From the Yellow Brick Road to Freddy’s Razor Claws: Films, Dreams, and American Society

Based on a Presentation Made at the
1996 Annual Meeting
of the American Academy of Religion

The relationship between films and dreams has received a modest degree of scholarly attention over the past few decades. Some directors have described how they occasionally take images from their dreams and incorporate them into their films.[i] A handful of film critics have noted the dream-like quality of the experience of viewing movies.[ii] Several psychological studies have examined the influences of films on the dream contents of subjects sleeping in a sleep laboratory.[iii] And a number of psychologically-minded scholars have used the dream theories of Freud, Jung, and other to interpret the symbolism in various films.[iv]

In this essay I want to examine each of these dimensions of the complex interplay between films and dreams, focusing on two films in particular: The Wizard of Oz (1939, directed by Victor Fleming) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, directed by Wes Craven). Both of these films portray the dream adventures of an adolescent girl struggling to survive in and make sense of a world filled with danger, evil, and injustice. However, the two films offer strikingly different portraits of adolescent experience, with The Wizard of Oz presenting a grandly staged and highly polished fairy tale, and the low-budget A Nightmare on Elm Street telling a crude, blood-drenched horror story. While both films have enjoyed tremendous and enduring popularity among adolescent audiences, adults have generally praised the former film as a treasure of American cultural heritage, while vilifying the latter film for its corrosive effects on the moral development of our nation’s youth.

Looking at these two dream-oriented films from several different angles–considering their narrative plots, their cinematic artistry, their treatment of religion, their psychological impact on their audiences, and their relations to their social and historical contexts–will give us valuable insights into what may be called “the American unconscious.” By that somewhat mysterious phrase I mean the distinctive cluster of instinctually-rooted desires, fears, hopes, and conflicts which bond the American people together at a deep, though largely unconscious, psychological level. My goal in this essay is to show that a careful exploration of The Wizard of Oz and A Nightmare on Elm Street reveals important features of a certain realm of the American unconscious: namely, the dreams and nightmares of American adolescents.

To begin with, I’d like to look at the influence of dreaming on these two films, and at how the films make narrative use of common themes and patterns in people’s dream experiences. I trust that most readers are familiar with the three-part narrative structure of The Wizard of Oz: The film opens with Dorothy’s waking life experiences in Kansas, then follows her through a long series of fantastic dreaming experiences in Oz, and then finishes with a second, much briefer set of Dorothy’s waking experiences back in Kansas. The basic trajectory of the film’s plot involves Dorothy’s efforts to get out of Oz and return home, and it concludes with her succeeding in these efforts and passionately declaring, “Oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!” The moral of the story, then, seems to be that the waking world of home and family is the best place, the place we should be, the place we should never wish to leave, the place towards which we should always strive to return.

But the film has a second plot trajectory which parallels the first and reverses its moral message. According to this second trajectory, Dorothy temporarily escapes the dry, dusty tedium of waking life Kansas and discovers Oz, a world of dreams, a wonderous, exciting, beautiful world filled with mystery and adventure. The sharp contrast between the utter dreariness of her waking world and the enchanting magic of her dreaming world is established with stunning power by the use of a cinematic technique that will never again be used to such breathtaking effect: the sudden transformation, as Dorothy steps out of her tornado-tossed house, from the black-and-white of Kansas to the lush, vibrant, almost gaudy technicolor of Oz. Paralleling this visual contrast is a moral contrast: in Oz Dorothy finds the justice she could not find in Kansas. In the first, “waking life” section of the movie nothing can stop the cruel and socially powerful Mrs. Gulch (who, we’re told, owns “half the county”) from seizing Dorothy’s beloved pet dog, Toto. Dorothy discovers that the adult social order of the waking world cannot protect her most cherished interests, cannot care for her deepest needs. But in the dreaming world of Oz, she learns that good can triumph over evil; Dorothy and her friends do finally succeed in defeating the Wicked Witch, thereby restoring to preeminence the principles of right and fairness. So the second, more covert moral of Dorothy’s story is that while there may be no place like home, there’s no place like Oz, either: for the dream world of Oz reveals to her visions of sublime beauty and moral justice far surpassing the imperfections of her waking world.

I don’t know if Victor Fleming drew directly upon his own dreams in the making of The Wizard of Oz. But it’s clear that the film deliberately, and very effectively, evokes common features of dreaming experience: e.g., the magical animism of the dream world (e.g., talking trees, flying monkeys), the transformation of people from waking life into dream characters (Mrs. Gulch -> the Wicked Witch, the three farm hands -> the Scare Crow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, the huckster fortune teller -> the Wizard), and the exquisite sense of beauty and wonder which simply can’t be communicated to others (as Dorothy discovers when she awakens at the end of the movie and tries unsuccessfully to describe to everyone what her dream was like). In all these ways, the movie’s many references to common features of our dreams serve to intensify the audience’s emotional immersion in Dorothy’s story.

Very much like The Wizard of Oz, A Nightmare on Elm Street generates its narrative power by tapping into people’s common dream experiences–in this case, the experience of recurrent nightmares. Wes Craven, the film’s director, has acknowledged a fascination with dreams and nightmares, and has said that the basic nightmare theme of being relentlessly pursued by a malevolent antagonist is the backbone of his film’s story.[v]

I imagine that very few readers have ever seen A Nightmare on Elm Street, so let me recount the basic story. A nice, average high school girl named Nancy Thompson lives with her parents in a nice, average house on nice, average Elm Street (Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic housewife, her father the stoic chief of police of their nameless middle-American town). Nancy and her teenage friends start having the exact same recurrent nightmares of a horribly disfigured man in a dirty red and green sweater who attacks them with his razor-blade fingers. When two of her friends are found brutally murdered, Nancy desperately tries to tell her father that it’s the fiend from her nightmares who killed them, and that he’s trying to kill her, too. Her police chief father, however, refuses to believe that any such thing could possibly happen. But when Nancy mentions to her mother that she’s learned the nightmare man’s name–Freddy Krueger–her mother realizes what’s been happening. Reluctantly, she tells Nancy that ten years ago their town was terrorized by a sadistic child murderer, who turned out to be a seemingly ordinary neighbor named Fred Krueger. Krueger was caught, but he escaped conviction on a legal technicality. So the outraged parents of their neighborhood (including Nancy’s mother and father) secretly formed a vigilante group, trapped Krueger in an abandoned boiler room, and burned him to death. They all made a vow to keep the truth of what they did to punish Krueger forever hidden. When Nancy hears this story, she decides she must go back into her nightmares; with no help from her father or her boyfriend (who is the fiend’s next victim), she confronts Freddy and declares that she knows his secret now, and she isn’t afraid of him anymore. This courageous assertion finally breaks the power Freddy has had over her, and with a agonized shriek he vanishes as Nancy safely awakens to a bright, sunny morning.

A Nightmare on Elm Street does everything it can to recreate the sensation of being trapped within a recurrent nightmare. Feelings of fear, helplessness, impotence, and vulnerability pervade the film. Nancy and her friends (and we in the audience) are repeatedly startled and disoriented by abrupt shifts from waking to dreaming and back again, and we are relentlessly assaulted by sudden, shocking bursts of violence and bloody physical mutilation. Like Dorothy, Nancy is unable to convince the adults out in the waking world of the reality of what she’s experiencing in her dreams. And also like Dorothy, Nancy ultimately finds in her dreams the deep resources of personal strength to overcome an evil which the adult social world had failed to defeat.

In both films, Christianity plays a small but significant role as an emblem of the impotence of the adult world in helping adolescents fight off evil and injustice. In the first section of The Wizard of Oz, when it becomes clear that nothing will stop Mrs. Gulch from impounding Toto, Aunt Em emotionally declares that she’s been waiting for many years to tell how she really feels about Mrs. Gulch–but “being a Christian woman, I can’t.” In A Nightmare on Elm Street Nancy has a crucifix hung over her bed, which conspicuously fails to protect her from Freddy Kruger’s nightly attacks. Christianity in these two films represents the adult world’s highest ideals–and the failure of those ideals to save adolescents from the dangers that threaten them.

In evoking so powerfully a variety of common dream and nightmare sensations, the two films build upon qualities shared by all movies. Film critics have long recognized the dream-like nature of watching movies: we sit relaxed and motionless in a quiet, darkened space and become immersed in a flow of narrative, allowing vibrant waves of sound and visual imagery to wash over us. In this sense, every film works to simulate the experience of dreaming; every film draws its power from its capacity to recreate the formal experiential qualities of a dream.

This is one reason why films have been used so frequently in experimental dream research. From the earliest days of sleep laboratory examinations of REM sleep, researchers have been using films to examine the impact of waking stimuli on dream content. A number of experiments have involved subjects watching films with especially strong emotional content (e.g., pornographic films, movies showing the autopsy of a human corpse). The subjects are then awakened during their REM sleep the next night to see what impact the films had on their dreams. The basic result of these studies is that material from the films does frequently become incorporated directly or indirectly into the subjects’s dreams, although it remains unclear why some subjects have more film references in their dreams and other subjects less.[vi]

I know of no studies focusing on the impact of these two particular films on people’s dreams. However, my own research and experience suggests the following:

The Wizard of Oz has been the primary source of the American people’s fascination with the question of whether we dream in color or black-and-white. This is a question that could never have arisen in a pre-modern society, without exposure to the technologies of photography and cinema.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has helped to stimulate the capacity of American teenagers to experience lucid dreams (i.e., becoming conscious within the dream state that one is dreaming), beyond what most adults seem to have experienced in their lives. I suspect that this movie has had a huge influence on this generation’s understanding of what dreams are and what is possible within them.

