The Huffington Post recently published an interview I did with Arianna Huffington about dream incubation. She has a long-standing interest in sleep and dreams, along with spiritual curiosity and an appreciation for scientific research–a perfect audience for what I’ve been working on over the past couple of years. What I told her about dream incubation comes from chapter 15 of the book Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (Oxford U. Press), due out in early 2016. That’s the next-to-last chapter of the book, which starts with a section on the evolution of sleep, laying a scientific foundation for understanding how dreams have emerged in the human species. The second section looks at empirical patterns in ordinary dream recall and content, drawing on research from the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb). The third section focuses on “big dreams,” i.e. rare but extremely vivid and memorable dreams that make a long-lasting impression on waking awareness. I discuss scientific research on four prototypes of big dreaming that recur especially frequently, throughout history and in cultures all around the world: aggressive, sexual, gravitational, and mystical. Finally, in the fourth section, I use this information about big dreams to shed new light on several kinds of religious experience found in many different traditions: demonic seduction, prophetic vision, ritual healing, and contemplative practice. Dream incubation appears in the chapter on ritual healing, with lots of discussion of the Roman orator Aelius Aristides in the 2nd century CE, who wrote about his dream incubation experiences at a temple of the ancient Greek healing god Asclepius.
This is the text of a paper I presented at “The Psychology of Religion/Religion of Psychology” conference held at the University of Chicago Divinity School on March 6, 2015. My paper was the first in a panel devoted to “Disjunctions Between Contemporary Psychology and Religion.”
On July 17, 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced in Proclamation 6158 that the 1990’s were to be officially designated as the “Decade of the Brain.” The Proclamation began with these lines:
“The human brain, a 3-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells that controls our activity, is one of the most magnificent—and mysterious—wonders of creation. The seat of human intelligence, interpreter of senses, and controller of movement, this incredible organ continues to intrigue scientist and layman alike.”
President Bush’s Proclamation accelerated scientific efforts to learn more about how the brain works, with a special focus on finding new treatments for devastating neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. To achieve that goal, powerful technologies were developed to analyze, measure, and influence the brain. These tools are primarily aimed at addressing the growing medical needs of an aging population, but they have been applied in other areas of research as well, including the psychological dimensions of religion.
Other speakers may talk in more detail about the positive aspects of this turn towards the brain, and so will I. But first, we should consider the casualties and costs of this historical shift, which has in many ways been disastrous for the psychology of religion. Three particular losses—of historical awareness, therapeutic engagement, and interest in mysticism—will be the focus of my presentation, which Peter Homans, who taught here at the Divinity School for many years, might have considered a work of mourning, in the sense of responding to loss by the creation of new meanings. If we can gain more clarity about what has been lost in this field since the “Decade of the Brain,” we can more fairly assess the potential benefits of neuroscientific research for religious studies. We can also, at that point, consider the potential benefits of religious studies for brain research.
Let me briefly define some terms.
The psychology of religion, as we have already heard, comprises a multifaceted research tradition going back more than 100 years to the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud, William James, Carl Jung, and others.
Cognitive science is an alliance of six disciplines—neuroscience, psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and anthropology—that together, beginning in the 1970’s and accelerating in the 1990’s, have tried to improve on psychoanalytic and behaviorist models of the mind.
The cognitive science of religion, or CSR, is a 21st century development in the psychology of religion, drawing on contemporary scientific studies of brain-mind functioning.
CSR appeals to many researchers because it emphasizes experimental evidence and testable hypotheses, helping researchers escape the hazy hermeneutics and overly thick descriptions too often found in the contemporary study of religion. CSR offers a bracing, forward-looking response to the tired and fruitless meanderings of post-modern scholarship.
Unfortunately, the cost of this approach has been a loss of interest in, or even awareness of, the findings of earlier researchers who carefully investigated many of the same topics as those found in CSR. Anything that happened before the “Decade of the Brain” no longer seems relevant now that we have such powerful neuroimaging tools at our disposal. This leads to CSR researchers claiming new explanations of phenomena that actually have a long history in the psychology of religion. This is what Jeremy Carrette has called “disciplinary amnesia,” and our field has a bad case of it.
