Your Dream Journal: A Gift to Future Researchers

Your Dream Journal: A Gift to Future Researchers by Kelly BulkeleySimple steps you can take to help the future study of dreams.

Sooner or later, people who keep a dream journal realize they are creating a document of more than just personal interest.  They realize their journal is an amazing window into the lived experiences of a unique individual, offering potential insights for psychology, history, anthropology, and many other fields. And they wonder if it would be helpful, under the right conditions, to offer their journals to researchers for study and exploration.

It’s true, dream journals can be profoundly helpful to researchers who want to better understand the powers of the human mind. Some of the most important questions about the nature and meaning of dreams can only be answered by looking closely at the natural flow of dreaming during the course of a person’s life—that is, by looking at a well-tended dream journal.

This, I believe, is the most exciting horizon in the future study of dreams, and we can make huge progress in this direction by gathering high-quality journals from diverse people and exploring them with a variety of creative methods of analysis.

Not everyone who keeps a journal wants to go down this path, and that’s fine. The primary audience of a dream journal is the dreamer him or herself, and it really doesn’t have to expand any further than that.

But if you do have an interest in contributing your journal to the general study of dreams, there are a few simple steps you can take to prepare your journal, and yourself, for the process.

1. Record your dreams well.

The goal is to record your dreams in a way that works best for you, and that researchers can understand and study. Legible handwriting is a good start; many great projects begin with nothing more than a collection of handwritten journals. Audio recordings are another possibility. A file written in a digital word processing format is ideal, and most researchers will want to study a digital transcription of the dreams, in addition to the original recordings.

Make sure to include the date of the dream with each report. Some people date each dream from the day of the morning they wake up; I date my dreams from the day of the night I go to sleep. Either way is fine, just be clear and consistent.

At this point, English is the most widely used language for scholarly analysis.  That will eventually change, but in the meantime, the ideal formatting of your journal would include the original language(s) of the dreams, along with an English translation if needed.

Each dream report should be just that, a report of a dream. It’s best if you include no associations, memories, or comments in the report. Just the dream, please. All of the further associations, etc., can be included in a separate file (see below).

The most helpful dream reports are written in as much detail as possible, especially about the settings, characters, thoughts, and feelings you experience within the dream. And, although it’s not necessary, I think it’s best to report the dream in the present tense—“I see my friend and we say hello,” rather than “I saw my friend and we said hello.”

2. Include additional material.

If you have the time and willingness to collect additional information about your dreams and their context in your life, that would of course be of great interest to anyone studying your journal. The key here is to be organized, and make it clear how the extra material is connected to the dream reports. Otherwise, a researcher could easily get overwhelmed by all the non-dream information, and lose track of the dreams themselves.

It’s helpful, both for the dreamer and for researchers, to know the following: 1) The location of where you were sleeping when you had the dream (the city is usually enough) and the level of familiarity (e.g. home vs. a hotel); 2) The length and quality of your sleep during the night of the dream; 3) The ages of the characters in the dream and their relations to you in waking life.

Drawings, sketches, and diagrams can be very effective for some people in describing their dreams.

Most researchers will be curious about your personal background, family upbringing, etc., so you might consider writing a brief account of your life, sharing whatever you think is most relevant for understanding your dreams.

3. Think about what you want.

Before contacting a researcher, make sure you’ve given some thought to the arrangements you would like to have in place. You should be aware that, sadly, there are very few institutional resources in the world devoted to the study of dreams. Most libraries, universities, and schools of psychology do not have the facilities or financial resources to accept donations of dream journals. However, there are individual scholars in various fields who have experience in working with participants in projects like this. Ideally they would be able to help you with expenses for formatting, translation, etc.

There is currently no commercial value to dream journal data.  Most people are content with two non-financial benefits from the research process. First, they receive a greatly expanded vision of the meaningful patterns in their dreams. No researcher can ever predict where exactly the process will lead, but most people find intrinsic satisfaction in learning more about the deeper meanings of their dreams.

Second, they enjoy the feeling of tangibly helping the cause of dream research and broadening public awareness of dreaming. Once someone learns from personal experience about the transformative powers of dreaming, they naturally wonder how the world might change if more people became familiar with this potent inner source of creativity….

