his experience. However, there are many indirect reasons, based on current scientific dream research, to indicate that what Carson described was not impossible but actually has some degree of plausibility. Setting aside his theological interpretation for a moment, we can look at the basic contours of Carson’s dream and identify several features that reflect well-known aspects of cognitive functioning during sleep.

To start, dream recall increases for many people during times of personal crisis. As clinical psychologists have long known, intensified dreams tend to emerge when a person is struggling with turbulent emotions and a fragile sense of identity. Increased dreaming is especially likely for people who perform pre-sleep prayers like Carson did the night before his dream. “Dream incubation” is the general term for rituals aimed at stimulating a revelatory dream, and religions all over the world have developed special techniques for this purpose. Modern researchers have found that if people go to sleep with an urgent question or concern in mind, they are highly likely to dream about it that night.

Indeed, those are the conditions that can generate a “big dream,” meaning a dream with unusual vividness, realism, and memorability. Carson’s experience would certainly qualify as a big dream in that sense.

Dreaming about a test or exam is among the most common types of recurrent dream. It has a history reaching back to ancient China and the dreams people many centuries ago had about passing, or failing to pass, the all-important civil service exams. People today often have exam nightmares long after they have been out of school, more evidence of the deep emotional power of these kinds of dreams.

There should be nothing surprising, then, about a college student who is very anxious about a test having a dream that relates directly to his waking concerns.

Although he later dismissed it, Carson’s initial psychological analysis of the dream has some merit. It seems likely that, after all that intense studying, he went to sleep and his unconscious mind made various connections that his conscious waking mind had not yet processed. The exam questions seemed familiar because it turned out that he actually understood the material much better than he thought he did. It would have been a much more miraculous story if he had received this dream and done well on the test without doing any studying beforehand.

In light of all this, we can recognize a plausible naturalistic core to Carson’s experience. We still cannot say with certainty that he really had this exact dream, but everything he described has a realistic basis in current scientific knowledge about sleep and dreaming.

Carson felt, however, that a naturalistic explanation of his dream was not enough. He adopted a theological interpretation that cast himself as a quasi-biblical figure of divinely sanctioned destiny. Strangely, he never said anything more about the “nebulous figure” who revealed the chemistry problems, and in most Christian contexts this would be a huge red flag. Any number of demonic temptations can enter people’s minds through dreams, and a “shadowy” character like the one in Carson’s dream would automatically be a target of suspicion. But Carson never has a moment’s doubt about the reliability of his mysterious dream teacher, trusting in the ultimate goodness of his desire to become a doctor. If the dream helped him reach that goal, it must be a dream from God.

Carson’s miraculous exam dream stands in dramatic contrast to the two dreams described by Barack Obama in his first book, Dreams From My Father. Obama’s dreams revolved around struggles with his complicated family history and efforts to reconcile himself with the haunting influence of his father. Both dreams occurred during a time of major life transition (after the death of his father, and on a journey to Africa to visit his father’s village), and both dreams are suffused with dark emotions of fear, anger, and sadness. Obama’s dreams led him to a more humble self-awareness of the enduring power of his family lineage, for good and for ill. In 2008, before Obama was elected, I wrote that a close look at these dreams “suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.”

Whereas Obama’s dreams had the effect of anchoring him more deeply in the communal traditions of his ancestors, Carson’s dream, or at least his interpretation of it, had the effect of elevating himself to a position of singular cosmic importance. It would not be too strong to say that Carson feels he is on a mission from God, a mission first revealed to him in a heaven-sent dream.

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Note: This essay was first published in the Huffington Post on November 2, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-bulkeley-phd/ben-carsons-illuminating-_b_8443254.html

Google’s Deep Dreaming Project

Google's Deep Dreaming Project by Kelly BulkeleyGoogle recently released a computer program that may help understand various aspects of visual imagination in dreaming.  Check out these images in their “Inceptionism Gallery” here.  The main discussion of the program is from a June 17 post on the Google Research Blog, here.  Other images can be found at the Twitter hashtag #deepdream.

I talk in more detail about Google’s project and its relevance for dream research in a Psychology Today blog post here.

Dream Incubation: An Interview with Arianna Huffington

Dream Incubation: An Interview with Arianna Huffington by Kelly BulkeleyThe 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.

Robots Dreaming

Robots Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley“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.

Answering the Dream Questions of a High School Student

Answering the Dream Questions of a High School Student by Kelly BulkeleyLike 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.

Sincerely,

R.L.

 

[My response:]

Dear R.L.,

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.

9. Definitely!

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,

 

Kelly

The 7 Worst Things Ever Said About Dreams

The 7 Worst Things Ever Said About Dreams by Kelly Bulkeley1.  The most evil type of man is the man who, in his waking hours, has the qualities we find in his dream state.

(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)