One of the biggest differences between films and dreams, of course, is that while dreams are purely private experiences, films are collective experiences. We have our dreams in the privacy of our own personal imaginations (setting aside, for this chapter’s purposes, the interesting question of whether dreams can be shared), but we usually watch movies with groups of other people. This brings up another interesting feature of the two films under discussion, namely that both films have become the objects of what I would call “ritual viewing practices.” For many decades, in the pre-VCR era, the annual showing of the The Wizard of Oz on network television was an eagerly-anticipated family event. I myself still have glowing memories of getting settled on the couch with my parents and my sister and watching, for the umpteenth time, the wonderful adventures of Dorothy and Toto in the land of Oz. There are also ritual viewing practices associated with A Nightmare on Elm Street (and its half-dozen sequels), but they take a quite different form. This movie is very much a product of the VCR revolution in the viewing, and the making, of contemporary films. Produced with little money and less technical sophistication, A Nightmare on Elm Street had only a brief original run in theaters; and of course it has never been shown on network TV. The film’s spectacular success has depended entirely on the VCR rental market, and more specifically on the phenomenon of teenagers renting the movie again and again and again. I first learned about this from my brother Alex, who’s twelve years younger than I am. He knows of my interest in dreams, and several years ago, when he was in his early teens, he said, “Kelly, you’ve got to check out the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Dude, they’re all about dreams!” As I talked with Alex about the movies, I discovered that he and his friends had all seen them at least six or seven times each. The usual routine was for everyone to gather at someone’s house on a Saturday night, turn out all the lights, and (with no grown-ups anywhere around) watch yet again Nancy’s terrifying nightmare battles with Freddy Krueger.

I find one especially significant difference between the ritual viewing practices associated with these two films, and that is that the audiences for The Wizard of Oz tend to be intergenerational: parents and children all watching together, as a family. The audiences for A Nightmare on Elm Street, however, are usually composed of adolescents only, and primarily adolescent boys.

I believe this difference in ritual viewing practices gives us some insight into the bottom-line question of what the dreams in The Wizard of Oz and A Nightmare on Elm Street can be said to mean. At the most basic level, the dreams in both films are about the struggles of adolescents in American society: struggles which in our society are conceptualized as a transformation from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independence, from innocence to sexuality, from a life of play to a life of work. The dreams in both films work to stimulate profound empathy for and identification with the fears and sufferings of adolescents as they go through this transformation. And the dreams in both films sharply criticize the failure of parents, and of the whole adult social order generally, to protect adolescents from evils, injustices, and threats to their budding sense of emotional and physical integrity.

The Wizard of Oz concludes on a note of stirring hopefulness and optimism. Dorothy ultimately survives her frightening trials in the land of Oz, and at the end of the movie returns, with a newfound sense of devotion and trustfulness, to her home and her family. This is a moral message that naturally makes the film appealing to family audiences. It’s true that this message is clouded somewhat by the fact that Mrs. Gulch is probably still around and thus is likely to continue her vendetta against Toto (unless the tornado managed to get her–a nice possibility, but we never hear one way or the other). And it’s true that what I’ve called the film’s second, covert moral message points Dorothy, and we in the audience, towards the enchanting reality of a very different kind of world. But in the end, the two messages work together to propel Dorothy (and the audience) back into waking life with renewed commitments to her community. Recalling that The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, I think the film can be seen on one level as a response to the challenges facing adolescents of that historical period: overcoming the despair engendered by growing up during the Great Depression, resisting the temptations of escapist fantasizing, and finding the inner strength to confront the mounting danger to the American community posed by World War II.

So I would say the meaning of Dorothy’s dream is this: always remember the beauty, the friendship, and the strength of purpose you experienced in Oz–never forget that. But now it’s time to go back, rejoin your family, and do what you can to help them through their hard times.

The conclusion of A Nightmare on Elm Street is quite different. If The Wizard of Oz ends on a note of hope, A Nightmare on Elm Street ends with a mixed message at best. Yes, Nancy has defeated Freddy Krueger, and yes, she’s back with her mother and father, in their nice suburban house with the white picket fence on Elm Street. But Freddy’s not really gone. Everybody in the audience knows that Freddy is going to come back–it’s simply the nature of recurrent nightmares, and of the low-budget horror movies patterned after them, that the evil fiend will come back. Thus, the reassurance that Nancy and we in the audience receive at the end of the movie is only temporary, only provisional. We’ve got a bit of a breather, but that’s about it.

This moral message–that evil may be defeated, but it’s going to come back–has a special resonance, I believe, for the adolescent boys that tend to be the film’s primary audience. This is because they identify not simply with Nancy and her teenage friends, but with Freddy Krueger: for adolescent boys, Freddy expresses all the terribly urgent sexual desires they feel rising up within themselves. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies are brutally honest about how frightening these desires can be, stimulating fears and fantasies of violent fragmentation and destruction. By watching these horrible movies again and again, in small, furtive, emphatically non-family gatherings, adolescent boys seem to find a small measure of comfort in sharing their inner experiences of trying to come to terms with the Freddy Krueger within each of them.

The importance of this comfort should be evaluated in the context the movie’s distinctive historical period. In 1984, the year the original Nightmare on Elm Street movie was released, the U.S. economy was booming, Wall Street was awash in merger-and-acquisition money, the armed forces were busily building new planes, tanks, and missiles to defend against the “Evil Empire,” and Ronald Reagan was gliding to reelection on the theme that “It’s Morning in America.” Culturally speaking, it was a time of vigorous masculine assertiveness, when vulnerability was scorned and raw power glorified. The challenges facing an adolescent boy growing up in such a culture are portrayed quite starkly A Nightmare on Elm Street: the adults think everything is great, and they don’t want to hear anything about being scared, feeling helpless, or worrying that there’s something very powerful and very dangerous lurking in the dark. So the meaning of the dreams of Nancy and her friends, in my view, is this: there is a real and terribly powerful force of evil haunting our dreams, but the grown-ups can’t, or won’t, acknowledge it; so adolescents have to join together, use their wits, and be prepared to face that evil when it comes again–for it will come again.

Notes

[i].. See Gabbard and Gabbard 1987.

[ii].. See Ebert 1996.

[iii]..See Koulack 1991.

[iv].. This essay was originally presented at a panel titled “Cinema, Psychoanalysis, and the American Unconscious,” sponsored by the Religion and the Social Sciences Section at the 1996 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. The other papers presented at the panel were “From Separation to Merger: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Jews in American Film,” by Fredelle Spiegel; “Euro-American (Christian) Fantasies of Love and Genocide,” by Roy Steinhoff-Smith; “The Marginalization and Destruction of the Female Body in Popular Women’s Films,” by Peggy Schmeiser; and “Terminator 1 and 2: A Cinematic Construction of Religion in Popular Culture,” by Rubina Ramji. Each of these papers drew upon psychoanalytically-oriented theoretical resources to analyze contemporary films.

[v]..Cooper 1987, p. 10.

[vi]..Koulack 1991.

Dream-Sharing Groups, Spirituality, and Community

The sharing of dreams in group settings has played a prominent role in communi ties throughout history. An thropologists and historians have provided detailed reports of dream-shar ing practices found in a wide vari ety of cultures and religious traditions.[i] However, modern Western psycholo gist have generally focused on the intrapsychic aspects of dreams and have applied dreams to strictly individual needs and concerns. The practice of dream-sharing in modern Western society has been confined to the clinician’s office, with the primary goal of assisting in the psychotherapy of individuals.

But in the last 30 years or so a remarkably large number of dream-sharing groups have arisen in the United States[ii]. Because these groups take so many dif­ferent forms and appear in so many different contexts, there is virtu ally no academic research on the subject. However, the phe nomenon of dream-shar ing groups should be of interest to scholars of religion for a number of reasons. First, these groups often look to dreams specifically for spiri tu al insights; the groups thus represent a distinc tive means of religious expression in contemporary Ameri can society. Second, the complex interplay of religious, psychologi cal, and cultural elements in these groups can tell us something about where the pro cess of secu lariza tion stands as we approach the close of the twentieth century. And third, dream-sharing groups fre quently gener ate a powerful sense of community, a sense of deep, intimate bonding among the members of the group. Schol ars who are concerned about how to create a sense of mutual understanding across differences of race, gender, ethnicity, and class should take note of the communi ty-revitalizing poten tial of these groups.

II

Dream-sharing groups began appearing in this country in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The first groups arose in response to the writings and public workshops of Ann Faraday (Dream Power (1972) and The Dream Game (1974)), Patricia Gar field (Creative Dreaming (1974)), Montague Ullman (Work ing with Dreams (1979)), and Jeremy Taylor (Dream Work (1983)). Each of these people ar gued that the practice of exploring dreams should be expanded beyond the confines of pro fessional psy chothera py and made acces sible to the general population. Another important early stimulus was Kilton Stewart’s essay on “Dream Theory in Malaya,” reprinted in Charles Tart’s best-selling anthol ogy Al tered States of Con sciousness (1969). Stewart’s descrip tion of the Senoi, a native people whose practice of publically sharing and discuss ing dreams helped them create an idyllic, nearly con flict-free community life, inspired countless Ameri cans to explore their own dreams and to begin sharing their dreams in group settings.[iii]

Contemporary dream-sharing groups take many different forms. But they also share many basic elements of struc ture and process. Let me offer the following “ideal-type” of a dream-sharing group:

— Six to twelve people gather in a quiet, comfort able place.

— One of the people serves as leader or facilitator for the group.

— Each person in the group describes one of his or her dreams.

— The group choses one person’s dream to discuss in detail, and proceeds to offer comments, ask questions, and suggest mean ings regarding that dream.

— This discussion can take from 15 minutes to two hours; usually, an effort is made to discuss more than one dream at a given meeting.

