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.

The Best Technology for Studying Dreams

The Best Technology for Studying Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyIt’s hard to beat the simple practice of keeping a dream journal.

Many exciting new tools are being developed to help us understand the nature and functions of our dreams. For example, researchers are developing technologies for generating a video “read-out” of a person’s dreams based on neural signals from the brain. They are devising methods to stimulate a sleeping person’s brain to instigate lucidity or consciousness during a dream, or even to prompt certain kinds of dream content.

However, none of these new technologies are as valuable for the study of dreams as one of the simplest tools available: the dream journal. A record of an individual’s dreams over time offers the most powerful tool we currently have for the study of dreams. Even compared to the most high-tech devices used by neuroscientists, the dream journal has big advantages in effectiveness, accessibility, and privacy.

Effectiveness

The new dream technologies mentioned above have very short track records. We still don’t know many details about their impact on brain functioning during sleep, nor do we know how the impact varies according to individual differences among people from across the demographic spectrum. And, all these tools rely on measurements of neural activity that have to be interpreted by the researchers and translated into meaningful mental content. That’s not an easy or purely objective process.

However, dream journals as a tool of studying and exploring dreams has a very long track record, going back many centuries (The Sacred Tales of Aelius Aristides in the 2nd century may be the oldest surviving example). We know from extensive psychological research that recording one’s dreams over time yields rich personal insights and self-knowledge. Psychologists have used dream journals starting with Freud’s own dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams, and continuing through Allan Hobson’s use of the “Engine Man’s” dreams in The Dreaming Brain, and now to the works of G. William Domhoff, Michael Schredl, and others who find that dream journals provide legitimate scientific insights into recurrent patterns of content. Only by tracking an individual’s dreams over time can these patterns be identified. Both for psychologists doing research and individuals seeking personal growth, the dream journal remains the most effective technology available.

Accessibility

The new dream technologies are generally used in hospitals or research laboratories. Some devices have been developed for home use, but they tend to be expensive and complicated to operate. Extensive training and preparation are required for the use of these tools, along with a sophisticated computer system and a reliable internet/electrical system. All of these factors have limited the accessibility of new dream technologies to a very small number of people.

The dream journal, by contrast, is available to virtually everyone. To keep a dream journal, you need no training or special preparation, and you don’t have to go to a laboratory or hospital. All that is required is a method of recording your dreams (e.g., by pen and paper, computer, voice-to-text), and a safe place to preserve them over time. This makes the dream journal by far the most accessible tool for studying dreams.

Privacy

Almost every type of new dream technology has connections to the internet that feed data from individual dreamer to the researchers and back again. Even if the researchers preserve the confidentiality of the individual’s data, which of course they should, the sheer presence of an outside observer peering into one’s dreaming experiences and reflections naturally heightens people’s concerns about personal privacy. Some of the new technologies, for example the dream-visualization tools and the dream-altering tools, clearly raise enormous ethical issues around protecting the privacy and integrity of one’s inner thoughts.

A dream journal has the advantage here of being a type of personal diary. Just as a diary provides a safe and private space for honest self-reflection, a dream journal offers the same kind of private space for exploring one’s dreams. A dream journal “works” as a tool without anyone else’s input. All you need is you, paying attention to your own dreams consistently over time. You can keep the results to yourself, and no one else needs to know anything about what you are doing.

None of this is to dismiss the exciting potentials of many new technologies to improve our understanding of dreams and perhaps even enhance our experience of dreaming in a meaningful way. But the enduring power and simplicity of the dream journal, and its advantages in effectiveness, accessibility, and privacy, suggests that a good strategy for new technologies is to build on the dream journal, amplifying what it can already do. Any new dream technology will be stronger if it is grafted onto a solid dream journal system as its roots.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on May 3, 2021.

What Are the Ethics of Dreaming?

What Are the Ethics of Dreaming? by Kelly BulkeleyWhen people think about ethics, they usually focus on the evaluation of good or bad behaviors in the waking state. But what about the ethical status of the one-third of our lives that we spend in sleep? Do we have any ethical duties or obligations relating to sleep? Do dreamers have any basic rights or responsibilities?

Many people treat dreaming as a kind of ethical “free-fire zone,” where moral boundaries don’t apply and anything goes. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato said that when we sleep the “rational, gentle, and dominant” part of the mind retires, unleashing the “beastly and savage” parts, leading to the outrageous immorality of dreaming: “there is nothing it will not venture to undertake as being released from all sense of shame and all reason.” (The Republic, book IX) More recently, some enthusiasts of lucid dreaming have encouraged using conscious dream control as a tool to enjoy consequence-free fantasies of sex and power. Dreaming in this view is reduced to the ethical status of a video game, where nothing is “real” and the players can behave however they wish.

In both of these cases, dreaming is cast outside the sphere of normal ethics. Sleep and dreaming are treated as sub-human realms where ordinary moral rules do not apply.

