Abraham Lincoln’s Dreams

Abraham Lincoln’s Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyAbraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, and in honor of his birthday I am reposting a brief essay about four dreams he reportedly experienced while President: a visitation dream, a dream of parental concern, a prophecy of his assassination, and a series of dreams relating to military battles.  Each of these dreams is reported in a legitimate historical source, indicating that Lincoln took dreams very seriously and tried to incorporate their insights into his waking life.

 

Abraham Lincoln 1: Visitation of the Dead

“Mr. Lincoln said: ‘Colonel, did you ever dream of a lost friend, and feel that you were holding sweet communion with that friend, and yet have a sad consciousness that it was not a reality?—just so I dream of my boy Willie.’  Overcome with emotion, he dropped his head on the table, and sobbed aloud.”

Henry J. Raymond, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Darby and Miller, 1865), 756.

Abraham Lincoln, elected President of a rapidly fragmenting country in 1860, reportedly confided this dream to in the spring of 1862 to his personal aide, Colonel Le Grand B. Cannon.  Just a few months earlier Lincoln’s son Willie had died, at the age of eleven.  Willie was the second son he and his wife Mary had lost (four-year old Eddie died in 1850).  Visitation dreams of deceased loved ones have been reported in many cultures around the world, reflecting the all-too-human desire to look beyond death and meet with those who have left their physical bodies.  Lincoln commented on the paradoxical quality of his experience, which I’ve found characteristic of many visitation dreams: they are joyful and heartbreaking, reassuring and distressing at the same time.  The vivid memorability of such dreams plays an important role in the mourning process, enabling the individual to envision a new kind of relationship with the dead person—an enduring spiritual connection of tremendous emotional power that carries over from dreaming into waking awareness.  Whether or not you believe such dreams represent the wishful imaginings of the mind or the actual contact between a living person and a soul of the dead, visitation dreams provide people with a kind of sad wisdom that’s profoundly reassuring, particularly in times of waking-life conflict and danger.  That would certainly describe the situation Lincoln faced in 1862.  The Civil War had begun the previous year, and he felt the unimaginable weight of personal responsibility for the country’s political survival.  As painful as these dreams of his dead son Willie may have been, I suspect Lincoln wouldn’t have given them up for anything.

Abraham Lincoln 2: Parental Concern

“Think you better put “Tad’s” pistol away.  I had an ugly dream about him.”

Abraham Lincoln, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), Volume 6, Note of June 9, 1863.

Lincoln sent this brief note to his wife Mary regarding their youngest son Tad, ten years old at the time.  No details are given about this “ugly dream,” and apparently no details were required.  Mary would have immediately understood her husband’s worry, accepted its source, and taken the necessary precautions.  Lincoln’s parental anxiety dream, in today’s language, represented “actionable intelligence.”  Mary took great interest in dreams and other kinds of unusual psycho-spiritual phenomena, and historians have blamed her for her husband’s dalliances with the supernatural.  But I think we should credit Lincoln with possessing at least as much innate dreaming power as any other human, including the capacity of his nocturnal imagination to simulate realistic threats to himself and his family.  The psychological potency of dreaming appears very clearly in Lincoln’s brief report.  The “ugly dream” provoked greater awareness of a danger to one of his children, and it prompted greater vigilance in his waking life to defend against that danger.

Abraham Lincoln 3: Who Is Dead in the White House?

“About ten days ago I retired very late.  I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front.  I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary.  I soon began to dream.  There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me.  Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping.  I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs.  There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible.  I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along.  It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break?  I was puzzled and alarmed.  What could be the meaning of all this?  Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered.  There I met with a sickening surprise.  Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments.  Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.  ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers.  ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’  Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd.”

Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994), 425-426

During the second week of April 1865, a few days before his assassination, Lincoln told this dream to his wife, his bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, and one or two other people sitting with him in the White House.  According to Lamon, who wrote down the conversation immediately afterwards, a downcast Lincoln said the weird dream had haunted and possessed him for the past several days.  Mary and Lamon both became alarmed at the ominous implications, and Lincoln tried to reassure them by saying it probably meant nothing.  He doesn’t seem to have believed that himself, though.  Death by assassination was a real and constant threat; Lincoln knew for a fact that Southern sympathizers were plotting to kill him.  He also knew from his close reading of Shakespeare and the Bible that especially memorable dreams can portend the imminence of death.  His earlier night visions focused on the well-being of his children, but now his dreaming imagination turned to the dangers looming over his own life.

After Lincoln was shot the night of April 14, an anguished Mary was heard to exclaim , “His dream was prophetic!”

