How to Misbehave in Other People’s Dreams

How to Misbehave in Other People's Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyWhat would you do if you could control not only your own dreams, but other people’s dreams, too?  What if you could enter other people’s dreams without their knowing it?  How would you use those powers?  Do the same ethical principles that guide our waking lives also apply in dreaming?

The new television series “Falling Water” has created a fascinating narrative world in which various characters explore these very questions, trying to make sense of amazing dream experiences that seem both radically anomalous and strangely natural.

The latest episode, titled “Three Half Blind Mice,” fills out several story lines that illuminate the many possibilities available to those who can enter into the realm of shared dreaming.

Without giving away specific plot twists, the motives that drive people in their shared dreaming are not much different from people’s motives in waking life.  One character seduces and sexually assaults another in her dreams.  Several characters are infiltrating other people’s dreams to make money, by generating unconscious fears that prompt them to make bad business decisions.  A scientist is using shared dreams to experiment with the powers of the mind.  A religious cult is using the dream world to gather, worship, and plan for a global spiritual revolution.  Everyone seems to have a ruthless determination to find and control a mysterious child blessed with special dream powers.

The three protagonists—Tess, Burton, and Taka—have mostly virtuous reasons for entering into the shared dream world.  Tess is seeking her child, Burton is trying to learn more about a recurrent woman in his dreams, and Taka is trying to help his catatonic mother.  These are morally good and virtuous reasons to explore the dream realm as they do.  But all three are quickly drawn into the more shadowy dimensions of shared dreaming, where right and wrong no longer seem so clear and nothing is as it appears.

So far, the challenges faced by the characters in the dream world are primarily posed by each other, humans versus humans.  There are no alien, transpersonal, supra-human forces at work, at least that have been revealed so far.  I’ll be curious to see if and when other forms of intelligence and intentionality enter into the dream world.  People who engage in a long-term study of their dreams often find they become more open to such possibilities, not less so—that’s been my experience from teaching and research, in any case.

Climate Change Nightmares: A Sign of Things to Come

Climate Change Nightmares: A Sign of Things to Come by Kelly BulkeleyThe front page of today’s New York Times newspaper includes an article about the impact of climate change on a remote village in Alaska.  The article, by Erica Goode, is titled “Climate Change Pushes Towns in Alaska to Wrenching Choice,” and it begins with a dream:

In the dream, a storm came and Betsy Bekoalok watched the river rise on one side of the village and the ocean on the other, the water swallowing up the brightly colored houses, the fishing boats and the four-wheelers, the school and the clinic.

She dived into the floodwaters, frantically searching for her son. Bodies drifted past her in the half-darkness. When she finally found the boy, he, too, was lifeless.

“I picked him up and brought him back from the ocean’s bottom,” Ms. Bekoalok remembered.

Ms. Bekoalok lives in Shaktoolik, north of Anchorage in a coastal region directly threatened by rising seas and worsening storms caused by climate change.  The article goes on to describe the daunting challenges facing the residents of Shaktoolik as they contemplate a terrible choice between moving the town to a safer place or staying put and building stronger defenses against the ocean.  The latter option would be folly, but the former choice is prohibitively expensive and would probably destroy the community just the same.

The dream shared by Ms. Bekoalok clearly expresses a reality-based anxiety about the dangers posed by climate change.  Dreams of water are fairly common; people typically dream of water more than of any other element (fire, earth, air).  But dreams of threatening water, such as floods or waves, are less common, and such dreams often include a heightened vividness and intensity that makes them unusually memorable.  Combine that with a theme of danger to one’s child (a classic parental nightmare), and the result is a hyper-realistic simulation of a dire threat looming in the dreamer’s future waking life.

The broader resonance of the dream, and the reason why it’s a powerful way to start the story, derives from its roots in the evolved nature of the dreaming imagination.  All humans have an innate propensity for nightmares that anticipate various threats to survival.  Nightmares are most common during childhood, an especially vulnerable time of life, and they tend to diminish in adulthood.  But whenever a serious danger arises (such as a work crisis, relationship break-up, illness, death, or a change in political regimes), frightening dreams often result.  When we hear a nightmare like Ms. Bakoalok’s, we can immediately empathize with her concerns because we know from personal experience what it’s like to fear something so much it gives us bad dreams.

Nightmares usually do more than simply mirror a person’s waking life concerns.  Most frightening dreams also include glimpses of possibility and alternative approaches to the threats and conflicts in waking life.  The creative, problem-solving capacities of the human mind are enormous, and dreaming is one of the main venues for those capacities to express themselves, providing a remarkable source of novel insights, useful innovations, and out-of-the-box thinking.

As climate change continues to unfold, more and more people are likely to have nightmares like Ms. Bekoalok’s.

 

 

“Falling Water” and the Vasty Deep

"Falling Water" and the Vasty Deep by Kelly BulkeleyThe second episode of the excellent new TV series “Falling Water” (USA Network) starts with a creepy voiceover from a character who later reveals the frightening extent of his powers in the dream realm. He quotes from Shakespeare’s play “Henry IV Part I,” when two English lords plot a rebellion against the king:

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?

(III.i.57-59)

The episode takes its title from this quote, which poetically highlights the dangers inherent in exploring the “vasty deep” of lucid dreaming. Be careful what you wish for with dreaming, because it might become a more powerful and autonomous reality than you were expecting.

