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.

 

 

A Festival of Dreams

A Festival of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleySeveral hundred people from all over the world gathered in Scottsdale, Arizona this week to discuss the latest findings and methods in dream research.  The 35th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams  featured five days of panels, workshops, and artistic events.  A lively mix of academic symposium, spiritual retreat, and collective self-experiment, the IASD conference offers a stimulating variety of approaches to the nature and meaning of dreams.

Here are several highlights from the sessions I attended.

Remington Mallet, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin, described exciting new research on “the ability to communicate in real-time between sleeping and waking.”  This theme has been explored in fictional form in various movies and television shows, from “Inception” and “The Matrix” to “Dream Corp. LLC.” Mallet analyzed the sleeping-waking communications portrayed in these popular media in relation to current scientific knowledge about what is and isn’t possible.  Mallet concluded that the media portrayals are far ahead of the actual science, but new technologies are moving quickly in the very same directions envisioned by the movies and television shows.

Sharon Pastore and Tzivia Gover of the Institute for Dream Studies gave a moving presentation on the common themes in the dreams of those who care for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  Building on research on dreams and bereavement, they described how simple methods of exploring dreams can be helpful for the caregivers, whether professionals, friends, or family members: “Dreamwork can guide decisions in the care and communication with loved ones, as well as coping/healing.”  In additional to academic research, Pastore and Gover drew on personal experiences of caring for a parent with dementia to illuminate the value of dreams for the caregiving process.

Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, gave a fascinating keynote address on the role of sleep and dreaming in memory formation.  This has been a controversial topic in the field, with some researchers questioning the connection between sleep, dreams, and memory.  Stickgold granted that dreams rarely include episodic memories (i.e., direct, unmodified re-playings of a waking event).  But he laid out extensive evidence to support the idea that different stages of the sleep cycle are important for memory stabilization.  Sleep seems to help people better remember the emotionally relevant aspects of a waking experience.  He didn’t talk a lot about dreams, but he did note some studies “demonstrating the explicit incorporation of waking learning experiences into dream content… [S]uch incorporation is accompanied by enhanced sleep-dependent consolidation of the learning task.”  In other words, the more people dreamed about the learning task, the better they remembered it the next day.  The best part of Stickgold’s address, from my perspective, was his willingness to admit he does not have an easy answer to the “hard question” of how to relate the psychological experience of dreaming with the neurophysiological processes of sleep.  It was a refreshing statement of epistemological humility, and quite a contrast to the views of his predecessor at the Harvard lab, J. Allan Hobson, who had no doubt about the right answer to the hard question.

Linda Mastrangelo, a psychotherapist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, explored in detail a series of her own dreams in which she found unexpected connections with her family heritage, ancestral roots, and places of origin.  She combined psychology, myth, art, and sacred geography to trace out a map of her dreaming landscapes.  The frequency of certain places in her dreams inspired her to learn more about her own spiritual grounding in special features of the land, and to deepen her awareness of the wisdom traditions and ecological teachings that have grown around these places over the ages.  As Mastrangelo made clear, this is a process that anyone can pursue in exploring their own symbolic connections between dreaming and place.

Mark Blagrove, a professor of psychology and director of the sleep laboratory at Swansea University in the UK, proposed a theory of dream function that centered on the evolutionary value of empathy.  Drawing on the studies of Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley about fiction and empathy, Blagrove presented evidence in favor of a theory that telling dreams has the effect of eliciting greater empathy towards the dreamer, which strengthens interpersonal bonding and thus enhances reproductive fitness.  Blagrove made thought-provoking use of Mar and Oatley’s psychological analyses of fictional literature as a powerful means of simulating social experience and boosting our capacity to understand other people who are different from ourselves—that is, boosting our capacity for empathy.  After exploring the connections between empathy and dream-telling, Blagrove passed the microphone to Katja Valli, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skvode, Sweden, who agreed beforehand to offer constructive comments on the proposed theory.  This was an admirable exercise in scholarly dialogue, and a valuable opportunity for everyone in the audience to observe the kind of critical scrutiny that can help improve our ideas and sharpen our awareness.

Next year’s IASD conference will be held June 21-25 in the Netherlands, at the Rolduc Abbey conference facility in Kerkrade, about 200 kilometers south of Amsterdam.  The Abbey is a glorious 12th century structure where the IASD has hosted two previous conferences.  I can’t wait!

Note: this post first appeared on June 21, 2018 in Psychology Today.

Preparing for the 2018 Dream Studies Conference

Preparing for the 2018 Dream Studies Conference by Kelly BulkeleyThe world’s biggest yearly gathering of dream researchers, teachers, artists, and therapists is less than two weeks away.

