Donald Trump: The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis

Donald Trump: The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis by Kelly BulkeleyIt seems that every pundit on the planet has taken a shot at explaining the phenomenal rise and mercurial character of Donald Trump, currently the leading contender to become the Republican nominee for US President. A recent op-ed piece by Timothy Egan in the New York Times, “A Unified Theory of Trump,” suggested a novel and I believe entirely plausible explanation for Trump’s behavior as a candidate: he is chronically sleep deprived.

Egan pointed to Trump’s comments last November in which he boasted about his disinterest in sleep. As reported by Nara Schoenberg in the Chicago Tribune, Trump told a crowd in Springfield, Illinois that “I’m not a big sleeper, I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.” A few days later Trump told Henry Blodget in an interview for Business Insider that he can get by on as little as one hour of sleep. Here is an excerpt from the interview; the sleep discussion comes at the very beginning:

HENRY BLODGET, CEO AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF BUSINESS INSIDER: You have an incredible work ethic, which is clearly part of your success. You’re tweeting at 3 o’clock in the morning, you’re up all night.

DONALD TRUMP: It’s part of my campaign. [Conservative radio host] Mark Levin said to me last night, I had a dinner-show at 8:30. He says, “I saw you on ‘Morning Joe’ at 7, I saw you in the debate. Where do you get the energy?” he said. I said, “Mark, you know what, I got one hour of sleep last night. Because I flew from Milwaukee at 2:30 in the morning. You know, by the time you’re finished up with all the stuff and the interviews.” It was a successful debate, so I stayed around.

I then flew, I went to New Hampshire. I went to a hotel, I stayed for one hour, because I got there at 5. And by the time I got there, I had to get up to get out at 6:30 something. So I slept for one hour over there.

He said, “Where do you get the energy?”

HB: So where do you get it? Where does it come from?

DT: Genetically. My father was very energetic, my mother was very energetic. He lived to a very old age and so did my mother. I believe that I just have it from my father, from my parents. They had wonderful energy.

In her Huffington Post commentary, “Can Sleep Deprivation Explain Donald Trump’s Behavior?” Krithika Varagur noted that in his 2004 book Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, he “claimed to sleep only from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., in order to gain a competitive advantage in his dealings. He advised readers, ‘Don’t sleep any more than you have to. … No matter how brilliant you are, there’s not enough time in the day.’”

I won’t speculate about Trump’s genetics, but I agree with Schoenberg, Egan, and Varagur that his behavioral patterns are characteristic of someone with chronic sleep deprivation, the symptoms of which include emotional imbalance, sudden mood swings, cognitive deficits, poor judgment, memory loss, irritability in social situations, increased appetites, loss of creativity, the tendency to continue with an error despite contrary evidence, and an inability to recognize and adjust to new conditions. Most of these symptoms do seem applicable to Trump. As Egan put it,

“His judgment is off, and almost always ill informed. He has trouble processing basic information. He imagines things. He shows a lack of concentration… in addition, Trump is given to inchoate bursts of anger and profanity. He creates feuds. In his speeches, he picks up on the angry voice in the mob and then amplifies it.”

But if this theory about Trump is true, then his political success seems even more bizarre than ever. How can someone who flaunts his psychological dysfunction be winning the fervent support of a large portion of the American electorate?

The answer may be embedded in the question. Trump’s supporters themselves may have a tendency to chronic sleep deprivation.

The behavioral signs are consistent with this idea. People who support Trump are remarkably unyielding in their attachment to him; nothing anyone says will change their minds. As Trump himself commented in January, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” His supporters seem to include many people who are angry, suspicious of reason, socially irritable, and uncreative in the sense of seeking a return to an earlier, simpler time, when America used to be great.

Stronger evidence comes from demographic studies of sleep. Trump’s supporters tend to be people at the lower end of the income scale, less educated, and, in their own words, feeling besieged by outside forces threatening to overwhelm the country. Empirical research has shown that people in precisely those demographic conditions are more prone to suffer insomnia and problems sleeping. For example, Sara Arber at the University of Surrey has shown correlations in the British population between poor sleep and low socio-economic status. Here is how I describe her findings in chapter 4 of my book Big Dreams:

“Research by Sara Arber and her colleagues at the Center for the Sociology of Sleep at the University of Surrey has found clear connections between socioeconomic status and sleep quality. In a study based on interviews with 8,578 British men and women between the ages of 16 and 74, Arber and her colleagues identified several social and economic factors associated with increased sleep problems: unemployment, low household income, low educational achievement, and living in rented or public housing. Women had worse sleep problems than men, and divorced or widowed people had worse sleep problems than married people. Overall, their study found that disadvantages in social and economic life were strongly correlated with poor quality sleep. Noting the negative health consequences of sleep deprivation, Arber and her colleagues suggested that “disrupted sleep may potentially be one of the mechanisms through which low socioeconomic status leads to increased morbidity and mortality.”

