Tolkien’s Dreams, Past and Future

Tolkien's Dreams, Past and Future by Kelly BulkeleyDreams play a significant role in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s multi-part fantasy story written in the first half of the 20th century.  The dream elements become muted in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, but in the novels they serve as an important source of insight for the characters.  According to Curt Hoffman in “Wings over Numenor: Lucid Dreaming in the Writing of J.R.R. Tolkien,” the dreams in the stories were modeled in many cases after Tolkien’s own dream experiences.  For instance, the Middle Earth legend of Numenor, a western land that was destroyed by a vast ocean wave, apparently derives from Tolkein’s personal “Atlantis Complex” and his recurrent dreams of huge, all-consuming waves.

Hoffman’s chapter appears in Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep, which Ryan Hurd and I edited for ABC-Clio.  Hoffman explains that the most remarkable story Tolkien ever wrote about dreams was also the only story he ever wrote set in the future, not in the past.  Titled “The Notion Club Papers,” Tolkien started it in 1946 but never finished the manuscript.  Hoffman says,

“The work purports to be the minutes of the fortnightly meetings of an Oxford literary society, the Notion Club (obviously a gloss for the Inklings [Tolkien’s actual literary club], although there is little one-for-one correspondence to its members), between 1980 and 1990. The manuscript’s conceit is that the papers “were found after the Summer Examinations of 2012, on the top of one of a number of sacks of waste paper in the basement of the Examinations Schools at Oxford by the present editor,” and it is represented to have been published in 2014.” (133)

Tolkien creates a strangely forward-telescoping, prospectively recursive way of framing the story—he writes about events that happen 40 years in the future, which are then discovered 20+ years after that, and are then published two years after that (at a time that happens to be our present).

In the story the club members engage in lengthy discussions of dreaming as a means of space and time travel, along with various accounts of strange adventures in thought and consciousness.  Without warning the discussion turns rather apocalyptic, as several club members describe visions that portend the coming of cataclysmic storms.  The manuscript breaks off there, and Tolkien never went back to it.  After careful study of this work, Hoffman concludes,

“It is entirely unclear what purpose Tolkien had in producing the Notion Club Papers, but his publishers were pressuring him at the time to get back to the writing of The Lord of the Rings, for obvious economic reasons, and this may explain why he did not finish the work. He never returned to it, and its status remains mysterious to this day. However, it is the clearest indication we have in all his writing of his interest in a variety of dream states and their relationship to waking physical reality. In particular, even though there is no evidence that he was aware of the writings of van Eeden on lucidity, it seems that Tolkien had a strong interest in lucid dreaming, based upon his own personal experience, and that he was attempting to put this into some kind of formulation in words that would make his experience more understandable, at least to his fellow Inklings.” (138)

Lucid Dreaming: New Horizons for Research

Lucid Dreaming: New Horizons for Research by Kelly BulkeleyFor most of the 20th century, lucid dreaming received almost no attention from mainstream psychologists.  Most researchers seemed to think it was impossible to be dreaming and self-aware at the same time (the philosopher Norman Malcolm’s 1962 book Dreaming made exactly that argument).  Even if a few people reported having lucid dream experiences, it was easy to dismiss such claims as fantasies, exaggerations, or at best, a trivial gimmick of the mind.

Several years into the 21st century, we now know that all those assumptions about lucid dreaming were wrong.  Various degrees of consciousness in sleep are indeed possible, including the awareness that one is in a dream while it is happening.  According to demographic research, more than 50% of the general population has had at least one lucid dream experience in their lives.  Young people are especially likely to have lucid dreams, but older people have them, too.  Lucid dreams have been reported in cultures all over the world, throughout history.

In short, this is not a fringe phenomenon.  It reflects a natural capacity of the sleeping mind that is likely innate in all people.   Furthermore, this capacity can be strengthened and enhanced by several different methods, with many possible applications in waking life.  Western researchers are finally taking note.

In the newly published book Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (Praeger, 2014), Ryan Hurd and I edited a total of 30 chapters from leading experts on lucid dreaming from all over the world.  These chapters include reflections on cutting-edge neuroscience, clinical psychotherapy, education, anthropology, artistic creativity, and religious experience.  The book shows how far we have come in understanding this powerful dimension of our dream lives—and how much more there is still to learn.

