Climate Change Nightmares: A Sign of Things to Come

Climate Change Nightmares: A Sign of Things to Come by Kelly BulkeleyThe front page of today’s New York Times newspaper includes an article about the impact of climate change on a remote village in Alaska.  The article, by Erica Goode, is titled “Climate Change Pushes Towns in Alaska to Wrenching Choice,” and it begins with a dream:

In the dream, a storm came and Betsy Bekoalok watched the river rise on one side of the village and the ocean on the other, the water swallowing up the brightly colored houses, the fishing boats and the four-wheelers, the school and the clinic.

She dived into the floodwaters, frantically searching for her son. Bodies drifted past her in the half-darkness. When she finally found the boy, he, too, was lifeless.

“I picked him up and brought him back from the ocean’s bottom,” Ms. Bekoalok remembered.

Ms. Bekoalok lives in Shaktoolik, north of Anchorage in a coastal region directly threatened by rising seas and worsening storms caused by climate change.  The article goes on to describe the daunting challenges facing the residents of Shaktoolik as they contemplate a terrible choice between moving the town to a safer place or staying put and building stronger defenses against the ocean.  The latter option would be folly, but the former choice is prohibitively expensive and would probably destroy the community just the same.

The dream shared by Ms. Bekoalok clearly expresses a reality-based anxiety about the dangers posed by climate change.  Dreams of water are fairly common; people typically dream of water more than of any other element (fire, earth, air).  But dreams of threatening water, such as floods or waves, are less common, and such dreams often include a heightened vividness and intensity that makes them unusually memorable.  Combine that with a theme of danger to one’s child (a classic parental nightmare), and the result is a hyper-realistic simulation of a dire threat looming in the dreamer’s future waking life.

The broader resonance of the dream, and the reason why it’s a powerful way to start the story, derives from its roots in the evolved nature of the dreaming imagination.  All humans have an innate propensity for nightmares that anticipate various threats to survival.  Nightmares are most common during childhood, an especially vulnerable time of life, and they tend to diminish in adulthood.  But whenever a serious danger arises (such as a work crisis, relationship break-up, illness, death, or a change in political regimes), frightening dreams often result.  When we hear a nightmare like Ms. Bakoalok’s, we can immediately empathize with her concerns because we know from personal experience what it’s like to fear something so much it gives us bad dreams.

Nightmares usually do more than simply mirror a person’s waking life concerns.  Most frightening dreams also include glimpses of possibility and alternative approaches to the threats and conflicts in waking life.  The creative, problem-solving capacities of the human mind are enormous, and dreaming is one of the main venues for those capacities to express themselves, providing a remarkable source of novel insights, useful innovations, and out-of-the-box thinking.

As climate change continues to unfold, more and more people are likely to have nightmares like Ms. Bekoalok’s.

 

 

Review of the 2016 Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams

Review of the 2016 Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyAt this year’s annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), held June 24-28 in Kerkrade, the Netherlands, the world’s leading dream researchers gathered to share their latest findings. The conference ran for four and a half days, with six or seven simultaneous tracks of events going on from morning through the evening. It was truly a feast of dreaming!

Every year it takes me a while to process and digest all the events, conversations, and impressions that occurred during the conference. It’s way too much to take in while there, so I try to keep notes and then reflect on them over the summer and fall. As I look through my notes from this year, these strike me as the highlights from the latest IASD gathering:

Iain Edgar, an anthropologist at Durham University in the UK, gave a chilling presentation on his investigations into the dream beliefs and practices of Islamic jihadists, who are using social media with remarkable effectiveness to share their violent dreams and encourage others to do so as well.

Pilleriin Sikka, a lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skovde in Sweden, described the challenges of accurately measuring emotional content in dreams. (A current debate in the field: are dreams predominated by negative emotions, or do dreams have a roughly even balance of positive and negative emotions?) Her study highlighted the importance of transparency in the methods used for studying this aspect of dreaming, because different methods often yield different results.

Nils Sandman, a doctoral student at the University of Turku in Finland, reported on a national demographic study in Finland that found higher nightmare frequency is associated with insomnia, depression, low life satisfaction, suicidality, and generally poor health. This supports clinical theories that recurrent nightmares are possible symptoms of mental and physical illness.

kitt price, a senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Queen Mary University, London, described their historical and cultural analysis of the use in 19th and 20th century Britain of mass media to gather public reports of precognitive types of dreams. The BBC and other media outlets gathered thousands of such reports, many of which remain available for study today. price’s research suggests that interest in paranormal dreaming does not diminish in modern Western societies, but expresses itself through different kinds of media.

Alaya Dannu, an MFA student in creative nonfiction from the UK, discussed the ongoing influence via dreams of the beliefs and customs of civilizations that no longer exist (e.g., from pre-colonial Africa). She brought together art, anthropology, history, and her own personal experiences to illustrate the way dreaming helps to shape a personal and collective sense of identity over time.

Alison Dale and Joseph DeKonick, psychologists from the University of Ottawa, presented findings on gender differences in the dreams of Canadians that showed males have more dreams of aggression while females have more dreams with family and friend characters and more negative emotions. These findings fit with those from research on the dream patterns of other nationalities, adding strength to the idea that some tendencies of dreaming have roots in deep psychological processes shared by many if not all humans.

