The Origins of Religion in Dreaming

The Origins of Religion in Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyOne of the oldest theories about the origins of religion argues that religious beliefs and practices are derived from the experience of dreaming.  This theory is most often associated with the 19th century British anthropologist E.B. Tylor, as expressed in this passage from the 1873 work Primitive Culture:

“The evidence of visions corresponds with the evidence of dreams in their bearing on primitive theories of the soul, and the two classes of phenomena substantiate and supplement one another….That this soul should be looked on as surviving beyond death is a matter scarcely needing elaborate argument. Plain experience is there to teach it to every savage; his friend or his enemy is dead, yet still in dream or open vision he sees the spectral form which is to his philosophy a real objective being, carrying personality as it carries likeness.”

This same idea was also expressed, in even sharper language, by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche just a few years later, in his 1880 book Human, All-Too Human:

“Misunderstanding of the dream. –The man of the ages of barbarous primordial culture believed that in the dream he was getting to know a second real world: here is the origin of all metaphysics.  Without the dream one would have had no occasion to divide the world into two. The dissection into soul and body is also connected with the oldest idea of the dream, likewise the postulation of a life of the soul, thus the origin of all belief in spirits, and probably also of the belief in gods.  ‘The dead live on, for they appear to the living in dreams’: that was the conclusion one formerly drew, throughout many millennia.”

I have just finished writing the manuscript for a book that tries to put this idea to the scientific test.  The book is titled Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion, and it will be published by Oxford University Press later this year or early next.  The basic thesis is that Tylor, Nietzsche, and others are right, dreaming is indeed an experiential source of religious beliefs and practices, and the best evidence from cognitive scientific research backs them up.

Rather than trying to give an all-encompassing theory of religion, I focus on a few specific areas of religious experience where dreams play an especially influential role: demonic seduction, prophetic vision, ritual healing, and contemplative practice.  The title of the book draws on psychologist C.G. Jung’s notion of “big dreams” as rare but extremely vivid dreams that make a strong and lasting impression on waking awareness.  I use resources from traditional psychology of religion (e.g., William James, Sigmund Freud) as well as from newer works in the cognitive science of religion (e.g., Emma Cohen, Harvey Whitehouse, James W. Jones) as guides in applying scientific dream research to the study of religion.

This is also the first book I’ve written using the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) as a primary resource.  I’m just learning how to use the digital tools of the database myself (an upgraded version of the site will come online in the next few days), and the more SDDb analyses I did for this book, the more excited I became about possibilities for future projects in data-driven dream research that look at religious and cultural phenomena with fresh, empirically curious eyes.

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.

Children’s Dreams Interview with Anne Hill

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

 

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

(ForeWord Reviews )

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

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

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

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

Tracking Robert Bosnak’s Dreams

Tracking Robert Bosnak's Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThe Sleep and Dream Database has just added a new series of dreams to its collection, thanks to the generosity of Robert Bosnak.  In his 1996 book Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming he included an appendix with a series of 51 dreams recorded during a seven-week period of travel and personal transition.  With his permission I have transcribed and uploaded this series into the SDDb, where it can be found under the survey label “RB Journal 1996.”

 

This is a fascinating and valuable series of dreams for a number of reasons. It was recorded by a Jungian analyst with extensive training and professional experience in dream analysis, and it was recorded during a time of significant changes in his waking life. I have known Robbie for nearly 25 years now, since the Chicago conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams in 1990, and I consider him a good friend and colleague.  So it is no easy task to bracket out my familiarity with his life and pretend to study the word usage frequencies of his dreams “blindly.”   Nevertheless, here’s what strikes me in comparing the RB Dreams 1996 to the SDDb male baselines, focusing exclusively on the numerical results and what I’ve learned from past studies:

By my count, this series of 51 dream reports has 7469 total words, for an average of about 150 words per report.

Most of the reports (35) are between 50 and 300 words in length.  Twelve reports have 49 words or less; the shortest report is 13 words.  Four reports have 301 words or more; the longest report is 731 words.

