The Dreams of a Sight-Impaired Person

The Dreams of a Sight-Impaired Person by Kelly BulkeleyA study from 2015 about the distinctive patterns in the dreams of “Jasmine,” a young sight-impaired musician.  First presented at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Introduction

This presentation demonstrates the use of a digital word search method to study 800 dreams recorded in a personal journal over a period of several years by a female participant.  A “blind” analysis, focusing exclusively on the frequencies of word usage in her dreams, enabled several accurate predictions about her waking life, including the fact that she has been sight-impaired since early childhood.

Methods

The word search method I will describe has relevance for researchers from any background who are interested in the systematic study of dream content.  The great advantage of quantitative approaches to the study of dreams, like the Hall and Van de Castle system, is that they provide objective statistical results that other researchers can compare, replicate, and extend.  However, there are serious disadvantages to traditional hand-coding methods—they are time-consuming, labor-intensive, hard to learn, and vulnerable to problems with inter-coder reliability.  Particularly when the coding systems being employed are untested or idiosyncratic, the results can be disappointing.  Digital word search methods provide a viable alternative: they are fast, easy to use and share, and reliably consistent in their results.  Of course, such methods do not supplant other approaches to dream research.  Digital tools are best used as complementary resources in the study of dreams, providing an empirically grounded assessment of basic patterns of dream content.

Over the past several years, and usually in collaboration with G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, I have pursued several studies using word search methods to analyze particular sets or series of dreams:

The Religious Content of Dreams: A New Scientific Foundation. Pastoral Psychology 58(2): 93-101.

[Merri, Barb Sanders]

Seeking Patterns in Dream Content: A Systematic Approach to Word Searches. Consciousness and Cognition 18: 905-916.

[Paul, HVDC Male and Female Norms]

Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach. (co-authored with G. William Domhoff).  Dreaming 20(2): 77-95.

[Van]

Dreaming in Adolescence: A “Blind” Word Search of a Teenage Girl’s Dream Series. Dreaming 22(4): 240-252.

[Bea]

Digital Dream Analysis: A Revised Method. Consciousness and Cognition 29: 159-170.

[The Engine Man, Barb Sanders, HVDC Male and Female Norms]

All of these studies, and several others not yet published, have led to new insights about using word search methods to identify meaningful patterns in dream content.  I have focused special attention on projects using a “blind analysis” framework in which I start with as little information as possible about the dreamers, focusing exclusively on the statistical frequencies of word usage in their dreams.  I make a point of knowing nothing about the dreamers’ personal lives, and I do not read the narratives of their dreams.  This approach imposes an artificial set of constraints that concentrates all my analytic attention on the word usage frequencies.  By bracketing out every other source of information, I try to glean as many insights as possible from the word usage patterns alone.  The present study is the latest in this series of word search investigations.

Participant

“Jasmine” (not her real name) contacted Domhoff in 2014 and offered to share her lengthy dream journal with him for research purposes.  He then contacted me, and with her permission we arranged a blind analysis process whereby I uploaded four sets of Jasmine’s dream reports into the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) in order to perform the subsequent word searches.  I knew nothing about Jasmine besides her being female, and my only other bit of knowledge was that the four different sets of her dreams followed a chronological order.

Procedure

Once the dream reports were uploaded, I used the SDDb’s 2.0 word search template to calculate the word usage frequencies for each of 40 categories (many of which overlap with Hall and Van de Castle categories), for each of the four sets of dreams.  I then compared the results with the SDDb Baselines, a large collection of “most recent” dreams from various sources that provides a measuring stick for looking at how a given set of dreams relates to what current evidence suggests are the normal patterns of ordinary dream content.  I also compared the four sets of dreams with each other, looking for patterns of consistency and variation from one set to the next.

Based on these word search findings, I formulated 21 inferences about Jasmine’s waking life.  These inferences derived from the continuity hypothesis that patterns of dream content accurately reflect a person’s concerns, relationships, and activities in the waking world.  I used as a working assumption the idea, supported by previous studies, that frequencies of word usage in dreams are continuous to some degree with the individual’s waking life concerns.  My inferences about Jasmine’s waking life were predicated on that assumption.

I sent the inferences to Domhoff, who forwarded them to Jasmine.  Once I received her responses, I was no longer “blind,” in the sense that now I knew a great deal about her personal life and could see where her waking life concerns had crossed over into her dreaming.  We engaged in several more email exchanges to answer her questions and learn more about various details of her personal upbringing and family background.

