The Best Technology for Studying Dreams

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

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

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

Effectiveness

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

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

Accessibility

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

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

Privacy

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

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

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

 

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

What Are the Ethics of Dreaming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Four Factors that Shape Our Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Christmas Dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

Jung, Flying Saucers, and the Anxieties of Our Time

Jung, Flying Saucers, and the Anxieties of Our Time by Kelly BulkeleyHow archetypal dreams, visions, and art respond to a collective crisis.

One of the last books he ever wrote, C.G. Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1957) shows how psychology can shed new light on social anxieties and cultural conflicts. This slender text offers Jung’s perspective on the controversial phenomenon of “unidentified flying objects” (UFOs). Writing at a time when UFO sightings were a public craze, Jung saw an opportunity for psychology to make a valuable contribution to collective understanding and self-reflection.  The resulting book remains an excellent model for the psychological interpretation of culture, with potentially helpful implications for our troubled times today.

Jung examined several kinds of texts with the UFO theme: dreams, art from both old and new sources, waking visions, and science fiction, along with media stories and governmental reports. This itself is interesting, as it shows how Jung treated all these different kinds of texts as arenas in which symbols from the collective unconscious (“archetypes”) can emerge. When treating an individual patient, Jung looked for the emergence of special symbols or archetypes that respond directly to the patient’s waking life problems. With the UFO phenomenon, he expanded this approach to the whole of Western society. Why are so many people dreaming, thinking, and envisioning UFOs at this particular moment? What is happening in society right now that elicits this kind of collective visionary experience?

Here as in many of his later writings, Jung highlighted the psychological strains of living during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The division of the world into two hostile, nuclear-armed camps, separated by an “Iron Curtain,” suggested that global humanity was in a gravely unhealthy condition. Jung also emphasized here as elsewhere how the modern world can threaten individuality with mass movements, both politically (communism) and economically (consumer capitalism). People everywhere were in danger of being subsumed into mindless, undifferentiated groups where true psychological development was impossible.

The sudden surge of UFO sightings at this specific moment in history made sense, Jung said, as a response to these acute social anxieties. With the conscious mind in such an embattled condition, the collective unconscious provided what Jung called a compensatory or balancing archetypal symbol: the mandala, an image of wholeness and integration. Mandala symbols are best known from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Asian religions, but in their archetypal essence they appear in all cultures, usually as round figures with a variety of geometric, chromatic, and symbolic complexities. Jung said that UFOs, whatever their reality as visitors from alien planets, have the psychological meaning of mandalas, projected into the sky above us, giving us a vision of transcendent union and wholeness. The integration we have failed to achieve in this world is reflected back to us as a living potential arriving from the greater realm of the cosmos (itself a symbol of the collective unconscious). Because people of our time are struggling in this essential psychological task of becoming an integrated, fully actualized individual (the process of “individuation”), the archetype of wholeness cannot be directly recognized in its traditional forms. Thus, it

“is forced to manifest itself indirectly in the form of spontaneous projections. The projected image then appears as an ostensibly physical fact independent of the individual psyche and its nature. In other words, the rounded wholeness of the mandala becomes a space ship controlled by an intelligent being.”

Thinking of Jung’s book and its methods as applied to our world today, we can ask the following questions: What is the great anxiety of our age? What is the greatest threat to collective health and well-being? What are the compensating dreams and visions pointing us beyond our current problems?

Since Jung’s time, the Cold War has ended, and Westerners have little to fear from global communism. The threat of civilization-ending nuclear war remains, but it no longer worries people the way it did some decades ago. Instead, a multitude of other apocalyptic scenarios haunt people’s waking hours. These include environmental catastrophe, civil war, economic collapse, pharmacological mind-control, robotic takeover, and political tyranny under an evil dictatorship (e.g. by fascists, socialists, racists, theocrats, and/or neoliberals), not to mention a global pandemic. We have reached Boschian extremes in our capacity to conjure vividly variegated scenarios of doom and ruin.

Following the logic of Jung’s method, and given our present context, perhaps we should be on the lookout for dreams, visions, and works of art that provide a creative response from the unconscious depths to these overwhelming apocalyptic horrors

For instance, we might expect the compensatory emergence of archetypal symbols of renewal and rebirth, of growth and revitalization, of a future collective renaissance.

