Dream researchers are creatively deploying a variety of big data technologies to open a new era of oneiric discovery.
An article appeared earlier today by Robert Lee Hotz, science reporter for the Wall Street Journal, titled “New Insights into Dreams and What They Say About Us.” It’s a great article, well-written and thoroughly researched, and quite fair-minded towards the scientific study of dreams. (The article can be found here, if you have WSJ access.)
Here is my favorite line:
“While still highly experimental, the new dream studies underscore the power of data mining to assemble unexpected insights by sifting through large data sets of seemingly unrelated information.”
That is very well put. Exciting possibilities beckon on the horizon, and yet much more work needs to be done in mapping the multidisciplinary terrain between here and there. Hopefully others who read the article will recognize these potentials and contribute their insights to this dynamic, though still “highly experimental” realm of inquiry.
I always want to get people more enthused about the study of dreams—but not too enthused. To my great relief, Hotz concludes the WSJ article with some cautionary words (my own included) about the need for greater ethical evaluation and awareness of the possibly harmful abuses of these technologies.
Two follow-up notes from the article.
First, the survey of dreams in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and recent protests against racial injustice involved 4,947 American adults, completing an online questionnaire designed by me and administered by YouGov on June 15-19, 2020. I am currently working with Michael Schredl on an article analyzing the responses to this survey. An early preview of the results appeared in a post I wrote for Psychology Today on June 25, 2020. The data from this survey are not yet available in the Sleep and Dream Database, but they will be soon.
Second, to the question of “How many dream reports from how many people are in the SDDb?” I gave the estimate of more than 26,000 dreams from more than 11,000 people. I obtained those figures by using the SDDb’s advanced word search tool and defining the data set as all reports with a minimum word count of 5, which yields a result of 26,498 dreams from 11,346 participants. There are surely many additional dreams in the database of less than five words, but many of those reports include “non-dream” answers (such as “no,” “don’t remember any”), which are important to preserve but shouldn’t be counted in overall tallies of the actual dreams. There are also some non-dreams of more than 5 words, but not enough to alter the basic estimate of 26,000 dream reports currently in the database.
The West Coast has a long history of wildfires, and dreaming about wildfires. A study from the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm has important lessons for those of us currently being threatened and harmed by the blazes in California, Oregon, Washington, and elsewhere.
On October 20, 1991, almost exactly two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area, a brush fire in the eastern hills of Oakland, California exploded into a racing wall of flame that consumed several residential neighborhoods with shocking speed. Twenty-five people died, hundreds were injured or suffered from smoke inhalation, and more than 3,000 homes and apartments were reduced to ashes.
Two weeks after the fire was finally extinguished, Dr. Alan Siegel, a clinical psychologist from Berkeley, and his colleagues Barbara Baer and Karen Muller initiated a very timely and illuminating study. They recruited three groups of people: 28 who lost their homes, the Fire Survivors; 14 who lived in burn zone but homes were not destroyed, the Fire Evacuees; and 18 people living outside the evacuation zone, the Control Group. All the participants provided an interview, responses to several questionnaires (e.g., the Beck Depression Inventory), and a two-week dream journal. Siegel and his colleagues carefully analyzed all this information, focusing special attention on patterns in their dreams. Their work appeared as a chapter in Deirdre Barrett’s excellent edited work Trauma and Dreams (1996).
Two of Siegel’s findings stand out as potentially helpful for people currently in the West Coast wildfire danger zone.
The first came as a surprise to the researchers:
“An unexpected finding of our study is the profound and largely unacknowledged reactions of the Fire Evacuees—people who lived in the burn zone but whose homes were spared. Their unremitting survivor guilt, depression, intrusive thoughts, and nightmares were more distressing than that of the Fire Survivors.” (161)
Siegel emphasizes the therapeutic significance of this finding. In addition to those who have been directly impacted by a disaster, the “lucky survivors” can suffer terribly, too, in ways they may try to hide or minimize as part of their survivor guilt.
