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.

The Inception Files

The Inception Files by Kelly Bulkeley

It’s reasonable to expect a dream researcher would have a clear, informed opinion about the movie Inception.  Unfortunately I don’t.  Instead I’m caught between conflicting impressions, some favorable, mostly critical. Three factors inclining my thumb in an upward direction:

1. Christopher Nolan.  It’s great to see a brilliant director at the top of his game deciding to do a film entirely about the multiple realities of dreaming.

2. Intellectual daring.  As good dreams often do, Inception pushed its audience to think new thoughts and question their epistemological certainties.

3. Accurate portrayal of the “realness” of dreaming: When Ariadne (Ellen Page) is sitting at the sidewalk cafe she suddenly realizes she can’t say how she got there—and in that moment understands she is dreaming.  This is true for many people whose dreams start in media res and who simply accept their dreaming experiences as real while they’re happening.

Five problems drawing my thumb downward:

1.  Lack of dreaminess.  This was the biggest disappointment.  For a film supposedly about dreaming, it lacked the visceral power and alluring weirdness of actual dreams.  Everything fit together too neatly; every detail in the dream worlds had a direct explanatory cause, whether because of the emotional repression of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), or because of actions in outer reality.  It seemed a very cerebral take on dreams.

2. Heavy heavy heavy.  The press of gravity seemed to drag everything in the movie down, from the fantastic buildings crumbling into the sea to the elevator down to Cobb’s unconscious basement, from the suicidal plunge of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) to endlessly falling passenger van.  There was virtually no humor in the movie, no romance, no lighthearted playfulness.  Falling is indeed a common experience in dreaming, but that gravity-bound vibe took over the movie.

3. Loud, noisy, and filled with unnecessary action.  This may have been necessary to attract teenage boys, but it helped extinguish any kind of truly dreamy atmosphere.  On the contrary, all the Bond-esque mayhem and derring-do merely reminded me it was summer and I was in a movie theater paying $10 for a popcorn spectacle.

4. Lame motivation.  If I understood correctly after two viewings, Cobb and his crew were risking life and limb to help one mega-corporation stop another mega-corporation from getting too much money and power, so the first mega-corporation could…get more money and power?  Of course Cobb has the personal goal of getting back to his kids, but the murky corporate espionage theme made it hard to care about his team and their mission.

5. Didn’t make me forget The Matrix. I re-watched that film with my kids a few nights ago, and we loved every single scene of it–as soon as it was over we wanted to watch it again.  I don’t think Inception will generate that kind of long-term reverence and delight.

Sarah Palin Dreams

Sarah Palin Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyWhen Sarah Palin was first named in late August 2008 as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, several people (both supporters and opponents) began reporting dreams of her.  An article posted on Slate by Abby Callard and David Plotz, “Your Dreams (and Nightmares) about Sarah Palin,” appeared on September 12, 2008.  The article includes twenty of what they judged to be the most interesting dreams sent in by their readers, with some comments from me. 

 Since then I have gathered several other dreams involving Sarah Palin.  At some point soon I will set up a website for people who want to share dreams they’ve had of Sarah Palin, comparable to the www.idreamofobama.com site for people to share dreams of President Obama. 

Till then, here’s one that came in response to the 2010 Zogby survey question asking, “What is the most recent dream you can remember?”:

 “You’re not going to believe this, but it was a dream with Sarah Palin. It wasn’t sexual, it was a situation where she was with me at my boyhood home in San Antonio, Texas, whereby I was in the front yard with her standing with me. I was showing her a Christmas ornament I made along with a table and chair I made. Next thing I know we’re in my older brother’s 1965 Chevrolet Impala. I was in the driver’s seat and she was sitting next to me real close like we were an item. I don’t remember any words being spoken, but it was very cool since she is such a beautiful woman. I hated the dream to end, but it did after only a few frames. It’s amazing to me because I remember very few dreams that I have so this one was very cool to have remembered.”

 The dream came to a 50-year old Hispanic man in Texas, a Catholic and conservative Republican who voted for McCain and Palin in the 2008 election. 

 Not knowing anything else about the dreamer personally, it’s impossible to say what the dream means to him.  But it does seem to accurately reflect his positive feelings toward Palin.  Indeed, the dream’s intensity and strong memorability suggest that Palin represents ideals, aspirations, and values that are especially meaningful to this man.

 In light of previous research I’ve done, the dream sounds similar to the dreams of Bill Clinton that liberal Democrats reported in the early 1990’s.  In those dreams, people found themselves in close, casual, rather intimate contact with a political candidate they greatly admired in waking life.  Often there was an aura of romantic ambiguity, as if the dreamer was struggling to understand powerful feelings of attraction that were more than friendly but not exactly sexual. 

 Then, as now, it seems that dreams offer a kind of “charisma index” that shows the deep psychological impact a politician can have on his or her supporters.