Bush, Clinton, and the politics of sleep deprivation

Bush, Clinton, and the politics of sleep deprivation

Falling asleep involves a very real return to nature, a surrender of conscious control to the innate needs of the biological organism that is our body.  Sleeping is a time when our animal heritage is most apparent, when the basic instincts of self-maintenance and preservation take over.  A good night’s sleep helps replenish our physical, emotional, and intellectual energies in preparation for the challenges of each coming day.   

My research suggests that conservatives tend to sleep better than liberals.  More evidence is needed to substantiate this idea, but I think it makes good sense. Conservatives are more likely to value the qualities of control, personal power, and safety from outside forces.  A sound, steady, restful sleep is consistent with that kind of outlook on life.  Liberals, on the other hand, are more oriented towards openness and empathy for others, and as a result they’re more vulnerable to external disruptions and loss of personal control.  Those ideals appear to be correlated with the variable quality of their sleep. 

Our last two Presidents play out this pattern in almost comic-book form.  Throughout his two terms in office, Bill Clinton was well-known for his restless intelligence, late-night conversational manias, and blatant disregard for other people’s normal patterns of waking and sleeping.  He was, by his own admission, a functional insomniac. George W. Bush, meanwhile, has always let it be known that he’s an early-to-bed kind of guy.  Right after his 2000 election he said this would be his first historical goal: “I’m trying to set the record as the President who got to bed earliest on Inauguration Day.”  In a 2006 interview with People magazine he said that despite the stressful responsibilities of his job, he actually sleeps quite soundly: “I must tell you, I’m sleeping much better than people would assume.”  He let on that he occasionally takes sleep aids when traveling and drinks a couple of cups of coffee each morning, but other than that he’s a clean living person in both waking and sleeping: “I don’t drink alcohol.  I can remember when I used to drink, I had trouble sleeping at night.”[i] 

Pundits on both sides of the ideological divide have interpreted these sleep differences as meaningful signs of each President’s deeper nature.  Many liberals were excited by Clinton’s boundless energy, and they’re horrified by the oblivious tranquility of Bush’s sleep (fumed one internet commentator: “So he has no trouble sleeping, huh? Well, that’s just freaking wonderful.  Because of him, nearly 3000 American service members are sleeping soundly, too.  But they won’t get to wake up the next day.”[ii]).  In contrast, conservatives regarded the nocturnal hyperactivity of Clinton as a symptom of his broader lack of personal discipline, and they praise Bush for his healthy-minded good sense (Steve Chapman wrote in the National Review, “conservatives can take his devotion to sleep as a good omen.  Respecting his body’s own basic requirements suggests an appreciation of human limits that is the beginning of wisdom about governance.”[iii]).  Both interpretations are correct in identifying the connection between sleep patterns and political sensibilities.  Where they differ is in the valuation of a sound sleep.  Liberals see Bush’s excessive fondness for sleep as a sign of being morally obtuse, and conservatives regard Clinton’s erratic sleep as indicating an unstable character.   

Actually, Clinton himself has admitted to the governmental problems caused by poor sleep habits.  In a remarkable aside during a question-and-answer session that followed a 2002 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, the former President said the following:

“But one of the reasons Washington is so…you’re going to all laugh when I say this, and you’re going to think, ‘He’s like everybody else.  You know, when they get out of office they get a little dotty and a little crazy.’  But I’m telling you, one of the reasons that there is often such an acrimonious atmosphere in Washington, is that too many members of the Congress in both parties are sleep deprived.  And you just think about it….  I’m telling you that the main reason you ought to be for some kind of meaningful campaign reform is that half the people in Congress are physically exhausted all the time from trying to make their votes, learn about the issues, come home on the weekend, and spend all their time raising money.  And it clouds your judgment, and it undermines your ability to be relaxed and respectful in dealing with your adversaries.  Now, every one of you, if you’ve ever been really tired a long time—you know, I spent 30 years sleep-deprived and I got used to it—but I’m serious, you have no idea how much more physically difficult it is to be a member of Congress now than it was before you had to raise this kind of money.  And you ought to take a burden off their back and keep working until we get real campaign finance reform, so you can have people who are thinking, who have time to think about these issues and study them, and who believe they will have the opportunity to argue their position to their constituents, so they don’t have to take the most extreme possible position because that’s what it takes to get the money, and they’re not so exhausted from chasing around after the money, that they never get a decent night’s sleep.  Now, you can laugh about that, but I’m telling you, if you had all the members of Congress here and they were being honest with you, they’d tell you that I just told you one of the most important reasons that you could ever be for this.”[iv]

Whatever you think of his pitch for campaign finance reform, Clinton is offering an intriguing signal of liberal willingness to value sleep as a necessity for healthy political functioning.  He speaks of sleep deprivation as an open secret in Washington life, a problem that everyone recognizes and suffers yet feels helpless to change. Why shouldn’t conservatives agree with him?  After all, their hero Ronald Reagan was famously (though perhaps not accurately; link to conversation with Martin Anderson) insistent on having the opportunity to enjoy an afternoon nap each day. 

Looking beyond Washington to the nation as a whole, much more attention should be paid to the fact that millions of Americans suffer problems with the length and quality of their sleep.  In terms of the basic requirements for human health, this is equivalent to saying that millions of Americans don’t have adequate food, water, or air.   Sleep is just as essential to our survival, yet it’s rarely recognized as such.  If we take seriously the strong scientific evidence that sleep is crucial to our mental and physical well-being, then we have to ask some difficult questions.  What is the collective damage caused by the sleep-depriving pressures of contemporary American life?  How many accidents, injuries, fights, mistakes, misunderstandings, and screw-ups are caused by people who are stumbling through the day in an exhausted, semi-conscious fog?  Of all our basic physical needs, why is sleep the one we seem most willing to sacrifice, the one we regularly disrupt and deny in favor of other interests?  Do we really want a future where we’ll have to take a pill to stay awake and another one to go to sleep?  We’re in danger of becoming a society of sleep anorexics, fooling ourselves into thinking it’s perfectly normal to starve our body of what it needs, pretending that no one else notices the harmful, emaciating effects.