Very important: Think about how much confidentiality screening you want for your dreams. Some people do not mind allowing others to read their “raw” dream reports, while other people prefer to delete some passages and change the names of people and places, to preserve their privacy and the privacy of others. Once the real names in your dreams have been replaced with pseudonyms, it becomes difficult if not impossible to identify with certainty the real characters in the dreams.

And if there are a few dreams in the journal you simply don’t want anyone else to see, that’s okay, go ahead and remove them from what you share.

4. Make sure the arrangements are fair, ethical, and mutual.

Only get involved with researchers you trust. Make sure they understand that if at any point you want to end the research process, that’s it, you’re done, no questions asked.

Take a look at the ethics statement of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and confirm that anyone you deal with is acting in accordance with these principles.

The researchers should report any significant findings to you, and they should consult with you on possible publications that reference your dreams. If you request, the researchers should treat you as a co-investigator, offering you regular updates and opportunities for your feedback and giving you as much public credit as you want to receive.

Your dreams, and your dream journal, are primarily for you. That’s a foundational principle, never to be forgotten. And, in addition to that, beyond the sphere of your personal life, your dreams have an amazing potential to teach many important lessons to other people, now and far into the future.

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Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on November 2, 2018.

 

Healthier Sleep: A Path to Lucid Dreaming

Healthier Sleep: A Path to Lucid Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyMore awareness of sleep leads to more awareness in sleep.

Why is it so hard to motivate people to sleep better?  Sleep is vital to human health, yet many of us get much less of it than we truly need. Sleep deprivation causes devastating personal and social damage, including more frequent accidents, injuries, illnesses, and behavioral problems.  But people rarely make a serious, sustained effort to improve their sleep habits.  Why not?

One reason is the common assumption that sleep is just an empty void, a barren gap of nothingness between times of being awake.  Who wants to prioritize something that’s empty and blank?

But here’s the thing: that common assumption is false.  Sleep is not empty.  It includes a highly active mode of brain-mind functioning that has stimulated the creative works of artists, visionaries, and innovators throughout history. The better you sleep, the more fully your mind can enter into this natural mode of enhanced mental creativity.  Once you become more conscious of your mind’s activities in sleep, you can begin to develop its powers and focus its creative energies wherever you choose.

Psychologists call this “lucid dreaming,” a modern term for an experience that was well-known to ancient cultures.  Early teachings from Hinduism and Buddhism talked about conscious awareness in sleep as a kind of meditation that goes beyond the waking state.  Philosophers from classical Greece admired the potential in sleep for a pure form of mental clarity.  In many indigenous cultures, shamanic healers were trained to become conscious within sleep so they could seek out cures for people who were sick.

The human mind is capable of becoming conscious and active during the state of sleep—that’s the common thread in all these historical traditions.  Combining this with the findings of modern psychology, it becomes clear that lucid dreaming is a natural power of the human mind.  Everyone has this potential in their sleep.  You have this potential. It’s simply waiting for you to actualize it.

A good way to start that process is by observing and identifying the levels of awareness in your current sleep and dreams. You may be surprised to find there are already many elements of lucidity in your dreams right now; you just hadn’t noticed them before.

The practice is easy. When you go to sleep each night, repeat to yourself: “I’m going to be more aware tonight when I sleep and dream.” When you wake up each morning, write down whatever dreams you can remember. If nothing comes to you, that’s fine, don’t worry about it. If you do remember a dream, write it down and give it a score based on the following scale of awareness, which I’ve adapted from Purcell et al., 1993:

Levels of Lucidity

  1. You are not present in the dream, and the content is vague. (For example, “Something about chasing.”)
  2. You are present as an observer, and the content includes some details. (“I see someone being chased by a monster.”)
  3. You observe and think about the content, which includes more specific details. (“I see a dark-haired man being chased by a monster, and I wonder where the monster came from.”)
  4. You are a character in the dream, but with no power or agency. (“I am being chased by a monster, and I can’t get away and I start to panic.”)
  5. You are a character in the dream, with some awareness and agency. (“A monster chases me in my house, and I decide my best option is to hide in the basement.”)
  6. You gain more awareness and agency in the dream. (“While a monster looks for me upstairs, I realize my car is outside, and I grab my keys and run.”)
  7. You gain full control within the dream. (“I see a monster coming, so I lock all the doors to my house, and the monster has to leave me alone.”)
  8. You gain some control over the process of dreaming. (“A monster gets into my house, so I mentally pause the dream to give myself a chance to escape.”)
  9. You gain more awareness and control over the process of dreaming. (“A monster gets into my house, but I know that’s the start of a chasing dream, so I switch everything to a beach scene where I’m flying over the ocean.”)
  10. You consciously co-create the dream.(“I realize I am dreaming, and I decide to go back in time to my family home, where I can learn more about my hopes and fears during childhood….”)