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed a similar insight in his 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 146:

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

It has to be a great TV show if I’m quoting Shakespeare and Nietzsche and I haven’t even gotten to the oneirogenic blues LP, the two big guys in black suits with no faces, the ethical complexities of gathering pure scientific data, and the deepening mystery surrounding Topeka, “a good place to dig for roots.” I’m hooked, most definitely hooked!

"Falling Water" and the Vasty Deep by Kelly Bulkeley

Below is what I wrote in the Huffington Post after watching the first episode.

Finally, someone gets it right: a television show about dreams that feels genuinely dreamy. “Falling Water,” a new series on the USA Network premiering October 12, centers on three characters (Tess, Burton, and Taka) who learn how to enter a dangerous, shadowy world of shared dreaming. I just watched the first episode (available online), and I’m very, very impressed! After years of complaining about lame, painfully unimaginative portrayals of dreaming in television and movies, I can now say there is a TV show that accurately, and entertainingly, conveys many of the sensory qualities and content themes that typify actual dreaming.

Foremost among those themes is, as the title suggests, falling water. I won’t reveal any plot twists, nor will I describe in too much detail the many beautiful images of water in the first episode, but suffice it to say that the element of water is essentially another character in the show. It flows in many different directions, over various surfaces and bodies, and ultimately down into mysterious depths. As a quick search for “water” words in the SDDb reveals, this element is indeed a very prominent feature of people’s dreams, and it has a long history of multi-dimensional symbolism. It will be fun watching future episodes to see how this theme develops over time.

Another prominent theme has to do with visual experience. Eyes, windows, mirrors, glasses, and other reflective surfaces abound in the first episode, creating a kaleidoscopic perceptual atmosphere for the characters and viewers alike. Visual sensations are also very prominent in actual dreaming, and in my recent Big Dreams book I talk about the roots of visual dreaming in terms of hard-wired neural activities in the sleeping brain. I refer to an “autonomous visionary capacity” that is innate in all humans and capable of generating powerful, creative, and highly realistic visual experiences in dreaming. The premise of “Falling Water” seems to be that people can potentially cultivate that inner capacity for powerful visionary dreaming and channel it in specific directions. It’s an exciting and reality-based premise that opens up lots of narrative possibilities for future episodes.

The theme of trying to control one’s dreams raises unsettling ethical issues that religious and spiritual traditions around the world have debated since ancient times. Are methods and tools of dream control a way of enhancing and amplifying the dreaming process, or do they ruin dreams by imposing the shallow desires of the waking ego on the wisdom of the unconscious psyche? Could more control of our dreaming promote greater self-knowledge, emotional health, and problem-solving abilities, or is it a harmful violation of our inner world and a potentially destructive way of exploiting people’s deepest fears and vulnerabilities? Perhaps most worrisome of all, if we forcefully try to control our dreams, are we ready for the possibility our dreams will fight back? These questions are becoming even more urgent today, thanks to the emergence of a new generation of dream-stimulating technologies (exaggerated, but not by much, in the show).

The final scene of the first episode raised the specter of a “war” for control of our dreams, and I’m curious to see how that alarming notion plays out. This might sound like science fiction, and it is exactly that, science fiction at its best: a dramatized version of cutting-edge scientific findings, technological innovations, and cultural trends whose real-world consequences are just dawning on us. We are living in a world where various forces, some benign and others much less so, are competing for influence over our minds, in waking and in sleeping. “Falling Water” is poised to reflect that emerging reality back to us in a fictional medium that, paradoxically, will probably have a tangible impact on the real dreams of its viewers.

Having watched a lot of dream-related movies and television shows over the years, I can’t help but notice several visual and thematic references in “Falling Water,” all of which bode well for it future direction. Most viewers will immediately associate the show’s premise with the 2011 film Inception and its portrayal of skilled agents entering into other people’s dreams and trying to manipulate them. But “Falling Water” seems to be aiming for something bigger, more along the lines of the 1999 film The Matrix, with its mind-bending metaphysical combat and prophetic call for a new, more advanced kind of consciousness. More than either Inception or The Matrix, however, “Falling Water” goes deeper into the creepy depths of the collective unconscious, with an occult mystery theme that reminds me of the first excellent season of the 2014 TV show “True Detective.”   Some of the visuals and epistemological paradoxes in “Falling Water” are strikingly reminiscent of the 1988 film “Jacob’s Ladder,” which used the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a template for describing a soldier’s journey through a nightmare world located somewhere between life and death. And there are several parallels to the Nightmare on Elm Street series of films, starting in 1984, which used schlocky special effects to dig deeply into the dark, festering corners of the American psyche. A striped shirt appears on a key character in “Falling Water,” which does make one wonder.

The touchstone for any show like this is always “Twin Peaks,” the David Lynch television series from the early 1990’s, which is set to reboot with new episodes soon (!!). “Twin Peaks” featured a dream-inspired FBI agent who tracked down an evil entity haunting people’s minds and forcing them to violate the laws and morals of the waking world. In its incredible beauty, emotional rawness, and surrealistic whimsy, “Twin Peaks” portrayed aspects of genuine dreaming in a more compelling way than perhaps America was ready to handle at the time. The first episode of “Falling Water” does not have any of the levity and comical weirdness of “Twin Peaks,” which may be a good thing at the start (no dwarves in red suits) but will hopefully appear in some form in later episodes. There’s bound to be lots of falling in this show; will there also be flying?

