Nightmares of a Smart Home

Nightmares of a Smart Home by Kelly BulkeleyDreams from Germans in the 1930’s highlight the danger of new home technologies.

I have always been a strong advocate for the creative potentials of dreaming and its capacity to envision future realities. Now, however, I worry that dreams from an earlier era may have predicted a new technology with frightening potentials for abuse in our world today.

One of the most important books in 20th century dream research was The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt, published in English in 1968. Beradt was a journalist in Germany, and when the Nazis rose to power she, as a Jew, could no longer find work. Instead, from 1933 until 1939, when she and her husband fled Germany to the United States, Beradt collected people’s dreams about the Nazis. She cast a wide net among friends and acquaintances, asking for dreams about their country’s increasingly dire political situation. The resulting book was not only searing testimony of the psychological brutality of the National Socialist regime. It also illustrated how dreams can accurately reflect collective fears during times of social crisis.

Many researchers have been deeply moved by The Third Reich of Dreams and inspired to explore new ways of drawing cultural insights from individual dreams. When I first encountered Beradt’s book in the 1980’s during graduate school, I was struck by the poignant reflections in these dreams of people’s experiences in an increasingly totalitarian environment where “others” were attacked as inhuman, racial purity and blind loyalty were exalted, and no one could escape the pervasive atmosphere of fear and vulnerability.

I was especially intrigued by a type of dream that Beradt described as the ultimate example of political toxicity. These were nightmares in which the oppressive power of the state reached directly into people’s homes and turned their own possessions against them. From a woman described as a housewife, in 1933:

“A Storm Trooper was standing by the large, old-fashioned, blue-tiled Dutch oven that stands in the corner of our living room, where we always sit and talk in the evening. He opened the oven door and it began to talk in a harsh and penetrating voice. It repeated every joke we had told and every word we had said against the government. I thought, ‘Good Lord, what’s it going to tell next—all my little snide remarks about Goebbels [Nazi Minister of Propaganda]?’ But at that moment I realized that one sentence more or less would make no difference—simply everything we have ever thought or said among ourselves is known.” (45)

Reading Beradt’s commentary on this dream today sounds eerily prescient, and uncomfortably resonant with current concerns about new home technologies. Remember, she was writing more than fifty years ago, about events that happened thirty years before that:

“Here we see a person in the process of being fashioned by a very elusive and even today not fully understood form of terrorization, a terrorization that consisted not of any constant surveillance over millions of people but rather the sheer uncertainty about how complete this surveillance was…. What dream could better suit the purposes of a totalitarian regime?” (47)

She went on:

“A greengrocer had exactly the same type of dream about a cushion he placed over the telephone when the family gathered in the evening for a cozy chat, a precaution everyone took in those days. The atmosphere of coziness became one of terror: the cushion—a sentimental keepsake cross-stitched by his mother and ordinarily kept in his easy chair, his domestic throne—began to talk. It testified against him and went on and on, repeating family conversations ranging from the price of vegetables and the midday meal to the comment ‘Old Potbelly [Hermann Goering, Nazi Party leader] is getting fatter by the day.’” (49)

Such dreams expressed a catastrophic loss of privacy and safety, even within the personal confines of one’s own home. Objects which used to give people pleasure and comfort now turned against them and became their enemies. She continued:

“I received quite a few reports about similar dreams involving household objects—about a mirror, a desk, a desk clock, an Easter egg. In each of these cases, all that remained in the recollection was the fact that the object concerned would denounce people. The frequency of such dreams may have increased as people became more and more aware of the methods the regime employed.” (49)

Beradt did not rely on any psychological theories in her approach to these dreams. Indeed, she did not try to interpret the dreams at all, at least in a conventional sense. Rather, like the journalist she was trained to be, she focused on reporting the cases that gave the most vivid illustrations of life in a totalitarian society. She used the political ideas of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell (especially his novel 1984) as guides in connecting the personal dream imagery to collective political realities.