Most dreams are in the 1 to 6 range. Many people have experienced dreams at the 7 and 8 levels, but rarely. Only a few people have experienced dreams at the 9 and 10 levels, although virtually anyone with the right training and practice has the potential to experience dreams reaching the highest levels of conscious awareness.

If you record your dreams using this scale, you will quickly discover which scenarios bring the most lucidity into your sleeping mind.  You will learn what kinds of dreams stimulate your consciousness, and what kinds of dreams block or diminish it.  Maybe you have dreams with less awareness during the week, and dreams with more awareness on the weekends. Maybe there are certain things you do during the day, or people you see, or places you go, that have a direct impact on the lucidity levels of your dreams.  Perhaps your awareness varies depending on what you eat, or when you exercise, or what you watch on tv….

This is valuable information to know about yourself, and you can use it to guide the development of a lucid dreaming practice that is focused directly on your needs and interests.

There are many different methods and techniques available for increasing the frequency of lucid dreaming, all of which have their pros and cons depending on the individual dreamer.  A method can be very effective for some people, but completely useless for others. You will have an easier time finding the approach that works best for you if you start by learning about your own natural patterns of awareness in sleep.

Once you establish a solid foundation of healthy sleep, you can train your mind to become an amazing source of creativity and innovation. I suggest you begin your journey of lucid dreaming by reviewing your sleep and making sure you are doing everything possible to settle your body, deepen your rest, and prepare your mind for new adventures in the growth of consciousness.

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Note: The “levels of lucidity scale” is adapted from: Purcell, S., Moffitt, A., & Hoffmann, R. (1993). “Waking, Dreaming, and Self-Regulation.” In A. Moffitt, M. Kramer, & R. Hoffmann (Eds.), The Functions of Dreaming (pp. 197-260). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

This post was first published in Psychology Today on October 18, 2018.

 

What Do People Think About Dreams? Preview of a New Survey

What Do People Think About Dreams? Preview of a New Survey by Kelly BulkeleyA new survey reveals the wide range of attitudes that contemporary Americans hold towards dreaming. 

It might seem that in dreams you enter a purely subjective realm, a world of total solipsism in which nothing exists but the individual self.  Yet the more we learn about dreaming, the more we realize how deeply it is shaped by cultural forces and collective realities.

We live, waking and dreaming, within a dynamic cultural matrix of beliefs, ideas, symbols, and values.  Out of this matrix we form attitudes that help us make sense of the world and our experiences within it.  Cultural attitudes can have a huge impact on people’s experiences with dreaming, influencing how often people remember their dreams, how often they share their dreams with other people, and what kinds of meanings they look for in their dreams.

To explore the nature of these cultural factors at a large scale, I commissioned YouGov, a professional opinion research company, to conduct an online survey. A total of 5,255 American adults participated in the survey, and they were asked a standard set of demographic questions (gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, etc.) along with several other questions targeted to my research interests, including religious affiliation, political ideology, and social policies about climate change and immigration.  In addition to these questions, participants were asked about their sleep quality, dream recall, frequency of sharing dreams with others, and their agreement with a set of six statements about dreaming:

  1. Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.
  2. Dreams are a good way of learning about my true feelings.
  3. Dreams are random nonsense from the brain.
  4. Dream can anticipate things that happen in the future.
  5. I am too busy in waking life to pay attention to my dreams.
  6. I get bored listening to other people talk about their dreams.

For each statement, the participants were asked if they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, neither agreed nor disagreed, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed.

Michael Schredl and I are currently working on an article that analyzes people’s responses to the six attitudes statements in relation to gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, and religious affiliation.  Michael is a researcher at the sleep laboratory of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, and he has done lots of previous research on people’s attitudes towards dreams.  We are planning to submit the article soon to the International Journal for Dream Research.

A second article will follow, focusing on people’s responses to the attitudes statements in relation to political variables (ideology, beliefs about immigration and climate change).  A third article may focus on the sleep question (“How many nights in an average week do you experience insomnia or have trouble sleeping?”) in relation to the other demographic variables.

