Dreams and Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

Dreams and Shakespeare: Julius Caesar by Kelly BulkeleyProphetic dreams of doom go unheeded in Shakespeare’s tragedy about violent political strife among the greatest leaders of ancient Rome.

In Julius Caesar, strange dreams and nightmares join with other frightening portents to besiege the people of Rome from all sides.  Terrible storms, weird avian behavior, and a haunting Soothsayer add to the pervasive sense of inescapable doom pressing down on the city.  The very foundations of the world, both political and cosmic, are cracking apart.  Forces of chaos have been set loose within the empire.  And yet, not a single one of Rome’s political leaders has the visionary capacity to recognize the signs of danger. For their failures to heed these warnings, they pay with their lives.

The great Caesar himself sets the tone in an early scene, when the Soothsayer gives him an unmistakable warning: “Beware the Ides of March.”  Caesar is the first character to make the grievous mistake of dismissing as trivial something that turns out to be a vital truth.  For the supreme leader of the Roman empire, the reason for rejecting the Soothsayer boils down to one word: he is a dreamer.  To be a dreamer, then, is to have nothing of significance to say to the ruling authority.  But as the play later reveals, it is the dreamer who had the most significant message of all for the ruler.  This complex polarity of dreaming and political power recurs throughout this play, and in many of Shakespeare’s other plays as well.

Though named after Caesar, the play focuses more attention on Brutus, the popular Roman senator who faces an awful moral choice: Should he stay loyal to his long-time friend and comrade-in-arms, who has shown no evidence of tyrannical tendencies?  Or should he defend the city and people he loves from the imminent threat of a dictator seizing total control of their government?  The agony of making a decision has disrupted his sleep, to the point where nightmarish feelings and images begin seeping into his waking mind, threatening his mental balance.

His sleep-deprived condition makes Brutus easy prey for the deception of Cassius, who fabricates the letter from the people of Rome urging Brutus to take charge of the rebellion against Caesar.  Brutus muses over the line about needing to “awake.”  What he really needs is to sleep, yet the letter urges him (metaphorically) to do the opposite. By taking the letter at its face value, Brutus compounds his mistake—accepting something as true that is in fact the opposite.

The most powerful prophetic dream in Julius Caesar is also the one that receives the most egregiously mistaken interpretation.  The dream occurs to Calphurnia, Caesar’s wife, one of the only female characters in the play.  She does not narrate the dream herself; her husband tells it for her.  He relates that she cried out three times in her sleep about his murder, then woke up and told him about a dream of a statue with blood pouring out from all sides.  This is almost exactly what happens to Caesar later that day, and at first he accepts the dream’s warning and plans on protecting himself at home rather than going out.

But Decius has been sent by the conspirators for the exact reason of luring Caesar out of his palace and escorting him to the Senate, when they will lie in wait, knives at the ready.  Calphurnia’s dream poses a direct obstacle to their plan, so Decius must quickly devise an alternative reading of the dream, one that calms Caesar’s fears and persuades him to lower his guard.  Using a combination of fawning flattery and rank misogyny, Decius leads Caesar away from the dream’s true meaning and toward a false interpretation that actually facilitates the fatal fulfillment of the prophecy.

Immediately after this debate over the proper interpretation of Calphurnia’s dream, the next scene opens with the reading of a letter by a character named Artemidorus of Cidnos, a well-regarded teacher who finds out about the assassination plot.  His letter contains a true account of the plot, and if he had succeeded in giving it to Caesar, it would have saved the ruler’s life.  But as with all the other portents of impending doom, Caesar ignored this one, too, and Artemidorus calls for the ruler’s attention in vain.  The character of Artemidorus of Cidnos may have had a historical source, but at least some of the people in Shakespeare’s audience would also have associated him with Artemidorus of Daldis, another famous Roman teacher who wrote the Oneirocritica, the most influential manual of dream interpretation for many centuries.  The Oneirocritica was well-known in Shakespeare’s time, and most of the popular dream interpretation manuals available to the public were based on the system of Artemidorus of Daldis.  Perhaps it is just a coincidence that a scene with a failure to properly interpret an important dream about Caesar is followed by a scene in which a character named Artemidorus fails to convey an important message to Caesar.  But some of the audience, and maybe Shakespeare himself, would have followed a connecting thematic thread through these scenes, and many other as well, about the dangers of missing a warning of dangers in dreaming.

The murder of Caesar sets loose a similar dynamic in the streets of Rome.  A young poet, Cinna, awakens with a dream of feasting with Caesar, and like Caesar he hesitates in setting foot out of the house that morning because of the ill omen.  But some irresistible force compels him to go forth, where he encounters a mob of people inflamed by Marc Antony’s speech against Brutus and the other assassins.  The mob confuses Cinna the poet with another man named Cinna who helped the conspiracy against Caesar.  Even though the young poet tells the angry people of their mistake, they violently attack him anyway.  The madness of the vengeful crowd dispenses with the need to distinguish truth from illusion.