The last point bears emphasis. Poor socioeconomic conditions can lead to poor sleep, which in turn can lead to increased health problems and a shorter lifespan. Sleep seems to be a pressure point where adverse social forces can directly and negatively impact a person’s physiological health.

My research with the Sleep and Dream Database has also found that people at the low end of the economic scale tend to have more insomnia and trouble sleeping. In a 2007 survey I found, consistent with Arber et al.’s research, that people with higher education and higher annual income tended to have less insomnia than people with lower education and lower annual income. A 2010 survey found the same pattern: people without college degrees had somewhat worse insomnia than people with a college degree. On the personal finances question, people with the lowest annual income reported having worse insomnia than did the people with the highest annual incomes. (I discuss these surveys at greater length in chapter 4 of Big Dreams.)

Most Americans are sleep deprived not by choice or genetics, but because of the relentless stress and pressure of modern life. For those Americans at the lower end of the economic scale, with fewer opportunities and more anxieties about the worsening condition of the country, it becomes difficult to preserve normal, healthy patterns of sleep.

And then Donald Trump comes along and says sleep deprivation is nonsense, that’s just what losers think when they see a high-energy individual with a strong work ethic. Trump shows people how to re-brand their loss of sleep as a badge of honor, reconceive their misfortune as a virtuous strength, and transform their diminished inner life into an outward projection of aggressive confidence. It seems to work for him, and the implicit promise of his campaign is that it will work for his supporters, too.

 

References:

Arber, Sara, Marcos Bote, and Robert Meadows. “Gender and socio-economic patterning of self-reported sleep problems in Britain,” Social Science & Medicine 68 (2009): 281-289.

Arber, Sara, Robert Meadows, and S. Venn. “Sleep and Society,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sleep and Sleep Disorders (Charles Morin and Colin Espie, ed.s). New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 223-247.

 

Note: this essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on March 9, 2016.

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants by Kelly BulkeleyChildhood is a time of frequent and intense dreaming for many people. Often these nocturnal experiences from early life have a dark hue—children are especially prone to nightmares, sleep paralysis, and night terrors. But children are also more likely than adults to experience magical dreams of flying and lucid dreams of self-awareness.   The whole wild world of dreaming, in all its strange complexity, seems more accessible in childhood than it is later in life.

A rich tradition of children’s literature, going back to such classics as Alice in Wonderland, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are, has addressed the profound feelings of fear, wonder, and curiosity that often pervade children’s experience when they go to sleep and dream. Cartoons are another powerful medium that can reflect recurrent themes in childhood dreams (good examples include Little Nemo in Slumberland, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and the Sandman series).

Cartoons on television have carried on this tradition, telling stories about dreams with much more psychological depth and power than many adults realize. These animated fictions about bizarre characters doing absurdly unrealistic things turn out to reflect the emotional reality of childhood with surprising accuracy and psychological insight.

Two episodes from recent cartoon series can help to illustrate the point.

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants by Kelly BulkeleyThe first comes from “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which first aired in 1999 on the Nickelodeon network and has gone on to become one of the most popular cartoons of all time.   An episode in season 5, titled “Roller Cowards,” features dreaming as a valuable source of self-knowledge. The episode opens with Sponge Bob and his best friend Patrick hearing about an amazing new roller coaster ride (“The Fiery Fist O’ Pain”) at their favorite amusement park. The night before they go to the park, Sponge Bob goes to sleep thinking about how much fun the ride will be. But then he has a nightmare in which the roller coaster leads to terror and death, and he wakes up trembling in fear. When Patrick comes over and asks what’s wrong, Sponge Bob says he just had a bad dream. Patrick quickly says he had a bad dream, too. Sponge Bob asks what he dreamed, but before Patrick can answer the bus arrives to take them to the amusement park, and away they go.

It turns out Patrick is just as scared as Sponge Bob, though neither of them wants to admit their fears to the other. Their dreams provide accurate barometers of how they really feel, despite all their conscious efforts to pretend otherwise. Only when they finally make the humbling confession to each other that they’re scared to go on the ride, are they ready to embrace the thrilling, spine-dislocating experience of the “Fiery Fist.”

