Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content?

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyA word search analysis of a five-year selection from my own dream journal reveals the same consistent patterns of content in both shorter and longer reports.

I’ve been wondering about this question for a long time now.  Are shorter dreams different in any fundamental way from longer dreams?  Some people naturally remember only brief dream fragments and images, while other people can remember extremely elaborate and detailed dream scenarios.  Most researchers prefer to analyze reports in the “Goldilocks zone,” not too short or too long, just right in the middle.  That is a reasonable methodological choice, but it still leaves unanswered the question I’ve been pondering.

To continue developing the word search tools of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), I really need to get some clarity on this point.  The frequencies of word usage identified by the SDDb tools vary a great deal depending on whether the dreams have a smaller or larger number of total words.  Is this a problem, or not?

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyI also have a personal reason for wanting to explore the question.  In early 2015 I began a new approach to my own dream journaling practice, which has led to at least one remembered dream every night for more than two years.  This is approximately double my recall rate for the previous several years.  The 2015 dreams were also shorter on average (74 words) than the dreams from previous years (all averaging 100+ words).  This made me wonder about possible changes in the content patterns of my dreams before and after 2015.

With all of this in mind, I started by tabulating the distribution of my dreams over a five-year period of time (2012-2016), separating them into four categories of word length (less than 50 words, 50-99 words, 100-149 words, and 150 words or more). Here are the totals for each year in the four categories, from shortest to longest:

2012: 41, 67, 50, 43 (201 total)

2013: 68, 83, 51, 50 (252 total)

2014: 51, 54, 40, 41 (186 total)

2015: 145, 120, 56, 31 (352 total)

2016: 91, 134, 64, 77 (366 total)

As I already knew, the increased recall in 2015 happened at the shorter end of the word length spectrum.  My new approach to recall seemed to yield a lot of short dreams that I might not have remembered or recorded in previous years.  Then the 2016 dreams shifted again, with a more even distribution of word lengths, closer to the previous years but with higher total numbers.

Dividing the dreams into these subsets makes it possible to address the main question: what are the content differences between dreams of different lengths?

For each of the 20 subsets of dreams I used the SDDb 2.0 word search template to determine the frequencies for 40 categories of word usage, organized into 8 classes (Perceptions, Emotions, Characters, Cognitions, Social Interactions, Movement, Culture, and Elements).

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyThe results of this analysis suggest that shorter dreams are not dramatically different from longer dreams in terms of the relative proportions of their word usage.  The raw percentages of word usage do rise from shorter to longer dreams, of course, but the relative proportions generally do not.

Consider the following excerpt from the analysis, which shows the four subsets of dreams from 2013, and the results of searching these reports for references to “Perception” words, from shortest to longest reports.  The numbers are percentages of the dreams that have at least one reference to the words in the category.

Vision: 24, 54, 69, 76

Hearing: 1, 6, 18, 22

Touch: 1, 6, 16, 26

Smell/Taste: 1, 2, 0, 6

Color: 21, 42, 31, 56

The longer dreams have more references to “Touch” than do the shorter dreams, but the longer dreams also have many more references to “Vision” and “Color” than to “Touch,” which is the same pattern found in the shorter dreams.  It’s this kind of pattern—the relative proportions between the various word categories—that remains consistent regardless of the length of the dreams.

This finding suggests the proportions among the word categories do not, for the most part, dramatically change across word lengths.  These proportions can be found in short, medium, and long dreams.  Even very short dreams preserve the basic architecture of typical dream content.

I need to do a more precise mathematical analysis of these patterns, to illuminate subtler variations that may alter my conclusions.  But I’m reassured by these initial results indicating that shorter dreams are just as legitimate as longer dreams for data-driven research and theorizing.

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyThat’s the big picture.  Within this portrait of broad consistency, there are a few instances where the longer dreams do have an unusually high frequency of a particular word category.  The most prominent are Fear, Speech, Walking/Running, and Transportation.  These are the word categories that seem to be over-represented in longer dreams.  They are significant contributors to what makes long dreams so long.

Here is an example from the 2016 dreams to illustrate what I mean, using the Emotions class. The numbers are percentages of the dreams that have at least one reference to the words in the category, from shortest to longest reports.  Note the dramatic rise in Fear words across the four subsets.

Fear: 3, 11, 36, 55

Anger: 2, 4, 9, 17

Sadness: 4, 2, 8, 5

Wonder/Confusion: 23, 40, 63, 75

Happiness: 11, 22, 20, 26

The shortest dreams have scarcely any references to fear, whereas more than half the longest dreams have a reference to fear.

What I think this means is that when a dream introduces a reference to fear, it heightens my awareness of what’s going on in the dream space.  It stimulates an expansion of what I notice and find significant, and after awakening this requires a lengthier report to describe adequately.

