Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal

Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyThe value of keeping a dream journal is inherent in the practice itself. Simply recording your dreams on a regular basis will increase your dream recall, deepen your self-knowledge, and help you maintain emotional balance in waking life. You can enjoy these benefits even if you never look back at your journal after recording each dream.

But if you do have the opportunity to look back and review your journal over a period of time, you can learn some amazing things about yourself and the world in which you live.

I’ve been keeping a dream journal for more than 30 years, and the discoveries never stop coming. I study my journal both for personal insight and for new ideas to explore in my research with other people’s dreams. At the end of each calendar year I go back over the last 12 months of my dreams to explore the recurrent patterns and themes, using the word search tools of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) to make an initial survey. This year’s review provides an incredibly accurate portrait of my concerns and interests in waking life, and gives me lots of inspiration for new research to pursue.

The results of the initial word search analysis are presented in the table in the previous post. I compared the results of my 2018 dreams with my dreams from 2016 and 2017. I also compared them with the male and female “baselines.” The baselines are two large collections of dreams gathered by various researchers to provide a source of “normal” dreaming in the general population. (I describe the baselines in more detail in my Big Dreams book.)

To analyze these dreams I used the SDDb 2.0 template of 40 word categories in 8 classes, listed in the lefthand column. The percentages to the right of each category indicate how often a dream in the given set includes at least one reference to a word in that category.

In 2018 I remembered one dream each night, as I did in 2016 and 2017. The average length of the dreams increased during this time (102 in 2016, 111 in 2017, 116 in 2018). This suggests the word search results will tend to be a little higher in the 2018 set, just because there are more total words to search. This will also be true in comparisons with the baseline dreams, which have an average length of 100 words (females) and 105 words (males).

Keeping that in mind, the 2018 dreams had more references to vision and color than previous years, while other sensory perceptions (hearing, touch, smell & taste) stayed the same. The table doesn’t show it, but the most frequently mentioned colors in my 2018 dreams were white, black, green, gray, and blue.  For both of these categories (vision and color), my dreams have many more references than either the male or female baselines.

The emotion references in the 2018 dreams are pretty similar to 2016 and 2017. I have much more wonder/confusion than the male and female baselines, and somewhat more happiness.

The 2018 dreams have a rise in references to family characters, and to females generally. The frequencies of references to animals, fantastic beings, and males are quite steady from 2016 to 2018. Compared to the baselines, my family references are still rather low, my animal references are high, and my female references are very high.

The three categories of social interaction—friendliness, physical aggression, and sexuality—are all steady from 2016 to 2018. The sexuality frequencies are somewhat higher than the baselines.

The frequencies of my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines are all similar on the categories of walking/running, flying, and falling. My dreams have fewer references to death than the baselines.

The cognitive categories—thinking, speech, reading & writing—are consistent across 2016-2018, with higher frequencies of thinking than the baselines.

The cultural categories are also remarkably consistent from 2016 to 2018, with a slight rise in references to food & drink and art.  Compared to the baselines, my dreams have fewer references to school and more to art.

Of the four elements, the frequencies of fire and air are consistent in my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines. My dreams have more references to water and earth.

This kind of analysis is quite superficial, of course. It ignores personal associations, narrative flow, and all the subtle qualities of dreaming that can’t be captured in numbers.  That’s true, and yet it’s also true that a well-crafted word search analysis can reveal some fascinating themes that are both accurate and thought-provoking.

One of the most striking results of this initial analysis is the remarkable consistency over time of most of the word categories. There are a few significant changes, which I’ll discuss in a moment. But those changes are more dramatic when set in the bigger context of strong consistency across word categories as diverse as air (3% in 2016, 4% in 2017, and 4% in 2018), touch (12, 11, 13), anger (7, 8, 8), fantastic beings (4, 4, 3), physical aggression (16, 17, 17), flying (7, 6, 7), and clothing (18, 19, 21). As wild and unpredictable as individual dreams may be, in the aggregate they seem to follow steady long-term patterns.