 

Dreams of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

 

Dreams of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyIn several studies over the past 24 years I have explored the various connections between dreaming and electoral politics. One of the recurrent findings has been that political events and activities, like Presidential elections, can impact the content of people’s dreams. Some politicians appear with unusual frequency in people’s dreams, which has led to the hypothesis that dream appearances are an index of political charisma: The more a politician appears in people’s dreams, the more likely the politician has made a personal and emotional connection with those individuals. (An important note, especially in the 2016 US Presidential campaign: Charisma can have a positive or negative valence, acting as a force of attraction or repulsion.)

This post represents a progress report on a longer-term project that will finish at the end of the year. The main findings presented here illuminate the impact of the US election on the content of people’s dreams. Contrary to many Western psychologists who focus exclusively on the personal significance of dreaming, the examples here suggest that some dreams also have collective levels of significance. Such dreams are not only about the individual dreamer. They also relate to concerns shared by other people in the community. Political dreams are a dramatic example of the broader dimensions of cultural meaning that can be found in dreams.

These reports come from three different sources: 1) personal contacts, 2) websites I manage devoted to dreams of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, and 3) the 2016 Demographic Survey I administered in May of this year.

Each source has its methodological advantages and disadvantages. The personal contacts allow for more detail and follow-up conversations, but they are limited by my sphere of contacts. The websites can gather detailed reports with follow-up possibilities, but with uncertain provenance; I cannot assess the reliability of the sources. The demographic survey provides a broad spectrum of participants from a reliable source, but the reports tend to be short on detail, with no chance for follow-up.

(Some of the early reports I received from personal contacts were described in the post of July 3, 2016.)

All of the data I gather during this election cycle will eventually be available in the Sleep and Dream Database.

The reports presented below have been grouped into six thematic categories: Friendliness with a Candidate, Anticipations, Political Disagreements, Opposition to Trump, Openness to Trump, and Work & Place. Each of these categories sheds new light on an important aspect of the interaction between dreaming and politics.

With any of these dreams, further interpretation would undoubtedly reveal deeper meanings that might have nothing to do with politics. For this presentation, the goal is simply to highlight the various ways in which political phenomena impact the content and emotional tone of people’s dreams.

 

Friendliness with the Candidate

A consistent theme in political dreams is a friendly interaction with a candidate or politician whom the dreamer favors in waking life. At one level, such dreams express the individual’s political support in metaphorical terms of friendliness, intimacy, and sharing personal spaces. Such dreams can be regarded as evidence that a politician has forged a meaningful connection with that individual.

26 male, liberal

I recently had a dream that I was friends with Hillary Clinton and at an event, giving a speech to introduce her.

41 male, very conservative

I dreamed Ted Cruz came to my house

60 male, moderate

Being at a party with Donald Trump

20 male, very liberal

Yes, Bernie Sanders was in my kitchen and I was very excited.

21 female, very liberal

I went to a gathering of Bernie Sanders supporters and my favorite teacher was there.

37 female, liberal

I had a dream the other night that I met Hillary, and she wanted to give me a hug. I was so thrilled. Then we hugged and it was super awkward.

26 male, liberal

I had a dream before Clinton announced her campaign in which I asked her if she would run; she smiled and said yes.

69 female, moderate, MD

We were at a public event taking place out doors with many people. Hillary was sitting next to me and we were talking together as if we were good friends who had known each other a long time. I asked her about her plans for universal healthcare once she is in office. However, we were interrupted and I did not get an answer. The dream is strange because I am not a Democrat. [Comments: “I have no idea why I would have dreamed about Hillary Clinton, other than I am considering voting for her because I am not fond of my party’s proposed candidates.”]

 

Anticipations

Several politically-related dreams look ahead to possible outcomes of future political events like elections. Often these dreams have the quality of a wish-fulfillment. They express what the dreamer hopes and wishes will happen in the future.

68 female, liberal

I dreamed I was watching TV to see the results of the POTUS election. It said Bernie won, and I ran into my front yard, hollering with joy. It was nice.

23 male, very conservative

Marco Rubio won several states and took the lead. I was very excited and happy.

42 female, not sure

I had a dream that the presidential candidate who won was announced on TV. When I went in the living room, I saw a picture of John Kasich on the TV.

20 female, very liberal

I had a dream very recently that they announced who the presidential candidates were going to be, and I remember very distinctly being disappointed learning that Donald Trump received 3/4 of the vote, while being pleasantly surprised upon learning that Barack Obama was running for another four years.

 

Political Disagreements

Some dreams create a symbolic arena for debating political issues. In sociological terms, politics provides a public venue for working out arguments between different groups, and this makes it fertile territory for dreams about social conflicts at many different levels, from the individual’s family to the whole human species.

24 male, conservative

Argued with family in favor of Donald Trump. They were mad, but possibly swayed to support him.

23 male, moderate

I once had a dream that I was voting for the Republican nominee. I voted for Jeb Bush, and the rest of my family voted for Cruz and Trump. Disturbing.

22 male, moderate

I was being instructed by John Kasich in a college lecture and he reprimanded me. I went to Hillary Clinton and she acted as a counselor for me and prevented punishment.

62 female, moderate

I dreamt that Hillary had a major medical issue after securing the nomination. This caused the Democrats to act much like Ted Cruz and instead of going with Bernie Sanders – who would be the nominee- they tried to subvert the rules. This caused both parties to ask for a do-over. The Supreme Court ruled against them – Bernie lost.

 

Opposition to Trump

Several dreams I gathered expressed strong anti-Trump sentiments, which seemed mostly consistent with the dreamers’ waking life views of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The preponderance of anti-Trump dreams reflects the limits of my (mostly liberal) social circle, but it also reflects the high level of antipathy his campaign has generated among many Americans.

