Jung’s Theory of Dreams

Jung's Theory of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThe ideas of C.G. Jung (1875-1961) remain a valuable source of guidance into the world of dreaming. Many other theories have been proposed since his time, and some of his thinking now appears outdated in light of later scientific and cultural developments. But his core works on the nature and meanings of dreaming still stand as perhaps the most deeply insightful writings about dreams of any Western psychologist, past or present.

Below is a brief outline of some of the major concepts and themes in Jung’s theory of dreams.

Lots of agreement with Freud, and one big difference

Jung learned several key ideas from his early mentor Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Both Jung and Freud agreed that dreaming is a meaningful product of unconscious forces in the psyche with roots deep in the evolutionary biology of our species. Both of them agreed that dreams are valuable allies in healing people suffering from various kinds of mental illness. They both used the best neuroscience of their day to inform their theories, and they both went beyond the limits of brain science to seek insights about the nature of dreaming in mythology, history, and art. Both of them believed a greater knowledge of dreaming can help us better understand the philosophical mysteries of how the mind and body interact.

The most fundamental difference in Freud’s and Jung’s dream theories was this: Freud’s approach looked backwards, and focused on the causal sources of dreams in early life experiences. Jung’s approach looked forwards, and tried to understand where the dreams might be leading, and what they might reveal about the individual’s future life development.

Compensation

The primary function of dreaming, according to Jung, is psychological compensation. Dreams help maintain a healthy, dynamic balance between consciousness and the unconscious. When the waking ego becomes too one-sided, or if it tries to repress a part of the unconscious, dreams will emerge to highlight the imbalance and guide the individual back on a path towards becoming a more integrated self.

“The fundamental mistake regarding the nature of the unconscious is probably this: it is commonly supposed that its contents have only one meaning and are marked with an unalterable plus or minus sign. In my humble opinion, this view is too naïve. The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does. Every process that goes too far immediately and inevitably calls forth compensations, and without these there would be neither a normal metabolism nor a normal psyche. In this sense we can take the theory of compensation as a basic law of psychic behavior…. When we set out to interpret a dream, it is always helpful to ask: What conscious attitude does it compensate?” (1934, 101)

Reductive compensations

Sometimes the compensation can take a critical form, which Jung called reductive compensations. Dreams sometimes bring a chastening dose of humility when the waking ego becomes too inflated or self-important (the ancient Greeks called it hubris). According to Jung, dreams give us honest portrayals of who we really are. If we think too highly of ourselves, the compensatory nature of the psyche will bring forth dreams that bring us back down into our depths. If we are too impressed with our own goodness and moral righteousness, we will be prone to dreams reminding us of our sins, our failings, our evil impulses, our hypocritical rationalizations and ego-protecting deceptions.

“There are people whose conscious attitude and adaptive performance exceed their capacities as individuals; that is to say, they appear to be better and more valuable than they really are…. They have not grown inwardly to the level of their outward eminence, for which reason the unconscious in all these cases has a negatively compensating, or reductive, function…. Every appearance of false grandeur and importance melts away before the reductive imagery of the dream, which analyses his conscious attitude with pitiless criticism and brings up devastating material containing a complete inventory of all his most painful weaknesses.” (1948a, 43-45)

The prospective function

Dreams can have many different functions, and Jung did not insist that every dream fits into one of his categories. But in addition to compensation, he proposed another major function of dreaming which he called the prospective function. This is not prophecy, although it does overlap with traditional religious views about dreams offering glimpses and visions of possibilities for the future. Jung said the prospective function focuses primarily on the future growth of the individual, along the path towards greater psychological integration and wholeness. If we can learn to understand these prospective dreams, they can offer an important source of unconscious intelligence and insight.