In the bloody battles for power that follow Caesar’s murder, the forces of Brutus are soon pushed to the brink of defeat.  Brutus senses his time has come because the ghost of Caesar appears to him in a quasi-dream state, terrifying him with the presentiment of his own impending death.  When the ghost departs, Brutus awakens Lucius and asks if he has been dreaming and cried out; Lucius confusedly says no, and Brutus struggles to process the uncanny reality of what he has just experienced. His epistemological uncertainty signals the further dissolution of his capacity to keep his waking and sleeping states from blurring into each other.

When the end comes, Brutus welcomes it as a long-desired rest.  Only now does he clearly foresee his future.  He conscripts the last of his friends, the slumbering Strato, to awaken and help ease him into an eternal slumber.

 

Contemporary performances:

The amazing production of Julius Caesar I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February, directed by Shana Cooper, had a setting so abstract and desaturated it could have been anywhere, or everywhere. Untethered to any specific time period, it explored the dark psychological dynamics of male aggression, vanity, and ambition.  The bloody choreography of masculine violence overshadowed the fine speeches about political virtue.  By the end of the play all the physical structures on stage had been torn to pieces and cast to the ground.  Tyranny had been averted, but at the cost of chaos.

Two casting choices made this production especially powerful.  First, Brutus was played by Danforth Comins, who performed as Hamlet in last year’s OSF production of that play.  Like Hamlet, Brutus agonizes over existential questions of duty, justice, and personal loyalty, and Comins gave the character a tremendous depth of consciousness, especially during his scenes of sleepless brooding.  Second, the part of the Soothsayer was played by Brooklyn Williams, a 12-year old girl who wore a sleeveless green dress.  This was a brilliant move, jarring to audience expectations perhaps, but unforgettably effective in showing that true wisdom, and even a hint of future growth, may come from the most improbable of sources.

  

References to sleep and dreams in the play:

I.2.29

Julius Caesar waves away the Soothsayer (who has just told Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March”): “He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.”

I.2.203

Caesar says he prefers to be surrounded by agreeable men who are “fat, sleek-headed,” “such as sleep a-nights.”

II.1.4

Brutus tries to awaken his sleeping assistant Lucius, whose deep slumber he envies: “I would it were my fault to sleep so soundly.”

II.1.48, 50

Brutus opens a letter supposedly sent to him from the people of Rome, encouraging him to lead the rebellion: “Brutus, thou sleep’st. Awake, and see thyself!”  He then repeats this line to himself.

II.1.64, 68

The stress of the conspiracy against Caesar has taken its toll on Brutus: “Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar, I have not slept.”  Brutus goes on to describe his agonized mental state as something “like a phantasma or a hideous dream.”

II.1.214

Cassius tells the other conspirators that Caesar has become more superstitious recently, a change from his previously skeptical views “of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies.”

II.1.248-252

Brutus finds Lucius asleep again, and praises the youth for his innocence: “Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies/Which busy care draws in the brains of men”

II.2.1-3

At night during a terrible storm, Caesar comes out of his bedroom and says “Thrice hath Calphurnia in her sleep cried out/’Help ho, they murder Caesar!’”

II.2.80-4

Caesar says he will stay home today because of the warning vision seen by his wife in her sleep: “She dreamt tonight she saw my statue,/Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,/Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans/Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.”

II.2.88-111

Decius, one of the conspirators, persuades Caesar that Calphurnia’s dream actually has a more favorable meaning: “This dream is all amiss interpreted./It was a vision fair and fortunate./Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,/In which so many smiling Romans bathed,/Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck/Reviving blood, and that great men shall press/For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance./This by Calphurnia’s dream is signified.”  Caesar is more pleased by the interpretation of Decius (“And this way you have well expounded it”) than by his wife’s (“How foolish do your fears seem now, Calphurnia!/I am ashamed I did yield to them”).

II.3.1

Artemidorus of Cidnos reads a letter of warning that he plans to deliver directly to Caesar.

III.3.1-4

Cinna the poet goes out in the streets despite having just had an unsettling dream: “I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar;/And things unluckily charge my fantasy.”  Moments later he is attacked by a mob who mistakes him for one of the conspirators.

IV.3.286

Brutus invites his comrades to rest before the next day’s battle: “I pray you, sirs, lie in my tent and sleep.”

IV.3.318-323

After Lucius and the others fall asleep and the candle burns low, Brutus sees the ghost of Caesar: “Ha, who comes here?—/I think it is the weakness of mine eyes/That shapes this monstrous apparition./It comes upon me.—Art thou any thing?/Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,/That mak’st my blood cold and my hair to stare?”

IV.3.333-350

Deeply startled, Brutus wakes everyone up and asks if they saw anything: “Didst thou dream, Lucius, that thou so criedst out?”

V.5.1

Facing the end, Brutus says to his weary comrades: “Come, poor remains of friends, rest on this rock.”