I see no reason why conservatives and liberals shouldn’t agree that improving sleep hygiene should be a public health priority.  Any number of easy, low-cost measures (e.g., early education about sleep and health, more flexible employment and school schedules, stronger noise ordinances, work-place nap rooms, etc.) could produce rapid and tangible benefits in people’s well-being. The problems caused by sleeplessness involve more than just higher frequencies of accidents, injuries, and illnesses.  I’d go further and say that inadequate sleep represents a subtle but genuine threat to our psychological ability to function as responsible citizens in a democracy.  Our form of government depends on—was created in the name of—free-thinking individuals capable of making their own decisions about their lives.  A political system like ours presupposes a high degree of maturity, self-awareness, and wisdom on the part of the citizens, and we risk weakening those vital qualities when we deny our biological need for long, steady, restful sleep.



 


[i]  Reported by ABC News, December 14, 2006.
[ii]  Email commentary to the ABC News report of December 14, 2006.
[iii] Steve Chapman, “Sweet Dreams, W.: A little presidential pillow talk – George W. Bush’s love for good night’s sleep,” National Review, February 19, 2001.
[iv] Speech given January 29, 2002.

American Dreamers: Let’s Focus on the Focus Group

Here is some information about the dreamers who made up the focus group for the research in my book American Dreamers.

The 10 members of the “dreamers focus group”

Elizabeth is a fifty-eight year old hospital technician from Kentucky who has overcome the challenges posed by two divorces, several alcoholic family members, breast cancer and chemotherapy, and a number of other serious medical conditions requiring surgery.  She considers herself a “survivor.”  For many years she has been energetically involved in the activities of her local Disciples of Christ Church community.  Elizabeth’s a registered Democrat who says she’s very liberal in her political beliefs, although she favors more freedom for gun owners and voted for George W. Bush in 2004.

Kip is a fifty-two year old ranch manager and horse trainer from Northern California.  Twenty years ago she took her seventeen-month old baby and left her second husband to form a new family with her partner Janet, a local sheriff.  They’ve been together ever since, and Kip’s daughter just graduated from college.  Raised in a strict Catholic family, Kip is now very independent spiritually and laughingly considers herself a member of the “church of the living hoof.”  She’s a Democratic voter who detests President Bush, although in general she’s not much interested in partisan politics.  Her views used to be more liberal, but today she says she’s “hardened up a bit,” and if anything considers herself a political moderate.

Two married couples are included in the group of ten participants.  The first of these couples went through an incredibly harrowing series of life challenges during the year of their journal-keeping.  Dan is a thirty-six year old Army Special Forces sergeant, a career soldier approaching the twenty-year retirement mark.  He left for his third tour in Iraq during the journal-keeping year.  Raised Catholic, he is politically conservative and believes the U.S. is engaged in a difficult but necessary long-term battle to “plant the seeds of democracy” in the Arab world.

Dan has been married for five years to Sophia, a thirty-one year old who takes care of their preschool-age daughter in their home on the outskirts of Dan’s current base in North Carolina.  Sophia has always been an active dreamer, and in her local community she’s known as someone who’s available to talk about dreams.  She’s politically conservative and supportive of President Bush, but spiritually progressive in avoiding fundamentalist church-goers and seeking alternative, non-Christian sources of wisdom.  Soon after she began keeping her sleep and dream journal, and right after Dan received his latest deployment notice, Sophia discovered she was pregnant.  Her journal thus became a record of her sleep and dream experiences across the nine-month term of her pregnancy, the last half of which she spent alone while Dan fought in Iraq.

The remaining six members of this group are, or have been, residents of the same rural, economically-depressed county in Western New York.  Richard is a forty-eight year old hospital security manager who was born in Germany and immigrated with his family to the U.S. when he was one year old.  His views tend to be conservative both religiously and politically (he’s pro-Bush and pro-Iraq war).  He used to be registered as a Democrat but recently changed his affiliation to Republican.  Relatively short of stature, Richard has a black belt in karate and is the founder of a successful, all-volunteer animal rehabilitation clinic in his community.

Grace, a forty-six year old preschool teacher, is Richard’s wife.  She says she’s becoming increasingly conservative in her politics, and for the most part she supports President Bush, although she usually tries to pay as little attention to political current events as possible.  Raised as a Catholic, she is now more interested in Christian spirituality outside of formal church settings.  She and Richard have a nine-year old daughter whom they adopted as a baby, and whose well-being is the core concern of their lives.

Will is a twenty-six year old man who grew up in a town close to where Richard and Grace live.  He’s well educated, highly intelligent, and knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects.  He’s had difficulty in school and work, though, due in part to a hand deformity and a history of emotional troubles.  Will is politically liberal and an avowed atheist—two qualities that further alienate him from the traditionalist mores of his conservative Catholic surroundings.

Paul is an eighty year old former Catholic priest who left his Franciscan order to marry an ex-nun.  They raised four children, then divorced; he remains on good terms with her, even though she remarried soon after they split.  Paul considers himself wiser now about religion than when he was a priest, and he leads a physically and socially active life.  A pro-Bush, pro-war Democrat, he is an avid viewer of Fox television news.

Lola is a 49-year old administrator at a retirement home.  Her life was scarred by a heart-rending tragedy ten years ago—in the heat of a family argument, one of her sons shot and killed her other son.  They were fourteen and eleven years old at the time.  The echoes of that awful fratricide continue to reverberate in her family, in her local community, and in her dreams.  Lola was raised Lutheran, though she does not currently attend church.  She prays regularly and considers spirituality to be immensely important in her life.  Politically she’s a conservative Republican, though she’s sickened by the war (one of her nephews is in the Army, serving his first tour in Iraq) and she can’t bear to watch or listen to the news anymore.

