Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier

In developing the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), a digital archive and search engine for dream research, I have been acutely aware that I possess no formal training in computer science or internet technology.  My doctoral degree is in religion and psychological studies, and I learned many things in the course of my graduate education, but nothing about how to conceive, build, or use a digital database.

 

Fortunately I’ve benefitted from the wisdom of three people—Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier—who have helped me understand how to translate my psychology of religion interest in dreams into the functional mechanics of a digital database.

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier by Kelly BulkeleyLarry Lessig was a first-year law school student with my soon-to-be wife at the University of Chicago, at the same time I was a doctoral student at the U. of Chicago Divinity School.  It was 1986 and 1987, and we spent a lot of time hanging out with Larry and a few other frighteningly smart, frighteningly conservative law students.  Once I asked Larry what he was doing for fun, and he said he was spending a lot of time in cyberspace.  I had recently read William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which popularized the term cyberspace, and excitedly I said to Larry, I’ve been reading Gibson’s work too, it’s so interesting how he envisions a disembodied reality of pure information flows…. Larry let me finish, then said he was spending time in actual cyberspace, exploring the earliest iterations of the world wide web.  While I was reading cool science fiction about cyberspace, Larry was really in cyberspace, figuring it out, studying its original development as it happened.

I look back on that conversation and think of it as planting a seed that’s coming to fruition now with the SDDb.  In 1999 Larry wrote a book called Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace, and from that book I’ve learned the basic principle that everything we create in the digital world depends on the choices we make about how to structure information and its access.  It’s not just machines doing things on their own, it’s us making machines that do certain things and not others.  We can make good choices or bad choices about how we design those machines, freedom-affirming choices or freedom-limiting choices.

Thanks, Larry, for helping me understand that.

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier by Kelly BulkeleyI met Kurt Bollacker through Dominic Luscinci, a statistician in San Francisco who had worked with Kurt on another database design project.  I really can’t believe my good fortune in having Kurt help me turn the SDDb from several pages of scribbled notes into a highly functional reality.  I’ve learned a little about his work as Digital Research Director of the Long Now Foundation, and it reassures me that I have found a person who has not only the technical skill to build the SDDb but also the philosophical vision to see where the digital future is leading us, and to design the database with that vision in mind.

One of the things I learned from Kurt early on was, “Data accumulate value over time.”  I’ve adopted that as a kind of mantra for the SDDb.  Data accumulate value over time.  Information that seems trivial or useless today can be a treasure to researchers in the future.  An awareness of that historical dynamic has a practical consequence for building databases: It means we should aim at a simple, flat, and state-free architecture that can exist independently of any specific type of software.  Because software systems come and go, the best way to create a database that will endure far into the future is to structure the information in a way that will make it easy to transfer from one type of software to another. That’s a key principle in the overall design of the SDDb, and one that I hope will make the database useful to dreamers and researchers for many years to come.

For that and more, thanks, Kurt.

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier by Kelly BulkeleyThe third person I want to acknowledge as an influence is Jaron Lanier and his book You Are Not a Gadget. I’m a religious studies scholar, so forgive me, but Jaron strikes me as a latter-day techno-prophet, warning us of the apocalyptic perils that lie ahead if we allow soulless machines to become our masters.  His book is a passionate call to fight against “cybernetic totalism” and the economic power of “lord aggregators” of the web—I love that term—whose driving interest is to commercially exploit our personal information.  As someone trying to build a database that includes a lot of personal information, I have thought long and hard about Jaron’s cautionary ideas, and I’ve done my best to design the SDDb in a way that will enhance rather than diminish people’s freedom and creativity in exploring the world of dreams.

I read Jaron’s book in the summer of 2011, and soon afterwards he was profiled in a New Yorker magazine article.  The article was actually kind of lame, focusing more on his counter-cultural appearance and behavior than the substance of his ideas.  Well, as fate or synchronicity would have it, the day after the New Yorker article came out, I bumped into Jaron down at the market, Andronico’s at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar in north Berkeley.  He was there with his daughter in the produce section.  Normally I’m very reluctant to just walk up and talk to anyone, let alone prominent people, but this was too coincidental, especially since I had learned in Jaron’s book about a 15th century text called “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” a fantastic dream text I’d never heard of before, which I immediately bought and started reading.

