What Dreams Reflect in Your Waking Life

What Dreams Reflect in Your Waking Life by Kelly BulkeleyNew research highlights 13 areas of continuity between waking and dreaming.

Since 2009 I have been experimenting with word search technologies to identify meaningful patterns in people’s dreams, using an empirical method that others can test, replicate, and verify.  In a recent unpublished working paper I performed a “meta-analysis” of these studies to determine the strongest signals of waking-dreaming continuity I have found so far.  Below is a summary and condensation of the initial results, sorted into three broad groups: Self, Relationships, and Culture.

Self

Professional/public identity: Dreams accurately reflect a person’s main activity, profession, or job in waking life.  Based only on the content of dreams, we can tell whether someone is an educator, a journalist, a soldier, a student, a scientist, or a musician (as examples I’ve found in previous studies).

Health: Patterns in dreaming correspond to various aspects of the dreamer’s physical and mental health.  Dreams indicate when people are depressed or anxious, when they have suffered a trauma, when they are injured or disabled, and when they are facing the end of life.

Personality: At least some aspects of personality are accurately mirrored in dream content, including emotional temperament, either balanced or turbulent, and sociability, either high or low.

Gender: An individual’s gender is reflected in dream content, and so are the gendered aspects of an individual’s interactions in the social world, either more male-oriented or more female-oriented.

Death: There is a strong correlation between the appearance of death-related words in dreams and concerns about death in waking life.

Relationships

Family and Friends: Dreams offer an especially accurate reflection of the most important relationships in a person’s life.  The more frequently someone appears in your dreams, the more likely it is that you have an emotionally significant relationship with that person, whether or not the person is physically present in your current life, and whether your feelings toward that person are positive or negative.

Sexuality: Patterns in dream content accurately reflect the level of sexual activity in a person’s waking life, both physical and imagined.  Romantic relationships and falling in love make a discernible impact on dream content.

Animals: People who have strong relationships with animals in waking life also tend to dream frequently about those animals.

Culture

Reading & writing: People who enjoy reading and writing in waking life also have higher frequencies of these activities in their dreams.

School: People’s educational backgrounds can be discerned in the patterns of their dreams, either highly engaged with schools or far removed from schooling and formal education.

Sports: Dreams accurately reflect people’s engagement with sports and athletics. Patterns of dreaming can identify people who are actively involved in sports and enjoy watching it, or who have no interest at all in sports.

Artistic interests: People who are engaged with art in waking life tend to dream extensively about art, too.  I found correlations between people’s dreams and their interests in painting, music, theater, literature, and poetry.

Religion/spirituality:  Patterns of dream content reflect important aspects of the dreamer’s religious or spiritual concerns.  For some people, their dreams reveal a deep involvement with a formal religious tradition.  For others, their dreams reflect a sense of “unchurched” spiritual curiosity and eclecticism.  And for others, their dreams indicate a generally low level of interest in religion or spirituality in waking life.

There are many limits to the use of word search methods in the study of dreams, and many challenges that need to be overcome if this approach is to grow into a generally useful tool for dream researchers.  But even with these limits, we can identify several strong signals of meaning in dream content.  These are the simplest, most obvious ways in which dreams accurately reflect people’s concerns in waking life.  Future studies, using more sophisticated tools, will likely reveal even deeper levels of meaning.

 

Note: previous publications on this material include 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016.

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly BulkeleyThe Rev. Jeremy Taylor was one of the most prolific dream speakers and teachers of modern times.  He traveled to every corner of the U.S., and to many countries around the world, reaching out to people and promoting greater awareness of dreaming.  He combined his background as a Unitarian-Universalist minister with a deep familiarity with Jungian archetypal psychology to not only help people better understand their dreams, but to get them excited and energized about the amazing adventure of psychological growth and spiritual discovery that opens up once they start paying more attention to general human experience of dreaming.

That was certainly his effect on me.  One of the clearest signs of that effect is how often I turned to him when organizing a new collaborative project.  Over the years I have edited or co-edited six books, and Jeremy wrote chapters for four of them—by a large margin, he is the all-time champion of contributors!

