Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares

Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares by Kelly BulkeleyPeople who are familiar with the deep patterns of their dreams seem to be having fewer nightmares compared to the general population.

This observation is based on a series of interviews I recently conducted with the participants in two dream research projects, one that began in early 2017 and one that began in December of 2019. It’s remarkable to see the different qualities in their dreams compared to other people’s pandemic-related dreams: less fear, more agency, more problem-solving, more willingness to change, more openness to future possibilities.

For many people, the first wave of dreams relating to the Covid-19 outbreak have been unrelentingly nightmarish. The results of an online survey of 2,477 demographically representative American adults in early April indicated that the predominant emotional themes in their dreams are fear, confusion, and uncertainty about the future. Other researchers using anecdotal sources have found similar results.

Part of the story here is that the stay-at-home conditions of this particular crisis have forced many people into a sudden encounter with their dreaming selves and the shadowy powers of their unconscious. This in itself can be a psychological shock, especially for busy, extraverted people who spend most of their time and energy in the external world. Having little or no familiarity with their inner worlds, they are struggling with an unprecedented surge of crisis-related dreaming. This isn’t really surprising: if you have no experience with the ways of your own sleeping mind, any sudden rise in vivid dreams, whatever their contents, is likely to feel scary and overwhelming.

Not so with the participants in these two research studies. The first is the Dream Mapping Project, a group of international artists who have been sharing dreams with me and creating collaborative art projects for more than three years. I recently spoke with four of the artists (by zoom, of course), located in Italy, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and New York City. I also spoke/zoomed with the participants in the 2020 Dreamers Project, in which nine people with high dream recall agreed to keep a year-long journal of their dreams starting in late December of 2019.

These thirteen individuals (11 women, 2 men) are definitely not representative of the general population. They are unusually intuitive and self-aware, and they have been vivid dreamers from an early age. None of them have been untouched by the pandemic: they, too, are suffering jobs lost, careers upended, families in peril, and local communities in distress. The members of these two groups are not oblivious to the crisis or in denial about it. But at least so far, their dreams have been remarkably adaptive and reassuring, in contrast to the nightmares plaguing so many other people.

In a future post, after more consultation with the group members, I hope to share some of their specific dreams. In the meantime, here are key themes as highlighted by the dreamers themselves:

  • They were dreaming about aspects of the Covid-19 outbreak early, in January and February, anticipating the social disruptions about to hit the world, and beginning to envision possible responses.
  • Their dreams definitely have apocalyptic themes of collective crisis, but not with overwhelming feelings of terror, helplessness, or vulnerability. Instead, they mostly maintain their emotional balance amid the chaos, observing and witnessing what’s going on, responding as best they can, and helping other people who are struggling.
  • Their dreams also have post-apocalyptic themes, looking beyond the present crisis to envision the new world ahead. How will we navigate through the altered realities of the future?
  • The problem-solving function of dreaming comes to the fore in their experiences. Their dreams view the crisis as a challenge that’s within their power to manage and solve. Their dreaming attitude is, here’s a problem, it’s big but not impossible, let me figure it out how to deal with it.
  • Some of them say they have been preparing for years, in their dreams and waking lives, for major shifts and transformations in global reality. They have long-standing practices in art, yoga, meditation, and dreaming, and these activities have made them less attached to the status quo and more comfortable amid the uncertainties of radical change. The world suddenly turning upside down is perhaps less of a shock to them than to people who have never engaged in such practices.

More research is needed, of course, to gain a better understanding of the full range of people’s dream experiences during this historically tumultuous time. But the results so far raise an interesting and potentially vital question:

Is deep familiarity with dreaming a source of psychological resilience during times of crisis, and if so, should this be included in future disaster preparations?

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, April 21, 2020.

Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic

Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic by Kelly BulkeleyNightmarish themes are plaguing people’s dreams during the Covid-19 crisis. The first wave of dreaming related to the coronavirus pandemic reveals how people are reacting to vivid fears and anxieties coming from all directions. Fears for oneself, for one’s family and friends, for the whole world—all threaten to consume people in their dreams as in their waking lives. A few dreams do show glimmers of hope and positivity for the future, although right now they are the rare green shoots amid a dark and frightening dreamscape for many people.

To be clear, not everyone is having these dreams. According to a new survey I recently commissioned from YouGov, only 7% of the American adult population answered yes when directly asked if they had dreamed within the last month of the Covid-19 crisis. More people ages 18-34 said they had a pandemic-related dream (9%) than people 35-54 (8%) and people 55+ (5%). This is consistent with the findings mentioned in an earlier post discussing results from the same survey: more people in the younger age group reported an increase in overall dream recall in the past month. (Field work for the online survey was conducted on April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.)

Perhaps that figure will grow as time goes on. As it is, 7% of all Americans 18+ amounts to around fourteen million people, a considerable number. For comparison, two surveys I conducted during 2016 asked if people had dreamed of the US presidential campaign, and the responses were 7% (May) and 8% (December). This suggests that within just a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has already had as much impact on people’s dreams as a long, hotly-contested presidential race.

The dream reports provided by participants provide a further window into the psychological effects of the crisis. Several patterns immediately stand out (gender and age in parentheses).

Fear of catching the disease. This includes worries about being tested, social distancing, isolation, and infecting others.

Contracting and dying alone. This thing never ending. (F, 59)

Wake up anxious about contracting the virus (F, 52)

Scared im gonna get it (F, 58)

i had a dream i got it and had to isolate myself from everyone. (F, 21)

I dreamt that someone came closer than 6 feet to me without my permission and I freaked out at them. (F, 31)

Fear of family and friends catching it. Many expressions of the frustration and sadness of being separated from loved ones.

My best friend passed it to me, I survived but he died from complications. (F, 18)

That a loved one had it and we had to see them through a window; they died and I was alone. (F, 56)

Scared, looking for family members who were lost. (F, 47)

Hearing that family has it and can’t get treatment or that they didn’t survive it. Like I can’t even wave from outside a window to their room or anything. (F, 30)

Difficulty breathing. This one of the most frightening symptoms of the virus. Difficulties in breathing are commonly found in night terrors and sleep paralysis.

That I woke up and couldn’t breathe. Felt like my lungs were filling up. (F, 36)

I was in a hospital bed, empty white room, I was coughing and stopped breathing. Knew that it wasn’t real whenever I couldn’t feel the bed I was on. Woke myself up. (M, 22)

I was dreaming I could not get enough air (M, 63)

Threats to work. The financial anxieties caused by the pandemic come through clearly in people’s dreams.

Losing my job. (M, 53)

Because of job loss I cannot afford to live. (M, 55)

I dreamed about coworkers and the virtual meetings we have had and their difficulty with caring for their kids in the meetings. I felt sad and overwhelmed. (F, 55)

Apocalypse. The end of the world is a recurrent theme in many religious traditions (e.g. the Book of Revelation in the Bible). Dreams are very sensitive to feelings that the world is fragmenting, falling apart, lapsing into chaos.

About the world crumbling. Things got tough. People suffered. Economy of some nation’s crumble…and lots more. (M, 28)

The virus spread uncontrolled, bodies piled up. Company’s closed down. People becoming desperate and violence increasing. (F, 37)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the Cradle of Life. (F, 55)

animals start contracting the virus and then it goes back to humans in which it turns far worse and kills 90% of the worlds population and becomes kind of an apocalypse. (M, 52)

I have dreams of the world ending, people going crazy and in all the turmoil im trying to get my older children home safely and they can’t get home. (F, 50)

I was homeless, hungry and scared. Everyone in the world was sick, it was coronavirus mutated and turned everyone into zombies. They were trying to kill me by touching me. I had no way to survive even if I avoided being touched. Woke up just before I died of hunger sickness. Been having very weird dreams lately. (M, 18)

Normal life? It seems hard to imagine that life will ever again feel calm and normal. Some dreams are peering through the darkness of the present to envision better possibilities in the future.

