Dreaming of Nature and the Nature of Dreams

Dreaming of Nature and the Nature of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThe First Australian Regional Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams starts on April 19, and I have prepared a video talk for the conference titled “Dreaming of Nature and the Nature of Dreams.”  The talk can be found on Youtube, and the statistical data I reference can be found in Google docs.  More info about the IASD and the Australia conference is here.

I start the talk by briefly mentioning some of my early writings about the interplay of dreaming and nature: a 1991 article “Quest for Transformational Experience: Dreams and Environmental Ethics,” my doctoral dissertation/1994 book The Wilderness of Dreams and its notion of “root metaphors,” Herbert Schroeder’s chapter on dreams and natural resource management in my edited 1996 book Among All These Dreamers, the study of politically conservative and liberal people’s dreams and views of the environment in 2008’s American Dreamers, and Dreaming in the World’s Religions, also in 2008, with several stories of the inspirational roles that dreaming play in the nature awareness of indigenous cultures in the Americas, Africa, and Oceania.

The main focus of the talk is the findings I’ve made about the statistical frequency of nature references in dream content, using the word search methods of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb).  For this presentation I created a baseline sample of 2087 dream reports of more than 50 words but less than 300 words in length, from a total of 1232 females and 855 males.  The sample includes children, college students, and adults.  All are American and all are educated and/or computer literate.

Using tools on the SDDb that anyone can access, I studied these 2087 dream reports for references to the following categories of nature content: Weather, fire, air, water, earth, flying, falling, and animals.  (Can you guess which of the four classic elements (fire, air, water, earth) appears most often in dreams?  Can you guess which animals appear most frequently?) After laying out my findings I discuss the technological and political issues involved in bringing the insights of dreaming to bear on waking world environmental problems.

About halfway through the talk, our cat Strauss makes an appearance over my right shoulder.  It was a sunny day by Portland, Oregon standards, and the local birds were very active outside my window.  It was hard not to look at what he was looking at!


Snakes, Dreams, and Jung’s Red Book

Snakes, Dreams, and Jung's Red Book by Kelly BulkeleyPeople have reported dreams of serpents and snakes throughout history in cultures all over the world.  In terms of Jungian psychology, snake dreams have a powerful archetypal quality.  They give people an extremely memorable and uncanny experience of the “otherness” of the collective unconscious. Jung has a few things to say about the symbolism of serpents and snakes at various points in The Red Book:

“The serpent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity, but also a wise bridge that connects right and left through longing, much needed by our life.” (247)

“Why did I behave as if that serpent were my soul?  Only, it seems, because my soul was a serpent….Serpents are wise, and I wanted my serpent soul to communicate her wisdom to me.” (318)  (This comment comes after a long dialogue in active imagination with a great iridescent snake coiled atop a red rock.)

“I have united with the serpent of the beyond.  I have accepted everything beyond into myself.” (322)

“If I had not become like the serpent, the devil, the quintessence of everything serpentlike, would have held this bit of power over me.  This would have given the devil a grip and he would have forced me to make a pact with him just as he also cunningly deceived Faust.  But I forestalled him by uniting myself with the serpent, just as a man unites with a woman.” (322)

“The daimon of sexuality approaches our soul as a serpent.” (353)

These passages make it clear that Jung regarded snakes both negatively and positively, both as “chthonic devils” (318) and as indispensable guides for the soul.

From a Jungian perspective, snake dreams offer people the dangerous possibility of connecting with the wisdom of the collective unconscious and drawing strength from its archetypal energies.

Snakes, Dreams, and Jung's Red Book by Kelly Bulkeley

If you’re interested in learning more about snake dreams in history, scroll down the list to see this post. (titled “What Do Dreams of Snakes Mean?”)

If you’d like ideas about how to interpret snake dreams, see this post.

For more information about actual snakes, take a look at the website of the East Bay Vivarium.

Jung’s Seminar on Children’s Dreams

Jung's Seminar on Children's Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyChildren’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940 by C.G. Jung, edited by Lorenz Jung and Maria Meyer-Grass, translated by Ernst Falzeder with the collaboration of Tony Woolfson (Princeton University Press, 2008).

This new English translation of C.G. Jung’s seminar on the earliest remembered dreams of childhood marks a dramatic advance in the study of Jungian dream theory.  The book makes available to English readers a fascinating, informative, and thought-provoking source of insight into Jung’s practical approach to dream interpretation.  It will appeal to anyone who wants to learn more about how Jung actually worked with dreams.  The book will also serve as an important resource for teachers and researchers in their use and/or criticism of Jung’s psychology of dreams.  Although the title suggests a narrower focus, Children’s Dreams in fact provides the best single source for understanding the broader dimensions of Jungian dream theory.

From 1936 to 1940 Jung taught the seminar at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.  The participants included some of his brightest followers, including Marie-Louis Von Franz, Aniela Jaffe, and Jolande Jacobi.  Each meeting of the seminar involved one of the participants presenting and analyzing an early childhood dream report (or brief dream series), after which Jung would comment and other participants would ask questions and respond to Jung’s ideas.  We cannot know how faithfully the transcript represents what actually happened in the seminar, but the written text does give the strong sense of a lively, intelligent, free-flowing conversation among people who knew Jung’s theories very well and wanted his guidance in applying them.

