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

How Not to Raise a Witch

How Not to Raise a Witch by Kelly BulkeleyMany years ago a student told me a story about her childhood dreams that still haunts me.  It’s not a happy story—in fact I find it incredibly sad—but it’s kept me thinking about what we know, and don’t know, about the potentials of dreaming.

 

Wanda (a pseudonym) was a student in a religious studies course I taught for upper level undergraduates at Santa Clara University.  The topic of the class was religious and psychological perspectives on dreaming, and we covered the history of Western dream theories from ancient Greek myths to modern sleep laboratory research.  I encouraged the students to think about how the various theories related to their own dream experiences as one way of testing the validity of those theories.

 

After class one day Wanda told me that when she was a child, she often had dreams that seemed to anticipate future events.  She didn’t think it was a big deal, and the predictions were often about trivial things, but she was always intrigued by the possibilities her dreams revealed.

One night when she was thirteen-years old, a few weeks before her 8th grade prom, she dreamed that her mother would be in a car accident the very night of the dance.  In the dream Wanda saw that, for some unknown reason, her prom dress was in the car, and so was her mother’s collection of record albums.

She shared the dream and its strange details with her best friend, and they were both stunned when, right before the prom, Wanda’s mother did indeed have a car crash.  Without telling Wanda, her mother had taken her prom dress to be hand-tailored, and on the way to the tailor she was taking her stereo and albums to loan to a friend.  Fortunately no one was injured, but the accident seemed to conform very closely to what Wanda had recently dreamed.

At this point I should note something Wanda had mentioned in earlier class discussions, namely that she was raised in a strictly fundamentalist Christian family.

Excited by the weird accuracy of her dream, Wanda told her mother about it, and also about other dreams she felt had accurately foreseen future events.  To her surprise, her mother became frightened and angry.  She said she didn’t want to hear any more dreams like that.  “I am not going to be the mother of a witch!” she shouted.

Realizing how upset her mother was, Wanda simply stopped having such dreams.  She said it was like she chose to shut something off inside her.

And now, many years later, she didn’t know how she could turn it back “on” again even if she wanted.

In other cultural contexts, Wanda’s extraordinary dreams would be taken as indications of her natural aptitude for training as a shaman, healer, or diviner.  But in the cultural context of Wanda’s fundamentalist Christian family these kinds of powers, especially when emerging in a female, were harshly repudiated as “witchery.”

It’s possible, of course, that Wanda made up her story.  I have no way of independently verifying what she told me.  She certainly seemed honest and sincere to me, and I saw nothing in her behavior during the class to make me doubt her character.  She was a good but not spectacular student, quiet and reserved among her peers.  She gained no special favor by telling me what she did.  Actually, given that SCU is a Catholic school, it probably wasn’t a wise thing for her to share such a heretical experience with a teacher.

There’s no compelling scientific evidence proving that dreams can predict the future, although there is an argument to be made that dreaming has the adaptive function of simulating potential threats that may arise in waking life (Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli have done research in this area).  But Wanda’s dream was so accurate and so detailed, and it involved a threat not to her but to someone else.  How is that possible?  We just don’t know.  Current science cannot explain this kind of ability.

We do know, however, that humans vary widely in their dream recall, with some people naturally much more receptive to the products of their nocturnal imaginations than others.

We also know that some Christian authorities have a troubled history of demonizing unusual dream experiences and persecuting people, especially women, who show an interest in them.

And we know, thanks to works like Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams, a study of dream reports gathered in 1933-1939 Nazi Germany, that extremely oppressive cultural forces can disrupt people’s capacity to dream, scaring them away from their own inner lives.

In light of all that, I’m left thinking that Wanda was likely telling me the truth.  She was a “big dreamer” with the misfortune to be born in a cultural context that was hostile to her gift.

Children’s Dreams Interview with Anne Hill

Children's Dreams Interview with Anne Hill by Kelly BulkeleyA couple of weeks ago Anne Hill, host of Dream Talk Radio, invited me to talk about the book I recently co-authored with my mother, Children’s Dreams: Understanding the Most Memorable Dreams and Nightmares of Childhood (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).  Here’s a Youtube link to our discussion, which I thought was really fun.  Below I’ve posted some additional review and endorsement comments about the book.  I’m curious to hear from anyone else who gets a chance to read it!