The second important finding is that “post-fire dreams reawakened preoccupations with grief from earlier epochs” (167). The experience of a new trauma has the potential to reactivate memories, feelings, and physiological reactions from previous traumas. This is especially important to recognize when trying to help people find their path towards recovery and healing:
“Of all the factors shaping coping and recovery, one invisible dimension of the Survivors’ and Evacuees’ experience was dominant—the lingering emotional impact of earlier losses, traumas, and deprivations… Those with more profound backgrounds of trauma were more severely affected and slower to recover. Their dreams after the fire and around the anniversary of the fire frequently used the metaphor of their earlier traumas to depict reactions to the Firestorm and its aftermath.” (174)
Siegel’s work highlights a vital insight in caregiving work in the wake of a disaster: the people most vulnerable to psychological suffering from the present event are likely to be those who are carrying unhealed wounds from the past.
There is no getting around the long-term impact of such experiences on everyone involved, and Siegel’s observation about anniversaries is worth underlining. He says “firestorm survivors suffered profound reactions to the impending first anniversary of the fire” (173). This should be kept in mind when planning public memorials and commemorations of a disaster, which different people may experience in very different ways.
Still, there is reason to hope that with time and effective caregiving, recurrent post-traumatic nightmares can gradually change and transform in more positive directions, becoming less fixated on the specific triggering event, more varied and imaginative in form, and generally dreamier in mood and feel. This was a key finding of Ernest Hartmann in his 1984 work Nightmares, to which Siegel refers in his conclusion:
“A series of dreams often shows a progression toward mastery as a trauma is resolved. Nightmares that are like graphic memories of the trauma gradually fade, giving way to dreams less focused on the trauma and more mixed with other concerns.” (176)
This important study by Siegel and his colleagues adds further evidence in support of the idea that greater familiarity with dreaming can have subtle but significant public health benefits. Dreaming is a vital part of our innate crisis-response system, hard-wired into our brains over millions of years of evolution (and presumably many, many wildfires). Promoting more knowledge about dreaming and dream-sharing offers a simple and effective way of strengthening our collective resilience whenever disaster strikes.
Alan Siegel, “Dreams of Firestorm Survivors,” in Trauma and Dreams, ed. Deirdre Barrett (Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 159-176.
The basic patterns of dream content are coming into sharper focus, thanks to new technologies of digital analysis. By using these tools to study large and diverse collections of high-quality dream data, and then making those tools and data publicly available, we can illuminate recurrent frequencies of dream content that others can easily review, replicate, and verify for themselves. The more we know about these basic patterns, the more we can gain helpful insights from people’s dreams regarding their mental and physical health, social relations, cultural interests, and even spiritual beliefs.
“Until researchers have gathered many more high-quality reports from a wide variety of people (ideally accompanied by multiple sources of biographical data), we cannot make any definitive declarations about the universal features of human dreaming. But the results of this study suggest several testable hypotheses:
Dreaming perception is primarily visual, with less hearing and touch and almost no smell or taste.
All emotions are represented in dreams, with fear the most frequent.
Many types of cognitive activity occur in dreaming, especially those associated with awareness and social intelligence.
Aggression is more frequent than sexuality, and both are more frequent for men than for women.”
Today, these same hypotheses can easily be tested with the resources of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb). The simplest method is to use the SDDb’s built-in word search template of keywords. The word search function has a template of forty categories of dream content, including categories for specific types of perception, emotion, cognitive activity, and social interaction. Starting on the “Advanced Search” page, I would define the data set for this purpose by setting a word limit of 25 words, and then select a category from the keywords menu. Looking at perceptions first, the following results can be generated in a few moments:
Out of a total of 20,510 dream reports of at least 25 words in length, reported by a total of 7,335 people, a word relating to visual perception appeared at least once in 34.6% of the reports. For hearing, the figure was 10.7%, for touch, 13%, and smell and taste combined only 2.7%. Eleven years later, I would still stand by that first hypothesis.
