The Legacy of William Dement

The Legacy of William Dement by Kelly Bulkeley

The world of sleep and dream research lost one of its all-time greats with the passing of William Dement. He died on June 17, at the age of 91. Dement was an innovative clinician, a popular teacher, and a strong voice for greater public attention to the dangers of inadequate sleep. He led the creation of the field of sleep medicine and devoted much of his career to mapping out various kinds of sleep pathologies and disorders. Our present-day understanding of the vital importance of sleep for human health depends in large part on his work.

Dement earned his M.D. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where he worked in the 1950’s and 1960’s with Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky on some of the first detailed studies of the sleep cycle. He is generally credited with coining the term “rapid eye movement (REM) sleep” as a way to describe the regular phases of heightened neurophysiological arousal during the sleep cycle, phases in which an easily observed external sign is the darting movements of the sleeper’s eyes under their closed lids. He also performed some of the first experiments looking at the connections between the physiology of sleep and the psychology of dreaming.

After his time at Chicago, Dement went to Stanford University and in 1970 founded the Stanford Sleep Medicine Clinic. His research and public advocacy brought new awareness to sleep as a key factor in transportation safety (sleepy drivers and pilots are a danger to everyone), child education (sleepy kids can’t learn), and economic growth (sleepy workers are less productive).

For years he taught a popular course at Stanford on “Sleep and Dreaming,” and one of my only regrets from my time as a Stanford undergraduate (1980-1984) was that I never took Dement’s class. But his influence has been enormous on me and everyone who studies sleep and dreams. Among his many writings, the 1997 book The Promise of Sleep (co-authored with Christopher Vaughan) stands out as an authoritative statement of his basic views about sleep. It also includes numerous stories and reflections about the eventful trajectory of his career.

A particularly illuminating story appears in an earlier text, Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep: Exploring the World of Sleep (1972), in which Dement related the following dream:

“Some years ago, I was a heavy cigarette smoker—up to two packs a day. Then one night I had an exceptionally vivid and realistic dream in which I had inoperable cancer of the lung. I remember as though it were yesterday looking at the ominous shadow in my chest X-ray and realizing that the entire right lung was infiltrated. The subsequent physical examination in which a colleague detected widespread metastases in my auxiliary and inguinal lymph nodes was equally vivid. Finally, I experienced the incredible anguish of knowing my life was soon to end, that I would never see my children grow up, and that none of this would have happened if I had quit cigarettes when I first learned of their carcinogenic potential. I will never forget the surprise, joy, and exquisite relief of waking up. I felt I was reborn. Needless to say, the experience was sufficient to induce an immediate cessation of my cigarette habit.”

In his comments on this powerful dream, Dement highlighted a truth often expressed in spiritual or religious contexts, but less often acknowledged in scientific discourse: “Only the dream can allow us to experience a future alternative as if it were real, and thereby to provide a supremely enlightened motivation to act upon this knowledge.” (1972, 102)

Indeed. Thank you for everything, Dr. William Dement.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, July 9, 2020.

Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (2014)

Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (2014) by Kelly BulkeleyLucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (2014)
Two Volumes

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Description

The first set of its kind, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep provides a comprehensive showcase of the theories, research, and direct experience that serve to illuminate how certain people can develop and maintain conscious awareness while dreaming. The text is organized into two major parts, covering science, psychology, and education; and religious traditions, creativity, and culture. Contributors to this two-volume work include top dream experts across the globe—scholars sharing knowledge gained from deep personal explorations and cutting-edge scientific investigations.

Topics covered include the neuroscience of lucid dreaming, clinical uses of lucid dreaming in treating trauma, the secret history of lucid dreaming in English philosophy, and spiritual practices of lucid dreaming in Islam, Buddhism, and shamanic traditions. The work also addresses lucid dreaming in movies including The Matrix and literature such as the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and explains how modern video gaming enhances lucidity. This set serves as an ideal text and reference work for school libraries and academic courses in anthropology, psychology, religious studies, and cognitive science as well as for graduate-level study in holistic education.

Contributors include: Ursula and Georg Voss, Brigitte Holzinger, James F. Pagel, Tadas Stumbrys and Daniel Erlacher, Lee Irwin, Tim Post, Mary Ziemer, Isaac Y. Taitz, Robert Waggoner, Jorge Conesa-Sevilla, Jayne Gackenbach and Harry Hunt, David J. Hufford, G. Scott Sparrow, Eleanor Rosch, Roger Ivar Lohmann and Shayne A.P. Dahl, Clare R. Johnson, Diana Riboli, Chris Olsen, Curtiss Hoffman, Bernard Welt, Mehrdad Fakour, Robin Ridington, Fariba Bogzaran, Ted Esser, A. Muhammad Ma’ruf, George Gillespie, Kenneth Kelzer, Stephen LaBerge.