— Over the course of a few meetings, everyone in the group participates: everyone gets to share their own dreams, everyone gets to comment on other people’s dreams, and everyone gets to have one of their dreams discussed by the group.

There are many variations on this ideal-typical pat tern. The group’s size can vary tremendously; I have seen dream-sharing groups function with as few as three, and as many as 100 people. The group’s leader or facili tator can play a very active role in steering the group pro cess, or can do nothing more than keep an eye on the clock and remind people when it’s time to stop. Many dream-sharing groups function effectively with no formal leaders or facilitators at all.

The greatest variations among different groups occur during the discussion process. The dreamer may actively participate in this process, or may sit quietly and “observe” the group’s discussion of his or her dream. The group may use a relatively structured series of questions to ask of each dream, or may engage in an interpretive “free-for-all.” Some groups, in addition to verbal discussion of the dreams, will draw pictures of them, act them out in “dream theater,” and/or engage in guided imagery exercises. The group’s activities may be oriented by par ticu lar psy cho logi cal theories (e.g., looking for Jungian arche types), by particu lar theologi cal per spectives (e.g., looking for the presence of the Holy Spirit), or by particular per sonal concerns (e.g., look ing for help with troubled marriages or rela­tion ships). But no matter what their specific theoretical or ideological cast, the discussions of almost all dream-sharing groups are grounded in a core set of assump tions: 1) that dreams are relevant our important waking life con cerns, 2) that dreams can be understood without spe cial ized knowledge, and 3) that dreams have the poten tial to reveal spiritu al or religious truths.

The basic dream-sharing process described above has been used in a nearly limitless variety of settings and contexts:

— In churches and religious education programs (e.g., among Catholics, Unitarian Uni versalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Method ists);

— In schools, from grammar schools to high schools to colleges to seminaries to business schools to adult education programs;

— In psychological workshops, seminars, and retreats (e.g., conducted by members of Jungian, Gestalt, Humanis tic, and Transpersonal schools of psychology);

— In twelve-step counseling programs of various sorts;

— In social service settings (e.g., in prisons, drug rehabilitation centers, and hospitals; for pregnant women and their partners, people with AIDS, and victims of physical and sexual abuse);

— In community centers, libraries, and neighbors’ homes.[iv]

There are no precise demographic data on the partici pants in dream-sharing groups. Based on my initial research efforts, I have found that participants tend to be female, tend to be white, tend to be relatively edu cated and financially secure, and tend to live on either the East or the West coast. However, these are only the most general of observa tions: I have also found dream-sharing groups made up of all males, groups made up of all blacks, and groups organized in the South, the Mid west, and the Plains states. Over all, I would estimate that in the last 30 years there have been more than 50,000 dream-sharing groups in the U.S., mean ing that approxi mately a half million people have partic ipated in such groups.[v]

III

From the beginnings of Western history dreams have traditionally been the province of reli gion. Dreams have been viewed as either revelations from the divine or as temptations from the Devil, and priests and church lead ers have been the authorities on interpreting what a given dream means. In the twentieth century, however, the discipline of psychology has risen to claim authority over dreams. Psycholo gists are now the ones to whom we turn for interpretations, and we have come to believe that the meanings of dreams reflect the individual’s unconscious personali ty dynamics.

This transition from a religious to a psychological view of dreams perfectly exemplifies the process of secular ization, the process by which modern scientific, economic, and cultural forces have combined to vanquish the authority of reli gion in Western society. Dream-sharing groups, in which a reliance on psy cho logi cal dream theo ries is combined with an interest in the spiri tual dimen sions of dreams, would seem to mark an inter esting new twist on this process.[vi]

From one perspective, dream-sharing groups can be seen as resist ing and even overcoming the spiritually destruc tive effects of secularization. Dreams have always been regarded as a means of relat ing to the sa cred, to those powers and realities that tran scend ordi nary human exis tence. Dream-sharing groups draw upon this universal source of religious experience and adapt it to the cir cumstances of people living in contem porary American society. The result is a form of spirituality that may not be “for mal ly” religious and may not always take place within con ventional religious con texts, but that genuine ly satis fies people’s spiritual needs. If secu lar ization produc es a spiritual “dis en chant ment”, as Max Weber argues, then dream-sharing groups offer the means to a “reenchantment” of the world, to a renewal and revival of authentic spiritual experience in contem porary society.

But from a different perspective, dream-sharing groups can be seen as intensifying the destructive effects of secularization, making modern social life more fragment ed, more alienated, and more spiritually confused. Paying so much attention to dreams can easily appear as socially irrele vant navel-gazing; by focusing so intently on one’s personal psycho logical dynamics, people run the danger of losing touch with the public realm of community involve ment. The outer world is so cold and impersonal, and the inner world is so warm and alluring, that modern Western ers feel a strong temptation to abandon the former and immerse themselves in the latter. By surrendering to this tempta tion, people become ever more detached, iso lated, and alienated from society.[vii]

The process of exploring one’s dreams in a group set ting would seem to minimize these potentially alienating effects. But as Robert Wuthnow argues in his recent work Sharing the Journey (1994), participation in various kinds of small support groups (like dream-sharing groups) is often nothing more than a further defense against broader public engagement. Such groups are usually very homoge neous, making it easier for par ticipants to rein force their established views and to avoid contact with differ ent types of people. Wuthnow’s concern is that small support groups provide a covert means of self-protec tion against the complications of a multicultural world, and thus a further erosion in people’s broad er sense of commu nity.

So it seems that dream-sharing groups promote a kind of spirituality that is authentic, powerful, and person ally fulfilling–but that is also helping to corrode the communal integrity of contemporary American society.

IV

That harsh conclusion is not warranted, however, by a careful examination of the actual practices of various dream-sharing groups. Such an examination reveals that many dream-sharing groups enable participants to gain valuable insights into the relations between their per sonal lives and the broader social world in which they live. Furthermore, many dream-sharing groups give people a means of understanding others, of recognizing their connections with people who are differ ent. In such cases, dream-sharing groups genuinely help to revitalize a sense of communi ty and to renew people’s active engage ment with the world.

The following are two brief descriptions of dream-sharing groups that have this community-revitalizing effect (for fuller accounts of these cases, and for other perspectives on the social and cultural relevance of dream studies, see the anthology I’ve edited, Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming, Modern Society, and the Future of Dream Studies (in press (a))):

1) Jane White Lewis, a Jungian analyst, has for the past three years been teaching classes on dreams at a public high school in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven is an all-too typical American city, plagued by drugs, crime, poverty, and urban decay. Many of the teenagers in Lewis’s classes are struggling simply to survive in this deeply troubled community. But Lewis has found that when the students begin exploring and discussing their dreams, they discover new resources of energy, creativi ty, and hope. In her class the students share their dreams, draw pictures of them, act them out in little dramatic productions, and write essays and stories based on them. Many of the students who hate writing or think they just don’t have the talent to write sudden ly find their “voice” when writing about their dreams and about the memo ries, feelings, and thoughts that arise in con nection with their dreams. For example, the students in one class often dreamed of the police, of fighting them, arguing with them, trying to hide from them; class dis cussions of these “police dreams” led the students to reflect on conflicts with authority, both in society and in their own personal lives. Similarly, the dreams of many of the girls about having babies raised the very immediate issue of teen pregnancy: the students dis cussed the social and psycho logical pressures girls feel in romantic relation ships, and their dreams opened up new vistas of reflection on how to resist those pressures. In this case, encourag ing the students to turn “inwards” to their dreams became a valu able means of guiding them “outwards” to the realm of public society.

2) Bette Ehlert is a New Mexico lawyer who for a number of years has been leading dream-sharing groups in jails, prisons, and other correctional facilities. As public opinion polls tell us, crime is widely regarded as the number one threat to the American commu nity; politi cians argue bitterly over what causes crime and what to do with criminals. In her groups Ehlert has found that dream-sharing can be an effective means of discovering links between the particular crimes committed by an offender and certain events, experiences, and conflicts in the offender’s past. For example, a young African-American convicted of dealing crack had a dream of struggling to get away from a dark entity pushing down on him. In the group discussion the dreamer discovered the relations between his being sexually abused as a child and his crime of being a “pusher.” Ehlert has also found that in a more general sense dream-sharing groups help criminal offenders cultivate the cognitive abilities in which they are so notoriously deficient: the abilities to reason critically, to empatheti cally take the perspective of others, and to envi sion alter na tives, possi bili ties, and poten tials. All of this strengthens their capacity to avoid becoming trapped in a lifelong cycle of crime and incarceration.

These two cases show that dream-sharing groups can actually give their partici pants valu able, focused in sights into prob lems that involve an intersec tion of personal and social forces. Rather than promoting navel-gazing escapism, rather than further isolat ing people in homoge neous little social units, these groups enable participants to per ceive, to understand, and to respect the lives of other people, of different people. Dream-sharing groups are not only a powerful means of spiritual discovery and expression; they are also a powerful means of renewing a vivid, dynamic sense of community in con temporary Ameri can soci ety.

V

My discussion of the phenomenon of dream-sharing groups is not intended to suggest that these groups can cure all of society’s ills. Any attempt to offer “new thinking on community” must acknowledge that in this post-modern, post-Cold War world there are no simple remedies, no magic wands that can make poverty and racism and crime and all our other social problems disappear. What I would like to suggest is that dream-sharing groups offer a resource that can, in many situa­tions, prove effective in revitalizing a sense of commu nity. Among their many practical virtues, these groups are widely accessible (since everybody dreams), cost-free (all you need is a space for people to sit in a circle), and capable of adapting to an endless variety of settings and circum stances. Dream-sharing groups have an especially great potential, I believe, to enrich educa tional pro grams. Lewis’s work in a public high school is one good example of this. In my own current research, I’m working with preschool children in various socio-economic set tings, trying to develop programs that inte grate dreams, play, and story-telling.