The Sleep and Dream Database currently has available for public study the survey responses for several questions: gender, age, age group D (18-34-35-54, 55 and older), US region F (West, South, Northeast, Midwest), dream recall, and the statement “Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.”  All survey responses will be made available once the initial analyses are finished.

If you have any hypotheses about what the survey results will show, please let me know!

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly BulkeleyIn an interview with the New York Times on August 16, the visionary technologist Elon Musk described the grueling work schedule he forces himself to endure in order to achieve his goals. He rarely takes any significant time away from work, and when he does, it’s often for exotic vacations requiring long travels. Recently he has been working up to 120 hours a week at his Tesla automobile plant, never going outside the factory for days at a time. He keeps a sleeping bag in his office, and when he does decide to try getting some shut-eye, he apparently makes frequent use of strong sleep-inducing medications.

Musk is a very prominent public figure and a true leader in creating the technologies of the future.  As such, his words carry great weight and influence.  It matters when Elon Musk says that his professional success requires a chronic state of sleep deprivation.

The interview prompted the sleep advocate Arianna Huffington to post an open letter to Musk on her Thrive.com website on August 17.  Huffington praised Musk’s intellectual brilliance, and she appealed to that same scientific mentality to recognize that healthy sleep is a vital element in true creativity:

You’re a science and data-driven person. You’re obsessed with physics, engineering, with figuring out how things work. So apply that same passion for science not just to your products but to yourself. People are not machines. For machines — whether of the First or Fourth Industrial Revolution variety — downtime is a bug; for humans, downtime is a feature. The science is clear. And what it tells us is that there’s simply no way you can make good decisions and achieve your world-changing ambitions while running on empty. It doesn’t depend on how many hours you’re awake. Tesla — and the world (not to mention you and your beautiful children) — would be better off if you regularly built in time to refuel, recharge and reconnect with your exceptional reserves of creativity and your power to innovate. Working 120-hour weeks doesn’t leverage your unique qualities, it wastes them. You can’t simply power through — that’s just not how our bodies and our brains work. Nobody knows better than you that we can’t get to Mars by ignoring the laws of physics. Nor can we get where we want to go by ignoring scientific laws in our daily lives.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

This prompted Musk to respond on August 18 at 2:32 a.m. via Twitter:

Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.

The tweet was removed a few hours later, but Huffington saw it and responded in an interview on August 20 by trying again to appeal to his own highest ideals:

This is not [just] about sleep, or about slowing down, or about asking Elon to chill out under a mango tree. It’s about how we can unlock and sustain our peak performance, and see solutions and opportunities where others can’t.

Those are precisely the virtues that Musk takes pride in having—a capacity for peak performance and visionary problem-solving.  Huffington is gently but firmly suggesting that if he truly wants to strengthen those abilities, then he must give up the false heroism of denying his body’s need for sleep, rest, and recuperation.  Chronic sleep deprivation takes your mind and body in exactly the opposite direction, towards degraded functioning in our most important human faculties.  The empirical research on the negative effects of sleep deprivation is very clear on this point.  Yet Musk remains in thrall to an unscientific attitude about the need to sacrifice sleep as the price of success.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

Is that too harsh a conclusion? Perhaps, but it seems more plausible following another article in the NYT, on August 28.  This one focused on the increasing number of problems at the Tesla factory, many of them caused by Musk’s own mercurial behavior.  More than 30 senior executives have left the company in recent years, citing his excessive micro-management, and the factory’s automated systems have suffered a never-ending stream of technical glitches, which he insists on fixing himself.  The Tesla factory was designed for maximal automation and minimal human involvement, and it seems that Musk is slowly but surely imposing that same design on himself.

Musk’s defense of his sleep-starved life highlights an often overlooked research finding that I believe has alarming implications for public health and civil society.  Below is an adapted quote from my 2016 book, Big Dreams. First, a general litany of the effects of sleep deprivation:

For humans the first signs of sleep deprivation are unpleasant feelings of fatigue, irritability, and difficulties concentrating. Then come problems with reading and speaking clearly, poor judgment, lower body temperature, and a considerable increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, the worsening effects include disorientation, visual misperceptions, apathy, severe lethargy, and social withdrawal.

