The Social Networks of Dreaming

The Social Networks of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyDigital technologies have given us new ways to socialize and to track, measure, and reflect upon our socializing.  Humans have always been social animals, as Aristotle said long ago, but now we’re social animals with smart phones, email, Facebook, Tubmlr, and Twitter.  It’s not just that these tools and platforms dramatically expand the range of our social interactions—they do—but more importantly they enable us to observe those interactions over time in finely grained detail and analyze them for personal insight.

 

An unusual but promising development in this area is the use of social network analysis in the study of dreams.  Despite their occasionally strange and otherworldly content, people’s dreams offer a surprisingly accurate source of information about their most important emotional concerns in waking life, including their relationships with other people.

Richard Schweickert, a professor of psychology at Purdue University, has done pioneering work in demonstrating the validity of applying the latest tools of social network analysis to dream content.  Schweickert (with the help of G. William Domhoff) analyzed the lengthy dream journals of three participants, 2 women and a man.  He identified all the characters that appeared in the dreams and created maps of “affiliation networks” to indicate how often the various characters appeared in the same dreams together.

His results showed that all three dream series had a nonrandom “small world structure,” meaning that certain characters appeared together in the dreams far more frequently than would be predicted by chance alone.

Schweickert’s research is more than another piece of evidence supporting the notion that dreams are meaningfully structured psychological phenomena, not just random neural nonsense from the sleep-addled brain.  His findings cast new light on the profoundly social nature of human dreaming, showing that dreams can be a potentially valuable mirror revealing the people who matter to us the most.

For example, the participant known as “Merri” dreamed more often of her recently deceased sister than of any living person in her current waking life. This suggests that we dream about people who are especially meaningful, not necessarily the people with whom we spend the most time.

Schweickert also noticed that another of the participants had many dreams of family members and of work colleagues, but rarely dreams including people from both those spheres of his life.  This participant was an insect taxonomist by profession, prompting Schweickert to speculate that “perhaps his cognitive style is to focus”; this might account for the mutually exclusive categories of social interaction in his dreams.

What’s most exciting about these findings is that they open the door to deeper and more sophisticated examinations of our social networks.  Who are the interlinked communities of people we dream about the most often?  Which of our dream characters serve as mediators connecting different communities?  What happens when characters we personally know appear in the same dreams as celebrities we’ve never actually met (e.g., actors, musicians, athletes)?  Who are the “lone wolves” of our dream life, people who only appear by themselves and never with other characters?  How do the social networks of dreaming relate to other aspects of dream content such as emotions, colors, and settings?  Do we only dream of some people in happy situations, and other people only in frightening scenarios?

The technology needed to answer these questions is emerging rapidly.   Better than counting Facebook friends or Twitter followers, the big data of dreaming offers a valuable source of honest, accurate insight into the intricate web of social relationships that shape our lives.

 

Note: this post also appears on the Huffington Post, as of September 3, 2013.

 

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work by Kelly Bulkeley“Sleep, the gentlest of the gods, the spirit’s peace, whom care flies from: who soothes the body wearied with toil, and readies it for fresh labors.”

 

That’s how the Roman poet Ovid described sleep in his first century CE masterpiece the Metamorphoses.

 

Many people today desperately seek the restorative blessings of sleep just as Ovid described, but instead they find themselves plagued by bad dreams about work.  Rather than providing a peaceful respite from the burdens of waking life, sleep for many people has become a battleground of job-related stress and financial anxiety. In a recent online survey I conducted with Harris Interactive, 2252 American adults were asked to describe a dream relating to their work or employment status.  All the reports are available via the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) website.  (Here’s a link to the reports of 10+ words in length.)  These dreams offer a fascinating window into the workplace experiences of people across a wide demographic swath of American society.

Reading through the dream reports, it becomes clear that each job or profession has its own distinctive type of nightmare:

A trucker dreamed of a car cutting him off, so he had to slam on the brakes and then fight to control his rig as it started to jack-knife.

A nurse dreamed of her patients unhooking themselves from their monitoring equipment and wandering off, which led to the nurse getting fired for incompetence.