“The prospective function is an anticipation in the unconscious of future conscious achievements, something like a preliminary exercises or sketch, or a plan roughed out in advance…. That the prospective function of dreams is sometimes greatly superior to the combinations we can consciously foresee is not surprising, since a dream results from the fusion of subliminal elements and is thus a combination of all the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings which consciousness has not registered because of their feeble accentuation…. With regard to prognosis, therefore, dreams are often in a much more favorable position than consciousness.” (1948a, 41-42)

Archetypal images and “big dreams”

Jung put great emphasis on dreams with extremely vivid images. He regarded them as expressions of deeper unconscious patterns of instinctual meaning and wisdom he called “archetypes.” These dream images help to connect us with the primal energies of the psyche, whose ultimate developmental goal is our wholeness as humans, what Jung calls “individuation.” Hence Jung’s interest in the distinction between “big” and “little” dreams. Big dreams revolve around powerful archetypal images from the collective unconscious. Such dreams are guideposts along the path of individuation.

“Not all dreams are of equal importance. Even primitives distinguish between ‘little’ and ‘big’ dreams, or, as we might say, ‘insignificant’ and ‘significant’ dreams. Looked at more closely, ‘little dreams are the nightly fragments of fantasy coming from the subjective and personal sphere, and their meaning is limited to the affairs of the everyday. That is why such dreams are easily forgotten, just because their validity is restricted to the day-to-day fluctuations of the psychic balance. Significant dreams, on the other hand, are often remembered for a lifetime, and not infrequently prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychic experience.” (1948b, 76)

Dreaming is like a theater

One of the metaphors Jung used to explain his theory of dreaming is to compare it to an inner theater. It became the basis for his notion of “subjective” dream interpretation, and for his ideas about dreaming and the origins of religion.

“The whole dream-work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theater in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, and the critic. This simple truth forms the basis for a conception of the dream’s meaning which I have called interpretation on the subjective level. Such an interpretation, as the term implies, conceives all the figures in the dream as personified features of the dreamer’s own personality.” (1948a, 52)

In several places he described a four-part model of interpretation that used concepts from the classical world of theater and dramatic performance. According to this model, dreams tend to start with an exposition of the characters and setting. Next comes the development, as the characters interact within these settings and the forms and qualities of a story takes shape. After that comes what Jung called the peripateia or culmination of the story, a moment of tension or conflict. Sometimes the dream ends here, like a cliff-hanger, without any conclusion. But sometimes there is a resolution or lysis that overcomes the conflict by transforming into something new and unexpected.

“Most dreams show this dramatic structure. The dramatic tendency of the unconscious also shows in the primitives: here, possibly everything undergoes a dramatic illustration. Here lies the basis from which the mystery dramas developed. The whole complicated ritual of later religions goes back to these origins.” (2008, 31)

Humility in the process of interpretation

An appealing aspect of Jung’s approach to dreams is his openness to multiple possible interpretations. He had his hunches and his favorite ideas, of course, but he tried to be clear that dreams never have just one meaning, and he was never entirely sure if his own interpretations were reaching the most important levels of significance.

“So difficult is it to understand a dream that for a long time I have made it a rule, when someone tells me a dream and asks for my opinion, to say first of all to myself: ‘I have no idea what this dream means.’ After that I can begin to examine the dream.” (1948b, 69)

The value of exploring dreams in series

This difficulty in making sense of the strange archetypal images from the unconscious is why Jung advised more attention to series of dreams than to individual dreams. By looking at a large collection of dreams gathered over time, the patterns in these images become easier to identify. Dreams experienced on different nights may all revolve around the same archetype, expressing its meanings in a variety of symbolic forms.

