Attitudes Towards Dreaming: New Research

Attitudes Towards Dreaming: New Research by Kelly BulkeleyA new study explores the demographic variables that correlate with positive vs. negative attitudes towards dreams.

In the latest issue of the International Journal of Dream Research, Michael Schredl and I published the results of a new study on people’s attitudes towards dreaming. Several studies have been done previously looking at differences in people who have a positive view towards dreams versus people who have a negative view towards dreams. Most studies have found that younger people have more positive attitudes towards dreams than older people; women have more positive attitudes than men; and people with high dream recall have more positive attitudes than people with low dream recall.

Our study replicated those findings, and went beyond them by looking at three additional variables: ethnicity, education, and religion. The results shed new light on the sociology of dreaming in the contemporary United States.

The study involved an online survey of 5,255 American adults, administered by YouGov, a professional opinion research company. In addition to their demographic background, the participants were asked several questions about their attitudes towards dreams. These questions took the form of six statements about dreams, presented in random order. The participants were asked if they agreed or disagreed with each statement:

  • Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.
  • Dreams are a good way of learning about my true feelings.
  • Dreams can anticipate things that happen in the future.
  • Dream are random nonsense from the brain.
  • I am too busy in waking life to pay attention to my dreams.
  • I get bored listening to other people talk about their dreams.

The first three of these statements were considered positive, in that they regard dreaming as something real, powerful, and valuable. The second three statements were considered negative in dismissing dreams as unreal or insignificant.

Our analysis of the results led to several new and interesting findings. In terms of ethnicity, the blacks in this sample had significantly higher frequencies of agreement with the positive statements about dreams, and lower frequencies of agreement with the negative statements, compared to whites. Hispanics had more agreement with the positive statements than the whites, but not as much as the black participants. At the same time, Hispanics agreed more with the negative statements than either the blacks or whites.

In terms of education, we analyzed the participants in two groups: those who had attended at least some college, and those with at most a high school degree. The differences were fairly small between these two groups. The people with more education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “bored by other people’s dreams” statement. The people with less education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements.

The most intriguing results came from the religion question. We found that religious orientation correlates strongly with attitudes towards dreaming. Atheists and agnostics were mostly likely to disagree with the positive statements and agree with the “random nonsense” statement. The Protestants and especially the Catholics were more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements. The participants who identified themselves religiously as “something else” had the least negative and most positive attitudes towards dreaming of all the groups. This seems like an especially important avenue for future research, looking more carefully at the “something else” population to study how their unconventional religious outlook affects their attitudes towards dreams. Our findings suggest that dreaming is an especially important part of these people’s spiritual lives.

This study provides new clarity about the demographic qualities that are most often associated with positive or negative attitudes towards dreams. The people in contemporary American society who are most intensely engaged with dreaming (“hyper-dreamers”) tend to be young, female, non-white, slightly less educated, and more spiritual than religious. The people who are least engaged with and most dismissive of dreams (“hypo-dreamers”) tend to be older, male, white, slightly more educated, and atheist or agnostic. These are broad tendencies with lots of individual variation, but they do suggest a deeper connection between certain clusters of demographic qualities and how people relate to their dreams in the present-day United States.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 22, 2019. 

Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal

Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyThe value of keeping a dream journal is inherent in the practice itself. Simply recording your dreams on a regular basis will increase your dream recall, deepen your self-knowledge, and help you maintain emotional balance in waking life. You can enjoy these benefits even if you never look back at your journal after recording each dream.

But if you do have the opportunity to look back and review your journal over a period of time, you can learn some amazing things about yourself and the world in which you live.

I’ve been keeping a dream journal for more than 30 years, and the discoveries never stop coming. I study my journal both for personal insight and for new ideas to explore in my research with other people’s dreams. At the end of each calendar year I go back over the last 12 months of my dreams to explore the recurrent patterns and themes, using the word search tools of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) to make an initial survey. This year’s review provides an incredibly accurate portrait of my concerns and interests in waking life, and gives me lots of inspiration for new research to pursue.

The results of the initial word search analysis are presented in the table in the previous post. I compared the results of my 2018 dreams with my dreams from 2016 and 2017. I also compared them with the male and female “baselines.” The baselines are two large collections of dreams gathered by various researchers to provide a source of “normal” dreaming in the general population. (I describe the baselines in more detail in my Big Dreams book.)

To analyze these dreams I used the SDDb 2.0 template of 40 word categories in 8 classes, listed in the lefthand column. The percentages to the right of each category indicate how often a dream in the given set includes at least one reference to a word in that category.