Nadine is a 24-year old waitress living in Florida, engaged to be married and planning to move soon to Colorado.  Raised as a Catholic in the same Western New York region, Nadine recently moved away from home and is trying to start a new life on her own.  She hasn’t entirely rejected Catholicism, but she avoids organized religion in general, preferring to pursue her interests in Native American spiritual traditions. Her political views are mostly liberal (she worked for two years in Americorps, the youth volunteer program founded by Bill Clinton), although she is very upset that affirmative action policies limit the financial opportunities for “non-minority” people like her.

Dream series available for study

Five of the focus group dream series—those of Will, Paul, Grace, Lola, and Sophia—as well as collections of dreams of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are available for study at www.dreambank.net, along with dozens of other dream series gathered from other sources.  Instructions for performing easy word-search analyses of these dreams can be found by clicking the website’s “help” button.


Is My Dream Research Biased? A Quick Look at Limitations and Suppositions

When I wrote my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else,
I expected some resistance such as:

Dreams are crazy nonsense.

Response: Wrong.  Dreams are meaningful expressions of people’s most important concerns, activities, and beliefs in waking life.  Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t paid attention to the last half-century of dream research.  For scientific evidence in favor of the “continuity hypothesis” see www.dreamresearch.net

Dream interpretation is Freudian foolishness.

Response: I’m using methods very different from Freudian psychoanalysis.  I start with broad, easily observable patterns in large collections of dreams, and then focus on particular dreams that can further illuminate those patterns.

The author is a leftwing nut job.

Response: True, I live near Berkeley, California.  I have a pony-tail and an androgynous name, and I’m a strong Obama supporter.  So what?  My book still provides a “fair and balanced” account of the political psychology of liberals and conservatives, highlighting the character virtues and weaknesses of each perspective, using methods that anyone can try for themselves.  Take a look at the brief biographies of the 10 members of the “dreamers focus group” and you’ll see the political diversity of the dream material presented in the book.

Limitations to my findings

Limits to the sleep and dream poll:

My friends in the social sciences have pointed out the many uncertainties that bedevil the use of simple statistics like these in arguing for broad psychological theories.  I share their concerns, which were well expressed by de Tocqueville: “When statistical method is not based upon rigorously accurate calculations, it leads to error rather than to guidance.  The mind easily allows itself to be deluded by the deceptive appearance of precision which statistics retain even when wrong and it relies confidently upon mistakes apparently clothed in the forms of mathematical truth” (Democracy in America, 255).  I fully recognize the limits of these data, but I’ll stand by the rigor and accuracy of my calculations regarding the sleep and dream patterns of contemporary Americans until other researchers come up with something better.

Limits to the dreamers focus group:

Without question, the lives of ten people can never be a perfect mirror of a nation of three hundred million.  Any research project that’s based on data from journals, interviews, and surveys runs the danger of over-generalization.  Although I tried to cast as wide a recruiting net as possible, these ten dream-journaling volunteers included no Hispanics or African-Americans, no one from the Midwest or deep South, no high-income professionals, no evangelical Christians, no Jews or Muslims.  Any claims made in this book must be qualified by those limitations.  Still, these ten particular people’s lives embody so many of the challenges facing the country today that it’s fair to view them as representing other Americans with similar experiences and convictions.  We can’t learn everything from this group, but we can learn a lot.

Do Conservatives Sleep Better at Night than Liberals?

What do political ideology and sleeping habits have to do with each other?  Lots, as it turns out.  The data below is excerpted from my book American Dreamers.

Sleep and dream poll results: Political ideology

The sleep and dream poll was designed to balance a detailed analysis of the focus group members with a demographically broader and statistically meaningful source of evidence. I wanted to generate the kind of data frequently used in mainstream political analysis and correlate it with data on sleep and dream patterns. The poll was conducted on my behalf by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in August of 2007. A total of 705 American adults were contacted at home by means of random-digit dialing telephone calls. These people were demographically representative of the U.S. population in terms of age, gender, region, and political outlook. The margin of error for the overall statistical findings was plus or minus 3.7%, slightly higher for the smaller subgroups. The poll data provides two ways of looking at the sleep-dream-politics relationship. In the first, pro-Bush respondents (somewhat or strongly approving of him) were separated from the anti-Bush respondents (somewhat or strongly disapproving) and compared on the frequency of their answers to the sleep and dream questions.

Ideology x Sleep

Liberal Conservative
Sleep Less than 6 hours a night 12 15
6-8.9 hours a night 82 80
More than 9 hours a night 7 4
Insomnia Never 54 63
1-2 nights a week 17 17
3 or more nights a week 28 16

Ideology x Dream Prototypes

Liberal Conservative
A person who’s now dead appearing alive 48 35
Magically flying in the air 23 20
Being chased or attacked 48 40
Falling 54 47
Sexual experiences 47 38
Being in a situation exactly like your regular waking life 58 56
Being aware you’re dreaming and able to control the dream 44 34

Chapter 1 of American Dreamers presents my interpretation of these results.

Tech Dreams By Mike Boland Forbes 2001

The Jung and the Sleepless: Techno-geeks talk about their dreams

We’ve always known those working in tech to be a bit different. Now it’s evident that even their dreams have taken on new forms- crashed servers, homicidal venture capitalists and man-eating cell phones to name a few.

Some even dream in graphic user interfaces complete with windows and pull-down menus. Just think: When they have that classic dream where they’re naked in front of a classroom, they can just reach up to the command toolbar floating above their head and hit Format>Body> Pants. Problem solved. Isn’t technology great?

