The American Dream

The American Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“The American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.  It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position….[T]he American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily.  It has been much more than that.  It has been a dream of being able to grow to the fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

From The Epic of America (1931) by James Truslow Adams

An Exchange with Political Psychologist John Jost

In January of 2008 I had an email exchange with John Jost, political psychologist at NYU and lead author of the 2003 article, “Political Conservativism as Motivated Social Cognition.” (Psychological Bulletin 129: 339-375). He had seen an advance copy of the book, and while favorably disposed toward most of it he took exception to the following passages in the conclusion:

“The data presented in this book for the most part agree with the findings from my earlier studies. Political conservatives in America tend to sleep well with a diminished range of dreaming, while American liberals are more likely to sleep poorly with an expanded range of dreaming. The differences are not absolute, but the trends seem consistent with their respective political ideals.

These findings correspond fairly well with other research on political psychology. For example, John T. Jost and his colleagues argued in an influential 2003 article that “the core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.”[i] Reviewing the results of eighty-eight studies involving more than twenty thousand people, Jost et al. found that political conservatism was psychologically correlated with high degrees of death anxiety and dogmatism and low degrees of openness to experience, tolerance of uncertainty, and integrative complexity. Without corresponding data on political liberals it’s hard to know exactly what to make of these findings, but they seem consistent in many ways with the patterns identified in my dream research, and thus supportive of a classic social scientific view of conservatives going back to Adorno and his 1950 study of “the authoritarian personality.” Conservatives seem to have thicker psychological boundaries than do liberals, with less interest in anything that deviates from their traditional ways of living and more concern about possible threats to those traditions.[ii]

My hesitation to fully endorse this line of research stems from 1) its pathologizing approach to conservative beliefs and ideals and 2) its premise that there’s a clear, stable distinction between a conservative and a liberal personality. I believe it’s better to start political psychology research with the recognition that no one is purely conservative or liberal. Everybody’s personality includes aspects of both tendencies… Samuels, like Lakoff, is an avowed political liberal, and Jost et al., leave little doubt as to their greater sympathy for liberal qualities. The leftward-leaning tendencies of most social scientists gives us good reason to question the motivations of researchers who argue that conservatives are somehow less mentally healthy or psychologically mature than liberals. Personal bias plays a role in political psychology just like it does in every academic field, and the best we researchers can do is try to be honest with ourselves and continually test our ideas against new sources of evidence.”

Jost replied that “you seem to be perpetuating some common misunderstandings (or misrepresentations) of our work. For example, you state that our meta-analysis did not include “corresponding data on political liberals” and that our work assumes a “clear, stable distinction between a conservative and a liberal personality.” Both of these statements are false. In fact, participants’ political orientation scores were treated as continuous variables (ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative) in nearly all of the 88 studies in the meta-analysis. Thus, our research contains extensive data on liberals and does not assume a rigid categorical distinction at all; rather, all conclusions are comparative. You also claim that our research takes a “pathologizing approach to conservative beliefs and ideals” (p. 154) and imply that our (assumed) “liberal bias” led us to conclude that “conservatives are somehow less mentally healthy or psychologically mature than liberals” (p. 157). These claims are also false, and we clearly said so in an August 2003 Washington Post Op-Ed piece. All of the 9 cognitive and motivational style variables that we investigated are part of normal psychological functioning, and there was nothing in our articles that “pathologized” conservatives. What you are doing here is perpetuating false claims that circulated on right-wing websites by people who never actually read our research.”

Jost also offered links to several articles in which he makes his case against his conservative attackers:

My response to Jost starts with an acknowledgment of my imprecision in summarizing his research. In the conclusion I briefly discuss my findings in light of four different perspectives on political psychology—cognitive scientist George Lakoff, Jungian analyst Andrew Samuels, Neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jost and his colleagues. In the paragraph on Jost I discuss his work in connection to the long lineage of social scientific research on political “authoritarianism” starting with Adorno, and clearly from Jost’s perspective I failed to adequately credit his methodological advances over the early Adorno work. The primary target of my critical comments is indeed Adorno, and I could have done more to distinguish Jost’s research from his. That said, I stand by the general methodological concerns raised in that passage. Research like Adorno’s and Jost’s is predicated on psychological categories that may correspond to actual features of cognitive structure but also have the tendency to obscure the fluid dynamism of actual lived experience (of the liberal and conservative varieties). My approach in the book tries to integrate both dimensions, the cognitive-structural and the dynamic-experiential, and even though my efforts are very limited and preliminary, the initial results have been sufficiently promising to encourage the pursuit of more and better research. Indeed, my primary point in bringing up Jost’s work was to highlight the convergence in our findings. The sleep and dream data I present in the main portion of the book strike me as remarkably consistent with the basic results of the meta-analysis of Jost and his colleagues in their 2003 article. I’m curious to know how much further these correspondences extend.

[i] John T. Jost, Jack Glaser, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Frank J. Sulloway, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” Psychological Bulletin 129 (2003), 339.
[ii] The notion of psychological boundaries comes from Ernest Hartmann, Boundaries in the Mind: A New Psychology of Personality (New York: Basic Books, 1993). See also Milton Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1960).

Dream-sharing among the Founding Fathers

John Adams and Benjamin Rush: dream-sharing among the Founding Fathers, told in Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

John Adams-Benjamin Rush 1: Dream-Sharing of the Founding Fathers

“Rush set the terms for what became a high-stakes game of honesty by proposing that they dispense with the usual topics and report to each other on their respective dreams.  Adams leapt at the suggestion and declared himself prepared to match his old friend ‘dream for dream.’  Rush began with a ‘singular dream’ set in 1790 and focusing on a crazed derelict who was promising a crowd that he could ‘produce rain and sunshine and cause the wind to blow from any quarter he pleased.’  Rush interpreted this eloquent lunatic as a symbolic figure representing all those political leaders in the infant nation who claimed they could shape public opinion.  Adams subsequently countered: ‘I dreamed that I was mounted on a lofty scaffold in the center of a great plain in Versailles, surrounded by an innumerable congregation of five and twenty millions.’  But the crowd was not comprised of people.  Instead, they were all ‘inhabitants of the royal menagerie,’ including lions, elephants, wildcats, rats, squirrels, whales, sharks….At the end of the dream, he was forced to flee the scene with my ‘clothes torn from my back and my skin lacerated from head to foot.’”

Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 214-215.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to study these letters between John Adams and Benjamin Rush myself, so I’m relying on Ellis’ reading of this remarkable correspondence (which began in 1805 and continued for many years).  Adams was the country’s second President (1979-1801).  He played a central role in the country’s revolutionary birth but found himself  brusquely pushed aside by Thomas Jefferson, his erstwhile  friend and compatriot who defeated him in the 1800 election.  Rush was another “Founding Father,” a Pennsylvania doctor who signed the Declaration of Independence and who made it his personal mission to reconcile Adams and Jefferson.  He acted as an intermediary between them, writing letters to both men and trying to persuade them to restore some sense of political unity with each other, for their own sake and for the welfare of the young American republic, its visionary system of government still fragile and uncertain of long-term survival.

Why Rush made his dream-sharing proposal to Adams, where he got the idea, what made Adams so quickly agree—these are questions to which I don’t know the answer.  But it’s fascinating to discover evidence that the country’s earliest leaders evinced an enthusiastic willingness to share and discuss the insights revealed in their dreams.  Rush’s “singular” dream reflected the distaste he and Adams both felt toward the political demagoguery of their opponents, whose seductive fantasies were threatening to destroy the federal government’s ability to function as originally intended.  Adams responded with an elaborate nightmare (his reporting of the animals goes on for several paragraphs) in which he’s overcome by the tremendous power and riotous diversity of the animal kingdom.  Ellis suggests, plausibly I think, that Adams’ dream symbolized the angry emotions aroused in him by the split with Jefferson.

John Adams-Benjamin Rush 2: The End

“Rush reported his most amazing dream yet.  He dreamed that Adams had written a short letter to Jefferson, congratulating him on his recent retirement from public life.  Jefferson had then responded to this magnanimous gesture with equivalent graciousness….Then  the two philosopher-kings ‘sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country’….Adams responded immediately: ‘A DREAM AGAIN! I have no other objection to your dream but that it is not history.  It may be prophecy.”

Ellis, Founding Brothers, 220.

In 1809, when Rush described his dream, Adams and Jefferson were still estranged.  However, both men had expressed to Rush a willingness to overcome their differences and bury their hurt feelings for the higher cause of national unity.  Ordinarily I would raise the skeptic’s question myself—Rush’s “dream” sounds too smooth, too allegorical, too conveniently supportive of his conscious goals to be believed.  But as a matter of historical fact, the dream came true in a way I doubt anyone could fabricate.  Adams and Jefferson resumed a cordial, respectful friendship in 1812, and for the remaining years of their lives they wrote each other detailed letters analyzing their roles in the country’s founding and articulating their best understanding of the Revolution’s core ideals and purposes.  In uncanny obedience to Rush’s dream, Adams and Jefferson died on same day—July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Gospel According to Darwin: The Relevance of Cognitive Neuroscience to Religious Studies

How the Mind Works
By Steven Pinker
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997
Pp. xii + 660.  $29.95.
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
By V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee
New York: Quill, 1998
Pp. xvii + 328.  $16.00.
The Neuropsychology of Dreams: A Clinico-Anatomical Study
By Mark Solms
Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1997
Pp. xviii + 292.  N.p.
Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
By Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause
New York: Ballantine Books, 2001
Pp. 226.  $24.95.

The recent appearance of the anthology Religion and Psychology: Mapping the Terrain, edited by Diane Jonte-Pace and William Parsons (Routledge, 2001), raises anew the question of how psychology and religious studies can best be related to one another.  The book’s contributors offer a variety of different answers to that basic question, with some focusing on the powerful ability of psychology to explain religious phenomena, others arguing that psychology and religion should engage in a mutually respectful dialogue on their common interest in human nature, and still others aiming critical attention at the often unacknowledged religious and spiritual dimensions of contemporary psychology.  These different approaches testify to the creative vitality of the field of religion and psychology, and they bode well for its future.  Such vitality will be needed, for the future also poses serious challenges.  The inherent instability of institutional programs that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries, the declining interest in insight-oriented psychotherapy, the increasing tendency of religious studies departments to focus on traditions rather than methods, and the continuing critical controversy surrounding the works of Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung are among the many factors that will test the durability of religion and psychology over the coming years.

One of the biggest threats to the field’s future development can be put in very simple terms: the “psychology” used in religion and psychology is rarely the same as the “psychology” of leading scientific researchers in that discipline.  Religion and psychology as a field has not sufficiently kept up with what many psychologists consider to be the most creative new developments of their field.  This is ironic, because three of religion and psychology’s seminal thinkers—Freud, Jung, and William James—were all deeply versed in the most advanced scientific psychology of their day.  Those of us today who have been inspired by Freud, Jung, and James could do much to invigorate the religion and psychology field by following their example.  Returning for a moment to the Jonte-Pace and Parsons anthology, I find it telling that very few of the book’s contributors make any reference to the dramatic upsurge of evolutionary theorizing in current psychology.  (Perhaps there will be more of this in a second volume of Mapping the Terrain?)  While I do not believe that all research in religion and psychology should bow down before the Darwinian altar, I do want to suggest that developing an informed and critically reflective stance toward Darwinian thought is an imperative task for scholars in the religion and psychology field.