Abraham Lincoln 4: Victory

“At the Cabinet meeting held the morning of the assassination, it was afterward remembered, a remarkable circumstance occurred.  General Grant was present, and during a lull in the discussion the President turned to him and asked if he had heard from General Sherman.  General Grant replied that he had not, but was in hourly expectation of receiving dispatches from him announcing the surrender of Johnston.  ‘Well,’ said the President, ‘you will hear very soon now, and the news will be important.’  ‘Why do you think so?’ said the General.  ‘Because,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘I had a dream last night; and ever since the war began, I have invariably had the same dream before any important military event occurred.’  He then instanced Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, etc., and said that before each of these events, he had had the same dream; and turning to Secretary [of the Navy] Welles, said: ‘It is in your line, too, Mr. Welles.  The dream is, that I saw a ship sailing very rapidly; and I am sure that it portends some important national event.’”

Francis Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln: The Story of a Picture (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1866), 292.

Here’s an instance of pre-battle dreaming, an apparently frequent occurrence in Lincoln’s life as military commander of the Northern army.  He had learned to associate the dreaming image of a ship speeding across the sea with the imminent arrival of momentous news, and on this Good Friday morning of 1865 he felt the impulse to share his dream omens with his military commanders.  The final triumph of the Union over the Confederacy lay just weeks away, and Lincoln knew the war had been won.  His optimism seems tragically misplaced in light of his murder that very night, but I’m more interested in his imparting of oneiric wisdom to the victorious generals.  In speaking so openly about his dreams as legitimate sources of warning and knowledge that helped him in his efforts to keep the Union together, Lincoln offered the generals gathered around him (whose company included Ulysses S. Grant, the man who would be President from 1869-1877) an example of truly visionary leadership.  He also offered to the rest of American history an example of someone who relied on his dreams to help him overcome the most serious challenges in both his personal and collective life.

But Lincoln did not say…

“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last, best hope of earth.”

This quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but that’s apparently incorrect.  I could not find it in any of Lincoln’s known writings, and several Lincoln scholars agreed that the sentence is apocryphal.  The last six words, without the comma, appeared at the conclusion of Lincoln’s address to the U.S. Congress on December 1, 1862.  The meaning and spirit of his actual words point to an idealistic hope for America’s future that has long (but not that long) been associated with a special kind of dream:

“We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just–a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”

The Art and Science of Dreaming

The Art and Science of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhy do we have dreams?  Where do they come from?  What, if anything, do they mean?  These mysterious questions have puzzled humankind since the earliest days of history.  The best answers, I suggest, come from integrating the insights of art and science.  Dreaming is rooted in the physical workings of our brains, and it expresses our highest spiritual yearnings and deepest psychological concerns.  In dreams the mind, body, and soul come together in a creative ferment, giving us new perspectives on the emotional realities of our lives.

Looking first at art, people throughout the ages have regarded dreams as a source of creative inspiration.  A number of famous works of Western art and literature were directly influenced by their creator’s dreams. 

Among writers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dreamed up several key scenes in her novel Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson had a dream about a divided soul at war with itself that gave him the core plot idea for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte drew upon their dreams for bizarre, symbol-laden images of melting clocks and floating bowler hats. In more recent years, a number of prominent movie directors have experienced dreams that influenced their films, including David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, and Akira Kurusawa in Dreams.  Contemporary musicians have also described their dreams as creative inspirations.  Paul McCartney had a dream that gave him the tune for “Yesterday,” and Sting’s song “The Lazarus Heart” came from a personal nightmare.

If we consider religion as another realm where humans express their deepest creativity, then we can see even more evidence of the inspiring power of dreaming.  In the Hebrew Bible, visionary dreams come to Abraham and Jacob, while Joseph saved his people by his ability to interpret dreams.  In the New Testament, prophetic dreams of guidance help Jesus’ parents before their child’s birth and Paul during his missionary travels.  The Muslim Prophet Muhammad told of his dreams in the Qur’an, and each morning he asked his followers what they had dreamed, so they could better discern God’s will.  Hindu and Buddhist mystics consider all of life to be a dream, a great illusion shaped by our desires.  Many indigenous cultures around the world have myths (e.g., the Australian Aborigine’s “Dreamtime”) and rituals (e.g., the Native American vision quest) to help their members learn more about the creative potentials of their own dreaming.

Do the insights of artists and mystics stand up to the findings of modern science?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  Based on the latest evidence from research in cognitive psychology, it appears that dreaming is a natural and normal aspect of healthy brain/mind functioning.  Not all dreams are heaven-sent revelations or artistic breakthroughs, but in general dreaming is an accurate and meaningful expression of our fears, concerns, conflicts, and desires in waking life. 

Since the 1950’s scientists have known about the different stages of sleep, and it appears that dreams occur most often during the stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  During REM sleep our brains are very active, but in a different configuration than in waking.  In REM the brain centers for instinctual emotions and visual imagination are highly activated, while the parts of the brain responsible for focused rational attention are less active.  This evidence fits the general qualities of many dreams—less rational, more emotional and visual—and it supports the idea that our capacity for dreaming is hard-wired into the human brain.