44 male, liberal

That gross Donald Trump wanted to sleep with my in my bed and I was like absolutely not. This was just last night.

35 female, very conservative

I have dreamed that Donald Trump was being generally unfriendly.

65 male, moderate

Donald Trump and I were having a conversation while walking through downtown – my wife is chasing us with a camera yelling “I didn’t get a picture.” I told him to ignore her she would cut off the top of our heads and he just chuckled and we went on discussing the issues and why I was against him. I was upset because he wouldn’t let me finish a sentence.

22 female, very liberal

I had a dream that Donald Trump was suing me for being a “slut” and I tried to fight him in court, but he won because I he had more money than me. I had to go to jail for years and was really distraught.

55 female, liberal

Just a couple of weeks ago, I had a weird dream about Donald Trump. Basically, I was telling him what I jerk I thought he was and why I disagreed with everything he stands for.

47 female, liberal, NY

I dreamt that I was dating Donald Trump. I guess it was at the point of the dating process where you proceed to sex, cause that is what the Donald was wanting. There was an anxiety building up in me, teetering towards panic as I realized I did absolutely not want to have sex with him but felt pressured to do so. He was coming at me with only a white dress shirt, unbuttoned on. I looked down and saw that he had a small, red, stubby little penis. His hands were little baby hands, reaching for me. I told him that I recently had surgery (which presently is actually true), and that I physically was unable to have sex, presently. He backed down, unable to reasonably pressure me, but I could tell he was frustrated, angry and annoyed about it. Later we were supposed to travel somewhere together, but I somehow was able to arrange that I would be going by myself. I was grappling with how I got myself into this situation, that I was actually dating Trump and how I could possibly tell my brother, without being mortified, cause I knew he would find that idea horrific. As did I. All I was thinking, how can I get out of this?! The thought of having sex with Trump made me sick to my stomach. [Comments: “It’s obvious to me. The thought of him is repugnant. It perfectly exemplifies how I feel about him as a woman. It also demonstrates his male ego, arrogance and rage. He brings up fear. It’s confirmed my feelings about him on a more primal level. I also have been almost obsessively following all news about him. I find it to be fascinating as a character study and a study of the American political landscape of this time in history. However I was horrified at having had this dream.”]

18 male, liberal, CA

I was at an outdoor rally, but Trump was in the center of the crowd. His presence there did irritate me, but then he continued to talk. At one point I boiled over with rage so I grabbed Trump in a chokehold and dragged towards the trash can. It was a rusted, old, metal trash can. I start to beat Trump with the trash can, slamming his head against it. He continues to talk during the whole beating, about his childhood, why he’s going to “Make America Great Again,” and his “small loan of a million dollars.” He eventually stopped talking with blood dribbling out of his ear. The trash can was bent out of shape. Then I woke up. [Comments: “I very much do not like Trump, but last night, my girlfriend’s boss was talking to her about Conservative fiscal policy and why she should be a Republican. This made me annoyed.”]

 

Open to Trump

People from across the political spectrum have experienced dreams in which they discover that Trump has previously unappreciated virtues and positive qualities. Even if the dreamers still hold an overall negative view of him, their dreams open up a new perspective on his character and candidacy. This might indicate an unconscious attraction to Trump’s candidacy, and/or a compensation for the intensity of the dreamer’s negative feelings toward Trump in waking life.

71 female, very conservative

The last dream was about Donald Trump. He was interacting with me on a private basis and he was the kindest, caring person.

19 male, very conservative

I dreamed that my band director got fired and was replaced by Donald Trump. He could conduct surprisingly well, thankfully.

29 female, very conservative

I dreamt that I was watching an old interview with Donald Trump in which he resembled George W. Bush and was much more genial and sensible than the raving megalomaniac he now is. The interview was part of a documentary that described how he used to be and I felt sympathy toward him for having been nice once.

54 male, moderate

I recently had a dream where I was watching a movie where Donald Trump was an actor playing one of the major characters, and I was thinking he wasn’t that bad in the movie, but I still despise him as a person.

33 female, liberal, NY

I had a dream that I was dating Donald Trump. I was very embarrassed about it, But I explained it by saying that his parents treated him very poorly and that’s why he acted out for attention. [Comments: “I’m very worried about the state of our country when his hateful rhetoric appeals to so many people, so he’s been on my mind. I think that he acts like a toddler who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way and my dream self was much more tolerant of that than I normally. But America should be very embarrassed.”]

34 female, progressive, NY

Trump and I were hanging out on a college dorm floor, just shooting the shit, chatting about life, etc., and I was thinking to myself, “why does this guy get such a bad rap/put on such a show? He’s a really cool dude… and, like, gets it…” (!!!!!!!!!!) [Comments: “It’s obviously his campaign team infiltrating my dreams through some sort of advanced technology/dream therapy, but it won’t sway me!”]

