Friendly Dreams

Friendly Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyDreams with explicitly sexual and/or violent interactions tend to get the most attention, but dreams actually tend to have surprisingly high proportions of friendly content, too. According to an analysis of the nearly 35,000 dream reports collected in the Sleep and Dream Database, 47% of the women’s dreams have at least one reference to a friendly social interaction (the most used words: friend, friends, boyfriend, help, party, love), as do 36% of men’s dreams (most used words:  friend, friends, girlfriend, help, love, party. For both genders, those figures are greater than the combined percentages for sexual interactions (4% for women, 6% for men) and physically aggressive interactions (15% for women, 22% for men).  If we add in non-physical aggressions (for example, saying or thinking mean things about a person), the relative proportions change, but the key fact remains: Friendly social interactions are a prominent feature of the content of most people’s dreams. If dreams offer a “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious mind,” as Sigmund Freud famously claimed in The Interpretation of Dreams (2nd ed.), giving evidence of our deepest sexual and aggressive instincts, then dreams also provide evidence of our friendly, prosocial instincts.

Although much less studied than sex and aggression, researchers have identified several patterns in dreams with friendly social interactions. As illustrated above, women tend to have more friendliness in their dreams than do men. Whether this is nature (women are innately more friendly than men) or nurture (women are socialized to be more friendly than men)  is unclear; perhaps aspects of both factors are involved. According to G. William Domhoff in Finding Meaning in Dreams (1996), almost all friendliness in dreams involves the dreamer; there is very little “witnessed” friendliness. Men have more aggression in relation to male characters in their dreams, and more friendliness towards female characters. Women tend to have more friendly interactions in their dreams with men they know, and more aggressive interactions with men they do not know. All of these findings are tendencies, of course, which may or may not apply to specific individuals. But these patterns of friendly content in dreaming do seem consistent with common aspects of people’s social interactions in waking life.

Similar aspects of friendly dreaming occur with several individuals whose long-term dream journals are collected in the SDDb. For example, Jordan, an artist in her forties, has friendly interactions in 43% of her dreams; for Jasmine, a musician in her twenties, it’s 42%; for Mike, a veteran who served in Vietnam as a medic, it’s 40%. My own collection of dreams from 2012 has a friendly interactions figure of 42%; in my dreams from 2020, it’s 44%.

Not everyone has this much friendliness in their dreams. The “Natural Scientist,” whose 1939 journal of 234 dreams was analyzed by J. Allan Hobson in The Dreaming Brain (1987), has friendly interactions in 24% of his dreams. This may reflect the limited social contacts in his waking life (he was a bachelor and a laboratory scientist who studied insects). This seems to reflect the continuity principle of dreaming: the frequency of an element in dreaming reflects the emotional importance of that element in the individual’s waking life. The Natural Scientist may not have dreamed a lot about friendly social interactions, but he did dream about insects more often than anyone else in the SDDb, which was certainly continuous with his waking life.

Some variations in the friendliness of dreaming can be observed over time. During the phase in her twenties when “Beverly” belonged to a secretive religious cult, she had friendliness in 30% of her dreams. After leaving the cult and regaining control of her life, the friendliness in her dreams grew to 34% in her thirties, 36% in her forties, and 40% in her fifties. As she has described in her own writings on the experience, it took a long time for Beverly to liberate herself from the mental shackles of the cult. Her dreams seem to reflect that slow and arduous but ultimately positive journey.

Not surprisingly, nightmares tend to have low frequencies of friendliness. In a survey asking several thousand people to describe their “worst nightmare,” only 8% of the reports of 15 or more words had a reference to friendliness. Similarly, in surveys asking people about their dreams of work, just 8% have a reference to friendliness. By contrast, surveys asking about visitation dreams (in which someone who is dead appears as if alive) have friendliness in 23% of the reports, and surveys asking about “the most memorable dream you’ve ever had in your life” yield references to friendliness in 29% of the reports. It seems the more spiritually-charged a dream becomes, the more likely it will have a friendly social interaction.

Although much more will emerge from future studies, the research so far on friendliness in dreaming has several practical implications.

First, you can learn about the depth and quality of your relationships with your friends by considering who does and doesn’t appear in your dreams, and how you interact with them when they do appear.

Second, you can observe the patterns of who in your dreams initiates a friendly act, versus who receives the friendly act. Are you always on the giving end, or the receiving end? Do some of your friends only appear in one or the other role?

Third, you can see in dreams when feelings of friendliness become mixed with feelings of romantic and sexual desire. In some dreams it’s hard to tell if an interaction is friendly or romantic—which may be exactly the point, in terms of bringing to conscious awareness your ambiguous feelings towards someone else.

Fourth, if you notice that the frequency of friendliness in your dreams diminishes drastically, that might be a sign of difficulties with your social life. Everyone has their own baseline of “normal” friendliness in their dreams, so it’s worth paying enough attention to your dreams over time and becoming familiar with your own regular patterns, to enable you to recognize worrisome changes when they occur.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, 9/11/21.