A normal day in the life, social distancing, no negative emotions. (F, 47)

I had a dream that we were attending a party for a friend’s baby. Instead of all of us going in person, we all had computers set up with some kind of FaceTime app. We celebrated the birthday this way online instead of in person because of the outbreak. (F, 41)

I dreamed I opened a drawer and found a bunch of masks. I was very happy. (F, 61)

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, April 12, 2020.

More Dream Recall During the Covid-19 Pandemic

More Dream Recall During the Covid-19 Pandemic by Kelly BulkeleyA new survey shows a rise in dream recall, especially among younger people.  In the past month, about 30% of the American adult population has experienced an increased frequency of dream recall. Twice as many younger people (ages 18-34) as older people (55+) are remembering more dreams than usual.

Those are among the initial findings from a new survey I commissioned from YouGov, to get a quick snapshot of how people’s dreams have responded to the Covid-19 outbreak. Field work for the online survey was conducted April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.

Overall, 11% of the respondents to this survey said their dream recall had “increased a lot,” and 18% said it had “increased somewhat.” Only 4% said their dream recall had “decreased a lot,” and 3% “decreased somewhat.” A majority of people, 65%, reported no change in their dream recall.

The people whose dream recall has been most impacted are younger people, ages 18-34. Their recall increased a lot (18%) or somewhat (22%), compared to the older group of 55+ whose recall increased a lot (5%) or somewhat (14%). People ages 35-54 were in the middle, with 10% increased a lot and 18% increased somewhat.

With the help of research psychologist Michael Schredl, an additional analysis of the raw, unweighted responses showed that, when age is factored in, there are no additional correlations between increased dream recall frequency and the demographic variables of gender, ethnicity, education, or presidential approval.

It is worth noting that younger people also reported less dream recall than other age groups, with 7% of people 18-34 saying their dream recall had decreased a lot, and 5% decreased somewhat. The corresponding figures for people 35-54 are 3% and 3%, and for 55+, 2% and 2%.

Further analysis will hopefully reveal deeper patterns in these data, but for now it seems clear that the Covid-19 outbreak has impacted the dream lives of younger people much more strongly than older people. At least three possible explanations for this difference come to mind.

First, many previous studies have shown that young people in general have higher dream recall compared to older people. Perhaps it makes sense that during a time of collective crisis, younger people’s dreams would be more sensitive to change and disruption, since they are already remembering more dreams to begin with.

Second, the economic and social disruptions of the past month may have taken an especially hard toll on younger people, who tend to have fewer financial resources and depend more on urban social activities than older people. Younger people right now may be more exposed to the severe uncertainties and dislocations of the pandemic, generating a host of negative emotions that would likely spill into their sleep and dream lives. Stress, anxiety, and trauma are well-known triggers for poor sleep and unsettled dreaming.

Third, dreams do not simply reflect our present difficulties; they also imagine new possibilities and alternative paths into the future. This is the visionary, creative problem-solving aspect of dreaming. Perhaps younger people, with their naturally high dream recall and longer time horizons, have been stimulated by this crisis to even more dreaming than usual, precisely because of the urgent need for deeper wisdom and visionary guidance to lead us forward.

A final thought: The survey did not include participants younger than 18, but given the trend line among the three age groups, these findings raise the distinct possibility that children and teenagers up to the age of 17 are experiencing the most disrupted dreaming of all. Future research will have to verify that inference, but it might be worthwhile for parents, teachers, and therapists to consider the pandemic’s distinctive impact on children, not just in their waking lives but in their sleep and dreaming, too.

Next, I will post initial results from studying a collection of pandemic-related dream narratives, including several from January and February that anticipated significant developments in the crisis.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, April 9, 2020.