57 female, progressive, CA

I was sailing in high seas with my son (a sweet, gentle kid who is the opposite of Trump) when suddenly he turned into Donald Trump, and suddenly we were pulling the boat ashore. No more sailing. We went into a casual beachfront restaurant and got two seats at a table under an umbrella. Someone brought lunch. I got to choose my side dish but the entree was already chosen. We both had water, but he wanted an alcoholic drink. He couldn’t get the waiter’s attention. He finally went into the bar and came out with a half gallon carton of chocolate milk. (Bartender’s idea of a joke?) He poured one for himself then started going around to the other diners with the milk. He was his “on stage” attention-seeking self with them, whereas with me he had been surprisingly pleasant and low-key. When he came back to the table, he was naked. (!!) He sat in a “manspread” kind of way so his junk was just hanging out. He seemed to be wearing some sort of weird sparkly thong; I could see a gold chain glittering in his pubic hair. I felt slightly alarmed but more just curious, what did it mean that he was naked? Were we going to have sex? The dream ended. [Comments: “I’ve been surprised by some of his endorsements, but I figure he must be more charismatic in person than he is on stage. Maybe this dream was exploring that possibility. But even in my dream he acted like a narcissist (just had to get the other diners’ attention) and an entitled jerk (coming back to our table with no pants). As for the genitals, maybe because of that reference to his penis size in the debate?”]

18 female, conservative NY

I was his secretary or something and was in his office and in his lap and we started making out and I was kissing his neck and he was kissing mine and I never gasped so sharply in a dream and we were getting undressed until finally I was in my bra and tights and I was all ready and then he was like we can’t do this, you’re barely dressed! And I was like yeah, isn’t that the whole point? And he was like, no go put on a decent nightgown right now! And his wife was there and I was just really confused. (Comment: “I think this dream came from memories of reading the Donald Trump Fan fiction my friend told me about.”)

 

Work & Place

These two respondents indicated their high frequency of politically-related dreams stemmed from the significant role of politics in their waking-life work and place of residence. This is further evidence that the continuity hypothesis encompasses waking life concerns about politics.

30 male, conservative

I have lived in Washington DC for ten years. Many of my dreams somehow involve politics or politicians.

63 male, N/A

My job involves politics so I dream about it all the time.

 

Comments, reflections, and interpretations are most welcome!

####

 

Related Writings

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

American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us About the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else. Boston: Beacon Press.

  1. The Impact of September 11 on Dreaming. (Co-authored with Tracey L. Kahan.) Consciousness and Cognition 17:1248-1256.
  1. Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values. San Francisco Chronicle (August 17).
  1. Sleep and Dream Patterns of Political Liberals and Conservatives. Dreaming 16(3): 223-235.
  1. Dreaming of War in Iraq: A Preliminary Report. Sleep and Hypnosis 6(1): 19-28.
  1. Dream Content and Political Ideology. Dreaming 12(2): 61-78.
  1. It’s All Just a Bad Dream. San Francisco Chronicle (December 6): A27.
  1. “Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election,” in Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 179-194.
  1. Dreaming in a Totalitarian Society: A Reading of Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. Dreaming 4(2): 115-126.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of the 2016 Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams

Review of the 2016 Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyAt this year’s annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), held June 24-28 in Kerkrade, the Netherlands, the world’s leading dream researchers gathered to share their latest findings. The conference ran for four and a half days, with six or seven simultaneous tracks of events going on from morning through the evening. It was truly a feast of dreaming!

Every year it takes me a while to process and digest all the events, conversations, and impressions that occurred during the conference. It’s way too much to take in while there, so I try to keep notes and then reflect on them over the summer and fall. As I look through my notes from this year, these strike me as the highlights from the latest IASD gathering:

Iain Edgar, an anthropologist at Durham University in the UK, gave a chilling presentation on his investigations into the dream beliefs and practices of Islamic jihadists, who are using social media with remarkable effectiveness to share their violent dreams and encourage others to do so as well.

Pilleriin Sikka, a lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skovde in Sweden, described the challenges of accurately measuring emotional content in dreams. (A current debate in the field: are dreams predominated by negative emotions, or do dreams have a roughly even balance of positive and negative emotions?) Her study highlighted the importance of transparency in the methods used for studying this aspect of dreaming, because different methods often yield different results.

Nils Sandman, a doctoral student at the University of Turku in Finland, reported on a national demographic study in Finland that found higher nightmare frequency is associated with insomnia, depression, low life satisfaction, suicidality, and generally poor health. This supports clinical theories that recurrent nightmares are possible symptoms of mental and physical illness.

kitt price, a senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Queen Mary University, London, described their historical and cultural analysis of the use in 19th and 20th century Britain of mass media to gather public reports of precognitive types of dreams. The BBC and other media outlets gathered thousands of such reports, many of which remain available for study today. price’s research suggests that interest in paranormal dreaming does not diminish in modern Western societies, but expresses itself through different kinds of media.

Alaya Dannu, an MFA student in creative nonfiction from the UK, discussed the ongoing influence via dreams of the beliefs and customs of civilizations that no longer exist (e.g., from pre-colonial Africa). She brought together art, anthropology, history, and her own personal experiences to illustrate the way dreaming helps to shape a personal and collective sense of identity over time.

Alison Dale and Joseph DeKonick, psychologists from the University of Ottawa, presented findings on gender differences in the dreams of Canadians that showed males have more dreams of aggression while females have more dreams with family and friend characters and more negative emotions. These findings fit with those from research on the dream patterns of other nationalities, adding strength to the idea that some tendencies of dreaming have roots in deep psychological processes shared by many if not all humans.

Don Kuiken, a psychologist from the University of Alberta, talked about his ongoing work on “impactful dreams,” focusing in this presentation on what he calls “existential” dreams of intense sadness, often following a loss or death of a loved one, which can paradoxically lead to “sublime disquietude” and greater aesthetic appreciation for life. Kuiken’s research has been an inspiration to me for many years, and this new development brings his impactful dreams work into dialogue with his earlier studies of dreams and the philosophical aesthetics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Wojciech Owczaraski, from the University of Gdansk in Poland, described a project devoted to gathering dream reports from survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII. This promises to be an important and heart-wrenching collection of dreams.