Though different and sometimes admittedly bizarre, these tech dreams represent the same archetypal emotions that we have had for centuries according to our resident dream expert, Kelly Bulkeley, a Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and author of Transforming Dreams, who has graciously agreed to provide a little commentary.

Nightmares

Rob Kelly, CEO of Mojam, an online provider of live music event listings and ticket sales:

“Back in the beginning stages of the Internet shakeout, I had a venture capitalist who I really thought was going to physically harm me. He was out of control. He had a lot going on. His net worth had just gone down about 50%, and I was just one small piece but he took it out on me. So I actually had this nightmare, which was right out of an episode of the Mafia show The Sopranos. ‘Pussy’ is the name of one of the characters and I took his place in the dream. The mob members, including my VC, who took the part of Tony Soprano, took me out on a fishing trip. At one point everyone in the boat, led by my VC, confronted me, shot me, and I ended up at the bottom of the East River with cement shoes.”

Daniel Duerr, founder and president of Grey Zone, which provides web-site management tools and software platforms for network integration:

“When I was a kid, I had these consistent patterns of not only dreaming but talking in my sleep. I got woken up so many times by my mom telling me to shut up because I was yelling out ‘syntax error!’ or ‘byte zero non existent!’ I’d be yelling code out like I was speaking in tongues or something.

“Nowadays I don’t get to do any programming because I am busy running the company so my dreams are more about adult responsibility. One involves my inability to get rid of my cell phone. Sometimes it chases me and it won’t stop ringing and I can’t get away from it. In real life I have actually tossed 2 cell phones. I hate cell phones. I threw one off of a sailboat and I smashed one on the floor.”

Mike Mussog, CEO of Handyman Online, an online contractor referral service:

“In my dream, I’m alone in our offices. The team of IT technicians we’ve hired to implement our new multimillion dollar system has just left. Suddenly, there’s a rush of incoming calls and email requests. I can hear our customers over the PA system saying, ‘Hello*? Hello*?’ while an automated voice puts them on hold. Emails are pouring in all over the office. I keep trying to pick up phone lines and access computers, but to no avail the system won’t let me in.

“I try to log onto our Web site and nothing appears but a blue screen. Meanwhile, the phone system begins patching customers directly through to our competitors and their conversations can be heard throughout the office. I’m utterly helpless and no one is around to lend a hand.

“Next thing I know, our investors are coming through the front door for a board meeting. It’s as if they can’t hear or see any of the chaos happening in the office. They keep asking me how the latest numbers are looking and about forecasts for future growth. I try to tell them to call our IT team and that we are in the middle of an emergency, but no sound comes from my mouth. We carry on an entire meeting with pandemonium happening all around us. Finally, I’m able to lean over and ask one of our major investors if he’s ever seen technology problems like this before. He just smiles, tells me not to worry and that it will all work itself out.

“Suddenly, the office goes silent except for the hum of computers shutting down. The investor turns to me and says, ‘Didn’t I tell you it would all work out?’ As they pack up to leave, I keep demanding, ‘But where did our customers go? Where are our customers?’ But they don’t answer, and I wake up feeling as if I never slept in the first place.”

Greg Baszucki, president and cofounder of InvoiceDealers.com, which provides instant price-quote comparisons for car buyers:

“I have been having a reoccurring dream that reflects a scene from Glenngary Glenn Ross, a movie about real estate managers who put the squeeze on their sales team amidst a struggling economy. The scene of Alec Baldwin threatening a salesman happens in each dream, except I am the one being threatened.

“‘The leads are weak? The fucking leads are weak? You’re weak!’ Baldwin screams at me.”

“Our company is a car buying Web site that generates revenue by selling sales leads to car dealers. This particular dream haunted me during a critical time in which we needed to turn a profit or we would not survive. Now that we are profitable, the dream happens less frequently.”

Michael Becce, president of Red Bank New Jersey-based MRB Public Relations:

“A client of mine took me to see a fiber-optics draw tower and watch it in action. A draw tower is a tremendous piece of equipment that is used to make fiber-optic cables. Melted glass is delicately poured (or drawn) so that it forms a tiny strand of glass as it hardens on the way down. Ever since witnessing the machine at work, I’ve been having dreams that are not alike in any way, except for the same odd occurrence. During my dreams I end up eating something and whatever I eat seems to have fiber-optics strands inside. I tend to wake up as I chew broken fragments of glass between my teeth.”

The Analysis, Kelly Bulkeley: “Capitalism involves a great deal of what’s called adaptive fear. Dreams like this scare the dreamer into maintaining a vigilant anxiety, looking around for threats or competitors or improving a certain type of behavior while awake. Thousands of years ago, on the African Savannah, people dreamt of the possibility that a lion could eat them at any moment; today in Silicon Valley, people dream of the threat of a bigger company destroying their business at any moment. Different settings, but same gut-level fears. These dreams also show us how technology may appeal to our rational minds but may terrify us on a visceral level. Michael Becce’s dream is a good example of this. Dreams of having noxious substances in the mouth are a classic way of expressing a fear that something is unhealthy, poisonous, or threatening”

Sweet Dreams

Mika Salmi, founder and CEO of Atomfilms, an online entertainment company:

“Quite a few years back I had a dream where I could see a much broader part of the light spectrum. Basically I could see everything from infrared to radio waves to microwaves. Depending on the frequency, they had different colors and characteristics. Obviously, the air was very full and incredibly active. It wasn’t a frightening dream-I found it fascinating and just observed all the interactions.”

Timothy Ferris, science and technology writer.