A second example comes from the “Justice League” series, which first aired in 2001 on Cartoon Network. Based on characters from DC Comics, the series gathers seven famous superheroes—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkgirl, and J’onn J’onzz—who battle a colorful variety of super villains. The second season presented a two-part episode titled “Only a Dream,” featuring a criminal named John Dee who uses an ESP-generating machine to transform his own brain into a powerful weapon that can attack people in their dreams. After murdering his faithless girlfriend, Dee—who has now taken on the nom de guerre of Dr. Destiny—focuses his evil power on the members of the Justice League when they fall asleep and dream.

This is where the cartoon enters more sophisticated psychological territory. Dr. Destiny attacks each superhero at his or her weakest point, namely what they fear the most. This fear gives shape to the kind of nightmare that Dr. Destiny sends to each of them.

For the super-speedy, wisecracking Flash, his nightmare involves never being able to slow down, so he can never again connect with normal people; as Dr. Destiny intones, his dream prison is “being stuck in high gear, alone forever.” In Superman’s nightmare he cannot control his increasingly destructive powers, which he tries to hide but cannot. His greatest fear is that his power will hurt the very people he cares about the most. The Green Lantern dreams that he goes back to his old neighborhood, but he recognizes nothing, and everyone speaks a different language. When people see him they flee from in terror; like the Flash and Superman, his deepest anxiety has to do with staying connected with other people despite his special powers and unique identity.

Cartoon Dreams: Psychological Insights in The Justice League and SpongeBob SquarePants by Kelly BulkeleyHawkgirl’s dream is perhaps the most intense and frightening of all. After a false awakening that gives her a moment of deceptive reassurance, Dr. Destiny binds her wings and sends her plunging down to earth, straight into a yawning grave in which she is buried alive under a mound of dirt. For a superhero whose special power is flight, this would be a terrifying nightmare indeed.

Batman, meanwhile, has managed to stay awake, but barely. Dr. Destiny haunts the periphery of his sleep-deprived consciousness, nearly causing him to crash the Batmobile.

Fortunately for the Justice League, J’onn the Martian Manhunter has the ability to go into people’s dreams and help their dreaming selves fight back against Dr. Destiny. J’onn serves as a kind of shamanic warrior and therapist, telling each of the superheroes what he or she needs to hear to rally their strength and break free of their nightmare. Each of them alone cannot defeat Dr. Destiny. But once they find new sources of strength within their dreams, the collective might of the Justice League (sans Wonder Woman; she does not appear in this episode) is enough to overthrow Dr. Destiny and his Freddy Kruger-like reign of terror over their slumber.

And finally, Batman can sleep.

The Justice League episode is much more psychologically complex than the one from SpongeBob SquarePants, which is befitting given the latter show’s focus on younger children and the former’s appeal to older children and tweens. Both cartoons, however, present a similar appreciation for dreaming as a means of expressing important emotional truths, especially those truths that seem most frightening to our waking minds. In the world of these two cartoons, dreams are portrayed as a valuable source of insight. Without putting too much weight on stories meant primarily as entertainment, it’s still fair to say that the resolution of each story teaches a basic respect for the power and wisdom of dreaming.   These cartoons have, perhaps unwittingly, done a wonderful service of dream education for millions of children.

 

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on Feb. 18, 2016.

 

Beyond the Eclipse of Research on Big Dreams

Beyond the Eclipse of Research on Big Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyOn Friday, February 19, I will visit with C.G. Jung Society of Atlanta and give a talk on “Big dreams: Religion, science, and Jung’s theory of highly memorable dreams,” followed by a workshop on Saturday titled “Dreaming as Theater of the Psyche.” I wrote the following essay for the Society newsletter as a prelude to the talk and workshop.  Anyone who lives in the Atlanta area is welcome to join us!

“Big dreams,” as originally conceptualized by C.G. Jung, are rare, extremely vivid, and highly memorable dreams that people experience as being dramatically different from the relatively mundane and forgettable contents of “little dreams.” To appreciate the importance of this distinction between big and little dreams, one has to accept the basic premise that dreams in general have some degree of meaning. Unfortunately many psychologists in the years after Jung lost confidence in that premise, due to scientific developments that seemed to cast doubt on the whole enterprise of dream research. During the latter half of the 20th century few investigators devoted much time or energy to studying the more unusual and intensified forms of oneiric experience Jung characterized as “big” dreams. Now, however, thanks to the 21st century technological developments in cognitive science and data analysis, a better case can be made for the psychological significance and therapeutic value of dreaming in general, and highly memorable and impactful big dreams in particular. The time is ripe for a new approach to the kinds of dreams Jung referred to as the “richest jewels in the treasure-house of psychic experience.”

