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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Bin Laden’s Dreams, and Ours

The recently released videotape of Osama bin Laden openly discussing the September 11 terrorist attacks does more than offer compelling evidence of his role in organizing the attacks. The video also provides the best insight yet into the religious and psychological world of bin Laden and his followers. A major portion of the video involves bin Laden, an unnamed sheik, and several other men discussing prophetic dreams and visions relating to the September 11 attacks. Many American commentators have expressed amazement at bin Laden’s interest in such tribal superstitions. But in fact this seemingly nonsensical conversation is quite revealing of the deepest motivations guiding the behavior of bin Laden and his followers.

Dreams and visions have played an enormously important role in Islam from its very beginning. The Prophet Muhammed is said to have received the first revelation of the Qur’an in a dream visitation from the angel Gabriel. Throughout his life Muhammed experienced dreams he believed were communications from Allah, and he encouraged his followers to tell him their dreams so he could interpret them. Many of these dreams included images of violence and warfare, and in each case the dream was interpreted as a sign of God’s support and guidance in the battle against the unbelievers.

Viewed in this light, the video portrays a ritual reenactment of the dream interpretation practices of the Prophet Muhammed. Bin Laden, playing the role of the religious/military/political leader, is taking time out from the war against the infidels to speak with his followers about dreams, visions, and other reassuring signs that God is on their side and will guide them to ultimate victory. This is identical with what Muhammed practiced with his followers on a regular basis almost 1400 years earlier.

The video is perhaps the clearest evidence yet found that bin Laden is patterning his life after the Prophet Muhammed, and feels himself blessed with the same degree of divine approval for his violent struggle with the enemies of God. His perverse success in persuading thousands of young Muslim men to fight and die for him is very likely due to their perception of him as a Muhammed figure—an inspiring warrior-prophet who embodies the wrathful power of Allah.

Can anything be learned from the particular dreams discussed in the video? Bin Laden and his followers mention a total of seven dreams and dream-like experiences. The first involves a strange soccer game between American pilots and Muslim pilots, which the Muslim team wins. Three other dreams portray airplanes crashing into tall buildings. A man is reported to have had a vision of carrying a huge plane on his back to the desert, while another man envisioned a group Muslim faithful leaving for jihad in New York and Washington. Bin Laden says a soldier told him he’d dreamed of a tall building in America, and then of learning from a spiritual teacher how to “play karate.”

What’s most striking about these dreams is how similar they are to the dreams reported by Americans about the terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan. Since September 11 I have gathered several hundred dream reports, most of them highly disturbing nightmares, from people all across the U.S. The predominant themes in these fear-ridden dreams are airplane crashes, military conflict, building explosions, terrorist attacks, and threats to children and family members. Many of the American dream images are almost identical to the bin Laden dreams, but the emotions they evoke are radically different: the American dreams are suffused with fear, confusion, and a horrible sense of vulnerability, while the bin Laden dreams are welcomed as good omens. What terrifies the Americans brings joy to the Muslims. Nothing could make clearer the distressingly huge psychological gap separating the two warring sides.

Many of the dreams people have reported to me came before September 11 and appear, like the bin Laden dreams, to have “prophetically” foreseen the attack. There is of course great scientific controversy about whether dreams can actually anticipate future events. But for people who feel they’ve had such dreams, the experience often bring a terrible sense of guilt—“Did I really see this coming? Could I have done anything to stop it?” For those people, the most chilling part of the bin Laden videotape surely comes right after he tells about the young man who dreamed of a tall building in America: “At that point,” bin Laden tells his followers, “I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dreams. So I closed the subject.”

Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., teaches religion and psychology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is editor of Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (Palgrave, 2001)

Review: The Little Vampire

I don’t know anyone who saw this movie. In fact, I don’t know anyone who even heard of this movie before I mentioned it to them. “The Little Vampire” quietly passed in and out of theaters in the fall of 2000, just before the seasonal onslaught of family-friendly films released between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever kind of marketing campaign the movie’s producers tried to mount, they didn’t succeed in spreading the news of their work very far. That’s too bad, because “The Little Vampire” is one of the best children’s movies I’ve seen in a long while. This is a movie that asks its young viewers to believe vampires can be good guys and scary guys at the same time. Children’s movies rarely ask for that kind of cognitive sophistication from their audiences. Most kid movies (and, as father of three, I’ve seen a distressingly large number of them) prefer to keep their moral distinctions clear, unambiguous, and unthreatening. “The Little Vampire” directly challenges simplistic moral categories by portraying vampires as frightening, ghoulish, dangerous, and worthy of respect, sympathy, and friendship.