“Recently I had this dream that I was on a space shuttle. We were climbing up through these clouds and it was sunrise. It was just astonishingly beautiful. There were these beautiful lavender cloud banks going on for hundreds of miles. And then I became aware that something was wrong, that an awful lot of time was going by without our passing through these clouds and reaching the dark skies of space. And indeed it was confirmed that although the engines were still firing they were not providing enough thrust. We weren’t going to make it, and we had in fact passed the point of any safe landing. We were going to die. The strange thing was I felt that it was worth it anyway¯that what we were seeing was so beautiful that somehow I didn’t mind that we were going to die.

“In 1986 I was in the Journalist in Space, which aimed to put a journalist on the next shuttle mission. I made the first cut and was selected as a semifinalist. However, before they made the next cut, the project crossed President Reagan’s desk. Reagan who never had much fondness for journalists, decided he wanted a teacher to accompany the mission instead. The next space shuttle launch included a teacher. It was the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded seconds after launch.”

Don Tapscott, chairman of Digital 4Sight, a new economy think tank and strategy consulting company, and author of seven business books:

“After a long and lively dinner party around 1995, I had a dream about creating the ultimate killer application-life after death. In the dream it was called ‘perpetual presence’ – an electronic communicating gravestone. You sign up with PP Inc. at birth and then digital videos of you are shot throughout your life creating a real-time animation database. After your death interested people can still communicate with you from the screen or hologram at your grave or on the Net from any other device. You can be plugged into various news wires and other sources so that your presence is kept fresh. If you had a really interesting life, people could pay to access you – a source of revenue eliminating the need for life insurance to support your family. The virtual you could live forever. I woke up thinking that I should watch what I eat and drink at dinner parties.”

The Analysis, Kelly Bulkeley: “These dreams express a spiritual awe and wonder of technology’s potential. The amazing light in Mike Salmi’s dream is exactly the same as the brilliant illumination described in the revelatory dreams of mystics and visionaries throughout history. Tim Ferris’s dream is a remarkable comment on the yearning we have to experience the transcendent, a yearning that technology can help to fulfill even if it costs us our lives. The willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a momentary vision of transcendent beauty is another theme found in the world’s mystical traditions.”

Sleeping on the Job

Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple computer:

“Dreaming was my modus operandi from about the middle of high school on. I’d sometimes wake up with solutions to math and electronic design problems in my head. I must have been dreaming about them, or at least solving them in my sleep. One or two times I’d wake up and couldn’t remember my ‘dream’ solution. That was disconcerting, so from then on I’d write a couple of quick notes when I woke up with an idea. I’d go back to sleep and then work on the solutions in the morning. I didn’t do this once in a while. I did it all the time.”

Michael Barnsley, Mathematics professor, Georgia Institute of Technology and cofounder of Iterated Systems, which develops digital imaging software for online media:

“I had founded a company in 1987 and was professoring away at Georgia Tech. I was working on a big problem, which was how to make fractal formulas for real pictures. A file that represents a picture takes up a huge amount of space and a fractal formula could be the key to the digital image compression necessary for efficient and large-scale digital image storage.

“At this time I had a dream that was a variation of a dream I had been having since I was introduced to mathematics as a young child. In this dream there is a vision of an old-fashion switchboard with these messy masses of wires and pegboards. On this particular night the whole mess of wires and little squares where the wires went to and came from, became tidy and organized. It all related to knowing how to solve my fractal problem. I woke up in a feverish state of excitement and began writing out the formulas and algorithms.

“I called my partner Allen Sloan and described the answer. He wrote his resignation letter to Georgia Tech that day and I left shortly afterwards and Iterated Systems was born. The image compression technology became the gold standard for digital image storage for software products in the early ’90s and we sold it to Microsoft for their 1992 release of Encarta.

Pradeep Khurana, founder and chairman of Surebridge, an application service provider (ASP):

“We’re an ASP whose customers pay a flat fee for us to create and manage their applications. About a year ago I was really struggling with the question of what’s the best way to improve our service and measure our performance. I was kind of pondering this in the back of my mind for about a week and it was kind of a tricky problem.

“One night I went to sleep and I remember dreaming about it. When I woke up the next morning, I had a fuzzy memory of getting up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water. When I came to work the next day and opened my notebook, the answer to the problem was written inside. At home, my notebook had been sitting on the kitchen counter with my briefcase. The night before, I must have scribbled the answer while sleepwalking. The answer was perfect. In fact, it was put in place immediately and our efficiency has since gone up about 200% and customer satisfaction has also gone up about 15%.”

The Analysis, Kelly Bulkeley: “These dreams are the visual representation of the mind continuing to work after we fall asleep. The classic example is the discovery of the Benzene molecule by Freidrich August Kekule von Stradonitz who dreamt of a snake biting its own tail, which, in essence was the same circular structure of the molecule. The basic explanation is that dreaming allows for a more flexible and wide ranging mode of thinking than is ordinarily possible in waking consciousness.”

Visions

Henry Fiallo, president of Enterasys Networks, which provides global corporations with communications equipment and solutions:

“I have a recurring dream where I wake up and the ‘picture frame’ across the room, which had been displaying a tranquil seashore with waves washing on the beach and a full moon in the sky, suddenly switches its image to give me the news, weather, and an agenda for the day, plus information I had asked for the night before. The same ‘picture’ appears throughout the house, in my car, and in the office. It’s my own virtual assistant.”

John Harcharek, creative director of Graftica Interactive, a Chester New Jersey-based ad agency:

“My dreams resemble a Mac interface where you can go from one place to the next via pop up windows on the computer screen. In the dreams I can reach up to touch the window shade bar above my head and a window will either pop down if I’m hopping into a new place or it will disappear if I’m jumping out of one. For example, when bad guys are chasing me, I can just touch above my head and suddenly there is a new place to enter.”

“Other times I will dream in those scrolling ticker messages that appear on some Web sites. These scrolling messages usually are gibberish but sometimes I’ll come up with products¯the dumbest products in the world. For example I had a dream for a dog food product¯we don’t even have a dog food client. The headline kept going across this electronic scrolling message, ” Dog food with flower seeds*Dog food with flower seeds.” And the only thing I can figure is it’s some kind of thing where the dog eats the food and then when he passes it, he plants little flowers.”