Several problems follow from this view, to be explored in future posts. Here, we’ll consider one particularly urgent problem. Think of it like this: In regular waking life, if someone tricked you into do something you didn’t want to do, we would call that other person’s action unethical. But does that judgment change if it happens in your dreams? If the person tricks you into having a dream of something you otherwise would not dream about, can we still call their action unethical? It seems not, according to the prior view that nothing that happens in dreaming really matters. Where’s the harm? Where’s the negative impact? They might have forced you to have a dream, but all dreams are unreal, so what exactly did they force you to do? When we start with the assumption that dreaming is a moral wasteland and ontological void, it becomes more difficult to draw appropriate ethical lines around waking behaviors that have effects on people’s capacity for dreaming.

This is not a theoretical concern. Thanks to new technologies in data science and brain imaging, researchers are now able to identify meaningful patterns in dream content with unprecedented speed and accuracy. That’s not a problem—new knowledge is a good thing! The problem comes with the unethical use of that knowledge to manipulate other people’s dreams without their awareness or full understanding. The increasing availability of these technologies makes it easier to attempt such manipulations for political, commercial, or criminal purposes.

It may seem paradoxical, but support for a higher ethical status for dreaming comes from current scientific research on dreams. Findings in neuroscience and cognitive psychology show that the brain processes our experiences in dreams very much like it processes our experiences in waking life. The vivid realism of dreaming is deeply rooted in the regular workings of the neural networks of our brains, with potentially strong and long-lasting effects on the waking mind in the form of “big dreams,” which have been reported throughout history and across all cultures. Modern dream researchers are helping us understand more clearly than ever before that 1) the dreaming mind is closer to the waking mind than Plato’s “wild beast” model suggests, and 2) dream experiences are more neurologically real and personally impactful than the “video game” model suggests.

Of course, Buddhists have long taught that karmic traces can accumulate in sleep, so you shouldn’t think you can break the precepts while dreaming and get away with it. Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have argued that if people consent to immoral behavior in their dreams, their souls are indeed responsible for those sins. Modern researchers are simply adding empirical evidence and a neuro-cognitive framework to confirm this perennial insight about the ethics of dreaming.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, February 3, 2021.

 

The Four Factors that Shape Our Dreams

The Four Factors that Shape Our Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyIn Sigmund Freud’s pioneering book The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), he explained how dreams are formed by referring to four factors that make up what he called the “dream-work.” Even after the passage of more than a century, many of Freud’s key concepts are still valid and useful in the practice of dream interpretation. This includes his observation that four specific factors are central to the construction of dreams. These factors are fairly easy to identify, not only in dreams but in other areas of people’s lives, too. With this claim, Freud dramatically raised the stakes for the science of dreaming—more than just providing knowledge about the sleeping mind, it can also become a source of insight into other arenas of human symbolic behavior and expression.

The first mechanism of the dream-work is condensation. Even a very simple dream image can bring together a large number of feelings, thoughts, associations, and memories. In his “Dream of Irma’s Injection,” from chapter 2 of ID, Freud identified references to eight different women in the single dream character of Irma. Complex dream images can be condensations of even greater numbers of people, places, and activities. Freud regarded this as one of the sleeping mind’s greatest powers: creating singular images that contain a surprising multitude of emotional meanings.

The second mechanism of the dream-work is displacement. This factor accounts for why dreams can seem so bizarre and out of sync—for example, your feelings don’t match your activities in the dream, people behave like they’re someone else, or an object from one place appears in a totally different setting. Freud believed this was intentional misdirection, a way of hiding uncomfortable truths from conscious awareness. It’s also possible that instances of displacement are highlighting unusual connections that waking awareness had not previously noticed. Either way, displacement is a frequent factor in shaping the symbolic and metaphorical content of dreaming.

Third of the dream-work mechanisms is their visual quality. Not all dreams are visual in their primary content, but most of them are. The imagistic language of dreaming differs in fundamental ways from the rational, linear language of waking thought. The sleeping mind channels its abstract thoughts and feelings into the more concrete modality of image, shape, movement, and color.

The fourth factor in the dream-work is secondary revision, which is Freud’s term for all the little things we do, consciously and unconsciously, to smooth out the dream and make it more comprehensible for the waking mind. This starts happening during the dreaming process itself, almost like a preparation for the dream’s eventual emergence into consciousness upon awakening. The influence of secondary revision makes it difficult to know if we have ever remembered the “true” dream, before the smoothing process took over.

Here’s an example of what these four factors look like in an actual dream. A couple nights ago I dreamed the following:

I am in a forest, standing outside the dark opening of a cave. I toss a pebble inside, and I am surprised at how deep the cave must be. Then I see the outline of a big cat looking out, coming towards me. I step back in surprise, fear, and awe.

The big cat is a condensation of several felines in my life, two of whom recently passed away. The emotions I feel in response to seeing the big cat reflect feelings from other parts of my life, in addition to kitties living and dead, domestic and wild. As a displacement, the dream changes the setting of my turbulent feelings about recent political developments in the U.S., shifting the scenario from media abstraction to visceral experience in nature. The visual quality emerges most vividly with the looming shape of the big cat, which gives a beautiful imagistic expression to these interwoven parts of my life. An instance of secondary revision appears with the tossing of the pebble into the cave, and the subsequent idea that the cave was surprisingly deep. As I think back on the dream, I assume that I noticed how long it took for the pebble to hit the ground and then made the reasonable inference about the cave’s unusual depth. But Freud would likely say that’s secondary revision at work, smoothing over the gaps and rough spots and making everything seem more coherent. With that in mind, I now wonder if perhaps the pebble-tossing has other meanings I’m overlooking.