What about the unusual increase in Speech references in longer dreams?  Perhaps a dream in which people start talking with each other is more likely to deepen the interaction and extend the overall experience.

Same with the increased references to Walking/Running and Transportation: a dream in which people are moving from one place to another is probably going to include additional details about what happens before, during, and after the movement.

So here’s a more refined conclusion: Shorter dreams are mostly similar to longer dreams in their basic content patterns, except that longer dreams tend to be scarier, more mobile, and more conversational.

Looking specifically at the 2015 dreams, I found the word usage frequencies were mostly lower compared to previous years, but they generally stayed the same in terms of their relative proportions to each other.  Even though the 2015 dreams were much shorter than the dreams of previous years, they shared with the other dreams a consistent profile of relative frequencies across all the word categories.  So my increased recall that year did not significantly alter the content patterns of the dreams.

Finally, I thought it would be fun to try a “blind analysis” of my own dreams.  Now that I have identified this remarkably stable profile of my dream content over five years of time, including both short dreams and long dreams, what do the patterns reveal about my life?

If I pretend that these dreams came from a stranger about whom I have no biographical knowledge, I would predict that in waking life this person:

Is male

Is visually oriented

Often experiences wonder/confusion

Is sexually active

Cares about his wife

Cares about cats

Has equal relations with men and women

Likes running

Is not concerned about death

Has lots of interactions with cars and streets

Likes basketball

Likes music and movies

Has lots of interactions with water and earth

All of these inferences are grounded in the statistical results of the word searches, and I would have to affirm every one of them as accurate.  Indeed, this is a remarkably concise summary of my concerns, interests, and activities in waking life.

Most importantly for the topic of this essay, the content patterns that helped me generate these inferences are observable in the shortest dreams.  I would have made most of these same accurate predictions if I had only been looking at the dreams of less than 50 words.

This means the answer to the opening question is no, there is not a significant difference in patterns of content between short and long dreams.  Perhaps dreams should be conceived as having a kind of fractal quality: even at a small scale they reflect the same basic structures that shapes things at a larger scale.

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content? by Kelly BulkeleyI will close by noting the three most striking discontinuities between the word usage frequencies in my dreams and the concerns, interests, and activities of my waking life.  These are instances where my blind analysis predictions would have been wrong.

First, I have very few references in my dreams to “Fantastic Beings,” which might lead to the inference that I do not like the cultural genres of science fiction or fantasy.  This is not true; I have always loved books, movies, and tv shows in the sci-fi and fantasy realm.  Perhaps what I like about these stories are not the odd characters (vampires, zombies, aliens, robots, etc.) but rather the spirit of unpredictable novelty and imaginative adventure.  Putting it in those terms, my high frequency of “Wonder/Confusion” words might be a better sign of my cultural interests in this direction.

Second, I have only moderate references to “Reading/Writing,” which might suggest I do not engage much with these activities.  This is not true; I am a voracious reader and prolific writer, and have been so for several decades.  What strikes me as discontinuous is that my dreams don’t have far more references to reading and writing, given their central importance in my waking life.  Ernest Hartmann’s notion that we typically do not dream of the three R’s might be a factor here.

And third, I have very few references to “Religion,” which would prompt the inference that I have little or no concern about religion.  At one level this is definitely false; I have a Ph.D. in religious studies and I read and write about religion very frequently.  One would never know this about my waking life based only on the patterns of my dreams.  And yet, at another level this inference is surely true; I was not raised in a religious household, I do not personally identify with any official religious tradition, and I rarely attend religious worship services.  Perhaps this all makes sense in that religion is an important intellectual category for me, but it is not a personal concern.  My spiritual pursuits are more likely to be expressed in dreams with references to other word categories like water, art, sexuality, animals, and flying.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten.  The next step will be trying this same process of analysis with other sets and series of dreams.

 

Note: this post was originally published in Psychology Today on May 4, 2017.

199 Dreams of Donald Trump

199 Dreams of Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyA new collection of dreams about the new US President sheds light on his psychological impact in the minds of those who support him and those who oppose him.

These dreams were gathered via a website I manage, idreamoftrump.net, which has been active since early 2016.  A total of 143 came from people living in the U.S., and 56 came from people living in countries outside the U.S.  In terms of gender, 124 reports come from females and 75 from males.  I asked a question about how the individual would describe his or her political ideology, and 43 said they were progressive, 44 liberal, 50 moderate, 8 libertarian, 37 conservative, and 9 very conservative.  

This is certainly not a representative sample of people from the U.S. or the human population, so I want to be cautious in drawing conclusions from the data.  This sample represents a self-selected group of people who woke up remembering a dream of Donald Trump, found my site online, and shared the dream with me (for which I am very grateful!).  The results of analyzing these dreams can illuminate several possible dimensions of meaning which are interesting and important, though not definitively proven or established using current research methods.  What I’m going to lay out is more than mere speculation, but well short of settled knowledge.