“The following singularly grotesque example of this type of dream was dreamt by a young girl: ‘I dreamt I awoke in the middle of the night to discover that the two cherubs that hang over my bed were no longer looking upwards but were instead staring down at me. I was so frightened that I crawled under the bed.’” (50)

These nocturnal visions from another place and time offer an uncanny foreshadowing of present-day anxieties about the dystopian dangers of new household technologies. It takes no great leap of imagination to see connections between Beradt’s haunting collection of dreams and the latest generation of “smart” lamps, appliances, thermostats, and the like. People are inviting into their homes devices that were the stuff of surreal nightmares in Nazi Germany. The marketing for Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri emphasize their power to relieve us of domestic toil, increase our comfort, and save us money. And yet, despite the many benefits of these systems, recent reports (here, here, here, and here) have shown how easily they can be abused in exactly the ways foreseen by Beradt’s dreamers—secretly recording private conversations and revealing embarrassing, immoral, and incriminating behavior.

For people living in Germany in the 1930’s, their futuristic dreams of smart devices reflected a terrifying realization of the intrusive power of the state and its dominance over the most intimate personal aspects of their lives. The challenge today is preventing their nightmares from becoming our realities.

Note: This essay first appeared in Psychology Today on September 12, 2019.

Dreams and Politics 2020: Preparing for New Research

Dreams and Politics 2020: Preparing for New Research by Kelly BulkeleyTo prepare for a new study of dreams during the 2020 U.S. Presidential election campaign, I am doing a brief review of my previous work in this area, to remind myself of what I have learned so far and what seems most important to investigate next.

I have been studying dreams and politics since 1992, and I’ve published several articles and a book documenting my findings up to now. Although I’m not the only scholar looking into these issues, I think it’s fair to say no one else has devoted more research effort towards illuminating the connections between people’s sleep and dream patterns and their political views in waking life. Perhaps everything I have found so far is wrong and misguided; hopefully I have at least clarified some of the right kinds of questions that should be addressed.

Guided by almost thirty years of experience, these are some of the questions I will be asking in 2020:

  •             In what specific ways are political beliefs, concerns, and issues reflected in dreams?
  •             How do people relate to politicians as characters in their dreams?
  •             Do liberals and conservatives sleep and dream differently from each other?
  •             Can dreams help people think more clearly and creatively about politics?
  •             Do dreams have special relevance for political progress on environmental issues?

I have several projects in the works aiming at gathering new data to help answer these questions. Many of these projects are collaborations with other researchers, which will hopefully expand the scope of the studies and open up new perspectives on this relatively unexplored area of dreaming experience. More on these projects soon….

Below is a list of my previous publications on this topic, with brief descriptions of the contents and findings.

 

Attitudes Towards Dreaming: Effects of Socio-Demographic and Religious Variables in an American Sample. (Co-authored with Michael Schredl.) International Journal of Dream Research 12 (1): 75-81.

https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/IJoDR/article/view/54314

Using data from a survey of 5,255 American adults, we looked at correlations between people’s attitudes towards dreaming and numerous demographic variables. We found an especially intriguing link between positive attitudes towards dreaming and high levels of concern about global climate change, one of the most prominent political issues in the world today. People who report little or no concern about climate change also tend to have negative attitudes towards dreaming.

 

Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition (Stanford University Press, 2018)

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=27061

Lucrecia’s story is the most dramatic and well-documented case in history regarding the intersection of dreaming, politics, and prophecy. She was a young, illiterate woman in 16th century Spain whose prophetic dreams accurately foresaw a national catastrophe, and yet King Philip II ordered the Inquisition to arrest her on charges of heresy and treason. A vivid cautionary tale about what can happen when dreamers speak truth to power.

 

Three blog posts about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the 2016 election

https://kellybulkeley.org/199-dreams-donald-trump/

https://kellybulkeley.org/dreams-of-hillary-clinton-and-donald-trump/

https://kellybulkeley.org/dreams-of-the-2016-u-s-presidential-election/

These are reports on dreams I was gathering and analyzing during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign. Included are some dream reports grouped around thematic categories: friendliness with a candidate, anticipations, political disagreements, opposition to Trump, openness to Trump, and work & place. The study of 199 dreams specifically about Donald Trump involved a statistical analysis of the word usage in the dreams, and a comparison of the results with other kinds of dreams. Here is my conclusion: “To summarize these findings, it seems that when Trump appears as a character in people’s dreams, he does not disrupt the whole process; people continue dreaming more or less the way they typically do. But he does have a tangible and measurable impact on certain aspects of those dreams. A dream about Donald Trump typically involves fewer women and more talking, touching, and references to money and work. Men seem to become pacified around Trump in their dreams, while women seem to become more instinctually primed.”