Results

Appendix 1 presents the results of the word search analysis using the SDDb 2.0 template.  Below are the 21 inferences I formulated based on the word search results, and Jasmine’s initial responses to them (in bold italics):

1. Jasmine is blind or sight-impaired. yes

2. Hearing is an especially important sense for her. yes

3. Jasmine has very close relations with her family.

Well, it’s complicated.  I would say that I’m close to some of them, particularly on my mom’s side.  My siblings live far away, and so sometimes I miss them and remember things we used to do together.  I have complicated relationships with those on my dad’s side in general. 

4. Her most important relationship is with her mother. Yes!

5. She is very involved with birds, especially chickens.

Yes, I had pet chickens almost my whole life growing up, and other feathered pets as well. J 

6. She enjoys books, reading, and writing. Yes

7. She is very active musically, especially singing and playing

piano.    Yes!

8. She is, or recently has been, a student in college. yes

9. She was raised as a Christian and she now regularly attends church.

Well, this is complicated too.  My family wasn’t really that religious, but sometimes we would go to church when I was little. 

Domhoff also asked that, in addition to making general inferences, I make some specific inferences based on comparing the first two sets to the third set, and the third set to the fourth set.

Looking at the time period covered by the third set compared to the earlier two sets of dreams, Jasmine was:

10. More fearful and anxious. Not sure, I can’t really remember.

11. But also happier than before.

           This is possible.  I started to gain more independence in this period, so I think 10 and 11 might both be true, to a degree. 

12. Less involved with her family. Yes, this jives with the above. J

13. Drinking more coffee. I don’t remember starting then, but I like coffee now.

14. More involved with piano music. yes

15. More involved with religion and church. Yes, because I started playing the organ. 

Looking at the time period covered by the fourth set of dreams compared to the time period covered by the third set, Jasmine was:

16. Less fearful and anxious. Not sure

17. More involved with her family. No, not really.

18. More involved with birds.

No, I didn’t have any pets, and my last chicken and my cockatiel died before this time.  This didn’t really happen, but I can remember dreaming a lot of dreams centering around forgetting to feed, or otherwise take care of them. 

19. More actively engaged with the public world (indicated by more references to movement, travel, work, clothing).   Yes, we could say that I gained even more independence at this time. This is when I got my first real job!

20. Still very musically active with piano and singing. yes

21. Even more involved with a Christian church. Yes, playing the organ and attending regularly, but not always seeing things like they do. 

 

Discussion

Of the 21 dream-based inferences about her waking life, Jasmine confirmed 15 of them as accurate (and 9 of 9 for the general inferences at the beginning).  She said she was not sure about four of the inferences, although she allowed that two of those “might both be true, to a degree.”  That would raise the total number of correct inferences to 17 out of 21. Either way, this is an accuracy ratio comparable to previous studies of the Van series (12 of 14 inferences correct) and the Bea series (11 of 15 inferences correct).

On the issue of her blindness, I based my inference on the fact that her frequency of vision-related words was lower than her frequency of hearing-related words.  That is a very rare pattern that I have only found in one other group—the blind people whose dreams Hurovitz and his colleagues wrote about in their 1999 study.  I’m not sure this will hold up as a universally valid principle, but in Jasmine’s case the relatively low frequency of vision-related words combined with the high frequencies of other sensory terms made it led me to infer that she was blind or sight-impaired in waking life.

In their 1999 study Hurovitz et al. found some evidence of continuity between blind people’s difficulties moving around in waking life and their dreams of movement and transportation.  I did not think of that when formulating my inferences, but now that I look at the findings with Jasmine I do see elevated levels of references to walking & running, falling, and transportation, compared to the frequencies in the SDDb baselines.

The accurate inferences about her family and her mother underscore the strong continuities between waking and dreaming in terms of social relationships.  This is one of the areas where dream content most directly mirrors the feelings and concerns of a person’s waking life.  Further evidence of the same point comes with the correct inference about chickens.  Such a high frequency of words relating to chickens and other birds is quite rare, and in this case it accurately reflects the emotional importance of her relationships with these creatures over the course of her life.

Jasmine’s extremely high frequency of references to art-related words involving music, combined with her high frequency of hearing words, suggested that music plays a big role in her waking life, as indeed it does.  It turns out that Jasmine is quite gifted musically; she sings, plays piano, and in recent years has been playing the organ at churches.  Her religious activities have in fact increased in recent years, as I inferred, but she expressed some discomfort with the doctrinal teachings at these churches.

