Dreams Conference 2017

 

Dreams Conference 2017 by Kelly BulkeleyThe 34th Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams begins on Friday, June 16, in Anaheim, California.  I’ll be making several presentations, all of which draw on findings from the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb).

On Saturday, a panel on “Dreams and Current Politics” will include Jody Grundy, Jeremy Taylor, and myself, talking from various perspectives about dreams as reflections of people’s political beliefs.  My presentation will describe a demographic survey of 2,285 American adults.  The initial findings correspond to previous studies I’ve done on this topic: political conservatives tend to sleep better (less insomnia) and remember fewer dreams than liberals, who tend to sleep worse and remember more of their dreams.

The survey also revealed a troubling divide on the demographic questions of personal income and education.  Wealthier people tend to sleep better and remember more dreams than poor people.  Likewise, more educated people tend to sleep better and remember more dreams than less educated people.

I’m looking forward to a lively discussion with the other panelists and the audience about the significance and implications of these results.

Dreams Conference 2017 by Kelly BulkeleyOn Sunday, a session on “Dreaming and Waking Continuities” will include Nori Muster, Jayne Gackenbach, and myself, all focusing in various ways on empirical methods of identifying clear and meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns.  My presentation will describe the results of analyzing the long-term dream journals of four women, using the word search tools in the SDDb.   I’ll show the audience how to practice the method of “blind analysis,” an interpretive approach in which the word usage frequencies of a person’s dreams are used to make inferences about the person’s most important concerns, activities, and relationships in waking life.  Hopefully the audience will gain a practical, hands-on appreciation for what this method can and cannot achieve.

On Monday I’m part of a panel titled “Research 101” with Justina Lasley, Tracey Kahan, Jayne Gackenbach, Bob Hoss, and Michael Schredl.  The plan is for each of us to take 5-10 minutes to describe our research and the main findings that we think anyone interested in dreams should know about.  It’s an ambitious program, and likely to put on display both the agreements and disagreements that define the field today.

Dreams Conference 2017 by Kelly BulkeleyFor my portion of the panel, I will draw upon what I did at the “OMSI After Dark” event earlier this year at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland.  It was the first time I gave a public show-and-tell presentation about the SDDb, and I learned a lot about how to engage ordinary people in the most intriguing aspects of dream research.

Last but not least, on Monday evening I have the honor of introducing one of the conference’s keynote speakers, Professor G. William Domhoff of the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Prof. Domhoff (Bill) has been a tremendous supporter and guide in my efforts to develop and improve the SDDb.  He and his colleague Adam Schneider have done revolutionary work in bringing the Hall and Van de Castle coding system into the digital era, and I am very excited to hear Bill’s talk, which is titled “Seven Surprising Discoveries That Changed My Thinking About Dreams.”  I’ve got some guesses about what they are…

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Dreaming in Adolescence

Dreaming in Adolescence by Kelly BulkeleyIn the current issue of the IASD journal Dreaming (Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 240-252) I have an article with results of a blind word search analysis of a teenage girl’s dream series.  (Many thanks to the anonymous dreamer, “Bea,” and to Bill Domhoff for mediating our interactions.)  The article is my latest effort at developing a method of using statistical patterns in word usage frequency to identify meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns.  I think the results show that we’re making good progress. Here is the abstract of the paper:

 

“Previous studies of dreaming in adolescence have found that 1) shifts in dream content parallel shifts in cognitive and social development and 2) adolescent girls seem more prone than boys to disturbing dreams and recurrent nightmares.  This paper confirms and extends those findings by using a novel method, blind word searches, to provide results that are more precise, detailed, and objective than those offered by previous studies. The method is used to analyze a series of 223 dreams recorded in a private diary by an American girl, “Bea” (not her real name) from the ages of 14 to 21.  Accurate predictions about continuities between Bea’s dream content and waking life concerns included important aspects of her emotional welfare, daily activities, personal relationships, and cultural life.  The results of this analysis illuminate the multiple ways in which dream content accurately reflects the interests, concerns, and emotional difficulties of an adolescent girl.”

And here are the final two paragraphs:

“These findings underscore an important yet frequently misunderstood point about the continuity hypothesis: The strongest continuities between dreaming and waking relate to emotional concerns rather than external behaviors (Hall and Nordby 1972; Domhoff, Meyer-Gomes, and Schredl, 2005-2006).  Many of Bea’s nightmares do not reflect actual waking experiences, but they do accurately reflect the dire possibilities and worst-case scenarios that trouble her in waking life.  Bea’s nightmares mirror her worries about things that might happen, not necessarily any actual events that have happened.