V.5.20-3

Brutus says he knows his “hour has come” because he has seen the ghost of Caesar “two several times by night.”

V.5.36-46

Brutus bids farewell to his friends, even one who has fallen asleep on the rock: “Strato, thou hast been all this while asleep,/Farewell to thee, too, Strato.”  By this point he welcomes death: “Night hangs upon my eyes; my bones would rest,/That have but labored to attain this hour.” A moment later, his other friends run away. Strato awakens, and holds the sword by which Brutus kills himself.

How to Misbehave in Other People’s Dreams

How to Misbehave in Other People's Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyWhat would you do if you could control not only your own dreams, but other people’s dreams, too?  What if you could enter other people’s dreams without their knowing it?  How would you use those powers?  Do the same ethical principles that guide our waking lives also apply in dreaming?

The new television series “Falling Water” has created a fascinating narrative world in which various characters explore these very questions, trying to make sense of amazing dream experiences that seem both radically anomalous and strangely natural.

The latest episode, titled “Three Half Blind Mice,” fills out several story lines that illuminate the many possibilities available to those who can enter into the realm of shared dreaming.

Without giving away specific plot twists, the motives that drive people in their shared dreaming are not much different from people’s motives in waking life.  One character seduces and sexually assaults another in her dreams.  Several characters are infiltrating other people’s dreams to make money, by generating unconscious fears that prompt them to make bad business decisions.  A scientist is using shared dreams to experiment with the powers of the mind.  A religious cult is using the dream world to gather, worship, and plan for a global spiritual revolution.  Everyone seems to have a ruthless determination to find and control a mysterious child blessed with special dream powers.

The three protagonists—Tess, Burton, and Taka—have mostly virtuous reasons for entering into the shared dream world.  Tess is seeking her child, Burton is trying to learn more about a recurrent woman in his dreams, and Taka is trying to help his catatonic mother.  These are morally good and virtuous reasons to explore the dream realm as they do.  But all three are quickly drawn into the more shadowy dimensions of shared dreaming, where right and wrong no longer seem so clear and nothing is as it appears.

So far, the challenges faced by the characters in the dream world are primarily posed by each other, humans versus humans.  There are no alien, transpersonal, supra-human forces at work, at least that have been revealed so far.  I’ll be curious to see if and when other forms of intelligence and intentionality enter into the dream world.  People who engage in a long-term study of their dreams often find they become more open to such possibilities, not less so—that’s been my experience from teaching and research, in any case.

“Falling Water” and the Vasty Deep

"Falling Water" and the Vasty Deep by Kelly BulkeleyThe second episode of the excellent new TV series “Falling Water” (USA Network) starts with a creepy voiceover from a character who later reveals the frightening extent of his powers in the dream realm. He quotes from Shakespeare’s play “Henry IV Part I,” when two English lords plot a rebellion against the king:

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?

(III.i.57-59)

The episode takes its title from this quote, which poetically highlights the dangers inherent in exploring the “vasty deep” of lucid dreaming. Be careful what you wish for with dreaming, because it might become a more powerful and autonomous reality than you were expecting.

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed a similar insight in his 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 146:

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

It has to be a great TV show if I’m quoting Shakespeare and Nietzsche and I haven’t even gotten to the oneirogenic blues LP, the two big guys in black suits with no faces, the ethical complexities of gathering pure scientific data, and the deepening mystery surrounding Topeka, “a good place to dig for roots.” I’m hooked, most definitely hooked!

"Falling Water" and the Vasty Deep by Kelly Bulkeley

Below is what I wrote in the Huffington Post after watching the first episode.

Finally, someone gets it right: a television show about dreams that feels genuinely dreamy. “Falling Water,” a new series on the USA Network premiering October 12, centers on three characters (Tess, Burton, and Taka) who learn how to enter a dangerous, shadowy world of shared dreaming. I just watched the first episode (available online), and I’m very, very impressed! After years of complaining about lame, painfully unimaginative portrayals of dreaming in television and movies, I can now say there is a TV show that accurately, and entertainingly, conveys many of the sensory qualities and content themes that typify actual dreaming.

Foremost among those themes is, as the title suggests, falling water. I won’t reveal any plot twists, nor will I describe in too much detail the many beautiful images of water in the first episode, but suffice it to say that the element of water is essentially another character in the show. It flows in many different directions, over various surfaces and bodies, and ultimately down into mysterious depths. As a quick search for “water” words in the SDDb reveals, this element is indeed a very prominent feature of people’s dreams, and it has a long history of multi-dimensional symbolism. It will be fun watching future episodes to see how this theme develops over time.

Another prominent theme has to do with visual experience. Eyes, windows, mirrors, glasses, and other reflective surfaces abound in the first episode, creating a kaleidoscopic perceptual atmosphere for the characters and viewers alike. Visual sensations are also very prominent in actual dreaming, and in my recent Big Dreams book I talk about the roots of visual dreaming in terms of hard-wired neural activities in the sleeping brain. I refer to an “autonomous visionary capacity” that is innate in all humans and capable of generating powerful, creative, and highly realistic visual experiences in dreaming. The premise of “Falling Water” seems to be that people can potentially cultivate that inner capacity for powerful visionary dreaming and channel it in specific directions. It’s an exciting and reality-based premise that opens up lots of narrative possibilities for future episodes.