Jung’s mentor in the study of dreams, Sigmund Freud, was not especially interested in distinguishing between different types of dreams, big, little, or otherwise. Freud’s main goal was to illuminate the unconscious roots of a dream in the childhood wishes, fears, and fantasies of the dreamer.   In his view the dream itself is irrelevant and can be ignored once the underlying wish has been identified. Indeed, because Freud’s theory posited that dreaming serves to protect sleep against disturbing eruptions from the unconscious, a big dream could be seen as a total failure of the basic function of dreaming. In his therapeutic work Freud did focus on strong emotions, unusual images, and character metamorphoses in his clients’ dream reports, all of which are frequent markers of big dreams, so he had some practical familiarity with the value of intensified dreaming. But he never took the next step of examining the distinctive qualities of these dreams and reflecting on what they mean for our psychological understanding of the human mind. That step was left for Freud’s erstwhile friend and follower, Jung.

Jung actually took two important steps that helped open the way for further investigation in this realm. In addition to naming the fundamental difference between average dreams and highly intensified big dreaming, Jung also recognized the importance of studying dreams in a series, across a period of time. He found in his clinical work that looking at a series of dreams, not just single dreams in isolation, enabled a better perspective on the psychological dynamics of the person’s life than could be gained from any one dream alone. Not only was this an invaluable insight for therapeutic purposes, but it also provided a way of clarifying the big dreams concept. To say precisely what makes a dream unusual and extraordinary, it helps to know what counts as the usual and ordinary patterns of dreaming. Studying a series of dreams can identify those general patterns so it becomes easier to determine with more specificity what makes big dreams so big.

Both Freud and Jung developed their ideas about dreams from the same sources of knowledge: their personal experiences, their clinical practices with mentally ill patients, their deep readings of classical philosophy and theology, and their early inklings of the significance of Darwinian evolution for theories of human nature. In therapeutic terms, Freudian and Jungian approaches to dream interpretation worked: they enabled clients to express emotionally important concerns and difficult feelings, and they gave therapists a new window into their clients’ unconscious conflicts. The practical value of including dreams in psychotherapy has never been seriously questioned by those with actual experience in the process, and recent works by Clara Hill and Milton Kramer show how vibrant this area of study remains.

However, as time went on mainstream psychologists found it increasingly difficult to support the theoretical claims of the early pioneers of dream study. Two blows in particular prompted great skepticism towards Freudian and Jungian approaches, leading to a general eclipse of interest in dreams of any type or variety through the better part of the 20th century. The first blow was the discovery of two fundamentally different kinds of sleep, known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep by American researchers, and referred to as Paradoxical Sleep (PS) and Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) by French researchers. Both sets of terms refer to regular cycles of variation in the levels of activation throughout the brain during an ordinary night’s sleep. Researchers soon found that dream recall was closely associated with the most intense phases of activation during the sleep cycle, which suggested that dreams were caused by automatic processes of the neural system in sleep (this isn’t actually true, but it seemed so for many years). These findings made it much harder to argue that a psychological approach could reach the “deepest” levels of a dream’s meaning, since neuroscience had apparently shown that the deepest cause of a dream is a purely physiological process in the brain during sleep.

The second blow came from systematic studies of dream content, like those of Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle starting in the 1950’s. These researchers accepted the idea that dreams contain some degree of psychological meaning, but they wanted to use quantitative methods to identify where those meanings might be found. The major discovery from this line of research was the simple continuity of dream content with waking life concerns. People tend to dream about the chief concerns of their regular daily lives. Most dreams, according to these findings, involve rather ordinary and mundane content: being in familiar places, with familiar people, doing familiar things. Contrary to their popular portrayal as bizarre and outlandish nonsense, dreams tend to portray fairly straightforward accounts of people’s feelings about their most important relationships, activities, and concerns in waking life.

The statistical research on dream content highlighted a genuine weakness in Freudian and Jungian dream theories, namely a narrow basis of evidence in terms of having access to broad, diverse sources of empirical evidence about dreaming. The research on REM sleep highlighted another weakness of Freudian and Jungian theories: losing connection with the best scientific understandings of the interaction between mind and brain, psyche and soma. Together, these two weaknesses undermined the credibility of Freud’s theory of dreams as wish-fulfillments aimed at protecting sleep and Jung’s theory of dreams as compensations for the excesses of consciousness. Neither theory could account for the neurological sources of dreams or for their mundane, generally trivial content. Jung’s interest in big dreams appeared especially questionable in this light, as it seemed to lead in exactly the opposite direction from where the best scientific evidence was pointing.

Throughout this time, clinicians and therapists kept doing their good and valuable work with dreams, but “eclectically,” with little theoretical guidance or grounding in empirical research. Few mental health professionals have received any training or instruction whatsoever in how to work with clients’ dreams. A few years ago when co-writing a book about dream education, Dreaming in the Classroom with Phil King and Bernard Welt, we were surprised and saddened to find so few schools of professional psychology offering any classes or course modules on the subject of dreams.