The inferences about changes in her life from one period of time to another were less successful than the inferences about her waking life in general.  Jasmine disagreed with two of my inferences predicting that between the third and fourth sets she became “more involved with” her family and with birds.  One possible explanation for the mistaken inference is that I used the word “involved” ambiguously in the question.  Jasmine seemed to take it as asking whether or not she had more direct physical interactions with her family and birds.  To that question she answered no, she was not more involved with them in that literal sense, in large part because she had just started a new job and was away from her usual home setting more than ever before.  However, if I had phrased the inference to include not only “physical interactions with” but also “thoughts or emotional concerns about,” she may have responded differently.  At this key transitional time in her personal development, the rise in dream references may have reflected a greater emotional concern about her relations with family and birds, even though she was not actually interacting with them as much as in the past.  As Jasmine herself said in her response, her dreams at this time had many instances of worrying about her birds, despite no longer having any actual birds in her life.

A similar phenomenon arose in the study of Bea’s dreams, when she dreamed more often of her family and her pet dogs when she left home to go away to school.  Here’s a quote from the Bea paper: “In college Bea was physically present with her parents less than before, but she was thinking and worrying about them more than ever. Her anxious feelings, not her physical interactions, carried over into her horrible dreaming.” (248)  The two mistaken inferences I made in analyzing Jasmine’s dreams may, in retrospect, be consistent with what I found in the Bea series, namely that “dreams accurately reflect emotional concerns but not necessarily actual events.” (248)  They are more like a poetry journal than a newspaper article.

Limitations

There are several limitations to this study.  Jasmine’s dream reports were unusually long, so it’s unclear to what extent we can compare her word usage frequencies with those gathered from shorter dreams.  There may have been demand effects in terms of influencing Jasmine to give us socially pleasing answers (although she did disagree with two of my inferences and expressed uncertainty about four others).  The word search method does not distinguish between literal and metaphorical uses of words, and the analysis is vulnerable to distortions from dream reports that include spelling mistakes, non-dream associations, and extraneous comments.  These limits add a note of caution to any conclusions drawn from this approach.

Conclusion

This study of Jasmine’s dreams has shown that a blind word search method can accurately identify many important concerns in a person’s waking life, including her relationships, interests, activities, and personal attributes.   The results add evidence to support of the continuity hypothesis, and they shed new light on patterns in dream content among sight-impaired people.

Looking at the findings of this study in the context of the other word search projects mentioned earlier, I would like to close with the two observations.

First, these methods are helping to lower the cost of entry for innovative dream research.  Databases like the SDDb and Domhoff and Schneider’s DreamBank offer free and open access to large collections of dreams from various sources, along with powerful tools of word searching and statistical analysis.  In coming years there will hopefully be more online resources like these, with even better analytic tools.  This bodes well for our field in terms of enhancing accessibility and stimulating creativity among scholars from various backgrounds.

Second, blind analysis studies are the incubators of proto-algorithms for future technologies of digitized dream interpretation.  What I am doing when I perform a blind analysis is essentially the same as what a well-designed computer program could potentially do when presented with the same information.  My inferences are attempts, using high-quality data and systematic methods of analysis, to identify the highest-probability correlations between dream content frequencies and waking life concerns.  The more of these correlations we identify using blind analysis and other methods, the better those interpretive algorithms of the future will be.

 

Note: this paper has been posted on Academia.edu as SDDb Research Papers #4.

The accompanying appendix has been posted here.

 

 

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly BulkeleyBooks about dreams are excellent holiday presents—easy to give and enjoyable to receive.  They are widely available for purchase, fairly inexpensive, simple to wrap and ship, and sure to bring surprise and delight (and perhaps life-changing illumination) to their recipients.  If you have a long list of people for whom you’re trying to buy gifts in the next few weeks, consider getting them one or more of these excellent new books, which have come out in 2017 or 2016.

 

Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought

By Sharon Sliwinki

University of Minnesota Press, 2017

A beautifully written and thought-provoking exploration of dreaming as a vital arena of existential freedom, cultural creativity, and political resistance.  Well-suited for anyone interested in Freud and contemporary psychoanalysis, Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy, and/or the collective wisdom of dreaming.  A great gift for a social justice warrior who has never heard about current dream research.

 

The Emergence of Dreaming: Mind-Wandering, Embodied Simulation, and the Default Network

By G. William Domhoff

Oxford University Press, 2017

The latest work by one of the most eminent dream scientists in the field.  A fascinating text for people already interested in the latest developments in brain-mind science.  Warning: this isn’t a how–to primer for people fresh to dream studies.  But if you know someone who thinks nothing is real if you can’t prove it with statistics, numbers, and quantitative analysis, this would be an ideal entry into current dream research.