The theme of trying to control one’s dreams raises unsettling ethical issues that religious and spiritual traditions around the world have debated since ancient times. Are methods and tools of dream control a way of enhancing and amplifying the dreaming process, or do they ruin dreams by imposing the shallow desires of the waking ego on the wisdom of the unconscious psyche? Could more control of our dreaming promote greater self-knowledge, emotional health, and problem-solving abilities, or is it a harmful violation of our inner world and a potentially destructive way of exploiting people’s deepest fears and vulnerabilities? Perhaps most worrisome of all, if we forcefully try to control our dreams, are we ready for the possibility our dreams will fight back? These questions are becoming even more urgent today, thanks to the emergence of a new generation of dream-stimulating technologies (exaggerated, but not by much, in the show).

The final scene of the first episode raised the specter of a “war” for control of our dreams, and I’m curious to see how that alarming notion plays out. This might sound like science fiction, and it is exactly that, science fiction at its best: a dramatized version of cutting-edge scientific findings, technological innovations, and cultural trends whose real-world consequences are just dawning on us. We are living in a world where various forces, some benign and others much less so, are competing for influence over our minds, in waking and in sleeping. “Falling Water” is poised to reflect that emerging reality back to us in a fictional medium that, paradoxically, will probably have a tangible impact on the real dreams of its viewers.

Having watched a lot of dream-related movies and television shows over the years, I can’t help but notice several visual and thematic references in “Falling Water,” all of which bode well for it future direction. Most viewers will immediately associate the show’s premise with the 2011 film Inception and its portrayal of skilled agents entering into other people’s dreams and trying to manipulate them. But “Falling Water” seems to be aiming for something bigger, more along the lines of the 1999 film The Matrix, with its mind-bending metaphysical combat and prophetic call for a new, more advanced kind of consciousness. More than either Inception or The Matrix, however, “Falling Water” goes deeper into the creepy depths of the collective unconscious, with an occult mystery theme that reminds me of the first excellent season of the 2014 TV show “True Detective.”   Some of the visuals and epistemological paradoxes in “Falling Water” are strikingly reminiscent of the 1988 film “Jacob’s Ladder,” which used the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a template for describing a soldier’s journey through a nightmare world located somewhere between life and death. And there are several parallels to the Nightmare on Elm Street series of films, starting in 1984, which used schlocky special effects to dig deeply into the dark, festering corners of the American psyche. A striped shirt appears on a key character in “Falling Water,” which does make one wonder.

The touchstone for any show like this is always “Twin Peaks,” the David Lynch television series from the early 1990’s, which is set to reboot with new episodes soon (!!). “Twin Peaks” featured a dream-inspired FBI agent who tracked down an evil entity haunting people’s minds and forcing them to violate the laws and morals of the waking world. In its incredible beauty, emotional rawness, and surrealistic whimsy, “Twin Peaks” portrayed aspects of genuine dreaming in a more compelling way than perhaps America was ready to handle at the time. The first episode of “Falling Water” does not have any of the levity and comical weirdness of “Twin Peaks,” which may be a good thing at the start (no dwarves in red suits) but will hopefully appear in some form in later episodes. There’s bound to be lots of falling in this show; will there also be flying?

 

Lucid Dreaming and “Pan’s Labyrinth”

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyThis essay is based on a presentation I gave at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on April 13, 2016, as part of OMSI’s “Reel Science” series in which a lecture precedes the showing of a popular movie. My lecture involved the science of lucid dreaming, and the film was Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006).

A simple definition of lucid dreaming is this: the experience of consciousness or self-awareness within the dream state. Sometimes it includes a greater sense of intentionality or control—the dreamer has some ability to change or alter what’s happening in the dream.

Here are some statistics about the frequency of lucid dreaming among the general population, drawn from the two-volume anthology Ryan Hurd and I edited in 2014, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep.

  • More than 50% of the population has had at least one dream of lucid awareness
  • Gender: slightly higher frequencies for females
  • Age: much higher frequencies (70%-80%) in early adulthood, then a drop-off over time
  • Higher frequencies for religious “nones,” political liberals, and people living in Western US
  • No major differences on other demographic variables

We also have some research on the content of lucid dreams, and what makes them distinctive from ordinary dreams. In general, lucid dreams are not radically different from ordinary dreams; they both share the same basic substrate of dreaming experience. In this sense lucid dreaming is an extension of what’s already going on in ordinary dreaming. We do not need to invoke a separate psychological system to explain what happens in lucid dreaming.