Several intrepid investigators have in recent years pursued detailed studies of the phenomenology of big dreams. Harry Hunt, Roger Knudson, Don Kuiken, Mark Solms, Tracey Kahan, Jayne Gackenbach, Ryan Hurd, and others have contributed to a better understanding of what Hunt called “the multiplicity of dreams,” but the overall tenor of 20th century psychology took a decidedly negative turn toward the study of dreams, and therapists today are still paying the price.

Fortunately there are increasing signs of another major shift in dream research that bodes well for greater attention to big dreams in coming years. These signs of change emerge from the same two sources of scientific research that seemed so discouraging for the study of dreams in previous decades. The neuroscience of sleep has now advanced to a point of recognizing the truly remarkable complexity and sophistication of the brain’s activities during sleep. Far from a mental desert devoid of conscious activity, sleep in fact involves a wide variety of cognitive processes operating in ways that are different from, but not necessarily inferior to, those in the waking state. At various points during REM or Paradoxical Sleep, the brain’s overall electrical activation (as measured by EEG devices) equals or even exceeds the levels seen in the brain during waking. These and other findings make it clear that the sleeping brain is more than capable of generating the kinds of emotionally charged, visually intense, cognitively complex experiences that Jung characterized as big dreams.

Just as importantly, the systematic study of dream content has expanded to include more than just “most recent dreams” gathered from college students. Careful analysis of various kinds of dreams, including nightmares, lucid dreams, childhood dreams, death-related dreams, and other kinds of highly intensified dreaming, have shown that there are distinctive patterns of form and content that correlate to a remarkable degree with the latest neuroscientific findings about the brain’s activities during sleep. The ability to identify these kinds of correlations has been improved by database technologies that allow researchers to quickly and reliably analyze large collections of dream reports, compare their word usage frequencies with other collections of dreams, and highlight significant patterns of similarity and difference. The Dreambank (dreambank.net) website of G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, along with my Sleep and Dream Database (sleepanddreamdatabase.org), are two resources for exploring the use of these technologies and experimenting with different kinds of dreams and different applications.

Jung’s approach to the study of dream series can be deepened with these new tools for identifying recurrent patterns and tracking changes over time. This has exciting potentials not only for therapeutic practice but also for theoretical insight into the nature and functions of big dreams. The more we learn about the meaningful dimensions of a series of dreams, the better we will be able to appreciate the singular dream experiences that stand out from the ordinary flow of dreaming, the experiences that Jung felt were unique openings into the most profound reaches of the psyche. The brain-mind science of the 21st century might finally be ready to verify Jung’s early insights about big dreams and develop them in creative new directions.

 

What Kinds of Technology Do People Dream About Most Frequently?

What Kinds of Technology Do People Dream About Most Frequently? by Kelly BulkeleyThe past one hundred years of human history have been dramatically transformed by the invention of several new technologies, each of which has impacted people’s lives in profound and complicated ways.

In light of empirical research showing strong continuities between waking and dreaming, we can hypothesize that modern technologies have also made a tangible impact on the content of people’s dreams.

And indeed, there is evidence in support of that idea. By analyzing a collection of more than 16,000 dream reports available for study on the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), it becomes possible to examine which kinds of technology have most influenced people’s dreams in terms of their frequency of appearance.

The results suggest the newest technologies are not necessarily the most important ones in the world of dreams.

To explore this question I looked at all the dream reports on the SDDb of 25 words or more in length for Females (N=10,168) and Males (N=6,590), and selected the “Technology and Science” category from the 2.0 word search template.

This is a quick and dirty approach, but it has the virtue of providing an easy and relatively straightforward means of getting an evidence-based response to the question.

The results for the Females were 990 dream reports with at least one reference to a word in the “Technology and Science” category, approximately 10% of the total number of dreams. The figures for the Males were 602 and 9%.

Looking in more detail at which terms appeared most frequently (these include singular and plural uses of the term), the results for the Females were these:

Phone, 3.55%

Movie, 3.18%

Video, 1.26%

Computer, 1.2%

Machine, .91%

Radio, .65%

Camera, .62%

Television, .26%

And for the Males:

Phone, 2.69%

Movie, 2.47%

Video, 1.27%

Computer, 1.03%

Machine, 1.02%

Radio, .47%

Camera, .49%

Television, .36%

I did a parallel search with the same two sets using the SDDb 2.0 word search template category for Transportation. These results—24% of the dream reports for both Females and Males had at least one reference to a Transportation word—are much higher than the Technology and Science frequencies.