The following essay will review several recent books that offer religion scholars good introductions to major new developments in scientific psychology and potential implications for the study of religion.  The books can all be classified under the broad term “cognitive neuroscience,” which refers to the increasingly dynamic interaction between neurophysiology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, computer science, and several other related disciplines.  This interaction has been sparked in large part by the dramatic development of new brain imaging technologies that have given researchers a powerful tool to investigate the correlations between psychological experience and neurophysiological activity.  Cognitive neuroscience is firmly, even aggressively Darwinian in its conceptual reliance on evolution by descent and natural selection (“evolutionary psychology” is another term commonly used to describe this area of research).  Within this framework the ultimate level of explanation for any psychological faculty involves identifying its role in the adaptive fitness of the human species.  “How exactly does x contribute to the organism’s ability to reproduce and spread its genes?”—answering that question is the terminal goal of all cognitive neuroscientific research.

Although most cognitive neuroscientists concentrate their energies on the study of highly specific and localized phenomena, many of them are aware that their findings have important implications for the understanding of broader cultural phenomena like art, philosophy, ethics—and religion.  Religion, in this sense, is the most challenging “x” to be explained by cognitive neuroscience.  How do religious beliefs, rituals, and experiences promote the adaptive fitness of the individual?  Does belonging to a religion help people propagate their genes more effectively?  Why did the brain evolve the ability to formulate ideas about God, the soul, and the afterlife?  Some cognitive neuroscientists are claiming to have new answers to these kinds of questions, and a surprisingly large audience (to judge by the impressive sales of some of these books) is taking these answers seriously.  Cognitive neuroscientists currently enjoy tremendous social prestige as the preeminent authorities on the subject of human nature, and if for this reason only scholars of religion need to pay close critical attention to their ideas.

If any of this sounds reminiscent of the sociobiology movement of the 1970’s, it should.  Crudely but accurately, cognitive neuroscience can be thought of as sociobiology with PET scans and brain lesion studies.)

The books I have chosen to review approach the subject of religion in very different ways.  The first (Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works) is overtly hostile to religion.  The second (V. S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms of the Brain) is intrigued by religion, but not entirely sure what to make of it.  The third (Mark Solms’s The Neuropsychology of Dreaming) says nothing about religion per se, but nevertheless has intriguing implications for its study.  And the fourth (Andrew Newberg’s Why God Won’t Go Away) presents itself as friendly to religion and supportive of its basic claims.

How the Mind Works is a massive and massively ambitious book.  Steven Pinker teaches psychology and is director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in How the Mind Works he aims to provide a comprehensive account of human cognitive functioning.  This is “Grand Theorizing” with a vengeance, and with 565 pages of text and another 58 of notes and references Pinker provides an impressive array of evidence to support his claims.  The book’s “key sentence” (his phrase) comes on p. 21:

“The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people.”

Pinker relies centrally on the notion of the mind as a kind of neural computer that has evolved a number of specific abilities.  The primary function of this computer is to process information in ways that, through the long course of evolutionary history, have helped humans survive and procreate.  All humans are born with a set of basic mental modules (“organs of computation”) that enable us to perceive, think, remember, plan, and act in the world.  Although culture has some role in shaping people’s personalities, for Pinker the fundamental psychological structures of the human mind are genetically determined and impervious to cultural influence.

In the course of the book Pinker vents considerable spleen at postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, psychoanalysts, and anyone else who advocates the “secular catechism of our age” (57) and grants too much credit to culture as a factor in human life, experience, and development.  Pinker’s colorful rhetoric and combative tone clearly appeal to a wide audience—there’s a kind of Rush Limbaugh quality to the book, a delight in making fun of all the soft-headed, psychologically-correct lefties who live in a fantasy world and refuse to face the cold, hard empirical data.  But many of Pinker’s tirades make no documented reference to any particular texts or scholars, and as the book goes on his animosity toward the human sciences generally becomes increasingly evident.  This is a serious problem, and it drastically diminishes the value of his work. I am sure that for every one of his points about wrongheaded postmodernist thinking, an offending author could be found who has made such a ridiculous claim at one time or another.  What is lacking, however, is any interest or willingness on Pinker’s part to consider the more sophisticated, nuanced, and well-reasoned claims of scholars in the human sciences (not all of whom, of course, consider themselves postmodernists).

This problem is nowhere clearer than in Pinker’s treatment of the subject of religion, which he addresses in the book’s final chapter.  He tips his hand in the opening lines, when he says

“Man does not live by bread alone, nor by know-how, safety, children, or sex.  People everywhere spend as much time as they can afford on activities that, in the struggle to survive and reproduce, seem pointless….  As if that weren’t enough of a puzzle, the more biologically frivolous and vain the activity is, the more people exalt it.” (521)

Although he gives a nod to the value of these activities (among which he includes humor, religion, the arts, and philosophy), calling them “the mind’s best work, what makes life worth living” (521), the fact remains that Pinker’s evolutionary framework renders such behaviors puzzling and problematic.  His professions of admiration for cultural creativity ultimately ring hollow, coming at the end of a book devoted to the argument that culture doesn’t matter to human psychology.  And if culture in general doesn’t matter to Pinker, religion really doesn’t matter.  He grants at least some degree of adaptive utility to art, humor, and ethical reasoning, but he can find little evolutionary benefit to human religiosity.  Pinker offers three possible explanations for why religion originally developed and why it has persisted into the present day:

1.      Religious beliefs “serve the interests of the people who promulgate them.  Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea to people who are about to become ancestors.”  (555)

2.      Religion is a “technique for success” in important, life-and-death matters such as illness, love, warfare, and weather.  “Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.”  (556)

3.      Religion, like philosophy, involves a futile effort to understand that which we are innately incapable of understanding.  “[R]eligion and philosophy are in part the application of mental tools to problems they were not designed to solve.”  (525)  “Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with.” (565)  “For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of the original ones.”  (560)

The first two explanations have some merit to them, although they hardly suffice as an adequate accounting for the vast diversity of human religious experience.  In this regard, Pinker’s book suggests that evolutionary psychology, if pursued in a dogmatic and reductionistic fashion, may offer no more useful contributions to the study of religion than did sociobiology in the 1970’s.

