The Basketball Dream Diaries #1: Preseason

The Basketball Dream Diaries #1: Preseason by Kelly BulkeleyEarlier this week I attended the preseason basketball game between the Portland Trailblazers and the Sacramento Kings. Although the Blazers played with lots of energy, the Kings beat them handily, 107-93. That night (it was a Monday), I had the following dream:

Fertilizing the Basketball Court

Lots of people are engaged in some activity, trying to set up a sports game, on a basketball court…. They are sweeping and spreading lots of soil onto the court…. To fertilize it?…. I am confused, but I go along with it, curious to see where it leads….

(October 11, 2021)

This is the first basketball dream of the 2021-2022 season, and it offers a simple and actually quite beautiful metaphor for the meaning of the preseason. Of course, it might seem at first glance like nothing more than typical dream nonsense, the random combination of two incidents from my previous day—watching the basketball game, and spreading compost in my yard, which I did in fact do earlier that morning. The dream puts these two bits of “day residue” together in a way that makes no logical sense. Spreading dirt on a basketball court in the way it was spread in my yard would prevent a game from going forward, not help it along. But this is a case where we need to put aside a literal reading of dreams and think of them in metaphorical terms. As a metaphor, the soil may express something else, a meaning related to its literal qualities but connecting those qualities to a non-literal situation.

That sounds abstract, I know, so here’s a practical way to bring out the metaphorical dimensions of a dream. I call it asking questions of specification. Why soil? Of all the things my dream could have portrayed as being spread across the basketball court, why this and not something else? It could have been sand, or pennies, or ping pong balls—but it wasn’t any of those, it was specifically soil. What are the qualities of soil, of composting earth, that might metaphorically relate to a preseason basketball game?

Just as my dream might seem trivial and insignificant, the game that night could be considered trivial and insignificant, too. Only one of the Blazers’ regular starters (Jusuf Nurkic) even played, while Damien Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington, Jr., sat out the whole contest. The Kings pretty much dominated at both ends of the court, with the Blazers making 27 turnovers and shooting only 21% from 3-point land. Not a pretty game. But was it meaningless? Not to the bench guys who did play, and played hard, every one of them striving to use his minutes on the court to learn, grow, and demonstrate to the coaches how he can contribute to the team. They were playing as energetically as they could, flashing their best moves and testing their newest skills. Pre-season games are vital for these players’ developmental progress, and beneficial for the whole team’s long-term success.

This suggests one aspect of the dream’s metaphor: Pre-season games are like composting a garden. And, composting a garden is like getting a sports team ready for a new season. They’re both about nourishing, preparing, getting ready for big moves and expansive growth. Fertilizing the future, empowering the fullest expression of latent potentials, fueling the competitive fires that animate all forms of life.

The concept of a season is another metaphorical link. Both gardens and basketball teams follow a regular annual cycle of activity and rest, with transitional states between. With gardens and Nature in general, the coming of winter brings a lessening of external activity and an inward focus on survival through the dark and cold, and preparing for new growth when light and warmth return. Basketball runs on an opposite (complementary?) cycle, with activities turning indoors and revving up just as the days shorten and chill of winter approaches. To understand the rhythms of a season for a garden or a basketball team is to understand the distinct and essential value of each stage in the cycle, and how that specific stage adds to the ultimate health, strength, and dynamism of the overall process.

And, as a further metaphorical extension, compost doesn’t smell great. But the stinky smell is actually a good thing! The strong, earthy odors of a well-fertilized garden—and the turnovers and missed-3s in a hard-fought preseason game—are all part of a deeper, long-term growth process. In basketball, it’s part of the magical transformation of a disparate group of individual players into a cohesive, high-performing, championship-level team.

And how good it will smell when the garden blooms again and the regular season begins…

 

About the Basketball Dream Diaries: Dreams about sports have been a recurrent theme in my life since childhood. Since moving to Portland, Oregon in 2010, I have become a big fan of the city’s NBA basketball team, the Trailblazers, and my dreams have reflected that interest with several references to the team, the players, and their interactions with the rest of the NBA. I’ve attended several games at Moda Center, and had a lot of fun each time. I have also noticed how the intense stimulation of the games, starting at 7 pm in the evening and going till 9:30 or 10, has a direct impact on my sleep and dreaming later that night.