The Ethical Challenges of Dream Video Technologies

The Ethical Challenges of Dream Video Technologies by Kelly BulkeleyNew technologies are making it possible to use brain data to create video reconstructions of people’s dreams while they sleep. Is this thrilling, terrifying, or both?

Here’s how it works. Researchers are learning how to observe an individual’s brain while viewing a specific image (let’s say a cat) and how to identify neural patterns correlated with that image. Then the researchers observe the individual’s brain while sleeping, and watch for a recurrence of the “cat” neural pattern. If it appears, a signal can be sent to a video monitor to show an image of a cat—presumably what the sleeping person is dreaming about at that very moment.

Does this mean we will soon be able to sit in front of a “dream-viewer” (an iDreamer?) to watch videos of our own dreams, along with the dreams of other people?

Soon, probably no. But someday, possibly yes. Many technical challenges have to be overcome first. Lots of time and effort are required to train the computer algorithms to recognize the patterns of an individual’s brain. The patterns for “cat” from one person’s brain do not necessarily match the “cat” patterns from another person’s brain, so the system has to be trained and calibrated anew for each individual.  The nearly infinite variety of dream content magnifies the learning challenge for this kind of technology (how many images of different kinds/colors/sizes of cats need to be incorporated into the system?). Efforts to model the contents and experiential qualities of dreams have to find some way to reckon with a boundless, unpredictably varied set of data.

Advocates will emphasize the potential benefits if these methodological challenges can be overcome. Researchers would, for the first time, have “objective” dream data, unfiltered by the subjective biases and limited memories of the dreamer. For anyone who looks to dreams for personal insight and guidance, this technology offers a quantum leap in the depth and range of access to one’s dreaming experience. For example, psychotherapists would have a powerful new resource for understanding the unconscious conflicts, fears, and concerns of their clients.

All of these potentially positive applications sound appealing, of course. But no less time should be given to considering the potentially negative applications, too. Between now and the invention of a true “dream-viewer,” we should consider several ethical questions raised by this technology.

Does the process of training and calibrating the system disrupt the natural rhythms of people’s sleep and dreams? If yes, what are the long-term health risks and psychological dangers of that disruption? This basic question is too rarely asked in discussions of new dream technologies, perhaps because of an unspoken assumption that dreams themselves aren’t really “real,” so nothing that harms dreaming does any real harm to a person.

What is the source of the images used to reconstruct people’s dreams? Who chooses those images? Is there transparency in the algorithms that correlate specific images to specific neural patterns? Are measures taken to prevent biases from excluding the appearance of certain kinds of images and favoring others?

Does the technology distort and flatten the contents of people’s dreams? It seems likely a dream-viewer will be incapable of representing bizarre or anomalous experiences for which there are no images. It will struggle to represent essential elements of dreaming like feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It won’t be able to convey non-imagistic qualities of intensity, atmosphere, or awareness. Jorge Luis Borges noted these qualities when he described a nightmare of an ancient King standing by his bed: “Retold, my dream is nothing; dreamt, it was terrible.” (Seven Nights, 1980) Will a dream-viewer ever be able to convey the ineffable terror in a nightmare like the one Borges experienced? It seems unlikely. Videos will show what videos show, not what dreams are in any full or objective sense.

Who gets access to the dream-viewers? What is done with this incredibly personal source of information? It takes little imagination to envision potential abuses of this technology for commercial, political, governmental, and/or criminal purposes. The prospect of bad actors gaining access to private details so secret even the individual does not consciously know them should be a red-flag concern for any technology that is openly offering an unfiltered view into people’s dreams.

Can this technology be re-engineered to manipulate the process and contents of dreaming itself? What if a tool designed to identify neural patterns associated with dreaming could be re-purposed to selectively target specific patterns either for suppression or stimulation? This seems to lead into Inception territory, making people vulnerable to an unprecedented depth of external control and manipulation.

How much dream awareness can people handle? An earlier and even more direct film reference to this kind of technology appears in Wim Wenders’ futuristic film Until the End of the World (1991), in which the equivalent of a dream-viewer has been invented. The CIA is determined to steal the device, which of course is not a fantastical idea at all. If and when a dream-viewer is created, CIA interrogators would surely be at the front of the line to get one. More unexpectedly, the characters in the movie who use the device become lost in the narcissistic labyrinths of their own fantasies. They detach from the rest of the world, retreating into a video womb of reconstructed dreaming. Here, the technology’s danger is not from abuse by others, but from our own abuse of it. We assume that more insight into our dreams is a good thing, but is that true for everyone? Do each of us have a healthy limit of dream awareness, beyond which we become lost in ourselves?