“But these kind of dreams get aggravating because I want to have dreams that relate to real clients and real ideas not nonsense ones. Even more, I want to have dreams that don’t relate to work at all. It’s the kind of thing where you wake up and say, ‘Wait, this is my time!'”

The Analysis, Kelly Bulkley: “These dreams, particularly John Harcharek’s, show how deeply technology can affect us, literally reformatting the inner workings of our unconscious. They are one piece of evidence that computer technology is truly shaping the human mind-brain system, reorganizing our deepest sense of self.”

Dream-Sharing Groups, Spirituality, and Community

The sharing of dreams in group settings has played a prominent role in communi ties throughout history. An thropologists and historians have provided detailed reports of dream-shar ing practices found in a wide vari ety of cultures and religious traditions.[i] However, modern Western psycholo gist have generally focused on the intrapsychic aspects of dreams and have applied dreams to strictly individual needs and concerns. The practice of dream-sharing in modern Western society has been confined to the clinician’s office, with the primary goal of assisting in the psychotherapy of individuals.

But in the last 30 years or so a remarkably large number of dream-sharing groups have arisen in the United States[ii]. Because these groups take so many dif­ferent forms and appear in so many different contexts, there is virtu ally no academic research on the subject. However, the phe nomenon of dream-shar ing groups should be of interest to scholars of religion for a number of reasons. First, these groups often look to dreams specifically for spiri tu al insights; the groups thus represent a distinc tive means of religious expression in contemporary Ameri can society. Second, the complex interplay of religious, psychologi cal, and cultural elements in these groups can tell us something about where the pro cess of secu lariza tion stands as we approach the close of the twentieth century. And third, dream-sharing groups fre quently gener ate a powerful sense of community, a sense of deep, intimate bonding among the members of the group. Schol ars who are concerned about how to create a sense of mutual understanding across differences of race, gender, ethnicity, and class should take note of the communi ty-revitalizing poten tial of these groups.

II

Dream-sharing groups began appearing in this country in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The first groups arose in response to the writings and public workshops of Ann Faraday (Dream Power (1972) and The Dream Game (1974)), Patricia Gar field (Creative Dreaming (1974)), Montague Ullman (Work ing with Dreams (1979)), and Jeremy Taylor (Dream Work (1983)). Each of these people ar gued that the practice of exploring dreams should be expanded beyond the confines of pro fessional psy chothera py and made acces sible to the general population. Another important early stimulus was Kilton Stewart’s essay on “Dream Theory in Malaya,” reprinted in Charles Tart’s best-selling anthol ogy Al tered States of Con sciousness (1969). Stewart’s descrip tion of the Senoi, a native people whose practice of publically sharing and discuss ing dreams helped them create an idyllic, nearly con flict-free community life, inspired countless Ameri cans to explore their own dreams and to begin sharing their dreams in group settings.[iii]

Contemporary dream-sharing groups take many different forms. But they also share many basic elements of struc ture and process. Let me offer the following “ideal-type” of a dream-sharing group:

— Six to twelve people gather in a quiet, comfort able place.

— One of the people serves as leader or facilitator for the group.

— Each person in the group describes one of his or her dreams.

— The group choses one person’s dream to discuss in detail, and proceeds to offer comments, ask questions, and suggest mean ings regarding that dream.

— This discussion can take from 15 minutes to two hours; usually, an effort is made to discuss more than one dream at a given meeting.

— Over the course of a few meetings, everyone in the group participates: everyone gets to share their own dreams, everyone gets to comment on other people’s dreams, and everyone gets to have one of their dreams discussed by the group.

There are many variations on this ideal-typical pat tern. The group’s size can vary tremendously; I have seen dream-sharing groups function with as few as three, and as many as 100 people. The group’s leader or facili tator can play a very active role in steering the group pro cess, or can do nothing more than keep an eye on the clock and remind people when it’s time to stop. Many dream-sharing groups function effectively with no formal leaders or facilitators at all.

The greatest variations among different groups occur during the discussion process. The dreamer may actively participate in this process, or may sit quietly and “observe” the group’s discussion of his or her dream. The group may use a relatively structured series of questions to ask of each dream, or may engage in an interpretive “free-for-all.” Some groups, in addition to verbal discussion of the dreams, will draw pictures of them, act them out in “dream theater,” and/or engage in guided imagery exercises. The group’s activities may be oriented by par ticu lar psy cho logi cal theories (e.g., looking for Jungian arche types), by particu lar theologi cal per spectives (e.g., looking for the presence of the Holy Spirit), or by particular per sonal concerns (e.g., look ing for help with troubled marriages or rela­tion ships). But no matter what their specific theoretical or ideological cast, the discussions of almost all dream-sharing groups are grounded in a core set of assump tions: 1) that dreams are relevant our important waking life con cerns, 2) that dreams can be understood without spe cial ized knowledge, and 3) that dreams have the poten tial to reveal spiritu al or religious truths.