These chapters covered a wide range of topics, yet they all revolved around a perennial set of concerns.  Here are some excerpts, to give a sense of

In Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society (SUNY Press, 1996), Jeremy’s chapter is titled “Traversing the Living Labyrinth: Dreams and Dreamwork in the Psychospiritual Dilemma of the Postmodern World.”  Here’s a passage that expresses his conviction about the power of sharing dreams in group settings:

“When people gather together to explore their dreams, they enter into a process which challenges and promotes withdrawal of the projections, denials, and self-deceptions that fuel the collective dramas of gender, race, class, and other oppression. The emotional, psychological, and ultimately spiritual information revealed by the successive layers of ‘aha’ recognition of the multiple meanigns that are woven into every dream inevitably brings the people involved in the process closer to their wellsprings of archetypal creative energy. My own experience in working in prisons, community organizing projects, and the like, has convinced me that all dreams serve evolving health and wholeness, not only for the individual dreamer, but for the society, the species, and the cosmos as a whole.” (154)

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

In Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (Palgrave, 2001), Jeremy wrote a chapter titled “Group Work with Dreams: The ‘Royal Road’ to Meaning.”  His essentially positive, optimistic, and growth-oriented perspective comes through in this passage:

“One of the most important self-deceptions that dreams regularly address is the sense that a situation is hopeless and that there is nothing the person can do about this situation in his or her life.  In my experience, no dream ever came to anyone to say, ‘Nyeah, Nyeah—You have these problems and there’s nothing you can do about them!’ Thus if a person has a dream and understands upon awakening that the dream makes reference to a seemingly unsolvable problem in his or her waking life, it means that, in fact, some creative, potentially effective response is possible, and in the service of health and wholeness the dream is directing the dreamer’s attention to those as-yet-unperceived possibilities. If this were not the case, the deam would simply not have been remembered. In fact, this is a generic implication of all remembered dreams: If a dream is remembered at all, it suggests that the dreamer’s waking consciousness is capable of playing a creative, positive, even a transformative role in the further unfolding of whatever issues and situations are taking symbolic shape in the dream.” (198)

A book I edited with Kate Adams and Patricia M. Davis, Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (Rutgers University Press, 2009), has as its final chapter a work from Jeremy titled “The Ambiguities of Privilege.”  Here he talked about the ambiguous role of dreams in institutional religions:

“Whenever religious hierarchies grow physically, emotionally, and theologically distant from their less educated and more humble followers over extended periods of time, this archetypal drama of fundamentalism and renewal is awakened and energized once more. Because of the universally privileged position dreams and dreaming occupy in the sacred narratives of the world, a return to lay interpretation of dreams also tends to emerge as a universal element in this repeating drama in its early stages. But the spontaneous, inspired interpretation of dreams brings with it its own set of problems and difficulties.” (244)

The collection Teaching Jung (Oxford University Press, 2012), which I co-edited with Clodagh Weldon, has a chapter by Jeremy titled “Teaching Jung in Asia.”  Here he expresses some of the core questions that animate his exploration of dreams:

“It is my own evolving understanding of Jung over the decades that has led to the evolving ‘ministry of dream work’ that I have now pursued for more than forty years as a Unitarian-Universalist minister. Following Jung’s lead, I begin with the assumption that all dreams (even our worst nightmares) come in the service of health and wholeness and speak a universal language… In my experience, all dreams remembered from sleep ask the same basic psychospiritual questions: Who am I, really? How fully am I giving creative expression to this only partially conscious genuine self? What, specifically, can I do to move more in the direction of authentic health and wholeness, not only for myself but also for the species and the planet as a whole?” (199)

And it should be noted that in all these edited book projects, Jeremy was always among the first contributors to finish his draft and the first to respond to editorial requests for changes and revisions.  He wrote as he spoke and taught, with tremendous grace, boundless passion, and a remarkable fluency of language.  His was a singular voice in the study of dreams.

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

 

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

A new study of a long-term dream journal from a woman who belonged for many years to a physically and spiritually abusive religious cult.

Earlier this year a dream research colleague, G. William Domhoff, told me about a new series of dreams available from a person willing to participate in a new experiment with “blind analysis.”  Blind analysis involves bracketing out all personal information about a dreamer and focusing only on the patterns of word usage frequency in the dreams.  These patterns become the basis for making inferences about the dreamer’s waking life concerns, relationships, and activities, which the dreamer is then able to confirm or disconfirm.  I like this method because it provides a very rigorous way of testing and refining my hypotheses about dreaming-waking connections.