This year, I’m unbelievably fortunate to have season tickets to the Trailblazers home games. In anticipation of possible basketball dreams to come, I’m starting this chronicle to track the influence of the Blazers’ season on my dreams, and to see how my dreaming imagination evaluates and interprets the Blazers’ performance this year. It’s going to be color commentary from the unconscious. A surrealist angle on the NBA. A self-experiment in sports-mediated dream incubation. And an open door and welcome mat for the metaphor-generating wizard of my sleeping mind.

 

Works in Progress

Works in Progress by Kelly BulkeleyDespite the many crises afflicting the world right now, or perhaps because of them, my Muses have been quite active recently. Urgent, even. They have inspired several writing projects I hope to share soon. 

“Dreams, race, and the Black Lives Matter movement: Results of a survey of American adults” – an article co-written with Michael Schredl, in production with the journal Pastoral Psychology, appearing in the next couple months. Here’s the abstract: “This study considers the relationship between dreaming and race in light of the public protests following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.  Findings are presented from an online survey about dreams and the Black Lives Movement (BLM), gathered from 4,947 demographically diverse American adults sampled between June 15 and June 19, 2020. The results show that the people most likely to have dreams about the public protests were those who support BLM, who are highly educated, and/or who have high dream recall.  The dreams themselves tended to be anxious, fearful, and nightmarish, with several recurrent themes: references to George Floyd, participating in protests, threats to one’s home, concerns about the pandemic, and conversations about BLM. The findings of this study contribute to a growing research literature showing that dreams, dream recall, and dream sharing can vary significantly depending on people’s racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. This study also provides new evidence that dreams have meaningful content relating directly to current events and public affairs. Practical implications for therapists and pastoral counselors are discussed.”

Works in Progress by Kelly BulkeleyEscape from Mercury – a science-fiction novel, co-edited with T.A. Reilly, in production with a private publisher, to be released on 1/1/22 at 13:00 ICT. The novel portrays an alternate history in which NASA launches a manned mission to the planet Mercury on December 3, 1979, using Apollo-era rocketry that was specifically designed for post-Lunar flights. In the present “real” timeline, those plans were abandoned. The novel reimagines the US space program continuing onward and aggressively pushing beyond the Moon, and suddenly discovering dimensions of our interplanetary neighborhood  unforeseen by any but the darkest of Catholic demonologists. “The Exorcist in Space” is the tagline.

Works in Progress by Kelly Bulkeley2020 Dreams – a digital project co-authored with Maja Gutman, under contract with Stanford University Press as part of their new Digital Projects Program. We are looking at a large collection of dreams that people experienced during the year 2020, and using a variety of cutting-edge tools of data analysis and visualization to highlight patterns in the dreams and their meaningful connections to major upheavals in collective life–the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental disasters, protests for social justice, and the US Presidential election. We have just reached an agreement with the Associated Press (AP) to use their news data from 2020 as our waking-world comparison set. Our hope is to expand on the findings of Charlotte Beradt and others who have shown how dreams can reflect the impact of collective realities on individual dreams, thus providing a potentially powerful tool of social and cultural analysis.

Works in Progress by Kelly BulkeleyThe Scribes of Sleep: Insights from People Who Keep Dream Journals a non-fiction book in psychology and religious studies. Currently being written, under contract with Oxford University Press, likely publication in early 2023. This book brings together many sources of research about people who record their dreams over time, and what they learn from the practice.  Seven historical figures are the primary case studies in the book: Aelius Aristides, Myoe Shonin, Lucrecia de Leon, Emanuel Swedenborg, Benjamin Bannecker, Anna Bonus Kingsford, and Wolfgang Pauli. A close look at their lives, their dreams, and their creative works (religiously, artistically, scientifically) suggests that keeping a dream journal seems to appeal to people with a certain kind of spiritual attitude towards the world. The stronger argument is that keeping a dream journal actively cultivates such an attitude….