The 35th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) will be held June 16-20 in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.   I attended my first IASD conference in 1988 in Santa Cruz, California, and I have only missed two since then.   This year I am giving several presentations, covering a range of current and emerging interests.  The conferences offer an ideal place to share new ideas and test future plans.  Many of my projects over the years have been the outgrowth and flowering of seeds first sown at an earlier IASD conference.  Below are the seeds I’m planting this year.

June 17-20, 8:00-9:00 am

Morning Dream-Sharing Workshop, with Bernard Welt

“Dream Journaling for First-Time IASD Conference Attendees”

This morning workshop is for first-time IASD attendees, who will learn a variety of methods for starting a dream journal, exploring the dreams that accumulate over time, and discovering surprising potentials for creativity and insight.  Attendees will be able to share their experiences and discuss common themes and questions.  The initial meeting of the workshop will involve introductions, questions about the conference, a discussion of initial interests in dreams, and a list of topics people want to learn more about.  The presenters will take time to introduce the attendees to the basic practice of keeping a dream journal, which some of the attendees may already do.  Also discussed in introductory terms will be the role of dream journals in history, art, religion, and science.  The following sessions each morning will provide ample space for the attendees to process their experiences at the conference, ask questions, share impressions, and correlate different ideas from different sources.  The presenters will make sure in each session to devote at least half the group’s discussion to various practical aspects of dream journaling, and the list of interests and questions that arose from the first session.

 

Sunday, June 17, 4:15 to 6:15 pm

Arts Symposium: Dreaming, Media, and Consciousness

“The Mythic Roots of Cinematic Dream Journeys”

The presentation will start with a discussion of the idea of films as simulated dreams (with “films” also including works appearing on television, some shorter than typical movies, some longer).  The presentation will analyze the elements of cinematic experience in terms of its historical roots in theater, myth, religious ritual, and shamanic journeys.  The focus in this first section will be the creative interplay of art and dreaming within the formal features of cinematic experience.  The second section will focus on two dream-related themes in several films and television shows that have deep mythic roots.  One of these themes is the heroic journey into the realm of dreaming in quest for something of importance or value for the waking world.  The other theme is the danger of becoming trapped in the realm of dreaming and no longer knowing what is waking and what is dreaming, or who is dreaming whom.  These two themes have alternately enchanted and terrified humans throughout history, as witnessed in various myths, stories, and philosophies around the world, and now in the movies and tv shows of the present day.  The power, mystery, and wonder-provoking weirdness of dreaming emerges very clearly in several films and televisions shows, including Dead of Night, Dream Corp. LLC, The OA, and Twin Peaks: The Return.  These and other works will be considered in terms of the two mythic themes of heroic journey and identity paradox.

 

Tuesday, June 19, 11:30 to 1:00

Religious Research Panel: Dreams About God

“The Dreams of God of Lucrecia de Leon”

The dreams of God reported by Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain, included dangerously accurate prophecies that brought down the wrath of the Inquisition.  This presentation explores the religious, psychological, and political dimensions of her dreams, especially the theme of dreams as speaking truth to power (drawing on the historical research I did for Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition).  The presentation will start with the historical context of Lucrecia and the religious dynamics of her life and community.  It will then look at the 24 dream reports specifically mentioning “God” in the main collection of her dreams, and discuss the main themes and features of these dreams.  This discussion will include use of digital methods of data analysis, Jungian psychology, cognitive science, and metaphorical theology.  The presentation will conclude with reflections on the psychological, political, and religious dimensions of dreaming in historical circumstances and in the present-day.

 

Wednesday, June 20, 2-3:30 pm

Dreamwork Panel: Theories and Work of Jeremy Taylor

“Creating a Dream Library”

Following his death, Jeremy Taylor’s massive collection of books and papers have been entrusted to me, and in this presentation I will share plans for building a library that will provide a long-term archive for Jeremy’s books and papers, plus my books and papers and other dream-related resources people have shared with me.  I will discuss the plans for this library in relation to Jeremy’s tool-kit principle #1 that ALL dreams speak in a universal language of symbol and metaphor.  That principle offers a key for understanding the nature and significance of Jeremy’s library (a vast repository of the world’s mythic, religious, and artistic traditions). I will also address Jeremy’s personal practice of dream journaling and its importance for an appreciation of his life and work.

 

Art, Immigration, and Dreaming: An Experimental Workshop

Art, Immigration, and Dreaming: An Experimental Workshop by Kelly BulkeleyAn international group of artists join together to explore their dreams.

Next weekend (May 11-13), six professional artists and I will gather in New York City for an experimental workshop on the interplay of dreaming, artistic creativity, and the realities of life as an immigrant.  The participants are an incredibly talented group, and I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to learn from them.  The artists include:

Alisa Minyukova. Born in Leningrad, living in New York City.