Now comes the lesser known and more worrisome impact:

Surprisingly, even with these worsening deficits, sleep-deprived humans can still perform remarkably well on tests for certain kinds of repetitive motor and cognitive skills.  These abilities remain functional even when people no longer have any imaginative spark or feel actively engaged with the world.  According to sleep researcher Michael H. Bonnet, “responses [to performance tests] during sleep loss may occur as rapidly as before, but those responses tend to be more stereotyped and less creative.” Another researcher, Jim Horne, put it like this: “in effect, progressive sleep loss turns us into automatons and, in losing the ability to think independently, conscious awareness of ourselves is impaired and we are no longer prescient. Nevertheless, we can still run on ‘auto-pilot’ and perform routine behavior and other well-rehearsed tasks and procedures.” According to Horne, “Recent findings with clinically oriented neuropsychological tests suggest that one night without sleep causes particular impairment to tasks requiring flexible thinking and the updating of plans in the light of new information… [S]leep deprivation led to more rigid thinking, increased perseverative errors, and marked difficulty in appreciating an updated situation.”

In other words, people who are chronically sleep deprived can still perform routine, automatic, stereotyped behaviors. But they lose the ability to be innovative, adaptive, flexible, and capable of learning. They become less like humans, and more like robots. They can remain functional workers, but they are no longer creative people.

Is that really the path we want to follow, as individuals and a society?

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Uncanny dreams and deathly sleep haunt the most famous lovers in literary history.

The woeful story of Juliet and her Romeo has several ominous references to beds, sleep, and dreams.  These nocturnal elements reflect the tension between the passionate yearnings of the young lovers and the tragic fate that awaits them.  As Friar Laurence vainly warns, “these violent delights have violent ends.” Romeo and Juliet discover both ecstatic delights and annihilating ends in the darkest, dreamiest realms of night.

Romeo’s First Dream and Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” Speech

In one of the early scenes of the play (currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with Emily Ota as Juliet and William Thomas Hodgson as Romeo), a moment of witty banter suddenly turns into a long, weirdly unsettling monologue about the nature of dreaming.  It is, I believe, the most extensive treatment of dreams in all of Shakespeare’s works, and it encapsulates in a single surreal passage the inspiring-yet-terrifying energies of human dream experience.

At the start of Act I, scene iv, Romeo meets with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio on a street outside the family house of the Capulets, sworn enemies of Romeo’s family, the Montagues.  The Capulets are hosting a feast and masquerade ball, and Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo have decided to wear masks and sneak into the party.  Just before entering the house, however, Romeo abruptly stops and questions the wisdom of their plan.  Even though the woman he desperately loves, Rosaline, will be attending the festivities, he worries that something bad will happen if they go forth.  Mercutio demands that Romeo explain his sudden misgivings, and the following exchange ensues:

Romeo: I dreamt a dream tonight.

Mercutio: And so did I.

Romeo: Well, what was yours?

Mercutio: That dreamers often lie.

Romeo: In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.

(1.4.51-56)

Romeo believes his dream is warning him of danger in the future.  Mercutio is more interested in the party, however, and he tries to deflect Romeo’s gloomy prognostication with a sharp-edged jest: he lures Romeo into asking him if he really had a dream, and then calls into question the veracity of anyone who claims to have a dream to tell.  But Romeo has a strong feeling about the potential significance of his dream, and he tries to persuade Mercutio to take it seriously.

Romeo gets more than he bargained for.  Mercutio launches into an elaborate and fanciful speech that covers more than forty lines of text, starting with this:

Mercutio: O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone…

(I.iv.57-59)

What follows is a strange, magical journey into the realm of the fairies and their nocturnal activities.  As he does at greater length in the romantic fantasy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” also written around this same time (1595-1596), Shakespeare draws upon popular folklore to envision a colorful world of tiny tricksters who, hovering just outside the range of our ordinary awareness, are busily influencing our lives in ways both fair and foul.  Despite her miniscule size and delicate nature, Queen Mab wields total power over us when we sleep and dream.  Mercutio goes on describe what happens when she visits various kinds of people in their slumber:

Mercutio: And in this state she gallops night by night through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; O’er courtiers knees, that dream on curtsies straight; O’er lawyers fingers, who straight dream on fees; O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream.