Reviews

“. . . [T]his is a fascinating resource. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers.”—Choice

Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (2016)

Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (2016) by Kelly BulkeleyBig Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (2016)

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Description

“Big dreams” are rare but highly memorable dream experiences that make a strong and lasting impact on the dreamer’s waking awareness. Moving far beyond “I forgot to study and the finals are today” and other common scenarios, such dreams can include vivid imagery, intense emotions, fantastic characters, and an uncanny sense of being connected to forces beyond one’s ordinary dreaming mind. In Big Dreams, Kelly Bulkeley provides the first full-scale cognitive scientific analysis of such dreams, putting forth an original theory about their formation, function, and meaning.

“It is in dreams that one can catch sight of the most fundamental and stable symbolisms of humanity passing from the ‘cosmic’ function to the ‘psychic’ function.”

Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, 1967

Big dreams have played significant roles in religious and cultural history, but because of their infrequent occurrence and fantastical features, they have rarely been studied in light of modern science. We know a great deal about the religious manifestations of big dreams throughout history and around the world, but until now that cross-cultural knowledge has never been integrated with scientific research on their psychological roots in the brain-mind system. In Big Dreams, Bulkeley puts a classic psychological thesis to the scientific test by clarifying and improving it with better data, sharper analysis, and a broader evolutionary framework. He brings evidence from multiple sources, shows patterns of similarity and difference, questions prior assumptions, and provides predictive models that can be applied to new sets of data. The notion of a connection between dreaming and religion has always been intuitively compelling; Big Dreams transforms it into a solid premise of religious studies and brain-mind science.

Combining evidence from religious studies, psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, Big Dreams makes a compelling argument that big dreams are a primal wellspring of religious experience. They represent an innate, neurologically hard-wired capacity of our species that regularly provokes greater self-awareness, creativity, and insight into the existential challenges and spiritual potentials of human life.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Section I. Sleep
1. The evolution of sleep
2. The brain’s paradoxical activities in sleep
3. The role of sleep in human health and development
4. Cultural practices of sleep through history

Section II. Ordinary Dreaming
5. Dream recall
6. Patterns in form and content
7. Continuities between dreaming and waking life
8. Discontinuities and metaphors

Section III. Big Dreams
9. Aggressive
10. Sexual
11. Gravitational
12. Mystical

Section IV. Religious Experiences
13. Demonic attack
14. Prophetic vision
15. Ritual healing
16. Contemplative practice

Conclusion
Appendix: Word search methods in the study of dreams
Index

Comments and Reviews

“William James said that ‘white crows’ and ‘mystics’—the anomalous and the extreme—helped us to understand the common and the ordinary in religious life. Recent claims have reversed this insight, dwelling on the ordinary and the everyday and writing off the extraordinary as statistical blips or ‘anecdotes.’ Kelly Bulkeley draws on a lifetime of erudition and his massive digital database to return us to the extreme cases, the ‘black swans’ of ‘big dreams,’ but only after throwing much light on everything from the evolution of the brain and the neurochemistry of sleeping to the adaptiveness, meaningfulness, and playfulness of dreaming. Dreams, it turns out, are not expressions of random neuronic stupidity. To the extent that they encourage us to imagine the possible, they are some of the deepest wellsprings of religious experience and the ‘metacognitive potentials of human consciousness’ itself.”

Jeffrey J. Kripal, Rice University, author of Comparing Religions: Coming to Terms.

“Bulkeley’s erudite volume illuminates perspectives about dreams from the Upanishads through Thomas Aquinas, Charles Darwin, and Mircea Eliade to modern neuroscience and Dilbert. These lead to Bulkeley’s own major ideas of dreams as play, and the distinction between the continuity of ordinary dreams versus the discontinuity of big dreams. Novel and thought-provoking—I highly recommend it!”

Deirdre Barrett, Harvard Medical School, author of The Committee of Sleep.

 

An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming, 2nd Ed.

An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming, 2nd Ed. by Kelly BulkeleyAn Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming, second revised edition (2017)
By Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D.

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Description

This book is an introduction to the major psychological theories about dreams and dreaming. It offers a history of how these theories have developed from 1900 to the present, along with an extensive bibliography of key books and articles on modern dream research. The theories are presented in chronological order, to give readers a sense of how each new approach depends (in complex and varying ways) on those approaches that preceded it. The psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud is described first, followed by chapters on the archetypal theory of Carl G. Jung, the clinical practices of people like Alfred Adler and Medard Boss, the psycho-physiological studies of dreaming in the sleep laboratory, experimental studies of dream content, and “pop psychology” efforts to educate the broader public about dream research.
The book helps readers make sense of all these different areas by focusing on three basic questions: How are dreams formed? What functions do they serve? How can they be interpreted? Each chapter looks at how the leading dream psychologists of the 20th and 21st centuries answer these questions. The distinct identity of each theory is clearly illustrated by its responses to the questions of dream formation, function, and interpretation. By carefully examining the answers given by modern psychologists who have studied dreams from a wide variety of perspectives, readers will be in a good position to evaluate the field as a whole—and then to formulate their own answers.