A waiter dreamed about having too many customers to serve, forgetting where the tableware was, and losing track of all the orders.

An electrician had vivid recurrent dreams about needing to fix strange gadgets with hundreds of wires, none of them labeled.

Several teachers had bad dreams about being unprepared for class, dealing with uncooperative students, and struggling with new technologies.

Numerous office administrators had nightmares of phones not working, desks piling up with unfinished work, and calculators streaming out endless amounts of rolled paper.

Whatever makes people feel powerless, overwhelmed, or out of control in their particular type of work, that’s going to drive the content and emotions of their dreams.

Sometimes people’s anxieties are transformed by the dreaming imagination into bizarre scenes that reflect a kind of surrealistic commentary on their employment situation.  Ovid would surely be delighted by metamorphic dreams like these:

A 30-year old woman from Arizona dreamed that “giant staplers were chasing me down the hall” at the school where she works. 

A 35-year old software developer from Minnesota dreamed of going to apply for a job and finding the interviewer was an alien with green skin and a large almond-shaped head. 

A 62-year old woman from Illinois dreamed that a computer was chasing her yelling “Program me!”

A 64-year old man from Minnesota who recently lost his job dreamed he had gone back to his office, but instead of the familiar building it was a strange storehouse for used furniture: “I think the dream meant that my former job was basically warehousing people who needed to move on.”

Weird and troubling as these dreams may be, they in fact make perfect sense in light of scientific research showing that dream content tends to accurately reflect people’s waking life emotional concerns.  Anything that worries us in waking life will likely show up in our dreams, either literally or metaphorically.  This idea of meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns has a lot of data to support it, much of it generated by G. William Domhoff and available on his dreamresearch.net website.

For many people today, worries about their jobs and personal finances top their list of emotional concerns in waking life.  Several of the survey participants spoke of their fears about losing their jobs or trying to find a new one.  A 27-year old Arizona man who has recurrent nightmares of being attacked by bears said, “You never know if you will have employment the next day.”  In such a tenuous economic environment, dream content will naturally reflect people’s job-related worries and preoccupations.

There seems to be a rough evolutionary logic to these kinds of bad dreams.  Several researchers, most recently Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli, have proposed that one of the functions of dreaming is to simulate possible threats in the waking world, helping to prepare the individual to better handle those threats if they ever actually occur.  In this view nightmares give us a safe opportunity to mentally practice survival-related behaviors and get ready for potential dangers.  The short-term pain of upsetting dreams is outweighed by their long-term gain in promoting greater vigilance and preparedness.

It should also be noted the same powers of imagination that generate vivid work nightmares can also generate many other kinds of dreams as well.  Here too there is good scientific evidence to support the idea that dreaming is an inherently creative and multidimensional activity.  During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the time of the sleep cycle when most dreaming occurs, the brain becomes hyper-associative.  The constraints of externally focused consciousness loosen, allowing innovative possibilities to emerge out of wide-ranging connections between perceptions, memories, instincts, and cultural influences.  This is why dreaming seems so crazy and scattered—and why it’s occasionally the source of brilliant flashes of creative insight.

If you have recurrent nightmares about work, try this: After getting in bed each night and turning off the light, take a moment to think about the amazing creative powers in your own dreaming imagination.  If your dreams can create vividly realistic scenarios of work, what other kinds of scenarios could they create?  What are the strangest, most otherworldly dreams you’ve experienced in the past?  What would you like to dream about now?

Your dreams may feel like foes, but with an open mind and playful spirit you can persuade them to become allies.

 

 

New Venue for Talking About Sleep and Dream Research

New Venue for Talking About Sleep and Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyI’ve just started writing a blog on sleep and dreams for the Huffington Post—let me know what you think!  Initially I’ll focus on children’s dreams, using material from the book I co-wrote with my mother, then eventually I’ll broaden the scope and write about new developments in dream research and cultural expressions of dreaming.

 

Here’s a link to the first post, titled “Hey Parents, It’s Not ‘Just a Dream.’