The third explanation is curious, and merits closer consideration.  Pinker is saying in effect that religious and philosophical thought is a total waste of time.  The realm of worthwhile human cognition is circumscribed by the fact that our mental faculties have been designed to work on certain kinds of problems regarding survival and procreation.  Religious and philosophical mysteries are not among those problems.  Pinker uses the term “cognitive closure” to describe this feature of the human condition, and he denies that such a notion has any negative or despairing implications: “Is cognitive closure a pessimistic conclusion?  Not at all!  I find it exhilarating, a sign of great progress in our understanding of the mind” (563).  Whether or not readers share Pinker’s joy at this idea, I question its legitimacy as an accounting of human religiosity, and I do so by reference to Pinker’s own first principles—Darwinian evolution.  The human mind has not simply evolved; it is evolving.  As Pinker demonstrates in great detail, the mind’s abilities have developed over time in direct response to pressing interests stimulated by environmental forces on people’s lives.  It is entirely possible that religiosity has evolved (and is evolving) in human psychology as part of a process of trying to respond to the radically new challenges confronting a species that has developed unique cognitive abilities for language, social interchange, consciousness, memory, and reason.  Darwin himself was acutely aware of the dynamic, ever-changing nature of evolution (although evolutionary change usually requires very long periods of time to proceed), and in the context of Darwinian theory a notion like “cognitive closure” is an absurdity.  Cognitive weakness, perhaps.  Cognitive imperfection, definitely.  But to suggest that the limits of the present can never be overcome is like saying the earliest ocean-born life forms were subject to “ambulatory closure” and would be forever denied the ability to walk on dry land.


Phantoms in the Brain is co-authored by V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at University of California, San Diego, and Sandra Blakeslee, a science writer for The New York Times.  This dual authorship reflects the fact that a broad general audience is interested in the brain/mind research of scientists like Ramachandran.  Earlier books by Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio, and others have convinced commercial publishers there is a market for books that explain (with varying degrees of help from second authors) the basic findings of cognitive neuroscience and apply those findings to issues like art, morality, and religion.  Within that new literary genre, Phantoms in the Brain stands out as the most interesting and valuable work to date, for several reasons.  First and foremost, Ramachandran was raised in India, as a Hindu.  Although he doesn’t dwell on his religious upbringing, it seems at least partly responsible for his vastly more respectful and open-minded attitude toward religion than is found in Pinker’s work.  For example, Pinker would never speak, as Ramachandran does, of “the divine spark that exists in all of us” (188), nor would he quote the Upanishads and rhapsodize about the liberating realization that “you’re really part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, [and] your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy.” (157)  Ramachandran’s book is prima facie evidence that the findings of cognitive neuroscience are not inherently antithetical to religious faith and spiritual experience.

The influence of Hinduism on Ramachandran goes beyond his attitude toward religion; it shapes his approach to the primary focus of his neuroscientific research, which is phantom limb syndrome.  Why do people who have lost limbs through accident or disease continue to “feel” sensations from those parts of their bodies?  How does the brain generate such a compelling illusion of the presence of something that is demonstrably absent?  Ramachandran’s answer is that the brain is far more flexible and ready to adapt to new circumstances than is generally recognized.  When a body part is lost, the region of the brain responsible for “mapping” that part is taken over by adjacent neural systems.  The brain apparently does not tolerate a vacuum; if one region of neural activity is no longer receiving the input it needs to do its work, the brain will use that space for some other purpose.  The speed with which these transformations take place is surprisingly fast, and I agree with Ramachandran that “the implications are staggering” (31).  Not only does this suggest new possibilities for the treatment of neurological disorders long thought to be incurable, but it also justifies renewed investigation of the cultural forces that actively work to stimulate the experience of specific neuropsychological states (e.g., meditation—see the discussion of Newberg below).  Pace Pinker, the brain/mind system is characterized by remarkable plasticity and flexibility; we are just beginning to grasp its astonishing complexity and sophistication, and far from running up against “cognitive closure,” we are gaining an entirely new appreciation for the evolutionary potential of the human mind.

Another way in which Ramachandran’s Hinduism colors his work regards his approach to perception, consciousness, and selfhood.  Most if not all cognitive neuroscientists agree that our perceptions of the objective physical world give us no “direct” knowledge of that world; rather, our brains take data from our senses and create a neurological model of the real world.  Likewise with our sense of personal identity: there is no miniature self or “homunculus” hidden in some special region of the brain, just a neurogical superstructure that serves to organize our perceptions and manage our actions.  Several neuroscientists have explored the fascinating philosophical implications of these theories.  For example, Antonio Damasio contends in Descartes’ Error (Quill, 1992) that recent neuroscientific findings prove Rene Descartes was wrong to separate the mind from the body.  In the view of Damasio and many other researchers, any future discussion of the soul, the psyche, the mind, the spirit, or any other related concept must acknowledge the ultimate grounding of all human experience in the neurological workings of the brain/mind system.

This is not quite the view of Ramachandran.  He draws rather different philosophical implications from current neuroscience, and while in this book he does not pursue them at any length he clearly intends them as invitations to further discussion and investigation.  Consider these passages:

“For your entire life, you’ve been walking around assuming that your ‘self’ is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death….  Yet these experiments suggest the exact opposite—that your body image, despite all its appearance of durability, is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with just a few simple tricks.” (61-62)

“[Y]our concept of a single ‘I’ or ‘self’ inhabiting your brain may be simply an illusion—albeit one that allows you to organize your life more efficiently, gives you a sense of purpose and helps you interact with others.” (84)

“To overstate the argument deliberately, perhaps we are hallucinating all the time and what we call perception is arrived at by simply determining which hallucination best conforms to the current sensory input.” (112)

“What is the nature of the self?  As someone who was born in India and raised in the Hindu tradition, I was taught that the concept of the self—the ‘I’ within me that is aloof from the universe and engages in a lofty inspection of the world around me—is an illusion, a veil called maya….  Ironically, after extensive training in Western medicine and more than fifteen years of research on neurological patients and visual illusions, I have come to realize that there is much truth to this view.” (227)