Virtually no mention is made of the ominous political situation in Europe at this time, i.e., the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany and the outbreak of World War II.  A Jung critic might take this as a retreat from the real problems of the world into the self-reinforcing fantasy world of dream symbolism.  A more sympathetic reader might wonder if the seminar participants found this work so compelling precisely because they knew that dark forces were afoot and they wanted to gain better practical insight into the deep psychological roots of the darkness threatening their civilization.

The first chapter, Jung’s introductory lecture to the class, is itself worth the price of the book.  In clear, straightforward language Jung lays out the basic principles and themes of his approach to dream interpretation.  He puts special emphasis on the earliest remembered dreams of childhood because these types of dreams often relate to primordial themes in the collective unconscious and thus offer an especially good view of archetypal dynamics.  In this Jung highlights a key notion in his overall psychological system: “[T]he unconscious is older than consciousness….The unconscious is what is originally given, from which consciousness rises anew again and again.” (7)   Children have less conscious superstructure than adults and thus more direct exposure to oneiric blasts from the collective unconscious. This is not always a good thing.  On the contrary, one of the remarkable features of the dreams presented in the book is their relentlessly negative, violent, frightening character.  Most of the dreams are nightmares, many of them recurrent.  This may reflect the fact that the seminar participants drew most of the dream reports from their clinical practices with people suffering psychophysiological problems.  It may also reflect what Jung considered the numinous power of the archetypes, their overwhelming energy and consciousness-stretching impact on people, particularly early in their lives.

In the introduction Jung lays out his method of analyzing dreams in terms of a four-part dramatic structure:

1. Locale: Place, time, ‘dramatis personae.’

2. Exposition: Illustration of the problem.

3. Peripateia: Illustration of the transformation—which can also leave room for a catastrophe.

4. Lysis: Result of the dream. Meaningful closure. Compensating illustration of the action of the dream. (30)

Each dream in the book is analyzed according to this structure.  This creates a helpful unity across the length of the book, which at 468 pages requires an extensive commitment of time and energy to read all the way to the end.  For teaching and reference purposes the book can be read piecemeal, in selections of one or two dream discussions (each one goes for 10-15 pages).  But we found real value in reading the book start to finish because many of the most interesting exchanges between Jung and the participants pop up unexpectedly in reference to different dreams.  As the seminars proceed Jung refers back to previous dreams and their analyses, so there is definitely a cumulative quality to the text.

Jung’s Children’s Dreams will not, in all likelihood, satisfy contemporary researchers who ask about the reliability of memory processes in dream recall, particularly dreams that people are remembering from many years in the past.  Nor will those who question Jung’s assumption about the universality of the archetypes find any reason to give up their skepticism.  But for those who already appreciate and value Jungian dream theory, Children’s Dreams will be a cause for joy.  The book is comparable to Freud’s epic Interpretation of Dreams (1900) in providing a rich, complex, highly detailed exposition of Jung’s psychology of dreams and dream interpretation.

(Originally published in DreamTime 2009, co-authored with KB’s mother, Patricia Bulkley)

Freud and Neuroscience: A Return to Origins

Freud and Neuroscience: A Return to Origins by Kelly BulkeleyA chapter I wrote with that title appears in the recently published book Disciplining Freud on Religion: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences, edited by Gregory Kaplan and William B. Parsons (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).  Here is the abstract: “Freud developed psychoanalysis on the basis of a neurological model of human mental functioning. Scholars and clinicians who value Freud’s theories but disagree with his materialist reductionism have generally tried to downplay the neurological roots of psychoanalysis by suggesting that his scientific rhetoric merely reflects a nineteenth-century worldview that Freud’s own ideas were destined to transform. Meanwhile, critics of psychoanalysis have insisted on the inseparability of Freud’s later theories from their earlier medical context, the better to reject psychoanalysis as outmoded pseudoscience. In neither case are Freud’s original interests in the neural underpinnings of psychological life examined with a fair and respectful eye. This chapter aims to recover and update the neurological foundations of psychoanalysis, with a special focus on the implications for Freudian theories and methods in the study of religion.”

Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach

Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach by Kelly BulkeleyA new article I co-authored with Bill Domhoff is appearing in the latest issue of the APA journal Dreaming (vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 77-95).  The abstract is below.

What amazed me about this project was how easy it was to make accurate inferences about the waking life of our participant, “Van,” without ever reading his dream narratives–just by looking at the statistical frequencies with which he used certain words in reporting his dreams.

Our findings are additional evidence in favor of the idea that dreaming has meaningful psychological structure, and against the idea that dreaming is merely random nonsense from the brain during sleep.


Building on previous investigations of waking-dreaming continuities using word search technology (Domhoff and Schneider 2008, Bulkeley 2009a, 2009b), this article demonstrates that a blind analysis of a dream series using only word search methods can accurately predict many important aspects of the individual’s waking life, including personality attributes, relationships, activities, and cultural preferences.  Results from a study of the “Van” dream series (N=192) show that blind inferences drawn from a word frequency analysis were almost entirely accurate according to the dreamer.  After presenting these findings we discuss several remaining shortcomings and suggest ways of improving the method for use by other researchers involved in the search for a more systematic understanding of meaning in dreams.

Bulkeley, Kelly. 2009a. The Religious Content of Dreams: New Scientific Foundations. Pastoral Psychology 58 (2):93-101.

———. 2009b. Seeking Patterns in Dream Content: A Systematic Approach to Word Searches. Consciousness and Cognition 18:905-916.

Domhoff, G. William, and Adam Schneider. 2008. Studying dream content using the archive and search engine on DreamBank.net. Consciousness and Cognition 17:1238-1247.