“Every interpretation is a hypothesis, an attempt to read an unknown text. An obscure dream, taken in isolation, can hardly ever be interpreted with any certainty. For this reason, I attach little importance to the interpretation of single dreams. A relative degree of certainty is reached only in the interpretation of a series of dreams, where the later dreams correct the mistakes we have made in handling those that went before. Also, the basic ideas and themes can be recognized much better in a dream-series, and I therefore urge my patients to keep a careful record of their dreams and of the interpretations given.” (1934, 98)

Downsides

These are among Jung’s most valuable insights on the nature, functions, and meanings of dreams. As he described in his memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he drew many of his key concepts and ideas from his own personal experiences. Thus it is difficult to separate his theories from his life—and his life had many troubling aspects. He had numerous extramarital affairs, some with patients and former patients, and his attitude towards women was not consistently respectful. He made biased, racially essentialist comments about different ethnic groups. As a prominent psychologist in the German-speaking world in the early 1930’s, he spent time with other psychologists who were National Socialists, and his rejection of Nazism came later than his critics think it should have. These biographical facts do not negate the value of Jung’s psychology, but they do give us a better context for understanding how his powerful and profound ideas emerged from the mortal, flawed reality of his life and personal experiences.

Writings about dreams

Jung talked about dreams in almost everything he wrote. The following texts are those with the most specific focus on his ideas about dreams:

Dreams (1974)

This is an invaluable collection from the Princeton University Press Bollingen Series, which includes the following essays:

“The Practical Use of Dream Analysis” (1934)

“General Aspects of Dream Psychology” (1948a)

“On the Nature of Dreams” (1948b)

“Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy” (1952)

Children’s dreams (2008)

This is a transcript of several classes that Jung taught on the subject of children’s dreams during the years 1936-1940 in Switzerland. The opening chapter is a brilliant introductory lecture on the practice of dream interpretation.

Man and His Symbols (1968)

Written as an introduction to his ideas for general audiences, Jung completed this soon before his death. It includes chapters by other writers, but his 100-page chapter to start the book is one of the best things he ever wrote.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1965)

Not exactly an autobiography, but a memoir of how his life gave him the raw material for his psychological theories.

The Red Book (2009)

This doesn’t really have a lot to say about dreams, but it does offer a fascinating collection of Jung’s paintings and visionary writings.

 

Note: thanks to the students whose questions, comments, and insights helped me gain a better understanding of Jung’s ideas.

 

 

Dreaming of the Future: The Anticipatory Function of Dreams

Dreaming of the Future: The Anticipatory Function of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThroughout history, people have believed prophetic dreams can give us glimpses of future events. Is there any reason to believe such dreams are possible?

It would seem not. Most instances of a dream predicting a significant event in waking life are probably just coincidences. For example, people periodically dream of car crashes, so at some point a person will dream of a car crash the night before actually getting in a car crash. That’s not prophecy, that’s just the law of averages. The claims people make about future-telling dreams are most likely to be fantasies, fabrications, or failures of causal reasoning.

That may be the safest position to take. It’s not the most scientific position, however, because it isn’t based on evidence, just a resolute skepticism. The actual evidence in support of anticipatory dreaming is not so easily dismissed, and merits more serious attention than it typically receives.

As far as evidence from history, the material presented in Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition (2018) offers the best documented case study of dreams that accurately predicted a major event in waking life. In the late 16th century a group of Spanish priests carefully recorded and transcribed the dreams of an illiterate young woman, Lucrecia de Leon. Over a period of nearly a year, several of her dreams predicted the failure of the Spanish Armada in its attack on England, despite all signs of Spain’s superiority in the upcoming battle. When the Armada suffered a shocking and humiliating defeat in 1588, Lucrecia’s dreams were proven right in the most spectacular way possible. Unfortunately, this did not prevent her from being arrested by the Inquisition and charged with treason and heresy.

A case study like this has to do with just one person, so it’s hard to know how far we can legitimately generalize from Lucrecia’s experiences to other people. But we can draw on additional sources of information about contemporary people. In the “2015 Demographic Survey” in the Sleep and Dream Database, one of the questions asked whether the individual had ever had a dream that seemed to anticipate or predict a future event. Out of 2,303 total participants (1,304 female, 999 male, all American adults) responding to an online survey administered by YouGov, 30% of the females and 19% of the males answered yes, they had experienced such a dream at least once in their lives. The results of this survey can be viewed here.