When shared in a group setting, dreams can stimulate a deep and powerful sense of relat ed ness to others, en abling people to recog nize a shared humanity in the midst of social and cultur al differences. I would like to close with one of the more poetic statements of this point, by Synesius of Cyrene, an early fifth-century Neo-Platonist who convert ed to Christianity and became famous as the bishop of Ptolemais. In a treatise he wrote on dreams, Synesius says this:

“[T]he dream is visible to the man who is worth five hundred medimni, and equally to the possessor of three hundred, to the teamster no less than to the peasant who tills the boundary land for a livelihood, to the galley slave and the common labourer alike… [To this oracle] then we must go, woman and man of us, young and old, poor and rich alike, the private citizen and the ruler, the town dweller and the rustic, the artisan and the orator. She repudiates neither race, nor age, nor condition, nor calling. She is present to everyone, everywhere, this zealous prophetess, this wise counsellor, who holdeth her peace.”[viii]

Bibliography

Bellah, Robert, et.al.1985. Habits of the Heart.
University of California Press.

Berger, Peter. 1967. The Sacred Canopy. Doubleday.

Bulkeley, Kelly. 1994. The Wilderness of Dreams.
SUNY Press.

________ (editor). In press (a). Among All These

Dream ers. SUNY Press.

________. In press (b). Spiritual Dreaming.
Paulist Press.

Domhoff, G. William. 1985. The Mystique of Dreams.

University of California Press.

Faraday, Ann. 1972. Dream Power. Berkeley Books.

________. 1974. The Dream Game. Harper & Row.

Garfield, Patricia. 1974. Creative Dreaming.
Ballantine.

Jedrej, M.C. and Shaw, Rosalind (editors). 1993.

Dream ing, Religion and Society in Africa.
E.J. Brill.

Kelsey, Morton. 1974. God, Dreams, and Revelation.
Augsburg Publishing House.

Rieff, Philip. 1966. The Triumph of the Therapeutic.

Harper & Row.

Stewart, Kilton. 1969. “Dream Theory in Malaya.” In

Charles Tart (ed.), Altered States of
Consciousness. Harper Collins.

Taylor, Jeremy. 1982. Dream Work. Paulist Press.

Tedlock, Barbara (editor). 1987. Dreaming:

Anthropolog ical and Psychological
Interpretations. Cambridge University Press.

Von Grunebaum, G.E. and Callois, Roger (editors).
1966. The Dream and Human Societies.
University of California Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1994. Sharing the Journey. Vantage.

Notes

[i]. See Von Grunebaum and Callois 1966, Tedlock 1987, Jedrej and Shaw 1993, and Bulkeley in press (a).

[ii]. Although my focus in this presentation is on the United States, there are also many dream-sharing groups active in Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe.

[iii]. For a highly skeptical evaluation of Stewart’s re search and its popular reception, see Domhoff 1985.

[iv]. In keeping with a notion of “groups” as consisting of people meeting in face-to-face contexts, I’m not discuss ing the phenomenon of dream-sharing via television, radio, and cyberspace–although these technological arenas have brought countless more people into the pro cess of sharing and discussing dreams with others.

[v]. I’m basing these estimates on 1) my experiences in leading and participating in these groups, 2) my reviews of the many books and periodicals devoted to the subject of dreams, and 3) numerous conver sations and extensive correspon dence with people who have been active in the dream-sharing group “movement” for many years, including Montague Ullman, Jeremy Taylor, Roberta Ossana, Anthony Shafton, Jill Gregory, and Rita Dwyer.

[vi]. For a more detailed discussion of the relevance of modern dream studies to the process of secularization, see Bulkeley 1994, chapter 19.

[vii]. This is a general critique of modern psychology made by Philip Rieff 1966, Peter Berger 1967, and Robert Bellah, et. al. 1985.

[viii]. Kelsey 1974, pp. 247-248.

Dreams Reflect Our Waking World

(Santa Clara Magazine, Spring 2003, 8-11)

Are dreams meaningful revelations of truth, or just deceptive gibberish? That is a question humans have been debating for thousands of years. Some of the earliest written documents from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India are texts on dream interpretation that provide instructions on how to separate the sense from the nonsense in dreaming. Most cultures through history have agreed that at least some dreams are genuinely meaningful and relevant to people’s lives.

Over the past century, Western psychologists have used new methods to study this age-old question, and their research has confirmed the basic meaningfulness of dreaming. Clinical psychotherapists from Sigmund Freud on have found that dreams bear strong relevance to people’s emotional concerns and personal conflicts. For example, psychotherapists have repeatedly found that if a client is going through a divorce, or suffering an illness, or experiencing a crisis situation at work, the client’s dreams are likely to provide informative, insightful reflections of his or her emotional situation in waking life.

In addition to the abundant clinical evidence from psychotherapists, the meaningfulness of dreams has also established by cognitive psychologists who have studied long-term dream journals—personal diaries in which people have recorded their dreams over a period of years or even decades. Content analysis of these journals has revealed a remarkable continuity between people’s dreams and their waking lives. The characters, settings, and modes of social interaction in the dreams have clearly identifiable connections with journal keepers’ everyday waking experiences. Thus students frequently dream about school, parents about their children, athletes about their sports, artists about their creations, etc. The upshot of this research is, whatever it is you do in waking life, you probably dream about it, too.

Taking the last 100 years of psychological research as a whole, the evidence is quite strong that dreaming is not deceptive gibberish (at least not entirely), and it does have genuinely meaningful relevance to people’s lives.

Now that we have a well-grounded answer to that initial question, a new question can be addressed: What kinds of meaning does dreaming convey? Most researchers have focused on the personal dimensions of dream meaning—how dreams relate to the private life concerns of the individual dreamer (health, sex, family relationships, etc.). While I value and appreciate the work of these researchers, my own studies have followed a different path. I have become increasingly interested in the communal dimensions of dream meaning. My research over the past several years has been building a case for the idea that dreams offer meaningful reflections of the broader cultural, political, and economic environment in which people live.

As you might expect, this idea has struck many people (including a number of my fellow researchers) as highly implausible. How can dreams, the bizarrely idiosyncratic products of an individual’s sleeping mind, have any significance for the waking world of public life?

One way I have tried to answer that question is by studying people’s dreams during times of unusually intense political activity—namely, Presidential elections. I have done research during the past three election cycles (1992, 1996, 2000), and each time I have found numerous instances of dreams with explicit themes and images from the waking world political scene. By 1996 I had gathered a sufficiently large number of politically-related dreams from people all over the country to begin sorting them by theme and content into three broad groups:

Political cartoons of the mind: Dreams expressing in succinct and sometimes very humorous ways the dreamer’s waking life political perspective. Here’s an example from a 36-year old man from Florida: “I’m playing golf with Bill Clinton. I’ve heard people say he cheats, and I understand what they mean, because he frequently improves the lie of his ball. But he encourages the people he’s playing with to do the same. He says, ‘It’s just a game, and just for fun!’” This dreamer voted enthusiastically for Clinton in 1992, but in 1996, when he had this dream, he wasn’t sure if he would vote for Clinton in the upcoming election. The dreamer saw the golf imagery of his dream as an expression of his concern that President Clinton is a “cheater” who frequently “improves his lies” and then tries to smooth-talk other people into letting him get away with it.

Personal symbols: Dreams using the figures of politicians as “personal symbols” to express strong emotions that the dreamer is feeling toward some matter in his or her waking life. Here’s an example from a 55-year old woman from New Mexico: “I’m back in college, in one of the classrooms, and Bill Clinton is one of the students. Then he’s the teacher, and he asks me how alcohol manufacturers get us to drink so much. I say I haven’t given the question much thought.” This dreamer had long struggled with alcoholism, and in her dream she sees the President as voice of “executive authority” within her, a voice that is prompting her to think more carefully about why she drinks.

New political perspectives: Dreams directly calling into question the dreamer’s waking life political attitudes, leading the dreamer to think anew about his or her accustomed beliefs about a politician or a political issue. This example comes from a 44-year old man from New York: “I’m on a camping trip with the President and his party in a heavily wooded area. Suddenly, Clinton darts up a hill into the woods. He sees a bear approaching the camping area. None of us moves, as the President confronts the bear; Clinton is very expert and competent as he does this, not wild or frightened. He manages to drive the huge bear, the size of a Grizzly, into a snare set for him. The FBI in the entourage are angry at the close call, but the President seems unperturbed.” This dreamer said that from the start he had been skeptical of Bill Clinton’s leadership qualities, but he awoke from this dream surprised by Clinton’s swift, assertive, and fearless response to the threat of the huge bear. As a result of his dream, this man reconsidered his generally dim view of Clinton’s executive abilities, wondering if he had been overlooking the President’s skills as a fighter.

My next research project tried to build on those earlier findings by taking a different approach to the general question of dreaming and politics. Beginning in the Fall of 1996 I began gathering most recent dream reports from college undergraduates of varying political persuasions. In addition to writing down their most recent dreams, I asked the students a series of questions about their political beliefs and activities: were they registered to vote? If so, in which party? Did they vote in the election? If so, for whom? How would they describe their political views, as conservative, liberal, moderate, other? I then compared the dreams of 28 highly conservative people and 28 highly liberal people (half men, half women in both groups) and found the following:

People on the right had more nightmares and dreams in which they lacked power. They had a greater frequency of lifelike dreams. Female rights were especially anxious about family relationships, and male rights had dreams almost devoid of girlfriends.

People on the left had fewer nightmares and more dreams in which they had power. They had a greater frequency of good fortunes and bizarre elements in their dreams. Female lefts had an especially high frequency of good fortunes, and male lefts had an unusually high percentage of female characters.