That being said, the few differences are illuminating. Lucid dreams have more references to:

  • Awareness
  • Effort
  • Flying
  • Fantastic beings
  • Physical aggression

Lucid dreams have fewer references to:

  • Colors
  • Speech
  • Family characters
  • Friendly social interactions

These are tendencies, not absolutes, so they don’t apply to every individual experience. But they make sense in that lucidity often emerges during nightmares (physical aggression) or when the individual encounters something bizarre or anomalous (flying, fantastic beings), and the dreams often do lead away from the normal social world into strange, unfamiliar places.

The frequency of lucid dreaming is not set in stone. As several researchers have found, gaining conscious awareness in dreaming is an ability that may first appear spontaneously, but can also be trained like a cognitive skill, and guided with some degree of precision.

In the past few years a number of electronic devices have been invented and marketed as tools for lucid dream induction, with several more such devices in development.

These devices represent high-intensity and rather aggressive approaches to lucid dreaming. They can get results, at least for some people. But I wouldn’t recommend them for use before considering some of the other methods we’ll discuss towards the end.

Let’s step back for a moment and acknowledge the fact that lucid dreaming may be a new phenomenon to modern Western society, but it has a long and venerable history in many other cultures.

Going back to the 7th century BCE, the Upanishads of Hinduism referred to dreaming as a space of infinite illusions where the skilled meditator was able to recognize the self-created nature of dream reality. This insight in dreaming was considered a key step toward recognizing the self-created nature of all reality, in all states of being.

Zhuang Zi, the Daoist sage from the 4th century BCE, in addition to his famous parable of the dream of the butterfly, had this to say about dreaming in general: “After we’re awake, we know it was a dream—but only after a great awakening can we understand that all of this is a great dream.”

Buddhism is filled with teachings about lucid dreaming. The twelfth century CE Tibetan Buddhist master Naropa developed a systematic method of inducing lucid dreams. Significantly, the teachings about dreams began after the student had mastered the earlier teachings on Inner Heat and the Illusory Body. In this tradition the entry into lucid dreaming occurred within a well-developed context that helped the student safely process the potentially destabilizing effects of deliberately altering the functions of one’s mind.

In classical Western antiquity, Aristotle in the 4th century BCE mentioned dreams in which people had some knowledge of being in a dream state. And in the 4th century CE the Christian theologian Augustine used the example of lucid dreams as a way of arguing for the reality of the soul and its independent existence apart from the body, in sleep or in death and the afterlife.

In Islam, Muhammad’s “night journey” in sura 17 of the Qur’an has many aspects of a lucid dream. Sufi Muslims to this day engage in lucid dreaming practices as a means of learning esoteric spiritual doctrines.

This could go on, of course, but let me mention one more example. It comes from anthropologist Diana Riboli, whose studies of indigenous cultures in Nepal and Malaysia found that shamanic healers used lucid dreaming not only to heal people, but also to challenge, battle, and even kill enemy shamans. (Her work appears as chapter 4 in volume 2 of the Lucid Dreaming anthology.) As Riboli observed, the dueling shamans

“fight in the course of violent and dramatic dreams during which they feel themselves to be totally conscious and able to interact with the other individual. These lucid dreams can continue for days and even weeks, coming to an end only when one of the rivals dies, both in the dream and in everyday life.”(74)

So that’s a good reminder that amidst all the positive spiritual insights of lucid dreaming, there is also a destructive potential where the enhanced abilities of consciousness can become weaponized and used in violent efforts to defeat a rival.

All of these historical and cross-cultural references do more than just embroider the edges of scientific research. They reveal an important fact about human psychology: people in virtually all cultures and civilizations have recognized that lucid dreaming is a valuable potential of the sleeping mind. This is evidence that a capacity for self-awareness in dreaming is innate in the mental architecture of our species.

It has taken modern Westerners a while to get there, but now researchers are working diligently to gather solid empirical data to support this historical insight. Here are the few things we know with some confidence:

Variations in occurrence: Lucid dreaming can occur in REM sleep and threshold phases between waking and sleeping (e.g., hypnogogic and hypnopompic states).

Variations in metacognitive abilities: There are multiple dimensions of lucidity, involving the emergence in dreaming of high-level mental abilities we usually associate with waking consciousness, such as reflecting, evaluating, doubting, judging, and planning. These kinds of complex mental abilities are known as “metacognition,” or “thinking about thinking.” The dream world turns out to include a much wider variety of metacognitive activities than Western psychologists have long assumed.

Neurologically plausible: We don’t know for sure how exactly lucid dreaming maps onto the various cycles of brain activity during sleep.  However, we do know that many brain systems crucial to waking consciousness are also prominent in sleep, particularly in REM sleep. This includes activities in the prefrontal cortex, rising levels of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, and electrical bursts in the alpha and beta/gamma frequencies. The presence in sleep of these neural factors, so crucial to consciousness in waking, makes it plausible that, given the right circumstances, a high degree of self-awareness could emerge within the sleep state.