 

Jung’s Theory of Dreams

Jung's Theory of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThe ideas of C.G. Jung (1875-1961) remain a valuable source of guidance into the world of dreaming. Many other theories have been proposed since his time, and some of his thinking now appears outdated in light of later scientific and cultural developments. But his core works on the nature and meanings of dreaming still stand as perhaps the most deeply insightful writings about dreams of any Western psychologist, past or present.

Below is a brief outline of some of the major concepts and themes in Jung’s theory of dreams.

Lots of agreement with Freud, and one big difference

Jung learned several key ideas from his early mentor Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Both Jung and Freud agreed that dreaming is a meaningful product of unconscious forces in the psyche with roots deep in the evolutionary biology of our species. Both of them agreed that dreams are valuable allies in healing people suffering from various kinds of mental illness. They both used the best neuroscience of their day to inform their theories, and they both went beyond the limits of brain science to seek insights about the nature of dreaming in mythology, history, and art. Both of them believed a greater knowledge of dreaming can help us better understand the philosophical mysteries of how the mind and body interact.

The most fundamental difference in Freud’s and Jung’s dream theories was this: Freud’s approach looked backwards, and focused on the causal sources of dreams in early life experiences. Jung’s approach looked forwards, and tried to understand where the dreams might be leading, and what they might reveal about the individual’s future life development.

Compensation

The primary function of dreaming, according to Jung, is psychological compensation. Dreams help maintain a healthy, dynamic balance between consciousness and the unconscious. When the waking ego becomes too one-sided, or if it tries to repress a part of the unconscious, dreams will emerge to highlight the imbalance and guide the individual back on a path towards becoming a more integrated self.

“The fundamental mistake regarding the nature of the unconscious is probably this: it is commonly supposed that its contents have only one meaning and are marked with an unalterable plus or minus sign. In my humble opinion, this view is too naïve. The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does. Every process that goes too far immediately and inevitably calls forth compensations, and without these there would be neither a normal metabolism nor a normal psyche. In this sense we can take the theory of compensation as a basic law of psychic behavior…. When we set out to interpret a dream, it is always helpful to ask: What conscious attitude does it compensate?” (1934, 101)

Reductive compensations

Sometimes the compensation can take a critical form, which Jung called reductive compensations. Dreams sometimes bring a chastening dose of humility when the waking ego becomes too inflated or self-important (the ancient Greeks called it hubris). According to Jung, dreams give us honest portrayals of who we really are. If we think too highly of ourselves, the compensatory nature of the psyche will bring forth dreams that bring us back down into our depths. If we are too impressed with our own goodness and moral righteousness, we will be prone to dreams reminding us of our sins, our failings, our evil impulses, our hypocritical rationalizations and ego-protecting deceptions.

“There are people whose conscious attitude and adaptive performance exceed their capacities as individuals; that is to say, they appear to be better and more valuable than they really are…. They have not grown inwardly to the level of their outward eminence, for which reason the unconscious in all these cases has a negatively compensating, or reductive, function…. Every appearance of false grandeur and importance melts away before the reductive imagery of the dream, which analyses his conscious attitude with pitiless criticism and brings up devastating material containing a complete inventory of all his most painful weaknesses.” (1948a, 43-45)

The prospective function

Dreams can have many different functions, and Jung did not insist that every dream fits into one of his categories. But in addition to compensation, he proposed another major function of dreaming which he called the prospective function. This is not prophecy, although it does overlap with traditional religious views about dreams offering glimpses and visions of possibilities for the future. Jung said the prospective function focuses primarily on the future growth of the individual, along the path towards greater psychological integration and wholeness. If we can learn to understand these prospective dreams, they can offer an important source of unconscious intelligence and insight.