What do these findings mean? When I presented this research finding at an academic conference in the summer of 2001, I said my pilot study was far too small to support any certain conclusions. However, to my surprise and amusement, this little research factoid—“Republicans have more nightmares than Democrats”—was quickly seized by the national news media and bandied about by pundits of all persuasion (Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Schneider, Bob Edwards, Peter Jennings, etc.). Despite my cautions, political partisans on both sides did not hesitate to assert their interpretation of my findings. As reported by UPI correspondent Mike Martin, Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman, declared “If George W. Bush were the leader of my party, I’d have trouble sleeping at night, too.” Not to be outdone in the game of “dream spinning,” Kevin Sheridan of the Republican National Committee quickly replied, “What do you expect after eight years of William Jefferson Clinton?”

As you can imagine, this episode taught me a humbling lesson about the manipulation of academic research by the mass media. But beyond that, it encouraged me to expand on this small but promising project and continue exploring dreams as a means of gaining new insight into the unconscious roots of people’s waking life political beliefs.

On a more sober note, I have over the past year been gathering dream reports related to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. As you can imagine, many of these reports have been nightmares—frighteningly vivid dreams of planes being hijacked, terrorists with bombs, tall buildings exploding, all the horrifying imagery of that unforgettable day. In a forthcoming book (Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares Into Visions of Hope, Paulist Press) I discuss these dreams both in terms of their relevance to the dreamer’s personal life and to the profoundly changed communal world in which we all now find ourselves. I have found that many of the post-September 11 dreams not only express the dreamer’s private emotions but also envision creative new possibilities for meaning and order in the life of the community.

This capacity of dreams to convey meanings of both personal and collective significance is beautifully illustrated in the experience of Mandy (not her real name), a twenty-nine year old artist from California. A couple of days before September 11 Mandy had flown to New York to visit a friend who happened to work in one of the World Trade Center towers. On the morning of the 11th her friend had gone to work as usual, leaving Mandy asleep in her apartment (right across the river from the towers), with plans to meet at the WTC for lunch. When the attack occurred, Mandy rode her bike to a spot where she witnessed the towers collapsing. It was several hours before she learned her friend had survived. That night, Mandy had this dream:

“I’m walking through a forest that has been chopped down. It is a sea of stumps. Every single tree has been cut. I stand in the middle, sobbing. Who could do this? I walk up to one of the stumps and see the huge beautiful spiral inside. I get lost in its magnificence. These trees are so old. I can see all of history in these trees, and I’m struck with the beauty and power of seeing this part of the tree. It’s a part that I don’t get to see. This spiral is taking me so deeply down into myself, to a place so powerful that it overwhelms me.”

Mandy knew right away that her dream was directly related to her harrowing personal experiences the previous day. She felt “so much calmer and clear-headed” when she woke up, and she said the beautiful image of the spiral helped her get through the agonies of the next day. She also recognized that her dream had a broader, almost allegorical dimension of meaning: Amid a scene of apparently total devastation and ruin, a previously hidden source of power, beauty, and strength is discovered. Mandy understood that this message was relevant not only to her but to everyone who was consumed by fear, confusion, and despair in the immediate aftermath of September 11. When she returned home she made a painting of her dream, and since then she has shown it in public exhibitions as a way of sharing its inspirational meaning with others.

My current research project on the social dimensions of dreaming is a collaborative effort with Prof. Tracey Kahan of the Psychology Department of Santa Clara University. Prof. Kahan has taught a class on Sleep and Dreams for several years, and one requirement of her course is to keep a sleep and dreams journal. At the end of Fall Quarter of 2001 Prof. Kahan and I gathered the journals of 22 students who volunteered to participate as anonymous subjects in our study. We are currently in the process of analyzing the journals for evidence of explicit incorporations of September 11-related imagery (e.g., hijacked airplanes, terrorists, Osama Bin Laden, etc.), and we will present our findings at the 2003 conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams, to be held in Berkeley from June 27 to July 1. In previous studies Prof. Kahan has examined the various types of thinking, awareness, and self-reflection that occur in dreaming, and one question we will be examining is whether dreams with clear incorporations of September 11 themes have distinct qualities of awareness as compared to dreams without such content. Do dreams with explicit images of terrorism have less self-reflection (because of overwhelming fear) or more self-reflection (because of heightened vigilance)? The results of our study should cast new light on this and other questions relating to the profound psychological impact of September 11.

My interest in how dream content relates to major events in public life is not intended to disparage the value of dream interpretation for personal insight. Particularly in the practical contexts of psychotherapy, counseling, and spiritual direction, dreams are a wonderful resource for individual growth and self-knowledge. My concern is to rather to complement the personal meanings with communal meanings by heightening people’s awareness of their deep and often unconscious relations to broader forces in their communities and in the world. Like many social commentators, I lament the tendency in American society to segregate private and public spheres of existence, and my research is providing evidence that even in the seemingly isolated realm of dreaming we are still dynamically involved with the political, economic, and cultural forces shaping our lives. My guiding belief is that the more aware we become of those forces, the better able we will be to guide them in creative and fruitful directions.

Dream Content and Political Ideology

LIST OF THE DREAMS

Appendix 1

FL 1 COOK KILLS HER MOTHER

I was at my house with my mom, my younger sister, and my younger brother and his friends. My brother and his friends were watching a sports game on TV. Out of nowhere the cook at my parents’ restaurant came to my house and murdered my mom in my bathroom. My dad came home a little while later, went into my sister’s room and killed himself. When I found him there, I went to call 911 and our phone wouldn’t work. I finally got through on a cell phone, and suddenly my dad was alive again. My sister then took his hand and led him into my bathroom. She said, “Look, there’s mom,” and pointed to her dead body. We went back out to the living room and my dad said, “Let’s get out of here.” Just as I said, “We can’t, Tom (the cook/murderer) took mom’s car,” Tom pulled up in the driveway. I was terrified as he walked up our walkway and into our house again, but my dad wasn’t. Tom then proceeded to explain the procedures and the logic behind killing my mom, as I stuffed my face with a huge bowl of raviolis.

FL 2 BOYFRIEND’S HAPPY PARTY

I dreamt that I was at a party that my boyfriend was hosting at his house. I cannot remember the specific details of how/why I was at this party, but I do remember that it was at his house. I can remember it was very warm in the house, and all the lights were on. Everyone was very happy and seemed to be enjoying everyone’s company. What made this dream memorable was that my high school friends were there, who I haven’t seen in two years. I remember their faces being extremely colorful (red lips, pink cheeks), and just full of life. Both my friends and I were extremely excited to see each other.

FL 3 HUGGING HER CONFUSED AUNT

I am in my house I lived in when I was younger. My aunt and little cousin Marcus came to visit me. I was back home from going to school in Hawaii. When I saw my aunt I gave her a hug but she was hesitant at hugging me back. She looked extremely confused. Marcus was playing with my mom, he was restless and he wanted to leave. I was just standing there. I was confused myself. I wasn’t sure what was going on.

FL 4 EX-LOVER’S MASSAGE

I was dreaming about a past relationship. I ran into my ex-lover at the mall. We went back to his house and I began speaking with his mother. He and I went upstairs and he began to massage my body. When his hands touched the small of my back, I quickly woke up and called my boyfriend to tell him how much I love him.

FL 5 MOTHER CUTS HER HAIR CRAZILY

I had a dream that my mom cut my hair all crazy, giving me bangs and cutting it uneven on the sides. We were on a vacation and the house in which we were staying was located right on the beach. My parents were there and I believe my brother was there as well. I remember looking out the glass doors and seeing the ocean directly outside. The waves kept getting closer and closer and taller and taller. Then I realized that there was an emergency warning being sounded out, but no one was taking it seriously and I had to try and get everyone out of the house.

FL 6 A WATCH IN THE WATER

I dreamt that I was in the ocean near the shore, with people. As I was floating I noticed a male watch and swam down to reach it. The watch kept slipping out of my hand and then I noticed the clasp was floating away. I managed to catch the watch but not the clasp. Then when I looked at my hand with the watch in it, it was a female watch that I had grabbed. I went back and took the male watch as well but both were damaged when I brought them back to shore. On the shore there is a little girl with a nose piercing that is almost grotesque. It is revealed that her mother made her wear it because it is trendy. Then her father notices that the piercing is infected and removes it.

FL 7 BOYFRIEND’S MOM YELLS AT HER

My boyfriend and I were watching tv in his living room and he went outside to smoke. So, I was just sitting by myself watching TV. Then his mom comes home and starts yelling at us and yelling at me because she didn’t know that he smokes. I was really scared and sad because I didn’t want his mom yelling at me. I wanted her to like me.

FL 8 TAKING CARE OF HER YOUNG NIECE

My family had a reunion get together at a hotel and I was in charge of taking care of my young niece. We were outside and walking on this pathway that was very slippery and we kept falling. My niece would cry every time we would fall and I would try to distract her. Suddenly I realized I didn’t have her milk bottle, so I asked my dad to watch her while I went inside the hotel to get it. I managed to get up the slippery pathway again and go inside the hotel, but suddenly it turned into a mall and I could not find my family anywhere. Although I had never seen the mall before, I somehow knew my way around. The rest of the dream I spent looking for my family (very vague at this point).

FL 9 TEMPTED TO LEAVE HER BOYFRIEND

I dreamed I was lying on my stomach and a friend of mine who I might have crush on came next to me. We were in a corner of a room. He kissed me on the ear. The next thing in the dream was us sitting on a sofa in the living room (mine??) talking, and I’d assume stuff happened in between that I did not actually dream. He was offering to give me a lot of things, I don’t know what exactly for, something like, leave my boyfriend and run away with him. He offered things like spending his savings on me, and when I didn’t give an answer, neither yes nor no, he offered more. I didn’t speak, just cried. I knew what was the right thing to do, but I didn’t want to commit myself. Out of the parlor? Came the chair of my department and I thought, oh great, now I’m in trouble. (the chair knows of my boyfriend, and he’s met him. But instead, he talked to my friend as if they knew each other and asked, “were you the one that did this (made her cry)?” When he nodded, the chair said, then it’s your responsibility to make it better.