While researchers like Damasio and Pinker regard the current findings of brain science as a fatal blow to belief in any kind of non-physical reality or transcendent truth, Ramachandran is more interested in what brain science can say about the neuropsychological foundations of spiritual experience.  Chapter 9 of Phantoms in the Brain is titled “God and the Limbic System,” and in it Ramachandran discusses the intriguing relationship between temporal lobe epilepsy and religious experience.  Medical literature is filled with cases of people who suffer epileptic seizures in the temporal lobes (a part of the brain responsible for emotional processing) and who regularly report intense spiritual experiences during the seizures; in some cases the people continue to be deeply interested in religious issues after the seizures have stopped.  Ramachandran describes his own research on the religious preoccupations of patients with epilepsy, and in the end he says “the one clear conclusion that emerges from all this is that there are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and these become hyperactive in some epileptics” (188).  Ramachandran’s openness to religion probably earns him few friends in the neuroscientific research community—though it should spark the interest of religious studies scholars.


No one could mistake Mark Solms’s The Neuropsychology of Dreams for a mass-market book for beach or airplane reading.  This is an unvarnished, straight-as-an-arrow scientific monograph on one very specific subject in cognitive neuroscience, namely the formation of dream experience.  The book contains no witty references to pop culture, no endearing autobiographical digressions, no colorful rhetorical contrivances (although Solms does conclude with the latin phrase nihil simul inventum est et perfectum (“Nothing can be invented and perfected at the same time”)).  No effort is made to appeal to readers outside the scientific community, and the book’s plodding prose is dull as dishwater.  And yet precisely for all these reasons, The Neuropsychology of Dreams gives non-specialists an excellent window into the actual working conditions of contemporary cognitive neuroscience, showing why researchers in this area are so excited about their findings (and so aggressively assertive about their implications).

The logic guiding the argument in The Neuropsychology of Dreams is very simple: he uses research on damaged brains to make inferences about healthy brains.  For four years Solms, a clinical neurologist at London Hospital Medical College, asked his patients (people suffering from a variety of brain disorders) about their dreams.  Many of them reported “global cessation of dreaming,” i.e. they could no longer remember having any dreams.  A few people reported no longer dreaming with visual images, although they could still remember sounds, bodily sensations, etc.  Some patients experienced a dramatic increase in nightmares, while others had increasingly intense and vivid dreams that actually disrupted their ability to distinguish between dreaming and waking.  Using the abundant clinical and anatomical information he had about each of these patients, Solms was able to identify several correlations between their dreams and their neurological conditions.  The Neuropsychology of Dreams provides a careful, step-by-step description of how he moved from the clinical and anatomical data gathered from his patients to an explanatory model of normal dream formation.  Patients with damage to certain regions of the brain consistently suffered marked changes in their dreaming; patients with damage to other regions of the brain consistently reported no changes in their dreaming.  Therefore, Solms concludes, the former brain regions are the ones primarily responsible for the normal process of dream formation.  These regions include the limbic system (center of curiosity-interest-expectancy processes), the medial occipito-temporal cortex (visual representation), the inferior parietal convexity (spatial representation), and the basal forebrain pathways (appetitive desire).  One brain region that does not play any essential role in normal dream formation is the prefrontral convexity (source of logical coherence, prepositional structure, and volitional purpose).

This basic type of argument—moving from data about damaged functioning to inferences about normal functioning—is very common in contemporary neuroscience.  Although such reasoning has serious limitations (health is not simply the lack of pathology), Solms demonstrates its power in challenging long-standing assumptions about brain function.  Ever since the discovery in the 1950’s of the connection between REM (rapid eye movement sleep) and dreaming, most neuroscientists have believed that REM is the neurophysiological basis of dreaming.  The leading advocates of this view, J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, proposed the “activation-synthesis” model of dream formation, in which REM sleep is regarded as the essential determinant of dreaming experience.  Solms, however, using his clinico-anatomical findings, vigorously refutes Hobson and McCarley:

“[A]lthough there is a strong statistical correlation between the physiological state of REM sleep and the conscious state of dreaming, the neural mechanisms that produce REM are neither necessary nor sufficient for the conscious experience of dreaming.” (153)

“[N]ormal dreaming is impossible without the active contribution of some of the highest regulatory and inhibitory mechanisms of the mind.  These conclusions cast doubt on the prevalent notion—based on simple generalizations from the mechanism of REM sleep—that ‘the primary motivating force for dreaming is not psychological but physiological’ (Hobson and McCarley 1977).  If psychological forces are equated with higher cortical functions, it is difficult to reconcile the notion that dreams are random physiological events generated by primitive brainstem mechanisms, with our observation that global anoneira [cessation of dreaming] is associated not with brainstem lesions resulting in basic arousal disorders, but rather with parietal and frontal lesions resulting in spatial-symbolic and motivational-inhibitory disorders.  These observations suggest that dreams are both generated and represented by some of the highest mental mechanisms.” (241-242)

I want to note two features of Solms’ argument that are relevant to religious studies.  First is the compelling force of his scientific reasoning.  No future account of dreaming will be considered adequate that fails to acknowledge this kind of clinical and anatomical data about the role of the brain in dream experience.  In this regard, Solms’ work is one small example of the broader impact that cognitive neuroscience is having on nearly every scholarly field.  The Neuropsychology of Dreams shows how the revolutionary new discoveries in brain science are forcing a wholesale reconsideration of human mental life.  No researcher has written a Solms-like neuroscientific monograph on religious experience—yet.  I suggest it is only a matter of time until someone does produce an incredibly dry, meticulous, plodding report of the correlations between brain damage and various types of religiosity, and in the process radically challenges many fundamental assumptions of religious studies scholarship.