Works in Progress by Kelly BulkeleyHere Comes This Dreamer: Practices for Cultivating the Spiritual Potentials of Dreaming – a non-fiction book addressed to general readers interested in deeper explorations of their dreaming. Currently being written, under contract with Broadleaf Books, likely publication in the latter part of 2023. The challenge here, both daunting and exciting, is explaining the best findings from current dream research in terms that “curious seekers” will find meaningful and personally relevant. The book will have three main sections: 1) Practices of a Dreamer, 2) Embodied Life, and 3) Higher Aspirations. The title of the book signals a key concern I want to highlight: to be a big dreamer, like Joseph in the Bible (Gen. 37:19), can be amazing and wonderful, but it can also be perceived by others as threatening and dangerous. Sad to say, the world does not always appreciate the visionary insights of people who naturally have vivid/frequent/transpersonal dreams. I want to share what I hope are helpful and reassuring ideas about how to stay true to your innate dreaming powers while living in a complex social world where many people are actively hostile to the non-rational parts of the mind.

The Inevitable Spirituality of Dreaming

The Inevitable Spirituality of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyPeople make many strange and unexpected discoveries when they begin exploring their dreams. Of these discoveries, perhaps the most surprising is an uncanny encounter with images, themes, and energies that can best be described as spiritual or religious. It’s one thing to realize you have selfish desires or aggressive instincts; it’s another thing entirely to become aware of your existence as a spiritual being. Yet that is where dreams seem to have an innate tendency to lead us—straight into the deepest questions of human life, questions we find at the heart of most of the world’s religious traditions.

Consider as an example “visitation dreams,” dreams in which a loved one who has died appears as if alive again. These dreams are often extremely vivid and realistic. After awakening from such an experience, it’s almost impossible not to wonder, did I just have a real encounter with the soul or ghost of that person? And then to wonder, do I have a disembodied soul of my own? Is that what will happen when I die?

According to cross-cultural surveys of typical dreams like this, visitation dreams appear quite frequently across a wide spectrum of the population (the statistics cited below come from my Big Dreams book in 2016). For instance, in a 1958 study (Griffith et al.) of American and Japanese college students, 40% of the American males and 53% of the American females reported having had at least one visitation dream. In a 1972 study (Giroa et al.) of Israeli Arabs and Kibbutz residents, the figures were 39% for the Kibbutz males, 52% for the Kibbutz females, 70% for the Arab females, and 73% for the Arab males. In a 2001 study (Nielsen et al.) of Canadian college students, the figures were 38% for the Canadian males and 39% for the Canadian females. A 2004 study (Schredl et al.) of German college students yielded the figures of 38% for the German males and 46% for the German females.

These findings show that the experience of visitation dreams is remarkably common and widely distributed. This suggests a large number of people in every culture and community have had at least one intense personal experience that naturally invites spiritual reflection on life, death, and the existence of the soul.

Another example are “flying dreams,” which often bring incredibly strong feelings of elation, freedom, and transcendence. Like visitations, flying dreams also have a dramatic intensity and hyper-realism that makes them highly memorable after awakening, and they just as naturally prompt the conscious mind to imagine radical new possibilities and powers that overcome the limits of ordinary reality.

The cross-cultural frequency of having had at least one flying dream is similar to that of visitation dreams. For the American males it was 32%, and for the American females, 35%. For the Japanese males, 46%, and Japanese females, 46%. For the Kibbutz males, 61%, and Kibbutz females, 40%. For the Arab males, 44%, and Arab females, 43%. For the Canadian males, 58%, and Canadian females, 44%. And for the German males, 66%, and German females, 63%.

The high frequency of flying dreams might not seem like big news. But the point here is to emphasize the implications of this fact for the presence of an innately spiritual impulse and potentiality in our dreaming. These cross-cultural findings suggest that large numbers of people in societies all over the world  are innately stimulated in their dreams to recognize their own potentials for transcendence, joy, and powers beyond what our waking minds believe is possible.

Horrible nightmares might not seem to have any spiritual significance, yet the darkest of dreams can sometimes have a tremendous impact on people. Vivid nightmares certainly have as much emotional intensity and unforgettable imagery as visitation and flying dreams, and they also naturally stimulate the individual’s waking mind to ponder existential and moral questions with deep religious relevance—questions about evil, suffering, justice, violence, and death.