As a brief example, consider Pascal Boyer’s 2002 book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. This is an admirable work in many ways, and highly influential in CSR, but it takes strangely little account of earlier research in the psychology of religion. In a passage late in the book Boyer comments on the similarities between religious rituals and obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD). He describes several neuroscientific studies, all conducted in the 1990’s, on dysfunctions in the brain associated with OCD. Although he does not insist that all religious rituals are pathological, Boyer uses this neurological evidence to support his book’s overall argument that religious beliefs and behaviors are “parasitic” on normal processes of the mind.
I don’t want to engage right now with Boyer’s “mental parasite” theory of religion. Rather, I want to point out that in two detailed pages of text comparing religious rituals and OCD, Boyer never once mentions Freud, whose 1907 article “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices” addressed exactly the same topic. Indeed, Freud’s prescient article was crucial in defining the clinical syndrome of OCD itself, which Boyer now “explains” in CSR terms.
Why does this loss of history matter? Maybe it doesn’t. There is an argument to be made that a scientific field should not be overly concerned with or reverential towards its past. After all, we don’t make people study alchemy before they can start learning chemistry.
But it’s not that simple in the psychology of religion. Not only does the loss of historical self-awareness lead to unwarranted claims of novel discoveries, it also makes it harder to avoid going down paths that earlier researchers have found to be dead-ends. Here again, the case of Freud is helpful. Too few people know or appreciate the fact that Freud was originally trained as a neuroscientist, receiving his education from some of the best medical research institutions in the world at that time. Freud knew as much about the brain as anyone, and in 1895 he began drafting “A Project for a Scientific Psychology,” in which he planned to use neuroscientific evidence to explain mental life in purely physical terms. But then, a couple years later, he gave up on this plan, and turned to the study of dreams. Why did Freud abandon his neuroscientific vision? Not because he lacked hi-tech brain scanners. Freud gave up on the 1895 Project because he realized that experimental neuroscience was not enough, and would never be enough, to understand the human mind. Focusing on the material workings of the brain can only take us so far, before we have to include the analysis of emotion, desire, consciousness, family, culture, and many other dimensions of psychological experience that are difficult to measure or experimentally manipulate.
Paul Ricoeur, in his 1970 book Freud and Philosophy, gave Freud credit for developing a “mixed discourse” between force and desire, energetics and hermeneutics, the workings of the brain and the meanings of the mind. Freud may have been limited in his view of those forces and desires, but he had the right idea: we need hybrid theories and concepts that can clarify, rather than obscure, the subtle, multidimensional complexities of the human psyche.
This kind of approach has been eclipsed in recent years by the emphasis on brain science as the ultimate source of explanatory truth. We seem to be going back to a place that Freud abandoned at the end of the 19th century. It’s worse than just reinventing the wheel, it’s forgetting why we ever needed a wheel in the first place.
The second loss, of therapeutic engagement, reflects another adverse consequence of the “Decade of the Brain.” Throughout the 20th century the psychology of religion was stimulated by the clinical work of Freud, Jung, and many, many other skilled therapists who delved deeply into the mental worlds of their clients, and in the process gained remarkable insights into the religious and psychological dynamics of their lived experiences. Both medical psychiatrists and pastoral counselors found useful information here, and their shared interest inspired many fruitful conversations about the role of religion in healthy human development.
In recent years, however, these interpersonal, humanistic practices of therapy have been swept aside and replaced by the increasingly widespread use of psychoactive drugs. The mental health system, in the U.S. at least, has turned into an impersonal delivery service for prescription medications and short-term cognitive behavioral therapy. This bears little resemblance to the rich, intimately detailed clinical practices that for so many years were integral to the psychology of religion.
To be clear, many psychoactive drugs save lives and help people stabilize enough to benefit from other treatments. But the skyrocketing use of these medications has severely undermined the efforts of psychotherapists and pastoral counselors to practice their healing crafts. Unfortunately I see few people in CSR who regard this as a problem for the field.
The third loss I want to mention regards an appreciation for the multiplicity of religious experiences, from mystical visions and dreams to possession, trance, and ecstasy. These phenomena are difficult to measure using brain scanning technology, and in any case such “altered states of consciousness” obviously deviate from the mind’s functioning in a normal waking condition—the state to which most psychoactive drugs and cognitive therapies are trying to return a person. Hence, CSR researchers have tended either to ignore mystical experiences or treat them as pathological failures of normal brain functioning, like bad pieces of neural code. The result is a shallow, homogenized view of human religiosity that excludes precisely those unusual, intensified experiences that William James said more than 100 years ago were key to a psychological understanding of religious life.