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly Bulkeley

 

The Dreams of Santiago Ramon y Cajal

By Benjamin Ehrlich

Oxford University Press, 2017

A surprising historical revelation about the secret dream journal of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who is widely regarded as the father of modern neuroscience.  If you need a gift for someone who loves brain science, this book will blow their minds.

 

Dream Therapy: Dream Your Way to Health and Happiness

By Clare Johnson

Orion Spring, 2017

A perfect primer for readers who are new to dreams and looking for a new source of personal insight and guidance in their waking lives.  The focus is primarily on lucid dreams and becoming more aware throughout dreaming and waking.  (A US edition titled Mindful Dreaming is due out in April of 2018).

 

Machine Dreaming and Consciousness

By J.F. Pagel and Philip Kirshstein

Academic Press, 2017

An alternately profound and baffling book by one of the leading sleep and dream researchers in the field (Pagel) and his computer science colleague (Kirshstein).  This is how they describe the book’s goal: “Machine Dreaming and Consciousness provides the first empiric articulation of the advent of dream-equivalent processing in machines.”  Yikes!  And yes, it’s exactly as intense as that sounds.  This would be an awesome book for the nerdiest person on your list—someone who loves sci-fi and the speculative frontiers of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and computer science.

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly Bulkeley

 

Dreams

By Derrick Jensen

Seven Stories Press, 2017

A passionate personal exploration of the organic depths of dreaming by a brilliant eco-philosopher and environmental activist.  If you know someone who hates “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and/or loves the ancient wisdom of nature and indigenous ways of knowing, this book will give them lots of debating material, and much inspiration.

 

Sleep Monsters and Superheroes: Empowering Children through Creative Dreamplay

Clare Johnson and Jean Campbell, Editors

ABC-Clio, 2016

A very accessible collection of practical research and methods for helping children learn about the creative power of their own dreaming imaginations.  Perfect for parents of young children, for teachers, and professionals in health care (most of whom never receive any education or training in the nature of children’s dreams).

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly Bulkeley

 

Dreams That Change Our Lives: A Publication of the International Association for the Study of Dreams

Robert Hoss and Robert Gongloff, Editors

Chiron Publications, 2017

A wide-ranging compendium of people describing extraordinary dreams that, as the title suggests, changed their lives in various ways.  Written mostly by long-time members of the IASD, it’s an excellent introduction to the group’s collaborative ethos and spiritual adventurousness.  This book would be a great present for someone who makes sense of the world primarily through personal stories, narratives, and relationships.

 

Honoring the Dream: A Handbook for Dream Group Leaders

By Justina Lasley

Double Spiral Publishing, Updated 2017

One of the best books ever written about the practice of dream-sharing in a group setting, now in an updated edition.  Very insightful, practical, and systematic, this is a treasure-house of basic principles in dream education.  You would be doing a huge favor to any teacher, health care professional, community organizer, NGO activist, or human resources administrator by giving them this book.

Dream Books as Holiday Gifts by Kelly Bulkeley

 

The Dreams Behind the Music: Learn Creative Dreaming as 100+ Top Artists Reveal Their Breakthrough Inspirations

By Craig Webb

DREAMS Foundation, 2016

If you’ve got a musician on your list, bam, you’re done!  This is a super entertaining book that will be appreciated by anyone interested in art, creativity, and dreaming.  Filled with awesome factoids about musicians who created famous songs from their dreams.  Teenagers would probably relate to it especially well.

 

An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming, Second Revised Edition

By Kelly Bulkeley

ABC-Clio, 2017

The updated version of a work I first wrote in 1997, as a clear, concise overview of the basic principles and major research findings of the psychology of dreaming, from Freud and Jung to the present day.  The book has a much more exciting cover now!

 

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

A new study of a long-term dream journal from a woman who belonged for many years to a physically and spiritually abusive religious cult.

Earlier this year a dream research colleague, G. William Domhoff, told me about a new series of dreams available from a person willing to participate in a new experiment with “blind analysis.”  Blind analysis involves bracketing out all personal information about a dreamer and focusing only on the patterns of word usage frequency in the dreams.  These patterns become the basis for making inferences about the dreamer’s waking life concerns, relationships, and activities, which the dreamer is then able to confirm or disconfirm.  I like this method because it provides a very rigorous way of testing and refining my hypotheses about dreaming-waking connections.