Answering the Dream Questions of a High School Student

Answering the Dream Questions of a High School Student by Kelly BulkeleyLike many dream researchers I periodically receive emails from high school students asking for help with a class essay or project.  It’s fun to think of the best, clearest, most useful ways of responding to these requests.  I’d like to believe that the work I and all my colleagues in dream research are doing can at some level be explained in terms that make sense to a curious teenager.  That means offering short, direct, non-technical answers.  The questions students ask tend to be very broad, and a complete answer to some of them would require writing a whole book—not a practical way to respond either for me or the student.

Here is a recent exchange I had with a high school student, R.L., who agreed to let me post our emails to each other.  I liked the way R.L. covered so much ground with these brief questions, and I took it as a challenge to answer in the most concise language I could manage.

Plus, I was impressed by R.L.’s audacity in sending me this request on December 9, two days before the essay was due!


Dear Dr. Bulkeley,

My name is R.L. I am a freshman at The ___ School in ___, Alabama. I have an essay assignment and I have chosen REM sleep and dreams. I was hoping you could offer some insight on this subject. Will you please answer the following questions?

1.What\’s the percentage of people that have nightmares?

2. Do we stop having dreams at a certain age?

3. Does everyone dream?

4. Can dreams be in color?

5. How can I remember my dreams, or improve my memory?

6. Can you sometimes control your own dreams, by what you do in real life?

7. What does it mean if I see people that are close to me, in my dreams?

8. Can dreams sometimes predict the future?

9. When a person has deja vu, could this be caused by remembering an earlier dream?

10. Is having continuous nightmares normal?

11. When we dream is it usually to express feelings we may be having on the inside, is there any other reason we may have dreams?

12. What is the average number of dreams a person may have a night?

13. When we dream, can the dream take away that conscious feeling we may be having on the inside?

This assignment is due December 11,2013. Thank you for your time and help.




[My response:]

Dear R.L.,

1. It’s pretty small, but more children and adolescents have nightmares than adults.

2. People recall fewer dreams the older they get, but that just might be because they stop paying attention.

3. Yes, in the sense that everyone’s brain is very active every night you sleep.  You may not remember dreaming, but you were!

4. Yes, all the time.

5. Often it’s just a matter of deciding before you go to sleep that you’d like to remember a dream when you wake up.

6. Somewhat; it’s more like, whatever you really care about in waking life, you’ll probably dream about it at night.

7. It’s a sign of their emotional importance in your life, like a mirror of your relationships.

8. Dreams can anticipate possibilities that may turn out to actually happen.

9. Definitely!

10. No, I’d definitely talk to a doctor or mental health professional if I were having continuous nightmares.

11. My shortest definition of dreaming is “imaginative play in sleep,” so I think of dreams as a way our minds play during the night.  We dream for the same reason children play–because it’s fun and engrossing and endlessly creative.

12. It’s hard to count!  Some people have 4-5 a night, that’s a lot.

13. I don’t think take that feeling away, so much as expand our sense of who we are and what is possible in the world.


I hope that’s helpful!  Good luck,



What’s In a Lucid Dream?

What's In a Lucid Dream? by Kelly BulkeleyWhat do people dream about when they have lucid dreams?  What’s going on in the dream when someone has the realization, “I am dreaming”?  Here’s another example of how the word search function of the SDDb can help get a research project started.  The database includes a set of surveys (Demographic Survey 2012) in which the participants were asked to describe a lucid dream.  By word searching their answers you can get a quick sense of the overall patterns of their dream content.  This information gives you an empirical context for deeper study of particular dreams and particular themes within the dreams.


I’m following here the same approach I described in the previous post with visitation dreams, with one refinement.  Instead of searching for reports of 25 words or more, I performed separate searches for reports of 25-49 words and 50-300 words, for both females and males (see links below).  This produced smaller numbers of dreams for each analysis, but it allowed more of an apples-to-apples comparison with the SDDb baselines I’ve been developing (described in posts herehere, and here).  I now have provisional baselines for word usage frequencies in shorter (25-49 words) and longer (50-300 words) most recent dream reports.  These baselines guide the analysis below.