We might expect to see more dreams of empathetic reconnection with others, stimulating greater awareness of multiple perspectives on the world, breaking free from the solipsism of the digitized self to reconnect with other people, with nature, and with one’s own body.

We might expect to see more expressions of the archetype of the trickster, the playful agent of chaos and disorder who disrupts established traditions and yet also inspires new creativity and cultural dynamism.

We might see more forceful and perhaps even threatening appearances of the anima archetype, challenging narrowly androcentric thinking and stubbornly enduring patriarchal biases in all aspects of personal and collective life.

It seems a near-certainty that the apocalyptic anxieties of the present age are already calling forth unconscious responses of archetypal energy and symbolism in all of our lives. The big question is whether our conscious minds can recognize these archetypal expressions when they do occur, and integrate them into a broader, more balanced sense of self—a stronger self that can act more effectively in the world, fueled by the energy of psychological wholeness.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today, 12/7/20.

A Database for Dreamers

A Database for Dreamers by Kelly BulkeleyThe Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) is a digital archive designed to promote an empirical, hands-on approach to dream research.  The SDDb enables users to apply basic tools of data analysis to identify meaningful dimensions of dreaming experience.  The goal of the SDDb is not to replace other modes of dream interpretation, but rather to complement and enrich them with new insights into the recurrent patterns of dream content.  Anyone who studies dreams, from whatever perspective and for whatever purpose, can benefit from knowing more about these basic patterns.

The SDDb is not the only online resource for this kind of approach to the study of dreams.  The Dreambank.net website run by G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider also has a large online collection of dream reports gathered by various researchers that can be searched and analyzed in many ways.  The future will likely witness the development of many other online databases with valuable collections of dream material.  The focus here is on the SDDb, but the following discussion highlights important methodological principles that apply to all forms of digitally enhanced dream research.

The SDDb currently contains more than 30,000 dream reports of various types from a wide range of people.  Some of the reports come from individuals who have kept a dream journal for many years.  Some of the reports come from participants in surveys and questionnaires.  Some come from the studies of other researchers who have generously shared their data with me.  The SDDb also includes dream reports from anthropological studies, historical texts, literary sources, and media interviews.  (The database does not, however, contain dream reports that users have entered directly through an online portal. That feature awaits future development.)

The SDDb also includes, in addition to dream reports, the answers given by survey participants to a variety of questions about their sleep and dreaming, for example how often they remember their dreams, how often they experience insomnia, have they ever had a dream of flying or lucid dreaming, etc.  The data also include people’s responses to various demographic questions about their gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, religious practices, political beliefs, etc.

This combination of a large number of narrative dream reports plus a large amount of quantitative survey data makes the SDDb an especially deep and varied resource for the study of dreaming.

The SDDb offers two basic functions for exploring this material.  One, “Survey Analysis,” enables you to compare answers to questions posed on a survey or questionnaire.  For example, you can create a statistical table to compare the dream recall frequencies of people from different age groups, or the insomnia frequencies of people with different political views, or the occurrence of lucid dreams among men and women.

The other function, “Word Searching,” enables you to sift through large numbers of dreams for particular words and phrases.  You can search the dreams by choosing your own word strings, or you can also use the built-in word search templates to search for typical categories of dream content.  This function allows you, for example, to search a set of dreams for all the references to water, or colors, or fear, or the names of famous people or places.

Background and Methodology

The development of the SDDb began in the early 2000’s in consultation with G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, who helped me understand how to use their Dreambank.net website.  With their encouragement I started designing a new, complementary database that would 1) include both dream reports and survey data, 2) allow for the use of built-in word search templates, and 3) have the flexibility to enable a wide range of searches and analyses.  In 2009 I worked with Kurt Bollacker, a software designer and engineer from San Francisco with expertise in digital archiving practices, to build the first version of the database.  In 2014 I began working with Graybox, a web technology company in Portland, to expand the scope of the SDDb and improve its user interface.  A major upgrade of the database was completed by Graybox in the spring of 2020.

The word search approach has many advantages as a mode of dream research include its speed, transparency, replicability, flexibility, and power to analyze very large quantities of material.  The process is fairly easy to learn, and sites like the SDDb and Dreambank.net provide free and open access for users to engage in their own study projects aided by these new digital tools.