Table of Contents

Preface to the second edition
1. Three Basic Questions about Dreaming: Formation, Function, Interpretation
2. Sigmund Freud Discovers “The Secret of Dreams”
3. C.G. Jung Descends into the Collective Unconscious
4. Alternative Clinical Theories about Dreams
5. Sleep Laboratories, REM Sleep, and Dreaming
6. Experimental Psychology and Dreaming
7. Popular Psychology: Bringing Dreams to the Masses
8. Modern Psychology’s Answers to the Three Basic Questions About Dreaming
Bibliography
Index

Blurbs and Reviews

“Probably the best introduction to the psychology of dreaming to date. The author summarizes with remarkable clarity the various approaches to this topic…. Even though this text is intended as an introduction to the topic, it provides a sufficiently in-depth approach to satisfy the needs of the busy practitioner.”
—Rama Coomaraswamy, American Journal of Psychotherapy

“A superb introduction. It is remarkably comprehensive and comprehensible….[It] covers all of the important landmarks in the area of dreams [in an] understandable fashion. It would be a magnificent book for a course on dreaming. One of the truly amazing characteristics of the book is the author’s capacity to present the widely diverse material in such an even-handed fashion.”
— Wilse B. Webb, Professor Emiritus of Psychology, University of Florida

“This is an easy-to-read, elegant, and well-organized text on an important but often neglected topic. Kelly Bulkeley has written a dream of an introduction to dreaming!”
— Ernest Hartmann, Professor of Psychology, Tufts University School of Medicine

“This book by Kelly Bulkeley lives up to the readers’ expectations. The author has condensed his profound knowledge about dreaming in an easily readable introduction.”
— Michael Schredl, Dreaming

 

 

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice by Kelly BulkeleyIn recent weeks, many Americans have been dreaming about police, protestors, and frightening acts of violence and destruction. But the dreams differ dramatically in the focus of their anxiety and distress.

A new online survey from YouGov asked nearly 5,000 American adults about their dream recall, insomnia, attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement, and dreams of the recent protests against racial injustice. A detailed analysis of the survey is forthcoming, but the initial findings reveal a number of recurrent themes in people’s dreams about the ongoing protests across the country.

Police aggression. One of the most vivid themes involved people being hassled, assaulted, or shot by the police:

“Bad interaction with a cop”

“Bad dreams about being stopped by police. None of the dreams end well”

“I have a 25 year son I sometimes dream I get the call he was shot by the police.”

“I was in a peaceful protest and the police attacked us. I was shot in the leg.”

“I dreamt I was shot by the police”

“I was at a protest like the one i really attended but when the cops threw the gas i wasn’t prepared like i was in real life and it hurt so bad and i fell and they arrested me. i was crying and asking them what i did but they wouldn’t listen”

Images of George Floyd. His horrific death on May 25th echoes through many people’s dreams:

“I dream about how that poor man was killed it hurts me to have seen that video that poor father”

“I keep replaying the guy dying and saying ‘I can’t breathe, Momma.’”

“it could have just have as easily been me”

“I keep having the death of George Floyd.”

Threats to home. For several people, their greatest concern is an attack on their family residence by looters and rioters:

“protesters coming to burn our home down”

“I’ve had dreams my home is broken into and myself and my family were hurt by others. I woke up and was in a funk for the rest of the week. I refuse to watch the news now a days.”

“It involved me beating up rioters and looters to protect my family”

“I dreamed rioters were shooting at my home.”

“Defending my home and family”

Merging the protests and the pandemic. Some people had nightmares about the convergence of the public protests with the COVID-19 outbreak:

“I was missing a mask and terrified of being near people. But people kept getting close and everyone was marching and everyone was happy and I was trying to act happy too and not let on how scared I was.”

“Was attending a protest with friends in the dream and no one was wearing face masks, and it was a stressful dream because no one was listening to me about the importance of our face masks during the protest!”

If you, or anyone you know, have dreams like these, here are a couple of suggestions.

Be careful about your media consumption. It doesn’t help anyone if you become overwhelmed and paralyzed by mental distress.