 

A March 2016 blog post about “The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis”

https://kellybulkeley.org/donald-trump-the-sleep-deprivation-hypothesis/

A response to media discussions about the then-candidate’s admitted lack of sleep, with psychological speculations about his public behavior in light of empirical research about the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.

 

Dream Recall and Political Ideology: Results of a Demographic Survey. Dreaming 22(1): 1-9.

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-28147-001

Using data from a survey of 2,992 American adults, the study found a significant difference between political liberals and conservatives on questions of dream recall. People on the political left consistently reported higher recall on all types of dreams than people on the political right.

 

2008 Election Dreams: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain

https://kellybulkeley.org/2008-election-dreams-clinton-obama-mccain/

A collection of blog posts about dreams gathered by Sheli Heti and posted on her metaphysicalpoll.com website. The Obam dreams in particular are notable for their unusually mystical qualities.

 

2008 Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values. San Francisco Chronicle (August 17)

https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Dreams-shed-light-on-Obama-s-values-3272948.php

Reflections on the two fascinating dreams then-candidate Barack Obama described in his memoir Dreams From My Father, with psychological speculations about the future potentials of his Presidency.

 

American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else (Beacon Press, 2008)

https://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/04/unravelling-mea.html

This is a book-length study of dreams and politics in American society during 2006-2007. A group of ten people from various parts of the country, six of them political conservatives and four liberals, kept a year-long journal of their dreams, which they discussed with me in relation to their political views and the dire situation of the country at that time (Iraq and Afghanistan wars, housing crisis, impending recession). The book offers a summary of the research I had done on this topic so far.

 

Sleep and Dream Patterns of Political Liberals and Conservatives. Dreaming 16(3): 223-235.

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-11853-006

Using data from a collection of detailed surveys from 234 American adults (134 liberals, 100 conservatives), several patterns emerged in relation to their sleep and dream behaviors. Here is what I found: “Conservatives slept somewhat more soundly, with fewer remembered dreams. Liberals were more restless in their sleep and had a more active and varied dream life. In contrast to a previous study, liberals reported a somewhat greater proportion of bad dreams and nightmares. Consistent with earlier research, the dreams of conservatives were more mundane, whereas the dreams of liberals were more bizarre.”

 

Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (co-edited with Kate Adams and Patricia M. Davis) (Rutgers University Press, 2009)

https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/dreaming-in-christianity-and-islam/9780813546100

This is an edited book, written in the shadows of 9/11, as an effort to find common ground across religious and national differences. We started the project in the early 2000’s, and it took a long time to pull all the different chapters together. Patricia wrote a brilliant chapter on a significant auditory dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., his “vision in the kitchen” of 1956.

 

Dreaming of War in Iraq: A Preliminary Report. Sleep and Hypnosis 6(1): 19-28.

http://www.sleepandhypnosis.org/ing/Pdf/d2b0fb2ad2c247cab33ccd64a45d737f.pdf

A study of dreams related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which began on March, 19, 2003. The dreams I gathered came from various sources, and I grouped them into several thematic categories: personal symbols, op-ed commentaries, political transformations, empathetic identifications, and fearful anticipations.

 

The Impact of September 11 on Dreaming. (Co-authored with Tracey L. Kahan.) Consciousness and Cognition 17:1248-1256.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810008001141

During the fall quarter of 2001, Prof. Tracey Kahan was teaching a class at Santa Clara University on sleep and dreaming, and she had asked the students to keep a dream journal during the quarter. After the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 in New York City, Tracey and I engaged in a study of the students’ journals. We found that the 9/11 attack appeared in several people’s dreams, both directly and indirectly. We also found that on all the basic measures of people’s cognitive functioning during their dreams, there was no difference between the dreams that did or did not have 9/11-related content. In other words, the terrorist attack impacted what people dreamed about, but not the way they dreamed.