According to Domhoff, the dreams came from a woman who is an “ex-cultist” and who has been keeping a regular dream journal for more than 30 years.  This immediately catapulted the project to the front of my research queue.  Here was a rare opportunity to study the dreams of someone from what sounded like an extremely unusual religious background.  What might a blind analysis of the dreams of such a person reveal?

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

The following is an initial progress report on what I’ve found so far.  A more detailed discussion will be part of a talk I will give in June at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Anaheim, California.

To make the analysis more manageable we asked “Beverly” (a pseudonym) to provide four subsets of her dreams, one each for the years 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016.  Apparently she has recorded a total of more than 6,000 dreams recorded over this whole time period, which works out to an average recall rate of about four dreams a week for 30 years.  Quite a prolific dreamer!  And quite an amazing personal document for her to reflect on the long and winding course of her life.

We uploaded the four sets of dreams into the Sleep and Dream Database and I used the SDDb’s 2.0 word search template to analyze each set.  The 2.0 template has 40 categories of word usage organized into 8 classes: Perception, Emotion, Cognition, Characters, Social Interactions, Elements, Movement, and Culture.  After creating a large spreadsheet with all the word search results, I compared the frequencies in Beverly’s dreams with the frequencies of the SDDb baselines—a large, high-quality set of dreams from many sources that I use as a standard of “normal” frequencies of dream content (presented in chapter 6 of my book Big Dreams).  I also looked at variations between the four sets of Beverly’s dreams, noting any frequencies that seemed markedly higher or lower than others in the same category.

A special challenge with Beverly’s dreams is their relatively short length.  The 940 total dreams across the four sets have an average length of 54 words, with a median of 43 (meaning half the reports are more, and half are less, than 43 words in length).  I typically use this method with much longer dreams, so I went into the analysis with even more caution than usual.

As it turned out, and as I will describe in more detail at the IASD conference in June, the short length of Beverly’s dreams did not impede the process.  On the contrary, this has been one of the most successful experiments of blind analysis I’ve done to date.

After I calculated Beverly’s word usage frequencies and made my baseline comparisons, I formulated a total of 26 inferences about her waking life.  To be clear, at this point I only knew three details about Beverly’s personal life: she was a woman, an avid dream journaler, and an ex-cultist.  Other than that, I was “blind” to her waking life circumstances and personality.

Of the 26 inferences I sent to her, Beverly confirmed 23 as accurate.  These included predictions about her personality, relationships, financial concerns, physical health, and cultural interests.

The three inferences she did not affirm are interesting, and may help me further refine the blind analysis process.  I’ve found in past experiments that I often learn more from mistaken inferences than from successful ones.

In the 1986 set of dreams there are five dream reports that use the word “earthquake”; none of the other sets of dreams use this word, which prompted my inference that in 1986 Beverly was “impacted by an earthquake.”  This was her response: “This must be symbolic of what I went through with the group in 1986. That was the year they hit bottom, including the murder.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

This aspect of meaning was not really part of my inference, so I don’t count it as a successful one, but it does shed light on the possible use of a natural disaster like an earthquake as a recurrent symbol for strong emotional concerns that feel profoundly disruptive and foundation-threatening.

The 1996 set of dreams had remarkably low frequencies of perception words, which struck me as significant.  My inference suggested that during this time the dreamer was “less perceptually stimulated.”  Beverly responded, Not sure what this means, but I was smoking tons of pot that year.”  Maybe that’s the connection, or maybe it’s something else. I didn’t phrase the inference very precisely, which made it hard for her to definitively confirm or disconfirm it.