The basic dream-sharing process described above has been used in a nearly limitless variety of settings and contexts:

— In churches and religious education programs (e.g., among Catholics, Unitarian Uni versalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Method ists);

— In schools, from grammar schools to high schools to colleges to seminaries to business schools to adult education programs;

— In psychological workshops, seminars, and retreats (e.g., conducted by members of Jungian, Gestalt, Humanis tic, and Transpersonal schools of psychology);

— In twelve-step counseling programs of various sorts;

— In social service settings (e.g., in prisons, drug rehabilitation centers, and hospitals; for pregnant women and their partners, people with AIDS, and victims of physical and sexual abuse);

— In community centers, libraries, and neighbors’ homes.[iv]

There are no precise demographic data on the partici pants in dream-sharing groups. Based on my initial research efforts, I have found that participants tend to be female, tend to be white, tend to be relatively edu cated and financially secure, and tend to live on either the East or the West coast. However, these are only the most general of observa tions: I have also found dream-sharing groups made up of all males, groups made up of all blacks, and groups organized in the South, the Mid west, and the Plains states. Over all, I would estimate that in the last 30 years there have been more than 50,000 dream-sharing groups in the U.S., mean ing that approxi mately a half million people have partic ipated in such groups.[v]

III

From the beginnings of Western history dreams have traditionally been the province of reli gion. Dreams have been viewed as either revelations from the divine or as temptations from the Devil, and priests and church lead ers have been the authorities on interpreting what a given dream means. In the twentieth century, however, the discipline of psychology has risen to claim authority over dreams. Psycholo gists are now the ones to whom we turn for interpretations, and we have come to believe that the meanings of dreams reflect the individual’s unconscious personali ty dynamics.

This transition from a religious to a psychological view of dreams perfectly exemplifies the process of secular ization, the process by which modern scientific, economic, and cultural forces have combined to vanquish the authority of reli gion in Western society. Dream-sharing groups, in which a reliance on psy cho logi cal dream theo ries is combined with an interest in the spiri tual dimen sions of dreams, would seem to mark an inter esting new twist on this process.[vi]

From one perspective, dream-sharing groups can be seen as resist ing and even overcoming the spiritually destruc tive effects of secularization. Dreams have always been regarded as a means of relat ing to the sa cred, to those powers and realities that tran scend ordi nary human exis tence. Dream-sharing groups draw upon this universal source of religious experience and adapt it to the cir cumstances of people living in contem porary American society. The result is a form of spirituality that may not be “for mal ly” religious and may not always take place within con ventional religious con texts, but that genuine ly satis fies people’s spiritual needs. If secu lar ization produc es a spiritual “dis en chant ment”, as Max Weber argues, then dream-sharing groups offer the means to a “reenchantment” of the world, to a renewal and revival of authentic spiritual experience in contem porary society.

But from a different perspective, dream-sharing groups can be seen as intensifying the destructive effects of secularization, making modern social life more fragment ed, more alienated, and more spiritually confused. Paying so much attention to dreams can easily appear as socially irrele vant navel-gazing; by focusing so intently on one’s personal psycho logical dynamics, people run the danger of losing touch with the public realm of community involve ment. The outer world is so cold and impersonal, and the inner world is so warm and alluring, that modern Western ers feel a strong temptation to abandon the former and immerse themselves in the latter. By surrendering to this tempta tion, people become ever more detached, iso lated, and alienated from society.[vii]

The process of exploring one’s dreams in a group set ting would seem to minimize these potentially alienating effects. But as Robert Wuthnow argues in his recent work Sharing the Journey (1994), participation in various kinds of small support groups (like dream-sharing groups) is often nothing more than a further defense against broader public engagement. Such groups are usually very homoge neous, making it easier for par ticipants to rein force their established views and to avoid contact with differ ent types of people. Wuthnow’s concern is that small support groups provide a covert means of self-protec tion against the complications of a multicultural world, and thus a further erosion in people’s broad er sense of commu nity.

So it seems that dream-sharing groups promote a kind of spirituality that is authentic, powerful, and person ally fulfilling–but that is also helping to corrode the communal integrity of contemporary American society.

IV

That harsh conclusion is not warranted, however, by a careful examination of the actual practices of various dream-sharing groups. Such an examination reveals that many dream-sharing groups enable participants to gain valuable insights into the relations between their per sonal lives and the broader social world in which they live. Furthermore, many dream-sharing groups give people a means of understanding others, of recognizing their connections with people who are differ ent. In such cases, dream-sharing groups genuinely help to revitalize a sense of communi ty and to renew people’s active engage ment with the world.

The following are two brief descriptions of dream-sharing groups that have this community-revitalizing effect (for fuller accounts of these cases, and for other perspectives on the social and cultural relevance of dream studies, see the anthology I’ve edited, Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming, Modern Society, and the Future of Dream Studies (in press (a))):

1) Jane White Lewis, a Jungian analyst, has for the past three years been teaching classes on dreams at a public high school in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven is an all-too typical American city, plagued by drugs, crime, poverty, and urban decay. Many of the teenagers in Lewis’s classes are struggling simply to survive in this deeply troubled community. But Lewis has found that when the students begin exploring and discussing their dreams, they discover new resources of energy, creativi ty, and hope. In her class the students share their dreams, draw pictures of them, act them out in little dramatic productions, and write essays and stories based on them. Many of the students who hate writing or think they just don’t have the talent to write sudden ly find their “voice” when writing about their dreams and about the memo ries, feelings, and thoughts that arise in con nection with their dreams. For example, the students in one class often dreamed of the police, of fighting them, arguing with them, trying to hide from them; class dis cussions of these “police dreams” led the students to reflect on conflicts with authority, both in society and in their own personal lives. Similarly, the dreams of many of the girls about having babies raised the very immediate issue of teen pregnancy: the students dis cussed the social and psycho logical pressures girls feel in romantic relation ships, and their dreams opened up new vistas of reflection on how to resist those pressures. In this case, encourag ing the students to turn “inwards” to their dreams became a valu able means of guiding them “outwards” to the realm of public society.