 

Dream Content and Political Ideology. Dreaming 12(2): 61-78.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1015398822122

I called this a “pilot study,” involving 56 people, divided into four equal groups: liberal males and liberal females, conservative males and conservative females. I had a most recent dream from each person, and a content analysis of the dreams suggested an intriguing difference regarding political ideology: “people on the political right had more nightmares, more dreams in which they lacked personal power, and a greater frequency of “lifelike” dreams; people on the political left had fewer nightmares, more dreams in which they had personal power, and a greater frequency of good fortunes and bizarre elements in their dreams. These findings have plausible correlations to certain features of the political ideologies of people on the left and the right, and merit future investigation in larger-scale studies.”

 

It’s All Just a Bad Dream. San Francisco Chronicle (December 6): A27.

https://m.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/It-s-All-Just-a-Bad-Dream-2723578.php

An Op-Ed article I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about people’s dreams during the agonizing wait to determine who would be the winner of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, Al Gore or George W. Bush. Most of the dream reports I gathered were nightmares from liberals: “Aliens taking over the Earth and turning all humans into slaves; terrorists attacking the country with biological weapons; the dreamer falling into the ocean and being chased by a hungry shark or losing control of a car and driving off a cliff — these are some of the distressing images that are filling Democratic imaginations.”

 

Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society (Editor) (State University of New York Press, 1996)

https://www.sunypress.edu/p-2346-among-all-these-dreamers.aspx

This book gathers the best researchers I could find on the theme of dreams and social justice. Included are chapters on dreams in relation to education, sexual abuse, ecology, crime, race, gender, religion, and cross-cultural conflict. In chapter 10 I present a report on my first direct research project devoted to dreams and politics: “Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election.” The chapter describes several dreams about the 1992 candidates (Ross Perot, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton), the debates, the media coverage, voting, and all the fears, hopes, and disappointments surrounding the election. The goal of this project was to prove Calvin Hall wrong in his claim that dreams “have little or nothing to say about current events in the world of affairs” (The Meaning of Dreams, 1966).

 

Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology (State University of New York Press, 1999)

https://www.sunypress.edu/p-3023-visions-of-the-night.aspx

The final chapter of this book is titled “Dreaming in Russia, August 1991,” an essay originally published in the Stanford University alumni magazine. It recounts my waking and dreaming experiences at a conference of dream researchers in Moscow, right in the midst of the failed military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, which precipitated the fall of the Soviet Union.

 

The Quest for Transformational Experience: Dreams and Environmental Ethics. Environmental Ethics 13(2): 151-163.

https://www.sunypress.edu/p-3023-visions-of-the-night.aspx

One of the first articles I ever published, this also appears as chapter 5 in Visions of the Night. In response to environmental philosophers who point to Western dualistic thinking as a primary source of our society’s mistreatment of nature, I suggest that dreaming is a psychologically innate and highly effective means of stimulating the transformation of dualist thought and the opening of new conscious awareness towards the environment.

 

Dreaming in a Totalitarian Society: A Reading of Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. Dreaming 4(2): 115-126.

https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1994-43941-001

This was based on a paper I wrote for a graduate seminar at the University of Chicago Divinity School, perhaps in 1988 or 1989. The course was taught by Peter Homans, and it focused on the neo-psychoanalytic theories of D.W. Winnicott and Heinz Kohut. I had been reading The Third Reich of Dreams on my own, and for the final paper of the class I used Winnicott’s ideas about play, transitional space, and the True vs. False Self, to analyze and reflect upon the dreams gathered in Beradt’s book. Here was my core Winnicottian claim: “Dreams are one of the ways that humans, from childhood to adulthood, develop the relationship between their inner psychic reality and external social reality. Beradt suggests that dream studies can be a potent means of studying troubled societies, and of helping those societies overcome their problems.”

Attitudes Towards Dreaming: New Research

Attitudes Towards Dreaming: New Research by Kelly BulkeleyA new study explores the demographic variables that correlate with positive vs. negative attitudes towards dreams.