The 2006 set of dreams had the highest frequency of animal references, which led me to infer that during this time period Beverly was “more concerned about animals (especially birds, cats, and dogs.).”  She replied, “Possibly. I had pet birds and was very attached to Rocky, my parents’ big orange tabby.”  I’m inclined to take this answer as a confirmation of my inference, since 1) she specifically mentions birds and a cat, and 2) she describes the kind of behaviors and feelings that I would generally include in defining the phrase “concerned about animals.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

What about the references to religion in Beverly’s dreams?  This whole series is an amazing chronicle of a lifelong spiritual journey.  Even if I had not known Beverly was an ex-cultist, I would have made it the top headline of my inferences that this dreamer had an extremely strong interest in religion in the early parts of her life.  It turns out that Beverly was deeply involved with a Hare Krishna group in the 1980’s, a group that took a very dark turn into abuse, violence, and murder, as she mentioned.  Her dreams track the course of her involvement with the group and her final escape from it, which has opened her life to a variety of new creative possibilities, also reflected in her dreams in remarkably accurate detail.

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

At the IASD conference I will talk more about the religious dimensions of her dreams, along with her social relationships and her “big dreams” (i.e., what she considers the most memorable dreams of her whole life).  I will then compare these results with those I’ve found in studying three other long-term dream journals—from Brianna, Jordan, and Jasmine (all pseudonyms, all in the SDDb).  My hope is to use this conference talk, and the feedback I receive from my colleagues, as a springboard for a deeper exploration of Beverly’s dream series.  Her journal is an incredibly valuable resource for the scientific study of religiously significant patterns in dreaming.

Note: This post was first published in Psychology Today on April 20, 2017.

The Study of a 32-Year Long Dream Journal

The Study of a 32-Year Long Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyThe latest series to be uploaded into the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) is the biggest yet: the “Brianna Journal 1984-2016,” 2,448 dream reports from a woman who kept a journal fairly consistently for 32 years.  This series offers an amazing opportunity to observe in unusually close detail the emotional contours of an individual’s life as she makes her way through a challenging and often dangerous world.

Brianna (not her real name) shared these dreams with me and Deirdre Barrett last year, which we initially studied for a presentation at the 2016 conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  Using the word search functions of the SDDb, I performed a “blind analysis” on three subsets of Brianna’s dream journals, meaning I 1) tabulated the frequencies of word usage for several categories of dream content, 2) compared her frequencies with baseline averages for each category, and 3) made inferences, based on nothing other than her dream patterns, about her concerns and activities in waking life.  For instance, I inferred that Brianna is closer to her mother than her father, is interested in books and writing, is not interested in sports, and has significant involvement with issues of death and dying.  Brianna herself, who attended the conference presentation, confirmed these and other inferences, which helped demonstrate the general idea that patterns in dreaming can accurately reflect people’s waking life concerns.

Now I have finally uploaded the complete collection of dreams Brianna shared with me, which provides a broader overview of her dreaming experiences over the span of more than three decades.  I will share more details from my analysis at the upcoming 2017 IASD conference (held in Anaheim, California, June 16-20).  For now, here are some of the initial findings of my study of this remarkable series.

Length: This is a long series in at least three ways: total number of dreams (2,448), time span covered by the journals (32 years), and average number of words per report (292).  The median word length is 168 words, meaning half the reports are shorter than that, and half the reports are longer.  Looking at the distribution of word lengths in the series as a whole, 851 of the dreams have between 1 and 99 words, 794 of the dreams have between 100 and 299 words, and 803 of the dreams have 300 or more words.  A series with this many dreams at both the short and long ends of the spectrum poses special challenges for analysis.  For now, I will study the series as a whole, but at some point I will look at subsets of varying lengths (e.g., the dreams of 50-300 words in length, of which there are 1,192).

Cognition: The series as a whole has a remarkably high frequency of dreams with at least one word relating to thinking (71%), speaking (56%), and reading/writing (19%).  The dreams have lots of strange, irrational material, too, but much of the content is oriented around normal cognitive activities that are also important in her waking life (Brianna is, in fact, a literate, well-educated, and sociable person).  The high proportion of cognition references could be a result of the unusual length of her dreams, and/or it could be an accurate reflection of her waking personality.  Either way, this is a topic worth further investigation.

Death: One out of every seven (15%) of Brianna’s dreams has a reference to death.  That is quite high compared to other dream series I have studied, and it strongly suggests that death and dying are major concerns in Brianna’s waking life.  I know enough about her to confirm the general accuracy of this inference, and now I am curious to look more closely at how this theme weaves its way through her series as a whole.