Turning to emotions, the results of the same simple search process (define the data set as having a minimum of 25 words, and selecting a category from the keywords menu) are just as predicted. A word relating to fear appears at least once in 18.2% of the dreams. Anger appears in 7.1%, sadness in 3.7%, happiness 6.5%, and wonder/confusion 14.4%. This hypothesis seems pretty solid, too.
Cognition in dreaming is harder to study for various reasons, but the word search method can still offer some interesting results. A word relating to thinking appears at least once in 41.9% of the dreams. Some kind of speech or verbal communication appears in 37.6%, and a reference to reading or writing in 7.6%. These findings support the basic idea that dreaming has a fair amount of cognitive activity, with plenty of social communication, though more detailed studies are needed to tease out the variations between dreaming and waking cognition. The third hypothesis is worth keeping.
Social interactions in dreaming are also difficult to study, so the results here should be regarded with extra caution. Indeed, the hypothesis from 2009 may not bear contemporary scrutiny, particularly around gender differences. (When defining the data set, gender can be selected as a search variable from the constraints menu.) The SDDb word search approach yields a finding of at least one reference to physical aggression in 20.8% of the male dreams and 17.2% of the female dreams. That’s a difference, but not a huge one. With the category of sexuality, the male dreams had at least one reference in 5.8% of the reports, versus 6.6% for the female dreams. This is the reverse of the predicted difference. The results of this quick analysis confirm that overall references to physical aggression occur much more frequently than references to sexuality, but the results do not support the 2009 hypothesis about higher frequencies of both kinds of content in men’s dreams.
There are other ways to study these questions with the tools of the SDDb. For example, the “baselines” function provides the frequencies on all 40 categories for a specially curated subset of 2,094 male dreams and 3,227 female dreams. These baseline frequencies provide a kind of measuring stick for dream researchers—a more precise way of determining the average frequencies of particular types of dream content and comparing them to other sets of dreams, which might have content features that vary from the baseline patterns in interesting ways. That shall be a topic for another post.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused, in addition to a health crisis, an unprecedented crisis of work and education. Many businesses and schools have closed, or soon will; those that survive will not look or function the same after the pandemic as they did before. The only certainty is that the old ways are gone, and new ways must be created.
As society develops new structures for the future of work and education, now is a perfect opportunity to adjust the scheduling of these activities so they are consistent with current scientific knowledge about sleep. This would mark a big change from past practices. The basic human need for sleep has rarely been a factor in such discussions. But a neglect of sleep science is no longer tenable. The field of chronobiology (the study of the body as a 24-hour system) has grown tremendously in recent years, showing how sleep is an indispensable part of healthy functioning and conscious clarity in waking. Poor sleep weakens the immune system and makes it harder to recover from illness. It diminishes the cognitive ability to learn new information and remember it later. Chronic insomnia is a major factor in several maladies including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and substance abuse.
Researchers have also found significant variations in the length, timing, and quality of people’s sleep. For instance, children and adolescents need much more sleep than do adults. Women tend to have more insomnia than men. Some people are “polyphasic” sleepers, meaning they sleep in several smaller amounts of time over the 24-hour cycle rather than all at once (monophasic sleepers). Some people do well with 6 hours of sleep a night, others need at least 8 or 9. Some people are most alert early in the morning, while others are slow to awaken and only feel truly conscious late at night.
All of this is to say, there is no right or normal way of sleeping. There is only what makes you and your body feel rested.
These two basic findings of sleep science—the necessity and variability of sleep—have important implications for how work and school activities are scheduled. For example, it’s not healthy for children, especially teenagers, to start their school days too early, or stay up too late doing homework. It’s not healthy for employees to work on shifts far out of sync with their natural sleep cycles, or to travel frequently to places in different time zones. It’s not healthy for schools or businesses to establish a single schedule governing the activities of a large group of people without building in flexibility for the significant number of people whose bodily rhythms will need a somewhat different schedule to stay optimally functional.