Don Kuiken, a psychologist from the University of Alberta, talked about his ongoing work on “impactful dreams,” focusing in this presentation on what he calls “existential” dreams of intense sadness, often following a loss or death of a loved one, which can paradoxically lead to “sublime disquietude” and greater aesthetic appreciation for life. Kuiken’s research has been an inspiration to me for many years, and this new development brings his impactful dreams work into dialogue with his earlier studies of dreams and the philosophical aesthetics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Wojciech Owczaraski, from the University of Gdansk in Poland, described a project devoted to gathering dream reports from survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII. This promises to be an important and heart-wrenching collection of dreams.

Caroline Horton and Josie Malinowski, psychologists at Bishop Grosseteste University and University of Bedfordshire, respectively, both in the UK, described their research testing the role of dreams in emotional assimilation. They found the strongest effects in dreams with greatest emotional intensity and personally important material. Researchers continue to debate the issue of how much of a role, if any, dreaming plays in memory, learning, and information processing. Several studies at the conference reported negligible results in experiments involving dreams and memory consolidation, and Horton and Malinowski’s project was the only one that found an angle of approach that might be promising.

Antti Revonsuo and Katja Valli, cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Turku in Finland, gave talks about their “social simulation theory” of dreaming, whereby dreams function to provide simulations of social situations that have relevance for evolutionary fitness and survival. This theory grew out of Revonsuo’s earlier studies of “threat simulation” in dreaming. The main advantage of Revonsuo and Valli’s current approach is that it builds on empirical research about dream content—quantitative data about the actual dreams of a large and wide variety of people. This kind of research has shown that dreams are filled with characters, social interactions, and verbal communications. These are the features of dreaming Revonsuo and Valli are trying to explain in terms of the evolutionary history of human cognitive functioning.

These are only some of the sessions I personally attended; there were many other great presentations I didn’t get to see but only heard about from other people.

The conference as a whole left several general impressions about the state of dream research.

First, new advances in various areas of investigation make it clear the mind’s activities in sleep are much more complex and sophisticated (“high-level”) than mainstream psychologists have long assumed. The numerous presentations on lucid dreaming and cognition during the sleep state support this deepening of our understanding of how the mind works (and plays) during sleep and dreaming.

Second, there has been tremendous growth in empirical data, but not as much progress in theoretical understanding. Researchers have more detailed dream material to look at than ever before, but they have very little to say that’s new about what dreams mean or how they function. My concern is that the real gains that have been made in describing the neurocognitive processes involved in dream formation are not improving our understanding of the role of dreaming in healthy human functioning. Very few researchers (Revonsuo and Valli being exceptions) try to locate their studies within a bigger theoretical framework. Perhaps this is simply the stage we’re at, following the demise of psychoanalysis and brainstem reductionism; we know that was wrong, but we’re still not sure what’s a better model. So in the meantime, we gather more data.

Third, and in tension with the second, the practical use of dreams in clinical and therapeutic contexts continues to expand and diversify. Professionals and laypeople involved in caregiving, whether in hospitals, school health centers, private therapy practices, hospice groups, churches, or non-governmental organizations, are using dreams as a valuable resource in helping people gain insights into their suffering and find their way back towards health and wholeness. Many conference presentations described the positive healing effects of bringing dreams into the therapeutic process, in almost every kind of clinical modality.

At some point the researchers and the clinicians are going to have to talk to each other…. perhaps with new technologies for studying dreams as the mediating link.

 

Dreams of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

Dreams of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election by Kelly BulkeleyPsychologists from Sigmund Freud onwards have usually treated dreams as purely egotistical and self-centered, with no relevance outside the personal wishes of the dreamer. Every four years I try to prove that assumption wrong.

In response to my quadrennial request about election-related dreams, several colleagues sent me reports of dreams they have experienced relating to the 2016 campaign for U.S. President. These dreams offer intriguing insights into the impact of the political race on people’s nocturnal imaginations.

(The main work I’ve written on this topic is American Dreamers (2008)).

Four of the dreams involve the leading contender for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump. Three involve the leading Democrat, Hillary Clinton, and one is a “non-partisan” election dream. Bernie Sanders appears in one of the Clinton dreams.

It’s too early to make any definitive assessments or interpretations of the patterns in these dreams. What I can do now is identify possible themes and motifs, and then watch to see if they recur in later dreams.

The Trump dreams below reflect a sense of deep skepticism about his candidacy. They highlight his inability to lead, his hostility to women’s reproductive rights, his macho aggressiveness, and his frightening ability to seduce people’s minds. The dreams reflect and amplify the dreamers’ waking life opposition to Trump’s campaign, casting in vividly emotional and creatively imagistic terms their feelings about him and his policies.

The three Clinton dreams all come from the same dreamer, so they reflect her particular experiences of the political campaign. She describes herself as a Clinton supporter who’s open to much of what Bernie Sanders has been saying in his campaign. This comes out in her dream of both Clinton and Sanders, which anticipated the surprisingly close race for the Democratic nomination.

The last dream is a brief vision of politics beyond politicians.

I will soon post a larger collection of political dreams gathered from surveys and questionnaires, which come from a wider variety of people than those presented in this post, but with less personal background information.