199 Dreams of Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyThe good news, from a research perspective, is that this set of 199 dreams turns out to be remarkably consistent with the content patterns of average or typical dreams.  In my 2016 book Big Dreams I describe the “SDDb baselines,” a set of more than 5,000 dream reports I gathered from normal, healthy people to create a portrait of the baseline frequencies of average dreaming.  I analyzed the 199 Trump dreams using the same word search template I used with the SDDb baselines (which includes classes for Perception, Emotion, Cognition, Movement, Characters, Social Interactions, Culture, and Elements), and I found the results match up very closely with the frequencies of the baselines.

What this means is that the Trump dreams are not radically different from ordinary dreams.  The same general currents that shape regular dreaming also shape the dreams in which Trump appears as a character.

199 Dreams of Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyThis also means the few differences I did find are worth special attention.  The close parallels between the Trump dreams and the SDDb baselines on so many categories of content casts into sharp relief the areas where the Trump dreams had unusual variations from the baselines.

The Trump dreams had a very high frequency of references to male characters, which makes sense given that the Trump is present in all of them.  But these 199 dreams also have an unusually low frequency of references to female characters, which is more striking.  Compared to the baselines, the dreams of Trump also have remarkably high frequencies of references to the act of speaking, to the perceptual sense of touch, and to the cultural domain of money and work.  

For the males, their dreams of Trump had unusually high friendliness, low physical aggression, and low references to weapons.  For the females, their dreams of Trump had unusually high physical aggression and sexuality.

To summarize these findings, it seems that when Trump appears as a character in people’s dreams, he does not disrupt the whole process; people continue dreaming more or less the way they typically do.  But he does have a tangible and measurable impact on certain aspects of those dreams.  A dream about Donald Trump typically involves fewer women and more talking, touching, and references to money and work.  Men seem to become pacified around Trump in their dreams, while women seem to become more instinctually primed.  

199 Dreams of Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyI can provide the spreadsheet with the detailed results to anyone who requests it, and I will go into more detail about these and other politically-related dreams at the upcoming conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, to be held June 20-24 in Anaheim, California.  I am giving a presentation on dreams in relation to current U.S. politics, and the analysis of this set of 199 Trump dreams will be featured in the presentation.  

The dream reports are currently available in the SDDb for further study and exploration.  I have selected twenty-three reports to include in this post, all of which came post-election, as a way of illustrating the personal experiences behind the statistical comparisons I’ve been discussing so far.  Each report includes the age, gender, country/state of residence, and political ideology of the dreamer, along with their SDDb participant ID codes.  The dreamer’s associations to the dream follow the report, responding to my question about what they thought the dream might mean, and whether it altered their view of the new president.  I made up the titles with an eye towards highlighting what I think are the most interesting themes.

 

He Put a Ring on My Finger

A female, 32, from Iowa, moderate – Td107

I dreampt I was in his house, a really large one. There were threats that he was going to be assassinated all around and I was crying. He was acting like everything was okay and he had a lot of security. Everyone was dressed casual, and I think his family was there too. Suddenly the dream shifted and everyone was saying he was dead. I couldn’t stop crying, and as I was about to go he stood in front of me and told me I was worried for nothing, he was smiling and totally confident. This part is weird and embarrassing. …He then proposed to me and put a ring on my finger! I grabbed him and was sobbing into his chest while he was rubbing my back. I have NO idea why I dreampt it lol. That’s what prompted me to search if anyone else has dreams of him. 🙂

Idk, I voted for him..and I think he’s great! It doesn’t change my opinion of him at all, it made me feel a little closer to him perhaps…which is weird to say.

 

I Could Mess With Trump If I Wanted to

A female, 14, from Louisiana, liberal – Td123

I was is a car, one with black leather material. The car has three rows of seats and Donald Trump and my brother resided in the middle set and I sat in the back row. I sat behind Trump and he reclined is chair to touch my knees. I give him a dirty look and received the same back but he soon put his chair back. Then, not immediately after, almost like some time had past, Trump asked me to get something from the seat next to me that was him and he reclined his chair and I gave his item to him and the very slightest bit of our fingers brushed past each other and I was disgusted so much that I quivered. My brother gave me a dirty look and Trump put his seat back on. I realized that I could mess with Trump if I wanted to and texted my friend and asked “Should I shout I’M GAY!” And my dream ended at that.

Perhaps the dream means how I feel scared about what could happen to my friends that are not all white men.