FL 10 CRUEL SOCCER GAME FLYING

I was walking in a park-like area toward some sort of museum, there was a lot of statuary (Greek?) leading up to the museum and I remember thinking how far (unusually far) the walk to the door was. I was with a friend, Pat, I have had since second grade. I noticed a soccer match going on to our left and it consisted of many adult men but there was a line of children (6-7 years old) who had their shirts pulled over their heads, and their parents were lining them up. I remember thinking how odd and cruel that was to send the children into a violent game with older men. At this point I became lucid and remembered that I could fly in my dreams if I wanted to. I began to fly and I thought to myself, “If only I could remember how to do this while I am awake, it is so easy.” Pat was up ahead and as I flew towards him I awoke.

FL 11 BLISSFUL PREGNANCY

I am not sure of where I am exactly; however, that does not really concern me. It is not dark yet not overly bright. I do realize I am indoors because though there is not a mirror visible to me I know I am looking at myself and through my eyes. It is pleasantly warm and quiet; I can feel this in my arms, back, face…through my whole body. I may be reclined in a bed or a very soft and big easy chair. I am very comfortable and peaceful. I feel my abdomen, large and warm, and I know life is within me. This is a recurring dream in which I have the baby in my arms and I am nursing the baby. It is so real that the baby’s smell and gurgling, suckling, etc. I feel physically. I have to emphasize the calm and contentment, the overwhelming love I have for this child welling up within me.

FL 12 SEEING THE GIRL SHE LOVES

In the dream there was me, the girl I’m in love with, and her boyfriend, who is a friend of mine also. We were in this really large bathroom like thing and she wanted he and I to escort her to the bathroom. The weird thing about the bathroom was that some stalls had doors and others had shower curtains. Like the almost clear kind but you can’t really see through it. She wanted to go to one that had the shower curtain, but was afraid to because she thought we would look at her.

FL 13 HAUNTED APARTMENT

I was moving into a new apartment, from the 3rd floor to the 3rd floor-across a grassy area, there were other people helping me with boxes, when I got in to the new apartment I loved it, I remember climbing up the stairs, I looked around and liked it, but I knew it was haunted, I can’t remember what happened so that I would know, but I knew and I didn’t mind.

FL 14 GEORGE W. BUSH STEALS HER CHIPS

I was in my room watching the news on the election and eating chips and G.W. Bush came into my room and stole my chips. I was surprised and caught off guard. I looked up at the TV and Gore won because they miscalculated the votes.

Comments on DreamingNow, 2005

The Dreams We Dream For Each Other

In a lecture Jorge Luis Borges once gave on the subject of dreams and nightmares, he said “dreams are an aesthetic work, perhaps the earliest aesthetic expression” of our species.[1] Borges’ insight has been abundantly supported by recent studies in history, archeology, and anthropology, all pointing to the universality of dreaming as a primal source of human cultural creativity.[2] Some of the earliest written texts in China, Egypt, and India are catalogs of dream symbols. Myths originating in ancient oral traditions tell of dreams that helped to create the world (e.g., the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime). Shrines and temples around the world are devoted to deities who visit their worshippers in dreams to provide healing, guidance, and inspiration. At least some of the cave paintings of Paleolithic Europe, long celebrated as revolutionary expressions of unprecedented symbolic creativity, are believed to be portrayals of dreams experienced by early homo sapiens engaging in the ancient practice of dream incubation, or seeking a dream.

Dreaming may inspire creative activity, but a dream is not the same as a work of art. The moment we wake up, we leave the pluralistic world of the oneiric imagination behind us, and our minds are quickly restructured and reoriented by the sensory demands of the consensual social world. Given the radical nature of this existential transition (which, significantly, is genetically hardwired into the basic neural functioning of the human brain), any effort to remember and/or communicate our dream experiences is inevitably colored by our waking life interests, desires, fears, and conflicts, not to mention the vastly complex web of cultural traditions shaping our apprehension of the world. Just as we must reject the scientist who claims to capture “pure” specimens of dreaming in the sleep laboratory, so we must reject the artist whose work purports to be a direct transmission of dream experience. In both cases what is forgotten is the inescapable partiality of our waking encounters with dreaming. Again, Borges: “The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams….If we think of the dream as a work of fiction—and I think it is—it may be that we continue to spin tales when we wake and later when we recount them.”[3]

My impression is that most artists do not believe their works are direct replications of dream experience, but rather are carefully crafted transformations of images, moods, and themes from the world of dreaming. To be a dreamer is not necessarily to be an artist; experiencing dreams and knowing how to express them as art are two different things.

Still, the connection between dreaming and aesthetic creativity is not spurious. The powerful inspiration provided by dreaming derives, in my view, from a fundamental impulse in dreams toward communal expression. Dreaming provokes greater consciousness—in both the personal and collective spheres. This wonder-working power is most evident in the vivid memorability of certain dreams that burn themselves into people’s minds and absolutely demand to be acknowledged and expressed in the waking world. Jung used the term “big dreams” to describe such experiences, which he called “the richest jewels in the treasure-house of psychic experience.”[4] Whether by virtue of their hyper-realistic imagery, strong physiological carry-over effects, or revelatory existential insights, certain dreams literally cannot be forgotten; they force their way into waking awareness, prompting an urgent need to share the experience with others—“Listen, I had a dream….”[5]

In many cultures around the world this impulse toward communal expression is celebrated as a valuable resource by which dreaming contributes to collective well-being. Dream-sharing among family members is the norm, and collective decision-making (e.g., about hunting, war, legal disputes) includes dreams as useful sources of information and guidance. Anthropological literature is filled with examples of communities, both historical and contemporary, in which dream-sharing is an integral part of broader social, political, and religious processes. One of my favorite examples comes from the Iroquois people of Northeast America. For hundreds of years they have performed “the Dream-Guessing Rite,” a three-day ceremony held in midwinter, when the nights are long and the opportunities for dreaming abundant. It begins with the members of one moiety house walking over to the cabins of the opposite moiety and asking to have their dreams guessed and fulfilled—with the dreams being proposed to the assembled group in the form of riddles. According to anthropologist Harold Blau, “these riddles are stylized and are clues to the assembly as to the subject of the dream. Clues may be understood more readily if one is familiar with legendary accounts of various societies and spirit forces. Single sentence riddles are proposed: ‘It whistled in the wind’ may refer to a corn husk spirit. Likewise, ‘It has holes, yet it catches’ may refer to a lacrosse stick net.”[6] The groups Blau observed took great pleasure in the guessing process, and once the dream is revealed, the person who made the correct guess promises to present the dreamer with whatever appeared in his or her dream. Then the roles are reversed, until everyone has had the opportunity both to guess someone else’s dreams and share a dream of one’s own. It can easily be imagined, I think, that a community that provides such a stimulating public space for dream expression would benefit from a vastly deeper sense of mutual understanding, respect, and cooperative spirit. Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that the earliest Christian missionaries to visit North America were horrified by the Iroquois’ idolatrous reverence for dreaming, and one young Jesuit wrote a letter to his superiors back in Europe to say he was worried one of the natives might dream about murdering him and might then try acting out the dream in waking life.[7] (Of his own dreams, the young missionary said nothing.)

We are living in something of a golden age in the historical and cross-cultural study of dreams, with several excellent books and articles appearing in the past few years.[8] For our purposes, the key point in these works is the widespread belief that dreaming is not simply a private affair with exclusively personal relevance, but rather an experience rooted in collective realities and potentially relevant to the broader concerns of the community. Contrary to modernist prejudices, humans have long recognized the psychophysiological dimension of dream meaning and the relationship between dream content and the individual’s personal life context. Artemidorus, for example, the 2nd century C.E. Roman dream interpreter, argued that the meanings of dreams can vary depending on the dreamer’s gender, age, health, marital status, social position, etc, while Hindu medical texts analyzed dreams for diagnostic indicators of the individual’s physical health. What current historical and anthropological studies have shown is that many cultures have also recognized collective dimensions of dreaming as well, dimensions by which the dreamer is connected to his or her family, to other people, to the land, to the planet, and to various trans-human powers and realities.

To speak of such collective dimensions of dreaming may sound scandalous to those of us influenced by Western psychological thinking. Freud, as ever the ideological pioneer, claimed that all dreams, no matter how politically relevant they appear on the surface, are in fact nothing more than disguised fulfillments of repressed childhood wishes. In The Interpretation of Dreams he describes one of his own dreams in which he encounters a notoriously reactionary Austrian politician, Count Thun, whom Freud had actually seen that day at the train station. Freud confesses that in waking life he felt “insolent and revolutionary ideas”[9] after seeing Count Thun. But his interpretation of his dream ignores all that and reduces the possible meanings to just one, a symbolic reference to infantile megalomania. Freud dismisses any thought of connecting the political imagery of his dreams to the actual political situation of his community: “This revolutionary fantasy, which was derived from ideas aroused in me by seeing Count Thun, was like the façade of an Italian church in having no organic relation with the structure lying behind it.”[10]

American dream psychologist Calvin Hall endorsed Freud’s individualist/anti-political bias in his influential 1966 work The Meaning of Dreams, rejecting any legitimate interest in the communal dimensions of dreaming and insisting that the only genuine dimension of meaning involved the dreamer’s personal life: “Dreams contain few ideas of a political or economic nature. They have little or nothing to say about current events in the world of affairs.”[11] Unfortunately, things have only gotten worse in recent years. Nowadays prominent neuroscientists debate whether dreams have any meaning at all, individual or collective.[12] Everything that happens in dreams can be explained (so the argument goes) in terms of automatic changes in the chemical and electrical activities of the brain as it passes through the various stages of rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. According to Owen Flanagan, a leading voice in the reincarnated form of sociobiology known as evolutionary psychology, dreams are “spandrels of sleep,” mere epiphenomena that have no meaning, function, or value whatsoever.[13]

This, then, is the current condition of the field of dream studies: At the same time as historians and anthropologists are discovering an incredibly rich variety of dream beliefs and practices from around the world and throughout history, leading Western scientists are denying any functional value for dreaming whatsoever.

