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The Strange Politics of Dreaming

The Strange Politics of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhat does it mean that conservative Republicans have almost three times as many nightmares as do liberal Democrats?  When I presented this research finding at a recent conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams, held at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I said my pilot study was far too small (56 participants, 28 on the left and 28 on the right, evenly split between males and females) to support any certain conclusions.  However, to my surprise and amusement, this little research factoid—“Republicans have more nightmares than Democrats”—was quickly seized by political partisans on both sides who did not hesitate to assert their interpretation of my findings.

As reported by UPI correspondent Mike Martin, Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman, declared “If George W. Bush were the leader of my party, I’d have trouble sleeping at night, too.”  Not to be outdone in the game of “dream spinning,” Kevin Sheridan of the Republican National Committee quickly replied, “What do you expect after eight years of William Jefferson Clinton?”  The reaction was not limited to politicians in the U.S.: Alexa McDonough, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (on the left side of the political spectrum), said she was not surprised by the findings of my study because true liberals follow their dreams to find creative solutions for problems: “The very essence of building a better world starts with dreaming….  Until we get politics being about chasing dreams again, we’re going to be causing people a lot of nightmares, and we’re mostly going to be implementing right-wing nightmares.”

A number of people on the left sent me emails praising my research, saying it confirmed their conviction that Republicans are by nature repressed, uptight, and insecure.  One of my correspondents explained, “Republicans tend to be more out of touch with their own feelings and emotions,” and their repudiated unconscious emotions “later arise in their dreams as nightmares.”  Several conservatives also sent me emails, angrily accusing me of being a “tree-hugging liberal” out to slander their political viewpoint.  One conservative man who visited my website was evidently disappointed to discover that I’m a man—“I thought only a woman could come up with something so stupid,” he commented, before sharing his hope of joining other Bush supporters in tearing me a new bodily orifice.

I have spoken to the hosts of several talk radio shows since the ASD conference, and every one of them has taken my research as good news for liberals and bad news for conservatives.   Radio hosts of a leftward bent enjoy lingering over the gory details of the torments suffered by Republicans in their sleep, while rightward-leaning hosts ask pointed questions about my methodology and make fun of the fact that I live near Berkeley.

I find all these reactions very interesting.  Why do so many people assume that having nightmares is a sign of a defective personality?  This implicit assumption reveals a widespread attitude toward dreams that does not square with current knowledge.  Dream researchers have gathered abundant evidence in recent decades to show that many nightmares serve the valuable function of alerting people to threats and dangers in the waking world.  Some researchers call this the “sentinel function” of nightmares, pointing to the evolutionary benefits such dreams might have in terms of promoting heightened vigilance toward potential threats.  Nightmares may be frightening and unpleasant, but they often have the beneficial effect of focusing people’s attention on real-world problems.

Seen in this light, the greater frequency of nightmares among conservatives could indicate a greater realism in their approach to life—they could be more attuned to the actual dangers and threats in the world, and more sensitive to the frailties of the human condition in the face of those dangers.   If that is so, then perhaps the dreams of liberals, which in my study had a greater frequency of bizarre and magical elements, are not indicative of greater emotional maturity but rather reflect a relatively irrational approach to life, with tendencies toward fanciful, utopian, “otherworldly” thinking.

Again, my study was much too small to decide this question with any certainty.  For the moment, I would simply say liberals should not be smug about their supposed psychological superiority, conservatives should not be insulted by the fact of their apparently darker dream life, and anyone who has a nightmare should not immediately assume they are suffering from a severe personality disorder.

Naturally, I hope to build on these preliminary findings on dream content and political ideology by conducting more research.  It would be interesting to expand the analysis to include other political parties like the Libertarians and Greens, and also to compare the dreams of politically-active people with the dreams of people who are disaffected from politics.  I must say, however, that the most interesting prospect of all, the “Holy Grail” of this line of research, would come from the answer to one simple question.  I don’t expect ever to learn the answer, but it’s worth asking anyway:

What are you dreaming about, President Bush?

Sleep and Dream Patterns of Political Liberals and Conservatives

Paper Presented at the 22nd Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams
Berkeley, California  —  June 25, 2005


This study examines the dreams of American liberals and conservatives in order to highlight patterns that might correlate with their opposing political views. A total of 234 participants (134 self-described liberals, 100 self-described conservatives) completed a lengthy sleep and dream survey, and their answers revealed several notable patterns:

  • The liberals and conservatives in this study are not radically different species, at least when it comes to sleep and dreaming. People of both political persuasions share a common substrate of basic human sleep and dream experience.
  • Conservatives sleep more soundly, with fewer dreams. Liberals have more restless sleep and a more active dream life. Conservatives sleep somewhat longer, with better sleep quality; they recall fewer dreams, but report more lucid dreams (especially conservative men). Liberals (particularly liberal women) have worse sleep quality, recall a greater number and variety of dreams, and have more dreams of homosexuality.
  • Liberals and conservatives report a roughly equal proportion of bad dreams and nightmares. This is different from my earlier study (using dreams gathered from 1996-2000), when the conservatives had many more nightmarish dreams than the liberals. In the present study (using dreams gathered post-September 11, 2001 to the end of 2004), the conservative frequency of negative dreams is somewhat less, while the liberal frequency is much higher. It appears liberals have become more upset and troubled in their dreams, while conservatives have become less so in theirs.
  • The dreams of liberals are more bizarre than the dreams of conservatives. This is consistent with my earlier findings. Liberals have more dreams with unusual, distorted, fantastic elements than conservatives, whose dreams are more likely to portray normal characters, settings, and activities.