According to Domhoff, the dreams came from a woman who is an “ex-cultist” and who has been keeping a regular dream journal for more than 30 years.  This immediately catapulted the project to the front of my research queue.  Here was a rare opportunity to study the dreams of someone from what sounded like an extremely unusual religious background.  What might a blind analysis of the dreams of such a person reveal?

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

The following is an initial progress report on what I’ve found so far.  A more detailed discussion will be part of a talk I will give in June at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Anaheim, California.

To make the analysis more manageable we asked “Beverly” (a pseudonym) to provide four subsets of her dreams, one each for the years 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016.  Apparently she has recorded a total of more than 6,000 dreams recorded over this whole time period, which works out to an average recall rate of about four dreams a week for 30 years.  Quite a prolific dreamer!  And quite an amazing personal document for her to reflect on the long and winding course of her life.

We uploaded the four sets of dreams into the Sleep and Dream Database and I used the SDDb’s 2.0 word search template to analyze each set.  The 2.0 template has 40 categories of word usage organized into 8 classes: Perception, Emotion, Cognition, Characters, Social Interactions, Elements, Movement, and Culture.  After creating a large spreadsheet with all the word search results, I compared the frequencies in Beverly’s dreams with the frequencies of the SDDb baselines—a large, high-quality set of dreams from many sources that I use as a standard of “normal” frequencies of dream content (presented in chapter 6 of my book Big Dreams).  I also looked at variations between the four sets of Beverly’s dreams, noting any frequencies that seemed markedly higher or lower than others in the same category.

A special challenge with Beverly’s dreams is their relatively short length.  The 940 total dreams across the four sets have an average length of 54 words, with a median of 43 (meaning half the reports are more, and half are less, than 43 words in length).  I typically use this method with much longer dreams, so I went into the analysis with even more caution than usual.

As it turned out, and as I will describe in more detail at the IASD conference in June, the short length of Beverly’s dreams did not impede the process.  On the contrary, this has been one of the most successful experiments of blind analysis I’ve done to date.

After I calculated Beverly’s word usage frequencies and made my baseline comparisons, I formulated a total of 26 inferences about her waking life.  To be clear, at this point I only knew three details about Beverly’s personal life: she was a woman, an avid dream journaler, and an ex-cultist.  Other than that, I was “blind” to her waking life circumstances and personality.

Of the 26 inferences I sent to her, Beverly confirmed 23 as accurate.  These included predictions about her personality, relationships, financial concerns, physical health, and cultural interests.

The three inferences she did not affirm are interesting, and may help me further refine the blind analysis process.  I’ve found in past experiments that I often learn more from mistaken inferences than from successful ones.

In the 1986 set of dreams there are five dream reports that use the word “earthquake”; none of the other sets of dreams use this word, which prompted my inference that in 1986 Beverly was “impacted by an earthquake.”  This was her response: “This must be symbolic of what I went through with the group in 1986. That was the year they hit bottom, including the murder.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

This aspect of meaning was not really part of my inference, so I don’t count it as a successful one, but it does shed light on the possible use of a natural disaster like an earthquake as a recurrent symbol for strong emotional concerns that feel profoundly disruptive and foundation-threatening.

The 1996 set of dreams had remarkably low frequencies of perception words, which struck me as significant.  My inference suggested that during this time the dreamer was “less perceptually stimulated.”  Beverly responded, Not sure what this means, but I was smoking tons of pot that year.”  Maybe that’s the connection, or maybe it’s something else. I didn’t phrase the inference very precisely, which made it hard for her to definitively confirm or disconfirm it.

The 2006 set of dreams had the highest frequency of animal references, which led me to infer that during this time period Beverly was “more concerned about animals (especially birds, cats, and dogs.).”  She replied, “Possibly. I had pet birds and was very attached to Rocky, my parents’ big orange tabby.”  I’m inclined to take this answer as a confirmation of my inference, since 1) she specifically mentions birds and a cat, and 2) she describes the kind of behaviors and feelings that I would generally include in defining the phrase “concerned about animals.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

What about the references to religion in Beverly’s dreams?  This whole series is an amazing chronicle of a lifelong spiritual journey.  Even if I had not known Beverly was an ex-cultist, I would have made it the top headline of my inferences that this dreamer had an extremely strong interest in religion in the early parts of her life.  It turns out that Beverly was deeply involved with a Hare Krishna group in the 1980’s, a group that took a very dark turn into abuse, violence, and murder, as she mentioned.  Her dreams track the course of her involvement with the group and her final escape from it, which has opened her life to a variety of new creative possibilities, also reflected in her dreams in remarkably accurate detail.