I performed word searches on the whole series of 51 reports for the 7 classes and 40 categories in the SDDb template, and compared the results with the Male MRD Baseline frequencies for reports of 50-300 words.  It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, so the results should be viewed as suggestive rather than definitive.

You can see a google docs spreadsheet of the results here.

The RB dreams have higher frequencies of descriptive perceptual words for intensity, colors, and aesthetic evaluation, along with a slightly higher proportion of vision-related words.  This could be a product of the dreamer’s reporting style and post-awakening literary editing of the reports.  It could also reflect dream experiences of unusual sensory richness and detail.

There is no more fear in RB’s dreams than in the baselines, which would seem to rule out any unusual stressors or anxieties in waking life.  (The low falling frequency may also point in that direction.) The high proportion of happiness-related words really jumps out—I’m not sure I’ve seen a series before with more happiness than fear.  The relatively high number of sadness references suggests sensitivity to loss and mourning.

The relatively low number of awareness-related words could be another product of reporting style, and it could also reflect a greater focus while dreaming on relational process rather than cognitive analysis.

The RB dreams have more references to flying than falling, which reverses the pattern I typically see in other dream series (more falling than flying).

The high proportions of speech, family characters, and friendly social interactions all point to a person who is actively and productively engaged with other people in waking life.  He seems closely involved with several immediate family members: His wife, daughter, son, brother, mother, and father.

The very high frequency of sexual references could reflect a greater degree of honesty in RB’s reporting compared to the baselines, and it could also indicate the significance of sexual activity and thoughts in waking life.

The high number of fantastic beings suggests someone with a lively imagination, perhaps familiar with video games or fantasy fiction.  A somewhat high proportion of Christianity words may reflect someone who knows Christian culture fairly well but is not an active practitioner of the faith.

Several features of these dreams—the high intensity, colors, happiness, flying, fantastic beings—make me wonder if this set includes at least a few reports of mystical dreams with unusual spiritual or existential meaning.

So how do these quasi-blind inferences fare once I explicitly take into account the facts that the dreamer is a successful psychotherapist who says, “I consider it to be a series in connection with the death of my father and a feeling of loss of soul”?

Not perfectly, that’s for sure.  I would not have predicted this was a series relating to the death of his father, based only on these word usage frequencies.  He does not use father-related words more than other family members, and the death references do not directly indicate his father has died.  There are 3 references to ghosts, but not explicitly to the ghost of his father.

I could be missing something, but at this level of analysis the manifest content of this series does not reflect the dreamer’s felt experience of the dreams.

However, the relatively high sadness frequency may pick up on this theme.  And the mystical themes I noted may underscore the sense of deep transformation he felt was happening during this period of time.  In that sense, the dreams may accurately reflect not the death itself, but the psychological consequences of the death, the still-rippling impact of his father’s loss on his experience of the world.

Again, I wouldn’t have come up with any of that just from looking at the statistical frequencies.  But knowing this series came during a period of mourning, I can see where the waking-dreaming connections emerge, and I’ll be curious to see if future studies discover similar patterns with people who have recently lost a close loved one.

Knowing that Bosnak is a psychotherapist with a successful practice makes sense of many features of his dreams—the high speech, friendly social interactions, happiness, and low physical aggression.  The high frequency of sexual references may relate to his professional work, and so might the unusual detail of his perceptual descriptions, indicating well-honed observation skills.

In chapter 8 of his book Bosnak describes his understanding of these dreams, which goes into much greater depth than a strictly quantitative method can provide.  His goal is to teach readers how to explore the deeper patterns of their own dream series.  I highly recommend that chapter, and Bosnak’s work in general, as an excellent resource in learning how to study large collections of dreams.

 

Transcription note: To conform to current SDDb upload specifications, I made the following changes to the dream reports as presented in Bosnak’s book: I removed all quotation marks, dashes, and italics, condensed each report into a single paragraph, and added the location of the dream and number in the series to start each report. Some degree of meaning is lost with these changes.