So anyway, we were both picking through the lemons, and I went ahead and said hi, I just read that New Yorker article about you. Jaron said yeah, he didn’t really recognize the person they were describing in the article. I quickly tried to think of something to say about how much I valued his ideas, but I’m not a very quick thinker, so all I could come up with was to say thanks for teaching me about “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream.”  I’m sure that comment came across as completely weird and off the wall, and so I hastily moved on to the cereal aisle, and that was that.

So Jaron, if you ever see this, I’m really sorry for stalking you in the Andronico’s produce section a couple of years ago.  What I really want to do is thank you, along with Larry and Kurt, for inspiring the mission, the content, and the code of the Sleep and Dream Database.  Thanks to you all.

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work by Kelly Bulkeley“Sleep, the gentlest of the gods, the spirit’s peace, whom care flies from: who soothes the body wearied with toil, and readies it for fresh labors.”

 

That’s how the Roman poet Ovid described sleep in his first century CE masterpiece the Metamorphoses.

 

Many people today desperately seek the restorative blessings of sleep just as Ovid described, but instead they find themselves plagued by bad dreams about work.  Rather than providing a peaceful respite from the burdens of waking life, sleep for many people has become a battleground of job-related stress and financial anxiety. In a recent online survey I conducted with Harris Interactive, 2252 American adults were asked to describe a dream relating to their work or employment status.  All the reports are available via the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) website.  (Here’s a link to the reports of 10+ words in length.)  These dreams offer a fascinating window into the workplace experiences of people across a wide demographic swath of American society.

Reading through the dream reports, it becomes clear that each job or profession has its own distinctive type of nightmare:

A trucker dreamed of a car cutting him off, so he had to slam on the brakes and then fight to control his rig as it started to jack-knife.

A nurse dreamed of her patients unhooking themselves from their monitoring equipment and wandering off, which led to the nurse getting fired for incompetence.

A waiter dreamed about having too many customers to serve, forgetting where the tableware was, and losing track of all the orders.

An electrician had vivid recurrent dreams about needing to fix strange gadgets with hundreds of wires, none of them labeled.

Several teachers had bad dreams about being unprepared for class, dealing with uncooperative students, and struggling with new technologies.

Numerous office administrators had nightmares of phones not working, desks piling up with unfinished work, and calculators streaming out endless amounts of rolled paper.

Whatever makes people feel powerless, overwhelmed, or out of control in their particular type of work, that’s going to drive the content and emotions of their dreams.

Sometimes people’s anxieties are transformed by the dreaming imagination into bizarre scenes that reflect a kind of surrealistic commentary on their employment situation.  Ovid would surely be delighted by metamorphic dreams like these:

A 30-year old woman from Arizona dreamed that “giant staplers were chasing me down the hall” at the school where she works. 

A 35-year old software developer from Minnesota dreamed of going to apply for a job and finding the interviewer was an alien with green skin and a large almond-shaped head. 

A 62-year old woman from Illinois dreamed that a computer was chasing her yelling “Program me!”

A 64-year old man from Minnesota who recently lost his job dreamed he had gone back to his office, but instead of the familiar building it was a strange storehouse for used furniture: “I think the dream meant that my former job was basically warehousing people who needed to move on.”

Weird and troubling as these dreams may be, they in fact make perfect sense in light of scientific research showing that dream content tends to accurately reflect people’s waking life emotional concerns.  Anything that worries us in waking life will likely show up in our dreams, either literally or metaphorically.  This idea of meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns has a lot of data to support it, much of it generated by G. William Domhoff and available on his dreamresearch.net website.

For many people today, worries about their jobs and personal finances top their list of emotional concerns in waking life.  Several of the survey participants spoke of their fears about losing their jobs or trying to find a new one.  A 27-year old Arizona man who has recurrent nightmares of being attacked by bears said, “You never know if you will have employment the next day.”  In such a tenuous economic environment, dream content will naturally reflect people’s job-related worries and preoccupations.

There seems to be a rough evolutionary logic to these kinds of bad dreams.  Several researchers, most recently Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli, have proposed that one of the functions of dreaming is to simulate possible threats in the waking world, helping to prepare the individual to better handle those threats if they ever actually occur.  In this view nightmares give us a safe opportunity to mentally practice survival-related behaviors and get ready for potential dangers.  The short-term pain of upsetting dreams is outweighed by their long-term gain in promoting greater vigilance and preparedness.