The findings from this survey suggest that most people do not recall having a predictive dream, but a significant number of people (considerably more women than men) do claim to have had such dreams. Prophetic dreaming is not just a historical oddity, or a pre-modern superstition. Future-oriented dreams play an active role in the lived experience of many, many people in contemporary society.

The question is often raised of how to explain such dreams in terms of current scientific knowledge. The best answer, I believe, comes from looking at anticipatory dreaming as a special case of dreaming in general. To summarize a great deal of research, dreams have a broadly adaptive function in the mind and brain: promoting healthy growth, stimulating creative energies, and helping people respond to challenges, threats, and opportunities. The content of dreams typically revolves around the most important emotional concerns in the individual’s waking life, and dreaming becomes especially intense and meaningful at times of crisis and uncertainty.

If we recognize these features of natural, normal dreaming, then it becomes easier to appreciate how and why dreams can anticipate future possibilities. In waking life our minds do this all the time—we plan, predict, rehearse, and prepare for important events coming in the future. Our minds continue to do this when we sleep at night, but with fewer distractions from external stimuli and more cognitive freedom to explore alternative, “what if?” scenarios. There is nothing supernatural or fanciful about this. Indeed, this ability to imagine and think about the future has given our species an enormous advantage through the course of evolutionary history. This is the best explanation for what people have traditionally called prophetic dreaming: the forward-thinking capacity of the human mind operates in both waking and dreaming.

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was an early advocate for this idea. He proposed a “prospective” function for dreams, in which various impressions from daily experience are brought together in the unconscious and used to envision possible aspects of the individual’s future (an idea which can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle). In some cases, the dreaming anticipations are more prescient than what the waking mind can apprehend. Jung said that dreams provide

“an anticipation in the unconscious of future achievements, something like a preliminary exercise or sketch, or a plan roughed out in advance… The occurrence of prospective dreams cannot be denied. It would be wrong to call them prophetic, because at bottom they are no more prophetic than a medical diagnosis or a weather forecast. They are merely an anticipatory combination of probabilities which may coincide with the actual behavior of things but need not necessarily agree in every detail. Only in the latter case can we speak of ‘prophecy.’ That the prospective function of dreams is sometimes greatly superior to the combinations we can consciously foresee is not surprising, since a dream results from a fusion of subliminal elements and is thus a combination of all the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings which consciousness has not registered because of their feeble accentuation… With regard to prognosis, therefore, dreams are often in a much more favorable position than consciousness.” (“General Aspects of Dream Psychology”)

Perhaps there is a transcendent capacity of the human mind at work in these dreams. Perhaps our souls are tuning into other metaphysical realities, or being visited by spiritual beings who share with us their knowledge of the future. Whether or not these beliefs have ultimate merit, Jung’s point is valid in terms of current psychological knowledge of brain-mind functioning across the cycle of waking, sleeping, and dreaming.

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This was first posted in Psychology Today, November 22, 2019.

 

 

Psychoanalysis and Dreams at UCLA

Psychoanalysis and Dreams at UCLA by Kelly BulkeleyDream research in the first half of the 20th century was mostly about proving Freud right. In the second half of the 20th century it was mostly about proving Freud wrong. Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, we may finally be reaching a more balanced understanding of what psychoanalysis can and cannot teach us about dreaming.

This was my strong impression after a recent symposium on “The Science of Dreams” at UCLA, hosted by Vwani Roychowdhury, Maja Gutman, and Douglas Hollan. The symposium opened with a lecture by George Bermudez, a practicing psychoanalyst and member of the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. Bermudez led the audience through a brilliant review of psychoanalytic dream theory from Freud onward, leading to a surprising and innovative final point that I find especially promising for the future of the field.