The second point to make about Solms’ work regards the prominent role of dreaming in many of the world’s religious traditions.  Solms takes no interest in this dimension of dreaming, but for researchers who are interested in the interplay of dreams, psychology, and religion, Solms’ work has important implications.  His refutation of Hobson and McCarley’s “brainstem reductionism” strongly supports the idea that dreams are not meaningless epiphenomena of REM sleep but rather meaning-laden, symbolically structured creations produced by some of the most sophisticated processes of the brain-mind system.  This gives fresh impetus to the study of the dynamic interplay between dreaming and religious faith, philosophical knowledge, and cultural creativity.  Unfortunately, Solms’ own theoretical alternative to Hobson is little more than a warmed-over version of Freud’s “sleep protection” theory of dream function: Dreams are defensive reactions to internal stimuli (including, but not restricted to, REM sleep) that threaten to disrupt sleep. The problem with this explanation is that it neglects the remarkable creativity of much of human dream experience.  Solms makes no effort to investigate the specific imagery and symbolic expressiveness of his patients’ dreams, and thus he has no appreciation for visionary power that emerges so clearly in dreams reported from various religious and cultural traditions around the world.  Here, I suggest, lies a golden opportunity for religious studies scholars to use cognitive neuroscience as a point of departure for the fresh investigation of a recurrent phenomenon in the history of human religiosity.  Perhaps we should take Solms at his latin word and, after thanking him for “inventing” these important findings, go on to “perfect” and refine them in future research.


Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief hit bookstores in 2001 with a force usually associated with a new Stephen King novel.  Prominently featured in major newspapers, magazines, television programs and talk radio shows, the book tapped into a surprisingly large public interest in the connection between religious experience and brain science.  Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, both from University of Pennsylvania (Newberg in Radiology, D’Aquili in Psychiatry), wrote an earlier book together, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Fortress, 1999), which laid out many of the research findings and theoretical interpretations that are central to Why God Won’t Go Away.  The new book (completed after D’Aquili’s death, with the help of freelance writer Vince Rause) takes the earlier material and carries it forward to a broader audience, offering several far-reaching claims about the significance of their research findings.  Like Pinker, but with a diametrically opposite attitude toward religion, Newberg and D’Aquili offer another “Grand Theory” of human life and development, with sweeping explanations for a wide variety of psychological and cultural phenomena.   
The widespread appeal of Newberg and D’Aquili’s work has several sources.  First, it’s a “man bites dog” kind of story.  The rarity of neuroscientists saying something favorable about religion is striking, and this in itself has generated broad public interest.  Second, Newberg and D’Aquili assert that religious experiences are not signs of pathology and mental illness but rather the products of healthy, normal human brains.  Such a claim is bound to attract people who do not share the disdain of Pinker and other cognitive neuroscientists for anything even remotely associated with religion.  The book’s title, Why God Won’t Go Away, reflects its explicit intention to defend religious belief against such harsh scientific attacks.

Third and most important, the book draws on the almost magical power accorded to the latest brain imaging technologies.  Newberg and D’Aquili rely on a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera to measure blood flow in the brain during certain behaviors, and thus to identify areas of greater or lesser neural activation.  Since the beginning of the “Decade of the Brain” in 1990 a string of exciting discoveries have been made using new imaging techniques to reveal the workings of the brain in language, vision, hearing, memory, motor action, mathematical reasoning, musical performance, and dozens of other activities.  The colorful computer-generated images produced by these technologies are stunning to behold, and while some researchers have raised important questions about the proper interpretation of these images, the idea has taken hold of the general public that PET, fMRI, and SPECT scans are, for the first time in history, giving us a clear “window on the mind.”

Newberg and D’Aquili are among the first researchers to try using imaging technology to study the brain during a religious experience (their subjects are advanced Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns in prayer).  Their results provide what they coyly suggest may be a “photograph of God.”  Why God Won’t Go Away opens with Newberg describing his use of the SPECT camera on a subject named Robert, who is meditating in the laboratory: “I’m waiting for Robert’s moment of mystical transcendence to arrive, because I intend to take its picture.” (3)  This is a tantalizing way to start a book, and Newberg and D’Aquili try to make good on their promise by explaining how during states of intense meditation and prayer the areas of the brain responsible for sensory perception and orientation essentially shut down due to a lack of meaningful input, while the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for the abilities “to concentrate, plan future behavior, and carry out complex perceptual tasks” (30), becomes highly activated.  In such a neurological condition, lacking any of the information normally used to define self and world and yet highly aroused in its attention association processes, the brain interprets its experience as suddenly devoid of boundaries:

“The brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses.  And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real.  This is exactly how Robert and generations of Eastern mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual, and mystical moments.” (6) 
Newberg and D’Aquili describe several other means of achieving this brain state, including states of hyperarousal (ritual dancing, drumming, chanting) and even relatively secular activities like attending a musical concert or taking a warm bath.  Whatever the method, Newberg and D’Aquili claim they all aim at the same fundamental neurological goal, the experience of what they call “Absolute Unitary Being,” or AUB:

“The transcendent state we call Absolute Unitary Being refers to states known by various names in different cultures—the Tao, Nivrana, the Unio Mystica, Brahman-atam—but which every persuasion describes in strikingly similar terms.  It is a state of pure awareness, a clear and vivid consciousness of no-thing.  Yet it is also a sudden, vivid consciousness of everything as an undifferentiated whole.” (147)

At first sight, Why God Won’t Go Away seems like the kind of book religious studies scholars would love.  That, at any rate, was my expectation as I began reading it.  Hence my disappointment at discovering the book suffers from several serious shortcomings.  Despite their eager acceptance of religion, Newberg and D’Aquili do not offer adequate evidence to support their neurocognitive explanation of it.  On the contrary, their major claims are only tenuously related to their research data, and the unfortunate effect of Why God Won’t Go Away may be that many neuroscientists will feel confirmed in their skepticism toward religion, rather than persuaded to pay more attention to it.