It should also be noted the same powers of imagination that generate vivid work nightmares can also generate many other kinds of dreams as well.  Here too there is good scientific evidence to support the idea that dreaming is an inherently creative and multidimensional activity.  During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the time of the sleep cycle when most dreaming occurs, the brain becomes hyper-associative.  The constraints of externally focused consciousness loosen, allowing innovative possibilities to emerge out of wide-ranging connections between perceptions, memories, instincts, and cultural influences.  This is why dreaming seems so crazy and scattered—and why it’s occasionally the source of brilliant flashes of creative insight.

If you have recurrent nightmares about work, try this: After getting in bed each night and turning off the light, take a moment to think about the amazing creative powers in your own dreaming imagination.  If your dreams can create vividly realistic scenarios of work, what other kinds of scenarios could they create?  What are the strangest, most otherworldly dreams you’ve experienced in the past?  What would you like to dream about now?

Your dreams may feel like foes, but with an open mind and playful spirit you can persuade them to become allies.

 

 

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity by Kelly BulkeleySexual dreams have long been part of human experience, as we know from historical sources.  For example, the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, an ancient manual of dream interpretation, devoted several pages to the various types and classes of sexual dreams.

 

However, we do not know how widespread sexual dreams are, who has them most often, and when they begin.

 

In a survey I commissioned a couple of years ago, nearly 3000 American adults were asked the question, “Have you ever had a dream with sexual feelings or experiences?”  Of those who answered “Yes,” a follow-up question was asked: “Did you have any sexual dreams before your first sexual activity in waking life?”

The answers to the first question were 69% Yes and 24% No for the men (1912 of them), and 58% Yes and 34% No for the women (1058 total), with 7% of the men and 8% of the women responding “Not Sure.”

On most other typical dreams questions (e.g., chasing, falling, visitation) the women answered Yes more often than did the men.  Sexual dreams stood out as a significantly more frequent experience for the men.

For the follow-up question about sexual dreams before sexual activity, the gender disparity was even bigger: 48% of the men said Yes and 22% said No, whereas only 23% of the women said Yes while 39% said No.

Looking more closely at follow-up question results, the age of the participants mattered a lot.  The frequency of Yes answers was much higher for younger than older people, although the gap between males and females remained for all ages.

 

  Males     Females    
Age Yes No N/S Yes No N/S
18-29 76% 8% 15% 55% 22% 22%
30-49 55% 16% 29% 31% 37% 32%
50-64 44% 24% 33% 17% 39% 44%
65+ 37% 30% 33% 11% 48% 42%

 

Other demographic variables (e.g., race, income, education, religion) did not correlate with any significant differences.

What can we learn from these results?

First, we have to consider the limitations of the data. Many people are simply reluctant to talk about sex.  Dreams sometimes portray taboo, socially frowned upon sexual behaviors that people may not want to admit.  Some religious traditions teach that sexual dreams should be shunned as demonic temptations.  More generally, people vary in how well they can recall different types of dreams from earlier in life.

All these factors suggest the survey results are underestimating rather than overestimating the frequency of sexual dreams. Some of the participants probably answered “No” when the actual truth was “Yes,” while it’s unlikely that many participants said “Yes” when the accurate answer would have been “No.”

To explain these findings, we can appeal to both biology and culture.  It makes sense that young people entering their prime years of reproductive potential would have dreams that anticipate and prepare them for this fundamental biological goal.  Just as some nightmares simulate threats to our survival (e.g., being chased by wild animals) so we’re better prepared to face them in waking life, it could be that sexual dreams are simulating reproductive opportunities we will hopefully have in the future.  Such dreams might have less biological value or significance for older people.

It could also be that young people in contemporary America are more likely to dream about sex because they are immersed in a culture filled with sexually arousing content.  Dream content accurately reflects people’s biggest emotional concerns, and it’s plausible to assume that many young people today are thinking a lot about sex before they are sexually active.   Again, such dreams would be less likely among older people whose emotional concerns no longer center on sexuality.

Both biological and cultural factors could also account for the gender differences.  The process of sexual maturation may generate stronger physical pressures for young males than females, prompting a higher proportion of sexually explicit dreams.  Cultural portrayals of sexuality certainly seem to emphasize male rather than female perspectives, which may stimulate relatively more dreaming about this subject.

These explanations are admittedly speculative and open to question.  However, it is clear that dreaming is closely connected to our nature as sexual beings.  Even before sexual activity in waking life we tend to be sexually active in our dreams, anticipating how it will happen, what it will feel like, and with whom we’ll share the experience.  The fact that some dreams can lead to actual climax for both men and women suggests that dreaming is, at one level, a physiologically hard-wired means of preparing us for our lives as reproductive beings.