This is also the context, or at least one of the contexts, in which the DreamingNow show is appearing. Explicitly dedicated to exploring the social and political potential of dreaming, the show is a direct repudiation of the mainstream Western psychological belief that dreams are either purely personal self-reflections or sheer neural nonsense. I don’t know if the DreamingNow curator Raphaela Platow intended to make a major theoretical statement to the dream research community, and I’m sure the artists’ works have many aesthetic virtues that escape my untrained eye. But to me what’s most interesting about the contributions to DreamingNow is the way the works evoke a vivid awareness of exactly that which is missing in the Western psychological approach—a deeper appreciation for dreaming as a source of collective meaning-making. With that in mind, let me offer some brief reflections on a few particular pieces in the exhibit.

Antonio and Isabel Aquilizan’s Dream Blanket draws the observer into an enclosed but comforting and ultimately transformative space of multiple colors, sounds, and feelings. Their collection of blankets from various cultures around the world reminds us that dreaming occurs in sleep, and sleep is both a culturally-constructed experience (each blanket has a distinctive pattern of color and texture) and a natural bodily process we share with all mammals. The fact that we humans prefer while sleeping to have a blanket to keep us warm is itself a sign of how vulnerable we become for eight or so hours every night. We lie motionless for hours on end, oblivious to the external environment, defenseless and vulnerable, incapable even of preserving our own bodily warmth. Pace Flanagan, something very valuable must happen during sleep for evolution to have preserved such a helpless condition as part of our necessary psychological functioning. The other feature I appreciate in the Aquilizans’ Dream Blanket is their inclusion of so many different dream voices, from people we too rarely have the opportunity to hear. One of the dirty little secrets of dream research is that the majority of empirical studies use mostly white, mostly middle- and upper-class college students as their subjects, with their dreams then presented as the “norms” by which all human dreaming is measured. Needless to say, this leads to a rather narrow view of the subject, with virtually no attention to the dream lives of the people from different economic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds. Nietzsche once said, “among all these dreamers, I, too, who ‘know,’ am dancing my dance”—that’s the expansive, liberating feeling I get from Dream Blankets.

A very different set of associations come to mind in connection with Chiharu Shiota’s installation, with its numerous single beds literally tied to each other by an intricate, seemingly random web of black thread. The web is a metaphor frequently employed by cognitive scientists to account for the fundamentally social nature of the evolved human mind (i.e., neural networks as vast interweavings of synaptic activity, in constant interaction with the neural networks of other people’s minds), and it is also used by anthropologists in the Geertzian tradition to describe the elaborate symbol systems pervading human cultural experience. Following those ideas, the web can be understood as an expression of ontological relatedness and community, both in waking and dreaming experience. However, the austere, black-and-white composition of Shiota’s installation also calls forth darker feelings, of the dreaming individual as spider’s prey, trapped in a colorless void, a prisoner of sleep, incapable of movement or escape. Shiota’s performance in one of the beds during the exhibit’s opening will undoubtedly add further dimensions of meaning to this powerfully ambivalent dream image/image of dreaming.

David Solow’s work centers on one of the most bizarre features of dreaming—its infinite potential for metamorphosis, the capacity of dreaming to mix and merge people, places, objects, times, and ideas. Morpheus, son of the Roman god of sleep, was well known for his ability to assume the shape of any person, making him ideally suited to bear divine messages in dreams. I take Solow’s work as a revelation of a different kind of divine truth, the truth that in dreaming the ordinary boundaries of selfhood dissolve, opening us to other dimensions of being and other ways of knowing the world. The naked bodies of the dreamers are illuminated in a pool of water (the classic Jungian symbol of the unconscious), and again we are reminded of the brute physicality of sleep. The naked bodies merge in and out of one another, but not sexually—indeed, the effect of the nudity in this work is decidedly unarousing. Perhaps we’ve heard enough already about sex and dreaming from Freud, the Surrealists, and David Lynch, and Solow is now pushing us to consider embodied dimensions of dreaming beyond the biological process of reproduction, beyond the binary opposition of inseminating male and ovulating female, to a place where we recognize the astonishing, glorious mutability of the human body. There is a little Morpheus in all of us, and through Morpheus there is something of you in me, and me in you.

A hint of sexuality can be inferred in Cai Guo Quiang’s work Dream, for the bed used in his installation is a double, rather than the single person-sized beds in the other pieces. Quiang’s bed is bathed in red, which might in other circumstances highlight the erotic passions kindled by two people sleeping together, but which in this case is more ominously a reference to the official color of the Chinese communist government (whose “one-child” policy leads the state to reach into people’s beds and control their procreative activities). The red lanterns suspended above the bed take the shape of weapons, cars, computers, and the omnipresent Chinese star, all forming a web-like snare that constrains the dreaming imagination and seeks to replace free-form creativity with the dominant ideology of the state. In this regard, Quiang’s work echoes the remarkable book of Charlotte Beradt, The Third Reich of Dreams, in which she recounts several hundred dreams gathered from people living in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939.[14] Beradt’s courageous study illustrates the power of a totalitarian political regime to invade and virtually destroy the individual’s capacity to imagine, create, and envision new possibilities. In a similar way, Quiang is calling our attention to the fragility of dreaming, its vulnerability to social manipulation and political aggression. To dream well, we must be safe and free. Quiang, like Beradt, is trying to make us wake up to the oppressive social conditions that constrain our oneiric potentials.

A different kind of external influence is at work in Marina Abramovic’s Dream Bed. Her creation of a carefully structured and unabashedly visible space for sleeping and dreaming is reminiscent of the sleep laboratory, that modern Asklepion where complex technological devices are used to monitor the subjects’ sleep and “catch” their dreams for scientific analysis. Abramovic does not use EEG scalp attachments or rectal thermometers like in the sleep lab, nor does she provide freely roaming snakes on the floor as in the temples of Asklepius. Nevertheless, Dream Bed places the individual in a highly unusual sleeping environment. The rectangular box in which the participants lie is like a coffin without a lid, which perhaps makes sense given the long historical connection between sleeping, dreaming, and death. The puffy body suits (with magnets embedded in the fabric), glowing blue or red lights, obsidian crystal pillow, and exposure to the eyes of curious observers all makes it likely that whatever dreams the participants experience, they will be dramatically different from those they experience at home. From my perspective as a researcher, I’ll be very interested to see what gets recorded in the Dream Book Abramovic is providing for her participants. We already know that the artificial, intrusive, and resolutely unaesthetic conditions of the sleep lab have a homogenizing effect on dreaming, with fewer nightmares, sexual dreams, and bizarre/transcendent dreams in the lab than in a home setting. Will the same be true of the Dream Bed? Or will its explicitly artistic context, combined with the subtle influences of the crystals and magnets, stimulate a greater degree of aesthetic creativity and imaginal freedom in the people’s dreams?

Expanding on that same question, and bringing this essay to a close, I wonder how DreamingNow as a whole will affect the dream lives of the people who observe and participate in the installations. The exhibit itself is a grand incubation experiment—it creates an astonishing, reality-bending liminal space, sanctioned by a reputable cultural institution, in which people may freely explore the farthest reaches of the dreaming imagination. What new dreams will the exhibit inspire? What novel Borgesian ficciones will be woven? What fresh ideas and surprising insights will come to people as they share in the dreams of others, trying like the Iroquois to guess at subtle meanings that stir their deepest desires and speak eloquently to the broader concerns of their community? In a society that has become more sleep-deprived than perhaps any in human history, at a time when the market is booming for pills that suppress the need for sleep, DreamingNow is a necessary affirmation of the transformative power of dreaming. I suspect many of the exhibit’s observers will be pleasurably startled by the exhibit’s multi-dimensional impact on their own dream creations.

Beradt, Charlotte. 1966. The Third Reich of Dreams. Translated by A. Gottwald. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Blau, Harold. 1963. Dream-Guessing: A Comparative Analysis. Ethnohistory 10 (3):233-249.

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1984. Seven Nights. Translated by E. Weinberger. New York: New Directions.

Bulkeley, Kelly. 1995. Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey. Mahwah: Paulist Press.

———. 1996b. Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election. In Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society, edited by K. Bulkeley. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 1999. Dreaming in a Totalitarian Society: A Winnicottian Reading of Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. In Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology, edited by K. Bulkeley. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 1999a. Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 2002. Dream Content and Political Ideology. Dreaming 12 (2):61-78.

———. 2003. Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch. Dreaming 13 (1):49-60.

———. 2003. Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope. Mahwah: Paulist Press.

———, ed. 1996a. Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society. Edited by R. V. d. Castle, SUNY Series in Dream Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———, ed. 2001. Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming. New York: Palgrave.

Crick, Francis, and Graeme Mitchison. 1983. The Function of Dream Sleep. Nature 304:111-114.

Descola, Phillipe. 1993. The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle. New York: The New Press.

Ewing, Katherine. 1989. The Dream of Spiritual Initiation and the Organization of Self Representations among Pakistani Sufis. American Ethnologist 16:56-74.