The cross-cultural research shows that nightmares of being chased or attacked are one of the most commonly experienced of all the “typical” dreams. Here are the figures from the studies cited above: American males, 77%, American females, 78%; Japanese males, 90%, Japanese females, 92%; Kibbutz males, 69%, Kibbutz females, 70%; Arab males, 66%, Arab females, 51%; Canadian males, 78%, Canadian females 83%; German males, 87%, German females, 89%.

Nightmares may cause distress and discomfort, but they also quite effectively force the waking mind to pay attention to real dangers, both out in the world and deep within oneself, that require greater awareness and attention. Such dreams can provide moral orientation and guidance in difficult, frightening situations. In some cases, nightmares offer experiences of radical empathy, providing insight into the feelings and sufferings of others and thus opening the individual’s mind to a wider sphere of moral care and responsibility—precisely the goal of many religious traditions.

If you track your dreams over time, or if you have therapy clients who tell you about their dreams, religiously-charged issues will almost certainly come up, sooner or later. Visitation dreams, flying dreams, nightmares, and many other types of dreams offer an open invitation to spiritual inquiry and existential self-reflection. Dreams are metaphysically insistent, but not dogmatic. They illuminate, reveal, and stimulate, but they leave the answers and practical applications to waking consciousness. And best of all in this ultra-commodified age, they are free and available to everyone! Dreams provide a neurologically hard-wired, universally accessible, yet exquisitely personalized portal into realms of awareness and insight that humans have traditionally regarded as a path towards sacred wisdom. Not everyone recognizes or cares about this aspect of their dreams. But the path is always there, opening and beckoning to us every night when we sleep.

The Inevitable Spirituality of Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today 9/21/21.

Friendly Dreams

Friendly Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyDreams with explicitly sexual and/or violent interactions tend to get the most attention, but dreams actually tend to have surprisingly high proportions of friendly content, too. According to an analysis of the nearly 35,000 dream reports collected in the Sleep and Dream Database, 47% of the women’s dreams have at least one reference to a friendly social interaction (the most used words: friend, friends, boyfriend, help, party, love), as do 36% of men’s dreams (most used words:  friend, friends, girlfriend, help, love, party. For both genders, those figures are greater than the combined percentages for sexual interactions (4% for women, 6% for men) and physically aggressive interactions (15% for women, 22% for men).  If we add in non-physical aggressions (for example, saying or thinking mean things about a person), the relative proportions change, but the key fact remains: Friendly social interactions are a prominent feature of the content of most people’s dreams. If dreams offer a “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious mind,” as Sigmund Freud famously claimed in The Interpretation of Dreams (2nd ed.), giving evidence of our deepest sexual and aggressive instincts, then dreams also provide evidence of our friendly, prosocial instincts.

Although much less studied than sex and aggression, researchers have identified several patterns in dreams with friendly social interactions. As illustrated above, women tend to have more friendliness in their dreams than do men. Whether this is nature (women are innately more friendly than men) or nurture (women are socialized to be more friendly than men)  is unclear; perhaps aspects of both factors are involved. According to G. William Domhoff in Finding Meaning in Dreams (1996), almost all friendliness in dreams involves the dreamer; there is very little “witnessed” friendliness. Men have more aggression in relation to male characters in their dreams, and more friendliness towards female characters. Women tend to have more friendly interactions in their dreams with men they know, and more aggressive interactions with men they do not know. All of these findings are tendencies, of course, which may or may not apply to specific individuals. But these patterns of friendly content in dreaming do seem consistent with common aspects of people’s social interactions in waking life.

Similar aspects of friendly dreaming occur with several individuals whose long-term dream journals are collected in the SDDb. For example, Jordan, an artist in her forties, has friendly interactions in 43% of her dreams; for Jasmine, a musician in her twenties, it’s 42%; for Mike, a veteran who served in Vietnam as a medic, it’s 40%. My own collection of dreams from 2012 has a friendly interactions figure of 42%; in my dreams from 2020, it’s 44%.