Caroline Horton and Josie Malinowski, psychologists at Bishop Grosseteste University and University of Bedfordshire, respectively, both in the UK, described their research testing the role of dreams in emotional assimilation. They found the strongest effects in dreams with greatest emotional intensity and personally important material. Researchers continue to debate the issue of how much of a role, if any, dreaming plays in memory, learning, and information processing. Several studies at the conference reported negligible results in experiments involving dreams and memory consolidation, and Horton and Malinowski’s project was the only one that found an angle of approach that might be promising.

Antti Revonsuo and Katja Valli, cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Turku in Finland, gave talks about their “social simulation theory” of dreaming, whereby dreams function to provide simulations of social situations that have relevance for evolutionary fitness and survival. This theory grew out of Revonsuo’s earlier studies of “threat simulation” in dreaming. The main advantage of Revonsuo and Valli’s current approach is that it builds on empirical research about dream content—quantitative data about the actual dreams of a large and wide variety of people. This kind of research has shown that dreams are filled with characters, social interactions, and verbal communications. These are the features of dreaming Revonsuo and Valli are trying to explain in terms of the evolutionary history of human cognitive functioning.

These are only some of the sessions I personally attended; there were many other great presentations I didn’t get to see but only heard about from other people.

The conference as a whole left several general impressions about the state of dream research.

First, new advances in various areas of investigation make it clear the mind’s activities in sleep are much more complex and sophisticated (“high-level”) than mainstream psychologists have long assumed. The numerous presentations on lucid dreaming and cognition during the sleep state support this deepening of our understanding of how the mind works (and plays) during sleep and dreaming.

Second, there has been tremendous growth in empirical data, but not as much progress in theoretical understanding. Researchers have more detailed dream material to look at than ever before, but they have very little to say that’s new about what dreams mean or how they function. My concern is that the real gains that have been made in describing the neurocognitive processes involved in dream formation are not improving our understanding of the role of dreaming in healthy human functioning. Very few researchers (Revonsuo and Valli being exceptions) try to locate their studies within a bigger theoretical framework. Perhaps this is simply the stage we’re at, following the demise of psychoanalysis and brainstem reductionism; we know that was wrong, but we’re still not sure what’s a better model. So in the meantime, we gather more data.

Third, and in tension with the second, the practical use of dreams in clinical and therapeutic contexts continues to expand and diversify. Professionals and laypeople involved in caregiving, whether in hospitals, school health centers, private therapy practices, hospice groups, churches, or non-governmental organizations, are using dreams as a valuable resource in helping people gain insights into their suffering and find their way back towards health and wholeness. Many conference presentations described the positive healing effects of bringing dreams into the therapeutic process, in almost every kind of clinical modality.

At some point the researchers and the clinicians are going to have to talk to each other…. perhaps with new technologies for studying dreams as the mediating link.

 

Dreams of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

Dreams of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election by Kelly BulkeleyPsychologists from Sigmund Freud onwards have usually treated dreams as purely egotistical and self-centered, with no relevance outside the personal wishes of the dreamer. Every four years I try to prove that assumption wrong.

In response to my quadrennial request about election-related dreams, several colleagues sent me reports of dreams they have experienced relating to the 2016 campaign for U.S. President. These dreams offer intriguing insights into the impact of the political race on people’s nocturnal imaginations.

(The main work I’ve written on this topic is American Dreamers (2008)).

Four of the dreams involve the leading contender for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump. Three involve the leading Democrat, Hillary Clinton, and one is a “non-partisan” election dream. Bernie Sanders appears in one of the Clinton dreams.

It’s too early to make any definitive assessments or interpretations of the patterns in these dreams. What I can do now is identify possible themes and motifs, and then watch to see if they recur in later dreams.

The Trump dreams below reflect a sense of deep skepticism about his candidacy. They highlight his inability to lead, his hostility to women’s reproductive rights, his macho aggressiveness, and his frightening ability to seduce people’s minds. The dreams reflect and amplify the dreamers’ waking life opposition to Trump’s campaign, casting in vividly emotional and creatively imagistic terms their feelings about him and his policies.

The three Clinton dreams all come from the same dreamer, so they reflect her particular experiences of the political campaign. She describes herself as a Clinton supporter who’s open to much of what Bernie Sanders has been saying in his campaign. This comes out in her dream of both Clinton and Sanders, which anticipated the surprisingly close race for the Democratic nomination.

The last dream is a brief vision of politics beyond politicians.

I will soon post a larger collection of political dreams gathered from surveys and questionnaires, which come from a wider variety of people than those presented in this post, but with less personal background information.

This dream came to “Mary,” on August 16, 2015

“I dream that I am at some sort of business function in a large room with a dance floor. I see former co-workers. In walks Donald Trump. He grabs a microphone and asks if I would come to the dance floor to teach him the Argentine Tango. He is off-beat and awkward, tripping me up with tangled footwork. I suggest that we try a simple four-count box step. Nope. He can’t do that either. I stop the dance. ‘I can’t teach you to lead!’ I leave the dance floor.”

Initial comments from the dreamer: This dream woke me up laughing because even within the dream I understood the metaphor. I rarely throw my opinions about politics, but the message seems pretty clear: Donald Trump Can’t Lead. Let that be my 2016 presidential prediction.