(I.iv.74-78)

What Mercutio describes is quite similar to the continuity hypothesis of dreaming, which states that people tend to dream most frequently about things that emotionally concern them in waking life. Lovers dream of love, courtiers dream of kneeling in court, lawyers dream of receiving money from clients—whatever is most important in a person’s life, that’s what they’re most likely to dream about.  Mercutio describes other examples of Queen Mab’s dream-stimulating activities: she tickles a minister’s nose, and he dreams of a financially secure job; she drives over a soldier’s neck, and he dreams of cutting enemy throats.  The common thread throughout these examples is that dreams are personalized reflections of people’s current concerns and not, as Romeo assumes, prophecies about the future.  In this regard, Mercutio’s speech is a remarkable anticipation of a modern psychological theory about dreaming.

Queen Mab takes mischievous delight in causing chaos and disorder, a fairy trait she shares with Puck, Oberon, and Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  As Mercutio continues his speech, this quality comes to the fore, and at a certain point Mercutio seems to lose control of his own story:

Mercutio: This is the very Mab that plaits the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs, which once untangled much misfortune bodes. This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage. This is she—

(I.iv.92-98)

Here, Shakespeare condenses several folk-beliefs about the dark forces behind dreaming. Queen Mab morphs into a relentless incubus or night hag who tangles hair, presses on bodies, preys on fears, and forces sexual submission.  She is the embodiment of all the nightmarish powers set loose within our sleep, and she devotes especially malicious attention to the torments of “sluttish” young women.  The physiological effects described here could, in modern terms, be diagnosed as night terrors, with the sensation of pressure and feelings of overwhelming fear.  They could also be explained in terms of psychoanalytic theory: Queen Mab is the primal Id of the human unconscious, running wild through our dreams while the ego slumbers in blissful ignorance.

Most productions of the play have Mercutio delivering these final lines of his speech in a manic frenzy, as the fairies’ malevolent mayhem threatens to overwhelm him.  The OSF version, with the incandescent Sara Bruner as Mercutio, follows that traditional staging, but with an intriguing gender twist that gives the speech a deeper level of emotional resonance.

At this point, Mercutio has become so unhinged that Romeo steps forward to interrupt him and snap him out of the psychotic spell of his own words.  Now it’s Romeo’s turn to play down the significance of dreams, in an effort to calm his friend’s frazzled nerves:

Romeo: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.

(I.iv.100-101)

Mercutio responds with another unexpected shift of tone and attitude:

Mercutio: True, I talk of dreams; which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy; which is as thin of substance as the air, and more inconstant that the wind…

(I.iv.102-106)

After dwelling at such length on the wondrous exploits of Queen Mab and her fairy consorts, Mercutio abruptly concludes with a rejection of dreaming as a whole.  A modern materialist could not express any more eloquently the idea that dreams are sheer nonsense.  Here, Mercutio is anticipating the basic themes of neuroscientific reductionism, another strand of current thinking about dreams that treats them as the disordered and meaningless by-products of an “idle brain” during sleep.

In the context of the play and this particular scene, Mercutio’s claim is not very persuasive, since he just spent several minutes giving a highly detailed account of the meaningful connections between people’s dreams and their waking lives.  Indeed, his belated rejection of dreaming seems more like a desperate attempt to deny what he has just openly acknowledged to be real and true.  He’s trying to put the lid back on the magic box, but it’s too late.  The fairies have already escaped.

Benvolio finally draws their attention back to the matter at hand, and on they go to the party.  But Romeo has been deeply rattled.  More than ever, he feels a prophetic sense of darkening gloom ahead and the inescapable prospect of “untimely death.”

So this is Romeo’s frame of mind when he puts on his mask and walks into the party at the Capulets.  He is deeply depressed about his unrequited love for Rosaline; he just had a very worrisome dream portending some future ill; and his friend nearly goes mad talking about the supernatural powers of malicious mischief set loose in our dreams.  Plus, he knows that if his true identity is discovered, he will likely be killed.  By entering the party, Romeo is entering a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Juliet’s Merging of Beds, Sleep, and Death

We do not know what Juliet dreams about.  We only know what she does not dream about.  In her first appearance, Juliet’s mother calls for her to discuss an important question:

Capulet’s wife: Tell me, daughter Juliet, how stands your disposition to be married?

Juliet: It is an honor that I dream not of.