“The prospective function is an anticipation in the unconscious of future conscious achievements, something like a preliminary exercises or sketch, or a plan roughed out in advance…. That the prospective function of dreams is sometimes greatly superior to the combinations we can consciously foresee is not surprising, since a dream results from the fusion of subliminal elements and is thus a combination of all the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings which consciousness has not registered because of their feeble accentuation…. With regard to prognosis, therefore, dreams are often in a much more favorable position than consciousness.” (1948a, 41-42)

Archetypal images and “big dreams”

Jung put great emphasis on dreams with extremely vivid images. He regarded them as expressions of deeper unconscious patterns of instinctual meaning and wisdom he called “archetypes.” These dream images help to connect us with the primal energies of the psyche, whose ultimate developmental goal is our wholeness as humans, what Jung calls “individuation.” Hence Jung’s interest in the distinction between “big” and “little” dreams. Big dreams revolve around powerful archetypal images from the collective unconscious. Such dreams are guideposts along the path of individuation.

“Not all dreams are of equal importance. Even primitives distinguish between ‘little’ and ‘big’ dreams, or, as we might say, ‘insignificant’ and ‘significant’ dreams. Looked at more closely, ‘little dreams are the nightly fragments of fantasy coming from the subjective and personal sphere, and their meaning is limited to the affairs of the everyday. That is why such dreams are easily forgotten, just because their validity is restricted to the day-to-day fluctuations of the psychic balance. Significant dreams, on the other hand, are often remembered for a lifetime, and not infrequently prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychic experience.” (1948b, 76)

Dreaming is like a theater

One of the metaphors Jung used to explain his theory of dreaming is to compare it to an inner theater. It became the basis for his notion of “subjective” dream interpretation, and for his ideas about dreaming and the origins of religion.

“The whole dream-work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theater in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, and the critic. This simple truth forms the basis for a conception of the dream’s meaning which I have called interpretation on the subjective level. Such an interpretation, as the term implies, conceives all the figures in the dream as personified features of the dreamer’s own personality.” (1948a, 52)

In several places he described a four-part model of interpretation that used concepts from the classical world of theater and dramatic performance. According to this model, dreams tend to start with an exposition of the characters and setting. Next comes the development, as the characters interact within these settings and the forms and qualities of a story takes shape. After that comes what Jung called the peripateia or culmination of the story, a moment of tension or conflict. Sometimes the dream ends here, like a cliff-hanger, without any conclusion. But sometimes there is a resolution or lysis that overcomes the conflict by transforming into something new and unexpected.

“Most dreams show this dramatic structure. The dramatic tendency of the unconscious also shows in the primitives: here, possibly everything undergoes a dramatic illustration. Here lies the basis from which the mystery dramas developed. The whole complicated ritual of later religions goes back to these origins.” (2008, 31)

Humility in the process of interpretation

An appealing aspect of Jung’s approach to dreams is his openness to multiple possible interpretations. He had his hunches and his favorite ideas, of course, but he tried to be clear that dreams never have just one meaning, and he was never entirely sure if his own interpretations were reaching the most important levels of significance.

“So difficult is it to understand a dream that for a long time I have made it a rule, when someone tells me a dream and asks for my opinion, to say first of all to myself: ‘I have no idea what this dream means.’ After that I can begin to examine the dream.” (1948b, 69)

The value of exploring dreams in series

This difficulty in making sense of the strange archetypal images from the unconscious is why Jung advised more attention to series of dreams than to individual dreams. By looking at a large collection of dreams gathered over time, the patterns in these images become easier to identify. Dreams experienced on different nights may all revolve around the same archetype, expressing its meanings in a variety of symbolic forms.

“Every interpretation is a hypothesis, an attempt to read an unknown text. An obscure dream, taken in isolation, can hardly ever be interpreted with any certainty. For this reason, I attach little importance to the interpretation of single dreams. A relative degree of certainty is reached only in the interpretation of a series of dreams, where the later dreams correct the mistakes we have made in handling those that went before. Also, the basic ideas and themes can be recognized much better in a dream-series, and I therefore urge my patients to keep a careful record of their dreams and of the interpretations given.” (1934, 98)

Downsides

These are among Jung’s most valuable insights on the nature, functions, and meanings of dreams. As he described in his memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he drew many of his key concepts and ideas from his own personal experiences. Thus it is difficult to separate his theories from his life—and his life had many troubling aspects. He had numerous extramarital affairs, some with patients and former patients, and his attitude towards women was not consistently respectful. He made biased, racially essentialist comments about different ethnic groups. As a prominent psychologist in the German-speaking world in the early 1930’s, he spent time with other psychologists who were National Socialists, and his rejection of Nazism came later than his critics think it should have. These biographical facts do not negate the value of Jung’s psychology, but they do give us a better context for understanding how his powerful and profound ideas emerged from the mortal, flawed reality of his life and personal experiences.