The first problem concerns what can be called “the lab effect.”  Simply put, the experimental attempt to replicate a certain kind of experience in a laboratory setting inevitably influences, shapes, and alters the experience in a variety of subtle but significant ways.  For example, in the field of dream research, people who serve as subjects in sleep laboratories tend to have dreams with less fear, aggression, and sexuality than people who sleep in a home setting—the lab evidently has a homogenizing effect on people’s dreams, making it less likely they will have rare or unusual types of dreaming experience.  Newberg and D’Aquili evince only a dim methodological awareness of how this same kind of problem drastically qualifies the significance of their research.  Although they confess that, “because peak experiences are quite rare, the likelihood of catching one when the subject is hooked up for electrophysiological readings is slim” (31), they never question the axiomatic assumption that experiences in a lab setting can be generalized to experiences outside the lab.  The question is, are people meditating and praying in a laboratory, “hooked up for electrophysiological readings” as part of a scientific experiment, having the same kind of experience as people meditating and praying in other settings?  Newberg and D’Aquili assume the answer is yes, but I would suggest the answer is no.  Important similarities between the two conditions certainly exist, but just as certainly there are major differences.  Why God Won’t Go Away takes a steamroller approach to the latter: the overriding goal of the book is to identify a common system of neurological activity responsible for all forms of religious experience.  Personal differences are mere secondary accretions to the fundamentally identical neural processes.

This points to the second problem, which is the book’s runaway universalism.  Ironically, Newberg and D’Aquili are even less interested in culture, history, and individual differences than Pinker.  At least Pinker knows enough about postmodernism to be vexed by it; Newberg and D’Aquili seem blissfully unaware of the past half-century of critical scholarship questioning universalistic claims about human nature and experience.  If they were aware of this literature, I cannot imagine them writing, even in a book aimed at non-specialists, passages like the following:

“Essentially, all myths can be reduced to a simple framework….Virtually all myths can be reduced to the same consistent pattern: identify a crucial existential concern, frame it as a pair of incompatible opposites, then find a resolution that alleviates anxiety and allows us to live more happily in the world.”  (62)

“At the heart of all the mystic’s descriptions, however, is the compelling conviction that they have risen above material existence, and have spiritually united with the absolute.” (101-2)

“Neurobiologically and philosophically, there cannot be two versions of this absolute unitary state.  It may look different, in retrospect, according to cultural beliefs and personal interpretations—a Catholic nun, for whom God is the ultimate reality, might interpret any mystical experience as a melting into Christ, while a Buddhist, who does not believe in a personalized God, might interpret mystical union as a melting into nothingness.  What’s important to understand, is that these differing interpretations are unavoidably distorted by after-the-fact subjectivity….  There is only absolute unity, and there cannot be two versions of any unity that is absolute.”  (122-3)

I leave it to scholars of myth, ritual, mysticism, and various religious traditions to punch holes in these inflated claims.  For the purposes of this review, I will simply say that whatever its failings as an understanding of religion, Newberg and D’Aquili’s “neurotheology” (the phrase comes from their earlier book) is not even firmly grounded in neuroscience.  Their theoretical claims should be understood as artifacts of the current, very imperfect state of brain imaging technology.  At present, the resolution of the various methods of neuroimaging is so poor that no one can tell with any definitive precision whether what is happening in one person’s brain is the exactly same as what is happening in another person’s brain.  But as the technology improves (and given the amount of money being poured into this research, the progress will be rapid), we are sure to discover vast new realms of unique complexity and distinctive difference in each individual’s neural circuitry.  This makes it quite likely that at some point in the near future we will have imaging data showing how, for example, the experiences of praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhists (in a lab setting, of course!) are actually quite different from one another.  Paradoxically, the very technology that Newberg and D’Aquili use to defend a universalistic view of religion will, I predict, become a valuable means of highlighting the radically irreducible plurality of human religious experience.

The final problem with Why God Won’t Go Away is that it ultimately fails in its stated goal of defending religion.  Newberg and D’Aquili’s core argument is that “religions persist because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences that are often interpreted as assurances that God exists” (129).  I imagine a skeptic like Pinker saying yes!, that’s exactly right, people foolishly fabricate elaborate fantasy explanations for their experiences rather than accept the more mundane origin of religious belief in anxieties about reproduction, social status, and death.  And even more than Pinker, Freud in his many writings on religion and culture gives give forceful articulation to this reductionistic explanation of religious faith.  Although Newberg and D’Aquili make a few glancing references to Freud, it is clear they have not fully processed the impact of his psychoanalytic thinking on religious studies scholarship.  To borrow from Paul Ricoeur, Why God Won’t Go Away is written from a “first naivete” perspective, and thus is not responsive to the present day’s “post-critical” environment and the profoundly troubling questions about religious belief provoked by a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”


In coming years and decades we will undoubtedly hear of many exciting new discoveries about the neurological workings of the brain.  As I hope to have shown in this essay, cognitive neuroscientists are quite eager to offer their opinions about what their research implies for our understanding of human religiosity.  Their claims are having an increasingly significant impact on the general public, and for this reason alone I suggest it is vitally important for a greater number of religious studies scholars to pay close critical attention to the latest findings of cognitive neuroscience.  Beyond this, I also suggest that for the field of religion and psychology an outstanding opportunity has opened for new investigations of classic themes in the field (e.g. conversion, mysticism, healing, cultural creativity, symbol and myth, gender).  Not since the early part of the twentieth century has leading scientific psychological research provided such fertile material for religious thought and reflection.

Note: I would like to thank the students of “The Soul, the Psyche, the Brain,” taught during the Fall of 2001 at the Graduate Theological Union, for their help in reading and understanding these texts.  I would also like to thank Diane Jonte-Pace for her insightful editorial advice.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Dreams

Lyndon B. Johnson’s dreams, told in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson 1: Paralysis

“[H]e began having, night after night, a terrifying dream, in which he would see himself sitting absolutely still, in a big, straight chair.  In the dream, the chair stood in the middle of the great, open plains.  A stampede of cattle was coming toward him.  He tried to move, but he could not.  He cried out again and again for his mother, but no one came.”

In Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991), 32.

Lyndon B. Johnson served as President from 1963-1969.  He told this and the following three dream reports to former White House aide and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose biography of Johnson referred to the dreams as meaningful reflections of his deeper character.  This one appears to be the earliest dream Johnson ever remembered, from around the age of five, and it’s a horrifying image of titanic danger and existential vulnerability.  Goodwin’s interpretation moves in a psychoanalytic direction, treating the recurrent nightmares as symbolic indications of Johnson’s oedipal attachment to his mother.  His strenuous effort to deny these powerful desires, Goodwin says, gave him a lifelong fear of paralysis and a corresponding impulse toward restless action and movement.  I won’t dispute her references to Johnson’s personal life, but I think the dreams can also be interpreted as expressions of a precocious awareness of human finitude and weakness in the face of powers vastly beyond his or anyone’s ability to control.  Whatever he may or may not have felt about his mother, Johnson’s recurrent nightmares can be seen as reflecting the primal glimmers of mortality that have haunted the sleep of children throughout history, and that often reappear at moments of crisis later in adulthood.

Johnson told Goodwin that the paralysis dreams came back after his heart attack in 1955, when he was forty-six years old.  He had just been elected Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, and the months of recuperation required following the heart attack seemed to create the conditions for the titanic terrors to reappear.  He said, “They [the nightmares] got worse after my heart attack.  For I knew then how awful it was to lose command of myself, to be dependent on others.  I couldn’t stand it.”  This sounds like a pretty good self-analysis of the dreams, more convincing to me than the psychoanalytic approach.

Lyndon Johnson 2: Chained to His Work

“In the dream, I had finished signing one stack of letters and had turned my chair toward the window.  The activity on the street below suggested to me that it was just past five o’clock.  All of Washington, it seemed, was on the street, leaving work for the day, heading for home.  Suddenly, I decided I’d pack up and go home, too.  For once, I decided, it would be nice to join all those people on the street and have an early dinner with my family.  I started to get up from my chair, but I couldn’t move.  I looked down at my legs and saw they were manacled to the chair with a heavy chain.  I tried to break the chain, but I couldn’t.  I tried again and failed again.  Once more and I gave up; I reached for the second stack of mail.  I placed it directly in front of me, and got back to work.”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 167

Johnson said this dream came in the early 1960’s, when he was serving as Vice-President to John F. Kennedy.  It merged his recurrent paralysis nightmares with his current political dissatisfactions.  The Vice-Presidency carries enormous prestige but little actual power (until recently, at least), and Johnson’s acute fear of losing control meant he found the position frustrating in the extreme.  His unhappiness with his job resonates, of course, with the multitude of work-related nightmares discussed in previous pages.  Like many, many other American workers, Johnson felt trapped in his job, cut off from his family, and too weak to escape the greater powers that controlled his life.

Lyndon Johnson 3: The Ghost of Woodrow Wilson

“[H]e was lying in a bed in the Red Room of the White House….His head was still his, but from the neck down his body was [a] thin, paralyzed body….”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 342

This version of his recurrent dream started in 1967, when Johnson was reaching the end of his first full term as President.  He associated the awful vision to 1) his grandmother, whose frail body frightened him as a child, and 2) Woodrow Wilson, President from 1912-1920, a fellow Democrat whose failures Johnson saw as emblematic of weak, impotent leadership.  Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 that effectively ended his presidency.  Johnson worried about his inherited vulnerability to strokes (many in his family had died from them), and he had good reason to fear that his administration would be judged, like Wilson’s, as a failure given the worsening war in Vietnam and the terrible race riots flaring up in several American cities.  His emaciating physical transformation in the dream signaled, I suspect, Johnson’s growing awareness that he would soon be joining the ranks of the presidential ancestors.  Goodwin says that when Johnson had these dreams he would get out of bed and walk through the White House with a small flashlight until he reached Wilson’s portrait, where he would physically touch the portrait in hope of consolation, or sympathy, or perhaps forgiveness.

Lyndon Johnson 4: Swimming in Circles

“In the dream he saw himself swimming in a river.  He was swimming from the center toward the shore.  He swam and swam, but he never seemed to get any closer.  He turned around to swim to the other shore, but again he got nowhere.  He was simply going round and round in circles.”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 344

Johnson faced a truly paralyzing situation in 1968, the time when he reported having this dream.  The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese marked a terrible setback the American war cause, the urban racial unrest was intensifying all over the country, student protests were growing in size and passion—if Johnson tried to run for another term he would face a terrible battle against his opponents for the dubious prize of four more years of the same, and yet if he simply gave up and retreated to his home in Texas he would be roundly denounced as a shameless coward.  According to Goodwin, this new variation of his paralysis dream helped Johnson find his way beyond the either-or dilemma.  He decided he would not campaign for a second term so he could better serve the country as a non-partisan leader and peacemaker during the dangerous months ahead.  Goodwin says Johnson connected this dream with a story his grandfather told about cattle getting caught in river whirlpools, which I believe deepens the thematic relations with his early childhood paralysis nightmares of the thundering herd of cattle.  In this dream, more than fifty years after the bad dreams first started, Johnson discovers that even the mighty cattle are vulnerable to the greater power represented by the whirlpool—just so, even the mighty President of the United States must yield to the greater power of historical forces beyond his individual ability to control.  I see the image of the circles as key here.  Johnson decided to devote his final years to the cause of historical continuity, carrying on the legacy of leadership from one President to the next, responsibly ending the service of his administration in order to prepare the country for the next cycle of political decision-making.  He stopped trying to fight against his existential weakness, and chose instead to
embrace the final stage of his political career as an opportunity to immerse himself wholeheartedly in the swirling currents of history.

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

Joe Lieberman's Farewell Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term. 

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next. 

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]