This dream came to “Mary,” on August 16, 2015

“I dream that I am at some sort of business function in a large room with a dance floor. I see former co-workers. In walks Donald Trump. He grabs a microphone and asks if I would come to the dance floor to teach him the Argentine Tango. He is off-beat and awkward, tripping me up with tangled footwork. I suggest that we try a simple four-count box step. Nope. He can’t do that either. I stop the dance. ‘I can’t teach you to lead!’ I leave the dance floor.”

Initial comments from the dreamer: This dream woke me up laughing because even within the dream I understood the metaphor. I rarely throw my opinions about politics, but the message seems pretty clear: Donald Trump Can’t Lead. Let that be my 2016 presidential prediction.

In answer to my follow-up questions, the dreamer said she was not a tango dancer in waking life, so it’s a purely metaphorical reference to that specific style of dance, which famously requires close cooperation between the partners (“it takes two to tango”).   The business setting with this particular group of co-workers made the dreamer think of a time in her life when she was not getting along with her colleagues, everyone’s productivity suffered, “and the job environment would up going sour in the end.” This detail adds to the negative atmosphere of the dream, underscoring the theme of failing to work effectively with others.

The following four dreams came to the same individual, “Samantha,” over a period of about a year. She gave each dream a title, along with some responses to my questions at the end.

4-10-16 (night/morning of 4/10-11)

Who’s the Real Hillary Clinton?

I’m observing Hillary Clinton and, at times, her staff but seem to be mostly in Hillary’s mind, going through her day on the campaign, and simultaneously reviewing how I feel about her, getting to know more about her past history and policy stances and decisions, as I watch her work tirelessly, putting in a really long day. Variously, it’s her staffers who are doing this, working devotedly for Hillary, mostly one man and one woman. I realize with some dismay that Hillary has voted for or supported issues I disagree with, that she has been too quick to go to war in the past. I think I ask her, or perhaps I imagine asking her, “What situation if any would prompt you to go to war today? “ I’m deeply concerned about this and her answer will influence my support. She answers, or perhaps I imagine she tells me, that nothing short of defending our country right here would be grounds for war. This is the answer I can live with – self defense only from an actual dire and immediate threat. I learn about and mull over three specific areas – though I could only recall two on waking, war and finances. I find I’m at odds with Hillary’s past decisions on these so I want to be more informed on where she is with these issues today – but I also see her putting in the time, really working hard for the sake of others and not herself. I see the very human side of her, too, see her finally call it a day at the end of a really long day and retreat into her private space.  She’s on the road, staying in a hotel somewhere but she carries a worn black case with her from place to place.  I’m surprised when she opens the case up that it holds two rows of vinyls, worn looking records, some with album covers, some just old, scratched vinyls, including a 45 of mostly 70’s era music. The 45 is a recording of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”. (I recognized most of the artists in the dream but could only recall Three Dog Night on waking.) This is how Hillary unwinds, listening to music that reflects her life, her past, and what makes her feel happy. I’m pleased by this – it’s so human and something I would do myself. She carries this case with her from hotel to hotel and knows that at the end of her day, it’s waiting for her. I also get glimpses of her staffers this way, so weary, having worked incredibly hard but catching their moments at the end of the day. I just take all of this in, thinking about it, pondering who Hillary really is and how I feel about her.

Note:  There may certainly be personal resonance and guidance for me in this dream, but it felt distinctly political, as if I was given a chance to see deeply into these issues and consider them. For the record, I’m a very left, very liberal Democrat and do care about the issues. I’m supporting Hillary but ideologically am very much aligned with Bernie Sanders and support the movement he’s started – and would support him if he won the nomination.  This dream did prompt me to dig deeper into each candidate’s position on key policies.

*When I looked up this dream to share it with you, I found two other short dreams I’d recorded – another Hillary dream and one of Trump that seems now to have been pre-cog of his later comments regarding women and abortion.

3-5-16 (night/morning of 3/5-6)

They Got McKinley Instead

Hillary Clinton and three others are standing outside together somewhere and there’s an assassination attempt that fails. Somehow, there’s a lighthearted feeling to this – like it wasn’t really a serious situation. Someone announces they got McKinley instead.

3-16-16 (night/morning of 3/16-17)

You Know How Trump Will React!

Memory of this is sketchy. I recall one clear scene in which someone is trying to convince another person not to do or reveal something to Trump. The secret has to do with pregnancy. I see and hear a woman say to the other person, “You know what he’ll do, don’t you, what he’ll say?” She stuffs a pillow under her shirt to make herself look pregnant. “If you tell him, you know how he’ll react.”  She’s very determined to persuade the other person not to set herself up to get browbeaten by this man. There was another scene in which a purplish red color was very dominant and something to do with a meal but I’ve lost the details.

Notes:  The 3-5 dream felt as if it dealt with character assassination, an election staple. The Trump dream does seem pre-cog of Trump’s later comments regarding abortion – and doesn’t reflect any known situation in my own life.