“For clinicians, therapists, counselors, and teachers who work with adolescents, the Bea series adds new empirical depth to the idea that dreams are meaningful expressions of emotional truth, especially around issues of family history and personal relationships, and perhaps especially for adolescent girls.  It remains to be seen if word search analyses have any further practical value, but the results presented here should certainly encourage anyone who works with teenagers to listen carefully to their dreams for potentially valuable insights into their developmental experiences.”

 

 

Tracking Robert Bosnak’s Dreams

Tracking Robert Bosnak's Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThe Sleep and Dream Database has just added a new series of dreams to its collection, thanks to the generosity of Robert Bosnak.  In his 1996 book Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming he included an appendix with a series of 51 dreams recorded during a seven-week period of travel and personal transition.  With his permission I have transcribed and uploaded this series into the SDDb, where it can be found under the survey label “RB Journal 1996.”

 

This is a fascinating and valuable series of dreams for a number of reasons. It was recorded by a Jungian analyst with extensive training and professional experience in dream analysis, and it was recorded during a time of significant changes in his waking life. I have known Robbie for nearly 25 years now, since the Chicago conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams in 1990, and I consider him a good friend and colleague.  So it is no easy task to bracket out my familiarity with his life and pretend to study the word usage frequencies of his dreams “blindly.”   Nevertheless, here’s what strikes me in comparing the RB Dreams 1996 to the SDDb male baselines, focusing exclusively on the numerical results and what I’ve learned from past studies:

By my count, this series of 51 dream reports has 7469 total words, for an average of about 150 words per report.

Most of the reports (35) are between 50 and 300 words in length.  Twelve reports have 49 words or less; the shortest report is 13 words.  Four reports have 301 words or more; the longest report is 731 words.

I performed word searches on the whole series of 51 reports for the 7 classes and 40 categories in the SDDb template, and compared the results with the Male MRD Baseline frequencies for reports of 50-300 words.  It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, so the results should be viewed as suggestive rather than definitive.

You can see a google docs spreadsheet of the results here.

The RB dreams have higher frequencies of descriptive perceptual words for intensity, colors, and aesthetic evaluation, along with a slightly higher proportion of vision-related words.  This could be a product of the dreamer’s reporting style and post-awakening literary editing of the reports.  It could also reflect dream experiences of unusual sensory richness and detail.

There is no more fear in RB’s dreams than in the baselines, which would seem to rule out any unusual stressors or anxieties in waking life.  (The low falling frequency may also point in that direction.) The high proportion of happiness-related words really jumps out—I’m not sure I’ve seen a series before with more happiness than fear.  The relatively high number of sadness references suggests sensitivity to loss and mourning.

The relatively low number of awareness-related words could be another product of reporting style, and it could also reflect a greater focus while dreaming on relational process rather than cognitive analysis.

The RB dreams have more references to flying than falling, which reverses the pattern I typically see in other dream series (more falling than flying).

The high proportions of speech, family characters, and friendly social interactions all point to a person who is actively and productively engaged with other people in waking life.  He seems closely involved with several immediate family members: His wife, daughter, son, brother, mother, and father.

The very high frequency of sexual references could reflect a greater degree of honesty in RB’s reporting compared to the baselines, and it could also indicate the significance of sexual activity and thoughts in waking life.

The high number of fantastic beings suggests someone with a lively imagination, perhaps familiar with video games or fantasy fiction.  A somewhat high proportion of Christianity words may reflect someone who knows Christian culture fairly well but is not an active practitioner of the faith.

Several features of these dreams—the high intensity, colors, happiness, flying, fantastic beings—make me wonder if this set includes at least a few reports of mystical dreams with unusual spiritual or existential meaning.

So how do these quasi-blind inferences fare once I explicitly take into account the facts that the dreamer is a successful psychotherapist who says, “I consider it to be a series in connection with the death of my father and a feeling of loss of soul”?

Not perfectly, that’s for sure.  I would not have predicted this was a series relating to the death of his father, based only on these word usage frequencies.  He does not use father-related words more than other family members, and the death references do not directly indicate his father has died.  There are 3 references to ghosts, but not explicitly to the ghost of his father.

I could be missing something, but at this level of analysis the manifest content of this series does not reflect the dreamer’s felt experience of the dreams.