However, it is important to recognize that dreams occur in stages of sleep other than REM.  REM sleep may be the most common trigger for dreaming, but research has shown that dreams can occur throughout the sleep cycle.  This means that we still do not have a complete picture of the dreaming brain.  We cannot “reduce” dreams to REM sleep.

Most people remember one or two dreams a week, but that can vary depending on many factors.  Some people remember at least one dream almost every night, while others say they have never recalled a dream in their whole life.  Researchers have found that small efforts to pay more attention to dreams can lead to big increases in dream recall.  It’s like the movie “Field of Dreams”: If you build it, they will come—if you open your waking mind to the possibility that your dreams have something meaningful to say, you’re likely to start remembering more dreams.

When people ask me how to interpret their dreams, I start by emphasizing that only the dreamer can know for sure what his or her dreams really mean.  “Experts” like me can offer ideas and possibilities based on our research, but ultimately you are the final authority on your own dreams.

Sometimes dreams speak in direct and literal terms.  For example, you may be scared of flying, and thus you might have a nightmare of crashing in an airplane.  But sometimes dreams speak indirectly, in a language of metaphor and symbol.  Your nightmare of a crashing airplane may symbolically reflect your waking anxieties about your finances, your health, or a personal relationship.  To understand your dreams you need a flexible mind that can perceive these kinds of metaphorical connections between dream imagery and your emotional concerns in waking life.

One of the most important functions of dreaming is to look ahead, to anticipate what might happen in the future and prepare us for possible dangers and threats.  This isn’t a simple matter of “prophecy,” although that’s what ancient people called the same basic process.  Scientists today have found that many of our most memorable dreams revolve around visions of worst-case scenarios, and it seems that these kinds of dreams are like fire drills, getting us ready in case those dangers actually occur in the waking world.  Even though many of our dreams are negative and disturbing in this way, they are still promoting our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

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This article appears on pp. 22-23 in the August 2011 special issue on Sleep and Dreams in Vintage Newsmagazine, a publication in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Thanks to editor Betsy Troyer for inviting me to contribute.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Dreams

Science Fiction and Fantasy Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyWhat are the best science fiction and fantasy stories featuring dreams?  I’m writing an entry on this question for a new encyclopedia, and I’d appreciate any suggestions of authors and titles to include.  I’ll surely say something about Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and Graham Joyce.  (Movies are covered in another entry, which is actually a relief since I’ve only got 750 words.)  Who else should be on the list?

The entry is for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreams, edited by Deirdre Barrett and Patrick McNamara (Praeger Press).

Later this spring I’ll post an essay on dreams in the Harry Potter series.  The movies downplay it, but in the novels dreaming plays a variety of interesting roles, particularly at crucial turning points in the story.


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.





Snakes, Dreams, and Jung’s Red Book

Snakes, Dreams, and Jung's Red Book by Kelly BulkeleyPeople have reported dreams of serpents and snakes throughout history in cultures all over the world.  In terms of Jungian psychology, snake dreams have a powerful archetypal quality.  They give people an extremely memorable and uncanny experience of the “otherness” of the collective unconscious. Jung has a few things to say about the symbolism of serpents and snakes at various points in The Red Book:

“The serpent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity, but also a wise bridge that connects right and left through longing, much needed by our life.” (247)

“Why did I behave as if that serpent were my soul?  Only, it seems, because my soul was a serpent….Serpents are wise, and I wanted my serpent soul to communicate her wisdom to me.” (318)  (This comment comes after a long dialogue in active imagination with a great iridescent snake coiled atop a red rock.)

“I have united with the serpent of the beyond.  I have accepted everything beyond into myself.” (322)

“If I had not become like the serpent, the devil, the quintessence of everything serpentlike, would have held this bit of power over me.  This would have given the devil a grip and he would have forced me to make a pact with him just as he also cunningly deceived Faust.  But I forestalled him by uniting myself with the serpent, just as a man unites with a woman.” (322)

“The daimon of sexuality approaches our soul as a serpent.” (353)

These passages make it clear that Jung regarded snakes both negatively and positively, both as “chthonic devils” (318) and as indispensable guides for the soul.

From a Jungian perspective, snake dreams offer people the dangerous possibility of connecting with the wisdom of the collective unconscious and drawing strength from its archetypal energies.

Snakes, Dreams, and Jung's Red Book by Kelly Bulkeley

If you’re interested in learning more about snake dreams in history, scroll down the list to see this post. (titled “What Do Dreams of Snakes Mean?”)

If you’d like ideas about how to interpret snake dreams, see this post.

For more information about actual snakes, take a look at the website of the East Bay Vivarium.