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.

 

The New Dream Studies and the Wall Street Journal

The New Dream Studies and the Wall Street Journal by Kelly BulkeleyDream researchers are creatively deploying a variety of big data technologies to open a new era of oneiric discovery.

An article appeared earlier today by Robert Lee Hotz, science reporter for the Wall Street Journal, titled “New Insights into Dreams and What They Say About Us.” It’s a great article, well-written and thoroughly researched, and quite fair-minded towards the scientific study of dreams. (The article can be found here, if you have WSJ access.)

Here is my favorite line:

“While still highly experimental, the new dream studies underscore the power of data mining to assemble unexpected insights by sifting through large data sets of seemingly unrelated information.”

That is very well put. Exciting possibilities beckon on the horizon, and yet much more work needs to be done in mapping the multidisciplinary terrain between here and there. Hopefully others who read the article will recognize these potentials and contribute their insights to this dynamic, though still “highly experimental” realm of inquiry.

I always want to get people more enthused about the study of dreams—but not too enthused. To my great relief, Hotz concludes the WSJ article with some cautionary words (my own included) about the need for greater ethical evaluation and awareness of the possibly harmful abuses of these technologies.

Two follow-up notes from the article.

First, the survey of dreams in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and recent protests against racial injustice involved 4,947 American adults, completing an online questionnaire designed by me and administered by YouGov on June 15-19, 2020. I am currently working with Michael Schredl on an article analyzing the responses to this survey. An early preview of the results appeared in a post I wrote for Psychology Today on June 25, 2020. The data from this survey are not yet available in the Sleep and Dream Database, but they will be soon.

Second, to the question of “How many dream reports from how many people are in the SDDb?” I gave the estimate of more than 26,000 dreams from more than 11,000 people. I obtained those figures by using the SDDb’s advanced word search tool and defining the data set as all reports with a minimum word count of 5, which yields a result of 26,498 dreams from 11,346 participants. There are surely many additional dreams in the database of less than five words, but many of those reports include “non-dream” answers (such as “no,” “don’t remember any”), which are important to preserve but shouldn’t be counted in overall tallies of the actual dreams. There are also some non-dreams of more than 5 words, but not enough to alter the basic estimate of 26,000 dream reports currently in the database.

Basic Patterns in Dreaming

Basic Patterns in Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe basic patterns of dream content are coming into sharper focus, thanks to new technologies of digital analysis. By using these tools to study large and diverse collections of high-quality dream data, and then making those tools and data publicly available, we can illuminate recurrent frequencies of dream content that others can easily review, replicate, and verify for themselves. The more we know about these basic patterns, the more we can gain helpful insights from people’s dreams regarding their mental and physical health, social relations, cultural interests, and even spiritual beliefs.

When I began this line of research in the mid-2000’s, I used the resources of the Dreambank.net, a site managed by G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider. In a paper from 2009, “Seeking patterns in dream content: A systematic approach to word searches,” drawing on the resources of the Dreambank, I included this passage in the conclusion:

“Until researchers have gathered many more high-quality reports from a wide variety of people (ideally accompanied by multiple sources of biographical data), we cannot make any definitive declarations about the universal features of human dreaming. But the results of this study suggest several testable hypotheses:

  1. Dreaming perception is primarily visual, with less hearing and touch and almost no smell or taste.

  2. All emotions are represented in dreams, with fear the most frequent.

  3. Many types of cognitive activity occur in dreaming, especially those associated with awareness and social intelligence.

  4. Aggression is more frequent than sexuality, and both are more frequent for men than for women.”

Today, these same hypotheses can easily be tested with the resources of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb). The simplest method is to use the SDDb’s built-in word search template of keywords. The word search function has a template of forty categories of dream content, including categories for specific types of perception, emotion, cognitive activity, and social interaction. Starting on the “Advanced Search” page, I would define the data set for this purpose by setting a word limit of 25 words, and then select a category from the keywords menu. Looking at perceptions first, the following results can be generated in a few moments:

Out of a total of 20,510 dream reports of at least 25 words in length, reported by a total of 7,335 people, a word relating to visual perception appeared at least once in 34.6% of the reports. For hearing, the figure was 10.7%, for touch, 13%, and smell and taste combined only 2.7%. Eleven years later, I would still stand by that first hypothesis.

Turning to emotions, the results of the same simple search process (define the data set as having a minimum of 25 words, and selecting a category from the keywords menu) are just as predicted. A word relating to fear appears at least once in 18.2% of the dreams. Anger appears in 7.1%, sadness in 3.7%, happiness 6.5%, and wonder/confusion 14.4%. This hypothesis seems pretty solid, too.

Cognition in dreaming is harder to study for various reasons, but the word search method can still offer some interesting results. A word relating to thinking appears at least once in 41.9% of the dreams. Some kind of speech or verbal communication appears in 37.6%, and a reference to reading or writing in 7.6%. These findings support the basic idea that dreaming has a fair amount of cognitive activity, with plenty of social communication, though more detailed studies are needed to tease out the variations between dreaming and waking cognition. The third hypothesis is worth keeping.

Social interactions in dreaming are also difficult to study, so the results here should be regarded with extra caution. Indeed, the hypothesis from 2009 may not bear contemporary scrutiny, particularly around gender differences. (When defining the data set, gender can be selected as a search variable from the constraints menu.) The SDDb word search approach yields a finding of at least one reference to physical aggression in 20.8% of the male dreams and 17.2% of the female dreams. That’s a difference, but not a huge one. With the category of sexuality, the male dreams had at least one reference in 5.8% of the reports, versus 6.6% for the female dreams. This is the reverse of the predicted difference. The results of this quick analysis confirm that overall references to physical aggression occur much more frequently than references to sexuality, but the results do not support the 2009 hypothesis about higher frequencies of both kinds of content in men’s dreams.

There are other ways to study these questions with the tools of the SDDb. For example, the “baselines” function provides the frequencies on all 40 categories for a specially curated subset of 2,094 male dreams and 3,227 female dreams. These baseline frequencies provide a kind of measuring stick for dream researchers—a more precise way of determining the average frequencies of particular types of dream content and comparing them to other sets of dreams, which might have content features that vary from the baseline patterns in interesting ways. That shall be a topic for another post.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today on September 4, 2020.

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.