Dreaming in the Digital Age: The Impact of New Database Technologies on Dream Research

Dreaming in the Digital Age: The Impact of New Database Technologies on Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyFor several years I’ve been inspired and guided by an admittedly idealistic vision of future technology in the study of dreams:

 

One day, everyone in the world will have an easy and private way to enter their dreams into a collective database we can all access and study. 

 

If that were possible, if such a massive database existed, we could learn so much not only about dreams but also about consciousness, culture, and the evolution of our species.  The work I’ve been doing to develop the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has aimed at laying some initial scientific foundations for the day when this vision of a universal dream portal and archive becomes a reality.

Recently I’ve become involved as an advisor with SHADOW, a company founded by Hunter Lee Soik to develop an iOS app for recording dreams and exploring their meanings.  Working with SHADOW has made it clear that the technology for creating a universal dream database is emerging very quickly.

That’s a good thing, right?

In light of recent news about governmental and corporate abuses of data mining, it might seem a risky proposition to share one’s dreams in an online forum.  If dreams are as valuable and meaningful as researchers like me say they are, perhaps people should be more, not less, cautious about entering them into a public database. The intimate personal details of dreams make people naturally reluctant to share them in any kind of setting where they don’t feel a high degree of trust and safety.

In developing the SDDb and working with SHADOW I’ve tried to respond to these concerns by emphasizing 1) the practical measures we can take to protect people’s privacy and 2) the benefits of becoming a participant in a large-scale database.

Regarding privacy, the participants can set the standard by altering or removing any personally identifying details (like the names of people and places) in their dream reports.  Participants can also exclude any content they simply don’t feel comfortable sharing.  I encourage people to be as forthcoming as possible, but I always let them know it’s their decision about how much to share.

Although these editorial revisions add a little noise to the system, they can greatly diminish the chances that someone who wants to remain anonymous could be identified by his or her dreams.

Additionally, the host of the database should do his or her best to insure the privacy of its users, the security of their identifying information, and free access to their own data, which they may retrieve and remove from the database at any time.  The SDDb does that, and Shadow has promised to do so, too.

It’s important to offer the choice of opting out for participants who want to use the analytic tools of the database but don’t want to share their dreams publicly.  That’s the maximal position on privacy, and of course it would shrivel the database to utter uselessness if everyone adopted it.  Before people opt out I ask them to consider the idea that to benefit from the commons, you need to contribute to the commons.  The database will be more accurate and useful for you and for all other participants if you add your voice to the collection.

If privacy protection is taken as the shared responsibility of both the participant and the database host, the risks don’t disappear, but they shrink down to a size that makes it possible to balance them with the upside potentials.

These potentials start with a huge magnification of self-awareness for the participants, who gain an unprecedented ability to see how their individual dream patterns compare to the large-scale patterns of other groups of people.  Nothing like this has ever existed, but once it does I believe many people will be drawn to it as a unique and compelling source of self-knowledge.

The benefits will extend beyond personal insights.  A dream database of the scale we’re discussing could serve as a kind of social barometer, measuring collective reactions to collective events.  We already know that people dream vividly in reaction to turbulent social conditions of war, elections, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and celebrity deaths.  A large and sophisticated database could allow us to observe in real time the emotional impact of these and other public events on people’s dreams.

Beyond that, it would give us a new appreciation for the astonishing complexity of the human race and the wide variations in how people live.  For example, it would show us that vast numbers of people in the modern world are living in conditions of desperate suffering.  A truly universal database of dreams would be overflowing with nightmares of poverty, trauma, neglect, and abuse.  More widespread awareness of what it’s like to experience such harrowing dreams might be a potent lever for promoting positive social change.

This database of the future might also give us a new appreciation for the “ordinary mystics” among us, people whose unusual dreams connect them with hyper-creative dimensions of the imagination.  As a psychologist of religion I’ve always been struck by the parallels between mystical experiences in religious history and certain types of dreams that contemporary people have, dreams of magic and mystery and esoteric symbolism.  My sense is that more people have these kinds of dreams than is commonly recognized.  A large-scale database could open our eyes to the surprising prevalence of mystical dream phenomena among the general population.

The potential risks of these technologies are real, but so are the potential benefits.  The risks are limited and manageable; the benefits could be world-changing.

Dream Recall: The Highs and the Lows

Dream Recall: The Highs and the Lows by Kelly BulkeleyWhy is it so hard to remember dreams?  Scientific evidence dating back to the 1950’s has shown the brain is active in various ways throughout the sleep cycle.  Yet when we wake up we often can’t remember more than a few fleeting images that disappear from our minds almost immediately.  Why can’t we recall more of what we experienced while asleep?