However, the relatively high sadness frequency may pick up on this theme.  And the mystical themes I noted may underscore the sense of deep transformation he felt was happening during this period of time.  In that sense, the dreams may accurately reflect not the death itself, but the psychological consequences of the death, the still-rippling impact of his father’s loss on his experience of the world.

Again, I wouldn’t have come up with any of that just from looking at the statistical frequencies.  But knowing this series came during a period of mourning, I can see where the waking-dreaming connections emerge, and I’ll be curious to see if future studies discover similar patterns with people who have recently lost a close loved one.

Knowing that Bosnak is a psychotherapist with a successful practice makes sense of many features of his dreams—the high speech, friendly social interactions, happiness, and low physical aggression.  The high frequency of sexual references may relate to his professional work, and so might the unusual detail of his perceptual descriptions, indicating well-honed observation skills.

In chapter 8 of his book Bosnak describes his understanding of these dreams, which goes into much greater depth than a strictly quantitative method can provide.  His goal is to teach readers how to explore the deeper patterns of their own dream series.  I highly recommend that chapter, and Bosnak’s work in general, as an excellent resource in learning how to study large collections of dreams.

 

Transcription note: To conform to current SDDb upload specifications, I made the following changes to the dream reports as presented in Bosnak’s book: I removed all quotation marks, dashes, and italics, condensed each report into a single paragraph, and added the location of the dream and number in the series to start each report. Some degree of meaning is lost with these changes.

 

 

 

 

What’s In a Lucid Dream?

What's In a Lucid Dream? by Kelly BulkeleyWhat do people dream about when they have lucid dreams?  What’s going on in the dream when someone has the realization, “I am dreaming”?  Here’s another example of how the word search function of the SDDb can help get a research project started.  The database includes a set of surveys (Demographic Survey 2012) in which the participants were asked to describe a lucid dream.  By word searching their answers you can get a quick sense of the overall patterns of their dream content.  This information gives you an empirical context for deeper study of particular dreams and particular themes within the dreams.

 

I’m following here the same approach I described in the previous post with visitation dreams, with one refinement.  Instead of searching for reports of 25 words or more, I performed separate searches for reports of 25-49 words and 50-300 words, for both females and males (see links below).  This produced smaller numbers of dreams for each analysis, but it allowed more of an apples-to-apples comparison with the SDDb baselines I’ve been developing (described in posts herehere, and here).  I now have provisional baselines for word usage frequencies in shorter (25-49 words) and longer (50-300 words) most recent dream reports.  These baselines guide the analysis below.

To repeat the method: From the SDDb’s word search page I scrolled down the list of constraint values and selected harris_2012:Q1035, Lucid Dream.  Then I selected Female from the top line of the constraint values, in the line for Gender, Q922.  I clicked on “word search,” and then entered the appropriate numbers in the Min Words and Max Words boxes under “Limit Response Length”  (25 and 49, 50 and 300).  I clicked on “Perform Search” and received a set of dream reports with these parameters.  I then searched the given set for each word class and word category, one by one. I followed the same procedure for the male lucid dream reports.

The results of this analysis, which took me about an hour to conduct, can be easily summarized.  Compared to the SDDb baselines, lucid dreams tend to have unusually low frequencies of words relating to visual perception, color, emotion, characters, social interactions, and culture.  Lucid dreams have higher than usual references to awareness, effort, and physical aggression (relative to friendliness).  Females and males share these basic patterns, though the men’s reports included more flying-related words.

These findings, though preliminary, seem strong enough to formulate a working hypothesis that lucid dreams are generally characterized by low visual references, low emotions, high awareness and effort, and relatively high physical aggression compared to friendly social interactions.

If I were now given two sets of dreams and told that one is a set of lucid dreams and the other a set of most recent dreams, I believe this working hypothesis could help me tell the difference without ever reading through the dreams, just by performing a few word searches.

Of course, each individual report has its own unique constellation of content.  Some lucid dreams are filled with visual perceptions, strong emotions, and friendly social interactions.  Indeed, I think it’s even more interesting to study such dreams now we know they are rather unusual.

If learning about the patterns of ordinary dreams gives us new insights into extraordinary dreams, then learning about the patterns of extraordinary dreams gives us new insights into extra-extraordinary dreams.

Female lucid dreams 25-49 words: 113 total

Female lucid dreams 50-300 words: 71 total

Male lucid dreams 25-49 words: 60 total

Male lucid dreams 50-300 words: 29 total