Religion: The frequency of references to religion is also unusually high in this series, and the list of specific words used in the dreams makes it fairly easy to accurately infer that Brianna is Jewish.  In previous studies I have found that patterns in dreaming offer good clues to a person’s beliefs and attitudes towards religion.  The Brianna series seems to be another illustration of that premise, and through deeper analysis I hope to understand better how religious and spiritual themes in the dreams track with Brianna’s waking life interests, concerns, and experiences.

Note: this post was originally published in Psychology Today, March 10, 2017.

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?

 

 

 

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God?

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God? by Kelly BulkeleyA recent essay in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times made several observations about religion in contemporary America by analyzing a huge collection of Google search data. In “Googling for God,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examined the search results for various religious terms and questions in relation to where the people lived and when they performed the searches. Stephens-Davidowitz’s work offers an excellent illustration of the pros and cons of using big data analytics to study religion. Three quotes from his essay show where the biggest challenges can be found.

  1. “If people somewhere are searching a lot about a topic, it is overwhelming evidence those people are very interested in that topic.”

This is the key methodological principle used in Stephens-Davidowitz’s analysis: the frequency of Google searches correlates to the intensity of personal interest. At one level this seems like a reasonable premise. In fact, this principle is very close to the “continuity hypothesis” used by dream researchers to correlate frequencies of dream content with personal concerns in waking life. Many dream researchers, myself included, have pursued studies of dream content using the continuity hypothesis to make inferences about people’s waking lives—if a person dreams a lot about sports, for example, we can confidently predict that sports are an important concern in the person’s waking life.

Stephens-Davidowitz does something similar when he connects Google search data to people’s religious concerns and questions. The problem, however, is defining “very interested.” What exactly can we infer about a person based on their entry of a Google search term? They are “interested,” of course, but interested in what way, and how strongly? What prompted their search? Is there anything distinctive about people’s searches for religious terms compared to non-religious terms?

Until these kinds of questions can be answered (ideally with lots of systematically analyzed empirical evidence, not just one-off studies), the use of Google search data to draw conclusions about religion remains on shaky ground.

In dream research we have many decades of studies that have helped us hone in on “emotional concerns” as a primary point of continuity between dreaming and waking. We also have statistical baselines of typical dream content to help us identify meaningful variations in the frequency of certain aspects of dreaming (see, for example, the Dreambank of G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, and the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) that I direct). If the use of Google search data included these kinds of analytic aids, the results would be much stronger and more convincing.

  1. “Sometimes Google search data, because of Google’s status as a kind of universal question service, is perfectly suited to give us fresh insights into our offline lives.”

The idea of Google as a “universal question service” has great appeal, not the least because so much of the information is easily accessible for public study. This is one of the great boons of the era of big data, and new studies of this treasure trove of information are bound to increase in future years.

A potential problem, however, is a tendency to blur the distinction between a) what Google offers its users and b) who those users are. The fact that Google enables people to ask all kinds of questions does not mean that all kinds of people are asking those questions. Google users are not necessarily representative of the US population as a whole, and we do not know how representative the Google users are who are searching specifically for religious terms. We do know that when people perform a Google search they are connected via technology to the internet, they are interacting with a global corporation, and they are being shown numerous commercial responses to their search. These circumstances should qualify our assumptions about who uses Google and how they engage with the search function.

  1. “There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.”

This quote comes at the end of the essay, and it perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of explaining the significance of Google search results. According to the findings cited by Stephens-Davidowitz, Kim Kardashian gets ten times the search results of Jesus Christ. What exactly does that mean? That Kim Kardashian is ten times more interesting than Jesus? That she is ten times more popular, or more important, or more influential?

The problem is that Google search data do not meaningfully measure any one thing, other than the tautological fact of having entered a specific search term. The results of analyzing these data seem admirably clear and quantitative—4.7 million vs. 49 million!—but they do not easily or self-evidently map onto the actual beliefs, feelings, and attitudes of the general population.

The good news is that these are tractable problems. Real progress can be made by more detailed studies and more systematic correlations of the data with genuinely meaningful aspects of people’s lives. This fascinating essay by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz helps people who study religion see where these new analytic endeavors can be most fruitfully pursued.

 

Note: first published September 24, 2015 in the Huffington Post.