 

He Gives Me a Necklace to Wear for Our Wedding

A female, 63, from New York, progressive – Td124

I’m getting married! I am preparing for my upcoming wedding. My fiance, Donald Trump, has given me a necklace to wear for our wedding. The necklace has a large oval moonstone set into a square platinum setting surrounded by diamonds, on a small link platinum chain. I am not sure I want to wear this necklace. I have another necklace given to me by my last partner, John. It is a gorgeous platinum necklace set with baguette (rectangular shape) emeralds, and diamond pave (tiny diamonds). It is a series of ¼” links and has an elaborate clasp as a focal point; it’s more dimensional with the same design. While deciding which necklace I will wear my ex-husband, Peter shows up. We go to the local nursery with a container with two plants in it; we own together. One of the plants has died. The man at the nursery says the problem is the two plants need different environments – one needs sun and lots of water, the other less water, and no bright sunlight.

While writing the dream down, I had a big ah-ha about why my ex-husband and I did not get along. This dream made me take a look at my disowned shadow showing up as Trump. I’m still processing it. The jewelry to me represents some accomplishments in my life which point to speaking up (necklace around throat). Integrating Donald will probably help that too, but at this moment I have a difficult time with admitting I am that too, but dreams don’t lie. LOL!

 

I Note That He Is Circumcised

A female, 69, from Colorado, liberal – Td125

I’m in a bathtub with Donald Trump. He tells me to wash my hair. Melania sits on the toilet with the cover down and tries to make nice. He’s not being sexual with me. Maybe I’m not attractive enough for him to notice. I tell Melania he’s my father. I know no good will come of this. I note that he is circumcised because I know people will ask. Why won’t he let me take a shower? I need to rinse my hair. There’s not much water. Should I pull the white shower curtain? I decide not to. It’s no use. He cannot win, I think to myself, trying to make it so.

Trump has invaded my private space, yet is not as aggressive or fearful as he seems in waking life . I don’t want him there but he’s more of a bumbler than a threat.

 

Working Very Closely With Him

A female, 53, from Mississippi, conservative – Td127

It was very good dream.Donald hired me to work very closely with him full time and most of what my job consisted of was entertainment. It seemed like many people were flocking around him at something like a resort/? Donald seemed to be so appreciative of my opinion 24/7. It was a very vivid dream and people were a little jealous of me and/or confused about the situation.

Yes my dream did change my perspective of Donald in a better way. He seems very kind and giving.

 

A Soft Kiss on the Lips

A male, 67, from Virginia, progressive – Td133

I am a trump supporter.. maybe more didnt want the alternative the night before the election he came to me in a dream and kissed me on the lips…his lips were very soft. i felt very close to him. I’m not overtly attracted to him in a sexual way

it engendered a feeling of paternal trust

 

I Am His Disgruntled Spouse

A female, 50, from Georgia, liberal – Td141

I dreamt I was in the White House as First Lady and he was my husband. Even in my dream I was disgusted by his presence and felt compelled to do everything in my power to keep him from becoming our President. I was a disgruntled spouse who was complaining about everything he was doing. Every time I looked at him I loathed being with him! We were getting ready to go to a show and he kept trying to convince me it was going to be ok? ?Strangely I had the upper hand and he was pretty much agreeing to everything I said and actually trying to be extra nice to me. Very vivid in my mind-Everything was pale pink like the drapes, and layers underneath were white with hints of old shimmering. Even the furniture was upholstered in sand pink and gold thread, the wood works had gold shimmery accents to it! He wore a black suit, with a white shirt and red tie. I was dressed in a white suit with gold shimmer..

I was just so disturbed by it it mortified me that we were even in the same dream! He seemed absolutely puzzled about his every move, almost apologetic about everything he said and I had a dog that was sleeping in my bed and I remember being very mean and saying I’ll just take the dog with me you can stay here in the White House and be president. It was a room with large glass panels all over and I felt like I had no privacy and then I pushed him out and locked the doors. He said, “at least give me the dog! Please be ready, I’ll see you down stairs.”

 

I’m His Girlfriend and Melania Is Super Jealous

A female, 26, from Nebraska, libertarian – Td155

I’ve been having basically the same dreams about Donald since before he was even president. It’s always where I’m like his girlfriend lol. Melania is always super jealous of me and everyone don’t get why he chose me. But I’m always super for it! He’s always very nice and treats me like a princess. It isn’t so real and I can like feel him lol there’s so many details I can’t even tell them all. It’s like it’s real life. Always me and him together like in a relationship. Very good dreams

Well. I have always been a fan of trump. Like his number on every fan lol. And his sons wife followed me on Instagram and we’ve talked online about her horse and dogs. And she personally thanked me for going up to vote for him. I love that family

 

He Accepts Me As I Am

A female, 54, from California, conservative – Td176

I was supposed to be at a formal presentation but, I was dressed in shorts and a tank top. I was standing in front of a beautiful building but, was anxious about going in due to my attire. As I stood there, President Trump comes over like we’ve known each other forever, takes my hand ever so gently and he sort of waves his individual fingers against mine. He then looked right at me and said “Don’t worry about how you are dressed, you have the same right to be here as everyone else.” That’s it. It made me feel good. Accepted.