2) Bette Ehlert is a New Mexico lawyer who for a number of years has been leading dream-sharing groups in jails, prisons, and other correctional facilities. As public opinion polls tell us, crime is widely regarded as the number one threat to the American commu nity; politi cians argue bitterly over what causes crime and what to do with criminals. In her groups Ehlert has found that dream-sharing can be an effective means of discovering links between the particular crimes committed by an offender and certain events, experiences, and conflicts in the offender’s past. For example, a young African-American convicted of dealing crack had a dream of struggling to get away from a dark entity pushing down on him. In the group discussion the dreamer discovered the relations between his being sexually abused as a child and his crime of being a “pusher.” Ehlert has also found that in a more general sense dream-sharing groups help criminal offenders cultivate the cognitive abilities in which they are so notoriously deficient: the abilities to reason critically, to empatheti cally take the perspective of others, and to envi sion alter na tives, possi bili ties, and poten tials. All of this strengthens their capacity to avoid becoming trapped in a lifelong cycle of crime and incarceration.

These two cases show that dream-sharing groups can actually give their partici pants valu able, focused in sights into prob lems that involve an intersec tion of personal and social forces. Rather than promoting navel-gazing escapism, rather than further isolat ing people in homoge neous little social units, these groups enable participants to per ceive, to understand, and to respect the lives of other people, of different people. Dream-sharing groups are not only a powerful means of spiritual discovery and expression; they are also a powerful means of renewing a vivid, dynamic sense of community in con temporary Ameri can soci ety.

V

My discussion of the phenomenon of dream-sharing groups is not intended to suggest that these groups can cure all of society’s ills. Any attempt to offer “new thinking on community” must acknowledge that in this post-modern, post-Cold War world there are no simple remedies, no magic wands that can make poverty and racism and crime and all our other social problems disappear. What I would like to suggest is that dream-sharing groups offer a resource that can, in many situa­tions, prove effective in revitalizing a sense of commu nity. Among their many practical virtues, these groups are widely accessible (since everybody dreams), cost-free (all you need is a space for people to sit in a circle), and capable of adapting to an endless variety of settings and circum stances. Dream-sharing groups have an especially great potential, I believe, to enrich educa tional pro grams. Lewis’s work in a public high school is one good example of this. In my own current research, I’m working with preschool children in various socio-economic set tings, trying to develop programs that inte grate dreams, play, and story-telling.

When shared in a group setting, dreams can stimulate a deep and powerful sense of relat ed ness to others, en abling people to recog nize a shared humanity in the midst of social and cultur al differences. I would like to close with one of the more poetic statements of this point, by Synesius of Cyrene, an early fifth-century Neo-Platonist who convert ed to Christianity and became famous as the bishop of Ptolemais. In a treatise he wrote on dreams, Synesius says this:

“[T]he dream is visible to the man who is worth five hundred medimni, and equally to the possessor of three hundred, to the teamster no less than to the peasant who tills the boundary land for a livelihood, to the galley slave and the common labourer alike… [To this oracle] then we must go, woman and man of us, young and old, poor and rich alike, the private citizen and the ruler, the town dweller and the rustic, the artisan and the orator. She repudiates neither race, nor age, nor condition, nor calling. She is present to everyone, everywhere, this zealous prophetess, this wise counsellor, who holdeth her peace.”[viii]

Bibliography

Bellah, Robert, et.al.1985. Habits of the Heart.
University of California Press.

Berger, Peter. 1967. The Sacred Canopy. Doubleday.

Bulkeley, Kelly. 1994. The Wilderness of Dreams.
SUNY Press.

________ (editor). In press (a). Among All These

Dream ers. SUNY Press.

________. In press (b). Spiritual Dreaming.
Paulist Press.

Domhoff, G. William. 1985. The Mystique of Dreams.

University of California Press.

Faraday, Ann. 1972. Dream Power. Berkeley Books.

________. 1974. The Dream Game. Harper & Row.

Garfield, Patricia. 1974. Creative Dreaming.
Ballantine.

Jedrej, M.C. and Shaw, Rosalind (editors). 1993.

Dream ing, Religion and Society in Africa.
E.J. Brill.

Kelsey, Morton. 1974. God, Dreams, and Revelation.
Augsburg Publishing House.

Rieff, Philip. 1966. The Triumph of the Therapeutic.

Harper & Row.

Stewart, Kilton. 1969. “Dream Theory in Malaya.” In

Charles Tart (ed.), Altered States of
Consciousness. Harper Collins.

Taylor, Jeremy. 1982. Dream Work. Paulist Press.

Tedlock, Barbara (editor). 1987. Dreaming:

Anthropolog ical and Psychological
Interpretations. Cambridge University Press.

Von Grunebaum, G.E. and Callois, Roger (editors).
1966. The Dream and Human Societies.
University of California Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1994. Sharing the Journey. Vantage.

Notes

[i]. See Von Grunebaum and Callois 1966, Tedlock 1987, Jedrej and Shaw 1993, and Bulkeley in press (a).

[ii]. Although my focus in this presentation is on the United States, there are also many dream-sharing groups active in Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe.

[iii]. For a highly skeptical evaluation of Stewart’s re search and its popular reception, see Domhoff 1985.

[iv]. In keeping with a notion of “groups” as consisting of people meeting in face-to-face contexts, I’m not discuss ing the phenomenon of dream-sharing via television, radio, and cyberspace–although these technological arenas have brought countless more people into the pro cess of sharing and discussing dreams with others.

[v]. I’m basing these estimates on 1) my experiences in leading and participating in these groups, 2) my reviews of the many books and periodicals devoted to the subject of dreams, and 3) numerous conver sations and extensive correspon dence with people who have been active in the dream-sharing group “movement” for many years, including Montague Ullman, Jeremy Taylor, Roberta Ossana, Anthony Shafton, Jill Gregory, and Rita Dwyer.

[vi]. For a more detailed discussion of the relevance of modern dream studies to the process of secularization, see Bulkeley 1994, chapter 19.

[vii]. This is a general critique of modern psychology made by Philip Rieff 1966, Peter Berger 1967, and Robert Bellah, et. al. 1985.

[viii]. Kelsey 1974, pp. 247-248.