In the latest issue of the International Journal of Dream Research, Michael Schredl and I published the results of a new study on people’s attitudes towards dreaming. Several studies have been done previously looking at differences in people who have a positive view towards dreams versus people who have a negative view towards dreams. Most studies have found that younger people have more positive attitudes towards dreams than older people; women have more positive attitudes than men; and people with high dream recall have more positive attitudes than people with low dream recall.

Our study replicated those findings, and went beyond them by looking at three additional variables: ethnicity, education, and religion. The results shed new light on the sociology of dreaming in the contemporary United States.

The study involved an online survey of 5,255 American adults, administered by YouGov, a professional opinion research company. In addition to their demographic background, the participants were asked several questions about their attitudes towards dreams. These questions took the form of six statements about dreams, presented in random order. The participants were asked if they agreed or disagreed with each statement:

  • Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.
  • Dreams are a good way of learning about my true feelings.
  • Dreams can anticipate things that happen in the future.
  • Dream are random nonsense from the brain.
  • I am too busy in waking life to pay attention to my dreams.
  • I get bored listening to other people talk about their dreams.

The first three of these statements were considered positive, in that they regard dreaming as something real, powerful, and valuable. The second three statements were considered negative in dismissing dreams as unreal or insignificant.

Our analysis of the results led to several new and interesting findings. In terms of ethnicity, the blacks in this sample had significantly higher frequencies of agreement with the positive statements about dreams, and lower frequencies of agreement with the negative statements, compared to whites. Hispanics had more agreement with the positive statements than the whites, but not as much as the black participants. At the same time, Hispanics agreed more with the negative statements than either the blacks or whites.

In terms of education, we analyzed the participants in two groups: those who had attended at least some college, and those with at most a high school degree. The differences were fairly small between these two groups. The people with more education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “bored by other people’s dreams” statement. The people with less education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements.

The most intriguing results came from the religion question. We found that religious orientation correlates strongly with attitudes towards dreaming. Atheists and agnostics were mostly likely to disagree with the positive statements and agree with the “random nonsense” statement. The Protestants and especially the Catholics were more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements. The participants who identified themselves religiously as “something else” had the least negative and most positive attitudes towards dreaming of all the groups. This seems like an especially important avenue for future research, looking more carefully at the “something else” population to study how their unconventional religious outlook affects their attitudes towards dreams. Our findings suggest that dreaming is an especially important part of these people’s spiritual lives.

This study provides new clarity about the demographic qualities that are most often associated with positive or negative attitudes towards dreams. The people in contemporary American society who are most intensely engaged with dreaming (“hyper-dreamers”) tend to be young, female, non-white, slightly less educated, and more spiritual than religious. The people who are least engaged with and most dismissive of dreams (“hypo-dreamers”) tend to be older, male, white, slightly more educated, and atheist or agnostic. These are broad tendencies with lots of individual variation, but they do suggest a deeper connection between certain clusters of demographic qualities and how people relate to their dreams in the present-day United States.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 22, 2019. 

The Cultural Dimensions of Dreaming

The Cultural Dimensions of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyPsychologists and anthropologists share a lot of common ground when it comes to the study of dreams. Dreaming clearly emerges out of the brain, mind, and personal life experiences of each individual. Yet dreaming also clearly reflects the individual’s cultural environment–the languages, customs, concepts, and practices of his or her broader community. To understand dreams, we have to find ways of understanding both of these dimensions of meaning.

A new wave of anthropological research is expanding our knowledge of how dreams reflect and actively respond to cultural, social, political, and religious influences in people’s lives. Especially in times of collective change and crisis, dreams become a powerful source of insight into the dynamic interplay of psyche and culture.

At a recent gathering of professional anthropologists with an expertise in psychology, dreams were the subject of a lively panel discussion. The Society for Psychological Anthropology (SPA) held its biennial conference in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico in early April, and the session titled “New Directions in the Anthropology of Dreaming” was convened by Jeannette Mageo and Robin Sheriff. I was the lone non-anthropologist on the panel, and even though I knew most of the presenters beforehand, I was not really up-to-date with current thinking in their field. What transpired at this panel makes me very excited for the future of anthropological dream research and its potential to contribute to bigger interdisciplinary conversations about the nature and function of dreaming.