Not everyone has this much friendliness in their dreams. The “Natural Scientist,” whose 1939 journal of 234 dreams was analyzed by J. Allan Hobson in The Dreaming Brain (1987), has friendly interactions in 24% of his dreams. This may reflect the limited social contacts in his waking life (he was a bachelor and a laboratory scientist who studied insects). This seems to reflect the continuity principle of dreaming: the frequency of an element in dreaming reflects the emotional importance of that element in the individual’s waking life. The Natural Scientist may not have dreamed a lot about friendly social interactions, but he did dream about insects more often than anyone else in the SDDb, which was certainly continuous with his waking life.

Some variations in the friendliness of dreaming can be observed over time. During the phase in her twenties when “Beverly” belonged to a secretive religious cult, she had friendliness in 30% of her dreams. After leaving the cult and regaining control of her life, the friendliness in her dreams grew to 34% in her thirties, 36% in her forties, and 40% in her fifties. As she has described in her own writings on the experience, it took a long time for Beverly to liberate herself from the mental shackles of the cult. Her dreams seem to reflect that slow and arduous but ultimately positive journey.

Not surprisingly, nightmares tend to have low frequencies of friendliness. In a survey asking several thousand people to describe their “worst nightmare,” only 8% of the reports of 15 or more words had a reference to friendliness. Similarly, in surveys asking people about their dreams of work, just 8% have a reference to friendliness. By contrast, surveys asking about visitation dreams (in which someone who is dead appears as if alive) have friendliness in 23% of the reports, and surveys asking about “the most memorable dream you’ve ever had in your life” yield references to friendliness in 29% of the reports. It seems the more spiritually-charged a dream becomes, the more likely it will have a friendly social interaction.

Although much more will emerge from future studies, the research so far on friendliness in dreaming has several practical implications.

First, you can learn about the depth and quality of your relationships with your friends by considering who does and doesn’t appear in your dreams, and how you interact with them when they do appear.

Second, you can observe the patterns of who in your dreams initiates a friendly act, versus who receives the friendly act. Are you always on the giving end, or the receiving end? Do some of your friends only appear in one or the other role?

Third, you can see in dreams when feelings of friendliness become mixed with feelings of romantic and sexual desire. In some dreams it’s hard to tell if an interaction is friendly or romantic—which may be exactly the point, in terms of bringing to conscious awareness your ambiguous feelings towards someone else.

Fourth, if you notice that the frequency of friendliness in your dreams diminishes drastically, that might be a sign of difficulties with your social life. Everyone has their own baseline of “normal” friendliness in their dreams, so it’s worth paying enough attention to your dreams over time and becoming familiar with your own regular patterns, to enable you to recognize worrisome changes when they occur.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, 9/11/21.

The Ethical Challenges of Dream Video Technologies

The Ethical Challenges of Dream Video Technologies by Kelly BulkeleyNew technologies are making it possible to use brain data to create video reconstructions of people’s dreams while they sleep. Is this thrilling, terrifying, or both?

Here’s how it works. Researchers are learning how to observe an individual’s brain while viewing a specific image (let’s say a cat) and how to identify neural patterns correlated with that image. Then the researchers observe the individual’s brain while sleeping, and watch for a recurrence of the “cat” neural pattern. If it appears, a signal can be sent to a video monitor to show an image of a cat—presumably what the sleeping person is dreaming about at that very moment.

Does this mean we will soon be able to sit in front of a “dream-viewer” (an iDreamer?) to watch videos of our own dreams, along with the dreams of other people?

Soon, probably no. But someday, possibly yes. Many technical challenges have to be overcome first. Lots of time and effort are required to train the computer algorithms to recognize the patterns of an individual’s brain. The patterns for “cat” from one person’s brain do not necessarily match the “cat” patterns from another person’s brain, so the system has to be trained and calibrated anew for each individual.  The nearly infinite variety of dream content magnifies the learning challenge for this kind of technology (how many images of different kinds/colors/sizes of cats need to be incorporated into the system?). Efforts to model the contents and experiential qualities of dreams have to find some way to reckon with a boundless, unpredictably varied set of data.