Writings about dreams

Jung talked about dreams in almost everything he wrote. The following texts are those with the most specific focus on his ideas about dreams:

Dreams (1974)

This is an invaluable collection from the Princeton University Press Bollingen Series, which includes the following essays:

“The Practical Use of Dream Analysis” (1934)

“General Aspects of Dream Psychology” (1948a)

“On the Nature of Dreams” (1948b)

“Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy” (1952)

Children’s dreams (2008)

This is a transcript of several classes that Jung taught on the subject of children’s dreams during the years 1936-1940 in Switzerland. The opening chapter is a brilliant introductory lecture on the practice of dream interpretation.

Man and His Symbols (1968)

Written as an introduction to his ideas for general audiences, Jung completed this soon before his death. It includes chapters by other writers, but his 100-page chapter to start the book is one of the best things he ever wrote.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1965)

Not exactly an autobiography, but a memoir of how his life gave him the raw material for his psychological theories.

The Red Book (2009)

This doesn’t really have a lot to say about dreams, but it does offer a fascinating collection of Jung’s paintings and visionary writings.

 

Note: thanks to the students whose questions, comments, and insights helped me gain a better understanding of Jung’s ideas.

 

 

Dreaming of the Future: The Anticipatory Function of Dreams

Dreaming of the Future: The Anticipatory Function of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThroughout history, people have believed prophetic dreams can give us glimpses of future events. Is there any reason to believe such dreams are possible?

It would seem not. Most instances of a dream predicting a significant event in waking life are probably just coincidences. For example, people periodically dream of car crashes, so at some point a person will dream of a car crash the night before actually getting in a car crash. That’s not prophecy, that’s just the law of averages. The claims people make about future-telling dreams are most likely to be fantasies, fabrications, or failures of causal reasoning.

That may be the safest position to take. It’s not the most scientific position, however, because it isn’t based on evidence, just a resolute skepticism. The actual evidence in support of anticipatory dreaming is not so easily dismissed, and merits more serious attention than it typically receives.

As far as evidence from history, the material presented in Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition (2018) offers the best documented case study of dreams that accurately predicted a major event in waking life. In the late 16th century a group of Spanish priests carefully recorded and transcribed the dreams of an illiterate young woman, Lucrecia de Leon. Over a period of nearly a year, several of her dreams predicted the failure of the Spanish Armada in its attack on England, despite all signs of Spain’s superiority in the upcoming battle. When the Armada suffered a shocking and humiliating defeat in 1588, Lucrecia’s dreams were proven right in the most spectacular way possible. Unfortunately, this did not prevent her from being arrested by the Inquisition and charged with treason and heresy.

A case study like this has to do with just one person, so it’s hard to know how far we can legitimately generalize from Lucrecia’s experiences to other people. But we can draw on additional sources of information about contemporary people. In the “2015 Demographic Survey” in the Sleep and Dream Database, one of the questions asked whether the individual had ever had a dream that seemed to anticipate or predict a future event. Out of 2,303 total participants (1,304 female, 999 male, all American adults) responding to an online survey administered by YouGov, 30% of the females and 19% of the males answered yes, they had experienced such a dream at least once in their lives. The results of this survey can be viewed here.

The findings from this survey suggest that most people do not recall having a predictive dream, but a significant number of people (considerably more women than men) do claim to have had such dreams. Prophetic dreaming is not just a historical oddity, or a pre-modern superstition. Future-oriented dreams play an active role in the lived experience of many, many people in contemporary society.