 

 

The Best New Dream App

The Best New Dream App by Kelly BulkeleyToday is the launch of the Kickstarter campaign to fund the SHADOW mobile application for tracking dreams and creating a new and bigger community of dreamers than ever before possible.  There’s a lot of potential here, especially for people who are already familiar with dream research and have good ideas about how such a project could develop to benefit the most people.  As an advisor to SHADOW I’ve been doing my best to promote greater awareness of the privacy and ethical issues involved here, and I have also been helping sketch out possible paths for future development and growth.  I can honestly say that nothing is set in stone–SHADOW will develop from the ground up, based on user interest and support.  If you are someone who cares about the importance of dreams and wants to broaden public appreciation of the creative powers of dreaming, don’t stand on the sidelines–get involved, get active, and help us create the future!  This video offers my 3-minute appeal for your support.

Cosmo Romance Dreams

Cosmo Romance Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyA couple of years ago a reporter from Cosmopolitan magazine sent me a list of dream types she had gathered from other women in her office.  I can’t remember if an article ever appeared, but I thought the dreams were interesting as expressions of the concerns many women feel about their romantic relationships.  Here is the intro I gave to the reporter, the dream types, and my comments. (Note: I just found a copy of the article.  It appeared in the December 2010 issue, p. 112, under the rather lurid title “What Your Freaky Love Dreams Mean.”)

 

Many of these dreams seem to have a distressing, negative tone, so let me say that in general I look at “bad” dreams and nightmares as valuable opportunities for insight and growth.  Such dreams usually revolve around the most emotionally important and challenging issues of our lives.  They focus on our difficulties precisely in order to give us a deeper understanding of what’s going on and what we might do about it.

 

1) You’re back with an ex.
*Is there a different interpretation depending on whether the ex you dreamt about was a nice guy who you had a good relationship with vs. a bad guy who didn’t treat you well?
Dreaming about one’s past romantic partners never ends.  He may be gone from your waking life, but, for better or worse, he’ll linger in your dreams forever.  These kinds of dreams do NOT automatically mean you want to get back together with him.  Rather, they reflect the complex and long-lasting impact any serious relationship makes on your unconscious mind. The details of the dream are important: I would want to know, in what situations does your ex appear?  What kind of emotional energy does he bring into the dream scenario?  If he’s a “good” ex, perhaps the dream suggests there’s still a way in which his presence is a helpful force in your waking life.  If he’s a “bad” ex, maybe it reflects a sense of still being trapped in the relationship, or possibly threatened by something symbolized by his kind of personality.

2) Your partner betrays you in some way (like cheating, lying, or revealing something personal about you to everyone).
This is the price of a committed relationship: a vulnerability to betrayal.  No matter how strong a relationship may appear in waking life, both people inevitably suffer some degree of insecurity, both conscious and unconscious, about their partner’s being unfaithful.  This insecurity naturally comes out in dreams that vividly portray how badly you would feel if your partner violated your trust and fidelity.  It’s possible the dreams are clues to an actual problem in the relationship (again, the details matter), but usually such anxiety dreams are reminders of our exposure to extreme emotional pain whenever we form a romantic bond with someone else.
3) You blow it with your man (whether by having a one-night stand, saying something cruel to him, etc.).
Monogamy doesn’t come easily.  We all have within us complex and conflicting feelings about our romantic partners.  It’s important to acknowledge and accept those feelings when they arise in dreams, even if we don’t necessarily act on them.  That said, if someone were having these dreams frequently, I’d certainly wonder about the quality of their waking relationship.
4) You’re engaged, and there’s something off about your ring—the stone is missing or so small you can’t see it, it’s ugly, etc.

An engagement ring is an ancient emblem of love and commitment, a very public announcement of two people’s plans for a future life together.  This makes it an excellent dream symbol for a person’s feelings about the impending marriage.  Because the focus in these dreams is usually on the appearance of the ring, I’d want to ask if there’s a concern about the appearance vs. the substance of the relationship.

5) Something weird happens during your wedding (like you can’t see the groom’s face).