Bermudez started, as one does, with Freud’s 1900 opus The Interpretation of Dreams and its notions of wish-fulfillment, the four mechanisms of the dream-work, and the “topographical” model of the psyche (conscious, preconscious, unconscious). Bermudez made sure to mention the next big development in Freud’s thinking about dreams, in his 1920 work Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when he introduced a new “structural” model of the mind (ego, superego, id). Freud felt the need to create this new model in part to explain post-traumatic nightmares, which did not seem capable of being interpreted as instinctual wish-fulfillments. In the new model, Freud distinguished between dreams from the id seeking pleasure, and dreams from unconscious portions of the ego seeking mastery and waking-life adaptation. Both types of dreams are still wish-fulfillments, but with the latter type Freud granted the ego more strength and agency than he had suggested in his earlier writings.

This new line of thought about the adaptive abilities of the ego became especially important in the American branch of psychoanalysis. Bermudez highlighted a fascinating but often-neglected 1954 article by Erik Erikson in which he re-interprets the “Dream of Irma’s Injection,” one of Freud’s own dreams that he used as his first example in Chapter 2 of The Interpretation of Dreams. In “The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis,” Erikson expands on Freud’s model by calling attention to the psycho-social dynamics of dreams (in Freud’s case, the anti-Semitism that negatively impacted his early medical career). Rather than dwelling on childhood conflicts from the past, Erikson regarded dreams as more forward-looking, giving the ego an opportunity to defend against anxiety, manage unruly instincts, and adapt to social reality.

Bermudez cast some subtle shade on Melanie Klein, for reasons I could not follow, and he acknowledged that one of the great post-Freudians, Harry Stack Sullivan, had virtually nothing new to say about dreams. But he did discuss Heinz Kohut’s idea of “self-state” dreams, which reflect the current condition of the self, its strengths and vulnerabilities, as it confronts a personal crisis or trauma. And he mentioned the gnomic ideas of Wilfred Bion regarding an “alpha function” of the mind that transforms experiences and sense impressions from the day into psychic material that can be dreamed at night. Both Kohut and Bion have developed elaborately detailed extensions of psychoanalytic theory, making it hard to evaluate their ideas about dreams outside of that context. But to their credit, they are seeking ways of conceptualizing the endlessly surprising multiplicity of meanings that emerge from dreams. Rather than trying to force all new data into the strictures of orthodox psychoanalytic theory (which even Freud himself didn’t do), Kohut and Bion have boldly opened new vistas in the therapeutic use of dream interpretation.

The most dramatic part of the lecture came at the end, when Bermudez described his work using the “social dreaming matrix” model of Gordon Lawrence. Lawrence’s approach is to lift the dream out of a purely individual context and connect it with other people’s dreams; everyone then explores the group dream imagery as a synergistic reflection of the social world in which we all live. The goal is to tease out meanings of collective significance, expanding the adaptive functionality of dreams to include social concerns, conflicts, and crises. This is both a radical departure from a conventional psychoanalytic approach to dreams and a natural extension of the practical knowledge that psychoanalysts have gained while using Freud’s ideas over the past one hundred years.

As Bermudez enthusiastically described his own practical work with social dreaming, it became clear that psychoanalysis is finding a way to stay true to its roots in Freud’s original insights while also recognizing the potential for completely new insights to emerge in response to present-day challenges and needs. We don’t need to prove Freud was right or wrong. We just need to keep listening to the dreams.

 

Note: this post originally appeared in Psychology Today, May 2, 2019.

 

Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal

Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyThe value of keeping a dream journal is inherent in the practice itself. Simply recording your dreams on a regular basis will increase your dream recall, deepen your self-knowledge, and help you maintain emotional balance in waking life. You can enjoy these benefits even if you never look back at your journal after recording each dream.

But if you do have the opportunity to look back and review your journal over a period of time, you can learn some amazing things about yourself and the world in which you live.