Final Thought

Dreaming is an innate function of the brain-mind during sleep. It is also an experience that humans from around the world and all through history have considered vitally important, meaningful, and useful in their waking lives. Any new technology that has the potential, whether intended or not, to disrupt the natural rhythms of people’s sleep and dreaming needs to be publicly evaluated in terms of its long-term risks and benefits.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, 6/8/21.

Aggression in Dreams

Aggression in Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyHitting, fighting, chasing, shooting, killing—these are not only common themes in the news each day, they are also recurrent features of our dreams at night. Few studies have focused specifically on aggression in dreaming, even though Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, claimed that “the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man” (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930). A combination of old and new methods of research can shed light on how this primal instinct plays out in our dreams.

Who Has Aggressive Dreams?

The Hall and Van de Castle system (1966) of dream content analysis has codes for three kinds of social interactions: friendly, sexual, and aggressive. Research using the HVDC system has suggested a few basic patterns in the frequency of aggression in dreams:

  • Men have more aggression, especially physical aggression, in their dreams than do women.
  • Women are more likely to be victims than initiators of aggression in dreams.
  • Children have more aggression in dreams than do adults, especially involving attacks by animals.
  • Older people have less aggression in dreams than do younger people.

Hundreds of studies have used the HVDC method over the past several decades, and their findings support the basic idea that aggression is an innate feature of human dreaming.

Why Do We Have Aggressive Dreams?

An additional perspective comes from using word search technologies to identify significant patterns of meaning in dream content. The Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has a template with a category for physical aggression, and a large collection of dreams to study for a specific theme like this.

The SDDb Baseline dreams are a good place to start—a set of 5,321 dreams (3,227 females, 2,094 males) that represent a composite portrait of dreaming in general (the reports were given in response to a question about “your most recent dream”). Although limited in many ways, the Baseline dreams offer an empirical basis for making comparisons across different sets of dreams. This can help in identifying trends and patterns that would be difficult to see otherwise.

Applying the word search category for physical aggression to the female Baselines, we find that 15.1% of the dreams include at least one word relating to physical aggression. Applying the same word search category to the male Baselines yields a result of 21.5% of the dreams with at least one reference to physical aggression. (The combined Baselines figure is 17.6%.) So this analysis confirms the finding of the HVDC system that men’s dreams, on average, seem to involve more physical aggression than do women’s dreams. The top ten words used in these dreams were the following: Hit, kill, fight, chasing, killed, shot, fighting, chased, war, shooting.

Turning to the dreams of individuals who have kept track of their dreams for a lengthy period of time, a great deal of variation appears in the frequency of physical aggression. For example, “Tanya,” a young woman, has a relatively high proportion of physical aggression in her dreams (25.4%, in 563 reports), about the same as “Lawrence,” an older man (25.7%, in 206 reports. Another young woman, “Jasmine,” has low physical aggression in her dreams (10.5%, in 800 reports), just like “RB,” an older man (11.8%, in 51 reports).

There is clear evidence that experiences with physical aggression in waking life can increase the frequency of its appearance in dreaming. The best examples are “Mike,” who served as a medic during the Vietnam War and whose collection of dreams includes a very high proportion of physical aggression (76.3%, in 97 reports). In the four sets of dreams from “Beverley” from 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016, the first set has much more physical aggression (11.9%, in 253 reports) than in the other three (5.7%, in 687 reports), which accurately reflected her involvement in that earlier time period with a violent religious cult.

To help shed light on the role of culture in dreams of physical aggression, the SDDb also includes sets of dreams from non-Western people, which can be analyzed in the same way. For the Mehinaku people of the Amazonian rain forest, a collection of 383 dreams had 22.5% with at least one reference to physical aggression. For a group of Nepalese college students, their dreams (535) had 18.1% with a reference to physical aggression. Three groups of African church members reported dreams (142) with a 19% frequency of physical aggressions. These findings are close enough to the SDDb baselines overall figure of 17.6% to suggest that culture is not a decisive factor in this aspect of dream content.

Concluding Insights

Aggression appears to be a normal feature of human dream content, across different cultures.

Men seem to have more physical aggression in their dreams, although some women have high levels, too.

Dreams of physical aggression can accurately reflect actual aggressions in waking life, so an unusually high level of dream aggression, or a sudden change in dreams to a higher level of aggression, might be a therapeutically valuable sign.

Many dreams of physical aggression do not, however, reflect actual experiences of aggression. These dreams may use violence as a metaphor (e.g., a dream of physical attack as a metaphor of feeling emotionally vulnerable). They may reflect instances of fictional aggression (e.g., seen in a movie). They may be anticipations of violence that may happen at some point in the future (e.g. a threat simulation).

Aggression in dreaming can be viewed as an internal form of play-fighting—the most common form of play in the animal kingdom, and very frequent among humans, too. Play-fighting functions as a way of preparing for future challenges, and also for diminishing and defusing emotional tensions that can lead to actual violence. The same psychological dynamics of play-fighting seem to be operative in dreaming, too.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 31, 2021.

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.

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.

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.