 

 

 

 

The Call of Cthulhu: A Pioneering Effort in Empirical Dream Research

The Call of Cthulhu: A Pioneering Effort in Empirical Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyH.P. Lovecraft (pictured to the left) wrote the short story “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926, and first published it in 1928 in the magazine Weird Tales.  The story centers on Professor George Angell, Semitic languages expert at Brown University, who dies under suspicious circumstances and leaves his papers to the care and disposition of his grand-nephew Thurston.  Among the papers is a peculiar file titled “CTHULHU CULT.”  As Thurston reads its contents he realizes that just before Prof. Angell died he discovered a horrifying, sanity-shattering truth–Beneath the ocean dwells a blasphemous creature of primordial evil, worshipped in bloody rituals by secret groups all around the world trying to hasten the day of its return. Professor Angell diligently gathered and analyzed several types of data to reach this shocking (and perhaps fatal) conclusion.  Foremost among his sources of evidence are first-hand reports of strange and unusually memorable dreams.

 

Was Professor Angell the first empirical dream researcher?

 

“The Call of Cthulhu” describes a process of studying dreams that is more scientific than anything found in the works of Freud and Jung, who were contemporaries of Lovecraft.  Nothing like it appears until the content analysis method of Hall and Van de Castle in the 1960’s.  Prof. Angell’s investigation thus predates by several decades a major shift in dream research from a reliance on clinical case studies toward more systematic analyses of large, demographically diverse collections of data.

The first section of the Cthulhu Cult file bears the title “1925–Dream and Dream Work of H.A. Wilcox.”  Young Wilcox was an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design who created a bas-relief sculpture of a strange monster that attracted Prof. Angell’s keen attention. The bas-relief was inspired by a bizarre series of dreams that Wilcox, always a sensitive and emotionally troubled soul, began having in late February of 1925.  He first visited Prof. Angell to show him the piece on March 1.  Asked its age, Wilcox oddly replied, “It is new, indeed, for I made it last night in a dream of strange cities; and dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girdled Babylon.” (49)

When Wilcox described hearing sounds in his dreams that might be rendered as “Cthulhu fhtagn,” Prof. Angell became intensely interested.  “He questioned the sculptor with scientific minuteness” (49), determining that Wilcox did not have any prior familiarity with secret societies or occult lore.  Whatever Wilcox was dreaming about did not arise from any specific experience or knowledge gained in his waking life.  The dreams clearly came from some place, or some thing, else.

Professor Angell then “besieged his visitor with demands for future reports of dreams” (49), which Wilcox provided in startling abundance.  On March 23 a fever seized Wilcox, completely unhinging his mind.  He raved about dreams of a “gigantic thing miles high which walked or lumbered about.” (50)

Then on April 2, the fever and delirium suddenly passed.  Wilcox recovered his senses, unaware of anything that had happened since March 23: ” “all traces of strange dreaming had vanished with his recovery, and my uncle kept no record of his night-thoughts after a week of pointless and irrelevant accounts of thoroughly usual visions.” (50)

So far, Prof. Angell’s investigation had used a method very similar to Freud’s and Jung’s, namely the close observation and interrogation of a mentally ill person.  But the professor widened his investigation to seek unusual dream reports from many other people.  The Cthulhu Cult file contained numerous notes and letters “descriptive of the dreams of various persons covering the same period as that in which young Wilcox had had his strange visitations. My uncle, it seems, had quickly instituted a prodigiously far-flung body of inquiries amongst nearly all the friends whom he could question without impertinence, asking for nightly reports of their dreams, and the dates for any notable visions for some time past.  The reception of his request seems to have been varied; but he must, at the very least, have received more responses than any ordinary man could have handled without a secretary. ” (51)

Professor Angell analyzed all of these dream reports in relation to each individual’s character, background, and occupation, and he identified a disturbing pattern that confirmed the awful hypothesis he had formulated while studying Wilcox’s dreams:

“Average people in society and business–New England’s traditional ‘salt of the earth’–gave an almost completely negative result, though scattered cases of uneasy but formless nocturnal impressions appear here and there, always between March 23 and April 2–the period of young Wilcox’s delirium.  Scientific men were little more affected, though four cases of vague description suggest fugitive glimpses of strange landscapes, and in one case there is mentioned a dread of something abnormal. It was from the artists and poets that the pertinent answers came, and I know that panic would have broken loose had they been able to compare notes…These responses from esthetes told a disturbing tale. From February 28 to April 2 a large proportion of them had dreamed very bizarre things, the intensity of the dreams being immeasurably the stronger during the period of the sculptor’s delirium. Over a fourth of those who reported anything, reported scenes and half-sounds not unlike those which Wilcox had described; and some of the dreamers confessed acute fear of the gigantic nameless thing visible toward the last.” (51)

The Cthulhu Cult file contained additional material from a 1908 police investigation of a voodoo cult in Louisiana, whose members performed sickening sacrifices while chanting strange words like Cthulhu, R’lyeh, and fhtagn.  This explains why Prof. Angell took such a desperate interest in Wilcox’s dreams–he had heard these words many years before, in a totally different but equally disturbing context.  The Louisiana police interrogated the cult members, who reluctantly explained the words they were chanting meant “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Cthulhu is one of the Old Ones, cosmic monstrosities who came from the stars and reigned over earth for countless eons but then died and now lie buried beneath the earth and sea, waiting, dreaming, reaching out to influence our minds: “When, after infinities of chaos, the first men came, the Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by molding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshy minds of mammals.” (60)  The Old Ones have a “mastery of dreams” (68, italics in original) that enables them to share their malignant secrets with humans of unusual receptivity and mental instability.

The remainder of the story involves Thurston’s own investigations into the death of several sailors on two ships in the South Pacific in late March of 1925, which he titles “The Madness from the Sea.”  The sailors had apparently found an uncharted island recently risen from the ocean depths, covered in slime and seaweed.  When they landed they discovered beneath the ooze an ancient city of vast, bizarrely shaped buildings.  They came to a massive portal, and when they opened it–

You can read the story yourself to learn the ultimate fate of the poor mariners.  Suffice it to say that their fantastic narrative, dismissed by local authorities as the ravings of lunatics, confirmed in every detail the story pieced together by Prof. Angell’s dream investigations.

Am I serious in suggesting that Professor Angell was the first empirical dream researcher?   Here’s a more precise version of my claim: Did any scientifically-minded person, either fictional or non-fictional, prior to 1926 engage in a study of dreams using these methodological principles:

1. Distinguish between extremely bizarre dreams and “thoroughly usual visions.”

2. Learn as much as possible about the dreamers’ background, character, and occupation.

3. Separate personal dream content from impersonal, seemingly alien content.

4. Look for analogies between dreams and art.

5. Gather reports from as wide a variety of reliable sources as possible.

6. Identify continuities between the frequencies of specific elements of dream content and the waking life concerns of the dreamers.

7. Concentrate the analysis on a specific period of time, seeking evidence of individual dream reactions to an objective external phenomenon.

8. Contextualize the findings in evolutionary history, using dream data to illuminate age-old truths only dimly perceived by the rational mind.

Is there any one else who studied dreams like this earlier than 1926? Carl Jung, maybe. A few other investigators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were using one or another of these principles, but to my knowledge no one integrated them with the same systematic focus and scholarly sophistication as did the late Professor George Angell.

 

Note: Page references are to the story as published in The Colour Out of Space, Jove/HBJ Books (New York, 1963), pp. 45-75.

 

Note added 12/13/12: Thanks to Bob Van de Castle for pointing out that psychologist Lydiard Heneage Horton (1879-1945) of Columbia University was developing systematic methods for studying dream content as early as 1911, with his M.A. thesis on “The Flying Dream: Its Significance in Psychotherapy.”   His Ph.D. thesis, titled “The Dream Problem and Mechanism of Thought,” was published in 1925. It is certainly possible that Lovecraft knew of Horton’s work and used him as a model for Professor Angell.

As I look at Van de Castle’s “Our Dreaming Mind” for his comments on Horton, I should also note the importance of Mary Calkins, a psychologist from Wellesley College who in 1893 gathered 381 dream reports from 6 female students and analyzed them in terms of various aspects of content.