1-16-16 (night/morning of 1/16-17)

Election Results Suspense

I’m watching election results. Two side by large, digital counters are flashing the numbers for Bernie Sanders on the left and Hillary Clinton on the right. They’re neck and neck. The numbers get up to the 25 and 26 thousands or millions. I’m anxious because Hillary’s lead is getting slimmer. It’s not enough. The last tally goes up and someone blocks my view just as the last numbers click into place which is very frustrating. I recall thinking there’s still hope as these are exit poll numbers and the actual vote often varies from the exit poll numbers but this is worrisome. Sanders could actually win the election. I can’t believe someone – or something – blocked my view at the last second. EOD

Note:  This dream was a few weeks before the primaries began and this is more or less how things have played out – surprisingly, I think as I don’t feel even Senator Sanders thought he would do so well.

I sent Samantha some additional questions, and this was her reply:

“To answer your questions, I do have good recall and have been working with my dreams for years. I would say it’s not unusual for me to dream of presidents or key world figures past or present (the Dalai Lama, Gandhi) but it’s somewhat unusual for me to dream of candidates, though the current presidential candidates are very much in the news. I’ve had a long series of President Obama (and Michelle) dreams but have always felt a personal connection to him. I did a quick search and found that I had one dream of Hillary Clinton in 2008, right around the Democratic convention when she lost the nomination. Interestingly, it was a dream about resilience, hanging tough and getting another chance – exactly what’s happened for her. I’ve definitely had dreams of Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy, Clinton, Bush and Carter in the past.

“Yes, that’s the correct McKinley reference [to the 25th U.S. President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901]. I was a little surprised by that one myself – but I grew up with a dad who was a history teacher and loved to quiz me on history and current events.

“In the Trump dream, I definitely felt Trump would deride the pregnant woman for being pregnant in a personal and derogatory way, as if being pregnant was wrong in some way, perhaps shameful or ill-timed or simply undesirable. When I found the dream to send to you, Trump’s comments regarding punishing women who have abortions (which he hadn’t yet made when i had the dream) immediately came to mind. That would certainly not be my personal opinion and it was an uncomfortable feeling in the dream – so yes, about women’s bodies or their choices regarding their bodies, just generally disapproving and/or disrespectful. I looked back at the dream and saw that I noted my “feeling on waking” was dismay.”

This report comes from “Sarah” on March 30, 2016. She titled it “Snake in the Pool.”
In a campus-like setting, frat-boys increasingly intrude upon women.  Some of them, with huge testicles, jump naked into a women’s pool and swim circling about in a pack.  They don’t notice the coppery poisonous snake that has joined them swimming in the water.  In fact, one guy absentmindedly pushes it out of the way without actually looking at it and recognizing it for what it is. Their elder, The Lord of Misrule, arrives: it turns out that he’s Donald Trump.  He wears a royal purple satin robe with metallic golden trim, but gaping wide open in front, exposing his nakedness and his big belly.  An entourage of fatuous rich and powerful men accompany him.  They seem completely brainwashed: they have dull eyes and their mouths hang open. Despite their robes of office they look so imbecilic that it’s scary.  (I feel both fear FOR them in their impaired state, and fear OF them because they’re in no condition to wield the power that they have.) The entourage fills up bleachers beside the pool, taking the lower, easiest to reach, front-row seats.  I warn some of the other original women about the snake.  On my advice we move to the very top of the bleachers, above the men.  That poison snake won’t be the only one; I expect a swarm.  I know, however, that this variety can’t climb very far, though the lower bleachers that the men occupy are well within their range.  I hold no hope for the “leaders”, for they have let themselves become too impaired to defend themselves.

Below are my follow-up questions, and Sarah’s responses:

Do you often dream of people from public life like politicians, or is this a rare event?

I sometimes dream of public figures, more often fictional people, but the outside world, one way or another, does tend to impact my dreams.

How does the dream relate to your waking views of politics generally, and Trump in particular?  The dream seems to express a skeptical wariness towards Trump and the other guys.  Am I right about that?

That’s pretty true, yes.

Is the “Lord of Misrule” a specific character from a story, or is it something new in this dream?

It’s an historical role, actually.  On April Fool’s Day.  Someone foolish or of low standing is declared the Lord of Misrule, and put in charge of drunken revelry for one or a few days, variously in Christmas-time, April Fool’s Day, or Saturnalia.  Here’s a link on it:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_of_Misrule. I should also mention that, after wondering if the dream might predict something politically, I realized that the women moved to higher ground that the men were too stupified to attain and thus escaped being poisoned–which might indicate that Trump would win the nomination, but Clinton win the presidency.  Which saddens me, because I’m a Bernie Sanders Supporter. Oh, and one other thing–I just learned that in the oldest versions of the Lord of Misrule, he dies after his brief reign, sacrificed to Saturn.

This dream came to “Betty” on March 31, 2016.

I’m walking down the hallway of a hospital ward (I believe) observing Donald Trump walking side-by-side with Louis CK. Donald and CK are concrete and viscerally tangible, but I’m ghost-like. It’s as though we’re back in time. Donald has his arm around CK and double-speaks to him–seemingly kindly–fatherly, yet patronizingly–as though he’s a much better person and has so much more to offer. Now that Donald has used psychological manipulation to lower CK’s confidence and perhaps esteem, he offers, what I presume to be a large bribe. CK looks into me (I’m kind of a camera, I suppose) in defeat as though to say “well what can I do? He owns this place.” My heart breaks because CK is one of “us.” One of the good guys. Trump is everywhere, on all sides–left and right. He’s got everyone wrapped around his finger, including CK, in whom I had entrusted my hopes. Disappointed, I go back to my room.