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

At the IASD conference I will talk more about the religious dimensions of her dreams, along with her social relationships and her “big dreams” (i.e., what she considers the most memorable dreams of her whole life).  I will then compare these results with those I’ve found in studying three other long-term dream journals—from Brianna, Jordan, and Jasmine (all pseudonyms, all in the SDDb).  My hope is to use this conference talk, and the feedback I receive from my colleagues, as a springboard for a deeper exploration of Beverly’s dream series.  Her journal is an incredibly valuable resource for the scientific study of religiously significant patterns in dreaming.

Note: This post was first published in Psychology Today on April 20, 2017.

Beyond the Eclipse of Research on Big Dreams

Beyond the Eclipse of Research on Big Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyOn Friday, February 19, I will visit with C.G. Jung Society of Atlanta and give a talk on “Big dreams: Religion, science, and Jung’s theory of highly memorable dreams,” followed by a workshop on Saturday titled “Dreaming as Theater of the Psyche.” I wrote the following essay for the Society newsletter as a prelude to the talk and workshop.  Anyone who lives in the Atlanta area is welcome to join us!

“Big dreams,” as originally conceptualized by C.G. Jung, are rare, extremely vivid, and highly memorable dreams that people experience as being dramatically different from the relatively mundane and forgettable contents of “little dreams.” To appreciate the importance of this distinction between big and little dreams, one has to accept the basic premise that dreams in general have some degree of meaning. Unfortunately many psychologists in the years after Jung lost confidence in that premise, due to scientific developments that seemed to cast doubt on the whole enterprise of dream research. During the latter half of the 20th century few investigators devoted much time or energy to studying the more unusual and intensified forms of oneiric experience Jung characterized as “big” dreams. Now, however, thanks to the 21st century technological developments in cognitive science and data analysis, a better case can be made for the psychological significance and therapeutic value of dreaming in general, and highly memorable and impactful big dreams in particular. The time is ripe for a new approach to the kinds of dreams Jung referred to as the “richest jewels in the treasure-house of psychic experience.”

Jung’s mentor in the study of dreams, Sigmund Freud, was not especially interested in distinguishing between different types of dreams, big, little, or otherwise. Freud’s main goal was to illuminate the unconscious roots of a dream in the childhood wishes, fears, and fantasies of the dreamer.   In his view the dream itself is irrelevant and can be ignored once the underlying wish has been identified. Indeed, because Freud’s theory posited that dreaming serves to protect sleep against disturbing eruptions from the unconscious, a big dream could be seen as a total failure of the basic function of dreaming. In his therapeutic work Freud did focus on strong emotions, unusual images, and character metamorphoses in his clients’ dream reports, all of which are frequent markers of big dreams, so he had some practical familiarity with the value of intensified dreaming. But he never took the next step of examining the distinctive qualities of these dreams and reflecting on what they mean for our psychological understanding of the human mind. That step was left for Freud’s erstwhile friend and follower, Jung.

Jung actually took two important steps that helped open the way for further investigation in this realm. In addition to naming the fundamental difference between average dreams and highly intensified big dreaming, Jung also recognized the importance of studying dreams in a series, across a period of time. He found in his clinical work that looking at a series of dreams, not just single dreams in isolation, enabled a better perspective on the psychological dynamics of the person’s life than could be gained from any one dream alone. Not only was this an invaluable insight for therapeutic purposes, but it also provided a way of clarifying the big dreams concept. To say precisely what makes a dream unusual and extraordinary, it helps to know what counts as the usual and ordinary patterns of dreaming. Studying a series of dreams can identify those general patterns so it becomes easier to determine with more specificity what makes big dreams so big.

Both Freud and Jung developed their ideas about dreams from the same sources of knowledge: their personal experiences, their clinical practices with mentally ill patients, their deep readings of classical philosophy and theology, and their early inklings of the significance of Darwinian evolution for theories of human nature. In therapeutic terms, Freudian and Jungian approaches to dream interpretation worked: they enabled clients to express emotionally important concerns and difficult feelings, and they gave therapists a new window into their clients’ unconscious conflicts. The practical value of including dreams in psychotherapy has never been seriously questioned by those with actual experience in the process, and recent works by Clara Hill and Milton Kramer show how vibrant this area of study remains.