On this count we should be no less skeptical toward supposedly “pro-religion” researchers like Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, whose brain imaging studies of people in meditation allegedly reveal a common neurological core of all mystical experiences (what they refer to as “absolute unitary being”). Their claim does not stand up to either empirical or conceptual scrutiny, and yet many people have accepted it because it seems to give a neuroscientific “seal of approval” to the study of mysticism. This to me is the worst of all worlds: taking poor practices from neuroscience and using them to dumb down the psychology of religion.
So, these three losses, of history, therapy, and mysticism—that’s the bad news of recent years. But there is good news, too. For instance, a new branch of research, known as social neuroscience, is taking more seriously the idea that we cannot just study brains, we have to study brains in bodies that live within families, who live within broader social and cultural contexts. It turns out that normal, healthy brain development depends fundamentally on a supportive social environment, on a lively stream of interpersonal relationships. I know that in the last years of his life Don Browning, who taught religion and psychological studies here at the Divinity School, was having conversations with social neuroscientists in the University, and he engaged with them as Paul Ricoeur might have done, seeking new prospects for a mixed discourse. Following Browning’s example, I encourage the psychology of religion and CSR to pursue more engagement with this area of brain research.
Still, even the good news has an asterisk attached. I’ve begun wondering if the appearance of social neuroscience is actually a sign that the brain boom has peaked. There seems to be a kind of self-deconstructing process at work here. If we cannot understand the brain without looking beyond the brain, then neuroscience loses its status as an ultimate source of explanatory authority.
The future of the psychology of religion will not, I venture to say, center on brain research, or for that matter on genetics, or evolutionary biology, or the latest findings from any other scientific discipline. Rather, the future will depend—and I’m sorry, this isn’t going to sound very exciting, but I think it’s true—on data management, meaning our ability to gather, sort, analyze, and creatively integrate information from many different sources. The Decade of the Brain is over, but the Century of Big Data is just beginning.
I don’t know about each of your different areas of specialization, but in mine the “Moneyball” changes are happening very fast, with torrential volumes of new information and the emergence of amazingly powerful tools of analysis. In 2009, motivated in large part by a fear of being left behind, I began developing the Sleep and Dream Database, an online digital archive and search engine for empirical dream research. (With the help, I should say, of software engineer Kurt Bollacker, U.C. Santa Cruz psychologist Bill Domhoff, and his coding colleague Adam Schneider.) At this point the database includes more than 15,000 dream reports from a variety of sources, including demographic surveys, personal journals, psychology experiments, and historical records.
There are many different analytic paths a psychologist of religion could follow using these materials. [All of the following examples have links to sample data in the SDDb.]
For example, one could sort through all the dream reports in the SDDb with words relating to religion.
Or, one could look at just the dream reports of people who identify themselves as Born-Again Christians.
I mention the SDDb because it is a small but practical example of how to make adaptive use of big data technologies rather than becoming overwhelmed by them. Of course, there are many limits to this kind of quantitative analysis of what Freud would call “manifest” dream content, along with many questions about personal privacy, interpretive authority, and data security. But I would like to close my presentation by at least gesturing beyond the critique of neuro-nonsense, and offering the hint of a more constructive response to the question that has drawn all of us here, namely how to promote a more prosperous future in the psychological study of religion.
This is an article from the journal Pastoral Psychology 58 (2009), 93-106. It was the first time I tried applying word search methods in the analysis of a specific aspect of dream content in a series of dreams from a particular individual. Although I don’t foreground the idea, it’s an early attempt at “blind analysis” in terms of an approach to identifying continuities between dream content and the individual’s concerns and activities in waking life.
1. “I heard the church organ playing as at a funeral. When I looked to see what was going on, a grave opened suddenly, and my father arose out of it in a shroud. He hurries into the church and soon comes back with a small child in his arms. The mound on the grave reopens, he climbs back in, and the gravestone sinks back over the opening. The swelling noise of the organ stops at once, and I wake up.”