I have been scared to death about the direction of this beautiful country. Too many agendas will only lead to chaos. I feel like the dream Trump was telling me that things will be OK and that all people eventually will be treated with courtesy and respect.

 

I’m His Child, and Powerless to Stop His Plans

A female, 49, from West Virginia, liberal – Td180

I was at a cocktail party at a swanky mansion, and Trump walked in, and had a different wife, blonde, and a different child, I guess that was me, although I felt like myself. He wanted u us to go see his property down by the river, so we got in the car and the blonde drive us around till we came upon a big Greek revival type building, sort of looked like mausoleum actually, and he said it was an apartment building he had bought and did I like it? I said yes, it was beautiful, and then several young women came bounding out, wearing bikinis and talking about what they had made for dinner. We almost hit the off kilter gate backing out of the driveway. Then I woke up. Earlier in the dream, I was being chased in my car by one of his security officers, and I sped up to get away and lost control of my car and went down a wooded cliff in the dark and thought I was going to die. I landed safely in a bunch of bushes, at the house that became the other dream.

I felt powerless to stop his plans, like a robot, or a slave. Even acting like I was a relative or a child made me feel annoyed because I am my own person wanting nothing to do with him. I don’t agree with him at all in real life but in my dreams he was like you will do it my way and be impressed or I will chase chase you off a cliff.

 

A Neighbor in NYC

A male, 50, from New York, progressive – Td158

I was walking down an avenue in Midtown Manhattan and I saw Trump walking alone. He didn’t have any protection or staff flanking him. He was wearing black sweat pants and a sweatshirt and he looked a bit forlorn. As he passed me I said, “Good afternoon, Mr. President.” He didn’t react. I think someone behind me said hello to him as well. I remember thinking why isn’t he wearing his usual suit? In real life, I have seen him in my neighborhood twice before. His daughter lives around the corner from me on 59th and Park and I have seen her frequently over the years since she was a youngster.

The dream did not increase any negative feelings re trump

 

An Honored Guest in the Great White Plaza

A male, 35, from Colorado, conservative – Td153

There I was with my good friend Eric. We were way up high on some kind of structure and seemed to be boarding a ride or a craft of some kind. Eric was steering the craft at first to show me how to do it. Then it was my turn. I took over the craft and started to bring it down to the ground below. It seemed like some kind of helicopter but very small as it only fit me and Eric side by side. When we landed I jumped off and Eric stayed on taking the craft back up. The moment I turn around I notice that I am now in an all white setting. The walls were white with columns leading to curved arches and they stretched around an enormous square plaza that had what looked like a white woven carpet for a floor. I then noticed that I was being guided around this area by Donald Trump, who seemed to be treating me as an honored guest. He showed me around and introduced me to people. We seemed to be talking candidly but I cannot recall what about. After we left the great white plaza Donald guided me through what seemed to be a naval vessel. We kept going up until we reached a compartment that appeared to be multi-functional. Donald left me at a table with close to a dozen people, all who had communication devices in their ears. They were testing these devices and one of the devices had a distorted sound. Everyone there seemed to know me as they looked to me to figure out what was wrong with the device. I spoke into the microphone and made a few comments and then woke up.

I am not sure what the dream means, but after waking from it I certainly felts interested in the meaning. The feeling I had while in the dream was excitement and admiration as it seemed that I was being treated with great honor and respect in what seemed like a setting full of very important people.

 

Something 14.5 Inches Exactly

A female, 29, from US, moderate – Td188

I wasn’t going to share this but here it goes… I was at some political/social event and happened to meet President Trump. He said that he wanted to show me something that was 14.5 inches exactly. He then began pulling down his pants and said, “See, I told you it’s huge.” In reality it (his penis) was not. This is making me want to throw up typing this and I do not know why I had this dream. In reality I would never want to see that! LOL However, I specifically remember seeing the number 14.5, so that could mean something. I don’t recall ever seeing anything that connects to the number 14.5 in relation to Trump or in my life.

I think this dream is hinting at exaggeration of some kind. Maybe making something out to be bigger than it actually is or expecting too much of a certain situation. I’m not really sure what triggered me to have this dream.

 

I Cannot Bring Myself to Say the Words

A female, 55, from California, moderate – Td194

In my dream, my 7/8th grade students are to be heading out on a field trip. I am standing in the parking lot waiting for the drivers to file out. Donald Trump has his driver-side door open standing between it and the car gesticulating to the bystanders. I want him to get in the car and drive my students to the destination. However, I cannot bring myself to say the words, “President Trump” in order to get his attention and tell him to get in the car and drive it. Instead, I call out, “The car needs to be moving; we need to get to our destination.” Nothing happens. Trump keeps talking and waving his hands and is standing wedged between the open black car door. I try again. I yell out, “Get in the car and get it moving; the students need to get to their field trip.” He doesn’t stop talking. I turn to someone standing next to me and I ask them, “Could you walk over to him and tell him he needs to drive the car – I can’t get his attention, and I just can’t bear to call out the name ‘President Trump.'” I woke up and my dream was so real I am still bothered by it.