In answer to my follow-up questions, the dreamer said she was not a tango dancer in waking life, so it’s a purely metaphorical reference to that specific style of dance, which famously requires close cooperation between the partners (“it takes two to tango”).   The business setting with this particular group of co-workers made the dreamer think of a time in her life when she was not getting along with her colleagues, everyone’s productivity suffered, “and the job environment would up going sour in the end.” This detail adds to the negative atmosphere of the dream, underscoring the theme of failing to work effectively with others.

The following four dreams came to the same individual, “Samantha,” over a period of about a year. She gave each dream a title, along with some responses to my questions at the end.

4-10-16 (night/morning of 4/10-11)

Who’s the Real Hillary Clinton?

I’m observing Hillary Clinton and, at times, her staff but seem to be mostly in Hillary’s mind, going through her day on the campaign, and simultaneously reviewing how I feel about her, getting to know more about her past history and policy stances and decisions, as I watch her work tirelessly, putting in a really long day. Variously, it’s her staffers who are doing this, working devotedly for Hillary, mostly one man and one woman. I realize with some dismay that Hillary has voted for or supported issues I disagree with, that she has been too quick to go to war in the past. I think I ask her, or perhaps I imagine asking her, “What situation if any would prompt you to go to war today? “ I’m deeply concerned about this and her answer will influence my support. She answers, or perhaps I imagine she tells me, that nothing short of defending our country right here would be grounds for war. This is the answer I can live with – self defense only from an actual dire and immediate threat. I learn about and mull over three specific areas – though I could only recall two on waking, war and finances. I find I’m at odds with Hillary’s past decisions on these so I want to be more informed on where she is with these issues today – but I also see her putting in the time, really working hard for the sake of others and not herself. I see the very human side of her, too, see her finally call it a day at the end of a really long day and retreat into her private space.  She’s on the road, staying in a hotel somewhere but she carries a worn black case with her from place to place.  I’m surprised when she opens the case up that it holds two rows of vinyls, worn looking records, some with album covers, some just old, scratched vinyls, including a 45 of mostly 70’s era music. The 45 is a recording of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”. (I recognized most of the artists in the dream but could only recall Three Dog Night on waking.) This is how Hillary unwinds, listening to music that reflects her life, her past, and what makes her feel happy. I’m pleased by this – it’s so human and something I would do myself. She carries this case with her from hotel to hotel and knows that at the end of her day, it’s waiting for her. I also get glimpses of her staffers this way, so weary, having worked incredibly hard but catching their moments at the end of the day. I just take all of this in, thinking about it, pondering who Hillary really is and how I feel about her.

Note:  There may certainly be personal resonance and guidance for me in this dream, but it felt distinctly political, as if I was given a chance to see deeply into these issues and consider them. For the record, I’m a very left, very liberal Democrat and do care about the issues. I’m supporting Hillary but ideologically am very much aligned with Bernie Sanders and support the movement he’s started – and would support him if he won the nomination.  This dream did prompt me to dig deeper into each candidate’s position on key policies.

*When I looked up this dream to share it with you, I found two other short dreams I’d recorded – another Hillary dream and one of Trump that seems now to have been pre-cog of his later comments regarding women and abortion.

3-5-16 (night/morning of 3/5-6)

They Got McKinley Instead

Hillary Clinton and three others are standing outside together somewhere and there’s an assassination attempt that fails. Somehow, there’s a lighthearted feeling to this – like it wasn’t really a serious situation. Someone announces they got McKinley instead.

3-16-16 (night/morning of 3/16-17)

You Know How Trump Will React!

Memory of this is sketchy. I recall one clear scene in which someone is trying to convince another person not to do or reveal something to Trump. The secret has to do with pregnancy. I see and hear a woman say to the other person, “You know what he’ll do, don’t you, what he’ll say?” She stuffs a pillow under her shirt to make herself look pregnant. “If you tell him, you know how he’ll react.”  She’s very determined to persuade the other person not to set herself up to get browbeaten by this man. There was another scene in which a purplish red color was very dominant and something to do with a meal but I’ve lost the details.

Notes:  The 3-5 dream felt as if it dealt with character assassination, an election staple. The Trump dream does seem pre-cog of Trump’s later comments regarding abortion – and doesn’t reflect any known situation in my own life.

1-16-16 (night/morning of 1/16-17)

Election Results Suspense

I’m watching election results. Two side by large, digital counters are flashing the numbers for Bernie Sanders on the left and Hillary Clinton on the right. They’re neck and neck. The numbers get up to the 25 and 26 thousands or millions. I’m anxious because Hillary’s lead is getting slimmer. It’s not enough. The last tally goes up and someone blocks my view just as the last numbers click into place which is very frustrating. I recall thinking there’s still hope as these are exit poll numbers and the actual vote often varies from the exit poll numbers but this is worrisome. Sanders could actually win the election. I can’t believe someone – or something – blocked my view at the last second. EOD

Note:  This dream was a few weeks before the primaries began and this is more or less how things have played out – surprisingly, I think as I don’t feel even Senator Sanders thought he would do so well.

I sent Samantha some additional questions, and this was her reply:

“To answer your questions, I do have good recall and have been working with my dreams for years. I would say it’s not unusual for me to dream of presidents or key world figures past or present (the Dalai Lama, Gandhi) but it’s somewhat unusual for me to dream of candidates, though the current presidential candidates are very much in the news. I’ve had a long series of President Obama (and Michelle) dreams but have always felt a personal connection to him. I did a quick search and found that I had one dream of Hillary Clinton in 2008, right around the Democratic convention when she lost the nomination. Interestingly, it was a dream about resilience, hanging tough and getting another chance – exactly what’s happened for her. I’ve definitely had dreams of Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy, Clinton, Bush and Carter in the past.