Quoted in Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (Penguin, 1980), p. 18. Nietzsche had the dream at the age of 5, at the end of January in 1850, six months after his father, a Lutheran pastor, died from a long and painful “softening of the brain.” Nietzsche’s description continues: “In the morning I tell the dream to my dear mother. Soon after that little Joseph [Nietzsche’s infant brother] is suddenly taken ill. He goes into convulsions and dies within a few hours.”
2. “He saw the parsonage lying in ruins and his grandmother sitting alone among the debris. Waking up in tears, he was unable to sleep any more.”
From Hayman, p. 32. Nietzsche had this dream the night of August 2, 1859, when he was 14 years old, after a big family party celebrating the 70th birthday of his grandfather, a Lutheran pastor like his father. Hayman’s account continues: “In the morning he told Elisabeth [his sister] and his mother, who said neither of them must talk about the dream. Always robust, their grandfather was still in good health. But before the summer was over he caught a bad chill, which developed into influenza. By the end of the year he was dead.”
These two dreams prefigure Nietzsche’s later philosophy in several ways. They express a profound appreciation for the terrifying power of the unconscious, a tragic sense of fate and mortality, an openness to insights from “irrational” sources of knowledge, and a spiritual struggle with the death of God, the church, and His representatives on earth.
Hayman’s biography helps us see how Nietzsche’s early dream experiences gave fuel to the coming explosion of philosophical creativity. In 1870, as a 25-year old professor at Basel University, he wrote in his notebook, “In one half of existence we are artists—as dreamers. This entirely active world is necessary to us.” (p. 135)
These notes served as the basis for The Birth of Tragedy (1871), Nietzsche’s first published book. The opening section of this work lays out an understanding of art, philosophy, and history that centers on the creative power of dreams.
“The beautiful illusion of the dream worlds, in the creation of which every man is truly an artist, is the prerequisite of all plastic art, and, as we shall see, of an important part of poetry also. In our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous. But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance; at least this is my experience, and for its frequency—indeed, normality—I could adduce many proofs, including the sayings of the poets….And perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ I have likewise heard of people who were able to continue one and the same dream for three and even more successive nights—facts which indicate clearly how our innermost being, our common ground, experiences dreams with profound delight and a joyful necessity.” (Translated by Walter Kaufmann, 1967, pp. 34-35)
This is not the place to explore the influence of dreams on The Birth of Tragedy or other writings in Nietzsche’s later career. But it’s worth pointing out that both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung knew of Nietzsche’s philosophy and wove his ideas directly into their new psychological theories. If you want to understand Freud and Jung better, go back to Nietzsche and his childhood dreams.
(Note: the picture shows Nietzsche in 1861, at the age of 16 or 17.)
Dreams and dream interpretation play a variety of roles in the Bible. They reveal God’s presence and plan for the future (e.g., Jacob’s dream at Bethel, Gen 28:10-22), warn of impending dangers (e.g., Pharaoh’s nightmares in Gen 41), guide and reassure the faithful (e.g., Paul’s visions of the night in Acts 16:9 and 18:9), and bestow blessings (e.g., Joseph’s dream of the angel in Matt 1:20). In some passages dreaming is presented as a form of divine inspiration, for example Joel 2:28: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”
However, some Biblical texts question the meaningfulness of dreams and the veracity of those that seem to reveal messages from God. In Zech10:2 it says, “the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation,” while Jer 29:8 warns, “do not listen to the dreams which they dream.” The skeptical attitude expressed in these passages does not contradict the more favorable treatment of dreams found in the other texts, but rather provides a balancing perspective that heightens awareness of the challenges of discerning God’s truth.
The imperative question then becomes, how does one distinguish a true from a false dream? If God does indeed speak in dreams, then a faithful person should be attentive to that possibility in his or her own dreaming experience. But if dreams can also be false or misleading, what guidance does a person have in distinguishing the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff?