As far as what triggered it, well I have been watching lots of youtube videos regarding Trump, so that could have triggered it.

 

A Game of Him Trying to “Win” Me Over

A female, 22, from Georgia, moderate – Td195

He was coming to an event and he was driving through a body of water. The water would part and people would walk through then a wave would come and then it would part and his limo drove through. We were in a huge colosseum listening to him talk. Then there was an after party and he came up to me wanting my number- I am not a Trump fan and I expressed that. It then turned into a game of him trying to “win” me over. My old boyfriend was there, he is a Trump supporter, and Trump told him he wasn’t interested in talking. This went on the entire night until I left the party.

I have no idea what triggered the dream. I did not run into my ex and I try to avoid Trump news.

 

Married to the President with a Baby Carrot Penis

A female, 54, from Florida, moderate – Td197

I dreamt I was married to Donald Trump and he wore pajamas that look like his regular clothes and his penis was a baby carrot. He also sent me to Victoria’s Secret to buy my inauguration dress with a black American Express card that said president of the United States of America. I told him Victoria secret didn’t carry plus size clothes and he said they do now. I went to Victoria’s Secret and they do not carry plus size clothes and they said they would get them I had my own American Express card that said Mrs. president of the United States of America and paid for peoples dinner at the mall where the Victoria’s Secret’s was with my black American Express card. I also dreamt of the inauguration in the White House inside was kind of tacky and dirty. The funniest part was Barbara Bush was sleeping in a cot in the hallway and blue pajamas with her pearls on her neck. And as I walk down the hallway all the other first ladies are sleeping on cots in the hallway

I’m pretty sure that I manifested trumps hatred of fat women and the tackiness of his wife’s clothing. I’m also pretty sure that the baby carrot penis had to do with eating some before bed and having a diverticulitis attack in real life. It’s also the first time I have proof that o dream in color! The carrot was orange

 

From participants living in countries outside the US:

Everyone Is Blindly Praising Him

A male, 17, from Denmark – Td140

I dreamt that I was in a high school class and donald trump was also attending this class, it was an older version of him and he had a lot more wrinkles and his skin was more orange, he seemed like he was disgusted of everyone in that class and started criticizing us and telling us what to do but indeed everyone was blind about it and started praising him and saying the famous sentence: make America great again. AWKWARD

I think it really reflects the reality of things, in a more concrete way and that a lot of people are blind about the bad deeds of Donald trump.

 

Trapped at School by a Gunman

A female, 18, from Canada, liberal – Td184

I was watching a movie in what seemed like an elementary school classroom. It was brightly lit, and someone was handing out fruit leather to us in our desks. When I left the classroom, I found myself in a stairwell as all the doors mechanically snapped shut. I somehow knew that there was a man with a gun in the building, and that I was trapped in that particular flight of stairs. I also knew that Melania Trump was a few flights above me, also locked in. Somehow I sensed that the gunman was Trump, but he didn’t know that Melania was trapped in the stairwell along with the rest of us. I should mention that the stairwells were sparsely populated, with only about 3 people locked in each flight of stairs. I woke up before anything more could happen.

I am firmly liberal (democratic to Americans), and staunchly oppose Trump’s policies. Since he has been inaugurated I have felt extremely uneasy, and it grows with each day. It’s possible that this dream was an expression of that anxiety, or perhaps it foreshadows the destruction of the school system under Trump? Haha not sure.

 

Does He Have Manipulative Superpowers?

A male, 31, from Malta, progressive – Td172

Donald Trump was my Flatmate, which in my dream was more of a background information, because the dream setting was some private party of his somewhere else. Everything was super luxurious, sunny, nice snacks, and he was really nice to me, showing me around and being attentive. In my dream I knew that I actually am against Donald Trump, but for some reason meeting him in person I actually liked him. I was wondering if he had manipulative superpowers of some sort, because it didn’t make any sense that I got along with him so well. I met his family, all were very nice too. I kept my resentments against them hidden and took part in conversations. I had the feeling I saw the human sides in them, everyone thinking they are actually doing the right thing, being good people, but getting it all wrong because they live in this super rich bubble, disconnected from the real world. Later more people joined the party, even an old friend of mine. We got a bit drunk and at one point I told him that Trump is actually sharing a flat with me at the moment and we both laughed at the absurdity of it.

I was surprised to see how quickly I somehow changed side, just by being invited to a party of his, apparently lulled in by the luxury of it all (I actually don’t even like luxury very much). There was this nagging feeling in the back of my head that it is wrong to be nice to them, but it felt extremely difficult to take a position in that setting (or even remember what my position really was).

 

Sleeping With Him

Female, 15, from Ireland, moderate – Td131

I had to sleep with Donald trump. There were no beds left to sleep in so i had to sleep with Donald.