Victor Mutelekesha. Born in Zambia, living in Oslo, Norway. 

Jennifer Cabrera Fernandez. Born in Mexico, living in Venice, Italy.

Viktoria Sorochinski. Born in Ukraine, living in Berlin, Germany.

Lana Nasser. Born in Jordan, living in the Netherlands.

Kristof Persyn. Born in the Netherlands, living in Belgium.

Alisa originally came up with the idea for the project, and since the beginning of the year she and I have been in regular conversation with these artists via video conferences, talking about their dreams and exploring questions of language, identity, and meaning in both art and dreaming.  As an overarching concept for the workshop, Alisa has been developing the idea of “dream mapping.” We will experiment and play with various ways of mapping the terrain of our dreaming landscapes, orienting ourselves to their most important features, and tracking our dream personas as they journey through these imaginal realms.  Each artist brings a lifetime of personal and cultural experience with dreaming, which bodes well for the creative energies we hope to generate together.

Two other people have been invited to join the workshop at certain points to add their ideas to the mix.  Bernard Welt, a long-time friend from the International Association for the Study of Dreams and a leading expert on dreaming and the arts, will lead a discussion about dream journals, sharing dreams, and mapping dream content.  And Rome Omboy, an artist and healer, will open and close the workshop with a Singing Bowl meditation.

A major motivation for the gathering is the rising hostility and violence towards immigrants all over the world.  We believe artists can be a powerful force in promoting greater recognition of our shared humanity, especially artists who are deeply attuned to the multiple identities that emerge within their own dreaming depths.  The goal of the workshop will be to generate creative insights about overcoming fears of otherness and illuminate new paths toward personal and collective integration.

Kristof will be creating a video documentary of the workshop, which is sure to become an interesting creative work of its own.

 

 

Dark Times and the Powers of Dreaming

Dark Times and the Powers of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyI’ve been thinking a lot recently about a new book, Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought, by Sharon Sliwinski, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Sliwinski approaches dreaming as a powerful resource for political theory and action, especially in times when basic human freedoms are most at risk. That we today are living in such times has become impossible to ignore.

But throughout history, in times of collective crisis, people’s dreams have often responded with a surge of imagery, emotion, and insight that help people respond more effectively and creatively to the pressing challenges facing their group in waking life. This is also true in the modern era, as Sliwinski’s fascinating and beautifully written book makes clear.

As she explores the political sociology of the dreaming imagination, Sliwinski’s main guides are Sigmund Freud (as interpreted by Michel Foucault) and Hannah Arendt. It is the deep dive into Arendt’s philosophy that gives Dreaming in Dark Times its inspiring vision and potent timeliness. Arendt was a twentieth-century political theorist born in Germany who fled the Holocaust in World War II and lived in the United States until her death in 1975. Her writings focused on such topics as totalitarianism, freedom, authority, and revolution. Sliwinski draws her book’s title from Arendt’s notion of “dark times,” which Sliwinski describes as follows:

“Dark times are turbulent political moments in which the public realm has been infected with a kind of black light… [Arendt] marked these eras by a certain kind of suppression of speech and public declaration, and simultaneously, by an all-too-public display of evildoing. In dark times, social and political violence is both overtly visible and yet oddly difficult to recognize… She noticed that human speech becomes divested of its power to represent and transmit the truth during these periods. A kind of perverse language emerges instead that tends to serve those who wish to prolong the distorted political situation… This kind of language is designed to obfuscate reality, thwarting the citizenry’s capacity for thought.” (xviii)

I cannot think of a more apt analysis of the current American political environment. But the frightening realization that we are indeed living through dark times is immediately tempered by Sliwinski’s inspiring appeal to the potency of dreaming:

“This book aims to show how dream-life can serve to reanimate a world that has been flattened by dark times. Dreams are a crucial resource for regaining a measure of freedom in our thought and speech, serving as a vital landscape to recover our fundamental human capacity to assign meaning to the world.” (xix)

I encourage not only dream researchers but anyone concerned about current politics to read this book and study it closely. I will have more to say about it at the upcoming online conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, September 25.

Here, I’d like to mention four other writers and journalists who are trying to make sense of today’s frightening political and cultural trends by using dreams and dream-related modes of thought and reflection. I want to give an admiring tip of the cap to those who are pushing back against the flattening and dehumanizing effects of dark times, and doing so in ways that emerge organically out of human dreaming experience.