The Bible itself suggests at least three possible answers. 1) Direct messages. Sometimes a dream’s meaning is so clear and distinct that no interpretation is necessary, as in Joseph’s dream of the angel in Matthew 1 and Paul’s night visions, both of which involve direct, unambiguous auditory communications. 2) Metaphorical analysis. In some cases a method of metaphoric/symbolic translation is required to understand a dream’s meaning and import, most famously with Joseph and his interpretation of Pharaoh’s two disturbing dreams of self-devouring cows and ears of grain. Joseph emphasizes the significance of the two dreams together: “the doubling of Pharaoh’s dreams means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (Gen 41:32). Unfortunately the text does not say how exactly Joseph knew, for example, that the number of cows and ears of grain would equal the number of years of coming plenty and famine. 3) Faith and mystical intuition. Both Joseph and Daniel say that their ability to interpret dreams ultimately rests on their faith in God’s guidance. This faith enables Joseph to accurately identify the symbolic meaning of Pharaoh’s nightmares, succeeding where all the royal diviners and wise men had failed. Daniel’s faith-fueled interpretive ability is so great that he can tell Nebuchadnezzar what his dream means without even hearing the dream in the first place (Dan 2).
All Biblical references to dreams and dream interpretation are intertwined in complex ways with other cultural traditions and dream teachings, making it difficult to speak of a uniquely Christian method of interpreting dreams. It is better instead to consider some of the ways Christians have practiced, or argued against, the interpretation of dreams.
Several early Christian theologians (e.g., Tertullian, Origen, Synesius) spoke highly of dreams as an authentic source of divine inspiration. These church fathers saw dreams, properly interpreted, as a powerful means of strengthening people’s faith and converting new people to the Christian community. Augustine, following his own conversion and vow of chastity, treated dreams skeptically as a source of sexual temptation, but he acknowledged that his deeply faithful mother Monica had an innate ability to distinguish personal dreams from truly divine dreams. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, evaluates divination by dreams in terms of its theological legitimacy and concludes that it may, in the right circumstances, be practiced by good Christians: “There is no unlawful divination in making use of dreams for the foreknowledge of the future, so long as those dreams are due to divine revelation, or to some natural cause inward or outward, and so far as the efficacy of that cause extends.” A strong statement against dreams comes from Protestant reformer Martin Luther, in his commentary on the story of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis 40: “I care nothing about visions and dreams. Although they seem to have a meaning, yet I despise them and am content with the sure meaning and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture.” Luther does not deny that some dreams may have divine messages, but he insists that any dream must be tested for its fidelity to scripture. This reduces dream interpretation to a process of confirming what is already known in scripture, effectively rendering dreams spiritually superfluous.
Since the Enlightenment, dream interpretation has generally been relegated to the realm of superstition and fortune-telling (or used by inquisitors to ferret out heretics). Modern Christian theologians have for the most part conceded to the rationalist viewpoint and ignored dreams as a topic of serious, sustained reflection. In the twentieth century the twin forces of Freudian psychoanalysis and sleep laboratory research, though disagreeing on many points, combined to dismiss religious ideas about dreams in favor of reductive psychological explanations. Present-day Christians are thus left with an ambiguous heritage. A phenomenon with an honored place in scripture and early history has fallen into disrepute, despite the experiential fact that people today continue to have dreams with religious significance and spiritually meaningful content.
Bulkeley, K., K. Adams, and P.M. Davis, eds. 2009. Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Covitz, Joel. 1990. Visions of the Night: A Study of Jewish Dream Interpretation. Boston: Shambhala.
Freud, S. 1965. The interpretation of dreams. Translated by J. Strachey. New York: Avon Books.
Ginzburg, Carlo. 1992. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by J. Tedeschi and A. Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Harris, M. 1994. Studies in Jewish dream interpretation. Northvale: Jason Aronson.
Kagan, Richard L. 1990. Lucrecia’s Dreams: Politics and Prophecy in Sixteenth-Century Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kelsey, M. 1991. God, dreams, and revelation: A Christian interpretation of dreams. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing.
Miller, P.C. 1994. Dreams in late antiquity: Studies in the imagination of a culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Osborne, Roger. 2001. The Dreamer of the Calle de San Salvador. London: Pimlico.
Strickling, B.L. 2007. Dreaming about the divine. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Stroumsa, D. 1999. Dreams and visions in early Christian discourse. In Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming, edited by D. Shulman and D. Stroumsa. New York: Oxford University Press.
Here is a review of my book in the journal History of Religions, August 2010, volume 50, number 1, pp. 107-108, by Kimberley C. Patton of Harvard Divinity School.