Looking more closely at specific forms of transportation appearing in people’s dreams, these were the results for the Females:

Car, 9.12%

Boat, 1.92%

Bus, 1.81%

Airplane, 1.49%

Truck, 1.26%

Elevator, 1.16%

Bicycle, .86%

And for the Males:

Car, 8.18%

Boat, 2.12%

Bus, 1.65%

Bicycle, 1.56%

Airplane, 1.46%

Truck, 1.37%

Elevator, .67%

The first thing to note is the remarkable gender balance. On almost all the categories and word clusters, the Female and Male frequencies are extremely close. (The main exceptions are slightly more Bicycle references for the Males, and slightly more Phone, Movie, Car, and Elevator references for the Females.) This consistency across so many terms suggests that modern technologies have impacted men and women about equally.

Secondly, the analysis indicates that the most frequently appearing modern invention in dreams is the automobile. It seems that technologies of transportation have had more of an impact on people’s dreams than have technologies of communications and entertainment.  Add in trucks and buses to cars, and the predominance of the internal combustion engine in dreaming becomes even greater.

Why might this be? I’m not sure, but I wonder if technologies of transportation have more of a visceral impact on people’s lives. Telephones, movies, videos, and computers can be fascinating and absorbing, but they do not directly affect a person’s body with the kind of sensory intensity that people feel during a car ride.

Whatever the explanation, the results of this brief study indicate that the most frequently appearing type of modern technology in dreams is one that was invented more than one hundred years ago. Newer technologies like computers and videos have not (yet) made as big an impression on the dreaming imagination.

Maybe future developments in virtual reality will enable a more powerful stimulation of people’s physiological responses, prompting a rise in VR-related dreams. But that remains a far-off possibility.

Until then, cars remain for most people the dream technology of choice.

 

Note: here are the word strings for the specific technology and transportation searches:

Phone: phone phones telephone telephones iphone iphones. Video: video videos. Computer: computer computers. Machine: machine machines machinery. Radio: radio radios. Camera: camera cameras. Television: television televisions tv tvs.

Car: car cars auto autos automobile automobiles. Boat: boat boats ship ships. Bus: bus buses. Bicycle: bicycle bicycles bike bikes. Airplane: airplane airplanes plane planes. Truck: truck trucks. Elevator: elevator elevators.

Prophetic Rodents: Neuroscientists Find Hints That Rats Dream of the Future

Prophetic Rodents: Neuroscientists Find Hints That Rats Dream of the Future by Kelly BulkeleyNew findings from brain researchers at University College London in the U.K. suggest that sleeping rats have the capacity to imagine a place they have never been in waking. This intriguing study does more than support the idea that many animals do indeed dream, in modes appropriate to the neural capacities and environmental experiences of their species. Beyond that, the study shows that rat dreams may have one of the key features of human dreaming, namely the ability to simulate future scenarios and prepare for anticipated efforts to achieve our goals.

Titled “Hippocampal place cells construct reward related sequences through unexplored space” and published in eLife on June 26, the researchers built on previous work showing the importance of the hippocampus in remembering places and forming mental maps of where we have been. The hippocampus is also important for imagination, forethought, and planning future goals. Crucially for this study, the hippocampus is active in waking and sleeping, and researchers have long known that the same hippocampal “place neurons” triggered into firing by a waking-life experience of a particular place will also fire during sleep. The challenge of this study was to find out if hippocampal neurons associated with a place will fire in sleep before any waking experience of the creature actually being in that place. In other words, will the sleeping brain anticipate a desired action? Will it dream of the future?

The experiment involved training rats (with electrodes implanted in their brains) to run through a maze where they could see, but not reach, another chamber where food was visibly located. The rats could also see but not reach an additional chamber with no food. During rest periods, the researchers recorded the rats’ hippocampal activity. Then the researchers let the rats run through the maze with no blockages, so they could reach the new chambers. It turned out the rats’ hippocampal activity when they first entered the new chamber with food was a close match with their hippocampal activity in sleep—the same place neurons that first fired in sleep later fired in waking life, too. The rats seemed to dream of going into that chamber before they actually did so.

The same effect was not found in relation to the chamber with no food. The preceding rest period did not include any hippocampal activity related to the rats’ later experiences in that place. This finding led the researchers to stress the significance of desire and intrinsic motivation in triggering this “preplay” effect.

The ultimate conclusion of the study was that “goal-biased preplay may support preparation for future experiences in novel environments.” These results give us a better understanding of how preplay, or imagination in a more general sense, can “simulate future experiences in environments yet to be actively explored,” in humans and in other species.