“Yes, that’s the correct McKinley reference [to the 25th U.S. President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901]. I was a little surprised by that one myself – but I grew up with a dad who was a history teacher and loved to quiz me on history and current events.

“In the Trump dream, I definitely felt Trump would deride the pregnant woman for being pregnant in a personal and derogatory way, as if being pregnant was wrong in some way, perhaps shameful or ill-timed or simply undesirable. When I found the dream to send to you, Trump’s comments regarding punishing women who have abortions (which he hadn’t yet made when i had the dream) immediately came to mind. That would certainly not be my personal opinion and it was an uncomfortable feeling in the dream – so yes, about women’s bodies or their choices regarding their bodies, just generally disapproving and/or disrespectful. I looked back at the dream and saw that I noted my “feeling on waking” was dismay.”

This report comes from “Sarah” on March 30, 2016. She titled it “Snake in the Pool.”
In a campus-like setting, frat-boys increasingly intrude upon women.  Some of them, with huge testicles, jump naked into a women’s pool and swim circling about in a pack.  They don’t notice the coppery poisonous snake that has joined them swimming in the water.  In fact, one guy absentmindedly pushes it out of the way without actually looking at it and recognizing it for what it is. Their elder, The Lord of Misrule, arrives: it turns out that he’s Donald Trump.  He wears a royal purple satin robe with metallic golden trim, but gaping wide open in front, exposing his nakedness and his big belly.  An entourage of fatuous rich and powerful men accompany him.  They seem completely brainwashed: they have dull eyes and their mouths hang open. Despite their robes of office they look so imbecilic that it’s scary.  (I feel both fear FOR them in their impaired state, and fear OF them because they’re in no condition to wield the power that they have.) The entourage fills up bleachers beside the pool, taking the lower, easiest to reach, front-row seats.  I warn some of the other original women about the snake.  On my advice we move to the very top of the bleachers, above the men.  That poison snake won’t be the only one; I expect a swarm.  I know, however, that this variety can’t climb very far, though the lower bleachers that the men occupy are well within their range.  I hold no hope for the “leaders”, for they have let themselves become too impaired to defend themselves.

Below are my follow-up questions, and Sarah’s responses:

Do you often dream of people from public life like politicians, or is this a rare event?

I sometimes dream of public figures, more often fictional people, but the outside world, one way or another, does tend to impact my dreams.

How does the dream relate to your waking views of politics generally, and Trump in particular?  The dream seems to express a skeptical wariness towards Trump and the other guys.  Am I right about that?

That’s pretty true, yes.

Is the “Lord of Misrule” a specific character from a story, or is it something new in this dream?

It’s an historical role, actually.  On April Fool’s Day.  Someone foolish or of low standing is declared the Lord of Misrule, and put in charge of drunken revelry for one or a few days, variously in Christmas-time, April Fool’s Day, or Saturnalia.  Here’s a link on it:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_of_Misrule. I should also mention that, after wondering if the dream might predict something politically, I realized that the women moved to higher ground that the men were too stupified to attain and thus escaped being poisoned–which might indicate that Trump would win the nomination, but Clinton win the presidency.  Which saddens me, because I’m a Bernie Sanders Supporter. Oh, and one other thing–I just learned that in the oldest versions of the Lord of Misrule, he dies after his brief reign, sacrificed to Saturn.

This dream came to “Betty” on March 31, 2016.

I’m walking down the hallway of a hospital ward (I believe) observing Donald Trump walking side-by-side with Louis CK. Donald and CK are concrete and viscerally tangible, but I’m ghost-like. It’s as though we’re back in time. Donald has his arm around CK and double-speaks to him–seemingly kindly–fatherly, yet patronizingly–as though he’s a much better person and has so much more to offer. Now that Donald has used psychological manipulation to lower CK’s confidence and perhaps esteem, he offers, what I presume to be a large bribe. CK looks into me (I’m kind of a camera, I suppose) in defeat as though to say “well what can I do? He owns this place.” My heart breaks because CK is one of “us.” One of the good guys. Trump is everywhere, on all sides–left and right. He’s got everyone wrapped around his finger, including CK, in whom I had entrusted my hopes. Disappointed, I go back to my room.

The dream goes on to a scene in a hospital, which directly related to the serious waking-life health concerns of Betty’s mother and grandmother. The first half of the dream reminded her of the character played by Louis CK in the movie “Trumbo,” which Betty enjoyed a great deal. Her actual name (not the pseudonym Betty) is similar to his, which she felt might indicate a kind of symbolic identification with Louis CK. This made her worry the dream reflected something about her own vulnerability to the persuasive appeal of the Trump campaign. She said, “I’m being seduced by the media as well, I think….”

Lastly, this dream came from “Sophia,” dated April 25, 2016.

Dream about the election.  The candidate I like thinks about people to be served, not problems to be solved.  EOD.

In response to my questions about the candidate, Sophia said, “It seemed like there was a person but it was more an impression than a clear memory of someone.  The clear dream memory was the idea and words, the concept.  I wonder if the message from the dream indicates that it’s not the personality that’s important but the ideals.” I asked how the dream related to her thoughts about current politics, and she replied, “Yes, the viewpoint in the dream is consistent with my waking views.” Her professional life involves teaching and leading workshops, and she said a motivating ideal in her work is the question of “What do the people need?”  If a politician could make that ideal the center of a campaign, he or she would have Sophia’s vote.