The similarities and differences identified here may be artifacts of my study’s small sample size. Only future research can determine that. In the meantime, any interpretation remains provisional. With that caution in mind, if we follow the research premise that dream content is continuous with waking life emotional concerns, the results of this study may be interpreted as follows:

These dreams provide an accurate reflection of contemporary American politics. The current political weakness of liberals (especially liberal women) is reflected in their troubled sleep and varied, agitated dreaming. The current political strength of conservatives (especially conservative men) is reflected in their sounder sleep and diminished frequency and variation of dreaming.

“I was friends with George W. Bush and we were working together on his ranch. I was happy to be there.”

36-year old conservative woman from Pennsylvania

“I had a nightmare that Bush had won the Presidential election by getting 80% of the vote.”

23-year old liberal woman from Ohio

Dreams and Their Interpretation

A Two-Year Panel Proposal Submitted to the AAR Comparative Studies in Religion Section

Purpose. The three major goals of this panel are to 1) present the latest research findings of religious studies scholars who have devoted sustained critical attention to the phenomenon of dreaming; 2) highlight and reflect upon the complex methodological and theoretical issues involved in the comparative study of dreams and their interpretation; and 3) stimulate new research projects in this increasingly lively area of scholarship.

Drawing upon an already considerable literature on the religious significance of dreaming (O’Flaherty 1984, Jedrej and Shaw 1991, Irwin 1994, Miller 1994, Bulkeley 1994, Hermansen 1997, Shulman and Stroumsa 1999, Young 1999), the panelists will work together to develop new approaches to dream research—critical, self-reflective approaches which do justice to the historical, cultural, and psychological singularity of particular dream experiences and to the cross-cultural patterns and structures that characterize the broader phenomenology of religious dreaming.

Outline of the Presentations. The first year’s panel will consist of six scholars, from quite different realms of the AAR, who will share the basic methods they have used to study dreams and their interpretation.  Particular attention will be given to the following issues: the various roles dreams have played in the world’s religions; the values, and dangers, of comparing dream beliefs, practices, and experiences across cultures and historical eras; the relevance of psychoanalysis, cognitive science, and neuropsychology for religious studies scholarship on dreams; epistemological questions about the distinction between dreaming and waking; ontological questions about the reality of dream experiences and the truth of what dreams reveal; hermeneutic questions about the practice of dream interpretation and its relationship to other modes of religious knowing and meaning-making; methodological questions related to J.Z. Smith’s call for “the integration of a complex notion of pattern and system with an equally complex notion of history” (Smith 1982); and self-critical questions regarding the interplay of the scholar’s own dreams with his or her research.

The six panelists for the first year’s session are:

Jon Alexander (Providence College), early American religious history.

Kelly Bulkeley (Santa Clara University), religion, psychology, and modernity.

Marcia Hermansen (Loyola University of Chicago), Islamic studies.

Lee Irwin (College of Charleston), Native American studies.

Jeffrey Kripal, (Westminster College), Hinduism and the study of mysticism.

Serinity Young (Southern Methodist University), Buddhist studies.

Fifteen-minute presentations will be given by Alexander, Bulkeley, Hermansen, Kripal, and Young, followed by a fifteen-minute response by Irwin.  The remaining hour of the session will be devoted to open discussion among the panelists and with the audience.

Implications. This panel’s collaborative exploration of dreaming will make an important and long-lasting contribution to comparative studies in religion by offering substantive data, analytic perspective, methodological guidance, and collegial support in future research on dreams and their interpretation. As the diversity of the first year’s panelists indicates, dreaming is a significant phenomenon in virtually every religious and cultural tradition in the world.  Dreaming is also, according to current sleep laboratory research, a phenomenon grounded in the core neuropsychological processes of the mind-brain system.  These twin facts make the study of dreaming a uniquely fruitful field of comparative interdisciplinary research.  To plumb the depths of dreaming is nothing less than to investigate the human soul, to explore that infinitely creative realm where body, mind, culture, and spirit come together in dynamic interaction.


Bulkeley, Kelly.  1994.  The Wilderness of Dreams: Exploring the Religious Meanings of

Dreams in Modern Western Culture (SUNY Press).

Hermansen, Marcia.  1997.  “Dreams and Visions in Islam,” special issue of Religion (vol. 27, no. 1, 1-64).

Irwin, Lee.  1994.  The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the

Great Plains (University of Oklahoma Press).

Jedrej, M.C. and Rosalind Shaw (ed.s).  1993.  Dreams, Religion, and Society in Africa (E.J. Brill).

Miller, Patricia Cox.  1994.  Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a

Culture (Princeton University Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger.  1984.  Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (University of  Chicago Press).

Shulman, David and Guy Stroumsa (ed.s).  1999.  Dream Cultures: Explorations in the

Comparative History of Dreaming (Oxford University Press).

Smith, Jonathan Z.  1982.  Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago Press).

Young, Serinity.  1999.  Dreaming in the Lotus: Buddhist Dream Narrative, Imagery, and

Practice (Wisdom Publications).