Bruce Knauft (Emory University) explored how the practices of dream yoga and deity-identification among practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism produce qualities of consciousness that Western psychologists have recently recognized as “lucid dreaming.” Knauft described the meditative practices, elaborate visualizations, and mantra recitations that Tibetan Buddhists use to achieve dreams of transcendent consciousness. Such dreams, he argued, can fundamentally alter people’s experiences of subjectivity and facilitate the realization of greater levels of self-awareness. Western psychologists are slowly realizing that cognitive processes like these are indeed possible in the sleeping state, in ways that religious traditions have been actively teaching, cultivating, and documenting for centuries.

Roger Ivar Lohmann (Trent University) shared a conversation he had about dreams and religion with one of his informants from the Asabano people of Papua New Guinea. The Asabano live in small hamlets in the forest, where colonial missionaries have converted many of them to Christianity, although with numerous hold-over characteristics from their traditional spiritual beliefs and practices. The Asabano take their dreams very seriously and regard them as valuable evidence supporting their fundamental beliefs about death, heaven, and the spiritual conditions necessary for good hunting. Lohmann described how the reality of dreaming for the Asabano creates a “night residue” effect in their lives—their memories of dreaming directing influencing their waking behaviors and personal ontologies. Especially during times of cultural crisis (e.g. the imposition of colonial ideologies and governmental controls), such dreams creatively integrate new experiences with past memories and traditions to produce what Lohmann called an “autonomic culture updating process.”

Matt Newsom (Washington State University) described his study of a collection of dreams from contemporary college students in Germany, with a focus on collective memories and identity formation in the shadow of World War II. Newsom gathered several hundred dreams from a school in Berlin and found that many of them revolved around struggles with resurgent German nationalism and violence towards immigrants and refugees. In this sample from people living in a predominantly liberal city, the students felt profoundly anxious about these cultural tensions, and they were trying to develop identities that were grounded in some other source of collective meaning and social connection. The question of “where do I belong?” seemed to be at the forefront of their dreaming minds, even though this concern was rarely discussed openly in their waking lives. Newsom said these findings supported the idea that dreams have value “for identifying unspoken social and historical anxieties present in a given society.”

Jeannette Mageo (Washington State University), the co-convener of the session, focused on the importance of image-based metaphors in dreams, and what they can reveal about the mental models we use to make sense of our lives. These models derive from cultural sources, and they shape how we think, feel, and behave. We do not accept them passively, however. Cultural models can produce tensions in an individual’s life, and these tensions are revealed with special clarity and eloquence in dreams. Mageo’s work with contemporary American college students has revealed that problematic cultural models of gender make it painfully difficult for some young adults to develop a strong and authentic sense of identity. In their dreams these models of gender (e.g., “super-masculinity,” “Cinderella”) can be observed, and they can potentially be changed through the introduction of novel metaphors and spontaneous imagery that challenge or defy the models’ strictures.

Robin Sheriff (University of Hampshire), the other co-convener, has been exploring dreams as a source of insight into the experiences of contemporary American college students with social media, celebrity culture, digitally-mediated realities, and emerging adult identities. In this presentation Sheriff described a subset of dreams from young women dealing with the theme of “stranger murder,” e.g., being randomly attacked by a serial killer. Sheriff explored the anxieties, tensions, and conflicts being expressed in these dreams, which relate in complex ways to the highly popular podcast genre of lurid stories about stranger murders. At one level, the dreams function as threat simulations in Revonsuo’s sense of the term, preparations in dreaming for a danger that might actually strike in waking. At another level, Sheriff showed how these dreams critique the cultural practices and social pathologies that give rise to those threats and dangers. Her larger claim was that dreaming offers a special window into the turbulent developmental dynamics of 21st century digitally-mediated subjectivity.

Douglas Hollan (UCLA) was the panel’s designated respondent, and he acknowledged that in recent years, the field of anthropology has not paid enough attention to dreams. The present panel was thus an important step forward towards encouraging anthropologists to pay more attention to a truly cross-cultural phenomenon, one that is deeply rooted in the minds and cultural environments of all humans. Hollan noted the recurrent theme of dreaming as a powerful resource during crises and conflicts, with both personal and collective aspects of meaning. To the degree that these meanings are brought into conscious awareness and integrated with waking life identity, a kind of natural therapeutic process can emerge with potentially transformative effects for individuals and communities. All of the panel presentations gave evidence of this possibility, suggesting many new paths for inquiry, exploration, and research.