Against that background of consistency, the changes that do occur over time are all the more intriguing.

The rise in references to vision and color from 2016 to 2018 seems related to the lengthening of my dream reports over this time. As my reports get longer, I apparently need to use more vision and color words to describe what happens in each dream.

The rise in references to family characters might be a return to a more “normal” ratio of family in my dreams. The family frequencies in 2016 and 2017 are actually the lowest I’ve ever had (extending the comparison back to 2010), so 2018 may be a bounce-back year. This would make sense in relation to my waking life: 2016 was the beginning of the “empty nest,” when the last of our children moved out of the house.

The rise in references to female characters is the most intriguing. The references to male characters stayed mostly the same from 2016 to 2018 (47, 44, 43), so the 2018 increase in female references leads to a big gender gap (59% female vs. 43 male). The baselines actually have slightly higher frequencies of male references vs. female references, so the variation in my 2018 dreams is even more unusual.

What might account for this change? My first thought is political. American society, as I currently perceive it, is dominated by destructive masculine energies, and change is only going to come once we bring more women to positions of power. I’m trying harder than ever in waking life to listen to female voices, and that intention may have influenced the patterns of my dreaming.

Two other features of the analysis pique my curiosity.

One is the rise of references to art over 2016-2018 (7, 14, 15), which I believe correlates with my increased participation as a board member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I wonder if other people who become more involved with an artistic group or practice also experience a rise in their dreams about art. I also wonder if my rise in art references might be connected to my higher frequencies of vision and color.

The other feature I’d like to explore further is the consistently low frequency of references to religion during all three years (3, 4, 3). This might seem odd since I have two graduate degrees in religious studies, and I’ve written several books about religion. But at the same time I never attend church, and I don’t belong to any religious group or denomination. My dreams seem to reflect the latter reality, my personal behavior rather than my scholarly pursuits.

In a recent survey that I’ve been analyzing with the help of Michael Schredl, we asked people to choose one of the following categories to describe their religious identity—Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Agnostic, Atheist, Nothing in Particular, and Something Else. I would definitely categorize myself as “something else”—not one of the religious identities, but not one of the non-religious identities, either. And it turns out (previewing the statistical findings Michael and I will soon publish) that people who identify religiously as “something else” have the highest interest in dreams compared to other groups. This makes me more curious than ever to understand the beliefs of people who religiously identify as “something else,” and how those beliefs relate to their attitudes towards dreaming.

I’m left with a final question, which will guide me in 2019: To what extent do these patterns reflect the past, and to what extent do they map the future?

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This post first appeared in Psychology Today on February 5, 2019.

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

 

Recent Interviews About “Big Dreams”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThis year I’ve had the honor of serving as an advisor for three doctoral dissertations in the study of dreams.  Dianne Jackie Frost at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Cynthia S. Sauln at Sofia University, and Mary Walsh at San Francisco Theological Seminary have done highly innovative work in exploring some of the most important and potentially transformative aspects of dreaming experience.  Each of them has shown amazing devotion and diligence, and their findings are truly original contributions to the field.

 

Dianne Frost’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology is titled “Engaging With the Imaginal: A Study of Women’s Dreamwork.”  Her study focuses on six women at a counseling center who participated in a group process of sharing dreams, exploring their images, and following their changes over a seven-week period (using methods drawn from the works of Steven Aizenstat, Jack Zimmerman, Virginia Coyle, Mary Watkins, and others).  Each of the women came to the process from a place of pain and crisis (interpersonal violence, depression, addiction, body image issues, etc.), and Frost shows how their dreams accurately reflect their emotional concerns and give witness to their suffering.  More importantly for therapeutic purposes, the dreams point the way towards healing, towards potentials for new life and new growth beyond the challenging conditions of the present. As the women shared their dreams and discussed possible dimensions of meaning, Frost found they developed a new depth of trust in their own strength, resilience, and creativity.