I’ve been keeping a dream journal for more than 30 years, and the discoveries never stop coming. I study my journal both for personal insight and for new ideas to explore in my research with other people’s dreams. At the end of each calendar year I go back over the last 12 months of my dreams to explore the recurrent patterns and themes, using the word search tools of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) to make an initial survey. This year’s review provides an incredibly accurate portrait of my concerns and interests in waking life, and gives me lots of inspiration for new research to pursue.

The results of the initial word search analysis are presented in the table in the previous post. I compared the results of my 2018 dreams with my dreams from 2016 and 2017. I also compared them with the male and female “baselines.” The baselines are two large collections of dreams gathered by various researchers to provide a source of “normal” dreaming in the general population. (I describe the baselines in more detail in my Big Dreams book.)

To analyze these dreams I used the SDDb 2.0 template of 40 word categories in 8 classes, listed in the lefthand column. The percentages to the right of each category indicate how often a dream in the given set includes at least one reference to a word in that category.

In 2018 I remembered one dream each night, as I did in 2016 and 2017. The average length of the dreams increased during this time (102 in 2016, 111 in 2017, 116 in 2018). This suggests the word search results will tend to be a little higher in the 2018 set, just because there are more total words to search. This will also be true in comparisons with the baseline dreams, which have an average length of 100 words (females) and 105 words (males).

Keeping that in mind, the 2018 dreams had more references to vision and color than previous years, while other sensory perceptions (hearing, touch, smell & taste) stayed the same. The table doesn’t show it, but the most frequently mentioned colors in my 2018 dreams were white, black, green, gray, and blue.  For both of these categories (vision and color), my dreams have many more references than either the male or female baselines.

The emotion references in the 2018 dreams are pretty similar to 2016 and 2017. I have much more wonder/confusion than the male and female baselines, and somewhat more happiness.

The 2018 dreams have a rise in references to family characters, and to females generally. The frequencies of references to animals, fantastic beings, and males are quite steady from 2016 to 2018. Compared to the baselines, my family references are still rather low, my animal references are high, and my female references are very high.

The three categories of social interaction—friendliness, physical aggression, and sexuality—are all steady from 2016 to 2018. The sexuality frequencies are somewhat higher than the baselines.

The frequencies of my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines are all similar on the categories of walking/running, flying, and falling. My dreams have fewer references to death than the baselines.

The cognitive categories—thinking, speech, reading & writing—are consistent across 2016-2018, with higher frequencies of thinking than the baselines.

The cultural categories are also remarkably consistent from 2016 to 2018, with a slight rise in references to food & drink and art.  Compared to the baselines, my dreams have fewer references to school and more to art.

Of the four elements, the frequencies of fire and air are consistent in my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines. My dreams have more references to water and earth.

This kind of analysis is quite superficial, of course. It ignores personal associations, narrative flow, and all the subtle qualities of dreaming that can’t be captured in numbers.  That’s true, and yet it’s also true that a well-crafted word search analysis can reveal some fascinating themes that are both accurate and thought-provoking.

One of the most striking results of this initial analysis is the remarkable consistency over time of most of the word categories. There are a few significant changes, which I’ll discuss in a moment. But those changes are more dramatic when set in the bigger context of strong consistency across word categories as diverse as air (3% in 2016, 4% in 2017, and 4% in 2018), touch (12, 11, 13), anger (7, 8, 8), fantastic beings (4, 4, 3), physical aggression (16, 17, 17), flying (7, 6, 7), and clothing (18, 19, 21). As wild and unpredictable as individual dreams may be, in the aggregate they seem to follow steady long-term patterns.

Against that background of consistency, the changes that do occur over time are all the more intriguing.

The rise in references to vision and color from 2016 to 2018 seems related to the lengthening of my dream reports over this time. As my reports get longer, I apparently need to use more vision and color words to describe what happens in each dream.