1. Kathleen Parker’s op-ed column on August 1, 2017, begins with this:

“Insidious is the force that causes us to dream of things we wish (or don’t wish) were so. Thus, on the eve of this column’s creation, I dreamed of Donald J. Trump. We were seated at a dinner table for eight, but the other six chairs were empty. We spoke of many things, from education to globalization and the near-universal crisis of identity. The president was courtly, humble, erudite and wise. I awoke suddenly to the harsh sounds of braying asses (I had left the TV on), only to realize that I was actually dreaming of Adlai Stevenson, the twice-defeated presidential candidate who lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in part because of his excess erudition. In today’s clever-ish jargon, he was too thinky. Mine was a dream of wishes, obviously, for we suffer no such excesses now.”

Parker goes on to contrast the brilliant, intellectually curious Stevenson with the humble, plain-spoken General Eisenhower, and she observes that Trump falls far short of both men. For years Parker has bemoaned the rise of Twitter as a means of political communication, so the new regime is truly the apocalypse for her. She worries that “civilization doesn’t seem as securely tethered as it once was,” a process of social unraveling that started decades ago (for conservatives this usually means the liberal reforms of the 1960’s), but has accelerated in recent years because of technology and the chaotic pace of modern life, with damaging effects on people’s cognitive capacities for sustained attention and clear thinking.

I don’t entirely agree with her account of how the 2016 election was won and lost, but that doesn’t matter because the heart of her column, and I suspect the concern left in her mind after her dream, came in the final paragraphs:

“But what now? In just over six months in office, Trump has managed to alienate our allies, shatter our international standing, demonstrate no leadership ability or essential knowledge, fire or replace people in key positions, and exacerbate global tensions with his lack of discipline, maturity and self-control. Who can save us from ourselves? There are still plenty of deep thinkers out there, but who is listening? Who is reading? Who among those who can contemplate the future — as opposed to retweeting this-just-happened — is even willing to lead? And what, finally, is leadership in an era when centuries-old institutions are failing and commonly shared beliefs are no longer common or shared? Well, somebody. Someone who has consulted history to understand present and future challenges, who understands the role and risks of technology — and who can help people understand the daily chaos with the erudition of Stevenson, the humanity of Eisenhower and the wisdom of one we’ve yet to know.”

If we take Parker at her published word, her strangely wishful dream of Donald Trump and Adlai Stevenson prompted her to write a searing cry of political conscience and a prophetic call for true leadership in a time of gathering darkness. For other conservatives who claim to care about preserving traditions and promoting moral character, her dream is a direct challenge to their continued support of someone who is clearly intent on tearing all of that down.

2. In “The Transformation of the ‘American Dream’” economist Robert Shiller examines a problematic shift over the past few decades in the cultural meanings attached to the hallowed phrase “the American Dream.” At the time of its earliest documented usage, the phrase evoked the ideals of “freedom, mutual respect, and equality of opportunity.” But in recent times the emphasis on freedom and equality has diminished, and in its place has arisen a singular material focus on purchasing real estate and owning a private home, a trend the Trump regime has strongly promoted. Given his long expertise as an academic analyst of the housing industry, Shiller’s stern warning against this approach is worth taking seriously: “One thing is clear: bringing back the fevered housing dream of a decade ago would not be in the public interest.” Instead, Shiller calls for economic policies guided by the original, dynamic sense of the American Dream as “a trajectory to a promising future.”

3. A review by Chris Richards of Lana Del Rey’s new album “Lust for Life” takes the phenomenology of dreaming as an interpretive key to understanding not only artistic creativity but also the political cross-currents of a radically destabilized world. Richards’ review, titled “Lana Del Rey Suddenly Sounds Like the Poet Laureate of Post-Truth,” initially takes Del Rey to task for the insular, detached dreaminess of her previous work (i.e., “the old stuff, which only ever made Del Rey sound like she was dream-journaling on Xanax”). But now, Richards suggests, the head-spinning surrealism of modern society has reached a point where Del Rey’s dreamy, free associational songs are surprisingly relevant. I don’t know her music very well, but I do appreciate Richards’ final words, which seem consistent with Del Rey’s aesthetic: “Parsing our dreams teaches us how to separate what’s real from what’s unknowable. As imaginative beings, exercising that literacy is one of life’s great pleasures. As citizens, it’s suddenly become one of our greatest responsibilities.”

4. An op-ed by Charles Blow, “America’s Whiniest ‘Victim’”, catalogs the various ways in which the new President has complained about unfair treatment by others. Blow is a relentless and passionate critic of the President, and the intensity of his language may seem extreme. But in the final third of the column Blow makes reference to the psychological process of projection, a process quite familiar to anyone who works closely with dreams. Suddenly, using this concept of projection, Blow’s insights come into sharp relief. He says Trump is “a projectionist: He is so consumed by his insecurities that he projects them onto others… The flaws he sees are the ones he possesses.” This isn’t a dream analysis per se, but it illustrates the power of using concepts and methods honed in the study of dreams to analyze political and cultural realities.

Note: this essay first appeared on HuffPost, August 24, 2017.

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.