 

“Dream researchers Kelly Bulkeley and Patricia Bulkley incorporate Carl Jung’s dream psychology in their new book to help children and adults understand why we dream and how dreams can unlock our creativity and make sense of our lives. Introducing readers to the basic psychology and neuroscience of dreaming, and offering analysis of several children’s dreams, this intriguing guide offers practical advice for adults to communicate better with children about their dreams, and how they can cultivate a child’s imagination.”

(ForeWord Reviews )

“The authors (Preparing Beyond Death) clearly state their mission in writing this book: to remedy the dearth of information children receive today about dreams and understand their dreaming experience. They also want to help parents, teachers, and other caregivers to respond to children’s conversations about their dreams as “an experience of emotional truth” and to help children use dreams to develop their powers of imagination. To that end, the authors offer a brief primer on Jungian concepts like “collective unconscious” archetypes. The book takes a more engrossing turn when relating authentic dreams and their interpretations, including fanciful dreams like “My good monster angel” (who fights the bad monster in a boy’s dream) or “the girl of the rainbow.” (a girl dreams she climbs a rainbow up to heaven). The most helpful section in the book explains techniques to help children discuss and understand their dreams, and touches on topics such as expressing their dreams through journaling, art, and talking to other people about them….Educators, psychologists, medical personnel will best understand and appreciate the presentation.”
(Publishers Weekly )

“Honest talk about dreams—this is exactly what this book invites. Why? Because dreams are essential to healthy development. Grounded in a wealth of research but written for a wide public, this book provides guidelines and illustrations to help parents and educators unleash the creative potential that lies within the nightly slumber of our children and youths.”
(Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Vanderbilt University, author of In the Midst of Chaos: Care of Children as Spiritual Practice)

“What a wonderful book! The Bulkel(e)ys, mother & son, have done it again—just like their brilliant book on the dreams of the dying, Dreaming Beyond Death, they have written another elegant, ground-breaking work—this time on the dreams and especially the nightmares of childhood—particularly the ones we remember for our whole lives. The prose is elegant and precise, and the insights are both gentle and breathtaking. This book belongs in the hands of everyone who is interested in the profound mysteries and prodigious gifts of dreams, whether they have children, or simply were children once themselves.”
(Rev. Jeremy Taylor, author of Dream Work and The Wisdom of Your Dreams; cofounder and past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD); and founder-director of the Marin Institute for Projective Dream Work (MIPD) )

“Children’s Dreams takes the reader on a beautifully crafted journey into the rich world of children’s nightly encounters. The book provides a step by step guide to help readers understand the many facets of children’s dreams and nightmares; an approach which is both well informed and sensitive. In so doing, the authors skilfully intertwine adult interpretations with the children’s responses, opening up these captivating and meaningful worlds to all. The authors’ impressive knowledge combined with a commitment to valuing the dreams of young people shine through on every page. The outcome is an indispensable overview of the underappreciated and often neglected world of children’s dreaming.”
(Kate Adams, author of Unseen Worlds: Looking through the Lens of Childhood)

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.

 

What I Learned at the 2012 IASD Conference

What I Learned at the 2012 IASD Conference by Kelly BulkeleyHere 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)

 

A New Book for Dream Teachers

A New Book for Dream Teachers by Kelly Bulkeley

If you’re a teacher with students who might be interested in learning about the subject of dreams, we’ve written a book specifically for you. Phil King, Bernard Welt, and I are pleased to announce the May 2011 publication of Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education, by the State University of New York Press.  The book provides a guide for teaching students about dreams primarily in college- and graduate-level classes.  It also looks at dream education in elementary and high schools and in alternative forms of community education.  Psychology is the primary discipline of dream education in the modern West, and Phil King writes with authority and grace about the most effective practices in teaching college psychology students about dreams.  Bernard Welt brings his vast knowledge of dreams in film and literature, along with his experience as a teacher of academic writing, to highlight several areas outside psychology where dream education has proven beneficial.   Anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies are the disciplines which I took the lead in writing about, along with the chapter on elementary and secondary education.  We all went through each chapter line by line, producing a truly collaborative work that draws not only on our experiences but on in-depth interviews we did with dozens of teachers across the academic and non-academic spectrum.  

The road to publication has been long and full of twists, turns, and unexpected detours. I’m grateful to Phil and Bernard for their persistence, passion, and friendship in writing this book.