For many children, vampires stand at the very top of the bad guy hierarchy. Nothing is scarier than sharp-fanged bloodsuckers who live in coffins, come out only at night, and have the ability to turn into bats. To its great credit, “The Little Vampire” does not downplay these horrifying qualities (with the one exception of not showing any actual drinking of blood). The vampires do not become cuddly, Disney-fied dolls; they are truly the undead–fearsome creatures of the dark. The film maintains a strong sense of the weirdness of vampires, the creepy otherness of the world in which they live. And yet, the film goes on to suggest a connection between humans and vampires is still possible. Even though vampires are really, really, really scary, we who live in the light can still find a way to befriend to them.

The improbable agent of this potential for relationship is an eight-year old boy Tony, played by child actor Rollo Weeks with a mannered cuteness that almost, but not quite, ruins the movie. Tony’s unflagging good cheer enables him to take the initiative in making friends with a slightly older vampire boy named Rudolph, whose delicate features and pallid beauty evokes all the eerie romance of the vampire legend. The development of their friendship is the heart of the movie, and I enjoyed the simple words and gestures through which the two boys slowly come to know and like each other.

I naturally found it intriguing that the original impetus for Tony’s good-hearted and fearless determination to help Rudolph is series of strangely intense nightmares. In these dreams Tony learns of the centuries-old curse laid upon Rudolph’s family and their desperate quest to have the curse lifted. Because of these dreams Tony develops an unshakeable certainty that vampires are real—though of course his parents, teachers, and schoolmates laugh at him in scornful disbelief. Tony’s defiant certainty enables him to stay true to his new friend no matter what happens. In this regard “The Little Vampire” is a classic story of a child learning to trust his own budding intuition and have the courage to take the initiative in befriending those “creatures of darkness” the adult world fears and despises.

The ending of the movie is rather sappy, as is true in most children’s films. Tony’s heroic efforts succeed, the curse on Rudolph’s family is lifted, and all is well again. The happy narrative closure does not, however, dispel the truly haunting, reality-stretching possibilities this film suggests to its young viewers’ imaginations.

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

Joe Lieberman's Farewell Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term.

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next.

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]

Sarah Palin Dreams

Sarah Palin Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyWhen Sarah Palin was first named in late August 2008 as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, several people (both supporters and opponents) began reporting dreams of her.  An article posted on Slate by Abby Callard and David Plotz, “Your Dreams (and Nightmares) about Sarah Palin,” appeared on September 12, 2008.  The article includes twenty of what they judged to be the most interesting dreams sent in by their readers, with some comments from me. 

 Since then I have gathered several other dreams involving Sarah Palin.  At some point soon I will set up a website for people who want to share dreams they’ve had of Sarah Palin, comparable to the www.idreamofobama.com site for people to share dreams of President Obama. 

Till then, here’s one that came in response to the 2010 Zogby survey question asking, “What is the most recent dream you can remember?”:

 “You’re not going to believe this, but it was a dream with Sarah Palin. It wasn’t sexual, it was a situation where she was with me at my boyhood home in San Antonio, Texas, whereby I was in the front yard with her standing with me. I was showing her a Christmas ornament I made along with a table and chair I made. Next thing I know we’re in my older brother’s 1965 Chevrolet Impala. I was in the driver’s seat and she was sitting next to me real close like we were an item. I don’t remember any words being spoken, but it was very cool since she is such a beautiful woman. I hated the dream to end, but it did after only a few frames. It’s amazing to me because I remember very few dreams that I have so this one was very cool to have remembered.”

 The dream came to a 50-year old Hispanic man in Texas, a Catholic and conservative Republican who voted for McCain and Palin in the 2008 election. 

 Not knowing anything else about the dreamer personally, it’s impossible to say what the dream means to him.  But it does seem to accurately reflect his positive feelings toward Palin.  Indeed, the dream’s intensity and strong memorability suggest that Palin represents ideals, aspirations, and values that are especially meaningful to this man.

 In light of previous research I’ve done, the dream sounds similar to the dreams of Bill Clinton that liberal Democrats reported in the early 1990’s.  In those dreams, people found themselves in close, casual, rather intimate contact with a political candidate they greatly admired in waking life.  Often there was an aura of romantic ambiguity, as if the dreamer was struggling to understand powerful feelings of attraction that were more than friendly but not exactly sexual. 

 Then, as now, it seems that dreams offer a kind of “charisma index” that shows the deep psychological impact a politician can have on his or her supporters.