However, as time went on mainstream psychologists found it increasingly difficult to support the theoretical claims of the early pioneers of dream study. Two blows in particular prompted great skepticism towards Freudian and Jungian approaches, leading to a general eclipse of interest in dreams of any type or variety through the better part of the 20th century. The first blow was the discovery of two fundamentally different kinds of sleep, known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep by American researchers, and referred to as Paradoxical Sleep (PS) and Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) by French researchers. Both sets of terms refer to regular cycles of variation in the levels of activation throughout the brain during an ordinary night’s sleep. Researchers soon found that dream recall was closely associated with the most intense phases of activation during the sleep cycle, which suggested that dreams were caused by automatic processes of the neural system in sleep (this isn’t actually true, but it seemed so for many years). These findings made it much harder to argue that a psychological approach could reach the “deepest” levels of a dream’s meaning, since neuroscience had apparently shown that the deepest cause of a dream is a purely physiological process in the brain during sleep.

The second blow came from systematic studies of dream content, like those of Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle starting in the 1950’s. These researchers accepted the idea that dreams contain some degree of psychological meaning, but they wanted to use quantitative methods to identify where those meanings might be found. The major discovery from this line of research was the simple continuity of dream content with waking life concerns. People tend to dream about the chief concerns of their regular daily lives. Most dreams, according to these findings, involve rather ordinary and mundane content: being in familiar places, with familiar people, doing familiar things. Contrary to their popular portrayal as bizarre and outlandish nonsense, dreams tend to portray fairly straightforward accounts of people’s feelings about their most important relationships, activities, and concerns in waking life.

The statistical research on dream content highlighted a genuine weakness in Freudian and Jungian dream theories, namely a narrow basis of evidence in terms of having access to broad, diverse sources of empirical evidence about dreaming. The research on REM sleep highlighted another weakness of Freudian and Jungian theories: losing connection with the best scientific understandings of the interaction between mind and brain, psyche and soma. Together, these two weaknesses undermined the credibility of Freud’s theory of dreams as wish-fulfillments aimed at protecting sleep and Jung’s theory of dreams as compensations for the excesses of consciousness. Neither theory could account for the neurological sources of dreams or for their mundane, generally trivial content. Jung’s interest in big dreams appeared especially questionable in this light, as it seemed to lead in exactly the opposite direction from where the best scientific evidence was pointing.

Throughout this time, clinicians and therapists kept doing their good and valuable work with dreams, but “eclectically,” with little theoretical guidance or grounding in empirical research. Few mental health professionals have received any training or instruction whatsoever in how to work with clients’ dreams. A few years ago when co-writing a book about dream education, Dreaming in the Classroom with Phil King and Bernard Welt, we were surprised and saddened to find so few schools of professional psychology offering any classes or course modules on the subject of dreams.

Several intrepid investigators have in recent years pursued detailed studies of the phenomenology of big dreams. Harry Hunt, Roger Knudson, Don Kuiken, Mark Solms, Tracey Kahan, Jayne Gackenbach, Ryan Hurd, and others have contributed to a better understanding of what Hunt called “the multiplicity of dreams,” but the overall tenor of 20th century psychology took a decidedly negative turn toward the study of dreams, and therapists today are still paying the price.

Fortunately there are increasing signs of another major shift in dream research that bodes well for greater attention to big dreams in coming years. These signs of change emerge from the same two sources of scientific research that seemed so discouraging for the study of dreams in previous decades. The neuroscience of sleep has now advanced to a point of recognizing the truly remarkable complexity and sophistication of the brain’s activities during sleep. Far from a mental desert devoid of conscious activity, sleep in fact involves a wide variety of cognitive processes operating in ways that are different from, but not necessarily inferior to, those in the waking state. At various points during REM or Paradoxical Sleep, the brain’s overall electrical activation (as measured by EEG devices) equals or even exceeds the levels seen in the brain during waking. These and other findings make it clear that the sleeping brain is more than capable of generating the kinds of emotionally charged, visually intense, cognitively complex experiences that Jung characterized as big dreams.

Just as importantly, the systematic study of dream content has expanded to include more than just “most recent dreams” gathered from college students. Careful analysis of various kinds of dreams, including nightmares, lucid dreams, childhood dreams, death-related dreams, and other kinds of highly intensified dreaming, have shown that there are distinctive patterns of form and content that correlate to a remarkable degree with the latest neuroscientific findings about the brain’s activities during sleep. The ability to identify these kinds of correlations has been improved by database technologies that allow researchers to quickly and reliably analyze large collections of dream reports, compare their word usage frequencies with other collections of dreams, and highlight significant patterns of similarity and difference. The Dreambank (dreambank.net) website of G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, along with my Sleep and Dream Database (sleepanddreamdatabase.org), are two resources for exploring the use of these technologies and experimenting with different kinds of dreams and different applications.