Comparable to meditation: There is considerable overlap in the neurological and behavioral features of lucid dreaming and various kinds of meditation. Both involve high levels of attention, arousal, and internal focus, and in both the body remains motionless and detached from the external world.

So the discussion comes full circle, as modern brain scanning technologies are validating experiences that ancient practitioners have long recognized and actively cultivated.

And this means that both science and religion agree on a basic idea: what’s possible in dreaming depends on the dreamer’s frame of mind. Here’s a quote from a lucid dreaming study performed several years ago by psychologist Sheila Purcell and her colleagues at Carleton University:

“The present results indicate that the inhibitory constraints on this process are implicit in the organization of the dreamer rather than the dreaming. The lifting of these constraints, their reorganization, can be effected through the mechanisms of attention and intention on what is to be reorganized. The constraints on this response are therefore not implicit in dreaming itself, although this view of dreaming has been widely held.” (Purcell et al. 247)

This is a dramatic claim, even though it’s couched in academic language. The upper limits of metacognitive dreaming are set by the individual’s mental framework, not by the capacities of dreaming itself. These limits can be changed if the mental framework is changed. People can have more lucidity in their dreams if they strive to do so, through greater attention (learning how to monitor consciousness) and intention (learning how to concentrate one’s mental energies).

Hi-tech gizmos can help, but ancient and modern research agrees that the key to increasing lucidity in dreaming is the combined force of attention and intention.

In this context, it’s worth mentioning Ryan Hurd’s lucid dreaming talismans, which are low-tech but quite effective aids to enhancing lucid dreaming. The talismans are aesthetically attractive mnemonic devices designed to apply the same basic principles of attention and intention advocated by Purcell and her colleagues.

Now let’s turn to lucid dreaming and film. The general history of dreams and movies and their dynamic interplay is fascinating in itself, but for now I’ll focus on the subgenre of movies specifically about or related to lucid dreaming. In a chapter Bernard Welt and I wrote for the Lucid Dreaming anthology, our top seven list included these films (framed by a lengthy discussion of the theoretical and methodological issues involved in analyzing films with psychological categories):

  • Peter Ibbetson (1935)
  • Dead of Night (1945)
  • Dreamscape (1984)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Matrix (1999)
  • Waking Life (2001)
  • Inception (2010)

In a shift from many other Hollywood films (for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 “Spellbound”) which treat dreams as symbolic puzzles requiring psychoanalytic interpretation, these seven movies present dreaming as kind of a portal to higher consciousness. They are fantasy and science fiction stories, each of which presents lucid dreaming as a means of seeing through not only personal illusions, but collective illusions as well.   As Bernard and I say in our book chapter, “the movies exploit the idea that lucidity may be the only means of escape from, or transcendence beyond, an imaginary but collective mindset that completely controls the subjective experience of the dreamer in the waking world.”

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly Bulkeley Which brings us to “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film is not purely fantasy or science fiction, but rather a surrealist fairy tale folded into a wartime drama. Maybe it should be called “historical horror.”

The opening lines of the film frame it as a kind of lucid dream gone awry:

“[Pan:] A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped. Once outside, the brightness blinded her and erased every trace of the past from her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from.”

Thus begins the story of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a 12-year old girl whose mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) has remarried after the death of Ofelia’s father. Her new husband is Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), the cruel commander of an army unit tasked with hunting down the last few resistance fighters hiding in the mountains after the Spanish Civil War. Carmen is pregnant with Captain Vidal’s child, and Ofelia quickly realizes that her step-father cares nothing for her or her mother, only the baby. Ofelia’s entry into the labyrinthine world of Pan (Doug Jones) is driven by a desperate need to find some way of fighting against the overwhelming horror of her waking world.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyThe fantasy sequences with Ofelia have some striking similarities with the typical content patterns of lucid dreams, as mentioned earlier. Here’s how I summarized the research findings a few minutes ago:

Lucid dreams have more references to awareness, effort, flying, fantastic beings, and physical aggression, and fewer references to colors, speech, family characters, and friendly social interactions.

Ofelia’s journeys into the labyrinth are distinguished from the rest of the film by many of these same features. She is aware of things no one else can see. She makes tremendous efforts to succeed in the tasks set her by the Faun.   Her first encounter with the fantastic beings of the labyrinth is a winged fairy, a flying agent of Pan’s who accompanies and guides Ofelia wherever she goes. Her fantasies are filled with physical aggression (although sadly no more so than her waking world).

Intriguingly, the fantasy sequences have much less color than the waking world scenes; there’s little emphasis in the labyrinth on chromatic perception. There’s also less speech, no other family characters (until the end), and very few friendly interactions.

All in all, very much like the experience of a lucid dream. When Ofelia enters the labyrinth, she enters a world that’s closely akin to the realm of conscious dreaming.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyAs it turns out, there is a good biographical reason for this. In interviews he gave at the time of the film’s release, del Toro described his own childhood experiences of “lucid nightmares” in which he saw the figure of the Faun stepping out from behind a dresser at midnight.   He had recurrent dreams of many kinds of monsters, but the Faun made an especially horrifying impact on him. In the film del Toro aims to recreate this powerful fantasy figure who stalked his own personal nightmares.

Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave in 2006 to Ain’t It Cool News:

Q: Did you, in fact, have such nightmares or waking nightmares?

GDT: Many, many of them… When I was a kid, when I slept in the guest bedroom of my grandmother’s house, at midnight, a faun would come out from behind the dresser. And I know it was lucid dreaming, I know it must have been…

Q: Do you remember, did your faun look anything like the faun in the film?

GDT: Absolutely. I was trying to recreate him.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyWhen del Toro referred to these dreams as “lucid” he seemed to mean they had all the qualities of waking reality, and yet he knew they were dreams because of the appearance of Faun or other creatures. It’s not that he was dreaming, then realized he was awake within the dream; rather, he felt like he was awake, while also realizing he must be dreaming. Both are paths to lucidity, but the latter can be much more frightening and existentially unsettling.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyThis helps to explain at least some of the uncanny impact of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Guillermo del Toro knows from deep personal experience the feelings of dread and terror associated with the darker path into lucidity. He knows that if you are already dreaming and then become self-aware, your conscious self feels powerful and expanded. But if you realize what you thought was waking reality is actually a dream, that’s a much more threatening mode of lucidity, a lucidity of weakness, vulnerability, and deception. A lucidity of horror.

In “Pan’s Labyrinth” del Toro inverts the typical path into conscious dreaming and thrusts Ofelia and the audience into shadowy, oozing realms of oneiric fantasy few other directors have had the daring or talent to explore.

 

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants by Kelly BulkeleyChildhood is a time of frequent and intense dreaming for many people. Often these nocturnal experiences from early life have a dark hue—children are especially prone to nightmares, sleep paralysis, and night terrors. But children are also more likely than adults to experience magical dreams of flying and lucid dreams of self-awareness.   The whole wild world of dreaming, in all its strange complexity, seems more accessible in childhood than it is later in life.

A rich tradition of children’s literature, going back to such classics as Alice in Wonderland, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are, has addressed the profound feelings of fear, wonder, and curiosity that often pervade children’s experience when they go to sleep and dream. Cartoons are another powerful medium that can reflect recurrent themes in childhood dreams (good examples include Little Nemo in Slumberland, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and the Sandman series).

Cartoons on television have carried on this tradition, telling stories about dreams with much more psychological depth and power than many adults realize. These animated fictions about bizarre characters doing absurdly unrealistic things turn out to reflect the emotional reality of childhood with surprising accuracy and psychological insight.

Two episodes from recent cartoon series can help to illustrate the point.

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants by Kelly BulkeleyThe first comes from “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which first aired in 1999 on the Nickelodeon network and has gone on to become one of the most popular cartoons of all time.   An episode in season 5, titled “Roller Cowards,” features dreaming as a valuable source of self-knowledge. The episode opens with Sponge Bob and his best friend Patrick hearing about an amazing new roller coaster ride (“The Fiery Fist O’ Pain”) at their favorite amusement park. The night before they go to the park, Sponge Bob goes to sleep thinking about how much fun the ride will be. But then he has a nightmare in which the roller coaster leads to terror and death, and he wakes up trembling in fear. When Patrick comes over and asks what’s wrong, Sponge Bob says he just had a bad dream. Patrick quickly says he had a bad dream, too. Sponge Bob asks what he dreamed, but before Patrick can answer the bus arrives to take them to the amusement park, and away they go.

It turns out Patrick is just as scared as Sponge Bob, though neither of them wants to admit their fears to the other. Their dreams provide accurate barometers of how they really feel, despite all their conscious efforts to pretend otherwise. Only when they finally make the humbling confession to each other that they’re scared to go on the ride, are they ready to embrace the thrilling, spine-dislocating experience of the “Fiery Fist.”

A second example comes from the “Justice League” series, which first aired in 2001 on Cartoon Network. Based on characters from DC Comics, the series gathers seven famous superheroes—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkgirl, and J’onn J’onzz—who battle a colorful variety of super villains. The second season presented a two-part episode titled “Only a Dream,” featuring a criminal named John Dee who uses an ESP-generating machine to transform his own brain into a powerful weapon that can attack people in their dreams. After murdering his faithless girlfriend, Dee—who has now taken on the nom de guerre of Dr. Destiny—focuses his evil power on the members of the Justice League when they fall asleep and dream.

This is where the cartoon enters more sophisticated psychological territory. Dr. Destiny attacks each superhero at his or her weakest point, namely what they fear the most. This fear gives shape to the kind of nightmare that Dr. Destiny sends to each of them.