Be careful, too, about hasty interpretations. Every dream has multiple meanings, some of which take time and reflection to recognize. It’s always worth considering the possibility of both literal and symbolic meanings. For instance, dreaming of an attack on your home might reflect an actual physical danger to your house, and/or it might reflect a different kind of challenge to the comfort and familiarity of your life, symbolized by your home. Dreams don’t solve our problems, but they do give us emotionally honest portraits of what those problems are and where we need to direct more conscious attention and effort towards change.

The reports above included no further comments or associations, so we cannot be sure what exactly the dreams mean to the dreamer. But we do know, thanks to Charlotte Beradt’s 1966 book The Third Reich of Dreams, along with the research of other historians and anthropologists, that whatever else they might mean for the individual, dreams can provide powerful, accurate, and critically insightful visions of social reality. Especially in times of community crisis, conflict, and trauma, dreams offer a valuable source of collective awareness.

 

Note: The responses and dream reports from this survey will be available soon in the Sleep and Dream Database, an open-access digital archive for empirical dream research.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 4,947 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15th – 19th June 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).

This post first appeared in Psychology Today on June 25, 2020. 

Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares

Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares by Kelly BulkeleyPeople who are familiar with the deep patterns of their dreams seem to be having fewer nightmares compared to the general population.

This observation is based on a series of interviews I recently conducted with the participants in two dream research projects, one that began in early 2017 and one that began in December of 2019. It’s remarkable to see the different qualities in their dreams compared to other people’s pandemic-related dreams: less fear, more agency, more problem-solving, more willingness to change, more openness to future possibilities.

For many people, the first wave of dreams relating to the Covid-19 outbreak have been unrelentingly nightmarish. The results of an online survey of 2,477 demographically representative American adults in early April indicated that the predominant emotional themes in their dreams are fear, confusion, and uncertainty about the future. Other researchers using anecdotal sources have found similar results.

Part of the story here is that the stay-at-home conditions of this particular crisis have forced many people into a sudden encounter with their dreaming selves and the shadowy powers of their unconscious. This in itself can be a psychological shock, especially for busy, extraverted people who spend most of their time and energy in the external world. Having little or no familiarity with their inner worlds, they are struggling with an unprecedented surge of crisis-related dreaming. This isn’t really surprising: if you have no experience with the ways of your own sleeping mind, any sudden rise in vivid dreams, whatever their contents, is likely to feel scary and overwhelming.

Not so with the participants in these two research studies. The first is the Dream Mapping Project, a group of international artists who have been sharing dreams with me and creating collaborative art projects for more than three years. I recently spoke with four of the artists (by zoom, of course), located in Italy, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and New York City. I also spoke/zoomed with the participants in the 2020 Dreamers Project, in which nine people with high dream recall agreed to keep a year-long journal of their dreams starting in late December of 2019.

These thirteen individuals (11 women, 2 men) are definitely not representative of the general population. They are unusually intuitive and self-aware, and they have been vivid dreamers from an early age. None of them have been untouched by the pandemic: they, too, are suffering jobs lost, careers upended, families in peril, and local communities in distress. The members of these two groups are not oblivious to the crisis or in denial about it. But at least so far, their dreams have been remarkably adaptive and reassuring, in contrast to the nightmares plaguing so many other people.

In a future post, after more consultation with the group members, I hope to share some of their specific dreams. In the meantime, here are key themes as highlighted by the dreamers themselves:

  • They were dreaming about aspects of the Covid-19 outbreak early, in January and February, anticipating the social disruptions about to hit the world, and beginning to envision possible responses.
  • Their dreams definitely have apocalyptic themes of collective crisis, but not with overwhelming feelings of terror, helplessness, or vulnerability. Instead, they mostly maintain their emotional balance amid the chaos, observing and witnessing what’s going on, responding as best they can, and helping other people who are struggling.
  • Their dreams also have post-apocalyptic themes, looking beyond the present crisis to envision the new world ahead. How will we navigate through the altered realities of the future?
  • The problem-solving function of dreaming comes to the fore in their experiences. Their dreams view the crisis as a challenge that’s within their power to manage and solve. Their dreaming attitude is, here’s a problem, it’s big but not impossible, let me figure it out how to deal with it.
  • Some of them say they have been preparing for years, in their dreams and waking lives, for major shifts and transformations in global reality. They have long-standing practices in art, yoga, meditation, and dreaming, and these activities have made them less attached to the status quo and more comfortable amid the uncertainties of radical change. The world suddenly turning upside down is perhaps less of a shock to them than to people who have never engaged in such practices.

More research is needed, of course, to gain a better understanding of the full range of people’s dream experiences during this historically tumultuous time. But the results so far raise an interesting and potentially vital question:

Is deep familiarity with dreaming a source of psychological resilience during times of crisis, and if so, should this be included in future disaster preparations?

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, April 21, 2020.