The dream goes on to a scene in a hospital, which directly related to the serious waking-life health concerns of Betty’s mother and grandmother. The first half of the dream reminded her of the character played by Louis CK in the movie “Trumbo,” which Betty enjoyed a great deal. Her actual name (not the pseudonym Betty) is similar to his, which she felt might indicate a kind of symbolic identification with Louis CK. This made her worry the dream reflected something about her own vulnerability to the persuasive appeal of the Trump campaign. She said, “I’m being seduced by the media as well, I think….”

Lastly, this dream came from “Sophia,” dated April 25, 2016.

Dream about the election.  The candidate I like thinks about people to be served, not problems to be solved.  EOD.

In response to my questions about the candidate, Sophia said, “It seemed like there was a person but it was more an impression than a clear memory of someone.  The clear dream memory was the idea and words, the concept.  I wonder if the message from the dream indicates that it’s not the personality that’s important but the ideals.” I asked how the dream related to her thoughts about current politics, and she replied, “Yes, the viewpoint in the dream is consistent with my waking views.” Her professional life involves teaching and leading workshops, and she said a motivating ideal in her work is the question of “What do the people need?”  If a politician could make that ideal the center of a campaign, he or she would have Sophia’s vote.

 

Lucid Dreaming and “Pan’s Labyrinth”

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyThis essay is based on a presentation I gave at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on April 13, 2016, as part of OMSI’s “Reel Science” series in which a lecture precedes the showing of a popular movie. My lecture involved the science of lucid dreaming, and the film was Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006).

A simple definition of lucid dreaming is this: the experience of consciousness or self-awareness within the dream state. Sometimes it includes a greater sense of intentionality or control—the dreamer has some ability to change or alter what’s happening in the dream.

Here are some statistics about the frequency of lucid dreaming among the general population, drawn from the two-volume anthology Ryan Hurd and I edited in 2014, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep.

  • More than 50% of the population has had at least one dream of lucid awareness
  • Gender: slightly higher frequencies for females
  • Age: much higher frequencies (70%-80%) in early adulthood, then a drop-off over time
  • Higher frequencies for religious “nones,” political liberals, and people living in Western US
  • No major differences on other demographic variables

We also have some research on the content of lucid dreams, and what makes them distinctive from ordinary dreams. In general, lucid dreams are not radically different from ordinary dreams; they both share the same basic substrate of dreaming experience. In this sense lucid dreaming is an extension of what’s already going on in ordinary dreaming. We do not need to invoke a separate psychological system to explain what happens in lucid dreaming.

That being said, the few differences are illuminating. Lucid dreams have more references to:

  • Awareness
  • Effort
  • Flying
  • Fantastic beings
  • Physical aggression

Lucid dreams have fewer references to:

  • Colors
  • Speech
  • Family characters
  • Friendly social interactions

These are tendencies, not absolutes, so they don’t apply to every individual experience. But they make sense in that lucidity often emerges during nightmares (physical aggression) or when the individual encounters something bizarre or anomalous (flying, fantastic beings), and the dreams often do lead away from the normal social world into strange, unfamiliar places.

The frequency of lucid dreaming is not set in stone. As several researchers have found, gaining conscious awareness in dreaming is an ability that may first appear spontaneously, but can also be trained like a cognitive skill, and guided with some degree of precision.

In the past few years a number of electronic devices have been invented and marketed as tools for lucid dream induction, with several more such devices in development.

These devices represent high-intensity and rather aggressive approaches to lucid dreaming. They can get results, at least for some people. But I wouldn’t recommend them for use before considering some of the other methods we’ll discuss towards the end.

Let’s step back for a moment and acknowledge the fact that lucid dreaming may be a new phenomenon to modern Western society, but it has a long and venerable history in many other cultures.

Going back to the 7th century BCE, the Upanishads of Hinduism referred to dreaming as a space of infinite illusions where the skilled meditator was able to recognize the self-created nature of dream reality. This insight in dreaming was considered a key step toward recognizing the self-created nature of all reality, in all states of being.

Zhuang Zi, the Daoist sage from the 4th century BCE, in addition to his famous parable of the dream of the butterfly, had this to say about dreaming in general: “After we’re awake, we know it was a dream—but only after a great awakening can we understand that all of this is a great dream.”

Buddhism is filled with teachings about lucid dreaming. The twelfth century CE Tibetan Buddhist master Naropa developed a systematic method of inducing lucid dreams. Significantly, the teachings about dreams began after the student had mastered the earlier teachings on Inner Heat and the Illusory Body. In this tradition the entry into lucid dreaming occurred within a well-developed context that helped the student safely process the potentially destabilizing effects of deliberately altering the functions of one’s mind.

In classical Western antiquity, Aristotle in the 4th century BCE mentioned dreams in which people had some knowledge of being in a dream state. And in the 4th century CE the Christian theologian Augustine used the example of lucid dreams as a way of arguing for the reality of the soul and its independent existence apart from the body, in sleep or in death and the afterlife.

In Islam, Muhammad’s “night journey” in sura 17 of the Qur’an has many aspects of a lucid dream. Sufi Muslims to this day engage in lucid dreaming practices as a means of learning esoteric spiritual doctrines.