From the beginning of his career, Freud realized that learning how to interpret dreams can reveal new ways of interpreting other phenomena in our lives—jokes, slips of the tongue, obsessive memories, symptoms of mental illness, romantic fantasies, religious rituals, political ideologies, and works of art, to name a few. The same four factors of the unconscious mind that shape our dreams also shape our expressions and behaviors in these other realms, too.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, January 29, 2021.

Christmas Dreaming

Christmas Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyDreams during the holidays bring happy memories, and recurrent anxieties.

The holiday season brings many anticipated pleasures, and many reasons for worry. Our dreams about Christmas express both happiness and anxiety, eagerly looking forward to the holiday but also expressing recurrent worries about every possible thing that could go wrong.

The Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) includes 184 dream reports of 5+ words in length in which “Christmas” is mentioned at least once. Below are excerpts from a few of these dreams (identifying details have been removed). Without delving into the personal meanings of these dreams, we can still read them as fascinating commentaries from the unconscious on Christmas as a collective cultural experience.

Good times. The most positive Christmas dreams emphasize feelings of togetherness, play, and creativity.

“Dreamed about family Christmas time. Brought back happy memories of getting together with brother and sisters.”

“In my dream I was back home. It was Christmas break and my brother, his roommate and I were on a plane going home. When we got there, I went back to my high school and got to see all my friends again.”

“We were all in a hotel for Christmas. I don’t know why but it was a little sad. After a while, we walked outside and it began to snow. We all picked it up and had a snowball fight. It felt like a perfect day.”

“I dreamt that me and some other girl were singing in the living room to this Christmas music. We were trying to put “Away In a Manger” to a rap beat!”

“I was given a box with small parcels in it. I realized that this was a Christmas present. The dream became lucid and I thought, “This is a Christmas dream.” I was doing housework at the same time and noticed a bare Christmas tree in the house alongside a wall. I thought that it needed decorating before the party I would have that night.”

Misfortunes. Dreams also remind us of how very many things can go wrong during the holidays.

“My husband wants to plug in a string of Christmas lights that have a short circuit in them, or rather the switch in the wall does. The lights go on and off. I suggest he try another switch or plug.”

“I had a dream that it was Christmas Eve. My boyfriend and I arrived at my mother’s home in the afternoon and she wasn’t there, she didn’t show up till 5:30 because she was at the gym. This meant dinner wouldn’t be served till later than 8 which is when my boyfriend and I have to leave for a trip to his parents’ home. I was extremely irritated throughout the dream.”

“It was the night of my school’s Christmas pageant, and I was running late–very late. The pageant was supposed to start at 7:30, and I didn’t start dressing for it until 7:45. When I finally headed out the door, I was already a half hour late and I suddenly realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to do when I got there.”

“I was out Christmas shopping in a huge crowd and I got lost and couldn’t find my way out of the store.”

“I was buying trying a Christmas present for a family member but wherever I went it was out of stock or they didn’t have it.”

“I’m going to a Christmas party at my boss’s house, and I manage to spill my coffee, complete with generous amounts of soymilk, all over her couch.”

Nightmares. The holidays can bring out deeper fears, too.

“As a child, and a few times as an adult, I had a recurring dream at Christmas time, initially happy, involving spinning Christmas trees with colored lights. The multiple trees begin to spin faster, then unite into a single, large tree, and come closer. The dream turns darker, and the tree begins to be threatening, a whirl of pine needles and colored lights. Eventually I get sucked into the tree, and wake up in a sweat. To this day I use only white lights on my Christmas trees.”

“I was about 5 years old, and it was Christmas Eve. I was lying in bed, in the top bunk, and when I looked over at the bedroom door, there was a skeleton standing there, with a red Santa hat on, and a bag slung over its shoulder, as if full of gifts.”

Visitations. The most poignant Christmas dreams recall loved ones we have lost, and whose presence we miss most at this time of year.

 “Last week I dreamed that my brother and I were wrapping Christmas gifts. He ran out of wrapping paper and asked if I had any. I didn’t think I had any left but miraculously pulled out a roll and handed it to him. Just as I did this I woke up. My brother died many years ago. He lived in another state and would visit for a week every Christmas. Every time he came he would wrap all his gifts in my wrapping paper which irritated me.”

“I dreamed that my mom (who is deceased) and I were going out to the stores and shopping for Christmas. I didn’t want to wake up, because if I did then she would be gone again. The dream seemed really real.”

“My grandmother passed away recently. My dream was about us baking cookies. I believe the dream comes from the many memories I have of us doing that at Christmas.”

Conclusion

These dream reports were provided mostly from American adults, most of whom are Christians. Given the universality of dreaming, we can predict that people who are members of non-Christian religious traditions also have dreams about their most sacred holiday celebrations, and these dreams also range across the emotional spectrum from happy anticipations to anxious nightmares.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today, 12/14/20.