Advocates will emphasize the potential benefits if these methodological challenges can be overcome. Researchers would, for the first time, have “objective” dream data, unfiltered by the subjective biases and limited memories of the dreamer. For anyone who looks to dreams for personal insight and guidance, this technology offers a quantum leap in the depth and range of access to one’s dreaming experience. For example, psychotherapists would have a powerful new resource for understanding the unconscious conflicts, fears, and concerns of their clients.

All of these potentially positive applications sound appealing, of course. But no less time should be given to considering the potentially negative applications, too. Between now and the invention of a true “dream-viewer,” we should consider several ethical questions raised by this technology.

Does the process of training and calibrating the system disrupt the natural rhythms of people’s sleep and dreams? If yes, what are the long-term health risks and psychological dangers of that disruption? This basic question is too rarely asked in discussions of new dream technologies, perhaps because of an unspoken assumption that dreams themselves aren’t really “real,” so nothing that harms dreaming does any real harm to a person.

What is the source of the images used to reconstruct people’s dreams? Who chooses those images? Is there transparency in the algorithms that correlate specific images to specific neural patterns? Are measures taken to prevent biases from excluding the appearance of certain kinds of images and favoring others?

Does the technology distort and flatten the contents of people’s dreams? It seems likely a dream-viewer will be incapable of representing bizarre or anomalous experiences for which there are no images. It will struggle to represent essential elements of dreaming like feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It won’t be able to convey non-imagistic qualities of intensity, atmosphere, or awareness. Jorge Luis Borges noted these qualities when he described a nightmare of an ancient King standing by his bed: “Retold, my dream is nothing; dreamt, it was terrible.” (Seven Nights, 1980) Will a dream-viewer ever be able to convey the ineffable terror in a nightmare like the one Borges experienced? It seems unlikely. Videos will show what videos show, not what dreams are in any full or objective sense.

Who gets access to the dream-viewers? What is done with this incredibly personal source of information? It takes little imagination to envision potential abuses of this technology for commercial, political, governmental, and/or criminal purposes. The prospect of bad actors gaining access to private details so secret even the individual does not consciously know them should be a red-flag concern for any technology that is openly offering an unfiltered view into people’s dreams.

Can this technology be re-engineered to manipulate the process and contents of dreaming itself? What if a tool designed to identify neural patterns associated with dreaming could be re-purposed to selectively target specific patterns either for suppression or stimulation? This seems to lead into Inception territory, making people vulnerable to an unprecedented depth of external control and manipulation.

How much dream awareness can people handle? An earlier and even more direct film reference to this kind of technology appears in Wim Wenders’ futuristic film Until the End of the World (1991), in which the equivalent of a dream-viewer has been invented. The CIA is determined to steal the device, which of course is not a fantastical idea at all. If and when a dream-viewer is created, CIA interrogators would surely be at the front of the line to get one. More unexpectedly, the characters in the movie who use the device become lost in the narcissistic labyrinths of their own fantasies. They detach from the rest of the world, retreating into a video womb of reconstructed dreaming. Here, the technology’s danger is not from abuse by others, but from our own abuse of it. We assume that more insight into our dreams is a good thing, but is that true for everyone? Do each of us have a healthy limit of dream awareness, beyond which we become lost in ourselves?

Final Thought

Dreaming is an innate function of the brain-mind during sleep. It is also an experience that humans from around the world and all through history have considered vitally important, meaningful, and useful in their waking lives. Any new technology that has the potential, whether intended or not, to disrupt the natural rhythms of people’s sleep and dreaming needs to be publicly evaluated in terms of its long-term risks and benefits.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, 6/8/21.

Aggression in Dreams

Aggression in Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyHitting, fighting, chasing, shooting, killing—these are not only common themes in the news each day, they are also recurrent features of our dreams at night. Few studies have focused specifically on aggression in dreaming, even though Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, claimed that “the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man” (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930). A combination of old and new methods of research can shed light on how this primal instinct plays out in our dreams.

Who Has Aggressive Dreams?