In 2018 I remembered one dream each night, as I did in 2016 and 2017. The average length of the dreams increased during this time (102 in 2016, 111 in 2017, 116 in 2018). This suggests the word search results will tend to be a little higher in the 2018 set, just because there are more total words to search. This will also be true in comparisons with the baseline dreams, which have an average length of 100 words (females) and 105 words (males).

Keeping that in mind, the 2018 dreams had more references to vision and color than previous years, while other sensory perceptions (hearing, touch, smell & taste) stayed the same. The table doesn’t show it, but the most frequently mentioned colors in my 2018 dreams were white, black, green, gray, and blue.  For both of these categories (vision and color), my dreams have many more references than either the male or female baselines.

The emotion references in the 2018 dreams are pretty similar to 2016 and 2017. I have much more wonder/confusion than the male and female baselines, and somewhat more happiness.

The 2018 dreams have a rise in references to family characters, and to females generally. The frequencies of references to animals, fantastic beings, and males are quite steady from 2016 to 2018. Compared to the baselines, my family references are still rather low, my animal references are high, and my female references are very high.

The three categories of social interaction—friendliness, physical aggression, and sexuality—are all steady from 2016 to 2018. The sexuality frequencies are somewhat higher than the baselines.

The frequencies of my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines are all similar on the categories of walking/running, flying, and falling. My dreams have fewer references to death than the baselines.

The cognitive categories—thinking, speech, reading & writing—are consistent across 2016-2018, with higher frequencies of thinking than the baselines.

The cultural categories are also remarkably consistent from 2016 to 2018, with a slight rise in references to food & drink and art.  Compared to the baselines, my dreams have fewer references to school and more to art.

Of the four elements, the frequencies of fire and air are consistent in my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines. My dreams have more references to water and earth.

This kind of analysis is quite superficial, of course. It ignores personal associations, narrative flow, and all the subtle qualities of dreaming that can’t be captured in numbers.  That’s true, and yet it’s also true that a well-crafted word search analysis can reveal some fascinating themes that are both accurate and thought-provoking.

One of the most striking results of this initial analysis is the remarkable consistency over time of most of the word categories. There are a few significant changes, which I’ll discuss in a moment. But those changes are more dramatic when set in the bigger context of strong consistency across word categories as diverse as air (3% in 2016, 4% in 2017, and 4% in 2018), touch (12, 11, 13), anger (7, 8, 8), fantastic beings (4, 4, 3), physical aggression (16, 17, 17), flying (7, 6, 7), and clothing (18, 19, 21). As wild and unpredictable as individual dreams may be, in the aggregate they seem to follow steady long-term patterns.

Against that background of consistency, the changes that do occur over time are all the more intriguing.

The rise in references to vision and color from 2016 to 2018 seems related to the lengthening of my dream reports over this time. As my reports get longer, I apparently need to use more vision and color words to describe what happens in each dream.

The rise in references to family characters might be a return to a more “normal” ratio of family in my dreams. The family frequencies in 2016 and 2017 are actually the lowest I’ve ever had (extending the comparison back to 2010), so 2018 may be a bounce-back year. This would make sense in relation to my waking life: 2016 was the beginning of the “empty nest,” when the last of our children moved out of the house.

The rise in references to female characters is the most intriguing. The references to male characters stayed mostly the same from 2016 to 2018 (47, 44, 43), so the 2018 increase in female references leads to a big gender gap (59% female vs. 43 male). The baselines actually have slightly higher frequencies of male references vs. female references, so the variation in my 2018 dreams is even more unusual.

What might account for this change? My first thought is political. American society, as I currently perceive it, is dominated by destructive masculine energies, and change is only going to come once we bring more women to positions of power. I’m trying harder than ever in waking life to listen to female voices, and that intention may have influenced the patterns of my dreaming.

Two other features of the analysis pique my curiosity.

One is the rise of references to art over 2016-2018 (7, 14, 15), which I believe correlates with my increased participation as a board member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I wonder if other people who become more involved with an artistic group or practice also experience a rise in their dreams about art. I also wonder if my rise in art references might be connected to my higher frequencies of vision and color.

The other feature I’d like to explore further is the consistently low frequency of references to religion during all three years (3, 4, 3). This might seem odd since I have two graduate degrees in religious studies, and I’ve written several books about religion. But at the same time I never attend church, and I don’t belong to any religious group or denomination. My dreams seem to reflect the latter reality, my personal behavior rather than my scholarly pursuits.