Anyone interested in dreams will find the works of these scholars enormously helpful in understanding the cultural dimensions of dreaming. Based on the quality of this panel’s presentations and the mutual enthusiasm of the presenters, it seems likely the future will bring more discoveries and insights from this group and their colleagues.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on April 19, 2019.

 

What Do People Think About Dreams? Preview of a New Survey

What Do People Think About Dreams? Preview of a New Survey by Kelly BulkeleyA new survey reveals the wide range of attitudes that contemporary Americans hold towards dreaming. 

It might seem that in dreams you enter a purely subjective realm, a world of total solipsism in which nothing exists but the individual self.  Yet the more we learn about dreaming, the more we realize how deeply it is shaped by cultural forces and collective realities.

We live, waking and dreaming, within a dynamic cultural matrix of beliefs, ideas, symbols, and values.  Out of this matrix we form attitudes that help us make sense of the world and our experiences within it.  Cultural attitudes can have a huge impact on people’s experiences with dreaming, influencing how often people remember their dreams, how often they share their dreams with other people, and what kinds of meanings they look for in their dreams.

To explore the nature of these cultural factors at a large scale, I commissioned YouGov, a professional opinion research company, to conduct an online survey. A total of 5,255 American adults participated in the survey, and they were asked a standard set of demographic questions (gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, etc.) along with several other questions targeted to my research interests, including religious affiliation, political ideology, and social policies about climate change and immigration.  In addition to these questions, participants were asked about their sleep quality, dream recall, frequency of sharing dreams with others, and their agreement with a set of six statements about dreaming:

  1. Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.
  2. Dreams are a good way of learning about my true feelings.
  3. Dreams are random nonsense from the brain.
  4. Dream can anticipate things that happen in the future.
  5. I am too busy in waking life to pay attention to my dreams.
  6. I get bored listening to other people talk about their dreams.

For each statement, the participants were asked if they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, neither agreed nor disagreed, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed.

Michael Schredl and I are currently working on an article that analyzes people’s responses to the six attitudes statements in relation to gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, and religious affiliation.  Michael is a researcher at the sleep laboratory of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, and he has done lots of previous research on people’s attitudes towards dreams.  We are planning to submit the article soon to the International Journal for Dream Research.

A second article will follow, focusing on people’s responses to the attitudes statements in relation to political variables (ideology, beliefs about immigration and climate change).  A third article may focus on the sleep question (“How many nights in an average week do you experience insomnia or have trouble sleeping?”) in relation to the other demographic variables.

The Sleep and Dream Database currently has available for public study the survey responses for several questions: gender, age, age group D (18-34-35-54, 55 and older), US region F (West, South, Northeast, Midwest), dream recall, and the statement “Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.”  All survey responses will be made available once the initial analyses are finished.

If you have any hypotheses about what the survey results will show, please let me know!

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly BulkeleyIn an interview with the New York Times on August 16, the visionary technologist Elon Musk described the grueling work schedule he forces himself to endure in order to achieve his goals. He rarely takes any significant time away from work, and when he does, it’s often for exotic vacations requiring long travels. Recently he has been working up to 120 hours a week at his Tesla automobile plant, never going outside the factory for days at a time. He keeps a sleeping bag in his office, and when he does decide to try getting some shut-eye, he apparently makes frequent use of strong sleep-inducing medications.

Musk is a very prominent public figure and a true leader in creating the technologies of the future.  As such, his words carry great weight and influence.  It matters when Elon Musk says that his professional success requires a chronic state of sleep deprivation.