To repeat the method: From the SDDb’s word search page I scrolled down the list of constraint values and selected harris_2012:Q1035, Lucid Dream.  Then I selected Female from the top line of the constraint values, in the line for Gender, Q922.  I clicked on “word search,” and then entered the appropriate numbers in the Min Words and Max Words boxes under “Limit Response Length”  (25 and 49, 50 and 300).  I clicked on “Perform Search” and received a set of dream reports with these parameters.  I then searched the given set for each word class and word category, one by one. I followed the same procedure for the male lucid dream reports.

The results of this analysis, which took me about an hour to conduct, can be easily summarized.  Compared to the SDDb baselines, lucid dreams tend to have unusually low frequencies of words relating to visual perception, color, emotion, characters, social interactions, and culture.  Lucid dreams have higher than usual references to awareness, effort, and physical aggression (relative to friendliness).  Females and males share these basic patterns, though the men’s reports included more flying-related words.

These findings, though preliminary, seem strong enough to formulate a working hypothesis that lucid dreams are generally characterized by low visual references, low emotions, high awareness and effort, and relatively high physical aggression compared to friendly social interactions.

If I were now given two sets of dreams and told that one is a set of lucid dreams and the other a set of most recent dreams, I believe this working hypothesis could help me tell the difference without ever reading through the dreams, just by performing a few word searches.

Of course, each individual report has its own unique constellation of content.  Some lucid dreams are filled with visual perceptions, strong emotions, and friendly social interactions.  Indeed, I think it’s even more interesting to study such dreams now we know they are rather unusual.

If learning about the patterns of ordinary dreams gives us new insights into extraordinary dreams, then learning about the patterns of extraordinary dreams gives us new insights into extra-extraordinary dreams.

Female lucid dreams 25-49 words: 113 total

Female lucid dreams 50-300 words: 71 total

Male lucid dreams 25-49 words: 60 total

Male lucid dreams 50-300 words: 29 total


Work Dreams, Lucid Dreams, Visitation Dreams: New Data from the Demographic Survey 2012

Work Dreams, Lucid Dreams, Visitation Dreams: New Data from the Demographic Survey 2012 by Kelly BulkeleyNow available in the Sleep and Dream Database are hundreds of new dream reports gathered as part of a demographic survey of 2252 American adults, conducted via online questionnaires administered by Harris Interactive.  I designed the survey to focus on three types of dreams that people often report with special frequency and/or intensity: Work dreams, lucid dreams, and visitation dreams.  I’ve just begun reading through the narratives, and they’re fascinating–I invite anyone who’s curious to take a look at the dreams for yourself, and let me know what patterns you see. (Update: I’m having some server issues, if you can’t access the site I’m sorry, please try again later and I should have it fixed.)


The work dreams are answers to the question, “Have you ever dreamed about your job or a situation at work?”  I’ve created a sample word search for the female work dreams and male work dreams, including all reports of five or more words.  For the most part these do not seem to be happy dreams.


The lucid dreams are answers to the question, “Have you ever dreamed that you were aware of being within a dream?” I’ve created a sample word search for the female lucid dreams and male lucid dreams, including all reports of five or more words.  At a minimum, these dreams testify to the frequency of lucid dreaming experiences among the general American public.


The visitation dreams are answers to the question, “Have you ever dreamed about someone who is dead appearing as if they were still alive?” I’ve created a sample word search for the female visitation dreams and male visitation dreams, including all reports of five or more words.  These kinds of dreams have played a big role in cross-cultural religious history, and I’m interested to study their occurrence among present-day Americans.


The survey also included questions about dream recall, nights of insomnia per week, and several other questions about demographic background (age, race, education, income, political ideology, religious worship, etc.).  These data, too, are available for you to study however you wish (although you may find it a little tricky–I’m still working on bugs in the SDDb system).  I’ll write soon about my initial findings with these demographic variables as they relate to patterns of sleep and dreaming.