In a recent survey that I’ve been analyzing with the help of Michael Schredl, we asked people to choose one of the following categories to describe their religious identity—Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Agnostic, Atheist, Nothing in Particular, and Something Else. I would definitely categorize myself as “something else”—not one of the religious identities, but not one of the non-religious identities, either. And it turns out (previewing the statistical findings Michael and I will soon publish) that people who identify religiously as “something else” have the highest interest in dreams compared to other groups. This makes me more curious than ever to understand the beliefs of people who religiously identify as “something else,” and how those beliefs relate to their attitudes towards dreaming.

I’m left with a final question, which will guide me in 2019: To what extent do these patterns reflect the past, and to what extent do they map the future?

####

This post first appeared in Psychology Today on February 5, 2019.

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity by Kelly BulkeleySexual dreams have long been part of human experience, as we know from historical sources.  For example, the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, an ancient manual of dream interpretation, devoted several pages to the various types and classes of sexual dreams.

 

However, we do not know how widespread sexual dreams are, who has them most often, and when they begin.

 

In a survey I commissioned a couple of years ago, nearly 3000 American adults were asked the question, “Have you ever had a dream with sexual feelings or experiences?”  Of those who answered “Yes,” a follow-up question was asked: “Did you have any sexual dreams before your first sexual activity in waking life?”

The answers to the first question were 69% Yes and 24% No for the men (1912 of them), and 58% Yes and 34% No for the women (1058 total), with 7% of the men and 8% of the women responding “Not Sure.”

On most other typical dreams questions (e.g., chasing, falling, visitation) the women answered Yes more often than did the men.  Sexual dreams stood out as a significantly more frequent experience for the men.

For the follow-up question about sexual dreams before sexual activity, the gender disparity was even bigger: 48% of the men said Yes and 22% said No, whereas only 23% of the women said Yes while 39% said No.

Looking more closely at follow-up question results, the age of the participants mattered a lot.  The frequency of Yes answers was much higher for younger than older people, although the gap between males and females remained for all ages.

 

  Males     Females    
Age Yes No N/S Yes No N/S
18-29 76% 8% 15% 55% 22% 22%
30-49 55% 16% 29% 31% 37% 32%
50-64 44% 24% 33% 17% 39% 44%
65+ 37% 30% 33% 11% 48% 42%

 

Other demographic variables (e.g., race, income, education, religion) did not correlate with any significant differences.

What can we learn from these results?

First, we have to consider the limitations of the data. Many people are simply reluctant to talk about sex.  Dreams sometimes portray taboo, socially frowned upon sexual behaviors that people may not want to admit.  Some religious traditions teach that sexual dreams should be shunned as demonic temptations.  More generally, people vary in how well they can recall different types of dreams from earlier in life.

All these factors suggest the survey results are underestimating rather than overestimating the frequency of sexual dreams. Some of the participants probably answered “No” when the actual truth was “Yes,” while it’s unlikely that many participants said “Yes” when the accurate answer would have been “No.”

To explain these findings, we can appeal to both biology and culture.  It makes sense that young people entering their prime years of reproductive potential would have dreams that anticipate and prepare them for this fundamental biological goal.  Just as some nightmares simulate threats to our survival (e.g., being chased by wild animals) so we’re better prepared to face them in waking life, it could be that sexual dreams are simulating reproductive opportunities we will hopefully have in the future.  Such dreams might have less biological value or significance for older people.

It could also be that young people in contemporary America are more likely to dream about sex because they are immersed in a culture filled with sexually arousing content.  Dream content accurately reflects people’s biggest emotional concerns, and it’s plausible to assume that many young people today are thinking a lot about sex before they are sexually active.   Again, such dreams would be less likely among older people whose emotional concerns no longer center on sexuality.

Both biological and cultural factors could also account for the gender differences.  The process of sexual maturation may generate stronger physical pressures for young males than females, prompting a higher proportion of sexually explicit dreams.  Cultural portrayals of sexuality certainly seem to emphasize male rather than female perspectives, which may stimulate relatively more dreaming about this subject.

These explanations are admittedly speculative and open to question.  However, it is clear that dreaming is closely connected to our nature as sexual beings.  Even before sexual activity in waking life we tend to be sexually active in our dreams, anticipating how it will happen, what it will feel like, and with whom we’ll share the experience.  The fact that some dreams can lead to actual climax for both men and women suggests that dreaming is, at one level, a physiologically hard-wired means of preparing us for our lives as reproductive beings.

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThis year I’ve had the honor of serving as an advisor for three doctoral dissertations in the study of dreams.  Dianne Jackie Frost at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Cynthia S. Sauln at Sofia University, and Mary Walsh at San Francisco Theological Seminary have done highly innovative work in exploring some of the most important and potentially transformative aspects of dreaming experience.  Each of them has shown amazing devotion and diligence, and their findings are truly original contributions to the field.