The question is often raised of how to explain such dreams in terms of current scientific knowledge. The best answer, I believe, comes from looking at anticipatory dreaming as a special case of dreaming in general. To summarize a great deal of research, dreams have a broadly adaptive function in the mind and brain: promoting healthy growth, stimulating creative energies, and helping people respond to challenges, threats, and opportunities. The content of dreams typically revolves around the most important emotional concerns in the individual’s waking life, and dreaming becomes especially intense and meaningful at times of crisis and uncertainty.

If we recognize these features of natural, normal dreaming, then it becomes easier to appreciate how and why dreams can anticipate future possibilities. In waking life our minds do this all the time—we plan, predict, rehearse, and prepare for important events coming in the future. Our minds continue to do this when we sleep at night, but with fewer distractions from external stimuli and more cognitive freedom to explore alternative, “what if?” scenarios. There is nothing supernatural or fanciful about this. Indeed, this ability to imagine and think about the future has given our species an enormous advantage through the course of evolutionary history. This is the best explanation for what people have traditionally called prophetic dreaming: the forward-thinking capacity of the human mind operates in both waking and dreaming.

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was an early advocate for this idea. He proposed a “prospective” function for dreams, in which various impressions from daily experience are brought together in the unconscious and used to envision possible aspects of the individual’s future (an idea which can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle). In some cases, the dreaming anticipations are more prescient than what the waking mind can apprehend. Jung said that dreams provide

“an anticipation in the unconscious of future achievements, something like a preliminary exercise or sketch, or a plan roughed out in advance… The occurrence of prospective dreams cannot be denied. It would be wrong to call them prophetic, because at bottom they are no more prophetic than a medical diagnosis or a weather forecast. They are merely an anticipatory combination of probabilities which may coincide with the actual behavior of things but need not necessarily agree in every detail. Only in the latter case can we speak of ‘prophecy.’ That the prospective function of dreams is sometimes greatly superior to the combinations we can consciously foresee is not surprising, since a dream results from a fusion of subliminal elements and is thus a combination of all the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings which consciousness has not registered because of their feeble accentuation… With regard to prognosis, therefore, dreams are often in a much more favorable position than consciousness.” (“General Aspects of Dream Psychology”)

Perhaps there is a transcendent capacity of the human mind at work in these dreams. Perhaps our souls are tuning into other metaphysical realities, or being visited by spiritual beings who share with us their knowledge of the future. Whether or not these beliefs have ultimate merit, Jung’s point is valid in terms of current psychological knowledge of brain-mind functioning across the cycle of waking, sleeping, and dreaming.

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This was first posted in Psychology Today, November 22, 2019.

 

 

Nightmares of a Smart Home

Nightmares of a Smart Home by Kelly BulkeleyDreams from Germans in the 1930’s highlight the danger of new home technologies.

I have always been a strong advocate for the creative potentials of dreaming and its capacity to envision future realities. Now, however, I worry that dreams from an earlier era may have predicted a new technology with frightening potentials for abuse in our world today.

One of the most important books in 20th century dream research was The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt, published in English in 1968. Beradt was a journalist in Germany, and when the Nazis rose to power she, as a Jew, could no longer find work. Instead, from 1933 until 1939, when she and her husband fled Germany to the United States, Beradt collected people’s dreams about the Nazis. She cast a wide net among friends and acquaintances, asking for dreams about their country’s increasingly dire political situation. The resulting book was not only searing testimony of the psychological brutality of the National Socialist regime. It also illustrated how dreams can accurately reflect collective fears during times of social crisis.

Many researchers have been deeply moved by The Third Reich of Dreams and inspired to explore new ways of drawing cultural insights from individual dreams. When I first encountered Beradt’s book in the 1980’s during graduate school, I was struck by the poignant reflections in these dreams of people’s experiences in an increasingly totalitarian environment where “others” were attacked as inhuman, racial purity and blind loyalty were exalted, and no one could escape the pervasive atmosphere of fear and vulnerability.