The Hall and Van de Castle system (1966) of dream content analysis has codes for three kinds of social interactions: friendly, sexual, and aggressive. Research using the HVDC system has suggested a few basic patterns in the frequency of aggression in dreams:

  • Men have more aggression, especially physical aggression, in their dreams than do women.
  • Women are more likely to be victims than initiators of aggression in dreams.
  • Children have more aggression in dreams than do adults, especially involving attacks by animals.
  • Older people have less aggression in dreams than do younger people.

Hundreds of studies have used the HVDC method over the past several decades, and their findings support the basic idea that aggression is an innate feature of human dreaming.

Why Do We Have Aggressive Dreams?

An additional perspective comes from using word search technologies to identify significant patterns of meaning in dream content. The Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has a template with a category for physical aggression, and a large collection of dreams to study for a specific theme like this.

The SDDb Baseline dreams are a good place to start—a set of 5,321 dreams (3,227 females, 2,094 males) that represent a composite portrait of dreaming in general (the reports were given in response to a question about “your most recent dream”). Although limited in many ways, the Baseline dreams offer an empirical basis for making comparisons across different sets of dreams. This can help in identifying trends and patterns that would be difficult to see otherwise.

Applying the word search category for physical aggression to the female Baselines, we find that 15.1% of the dreams include at least one word relating to physical aggression. Applying the same word search category to the male Baselines yields a result of 21.5% of the dreams with at least one reference to physical aggression. (The combined Baselines figure is 17.6%.) So this analysis confirms the finding of the HVDC system that men’s dreams, on average, seem to involve more physical aggression than do women’s dreams. The top ten words used in these dreams were the following: Hit, kill, fight, chasing, killed, shot, fighting, chased, war, shooting.

Turning to the dreams of individuals who have kept track of their dreams for a lengthy period of time, a great deal of variation appears in the frequency of physical aggression. For example, “Tanya,” a young woman, has a relatively high proportion of physical aggression in her dreams (25.4%, in 563 reports), about the same as “Lawrence,” an older man (25.7%, in 206 reports. Another young woman, “Jasmine,” has low physical aggression in her dreams (10.5%, in 800 reports), just like “RB,” an older man (11.8%, in 51 reports).

There is clear evidence that experiences with physical aggression in waking life can increase the frequency of its appearance in dreaming. The best examples are “Mike,” who served as a medic during the Vietnam War and whose collection of dreams includes a very high proportion of physical aggression (76.3%, in 97 reports). In the four sets of dreams from “Beverley” from 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016, the first set has much more physical aggression (11.9%, in 253 reports) than in the other three (5.7%, in 687 reports), which accurately reflected her involvement in that earlier time period with a violent religious cult.

To help shed light on the role of culture in dreams of physical aggression, the SDDb also includes sets of dreams from non-Western people, which can be analyzed in the same way. For the Mehinaku people of the Amazonian rain forest, a collection of 383 dreams had 22.5% with at least one reference to physical aggression. For a group of Nepalese college students, their dreams (535) had 18.1% with a reference to physical aggression. Three groups of African church members reported dreams (142) with a 19% frequency of physical aggressions. These findings are close enough to the SDDb baselines overall figure of 17.6% to suggest that culture is not a decisive factor in this aspect of dream content.

Concluding Insights

Aggression appears to be a normal feature of human dream content, across different cultures.

Men seem to have more physical aggression in their dreams, although some women have high levels, too.

Dreams of physical aggression can accurately reflect actual aggressions in waking life, so an unusually high level of dream aggression, or a sudden change in dreams to a higher level of aggression, might be a therapeutically valuable sign.

Many dreams of physical aggression do not, however, reflect actual experiences of aggression. These dreams may use violence as a metaphor (e.g., a dream of physical attack as a metaphor of feeling emotionally vulnerable). They may reflect instances of fictional aggression (e.g., seen in a movie). They may be anticipations of violence that may happen at some point in the future (e.g. a threat simulation).

Aggression in dreaming can be viewed as an internal form of play-fighting—the most common form of play in the animal kingdom, and very frequent among humans, too. Play-fighting functions as a way of preparing for future challenges, and also for diminishing and defusing emotional tensions that can lead to actual violence. The same psychological dynamics of play-fighting seem to be operative in dreaming, too.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 31, 2021.