Jung’s approach to the study of dream series can be deepened with these new tools for identifying recurrent patterns and tracking changes over time. This has exciting potentials not only for therapeutic practice but also for theoretical insight into the nature and functions of big dreams. The more we learn about the meaningful dimensions of a series of dreams, the better we will be able to appreciate the singular dream experiences that stand out from the ordinary flow of dreaming, the experiences that Jung felt were unique openings into the most profound reaches of the psyche. The brain-mind science of the 21st century might finally be ready to verify Jung’s early insights about big dreams and develop them in creative new directions.

 

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God?

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God? by Kelly BulkeleyA recent essay in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times made several observations about religion in contemporary America by analyzing a huge collection of Google search data. In “Googling for God,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examined the search results for various religious terms and questions in relation to where the people lived and when they performed the searches. Stephens-Davidowitz’s work offers an excellent illustration of the pros and cons of using big data analytics to study religion. Three quotes from his essay show where the biggest challenges can be found.

  1. “If people somewhere are searching a lot about a topic, it is overwhelming evidence those people are very interested in that topic.”

This is the key methodological principle used in Stephens-Davidowitz’s analysis: the frequency of Google searches correlates to the intensity of personal interest. At one level this seems like a reasonable premise. In fact, this principle is very close to the “continuity hypothesis” used by dream researchers to correlate frequencies of dream content with personal concerns in waking life. Many dream researchers, myself included, have pursued studies of dream content using the continuity hypothesis to make inferences about people’s waking lives—if a person dreams a lot about sports, for example, we can confidently predict that sports are an important concern in the person’s waking life.

Stephens-Davidowitz does something similar when he connects Google search data to people’s religious concerns and questions. The problem, however, is defining “very interested.” What exactly can we infer about a person based on their entry of a Google search term? They are “interested,” of course, but interested in what way, and how strongly? What prompted their search? Is there anything distinctive about people’s searches for religious terms compared to non-religious terms?

Until these kinds of questions can be answered (ideally with lots of systematically analyzed empirical evidence, not just one-off studies), the use of Google search data to draw conclusions about religion remains on shaky ground.

In dream research we have many decades of studies that have helped us hone in on “emotional concerns” as a primary point of continuity between dreaming and waking. We also have statistical baselines of typical dream content to help us identify meaningful variations in the frequency of certain aspects of dreaming (see, for example, the Dreambank of G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, and the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) that I direct). If the use of Google search data included these kinds of analytic aids, the results would be much stronger and more convincing.

  1. “Sometimes Google search data, because of Google’s status as a kind of universal question service, is perfectly suited to give us fresh insights into our offline lives.”

The idea of Google as a “universal question service” has great appeal, not the least because so much of the information is easily accessible for public study. This is one of the great boons of the era of big data, and new studies of this treasure trove of information are bound to increase in future years.

A potential problem, however, is a tendency to blur the distinction between a) what Google offers its users and b) who those users are. The fact that Google enables people to ask all kinds of questions does not mean that all kinds of people are asking those questions. Google users are not necessarily representative of the US population as a whole, and we do not know how representative the Google users are who are searching specifically for religious terms. We do know that when people perform a Google search they are connected via technology to the internet, they are interacting with a global corporation, and they are being shown numerous commercial responses to their search. These circumstances should qualify our assumptions about who uses Google and how they engage with the search function.

  1. “There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.”

This quote comes at the end of the essay, and it perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of explaining the significance of Google search results. According to the findings cited by Stephens-Davidowitz, Kim Kardashian gets ten times the search results of Jesus Christ. What exactly does that mean? That Kim Kardashian is ten times more interesting than Jesus? That she is ten times more popular, or more important, or more influential?

The problem is that Google search data do not meaningfully measure any one thing, other than the tautological fact of having entered a specific search term. The results of analyzing these data seem admirably clear and quantitative—4.7 million vs. 49 million!—but they do not easily or self-evidently map onto the actual beliefs, feelings, and attitudes of the general population.

The good news is that these are tractable problems. Real progress can be made by more detailed studies and more systematic correlations of the data with genuinely meaningful aspects of people’s lives. This fascinating essay by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz helps people who study religion see where these new analytic endeavors can be most fruitfully pursued.

 

Note: first published September 24, 2015 in the Huffington Post.

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.