Dreaming in the Digital Age: The Impact of New Database Technologies on Dream Research

Dreaming in the Digital Age: The Impact of New Database Technologies on Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyFor several years I’ve been inspired and guided by an admittedly idealistic vision of future technology in the study of dreams:

 

One day, everyone in the world will have an easy and private way to enter their dreams into a collective database we can all access and study. 

 

If that were possible, if such a massive database existed, we could learn so much not only about dreams but also about consciousness, culture, and the evolution of our species.  The work I’ve been doing to develop the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has aimed at laying some initial scientific foundations for the day when this vision of a universal dream portal and archive becomes a reality.

Recently I’ve become involved as an advisor with SHADOW, a company founded by Hunter Lee Soik to develop an iOS app for recording dreams and exploring their meanings.  Working with SHADOW has made it clear that the technology for creating a universal dream database is emerging very quickly.

That’s a good thing, right?

In light of recent news about governmental and corporate abuses of data mining, it might seem a risky proposition to share one’s dreams in an online forum.  If dreams are as valuable and meaningful as researchers like me say they are, perhaps people should be more, not less, cautious about entering them into a public database. The intimate personal details of dreams make people naturally reluctant to share them in any kind of setting where they don’t feel a high degree of trust and safety.

In developing the SDDb and working with SHADOW I’ve tried to respond to these concerns by emphasizing 1) the practical measures we can take to protect people’s privacy and 2) the benefits of becoming a participant in a large-scale database.

Regarding privacy, the participants can set the standard by altering or removing any personally identifying details (like the names of people and places) in their dream reports.  Participants can also exclude any content they simply don’t feel comfortable sharing.  I encourage people to be as forthcoming as possible, but I always let them know it’s their decision about how much to share.

Although these editorial revisions add a little noise to the system, they can greatly diminish the chances that someone who wants to remain anonymous could be identified by his or her dreams.

Additionally, the host of the database should do his or her best to insure the privacy of its users, the security of their identifying information, and free access to their own data, which they may retrieve and remove from the database at any time.  The SDDb does that, and Shadow has promised to do so, too.

It’s important to offer the choice of opting out for participants who want to use the analytic tools of the database but don’t want to share their dreams publicly.  That’s the maximal position on privacy, and of course it would shrivel the database to utter uselessness if everyone adopted it.  Before people opt out I ask them to consider the idea that to benefit from the commons, you need to contribute to the commons.  The database will be more accurate and useful for you and for all other participants if you add your voice to the collection.

If privacy protection is taken as the shared responsibility of both the participant and the database host, the risks don’t disappear, but they shrink down to a size that makes it possible to balance them with the upside potentials.

These potentials start with a huge magnification of self-awareness for the participants, who gain an unprecedented ability to see how their individual dream patterns compare to the large-scale patterns of other groups of people.  Nothing like this has ever existed, but once it does I believe many people will be drawn to it as a unique and compelling source of self-knowledge.

The benefits will extend beyond personal insights.  A dream database of the scale we’re discussing could serve as a kind of social barometer, measuring collective reactions to collective events.  We already know that people dream vividly in reaction to turbulent social conditions of war, elections, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and celebrity deaths.  A large and sophisticated database could allow us to observe in real time the emotional impact of these and other public events on people’s dreams.

Beyond that, it would give us a new appreciation for the astonishing complexity of the human race and the wide variations in how people live.  For example, it would show us that vast numbers of people in the modern world are living in conditions of desperate suffering.  A truly universal database of dreams would be overflowing with nightmares of poverty, trauma, neglect, and abuse.  More widespread awareness of what it’s like to experience such harrowing dreams might be a potent lever for promoting positive social change.

This database of the future might also give us a new appreciation for the “ordinary mystics” among us, people whose unusual dreams connect them with hyper-creative dimensions of the imagination.  As a psychologist of religion I’ve always been struck by the parallels between mystical experiences in religious history and certain types of dreams that contemporary people have, dreams of magic and mystery and esoteric symbolism.  My sense is that more people have these kinds of dreams than is commonly recognized.  A large-scale database could open our eyes to the surprising prevalence of mystical dream phenomena among the general population.

The potential risks of these technologies are real, but so are the potential benefits.  The risks are limited and manageable; the benefits could be world-changing.

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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