A wedding is one of the most momentous rituals of human society, a true rite of passage that forever binds two people’s lives into one.  The awesome magnitude of this life change is often reflected in distressing dreams of wedding day disaster.  A Buddhist perspective might be helpful here: In that tradition’s view, a dream of wedding catastrophe could be a good dream because it shows your old way of life is dying and a new and better way of life is being born.  The weirdness reflects the shifting of your reality from the past to the future.  In the case of the groom’s missing face, it might be that his appearance and personality are not the primary focus here; what’s ultimately important is the power of the vows you’re making with him.

Dream Education = Religious Studies Education

Dream Education = Religious Studies Education by Kelly BulkeleyThis is an excerpt from a panel on dream education at the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  My co-panelists were Phil King and Bernard Welt, with whom I wrote Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education.

 

Any class on dreams that occurs within a school context must, at a minimum, provide educational benefits consistent with the school’s mission.  These benefits usually include critical thinking, literacy skills, knowledge acquisition, global citizenship, etc.  All of us on the panel agree that classes on dreams can do a wonderful job of providing these educational benefits and contributing to the general goals of almost any kind of school.

 

But dream classes can do more than that.  Indeed, dream classes are always doing more than that, whether or not the teacher and students are explicitly aware of it.   Something happens when dreams enter the classroom, something very different from other topics of study.  Each of us on the panel has different ways of talking about that educational surplus.  For me, what’s interesting is how every class on dreams becomes at some level a class on religious studies.  By that I mean a class that studies human expressions of ultimacy via symbols, metaphors, and myths.  The historical aspect of this may be most obvious.  Prior to the rise of psychology as a Western academic discipline in the mid-nineteenth century, the primary arena in which people shared, discussed, and explored their dreams was religion–in Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the spiritual traditions of the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Oceania.  Any class that’s trying to provide a solid base of knowledge about dreams can’t ignore the history of religions.  This is true whether you are teaching in psychology, literature, biology, or any other discipline—as soon as you start telling your students about dreams, you’ll need to talk about religious history, too.

 

I understand this might seem daunting to educators without any training or background in comparative religious studies.  I’m not saying you have to include large amounts of this material in your curriculum.  But I am saying you should think carefully about how you’re going to present the topics of your class within this bigger historical framework.  You should let your students know there IS a bigger historical framework, even if that’s not the specific focus of your class.

 

There’s another way that dream classes become religious studies classes, even more important than the historical aspect.  Whenever dreams become a topic of classroom discussion, the students are inevitably prompted to reflect on their private dream experiences.  The class may not explicitly involve personal dream sharing, or keeping a journal, or anything directly about the students’ own dreams—but I guarantee you, the students are thinking about their dreams in relation to what’s coming up in the class.  Especially if the teacher is a good one and gets the students excited about the topic, they’re going to be curious to explore their own dreams.  And once they do that, they’re very likely to come across themes, questions, and experiences that go to the heart of many of the world’s religions—for example, the prospect of death and an afterlife, the struggle of good and evil, the illusory nature of reality, prophetic anticipations of the future, nightmarish suffering and existential dread, haunting encounters with supernatural beings, and so forth.

 

Teachers can ignore all this if they wish, but I think it’s better if they at least recognize that their students are wondering about these kinds of issues in their dreams and thinking about how the class is, or is not, helping them make better sense of their experiences.  Again, this doesn’t mean you have to devote extensive class time to the religious implications of dreams in people’s lives.  You could devote some time to this topic, of course, and I think you’d be surprised at what your students would say if given the chance!  But it’s enough if you simply let the students know that, just as people in the past drew religious inspiration and philosophical insight from dreams, so do many people today.  It’s not a matter of ancient superstition carrying over into the modern world, but rather a recognition that humans in all times and places, up to and including us today, are dreamers, and our dreams bring us into contact with ideas, feelings, and energies that most cultures through history have regarded as religiously meaningful.  Whether or not we use religious language, the personal impact of certain dreams can be intensely meaningful and even transformative.  As dream educators, we have to give our students some degree of informed awareness of those spiritual dimensions of dreaming potential.