This could go on, of course, but let me mention one more example. It comes from anthropologist Diana Riboli, whose studies of indigenous cultures in Nepal and Malaysia found that shamanic healers used lucid dreaming not only to heal people, but also to challenge, battle, and even kill enemy shamans. (Her work appears as chapter 4 in volume 2 of the Lucid Dreaming anthology.) As Riboli observed, the dueling shamans

“fight in the course of violent and dramatic dreams during which they feel themselves to be totally conscious and able to interact with the other individual. These lucid dreams can continue for days and even weeks, coming to an end only when one of the rivals dies, both in the dream and in everyday life.”(74)

So that’s a good reminder that amidst all the positive spiritual insights of lucid dreaming, there is also a destructive potential where the enhanced abilities of consciousness can become weaponized and used in violent efforts to defeat a rival.

All of these historical and cross-cultural references do more than just embroider the edges of scientific research. They reveal an important fact about human psychology: people in virtually all cultures and civilizations have recognized that lucid dreaming is a valuable potential of the sleeping mind. This is evidence that a capacity for self-awareness in dreaming is innate in the mental architecture of our species.

It has taken modern Westerners a while to get there, but now researchers are working diligently to gather solid empirical data to support this historical insight. Here are the few things we know with some confidence:

Variations in occurrence: Lucid dreaming can occur in REM sleep and threshold phases between waking and sleeping (e.g., hypnogogic and hypnopompic states).

Variations in metacognitive abilities: There are multiple dimensions of lucidity, involving the emergence in dreaming of high-level mental abilities we usually associate with waking consciousness, such as reflecting, evaluating, doubting, judging, and planning. These kinds of complex mental abilities are known as “metacognition,” or “thinking about thinking.” The dream world turns out to include a much wider variety of metacognitive activities than Western psychologists have long assumed.

Neurologically plausible: We don’t know for sure how exactly lucid dreaming maps onto the various cycles of brain activity during sleep.  However, we do know that many brain systems crucial to waking consciousness are also prominent in sleep, particularly in REM sleep. This includes activities in the prefrontal cortex, rising levels of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, and electrical bursts in the alpha and beta/gamma frequencies. The presence in sleep of these neural factors, so crucial to consciousness in waking, makes it plausible that, given the right circumstances, a high degree of self-awareness could emerge within the sleep state.

Comparable to meditation: There is considerable overlap in the neurological and behavioral features of lucid dreaming and various kinds of meditation. Both involve high levels of attention, arousal, and internal focus, and in both the body remains motionless and detached from the external world.

So the discussion comes full circle, as modern brain scanning technologies are validating experiences that ancient practitioners have long recognized and actively cultivated.

And this means that both science and religion agree on a basic idea: what’s possible in dreaming depends on the dreamer’s frame of mind. Here’s a quote from a lucid dreaming study performed several years ago by psychologist Sheila Purcell and her colleagues at Carleton University:

“The present results indicate that the inhibitory constraints on this process are implicit in the organization of the dreamer rather than the dreaming. The lifting of these constraints, their reorganization, can be effected through the mechanisms of attention and intention on what is to be reorganized. The constraints on this response are therefore not implicit in dreaming itself, although this view of dreaming has been widely held.” (Purcell et al. 247)

This is a dramatic claim, even though it’s couched in academic language. The upper limits of metacognitive dreaming are set by the individual’s mental framework, not by the capacities of dreaming itself. These limits can be changed if the mental framework is changed. People can have more lucidity in their dreams if they strive to do so, through greater attention (learning how to monitor consciousness) and intention (learning how to concentrate one’s mental energies).

Hi-tech gizmos can help, but ancient and modern research agrees that the key to increasing lucidity in dreaming is the combined force of attention and intention.

In this context, it’s worth mentioning Ryan Hurd’s lucid dreaming talismans, which are low-tech but quite effective aids to enhancing lucid dreaming. The talismans are aesthetically attractive mnemonic devices designed to apply the same basic principles of attention and intention advocated by Purcell and her colleagues.

Now let’s turn to lucid dreaming and film. The general history of dreams and movies and their dynamic interplay is fascinating in itself, but for now I’ll focus on the subgenre of movies specifically about or related to lucid dreaming. In a chapter Bernard Welt and I wrote for the Lucid Dreaming anthology, our top seven list included these films (framed by a lengthy discussion of the theoretical and methodological issues involved in analyzing films with psychological categories):

  • Peter Ibbetson (1935)
  • Dead of Night (1945)
  • Dreamscape (1984)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Matrix (1999)
  • Waking Life (2001)
  • Inception (2010)

In a shift from many other Hollywood films (for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 “Spellbound”) which treat dreams as symbolic puzzles requiring psychoanalytic interpretation, these seven movies present dreaming as kind of a portal to higher consciousness. They are fantasy and science fiction stories, each of which presents lucid dreaming as a means of seeing through not only personal illusions, but collective illusions as well.   As Bernard and I say in our book chapter, “the movies exploit the idea that lucidity may be the only means of escape from, or transcendence beyond, an imaginary but collective mindset that completely controls the subjective experience of the dreamer in the waking world.”