My favorite quote comes from the woman using the pseudonym “Cadence.” Cadence told Frost she had always looked to outside sources for guidance and advice in her life, but the insights she was gaining from her dreams made her realize she has a reliable source within herself:

“I felt like I needed someone else to guide me through, and this process really allows me to do that on my own.  It’s like I’m my own innate healer, with knowledge and images that only I can tap into and create a relationship with and learn from.”

Nothing in Frost’s approach limits it to women with these kinds of problems; her way of working with dreams could be usefully applied with many other groups of people who are striving for greater health and wholeness.

“In My Dreams I Am the Hero I Wish to Be: A Mixed Methods Study of Children’s Dreams, Meaning-Making, and Spiritual Awareness” is the title of Cynthia Sauln’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology).  Sauln recruited 32 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who were willing, with their parents’ permission, to describe a vivid or unusual dream.  She invited the children to draw pictures of their dreams, and she asked them to fill out two surveys designed to assess their spiritual and religious beliefs.  Sauln says in her introduction,

“For the purpose of this study, children’s spirituality is defined as an awareness of the divine or something larger than themselves that can provide meaning for waking life events and understanding of the world around them. Especially for children, it is a personal experience that may be expressed as a ‘knowing’ and an interpretation of the mysteries found in nature, animals, relationships and connections with people, dreams, and/or in their religious practices and beliefs.”

Drawing on the work of Kate Adams, C.G. Jung, and others, Sauln argues that dreams can play a vital role in children’s spiritual development.  She shows the close connection between spirituality, health, and creativity in childhood, with dreams as a mode of experience bringing them all together. Ironically, many teachers and parents were so skeptical about dreams in general that they would not give their children permission to participate in Sauln’s study, even though the children themselves were invariably curious about their dreams and eager to discuss and draw pictures of them.  This made the data-gathering process much more difficult than Sauln expected.

However, there was a silver lining to these difficulties.  Her extra efforts to recruit participants led her to ultimately gather a group of children with an unusual degree of ethnic diversity.  There were several Hispanic children in her study whose dreams seemed especially significant in relation to their waking spiritual beliefs.  In my SDDb research I’ve found some evidence of relatively high Hispanic interest in spiritually meaningful dreams.  I wonder if future research from Sauln or others might explore Hispanic dream experiences in more detail.

Mary Walsh’s dissertation for her Doctor of Ministry in Advanced Pastoral Studies from San Francisco Theological Seminary is titled “Prophetic Imagination and the Neuro-physiology of Trauma in Substance Abusing Adolescents.”  Walsh is a practicing psychotherapist whose doctoral studies have examined the theological dimensions of suffering, caregiving, and healing.  For two years she worked as a therapist at a high school for troubled adolescents, with a focus on their dreams in relation to several other measures of mental and physical health.  The students at her school came from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of them were suffering multiple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   In addition to talking about their dreams, she measured the students’ heart rate variability to track their neuro-physiological coherence during the treatment process.  Walsh’s use of sophisticated biofeedback technology will make it possible to illuminate new dimensions of dreaming and its role in mind-body healing.  I’m very curious to see what further uses can be made of biofeedback technologies like these.

Walsh has gathered an extremely valuable set of data that provides unique insights into the life experiences of young people at the most neglected margins of society.  Although she still has some writing to do, her project is putting together a compelling argument in favor of the therapeutic effectiveness of group dreamsharing for this poorly-served population.

It should be obvious I’m very proud of these three researchers!  Each of them has stayed true to her original vision and persevered in her scholarly work despite all manner of obstacles and static from uncomprehending administrators, teachers, etc.  Their success bodes well for the future of dream studies.

Dream Education = Religious Studies Education

Dream Education = Religious Studies Education by Kelly BulkeleyThis is an excerpt from a panel on dream education at the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  My co-panelists were Phil King and Bernard Welt, with whom I wrote Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education.

 

Any class on dreams that occurs within a school context must, at a minimum, provide educational benefits consistent with the school’s mission.  These benefits usually include critical thinking, literacy skills, knowledge acquisition, global citizenship, etc.  All of us on the panel agree that classes on dreams can do a wonderful job of providing these educational benefits and contributing to the general goals of almost any kind of school.