It often takes time for scientific research to overcome entrenched cultural attitudes. Such will hopefully be the case with sleep, despite the persistence of contrary beliefs. From Thomas Edison to Elon Musk and President Trump, a view of sleep as nothing but wasted time has prevailed among many Americans. Denying the need for sleep has become a symbol of heroic devotion to productivity, innovation, and success. Anyone who believes otherwise is simply weak or lazy, a slacker with no drive.
That attitude should be left behind as an artifact of the pre-pandemic world. The truth is that people who get adequate amounts of sleep far outperform their sleep-deprived peers—they are more alert, emotionally balanced, and capable of complex thought, and less likely to get sick or have accidents. Perhaps most importantly given the enormous challenges facing society today, people with sound sleep patterns are also more creative, better able to respond adaptively to unusual or unexpected circumstances as compared to sleep-deprived people.
The science is clear, if we choose to heed it. The path to a healthier, more productive, and more resilient future for students and workers begins with simply letting them get the sleep they need.
Dreams often have lots of unpleasant content—aggression, misfortune, negative emotions. Even people with peaceful lives can have disturbing nightmares about potential dangers on the horizon. Dreaming becomes even more negatively toned during times of actual crisis, such as the present.
Not all dreams are distressing, however. Many dreams are emotionally neutral, without strong feelings one way or another. A few dreams express happier feelings, sometimes intensely so, with as much emotional clarity and vividness as any nightmare. Researchers usually pay little attention to such dreams, despite their strong and lasting impact on people’s waking awareness.
How often do people have happy dreams? What occurs in the dreams to make them happy? Are there any recurrent themes or scenarios?
Some initial answers to these questions come from exploring the dream collections in the Sleep and Dream Database. According to the SDDb baseline frequencies of word usage in dreams, 8% of ordinary dreams include at least one reference to happiness, women’s dreams slightly more than men’s dreams, 9.1% vs. 6.3%. (These percentages closely parallel the findings of the Hall and Van de Castle norms; see reference at the end.)
Looking at specific sets of dreams, references to happiness appear in 10.3% of the reports of 25+ words in several hundred “most memorable” dreams from children ages 8-18. A few recurrent themes stand out: social gatherings with family and friends; playing with pets and other animals; having an amazing adventure; early romance; and experiencing something very lucky or fortunate.
“I had a dream I was at the beach with my family. We were playing football in the sand and everyone was so happy. It was a good time. At the end we went out to eat.”
“When I was 14 years old I had a dream that my three best friends were with me in New York City. We were chasing a rubber ball around the city. I felt light and happy in the dream because I was with my friends.”
“I have a lot of dreams about space. I see myself making rockets that will go into space and feel happy that I can do this.”
“I was at my house and a bunch of dogs were surrounding my bed. I was so happy because I love dogs. I was 9.”
Looking at a set of several hundred “most memorable” dreams from adults, happiness appears in 7.5% of the reports of 25+ words, a little less than in the children’s dreams. The same themes found in the children’s dreams also appear in this set: fun social gatherings, new discoveries, amazing powers. What’s interesting with the adult dreams is how often the reference to happiness occurs in the context of a visitation dream, when someone who has died returns to visit the dreamer.
“In my dream I was on vacation with my wife and son and all my good friends and family had different parts in the dream. I can’t remember where we were on vacation, but I do remember that it was in the mountains and then by the beach. Colors were mostly blue and green and I remember being very happy.”
“I can’t recall a specific or memorable dream, just general themes, such as being able to fly or hover. In these dreams I am usually able to move comfortably or freely over landscapes. I feel free, in control, happy.”
“I am cleaning my home and discover a stairway that leads to a large room I had not been aware of before. I have dreamed this all my life. In my dream I am very pleased about the new large space.”
“my mother who passed away several years ago came to and told me it was time to move on with my life she was happy and she gave me a big hug the hug felt so real i woke up.”
“Shortly after my Mom died, I had a dream that I had a picnic with both my Mom and Dad on a beautiful mountainside filled with many blooming flowers. My dad had died 13 years earlier. It was very soothing for me to see them happy together. They appeared to be in their 30s and were happy and healthy. The setting was beautiful and made me feel peaceful about them together in heaven with God.”