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly Bulkeley Which brings us to “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film is not purely fantasy or science fiction, but rather a surrealist fairy tale folded into a wartime drama. Maybe it should be called “historical horror.”

The opening lines of the film frame it as a kind of lucid dream gone awry:

“[Pan:] A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped. Once outside, the brightness blinded her and erased every trace of the past from her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from.”

Thus begins the story of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a 12-year old girl whose mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) has remarried after the death of Ofelia’s father. Her new husband is Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), the cruel commander of an army unit tasked with hunting down the last few resistance fighters hiding in the mountains after the Spanish Civil War. Carmen is pregnant with Captain Vidal’s child, and Ofelia quickly realizes that her step-father cares nothing for her or her mother, only the baby. Ofelia’s entry into the labyrinthine world of Pan (Doug Jones) is driven by a desperate need to find some way of fighting against the overwhelming horror of her waking world.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyThe fantasy sequences with Ofelia have some striking similarities with the typical content patterns of lucid dreams, as mentioned earlier. Here’s how I summarized the research findings a few minutes ago:

Lucid dreams have more references to awareness, effort, flying, fantastic beings, and physical aggression, and fewer references to colors, speech, family characters, and friendly social interactions.

Ofelia’s journeys into the labyrinth are distinguished from the rest of the film by many of these same features. She is aware of things no one else can see. She makes tremendous efforts to succeed in the tasks set her by the Faun.   Her first encounter with the fantastic beings of the labyrinth is a winged fairy, a flying agent of Pan’s who accompanies and guides Ofelia wherever she goes. Her fantasies are filled with physical aggression (although sadly no more so than her waking world).

Intriguingly, the fantasy sequences have much less color than the waking world scenes; there’s little emphasis in the labyrinth on chromatic perception. There’s also less speech, no other family characters (until the end), and very few friendly interactions.

All in all, very much like the experience of a lucid dream. When Ofelia enters the labyrinth, she enters a world that’s closely akin to the realm of conscious dreaming.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyAs it turns out, there is a good biographical reason for this. In interviews he gave at the time of the film’s release, del Toro described his own childhood experiences of “lucid nightmares” in which he saw the figure of the Faun stepping out from behind a dresser at midnight.   He had recurrent dreams of many kinds of monsters, but the Faun made an especially horrifying impact on him. In the film del Toro aims to recreate this powerful fantasy figure who stalked his own personal nightmares.

Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave in 2006 to Ain’t It Cool News:

Q: Did you, in fact, have such nightmares or waking nightmares?

GDT: Many, many of them… When I was a kid, when I slept in the guest bedroom of my grandmother’s house, at midnight, a faun would come out from behind the dresser. And I know it was lucid dreaming, I know it must have been…

Q: Do you remember, did your faun look anything like the faun in the film?

GDT: Absolutely. I was trying to recreate him.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyWhen del Toro referred to these dreams as “lucid” he seemed to mean they had all the qualities of waking reality, and yet he knew they were dreams because of the appearance of Faun or other creatures. It’s not that he was dreaming, then realized he was awake within the dream; rather, he felt like he was awake, while also realizing he must be dreaming. Both are paths to lucidity, but the latter can be much more frightening and existentially unsettling.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyThis helps to explain at least some of the uncanny impact of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Guillermo del Toro knows from deep personal experience the feelings of dread and terror associated with the darker path into lucidity. He knows that if you are already dreaming and then become self-aware, your conscious self feels powerful and expanded. But if you realize what you thought was waking reality is actually a dream, that’s a much more threatening mode of lucidity, a lucidity of weakness, vulnerability, and deception. A lucidity of horror.

In “Pan’s Labyrinth” del Toro inverts the typical path into conscious dreaming and thrusts Ofelia and the audience into shadowy, oozing realms of oneiric fantasy few other directors have had the daring or talent to explore.

 

Recent Interviews About “Big Dreams”

Recent Interviews About "Big Dreams" by Kelly BulkeleyIn the past couple of weeks I have spoken several times with journalists about Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion.  It’s a daunting experience to have smart people read what you’ve written and ask sharp questions about how you put together your argument… and all the more intimidating with a tape recorder running.  But I think the basic ideas from the book come through pretty well in these pieces.

The Huffington Post had an article in its Sleep + Wellness section on March 17 by Carolyn Gregoire (@carolyn_greg) titled “How Dreams Shaped the Evolution of Spirituality and Religion.

New York Magazine had an article in its online “Science of Us” section on March 25 by Mona Chalabi (@MonaChalabi) titled “I Keep Having Literal Nightmares About Trump. Am I Normal?”  This interview focused on research I’ve done on dreams and politics, but it also drew on ideas from Big Dreams.

Time Magazine had an article in its “Quick Take” section on March  that I wrote (with excellent editorial help) titled “The Surprising Link Between Dreams and Faith.”  Here’s a pdf version of it: Time_Quick Take (1)

The Atlantic Magazine had an article in its online site on April 5 by Julie Beck (@julieebeck) titled “What Can Our Craziest Dreams Teach Us?

 

 

 

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants by Kelly BulkeleyChildhood is a time of frequent and intense dreaming for many people. Often these nocturnal experiences from early life have a dark hue—children are especially prone to nightmares, sleep paralysis, and night terrors. But children are also more likely than adults to experience magical dreams of flying and lucid dreams of self-awareness.   The whole wild world of dreaming, in all its strange complexity, seems more accessible in childhood than it is later in life.