The rise in references to family characters might be a return to a more “normal” ratio of family in my dreams. The family frequencies in 2016 and 2017 are actually the lowest I’ve ever had (extending the comparison back to 2010), so 2018 may be a bounce-back year. This would make sense in relation to my waking life: 2016 was the beginning of the “empty nest,” when the last of our children moved out of the house.

The rise in references to female characters is the most intriguing. The references to male characters stayed mostly the same from 2016 to 2018 (47, 44, 43), so the 2018 increase in female references leads to a big gender gap (59% female vs. 43 male). The baselines actually have slightly higher frequencies of male references vs. female references, so the variation in my 2018 dreams is even more unusual.

What might account for this change? My first thought is political. American society, as I currently perceive it, is dominated by destructive masculine energies, and change is only going to come once we bring more women to positions of power. I’m trying harder than ever in waking life to listen to female voices, and that intention may have influenced the patterns of my dreaming.

Two other features of the analysis pique my curiosity.

One is the rise of references to art over 2016-2018 (7, 14, 15), which I believe correlates with my increased participation as a board member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I wonder if other people who become more involved with an artistic group or practice also experience a rise in their dreams about art. I also wonder if my rise in art references might be connected to my higher frequencies of vision and color.

The other feature I’d like to explore further is the consistently low frequency of references to religion during all three years (3, 4, 3). This might seem odd since I have two graduate degrees in religious studies, and I’ve written several books about religion. But at the same time I never attend church, and I don’t belong to any religious group or denomination. My dreams seem to reflect the latter reality, my personal behavior rather than my scholarly pursuits.

In a recent survey that I’ve been analyzing with the help of Michael Schredl, we asked people to choose one of the following categories to describe their religious identity—Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Agnostic, Atheist, Nothing in Particular, and Something Else. I would definitely categorize myself as “something else”—not one of the religious identities, but not one of the non-religious identities, either. And it turns out (previewing the statistical findings Michael and I will soon publish) that people who identify religiously as “something else” have the highest interest in dreams compared to other groups. This makes me more curious than ever to understand the beliefs of people who religiously identify as “something else,” and how those beliefs relate to their attitudes towards dreaming.

I’m left with a final question, which will guide me in 2019: To what extent do these patterns reflect the past, and to what extent do they map the future?

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This post first appeared in Psychology Today on February 5, 2019.

Your Dream Journal: A Gift to Future Researchers

Your Dream Journal: A Gift to Future Researchers by Kelly BulkeleySimple steps you can take to help the future study of dreams.

Sooner or later, people who keep a dream journal realize they are creating a document of more than just personal interest.  They realize their journal is an amazing window into the lived experiences of a unique individual, offering potential insights for psychology, history, anthropology, and many other fields. And they wonder if it would be helpful, under the right conditions, to offer their journals to researchers for study and exploration.

It’s true, dream journals can be profoundly helpful to researchers who want to better understand the powers of the human mind. Some of the most important questions about the nature and meaning of dreams can only be answered by looking closely at the natural flow of dreaming during the course of a person’s life—that is, by looking at a well-tended dream journal.

This, I believe, is the most exciting horizon in the future study of dreams, and we can make huge progress in this direction by gathering high-quality journals from diverse people and exploring them with a variety of creative methods of analysis.

Not everyone who keeps a journal wants to go down this path, and that’s fine. The primary audience of a dream journal is the dreamer him or herself, and it really doesn’t have to expand any further than that.

But if you do have an interest in contributing your journal to the general study of dreams, there are a few simple steps you can take to prepare your journal, and yourself, for the process.

1. Record your dreams well.

The goal is to record your dreams in a way that works best for you, and that researchers can understand and study. Legible handwriting is a good start; many great projects begin with nothing more than a collection of handwritten journals. Audio recordings are another possibility. A file written in a digital word processing format is ideal, and most researchers will want to study a digital transcription of the dreams, in addition to the original recordings.