The limits of this research are considerable. Only four rats were used as participants; the periods of “rest” were not clearly sleep stages of any specific kind; and the published results depended on an extremely technical analysis that could allow for many hidden errors. These limits should add a note of caution when assessing the possible implications of the research.

That being said, the findings of this study have a clear affinity with theories of dream function that emphasize the values of the anticipatory simulations frequently occurring in dreaming experience. C.G. Jung spoke of “the prospective function” of dreams, Montague Ullman said dreaming worked to maintain an optimal state of “vigilance,” Frederick Snyder viewed sleep and dreaming as a “sentinel” system to prepare for environmental danger, Rosalind Cartwright argued that dreams serve as “rehearsals” for future actions, and Jeremy Taylor has focused on recurrent nightmares as warnings of psycho-spiritual danger in the dreamer’s waking life. Antti Revonsuo and Katja Valli have been developing the “Threat Simulation Theory” as a way of connecting typical patterns in dream content with brain functioning and the evolutionary challenges of our species. In my 2016 book Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion, I will talk at length about the capacity for creative forethought and visionary insight in dreaming.

All of which is to say, dream researchers from other areas have been working with similar ideas for years, and these new findings from the University College London team are a welcome addition to the accumulating evidence in favor of dreams having some kind of preparatory function that helps to orient the individual toward successful adaptation in the waking world.

Ben Carson’s Illuminating Dream

Ben Carson's Illuminating Dream by Kelly BulkeleyBen Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and leading Republican contender for the Presidency, says that his life was changed by a shadowy figure who appeared in a dream and gave him special advice at a time of crisis. Not since Barack Obama’s 2004 memoir Dreams From My Father has a presidential candidate shared such valuable insight into his personal dreaming experience.

Carson’s 2009 autobiography Gifted Hands describes a pivotal moment during college when he was threatened with paralyzing doubt about his ability to reach the ambitious goal he had set himself, to become a doctor. Having escaped a dysfunctional family and a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood, Carson was a freshman at Yale University in the pre-med program. He felt overwhelmed by the difficulty of his classes and the competitive pressures from all the other super-bright, hyper-achieving students. Chemistry became a serious problem, and as the end of first semester approached Carson realized he was very likely to fail the class. That would knock him out of the pre-med program and ruin his plans for the future. The day before the exam he wandered about campus in deep despair, consumed by guilt and anxiety. Finally, he says, he prayed:

“My mind reached toward God—a desperate yearning, begging, clinging to Him. ‘Either help me understand what kind of work I ought to do, or else perform some kind of miracle and help me to pass this exam.’” (72)

Once he placed the matter in God’s hands, Carson says he “felt at peace” (72). He commenced to study as hard as he could in the few hours remaining before the test—“I scribbled formulas on paper, forcing myself to memorize what had no meaning to me.” (73) When midnight came, Carson “flopped into my bed and whispered in the darkness, ‘God, I’m sorry. Please forgive me for failing You and for failing myself.’ Then I slept.” (73)

And then comes the dream that changed his life:

“While I slept I had a strange dream, and, when I awakened in the morning, it remained as vivid as if it had actually happened. In the dream I was sitting in the chemistry lecture hall, the only person there. The door opened, and a nebulous figure walked into the room, stopped at the board, and started working out chemistry problems. I took notes of everything he wrote.” (73)

When he woke up, Carson quickly wrote down all the problems he could remember, even though the final few faded away before he could record them. He looked up the problems in his textbook, figuring that his mind “was still trying to work out unresolved problems during my sleep.” (74)

But what happened next made him question the prosaic explanations of psychology. He went to the chemistry lecture hall, took his seat, and waited with 600 other students for the teacher to pass out the exam booklet.

“At last, heart pounding, I opened the booklet and read the first problem. In that instant, I could almost hear the discordant melody that played on TV with The Twilight Zone. In fact, I felt I had entered that never-never land. Hurriedly, I skimmed through the booklet, laughing silently, confirming what I suddenly knew. The exam problems were identical to those written by the shadowy dream figure in my sleep.” (74)

Without pausing to reflect on the strangeness of what was happening, he set to work on the exam, going as fast as he could so he would not forget the information he had received in his dream. “God, You pulled off a miracle,” he said as finished the test and left the lecture hall.

Once again he wandered the campus, this time in wonder and elation, urgently trying to make sense of things.