 

Dianne Frost’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology is titled “Engaging With the Imaginal: A Study of Women’s Dreamwork.”  Her study focuses on six women at a counseling center who participated in a group process of sharing dreams, exploring their images, and following their changes over a seven-week period (using methods drawn from the works of Steven Aizenstat, Jack Zimmerman, Virginia Coyle, Mary Watkins, and others).  Each of the women came to the process from a place of pain and crisis (interpersonal violence, depression, addiction, body image issues, etc.), and Frost shows how their dreams accurately reflect their emotional concerns and give witness to their suffering.  More importantly for therapeutic purposes, the dreams point the way towards healing, towards potentials for new life and new growth beyond the challenging conditions of the present. As the women shared their dreams and discussed possible dimensions of meaning, Frost found they developed a new depth of trust in their own strength, resilience, and creativity.

My favorite quote comes from the woman using the pseudonym “Cadence.” Cadence told Frost she had always looked to outside sources for guidance and advice in her life, but the insights she was gaining from her dreams made her realize she has a reliable source within herself:

“I felt like I needed someone else to guide me through, and this process really allows me to do that on my own.  It’s like I’m my own innate healer, with knowledge and images that only I can tap into and create a relationship with and learn from.”

Nothing in Frost’s approach limits it to women with these kinds of problems; her way of working with dreams could be usefully applied with many other groups of people who are striving for greater health and wholeness.

“In My Dreams I Am the Hero I Wish to Be: A Mixed Methods Study of Children’s Dreams, Meaning-Making, and Spiritual Awareness” is the title of Cynthia Sauln’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology).  Sauln recruited 32 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who were willing, with their parents’ permission, to describe a vivid or unusual dream.  She invited the children to draw pictures of their dreams, and she asked them to fill out two surveys designed to assess their spiritual and religious beliefs.  Sauln says in her introduction,

“For the purpose of this study, children’s spirituality is defined as an awareness of the divine or something larger than themselves that can provide meaning for waking life events and understanding of the world around them. Especially for children, it is a personal experience that may be expressed as a ‘knowing’ and an interpretation of the mysteries found in nature, animals, relationships and connections with people, dreams, and/or in their religious practices and beliefs.”

Drawing on the work of Kate Adams, C.G. Jung, and others, Sauln argues that dreams can play a vital role in children’s spiritual development.  She shows the close connection between spirituality, health, and creativity in childhood, with dreams as a mode of experience bringing them all together. Ironically, many teachers and parents were so skeptical about dreams in general that they would not give their children permission to participate in Sauln’s study, even though the children themselves were invariably curious about their dreams and eager to discuss and draw pictures of them.  This made the data-gathering process much more difficult than Sauln expected.

However, there was a silver lining to these difficulties.  Her extra efforts to recruit participants led her to ultimately gather a group of children with an unusual degree of ethnic diversity.  There were several Hispanic children in her study whose dreams seemed especially significant in relation to their waking spiritual beliefs.  In my SDDb research I’ve found some evidence of relatively high Hispanic interest in spiritually meaningful dreams.  I wonder if future research from Sauln or others might explore Hispanic dream experiences in more detail.

Mary Walsh’s dissertation for her Doctor of Ministry in Advanced Pastoral Studies from San Francisco Theological Seminary is titled “Prophetic Imagination and the Neuro-physiology of Trauma in Substance Abusing Adolescents.”  Walsh is a practicing psychotherapist whose doctoral studies have examined the theological dimensions of suffering, caregiving, and healing.  For two years she worked as a therapist at a high school for troubled adolescents, with a focus on their dreams in relation to several other measures of mental and physical health.  The students at her school came from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of them were suffering multiple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   In addition to talking about their dreams, she measured the students’ heart rate variability to track their neuro-physiological coherence during the treatment process.  Walsh’s use of sophisticated biofeedback technology will make it possible to illuminate new dimensions of dreaming and its role in mind-body healing.  I’m very curious to see what further uses can be made of biofeedback technologies like these.

Walsh has gathered an extremely valuable set of data that provides unique insights into the life experiences of young people at the most neglected margins of society.  Although she still has some writing to do, her project is putting together a compelling argument in favor of the therapeutic effectiveness of group dreamsharing for this poorly-served population.

It should be obvious I’m very proud of these three researchers!  Each of them has stayed true to her original vision and persevered in her scholarly work despite all manner of obstacles and static from uncomprehending administrators, teachers, etc.  Their success bodes well for the future of dream studies.