Make sure to include the date of the dream with each report. Some people date each dream from the day of the morning they wake up; I date my dreams from the day of the night I go to sleep. Either way is fine, just be clear and consistent.

At this point, English is the most widely used language for scholarly analysis.  That will eventually change, but in the meantime, the ideal formatting of your journal would include the original language(s) of the dreams, along with an English translation if needed.

Each dream report should be just that, a report of a dream. It’s best if you include no associations, memories, or comments in the report. Just the dream, please. All of the further associations, etc., can be included in a separate file (see below).

The most helpful dream reports are written in as much detail as possible, especially about the settings, characters, thoughts, and feelings you experience within the dream. And, although it’s not necessary, I think it’s best to report the dream in the present tense—“I see my friend and we say hello,” rather than “I saw my friend and we said hello.”

2. Include additional material.

If you have the time and willingness to collect additional information about your dreams and their context in your life, that would of course be of great interest to anyone studying your journal. The key here is to be organized, and make it clear how the extra material is connected to the dream reports. Otherwise, a researcher could easily get overwhelmed by all the non-dream information, and lose track of the dreams themselves.

It’s helpful, both for the dreamer and for researchers, to know the following: 1) The location of where you were sleeping when you had the dream (the city is usually enough) and the level of familiarity (e.g. home vs. a hotel); 2) The length and quality of your sleep during the night of the dream; 3) The ages of the characters in the dream and their relations to you in waking life.

Drawings, sketches, and diagrams can be very effective for some people in describing their dreams.

Most researchers will be curious about your personal background, family upbringing, etc., so you might consider writing a brief account of your life, sharing whatever you think is most relevant for understanding your dreams.

3. Think about what you want.

Before contacting a researcher, make sure you’ve given some thought to the arrangements you would like to have in place. You should be aware that, sadly, there are very few institutional resources in the world devoted to the study of dreams. Most libraries, universities, and schools of psychology do not have the facilities or financial resources to accept donations of dream journals. However, there are individual scholars in various fields who have experience in working with participants in projects like this. Ideally they would be able to help you with expenses for formatting, translation, etc.

There is currently no commercial value to dream journal data.  Most people are content with two non-financial benefits from the research process. First, they receive a greatly expanded vision of the meaningful patterns in their dreams. No researcher can ever predict where exactly the process will lead, but most people find intrinsic satisfaction in learning more about the deeper meanings of their dreams.

Second, they enjoy the feeling of tangibly helping the cause of dream research and broadening public awareness of dreaming. Once someone learns from personal experience about the transformative powers of dreaming, they naturally wonder how the world might change if more people became familiar with this potent inner source of creativity….

Very important: Think about how much confidentiality screening you want for your dreams. Some people do not mind allowing others to read their “raw” dream reports, while other people prefer to delete some passages and change the names of people and places, to preserve their privacy and the privacy of others. Once the real names in your dreams have been replaced with pseudonyms, it becomes difficult if not impossible to identify with certainty the real characters in the dreams.

And if there are a few dreams in the journal you simply don’t want anyone else to see, that’s okay, go ahead and remove them from what you share.

4. Make sure the arrangements are fair, ethical, and mutual.

Only get involved with researchers you trust. Make sure they understand that if at any point you want to end the research process, that’s it, you’re done, no questions asked.

Take a look at the ethics statement of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and confirm that anyone you deal with is acting in accordance with these principles.

The researchers should report any significant findings to you, and they should consult with you on possible publications that reference your dreams. If you request, the researchers should treat you as a co-investigator, offering you regular updates and opportunities for your feedback and giving you as much public credit as you want to receive.

Your dreams, and your dream journal, are primarily for you. That’s a foundational principle, never to be forgotten. And, in addition to that, beyond the sphere of your personal life, your dreams have an amazing potential to teach many important lessons to other people, now and far into the future.

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Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on November 2, 2018.