A rich tradition of children’s literature, going back to such classics as Alice in Wonderland, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are, has addressed the profound feelings of fear, wonder, and curiosity that often pervade children’s experience when they go to sleep and dream. Cartoons are another powerful medium that can reflect recurrent themes in childhood dreams (good examples include Little Nemo in Slumberland, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and the Sandman series).

Cartoons on television have carried on this tradition, telling stories about dreams with much more psychological depth and power than many adults realize. These animated fictions about bizarre characters doing absurdly unrealistic things turn out to reflect the emotional reality of childhood with surprising accuracy and psychological insight.

Two episodes from recent cartoon series can help to illustrate the point.

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants by Kelly BulkeleyThe first comes from “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which first aired in 1999 on the Nickelodeon network and has gone on to become one of the most popular cartoons of all time.   An episode in season 5, titled “Roller Cowards,” features dreaming as a valuable source of self-knowledge. The episode opens with Sponge Bob and his best friend Patrick hearing about an amazing new roller coaster ride (“The Fiery Fist O’ Pain”) at their favorite amusement park. The night before they go to the park, Sponge Bob goes to sleep thinking about how much fun the ride will be. But then he has a nightmare in which the roller coaster leads to terror and death, and he wakes up trembling in fear. When Patrick comes over and asks what’s wrong, Sponge Bob says he just had a bad dream. Patrick quickly says he had a bad dream, too. Sponge Bob asks what he dreamed, but before Patrick can answer the bus arrives to take them to the amusement park, and away they go.

It turns out Patrick is just as scared as Sponge Bob, though neither of them wants to admit their fears to the other. Their dreams provide accurate barometers of how they really feel, despite all their conscious efforts to pretend otherwise. Only when they finally make the humbling confession to each other that they’re scared to go on the ride, are they ready to embrace the thrilling, spine-dislocating experience of the “Fiery Fist.”

A second example comes from the “Justice League” series, which first aired in 2001 on Cartoon Network. Based on characters from DC Comics, the series gathers seven famous superheroes—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkgirl, and J’onn J’onzz—who battle a colorful variety of super villains. The second season presented a two-part episode titled “Only a Dream,” featuring a criminal named John Dee who uses an ESP-generating machine to transform his own brain into a powerful weapon that can attack people in their dreams. After murdering his faithless girlfriend, Dee—who has now taken on the nom de guerre of Dr. Destiny—focuses his evil power on the members of the Justice League when they fall asleep and dream.

This is where the cartoon enters more sophisticated psychological territory. Dr. Destiny attacks each superhero at his or her weakest point, namely what they fear the most. This fear gives shape to the kind of nightmare that Dr. Destiny sends to each of them.

For the super-speedy, wisecracking Flash, his nightmare involves never being able to slow down, so he can never again connect with normal people; as Dr. Destiny intones, his dream prison is “being stuck in high gear, alone forever.” In Superman’s nightmare he cannot control his increasingly destructive powers, which he tries to hide but cannot. His greatest fear is that his power will hurt the very people he cares about the most. The Green Lantern dreams that he goes back to his old neighborhood, but he recognizes nothing, and everyone speaks a different language. When people see him they flee from in terror; like the Flash and Superman, his deepest anxiety has to do with staying connected with other people despite his special powers and unique identity.

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants by Kelly BulkeleyHawkgirl’s dream is perhaps the most intense and frightening of all. After a false awakening that gives her a moment of deceptive reassurance, Dr. Destiny binds her wings and sends her plunging down to earth, straight into a yawning grave in which she is buried alive under a mound of dirt. For a superhero whose special power is flight, this would be a terrifying nightmare indeed.

Batman, meanwhile, has managed to stay awake, but barely. Dr. Destiny haunts the periphery of his sleep-deprived consciousness, nearly causing him to crash the Batmobile.

Fortunately for the Justice League, J’onn the Martian Manhunter has the ability to go into people’s dreams and help their dreaming selves fight back against Dr. Destiny. J’onn serves as a kind of shamanic warrior and therapist, telling each of the superheroes what he or she needs to hear to rally their strength and break free of their nightmare. Each of them alone cannot defeat Dr. Destiny. But once they find new sources of strength within their dreams, the collective might of the Justice League (sans Wonder Woman; she does not appear in this episode) is enough to overthrow Dr. Destiny and his Freddy Kruger-like reign of terror over their slumber.

And finally, Batman can sleep.

The Justice League episode is much more psychologically complex than the one from SpongeBob SquarePants, which is befitting given the latter show’s focus on younger children and the former’s appeal to older children and tweens. Both cartoons, however, present a similar appreciation for dreaming as a means of expressing important emotional truths, especially those truths that seem most frightening to our waking minds. In the world of these two cartoons, dreams are portrayed as a valuable source of insight. Without putting too much weight on stories meant primarily as entertainment, it’s still fair to say that the resolution of each story teaches a basic respect for the power and wisdom of dreaming.   These cartoons have, perhaps unwittingly, done a wonderful service of dream education for millions of children.

 

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on Feb. 18, 2016.