This approach has several disadvantages, too.  They include deemphasizing the qualitative aspects of dreaming, overemphasizing the measurability of dream content, and leaving open the key question of how to connect the numerical frequencies of word usage with the waking life concerns of the dreamer.

These disadvantages can be diminished by using quantitative analysis as one method among others in a multidisciplinary approach to dreams.  There is no reason in principle why word search methods cannot work in coordination with other methods using qualitative insights and evaluations.  Indeed, I would argue the future prosperity of dream research depends on developing better interdisciplinary models for integrating the results of multiple methods of study.  The users of the SDDb can help to make progress in creating those models.

To address the challenge of how to connect the word usage frequencies with relevant aspects of the dreamer’s life, two principles should be kept in mind.  These principles suggest paths for exploring the potentially meaningful connections between the dream and the individual’s waking situation.

One principle is the continuity hypothesis: the relative frequency with which something appears in a person’s dream can be a reflection of its importance as a meaningful concern in the person’s waking life.  In other words, the more often something (a character, setting, activity) shows up in dreams, the more emotionally important it’s likely to be in waking life. To be clear, the continuity does not need to be literal or physical; it’s more what people care and think about in their waking lives.

As an example, one of the dream series in the SDDb comes from “Bea,” a young woman whose anxious, sad dreams were continuous not with her actual life, which was quite safe at the time, but with her worries about possible bad things that might happen to her family or to the students in her care as dormitory resident assistant.

The other principle is the discontinuity hypothesis: infrequent and anomalous elements of dream content can be spontaneous expressions of playful imagination, occurring at any point in life but especially in times of crisis, change, or transition.  Something that appears very rarely and is dramatically discontinuous with typical patterns of dream content can reflect the mind’s concerted effort to go beyond what is to imagine what might be.

As an example, the “Nan” series in the SDDb comes from a woman who had suffered a horrible car crash, followed by several months in the hospital. Most of the dreams in her series have negative, nightmarish quality (as would be expected from the continuity hypothesis), but one dream is unusual in having multiple colors, a good fortune, and a reference to beauty. Nan singled this dream out as having an especially important impact on her during her recovery from the accident, giving her a sense of hope that one day she would regain her health and creative spirits (which she eventually did).

A New Feature: The SDDb Baselines

The recent upgrade of the SDDb included the addition of a new feature that allows users to compare the results of word searches with a large set of more-or-less “average” dreams. This feature helps to determine the significance of the word search results. For example, I said above that most of Nan’s dreams have a “negative, nightmarish” quality. How can I support that claim? By using the baselines feature.

The baselines are two curated sets of “most recent dreams” from 2,094 males and 3,227 females, gathered by several researchers from a variety of populations between the 1950’s and the present (including the Hall and Van de Castle “norm” dreams). They are aggregated here to represent typical densities of the appearance of key words or phrases in ordinary dreaming.

In Nan’s case, her dreams indicate she definitely did feel strong concerns at this time, in a mostly negative direction.  Of her 26 dreams, 8 of them (31%) have at least one reference to fear.  The corresponding figure for the female baselines is 25%. She has references to death in 19% of her dreams, versus 9% for the female baselines; references to physical aggression in 23%, versus 15% for the female baselines; and zero references to happiness, versus 8% in the baselines.

These frequencies accurately reflect the frightened and vulnerable quality of Nan’s feelings in waking life. Even if we knew nothing about Nan’s personal life, we could use these variations of her dreams from the baselines to make the prediction that she is suffering through a difficult and frightening situation.

This is the foundation for the “blind analysis” method I have been using in several papers and IASD conference presentations (see below). Now the tools I use to make those analyses are available to everyone.

 

Further reading:

  1. The Meaningful Continuities Between Dreaming and Waking: Results of a Blind Analysis of a Woman’s Thirty-Year Dream Journal. Dreaming 28: 337-350.
  2. Using the LIWC Program to Study Dreams. Dreaming 28: 43-58. (Co-authored with Mark Graves)
  3. The Digital Revolution in Dream Research. In Dream Research: Contributions to Clinical Practice (edited by Milton Kramer and Myron Glucksman) (Routledge).
  4. Dreaming in Adolescence: A “Blind” Word Search of a Teenage Girl’s Dream Series. Dreaming 22: 240-252.