(I.iii.68-70)

Juliet’s reply is both modest and diplomatic.  As an obedient and virtuous daughter, she accepts that her parents will decide when, where, and to whom she will be pledged in the sacred bond of marriage.  Until that time, the topic is the farthest thing from her mind, something that does not even appear in her dreams.  Her reply also includes a subtle degree of reluctance to think about marriage at this stage of life.  Her nurse has just given a long and rambling speech, the upshot of which is that Juliet is not yet 14 years of age, barely past childhood.  But Juliet’s mother insists that other “ladies of esteem” in Verona are married by this age and already bearing children, as did she when she first married Juliet’s father.

This is preamble to dramatic news.  Her mother says that a well-regarded gentleman by the name of Paris has shown marital interest in Juliet (he “seeks you for his love”), and he has come to their house that very evening to win her hand.  Juliet’s mother gives her virtually no time to react—“speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?” Juliet dutifully answers that she will try to like him, but no more than her mother says she should. The nurse shows no such reluctance, as she makes abundantly clear the sexual implications of this sudden turn of events: “Women grow by men… Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days.”

Juliet speaks very few lines in this scene, which is fitting since she really has no say in any of these choices or decisions.  She dreams of none of this because she has no agency, no creative investment in any of it; it all happens to her, by decree of her parents, leaving her imagination no reason to wonder about alternative possibilities.

So this is Juliet’s frame of mind when she puts on her mask and joins her family’s feast.  After dwelling on the fact that she is currently 13 years old, she is informed by her mother that she has reached a marrying age, that a particular gentleman has already expressed his romantic interest in her, and that said gentleman is present in their home right now, ready to secure her affections.  Thanks to the nurse’s bawdy commentary, she cannot avoid the reality that she will be expected to engage in sexual relations with him.  Thus when she goes to the party, Juliet enters a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

And once there, she meets Romeo.  Their magical first encounter surprises them both; this is not what they were expecting when they walked into the party.  Completely forgetting the people they were supposed to seek (Rosaline for Romeo, Paris for Juliet), they almost instantly fall in love with a masked stranger, in a moment of mysteriously intense romance.

When the gathering ends, Juliet anxiously begs the nurse:

Juliet: Go ask his name.—If he be married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed.

(I.v.73-74)

This is the first of many instances in which Juliet and other characters make symbolic connections between beds, sleep, and death.  These references are also intertwined with the bed as a physical space for passion, love, and the creation of new life.  The grave and the wedding bed—they occupy opposite ends of an existential spectrum, and yet in this story they inexorably draw towards each other and finally merge into a tragic unity.

The early references are the happiest.  As Romeo stands beneath Juliet’s balcony exchanging vows of love, he marvels at the incredible magic of the moment:

Romeo: O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard, being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial.

(II.ii147-149)

A few moments later he bids a final farewell to Juliet at her balcony:

Romeo: Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast! Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!

(II.ii.202-203)

After the friar performs their secret wedding, Juliet eagerly anticipates her first opportunity to be alone with her husband:

Juliet: Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night; for thou wilt lie upon the wings of night whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back. Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night; give me my Romeo…

(III.ii.17-21)

Romeo and Juliet finally get to celebrate their marriage with a “love-performing night” together in her bed (III.v), and they lament the coming of the day (Romeo says, “I must be gone and live, or stay and die”).

Now everything darkens, and fate closes in on the young couple.  After they part, Juliet learns that she will soon be wedded to Paris, while Romeo finds he has been exiled from Verona for the killing of Juliet’s brother Tybalt in a street brawl.  With the friar’s help, Juliet decides to take a sleeping potion that will “wrought on her the form of death”:

Friar Laurence: And in this borrowed likeness of shrunk death thou shalt continue two and forty hours, and then awake as from a pleasant sleep. Now, when the bridegroom [Paris] in the morning comes to rouse thee from thy bed, there art thou dead.

(IV.i.106-110)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

The friar promises to tell Romeo to go to Juliet in the Capulet tomb after she has revived, so they can secretly escape the city together.  Alas, the plan goes badly awry.  Paris gets to the tomb first, and mourns at what he believes to be the dead Juliet’s side:

Paris: Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew—O woe! Thy canopy is dust and stones.