“I’d never had a dream like that before. Neither had anyone I’d ever known. And that experience contradicted everything I’d read about dreams in my psychological studies. The only explanation just blew me away. The one answer was humbling in its simplicity. For whatever reason, the God of the universe, the God who holds galaxies in His hands, had seen a reason to reach down to a campus room on Planet Earth and send a dream to a discouraged ghetto kid who wanted to become a doctor. I gasped at the sure knowledge of what had happened.” (75)

Carson passed the exam with a score of 97. The only problems he got wrong were the ones at the end, when his memory of the dream had begun to fade. From that point on his path toward a stellar medical career never faltered, and by the age of 33 he had become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

But the significance of Carson’s miraculous dream extended far beyond helping him become a doctor. After this experience he was confident that God “had special things for me to do… I had an inner certainty that I was on the right path in my life—the path God had chosen for me. Great things were going to happen in my life, and I had to do my part by preparing myself and being ready.” (76)

What should we make of this story? First of all, we have to ask if he made the whole thing up. Aspiring politicians embellish their biographies all the time. It’s a rather neat little vignette, perfectly suited for a mass-market book. Carson had plenty to gain, and nothing to lose, by fabricating this feel-good tale of a dream of salvation.

Of course there is no direct way to validate the details of his experience. However, there are many indirect reasons, based on current scientific dream research, to indicate that what Carson described was not impossible but actually has some degree of plausibility. Setting aside his theological interpretation for a moment, we can look at the basic contours of Carson’s dream and identify several features that reflect well-known aspects of cognitive functioning during sleep.

To start, dream recall increases for many people during times of personal crisis. As clinical psychologists have long known, intensified dreams tend to emerge when a person is struggling with turbulent emotions and a fragile sense of identity. Increased dreaming is especially likely for people who perform pre-sleep prayers like Carson did the night before his dream. “Dream incubation” is the general term for rituals aimed at stimulating a revelatory dream, and religions all over the world have developed special techniques for this purpose. Modern researchers have found that if people go to sleep with an urgent question or concern in mind, they are highly likely to dream about it that night.

Indeed, those are the conditions that can generate a “big dream,” meaning a dream with unusual vividness, realism, and memorability. Carson’s experience would certainly qualify as a big dream in that sense.

Dreaming about a test or exam is among the most common types of recurrent dream. It has a history reaching back to ancient China and the dreams people many centuries ago had about passing, or failing to pass, the all-important civil service exams. People today often have exam nightmares long after they have been out of school, more evidence of the deep emotional power of these kinds of dreams.

There should be nothing surprising, then, about a college student who is very anxious about a test having a dream that relates directly to his waking concerns.

Although he later dismissed it, Carson’s initial psychological analysis of the dream has some merit. It seems likely that, after all that intense studying, he went to sleep and his unconscious mind made various connections that his conscious waking mind had not yet processed. The exam questions seemed familiar because it turned out that he actually understood the material much better than he thought he did. It would have been a much more miraculous story if he had received this dream and done well on the test without doing any studying beforehand.

In light of all this, we can recognize a plausible naturalistic core to Carson’s experience. We still cannot say with certainty that he really had this exact dream, but everything he described has a realistic basis in current scientific knowledge about sleep and dreaming.

Carson felt, however, that a naturalistic explanation of his dream was not enough. He adopted a theological interpretation that cast himself as a quasi-biblical figure of divinely sanctioned destiny. Strangely, he never said anything more about the “nebulous figure” who revealed the chemistry problems, and in most Christian contexts this would be a huge red flag. Any number of demonic temptations can enter people’s minds through dreams, and a “shadowy” character like the one in Carson’s dream would automatically be a target of suspicion. But Carson never has a moment’s doubt about the reliability of his mysterious dream teacher, trusting in the ultimate goodness of his desire to become a doctor. If the dream helped him reach that goal, it must be a dream from God.

Carson’s miraculous exam dream stands in dramatic contrast to the two dreams described by Barack Obama in his first book, Dreams From My Father. Obama’s dreams revolved around struggles with his complicated family history and efforts to reconcile himself with the haunting influence of his father. Both dreams occurred during a time of major life transition (after the death of his father, and on a journey to Africa to visit his father’s village), and both dreams are suffused with dark emotions of fear, anger, and sadness. Obama’s dreams led him to a more humble self-awareness of the enduring power of his family lineage, for good and for ill. In 2008, before Obama was elected, I wrote that a close look at these dreams “suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.”

Whereas Obama’s dreams had the effect of anchoring him more deeply in the communal traditions of his ancestors, Carson’s dream, or at least his interpretation of it, had the effect of elevating himself to a position of singular cosmic importance. It would not be too strong to say that Carson feels he is on a mission from God, a mission first revealed to him in a heaven-sent dream.

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Note: This essay was first published in the Huffington Post on November 2, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-bulkeley-phd/ben-carsons-illuminating-_b_8443254.html