For the super-speedy, wisecracking Flash, his nightmare involves never being able to slow down, so he can never again connect with normal people; as Dr. Destiny intones, his dream prison is “being stuck in high gear, alone forever.” In Superman’s nightmare he cannot control his increasingly destructive powers, which he tries to hide but cannot. His greatest fear is that his power will hurt the very people he cares about the most. The Green Lantern dreams that he goes back to his old neighborhood, but he recognizes nothing, and everyone speaks a different language. When people see him they flee from in terror; like the Flash and Superman, his deepest anxiety has to do with staying connected with other people despite his special powers and unique identity.

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants by Kelly BulkeleyHawkgirl’s dream is perhaps the most intense and frightening of all. After a false awakening that gives her a moment of deceptive reassurance, Dr. Destiny binds her wings and sends her plunging down to earth, straight into a yawning grave in which she is buried alive under a mound of dirt. For a superhero whose special power is flight, this would be a terrifying nightmare indeed.

Batman, meanwhile, has managed to stay awake, but barely. Dr. Destiny haunts the periphery of his sleep-deprived consciousness, nearly causing him to crash the Batmobile.

Fortunately for the Justice League, J’onn the Martian Manhunter has the ability to go into people’s dreams and help their dreaming selves fight back against Dr. Destiny. J’onn serves as a kind of shamanic warrior and therapist, telling each of the superheroes what he or she needs to hear to rally their strength and break free of their nightmare. Each of them alone cannot defeat Dr. Destiny. But once they find new sources of strength within their dreams, the collective might of the Justice League (sans Wonder Woman; she does not appear in this episode) is enough to overthrow Dr. Destiny and his Freddy Kruger-like reign of terror over their slumber.

And finally, Batman can sleep.

The Justice League episode is much more psychologically complex than the one from SpongeBob SquarePants, which is befitting given the latter show’s focus on younger children and the former’s appeal to older children and tweens. Both cartoons, however, present a similar appreciation for dreaming as a means of expressing important emotional truths, especially those truths that seem most frightening to our waking minds. In the world of these two cartoons, dreams are portrayed as a valuable source of insight. Without putting too much weight on stories meant primarily as entertainment, it’s still fair to say that the resolution of each story teaches a basic respect for the power and wisdom of dreaming.   These cartoons have, perhaps unwittingly, done a wonderful service of dream education for millions of children.

 

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on Feb. 18, 2016.

 

Tolkien’s Dreams, Past and Future

Tolkien's Dreams, Past and Future by Kelly BulkeleyDreams play a significant role in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s multi-part fantasy story written in the first half of the 20th century.  The dream elements become muted in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, but in the novels they serve as an important source of insight for the characters.  According to Curt Hoffman in “Wings over Numenor: Lucid Dreaming in the Writing of J.R.R. Tolkien,” the dreams in the stories were modeled in many cases after Tolkien’s own dream experiences.  For instance, the Middle Earth legend of Numenor, a western land that was destroyed by a vast ocean wave, apparently derives from Tolkein’s personal “Atlantis Complex” and his recurrent dreams of huge, all-consuming waves.

Hoffman’s chapter appears in Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep, which Ryan Hurd and I edited for ABC-Clio.  Hoffman explains that the most remarkable story Tolkien ever wrote about dreams was also the only story he ever wrote set in the future, not in the past.  Titled “The Notion Club Papers,” Tolkien started it in 1946 but never finished the manuscript.  Hoffman says,

“The work purports to be the minutes of the fortnightly meetings of an Oxford literary society, the Notion Club (obviously a gloss for the Inklings [Tolkien’s actual literary club], although there is little one-for-one correspondence to its members), between 1980 and 1990. The manuscript’s conceit is that the papers “were found after the Summer Examinations of 2012, on the top of one of a number of sacks of waste paper in the basement of the Examinations Schools at Oxford by the present editor,” and it is represented to have been published in 2014.” (133)

Tolkien creates a strangely forward-telescoping, prospectively recursive way of framing the story—he writes about events that happen 40 years in the future, which are then discovered 20+ years after that, and are then published two years after that (at a time that happens to be our present).

In the story the club members engage in lengthy discussions of dreaming as a means of space and time travel, along with various accounts of strange adventures in thought and consciousness.  Without warning the discussion turns rather apocalyptic, as several club members describe visions that portend the coming of cataclysmic storms.  The manuscript breaks off there, and Tolkien never went back to it.  After careful study of this work, Hoffman concludes,

“It is entirely unclear what purpose Tolkien had in producing the Notion Club Papers, but his publishers were pressuring him at the time to get back to the writing of The Lord of the Rings, for obvious economic reasons, and this may explain why he did not finish the work. He never returned to it, and its status remains mysterious to this day. However, it is the clearest indication we have in all his writing of his interest in a variety of dream states and their relationship to waking physical reality. In particular, even though there is no evidence that he was aware of the writings of van Eeden on lucidity, it seems that Tolkien had a strong interest in lucid dreaming, based upon his own personal experience, and that he was attempting to put this into some kind of formulation in words that would make his experience more understandable, at least to his fellow Inklings.” (138)