I was especially intrigued by a type of dream that Beradt described as the ultimate example of political toxicity. These were nightmares in which the oppressive power of the state reached directly into people’s homes and turned their own possessions against them. From a woman described as a housewife, in 1933:

“A Storm Trooper was standing by the large, old-fashioned, blue-tiled Dutch oven that stands in the corner of our living room, where we always sit and talk in the evening. He opened the oven door and it began to talk in a harsh and penetrating voice. It repeated every joke we had told and every word we had said against the government. I thought, ‘Good Lord, what’s it going to tell next—all my little snide remarks about Goebbels [Nazi Minister of Propaganda]?’ But at that moment I realized that one sentence more or less would make no difference—simply everything we have ever thought or said among ourselves is known.” (45)

Reading Beradt’s commentary on this dream today sounds eerily prescient, and uncomfortably resonant with current concerns about new home technologies. Remember, she was writing more than fifty years ago, about events that happened thirty years before that:

“Here we see a person in the process of being fashioned by a very elusive and even today not fully understood form of terrorization, a terrorization that consisted not of any constant surveillance over millions of people but rather the sheer uncertainty about how complete this surveillance was…. What dream could better suit the purposes of a totalitarian regime?” (47)

She went on:

“A greengrocer had exactly the same type of dream about a cushion he placed over the telephone when the family gathered in the evening for a cozy chat, a precaution everyone took in those days. The atmosphere of coziness became one of terror: the cushion—a sentimental keepsake cross-stitched by his mother and ordinarily kept in his easy chair, his domestic throne—began to talk. It testified against him and went on and on, repeating family conversations ranging from the price of vegetables and the midday meal to the comment ‘Old Potbelly [Hermann Goering, Nazi Party leader] is getting fatter by the day.’” (49)

Such dreams expressed a catastrophic loss of privacy and safety, even within the personal confines of one’s own home. Objects which used to give people pleasure and comfort now turned against them and became their enemies. She continued:

“I received quite a few reports about similar dreams involving household objects—about a mirror, a desk, a desk clock, an Easter egg. In each of these cases, all that remained in the recollection was the fact that the object concerned would denounce people. The frequency of such dreams may have increased as people became more and more aware of the methods the regime employed.” (49)

Beradt did not rely on any psychological theories in her approach to these dreams. Indeed, she did not try to interpret the dreams at all, at least in a conventional sense. Rather, like the journalist she was trained to be, she focused on reporting the cases that gave the most vivid illustrations of life in a totalitarian society. She used the political ideas of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell (especially his novel 1984) as guides in connecting the personal dream imagery to collective political realities.

“The following singularly grotesque example of this type of dream was dreamt by a young girl: ‘I dreamt I awoke in the middle of the night to discover that the two cherubs that hang over my bed were no longer looking upwards but were instead staring down at me. I was so frightened that I crawled under the bed.’” (50)

These nocturnal visions from another place and time offer an uncanny foreshadowing of present-day anxieties about the dystopian dangers of new household technologies. It takes no great leap of imagination to see connections between Beradt’s haunting collection of dreams and the latest generation of “smart” lamps, appliances, thermostats, and the like. People are inviting into their homes devices that were the stuff of surreal nightmares in Nazi Germany. The marketing for Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri emphasize their power to relieve us of domestic toil, increase our comfort, and save us money. And yet, despite the many benefits of these systems, recent reports (here, here, here, and here) have shown how easily they can be abused in exactly the ways foreseen by Beradt’s dreamers—secretly recording private conversations and revealing embarrassing, immoral, and incriminating behavior.

For people living in Germany in the 1930’s, their futuristic dreams of smart devices reflected a terrifying realization of the intrusive power of the state and its dominance over the most intimate personal aspects of their lives. The challenge today is preventing their nightmares from becoming our realities.

Note: This essay first appeared in Psychology Today on September 12, 2019.