The interview prompted the sleep advocate Arianna Huffington to post an open letter to Musk on her Thrive.com website on August 17.  Huffington praised Musk’s intellectual brilliance, and she appealed to that same scientific mentality to recognize that healthy sleep is a vital element in true creativity:

You’re a science and data-driven person. You’re obsessed with physics, engineering, with figuring out how things work. So apply that same passion for science not just to your products but to yourself. People are not machines. For machines — whether of the First or Fourth Industrial Revolution variety — downtime is a bug; for humans, downtime is a feature. The science is clear. And what it tells us is that there’s simply no way you can make good decisions and achieve your world-changing ambitions while running on empty. It doesn’t depend on how many hours you’re awake. Tesla — and the world (not to mention you and your beautiful children) — would be better off if you regularly built in time to refuel, recharge and reconnect with your exceptional reserves of creativity and your power to innovate. Working 120-hour weeks doesn’t leverage your unique qualities, it wastes them. You can’t simply power through — that’s just not how our bodies and our brains work. Nobody knows better than you that we can’t get to Mars by ignoring the laws of physics. Nor can we get where we want to go by ignoring scientific laws in our daily lives.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

This prompted Musk to respond on August 18 at 2:32 a.m. via Twitter:

Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.

The tweet was removed a few hours later, but Huffington saw it and responded in an interview on August 20 by trying again to appeal to his own highest ideals:

This is not [just] about sleep, or about slowing down, or about asking Elon to chill out under a mango tree. It’s about how we can unlock and sustain our peak performance, and see solutions and opportunities where others can’t.

Those are precisely the virtues that Musk takes pride in having—a capacity for peak performance and visionary problem-solving.  Huffington is gently but firmly suggesting that if he truly wants to strengthen those abilities, then he must give up the false heroism of denying his body’s need for sleep, rest, and recuperation.  Chronic sleep deprivation takes your mind and body in exactly the opposite direction, towards degraded functioning in our most important human faculties.  The empirical research on the negative effects of sleep deprivation is very clear on this point.  Yet Musk remains in thrall to an unscientific attitude about the need to sacrifice sleep as the price of success.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

Is that too harsh a conclusion? Perhaps, but it seems more plausible following another article in the NYT, on August 28.  This one focused on the increasing number of problems at the Tesla factory, many of them caused by Musk’s own mercurial behavior.  More than 30 senior executives have left the company in recent years, citing his excessive micro-management, and the factory’s automated systems have suffered a never-ending stream of technical glitches, which he insists on fixing himself.  The Tesla factory was designed for maximal automation and minimal human involvement, and it seems that Musk is slowly but surely imposing that same design on himself.

Musk’s defense of his sleep-starved life highlights an often overlooked research finding that I believe has alarming implications for public health and civil society.  Below is an adapted quote from my 2016 book, Big Dreams. First, a general litany of the effects of sleep deprivation:

For humans the first signs of sleep deprivation are unpleasant feelings of fatigue, irritability, and difficulties concentrating. Then come problems with reading and speaking clearly, poor judgment, lower body temperature, and a considerable increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, the worsening effects include disorientation, visual misperceptions, apathy, severe lethargy, and social withdrawal.

Now comes the lesser known and more worrisome impact:

Surprisingly, even with these worsening deficits, sleep-deprived humans can still perform remarkably well on tests for certain kinds of repetitive motor and cognitive skills.  These abilities remain functional even when people no longer have any imaginative spark or feel actively engaged with the world.  According to sleep researcher Michael H. Bonnet, “responses [to performance tests] during sleep loss may occur as rapidly as before, but those responses tend to be more stereotyped and less creative.” Another researcher, Jim Horne, put it like this: “in effect, progressive sleep loss turns us into automatons and, in losing the ability to think independently, conscious awareness of ourselves is impaired and we are no longer prescient. Nevertheless, we can still run on ‘auto-pilot’ and perform routine behavior and other well-rehearsed tasks and procedures.” According to Horne, “Recent findings with clinically oriented neuropsychological tests suggest that one night without sleep causes particular impairment to tasks requiring flexible thinking and the updating of plans in the light of new information… [S]leep deprivation led to more rigid thinking, increased perseverative errors, and marked difficulty in appreciating an updated situation.”

In other words, people who are chronically sleep deprived can still perform routine, automatic, stereotyped behaviors. But they lose the ability to be innovative, adaptive, flexible, and capable of learning. They become less like humans, and more like robots. They can remain functional workers, but they are no longer creative people.

Is that really the path we want to follow, as individuals and a society?