 

But dream classes can do more than that.  Indeed, dream classes are always doing more than that, whether or not the teacher and students are explicitly aware of it.   Something happens when dreams enter the classroom, something very different from other topics of study.  Each of us on the panel has different ways of talking about that educational surplus.  For me, what’s interesting is how every class on dreams becomes at some level a class on religious studies.  By that I mean a class that studies human expressions of ultimacy via symbols, metaphors, and myths.  The historical aspect of this may be most obvious.  Prior to the rise of psychology as a Western academic discipline in the mid-nineteenth century, the primary arena in which people shared, discussed, and explored their dreams was religion–in Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the spiritual traditions of the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Oceania.  Any class that’s trying to provide a solid base of knowledge about dreams can’t ignore the history of religions.  This is true whether you are teaching in psychology, literature, biology, or any other discipline—as soon as you start telling your students about dreams, you’ll need to talk about religious history, too.

 

I understand this might seem daunting to educators without any training or background in comparative religious studies.  I’m not saying you have to include large amounts of this material in your curriculum.  But I am saying you should think carefully about how you’re going to present the topics of your class within this bigger historical framework.  You should let your students know there IS a bigger historical framework, even if that’s not the specific focus of your class.

 

There’s another way that dream classes become religious studies classes, even more important than the historical aspect.  Whenever dreams become a topic of classroom discussion, the students are inevitably prompted to reflect on their private dream experiences.  The class may not explicitly involve personal dream sharing, or keeping a journal, or anything directly about the students’ own dreams—but I guarantee you, the students are thinking about their dreams in relation to what’s coming up in the class.  Especially if the teacher is a good one and gets the students excited about the topic, they’re going to be curious to explore their own dreams.  And once they do that, they’re very likely to come across themes, questions, and experiences that go to the heart of many of the world’s religions—for example, the prospect of death and an afterlife, the struggle of good and evil, the illusory nature of reality, prophetic anticipations of the future, nightmarish suffering and existential dread, haunting encounters with supernatural beings, and so forth.

 

Teachers can ignore all this if they wish, but I think it’s better if they at least recognize that their students are wondering about these kinds of issues in their dreams and thinking about how the class is, or is not, helping them make better sense of their experiences.  Again, this doesn’t mean you have to devote extensive class time to the religious implications of dreams in people’s lives.  You could devote some time to this topic, of course, and I think you’d be surprised at what your students would say if given the chance!  But it’s enough if you simply let the students know that, just as people in the past drew religious inspiration and philosophical insight from dreams, so do many people today.  It’s not a matter of ancient superstition carrying over into the modern world, but rather a recognition that humans in all times and places, up to and including us today, are dreamers, and our dreams bring us into contact with ideas, feelings, and energies that most cultures through history have regarded as religiously meaningful.  Whether or not we use religious language, the personal impact of certain dreams can be intensely meaningful and even transformative.  As dream educators, we have to give our students some degree of informed awareness of those spiritual dimensions of dreaming potential.

 

The Art and Science of Dreaming

The Art and Science of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhy do we have dreams?  Where do they come from?  What, if anything, do they mean?  These mysterious questions have puzzled humankind since the earliest days of history.  The best answers, I suggest, come from integrating the insights of art and science.  Dreaming is rooted in the physical workings of our brains, and it expresses our highest spiritual yearnings and deepest psychological concerns.  In dreams the mind, body, and soul come together in a creative ferment, giving us new perspectives on the emotional realities of our lives.

Looking first at art, people throughout the ages have regarded dreams as a source of creative inspiration.  A number of famous works of Western art and literature were directly influenced by their creator’s dreams. 