Flanagan, Owen. 2000. Dreaming Souls: Sleep, Dreams, and the Evolution of the Conscious Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1965. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by J. Strachey. New York: Avon Books.

Gregor, Thomas. 1981. “Far, Far Away My Shadow Wandered….”: The Dream Symbolism and Dream Theories of the Mehinaku Indians of Brazil. American Ethnologist 8 (4):709-729.

Hall, Calvin. 1966. The Meaning of Dreams. New York: McGraw Hill.

Harris, Monford. 1994. Studies in Jewish Dream Interpretation. Northvale: Jason Aronson.

Hobson, J. Allan. 1999. Dreaming as Delirium: How the Brain Goes Out of Its Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hobson, J. Allan, Ed Pace-Schott, and Robert Stickgold. 2000. Dreaming and the Brain: Towards a Cognitive Neuroscience of Conscious States. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23 (6):793-842.

Irwin, Lee. 1994. The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Jung, C.G. 1974. On the Nature of Dreams. In Dreams. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Original edition, 1948.

Kelsey, Morton. 1991. God, Dreams, and Revelation: A Christian Interpretation of Dreams. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing.

Lama, The Dalai. 1997. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Lamoreaux, John C. 2002. The Early Muslim Tradition of Dream Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lohmann, Roger. 2001. The Role of Dreams in Religious Enculturation among the Asabano of Papua New Guinea. In Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming, edited by K. Bulkeley. New York: Palgrave.

Mageo, Jeannette Marie, ed. 2003. Dreaming and the Self: New Perspectives on Subjectivity, Identity, and Emotion. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Miller, Patricia Cox. 1994. Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. 1984. Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pace-Schott, Ed, Mark Solms, Mark Blagrove, and Stevan Harnad, eds. 2003. Sleep and Dreaming: Scientific Advances and Reconsiderations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stephen, Michelle. 1995. A’Aisa’s Gifts: A Study of Magic and the Self. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tedlock, Barbara. 2001. The New Anthropology of Dreaming. In Dreams: A Reader in the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming, edited by K. Bulkeley. New York: Palgrave.

———, ed. 1987. Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Trompf, G.W. 1990. Melanesian Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Von Grunebaum, G.E., and Roger Callois, eds. 1966. The Dream and Human Societies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. 1958. Dreams and Wishes of the Soul: A Type of Psychoanalytic Theory among the Seventeenth Century Iroquois. American Anthropologist 60:234-248.

Young, Serinity. 1999. Dreaming in the Lotus: Buddhist Dream Narrative, Imagery, and Practice. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

1.(Borges 1984).
2. (Borges 1984; Young 1999; Von Grunebaum and Callois 1966; Trompf 1990; Tedlock 1987, 2001; Stephen 1995; O’Flaherty 1984; Miller 1994; Mageo 2003; Lohmann 2001; Lamoreaux 2002; Lama 1997; Kelsey 1991; Irwin 1994; Harris 1994; Gregor 1981; Ewing 1989; Descola 1993; Bulkeley 2001, 1999a, 1995, 1996a)
3. (Borges 1984) Let me take this opportunity to mention a few contemporary artists I know who draw inspiration and guidance from dreaming: poets Betsy Davids, Richard Russo, and Tom Traub; photographer Shelley Lawrence; painters/graphic artists Fariba Bogzaran, Jennie Braman, Emily Anderson, and Tristy Taylor; musician Nancy Grace. For a discussion of the role of dreaming in the filmmaking of David Lynch, see (Bulkeley 2003).
4. (Jung 1974)
5.The likelihood of communicating a powerful dream depends in large part on cultural context. In a Native American community, for example, a big dream would be celebrated as a revelation of the dreamer’s special connection to the spirit world. In the contemporary US, where a significant percentage of people believe dreams are random nonsense, fewer people pay attention to their dreams no matter how powerful the dreams may be.
6. (Blau 1963).
7. (Wallace 1958)
See note 2.
8. (Freud 1965)
9. (Freud 1965)
10. (Hall 1966) This was the comment that spurred my interest in the relationship between dream content and politics 10. 11. (Bulkeley 2002, 2003, 1996b).
12. (Hall 1966; Hobson 1999; Hobson, Pace-Schott, and Stickgold 2000; Flanagan 2000; Pace-Schott et al. 2003; Crick and Mitchison 1983)
13. (Flanagan 2000)
14. (Beradt 1966). For a discussion of Beradt’s work, see (Bulkeley 1999).

A Talk with Kelly Bulkeley: The Boston Globe, Nov. 2, 2008

Boston Globe Article

November 2, 2008

KELLY BULKELEY FIRST became interested in dreams as a teenager, after being haunted by a recurring nightmare of being chased by Darth Vader. He’d wake up in a cold sweat, terrified of that glossy black mask. While the typical adolescent would probably choose to avoid “Star Wars” paraphernalia, Bulkeley ended up pursuing the deeper meaning of the dreams: Why were these imagined experiences so vivid and powerful? Where did they come from? What was their significance?

Bulkeley discovered that the content of dreams – the particular stories we tell ourselves when asleep – had been disregarded as a scientific subject. “Studying dreams still seemed like a very Freudian activity,” he says, “and nobody wanted to do anything that Freud might have done.”

This led Bulkeley to divinity school. For most of recorded history, he explains, dreaming has been intertwined with the divine. A vivid nightmare was a prophecy, a coded message from the gods. What Bulkeley wanted to do was use this rich religious tradition to better understand the process of dreaming. “You see the same type of dream occur over and over again, in all these different religious texts,” he says. “I think this universality can teach us something interesting about how the brain works.”

A visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., Bulkeley recently published “Dreaming in the World’s Religions,” a vast survey of religious dreams and religious attitudes toward dreaming. He analyzes the sexually tempting nightmares of St. Augustine and the mourning dreams of “The Illiad,” the conception dream of Buddha’s mother and the “vision quests” of the Ojibwa people. But Bulkeley isn’t interested in these dreams because of what they teach us about the divine. “I’m not a particularly religious person,” he says. Rather, he hopes that these old narratives will inspire new research. A dream might not be real, but it can still illuminate the reality of the human mind.

IDEAS: Do you think dreaming played a crucial role in the development of religion?

BULKELEY: I think it’s clear that having certain kinds of dreams can’t help but provoke religious or spiritual thoughts. It’s just inevitable. In that sense, spirituality is a natural outgrowth of the way the dreaming brain seems to work. I’ve tried to be very agnostic in this book, but I can also see why theologically minded people find dreams to be such a source of inspiration.

IDEAS: There’s a long tradition of people trying to understand the mind of God by studying their own dreams. But dreams are also inherently ambiguous and open to interpretation. How do religions deal with that issue?

BULKELEY: The problem of how you interpret dreams without being deceived is a real source of tension for a lot of religions. You might think you’ve cracked the code [of the dream] but you haven’t. Or maybe the demon is trying to trick you with dreams.

There’s this assumption, I think, that looking at dreams goes along with a naive state of mind, that you’ve got to suspend reason and critical thinking when thinking about dream content. But, in fact, virtually every culture has struggled with that very question, the question of decoding, how to find the deeper messages and not be misled.

IDEAS: You argue that modern science can learn about dreaming from religion. Do you have a favorite example that you use when talking to scientists?

BULKELEY: Well, consider this particular kind of nightmare dream that recurs again and again in religious texts. In the Christian tradition they talk about the incubus, or the demons of the night. In Newfoundland, it’s the old hag and so on. But what all these various religions agree on is that there’s a type of nightmare that’s very intense and involves the constriction of breathing or paralysis. Now we know, thanks to modern science, that this is a real class of dream called night terrors and they’re very different from ordinary nightmares. So all these texts that talk about night terrors, they’re actually describing a real element of human experience.

IDEAS: Then is it fair to say that these religious prophets or religious texts were there first? That they described a psychological phenomenon that science would only later describe?

BULKELEY: If you bracket out the claims about how the world was created or what God is like, and you just look at the kind of experiences that are described in all these religious texts, and then compare these descriptions to what we know today from science, I think you can see that there are some real correlations. I’m talking about dreams that appear across cultures – they’re universal themes – and that suggests to me that these dreams are rooted in a fundamental feature of human nature.

IDEAS: Was there a particular moment when dreams stopped being seen as largely religious phenomena?

BULKELEY: As far back as Aristotle, people are thinking that dreams are at least in part produced by the physical workings of our bodies and not just messages from above. I think that sort of skepticism has been part of a more widespread tradition that you can see in just about every culture, which is the acknowledgment that even these dreams which seem to have a spiritual dimension can still be false or misleading.

In more modern times, it’s easy to pin the blame on [Rene] Descartes, who largely dismissed dreams as irrelevant. . . .The irony is that we now know from scholarship that Descartes had some powerful dreams himself which inspired him to leave his family business and become a philosopher.

IDEAS: You argue in your book that modern science, like Descartes, has largely discounted dream content as inherently meaningless. Is this a mistake?

BULKELEY: My partisan view is that science should certainly learn to appreciate dream content. I think too often there’s this belief among scientists that dreams are just random utterances of the brain stem and that we shouldn’t waste time trying to figure out what they mean.

In part, I think this is a justifiable reaction to the tendency of Freud and Jung to impose categories onto dreams, and so then you end up finding what you expect to find. It’s absolutely fair to question those loose interpretative systems.

But I also think it’s possible to analyze dream content in a more systematic way, so that you can really pull out these patterns that are universal. And I think you can find some of these universals by looking at various religions.

IDEAS: Do you still dream about Darth Vader?

BULKELEY: No, I haven’t been visited by Darth in a while, which is quite nice.

Jonah Lehrer is an editor at large at Seed magazine and the author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.” His next book, “How We Decide,” will be published in February. He is a regular contributor to Ideas.

Boston.com: A Talk with Kelly Bulkeley

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