 

As a partial answer to that question, try this thought experiment.  Imagine you are a star basketball player.  It’s the final moments of a championship game. The score is tied, the crowd is screaming, and victory hangs in the balance. Just before time expires you make a brilliant play that wins the game.

Then, the second the game’s over, a reporter pulls you off the court, thrusts a microphone in your face, and says, “What was going through your mind when you made that play?”

As with most athletes facing this situation, you’d probably be at a loss for words.  You’d find it difficult if not impossible to communicate the full experience of what it felt like while you were in the game.  So soon after the game’s end, your brain would still be somewhat disoriented by the abrupt transition, and it would be a challenge to form a linear, grammatically proper thought.

This is more or less what it’s like when we wake up in the morning.  Our brain has just been operating in a very different mode from waking consciousness. It’s extremely difficult to convey the experiences of the former state of awareness into the linguistic terms of the latter.

That’s a general reason for the limits of our dream recall.  But still, a question remains: Why do some people remember several dreams every night, while others remember virtually none at all? Sometimes I hear this posed as a challenge—“I don’t remember any of my dreams and I’m just fine, so what’s the point of paying attention to them?”  Other times it’s more of a request for advice—“I know dreams are valuable, but I barely remember any of them, so how can I improve my recall?”

Current scientific research suggests that some degree of dream recall is a normal part of human life.  According to Michael Schredl’s thorough review of the research literature in The New Science of Dreaming:

“On average, students recall one to two dreams per week at home… In representative samples of the general population [in Austria], dream recall frequency is slightly lower, but about 68% recall at least one dream per month.” (1)

Similar results appeared in a demographic survey of 2970 American adults I commissioned in 2010, when 67.81% of the participants said they recalled at least two or three dreams per month.

A very small percentage of people say they remember no dreams whatsoever.  The only research I know that has directly focused on “non-dreamers” was done by James Pagel from the Rocky Mountain Sleep Clinic in Colorado.  Pagel found that 6% of his lab’s incoming patients said they never remembered any dreams.  After further questions and experiments, Pagel found that most of these people could remember at least a few dreams from earlier in life.  He concluded that “true non-dreaming was very rare in our sleep lab population (0.38%)—1 of every 262 patients.” (2)

It’s not clear why some people remember an extremely high number of dreams.  Gender may have something to do with it, since females tend to remember more dreams than males.  The difference is not absolute—there are high-recalling men and low-recalling women—but many researchers have found the same modest difference.  In the 2010 demographic survey, 10.21% of the women vs. 6.64% of the men said they remembered a dream almost every morning.

Age is also a factor, as children and young adults tend to remember more dreams than do older people.  This pattern seems to be more pronounced among women than men: Young women have the highest frequencies of dream recall, with a big drop-off for older women, while young men have only slightly more recall than older men.

Many other factors can influence an individual’s dream recall frequency, including sleep quality, medications (some increase dream recall, others decrease it), and stressful circumstances in waking life.

The most intriguing factor is encouragement by others.   Michael Schredl refers to this as an “experimenter effect,” in which

“[T]he expectations of the participants and the expectations of the experimenter can affect DRF [dream recall frequency] as measured in the sleep laboratory.  In the high expectancy conditions [of one study], dreams were recalled more often.  Similarly, other studies have demonstrated how sensitive DRF is to comments of the experimenter; simple encouraging comments produced a marked increase in DRF.  Even the completion of a short dream questionnaire yielded a higher DRF after four weeks.” (3)

It seems the mere act of encouraging people to remember more dreams leads to an increase in recall frequency.  This isn’t just a function of compliant participants trying to please their experimenters.  It’s an indication that dream recall depends to a large degree on a person’s conscious attitude towards dreams.  A low interest in dreams correlates with low recall, and high interest in dreams correlates with high recall.  As the research reviewed by Schredl shows, even a slight positive change in attitude can yield a higher frequency of remembered dreams.

If you build it, they will come.

 ####

 

Notes:

1. Michael Schredl, “Dream Recall,” in Patrick McNamara and Deirdre Barrett (ed.s) The New Science of Dreams (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007), vol. II, p. 80.

2. J.F. Pagel, The Limits of Dream: A Scientific Exploration of the Mind/Brain Interface (London: Academic Press, 2008), p. 152.

3. Schredl 2007, p. 89.