A few suggestions arise from this brief foray into digital dream research.
First, when you have a happy dream, be grateful. It’s a rather rare phenomenon.
Second, consider what makes you happy in your dreams and how it relates to what makes you happy in waking life. Are they different, or in sync? Guided by happiness in dreaming, can you seek similar experiences of happiness in the waking world (without being too literalistic about it)?
Third, does this knowledge about happiness in dreaming give you any ideas about how to bring new experiences of happiness to other people in your waking life? Ponder the following dream report:
“About three years old, I dreamed of being surprised by a little cocker spaniel puppy sitting in a basket underneath my mother’s sewing machine. He woofed, jumped out and licked my face wagging his tail. I was SO happy to see the cutest puppy ever, and knew it was for me. He seemed so REAL it propelled me to jump out of bed to go pick him up. Of course he wasn’t there anymore, and when I was unable to find him in any of the other rooms, I ran to my parents who were still in bed and begged them to help me find where he went. Even after they explained it was only a dream, I kept looking around corners. For days I remember still hoping he would pop up. ASIDE: After work one day, my dad ended up bringing home a puppy just like the one in my dream.”
The world of sleep and dream research lost one of its all-time greats with the passing of William Dement. He died on June 17, at the age of 91. Dement was an innovative clinician, a popular teacher, and a strong voice for greater public attention to the dangers of inadequate sleep. He led the creation of the field of sleep medicine and devoted much of his career to mapping out various kinds of sleep pathologies and disorders. Our present-day understanding of the vital importance of sleep for human health depends in large part on his work.
Dement earned his M.D. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where he worked in the 1950’s and 1960’s with Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky on some of the first detailed studies of the sleep cycle. He is generally credited with coining the term “rapid eye movement (REM) sleep” as a way to describe the regular phases of heightened neurophysiological arousal during the sleep cycle, phases in which an easily observed external sign is the darting movements of the sleeper’s eyes under their closed lids. He also performed some of the first experiments looking at the connections between the physiology of sleep and the psychology of dreaming.
After his time at Chicago, Dement went to Stanford University and in 1970 founded the Stanford Sleep Medicine Clinic. His research and public advocacy brought new awareness to sleep as a key factor in transportation safety (sleepy drivers and pilots are a danger to everyone), child education (sleepy kids can’t learn), and economic growth (sleepy workers are less productive).
For years he taught a popular course at Stanford on “Sleep and Dreaming,” and one of my only regrets from my time as a Stanford undergraduate (1980-1984) was that I never took Dement’s class. But his influence has been enormous on me and everyone who studies sleep and dreams. Among his many writings, the 1997 book The Promise of Sleep (co-authored with Christopher Vaughan) stands out as an authoritative statement of his basic views about sleep. It also includes numerous stories and reflections about the eventful trajectory of his career.
A particularly illuminating story appears in an earlier text, Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep: Exploring the World of Sleep (1972), in which Dement related the following dream:
“Some years ago, I was a heavy cigarette smoker—up to two packs a day. Then one night I had an exceptionally vivid and realistic dream in which I had inoperable cancer of the lung. I remember as though it were yesterday looking at the ominous shadow in my chest X-ray and realizing that the entire right lung was infiltrated. The subsequent physical examination in which a colleague detected widespread metastases in my auxiliary and inguinal lymph nodes was equally vivid. Finally, I experienced the incredible anguish of knowing my life was soon to end, that I would never see my children grow up, and that none of this would have happened if I had quit cigarettes when I first learned of their carcinogenic potential. I will never forget the surprise, joy, and exquisite relief of waking up. I felt I was reborn. Needless to say, the experience was sufficient to induce an immediate cessation of my cigarette habit.”
In his comments on this powerful dream, Dement highlighted a truth often expressed in spiritual or religious contexts, but less often acknowledged in scientific discourse: “Only the dream can allow us to experience a future alternative as if it were real, and thereby to provide a supremely enlightened motivation to act upon this knowledge.” (1972, 102)
Indeed. Thank you for everything, Dr. William Dement.