Maybe because i thought about donald trump a lot and I’m still okay with Donald.

 

He Was Very Sweet

A female, 21, from the Philippines, moderate – Td112

It was a very long dream, and Donald Trump was only a part of it. I remember he was courting me, he was very sweet to me, and wanted to have an affair with me. I knew we had so much age gap, and that I am not suited to be his wife, so I just laughed but I was flattered that he was being that way to me. I dont want to have an affair with him though. Lol

I dont know what it means, and I didnt even think of him the night before. But that dream made me ponder that he has a soft but impulsive side to him.

 

Trapped in a Marriage With a Narcissist

A female, 26, from New Zealand, liberal – Td181

I was married to Trump and we were at some kind of social gathering. I was sitting next to an old school friend, talking to her, when I heard a verbal attack outside and saw that a group of African people were fighting with Trump. They appeared to be insulted by what he was saying and then they left and Trump came back inside. He sat down next to me and I asked him whether it had been taken out of context or had he said something insulting? He answered that it had been insulting but that he didn’t care. I was mortified that I could be married to someone like this and I angrily expressed my feelings, and then I said something like “Donnie, Sean, whatever your name is!” (Sean is the name of my partner – who is nothing like Trump!) – I then left and spoke to my old school friend and described how trapped I felt. It then changed to another aspect of this gathering… Melania Trump was there and she was ordering me drinks, and then she was standing on the bar table and dancing. I remember eating lots of cake.

Thoughts of narcissism may have triggered it – my mother in law is a narcissist (has tried to ruin my relationship with her son) and I’m reading a book titled ‘the narcissist next door’ published in 2014, it talks about Trump in its beginning pages (before he became president!) and describing him as a kind of poster boy narcissist (which I think he is) and he is using fear to divide and conquer. It’s very sad.

 

His Head Looks Like Crumbly Rubber With a Bad Toupee

A male, 63, from Thailand, moderate – Td151

I’m on Trump Island. It’s supposed to be a big luxury celebrity deal, a kind of trip to fantasy island, but it’s just a rough, flat, windswept space surrounded by gray sea with some decrepit buildings on it. People in long overcoats are moving around with no sense of direction, and there’s a feeling of something going on, something important but unclear. Trump is in a kind of lounger next to me, and he’s really anxious and upset that it isn’t going well. He’s on the verge of tears. His head looks like it’s made of crumbly rubber, with a bad toupee, but I know it’s really him. He’s started clinging to me, and crying. I’m embarrassed to be there, but I try to comfort him. Later I’m crying out “Donny! Donny!” because they’re asking me for a ticket I don’t have.

The dream means I’m seeing too damn much Trump on the internet. I’ve never dreamt about a world leader before. I still hate the fucker. Slightly more, if anything, for wasting my valuable dream time.

 

Note: this essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on April 26, 2017.

 

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.

Donald Trump: The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis

Donald Trump: The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis by Kelly BulkeleyIt seems that every pundit on the planet has taken a shot at explaining the phenomenal rise and mercurial character of Donald Trump, currently the leading contender to become the Republican nominee for US President. A recent op-ed piece by Timothy Egan in the New York Times, “A Unified Theory of Trump,” suggested a novel and I believe entirely plausible explanation for Trump’s behavior as a candidate: he is chronically sleep deprived.

Egan pointed to Trump’s comments last November in which he boasted about his disinterest in sleep. As reported by Nara Schoenberg in the Chicago Tribune, Trump told a crowd in Springfield, Illinois that “I’m not a big sleeper, I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.” A few days later Trump told Henry Blodget in an interview for Business Insider that he can get by on as little as one hour of sleep. Here is an excerpt from the interview; the sleep discussion comes at the very beginning:

HENRY BLODGET, CEO AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF BUSINESS INSIDER: You have an incredible work ethic, which is clearly part of your success. You’re tweeting at 3 o’clock in the morning, you’re up all night.

DONALD TRUMP: It’s part of my campaign. [Conservative radio host] Mark Levin said to me last night, I had a dinner-show at 8:30. He says, “I saw you on ‘Morning Joe’ at 7, I saw you in the debate. Where do you get the energy?” he said. I said, “Mark, you know what, I got one hour of sleep last night. Because I flew from Milwaukee at 2:30 in the morning. You know, by the time you’re finished up with all the stuff and the interviews.” It was a successful debate, so I stayed around.

I then flew, I went to New Hampshire. I went to a hotel, I stayed for one hour, because I got there at 5. And by the time I got there, I had to get up to get out at 6:30 something. So I slept for one hour over there.

He said, “Where do you get the energy?”

HB: So where do you get it? Where does it come from?

DT: Genetically. My father was very energetic, my mother was very energetic. He lived to a very old age and so did my mother. I believe that I just have it from my father, from my parents. They had wonderful energy.