Among writers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dreamed up several key scenes in her novel Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson had a dream about a divided soul at war with itself that gave him the core plot idea for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte drew upon their dreams for bizarre, symbol-laden images of melting clocks and floating bowler hats. In more recent years, a number of prominent movie directors have experienced dreams that influenced their films, including David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, and Akira Kurusawa in Dreams.  Contemporary musicians have also described their dreams as creative inspirations.  Paul McCartney had a dream that gave him the tune for “Yesterday,” and Sting’s song “The Lazarus Heart” came from a personal nightmare.

If we consider religion as another realm where humans express their deepest creativity, then we can see even more evidence of the inspiring power of dreaming.  In the Hebrew Bible, visionary dreams come to Abraham and Jacob, while Joseph saved his people by his ability to interpret dreams.  In the New Testament, prophetic dreams of guidance help Jesus’ parents before their child’s birth and Paul during his missionary travels.  The Muslim Prophet Muhammad told of his dreams in the Qur’an, and each morning he asked his followers what they had dreamed, so they could better discern God’s will.  Hindu and Buddhist mystics consider all of life to be a dream, a great illusion shaped by our desires.  Many indigenous cultures around the world have myths (e.g., the Australian Aborigine’s “Dreamtime”) and rituals (e.g., the Native American vision quest) to help their members learn more about the creative potentials of their own dreaming.

Do the insights of artists and mystics stand up to the findings of modern science?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  Based on the latest evidence from research in cognitive psychology, it appears that dreaming is a natural and normal aspect of healthy brain/mind functioning.  Not all dreams are heaven-sent revelations or artistic breakthroughs, but in general dreaming is an accurate and meaningful expression of our fears, concerns, conflicts, and desires in waking life. 

Since the 1950’s scientists have known about the different stages of sleep, and it appears that dreams occur most often during the stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  During REM sleep our brains are very active, but in a different configuration than in waking.  In REM the brain centers for instinctual emotions and visual imagination are highly activated, while the parts of the brain responsible for focused rational attention are less active.  This evidence fits the general qualities of many dreams—less rational, more emotional and visual—and it supports the idea that our capacity for dreaming is hard-wired into the human brain.

However, it is important to recognize that dreams occur in stages of sleep other than REM.  REM sleep may be the most common trigger for dreaming, but research has shown that dreams can occur throughout the sleep cycle.  This means that we still do not have a complete picture of the dreaming brain.  We cannot “reduce” dreams to REM sleep.

Most people remember one or two dreams a week, but that can vary depending on many factors.  Some people remember at least one dream almost every night, while others say they have never recalled a dream in their whole life.  Researchers have found that small efforts to pay more attention to dreams can lead to big increases in dream recall.  It’s like the movie “Field of Dreams”: If you build it, they will come—if you open your waking mind to the possibility that your dreams have something meaningful to say, you’re likely to start remembering more dreams.

When people ask me how to interpret their dreams, I start by emphasizing that only the dreamer can know for sure what his or her dreams really mean.  “Experts” like me can offer ideas and possibilities based on our research, but ultimately you are the final authority on your own dreams.

Sometimes dreams speak in direct and literal terms.  For example, you may be scared of flying, and thus you might have a nightmare of crashing in an airplane.  But sometimes dreams speak indirectly, in a language of metaphor and symbol.  Your nightmare of a crashing airplane may symbolically reflect your waking anxieties about your finances, your health, or a personal relationship.  To understand your dreams you need a flexible mind that can perceive these kinds of metaphorical connections between dream imagery and your emotional concerns in waking life.

One of the most important functions of dreaming is to look ahead, to anticipate what might happen in the future and prepare us for possible dangers and threats.  This isn’t a simple matter of “prophecy,” although that’s what ancient people called the same basic process.  Scientists today have found that many of our most memorable dreams revolve around visions of worst-case scenarios, and it seems that these kinds of dreams are like fire drills, getting us ready in case those dangers actually occur in the waking world.  Even though many of our dreams are negative and disturbing in this way, they are still promoting our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

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This article appears on pp. 22-23 in the August 2011 special issue on Sleep and Dreams in Vintage Newsmagazine, a publication in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Thanks to editor Betsy Troyer for inviting me to contribute.