(V.iii.12-13)

Then Romeo enters the tomb.  Paris draws his sword and attacks; Romeo kills him.  He then goes to Juliet’s motionless body and falls for the deception, too: he thinks she is truly dead.  Unable to distinguish death from sleep, Romeo decides to join her in death.  Immediately upon his doing so, Juliet awakens.  The friar arrives at this point, and he urges Juliet to leave at once:

Friar Laurence: I hear some noise. Lady, come from that nest of death, contagion, and unnatural sleep.

(V.iii.156-157)

Juliet refuses.  Instead, she decides to join her beloved Romeo in eternal slumber.  After a final kiss, she takes his dagger and presses its point against her chest:

Juliet: This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.

(V.iii.175)

Romeo’s Joyful Dream

The agonizing conclusion to the story makes it all the more peculiar that, just before he learns of Juliet’s apparent death, Romeo awakens with a happy dream.  His speech at the start of Act V is a final beam of light in the gathering darkness:

Romeo: If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep, my dreams presage some joyful news at hand. My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne, and all this day an unaccustomed spirit lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts. I dreamt my lady came and found me dead (strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!) and breathed such life with kisses in my lips that I revived and was an emperor. Ah me! How sweet is love itself possessed, when but love’s shadows are so rich in joy!

(V.i.1-11)

What are we to make of this dream?  At one level it seems horribly misleading—Romeo is about to receive absolutely terrible news about Juliet, and death will soon consume them both.  The dream seems like a cruel hoax, and a painfully ironic example of why we should not “trust the flattering truth of sleep.”

But at another level, perhaps the dream is leading Romeo towards an awareness of a different realm of union with Juliet, a transcendent realm where he will be “an emperor,” and where life will conquer death.  For the truth is, there is no hope in the present waking world for him and Juliet, not with their families’ violent hatred of each other.  Romeo’s dream offers him an alternative way of understanding what the future is about to bring.  Their love is, by its very existence, a miraculous triumph over the rigid constraints that govern their lives.  They have successfully defied the social authorities and asserted their own desires for romantic fulfillment.  Their kisses have the power to transport them beyond the petty feuds of this world to a beautiful and joyful world all their own.

Romeo notes the strange element in his dream of a dead man thinking living thoughts.  Today we might call this a variation on metacognition in dreaming, a type of “thinking about thinking.”  Here, it’s Romeo thinking about what he would be thinking if he were dead.  This seems impossible from a conventional waking perspective, just as it’s impossible that he could ever actually become an emperor in the waking world.  But these things are possible in the realm of dreaming, and this suggests an expansion of normal awareness, a dissolving of ordinary boundaries, and the discovery of new potentials beyond the limits of the present.  That does seem to be the tangible effect of the dream on Romeo once he awakens.  It breaks through his fears, lifts his spirits, and stimulates a welcoming attitude towards the future. For one last moment he feels pure lightness and joy, and he revels in the wonders of his love for Juliet.

Is that a cruel deception, or a profoundly truthful vision?

Earlier in the play, Mercutio gives a variety of reasons why we should ignore dreams: dreamers lie, the fairies manipulate people’s minds, and anyway it’s all nonsense from the sleep-addled brain.  But by the end of the play the references to dreams shift towards an emphasis on their accuracy in reflecting reality.  After killing Paris in the Capulet tomb, Romeo briefly wonders about something his servant, Balthasar, said to him on the way to the tomb:

Romeo: I think he told me Paris should have married Juliet: Said he not so? Or did I dream it so?

(V.iii.78-79)

Balthasar probably did say so, but for Romeo it could equally have been a dream; all are one in his mind now.

A few moments later, Friar Laurence encounters Balthasar outside the tomb.  Romeo had told Balthasar to wait for him, and under no circumstances to follow him into the tomb.  Now Balthasar anxiously tells the friar he fears something terrible has happened:

Balthasar: As I did sleep under this yew-tree here, I dreamt my master and another fought, and that my master slew him.

(V.iii.141-143)

The staging of the scene leaves Balthasar’s exact position unclear (“I’ll hide me hereabout”), so we don’t know if he saw or heard Romeo and Paris while they were fighting; either way, Balthasar’s dream accurately reflects what did in fact happen in the tomb.

In both instances during this final climactic scene of the play, the distinction has dissolved between dreaming and waking reality.  Dreams have become transparent to the actuality of what’s happening in this world.  That is the final, spiritually illuminating context for Romeo’s joyful dream and its flattering truth about the eternal love he shares with Juliet.

 

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Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Yew tree photo is from Roi.dagobert