In her Huffington Post commentary, “Can Sleep Deprivation Explain Donald Trump’s Behavior?” Krithika Varagur noted that in his 2004 book Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, he “claimed to sleep only from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., in order to gain a competitive advantage in his dealings. He advised readers, ‘Don’t sleep any more than you have to. … No matter how brilliant you are, there’s not enough time in the day.’”

I won’t speculate about Trump’s genetics, but I agree with Schoenberg, Egan, and Varagur that his behavioral patterns are characteristic of someone with chronic sleep deprivation, the symptoms of which include emotional imbalance, sudden mood swings, cognitive deficits, poor judgment, memory loss, irritability in social situations, increased appetites, loss of creativity, the tendency to continue with an error despite contrary evidence, and an inability to recognize and adjust to new conditions. Most of these symptoms do seem applicable to Trump. As Egan put it,

“His judgment is off, and almost always ill informed. He has trouble processing basic information. He imagines things. He shows a lack of concentration… in addition, Trump is given to inchoate bursts of anger and profanity. He creates feuds. In his speeches, he picks up on the angry voice in the mob and then amplifies it.”

But if this theory about Trump is true, then his political success seems even more bizarre than ever. How can someone who flaunts his psychological dysfunction be winning the fervent support of a large portion of the American electorate?

The answer may be embedded in the question. Trump’s supporters themselves may have a tendency to chronic sleep deprivation.

The behavioral signs are consistent with this idea. People who support Trump are remarkably unyielding in their attachment to him; nothing anyone says will change their minds. As Trump himself commented in January, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” His supporters seem to include many people who are angry, suspicious of reason, socially irritable, and uncreative in the sense of seeking a return to an earlier, simpler time, when America used to be great.

Stronger evidence comes from demographic studies of sleep. Trump’s supporters tend to be people at the lower end of the income scale, less educated, and, in their own words, feeling besieged by outside forces threatening to overwhelm the country. Empirical research has shown that people in precisely those demographic conditions are more prone to suffer insomnia and problems sleeping. For example, Sara Arber at the University of Surrey has shown correlations in the British population between poor sleep and low socio-economic status. Here is how I describe her findings in chapter 4 of my book Big Dreams:

“Research by Sara Arber and her colleagues at the Center for the Sociology of Sleep at the University of Surrey has found clear connections between socioeconomic status and sleep quality. In a study based on interviews with 8,578 British men and women between the ages of 16 and 74, Arber and her colleagues identified several social and economic factors associated with increased sleep problems: unemployment, low household income, low educational achievement, and living in rented or public housing. Women had worse sleep problems than men, and divorced or widowed people had worse sleep problems than married people. Overall, their study found that disadvantages in social and economic life were strongly correlated with poor quality sleep. Noting the negative health consequences of sleep deprivation, Arber and her colleagues suggested that “disrupted sleep may potentially be one of the mechanisms through which low socioeconomic status leads to increased morbidity and mortality.”

The last point bears emphasis. Poor socioeconomic conditions can lead to poor sleep, which in turn can lead to increased health problems and a shorter lifespan. Sleep seems to be a pressure point where adverse social forces can directly and negatively impact a person’s physiological health.

My research with the Sleep and Dream Database has also found that people at the low end of the economic scale tend to have more insomnia and trouble sleeping. In a 2007 survey I found, consistent with Arber et al.’s research, that people with higher education and higher annual income tended to have less insomnia than people with lower education and lower annual income. A 2010 survey found the same pattern: people without college degrees had somewhat worse insomnia than people with a college degree. On the personal finances question, people with the lowest annual income reported having worse insomnia than did the people with the highest annual incomes. (I discuss these surveys at greater length in chapter 4 of Big Dreams.)

Most Americans are sleep deprived not by choice or genetics, but because of the relentless stress and pressure of modern life. For those Americans at the lower end of the economic scale, with fewer opportunities and more anxieties about the worsening condition of the country, it becomes difficult to preserve normal, healthy patterns of sleep.

And then Donald Trump comes along and says sleep deprivation is nonsense, that’s just what losers think when they see a high-energy individual with a strong work ethic. Trump shows people how to re-brand their loss of sleep as a badge of honor, reconceive their misfortune as a virtuous strength, and transform their diminished inner life into an outward projection of aggressive confidence. It seems to work for him, and the implicit promise of his campaign is that it will work for his supporters, too.

 

References:

Arber, Sara, Marcos Bote, and Robert Meadows. “Gender and socio-economic patterning of self-reported sleep problems in Britain,” Social Science & Medicine 68 (2009): 281-289.

Arber, Sara, Robert Meadows, and S. Venn. “Sleep and Society,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sleep and Sleep Disorders (Charles Morin and Colin Espie, ed.s). New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 223-247.

 

Note: this essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on March 9, 2016.

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.