Dream Recall: The Highs and the Lows

Dream Recall: The Highs and the Lows by Kelly BulkeleyWhy is it so hard to remember dreams?  Scientific evidence dating back to the 1950’s has shown the brain is active in various ways throughout the sleep cycle.  Yet when we wake up we often can’t remember more than a few fleeting images that disappear from our minds almost immediately.  Why can’t we recall more of what we experienced while asleep?

 

As a partial answer to that question, try this thought experiment.  Imagine you are a star basketball player.  It’s the final moments of a championship game. The score is tied, the crowd is screaming, and victory hangs in the balance. Just before time expires you make a brilliant play that wins the game.

Then, the second the game’s over, a reporter pulls you off the court, thrusts a microphone in your face, and says, “What was going through your mind when you made that play?”

As with most athletes facing this situation, you’d probably be at a loss for words.  You’d find it difficult if not impossible to communicate the full experience of what it felt like while you were in the game.  So soon after the game’s end, your brain would still be somewhat disoriented by the abrupt transition, and it would be a challenge to form a linear, grammatically proper thought.

This is more or less what it’s like when we wake up in the morning.  Our brain has just been operating in a very different mode from waking consciousness. It’s extremely difficult to convey the experiences of the former state of awareness into the linguistic terms of the latter.

That’s a general reason for the limits of our dream recall.  But still, a question remains: Why do some people remember several dreams every night, while others remember virtually none at all? Sometimes I hear this posed as a challenge—“I don’t remember any of my dreams and I’m just fine, so what’s the point of paying attention to them?”  Other times it’s more of a request for advice—“I know dreams are valuable, but I barely remember any of them, so how can I improve my recall?”

Current scientific research suggests that some degree of dream recall is a normal part of human life.  According to Michael Schredl’s thorough review of the research literature in The New Science of Dreaming:

“On average, students recall one to two dreams per week at home… In representative samples of the general population [in Austria], dream recall frequency is slightly lower, but about 68% recall at least one dream per month.” (1)

Similar results appeared in a demographic survey of 2970 American adults I commissioned in 2010, when 67.81% of the participants said they recalled at least two or three dreams per month.

A very small percentage of people say they remember no dreams whatsoever.  The only research I know that has directly focused on “non-dreamers” was done by James Pagel from the Rocky Mountain Sleep Clinic in Colorado.  Pagel found that 6% of his lab’s incoming patients said they never remembered any dreams.  After further questions and experiments, Pagel found that most of these people could remember at least a few dreams from earlier in life.  He concluded that “true non-dreaming was very rare in our sleep lab population (0.38%)—1 of every 262 patients.” (2)

It’s not clear why some people remember an extremely high number of dreams.  Gender may have something to do with it, since females tend to remember more dreams than males.  The difference is not absolute—there are high-recalling men and low-recalling women—but many researchers have found the same modest difference.  In the 2010 demographic survey, 10.21% of the women vs. 6.64% of the men said they remembered a dream almost every morning.

Age is also a factor, as children and young adults tend to remember more dreams than do older people.  This pattern seems to be more pronounced among women than men: Young women have the highest frequencies of dream recall, with a big drop-off for older women, while young men have only slightly more recall than older men.

Many other factors can influence an individual’s dream recall frequency, including sleep quality, medications (some increase dream recall, others decrease it), and stressful circumstances in waking life.

The most intriguing factor is encouragement by others.   Michael Schredl refers to this as an “experimenter effect,” in which

“[T]he expectations of the participants and the expectations of the experimenter can affect DRF [dream recall frequency] as measured in the sleep laboratory.  In the high expectancy conditions [of one study], dreams were recalled more often.  Similarly, other studies have demonstrated how sensitive DRF is to comments of the experimenter; simple encouraging comments produced a marked increase in DRF.  Even the completion of a short dream questionnaire yielded a higher DRF after four weeks.” (3)

It seems the mere act of encouraging people to remember more dreams leads to an increase in recall frequency.  This isn’t just a function of compliant participants trying to please their experimenters.  It’s an indication that dream recall depends to a large degree on a person’s conscious attitude towards dreams.  A low interest in dreams correlates with low recall, and high interest in dreams correlates with high recall.  As the research reviewed by Schredl shows, even a slight positive change in attitude can yield a higher frequency of remembered dreams.

If you build it, they will come.

 ####

 

Notes:

1. Michael Schredl, “Dream Recall,” in Patrick McNamara and Deirdre Barrett (ed.s) The New Science of Dreams (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007), vol. II, p. 80.

2. J.F. Pagel, The Limits of Dream: A Scientific Exploration of the Mind/Brain Interface (London: Academic Press, 2008), p. 152.

3. Schredl 2007, p. 89.