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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, Batman can sleep.

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

 

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

 

A Dream Research Contest

A Dream Research Contest by Kelly BulkeleyTo help test the initial hypotheses arising from the SDDb baselines, I am offering a dream research contest, open to anyone willing to give it a try.  The first person to send me (at bulkeleyk@gmail.com) the correct answers will win a $50 gift certificate to Amazon.com.

 

The contest challenges you to look at the word usage frequencies of six sets of dreams (available here) and make the following three predictions for each set: a) Is the dreamer a male or female? b)  Is the dreamer younger or older than 18? c) Is this a set of most recent dreams (MRDs) or highly memorable dreams (MemDs)?  You will not be able to read any of the dreams–you only get to look at the numerical frequencies of how often they used certain types of words.

 

I’m going to make it easier by giving three big clues.  These clues are so big, in fact, that they will give you a clear map to reach the correct answers.

 

Clue #1: The six sets of dreams come from four individual dreamers, let’s call them A, B, C, and D.  Two individuals gave two sets of dreams each.  The other two individuals gave one set of dreams each.  This means the contest has a bonus question: Which sets of dreams come from which individual?

 

Clue #2: As discussed in previous posts, the SDDb baselines have identified a number of significant differences between male and female dreamers and between MRDs and MemDs.   These differences can serve as analytic tools of comparison for making the kinds of predictions I’m asking you to propose.  Below are several specific tests you can use to identify the dreamer’s gender (male or female) and age (older or younger than 18) and the type of dreams contained in the set (MRDs or MemDs).  (Note: The age tests are not drawn directly from the SDDb but from other sources of research on children’s dreams (e.g., David Foulkes, Calvin Hall).)

 

Clue #3: There are two cases out of the 18 total predictions (3 questions x 6 sets of dreams) in which the overall conclusion of the tests gives the wrong answer.  In other words, the tests will lead you to the right answer about 89% of the time.  To get 100% of the answers right, you’ll have to add some kind of insight above and beyond the tests.

 

Good luck!  And please “show your work”–explain to me how you derived your predictions.

 

Tests for Gender:

If Emotion is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Emotion is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Fear is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Fear is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Speech is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Speech is Lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Characters is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Characters is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Family is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Family is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Friendliness is higher than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Friendliness is lower than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Physical Aggression is lower than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Physical Aggression is higher than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

If Sexuality is lower than the Female MRD baselines –> Female

If Sexuality is higher than the Male MRD baselines –> Male

 

Tests for Age:

If Cognition is higher than the MRD baselines –> Older than 18

If Animals is higher than the MRD baselines –> Younger than 18

If Family is higher than the MRD baselines –> Younger than 18

 

Tests for MRD vs. MemD

If Air is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Air is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Flying is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Flying is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Family is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Family is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Animals is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Animals is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Fantastic Beings is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Fantastic Beings is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Christianity is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Christianity is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

If Death is higher than the MemD baselines –> MemD

If Death is lower than the MRD baselines –> MRD

Children’s Dreams: A Word Search Analysis (part 4)

Children's Dreams: A Word Search Analysis (part 4) by Kelly BulkeleyTo summarize the results of the word search analysis so far:

The dreams of this group of 622 children ages 8-18 have more references to family, animals, and fantastic beings, more happiness and sadness, and more flying as compared to the Hall and Van de Castle “norm dreams” of young adults.

As mentioned earlier, it took less than half an hour to search all the dreams for the 40 word categories.  It would have taken perhaps 100 hours to get equally precise results using what used to be a standard method of dream content analysis (i.e., a team of two people reading the dreams, coding them, then comparing results and determining intercoder reliability).

A word search approach doesn’t eliminate the need for people.  It frees them to devote those extra 99 ½ hours to higher-level analyses and intuitive explorations of patterns in the data.

Now that I’ve got this initial orientation to the set of dreams as a whole, I can look in more detail at particular groups.  First up is gender—what are the male-female patterns in this set of dreams?

Of the 622 participants, 228 were boys and 394 are girls.  It’s a girl-biased sample, which for various reasons is fairly common in dream research.

The boys and girls have similar frequencies on perceptions, with the boys using somewhat more intensity words and the girls having more references to color.  The girls have somewhat more fear, and the boys more happiness.  They are mostly the same on cognition and nature words.  The girls have more family and animal references and more friendliness, while the boys have more physical aggression.  The boys have more references to Christianity, the girls more to death.  (see the table below)

In adulthood, women tend to have higher frequencies than men on many dimensions of dream content and recall, which was mostly the case with this group of children, i.e. the girls were higher than the boys on many categories.

The biggest exception is the higher physical aggression among the boys, which fits with previous studies of gender differences in dream content.  If confirmed by other studies of children’s dreams, this finding would indicate that a gender disparity in aggressive dreaming appears very early in psychological development.

More unexpectedly, the boys had a higher frequency of happiness in their dreams.  If the continuity hypothesis applies here, does it mean boys are happier in general than girls?  I’ll have to look at the dream narratives in more detail to see what that might be about.

Part Five:From numbers to narrative

YQ Males YQ Females
(N=228) (N=394)
Perception
Vision 20.6 20.1
Hearing 3.5 4.6
Touch 0.9 3.3
Smell 0 0.5
Taste 0.9 0.5
Intensity 19.7 15.2
Chromatic color 4 5.6
Achromatic color 2.6 5.3
Aesthetic evaluation 11 14.7
Emotion
Fear 17.1 21.1
Anger 2.6 3.3
Sadness 4.4 4.8
Confusion 1.3 2.8
Happiness 12.3 8.1
Cognition
Awareness 2.6 4.6
Speech 12.3 16
Imagination 0 0.8
Planning 0.4 1
Choice 4.4 2.8
Effort 1.8 0.5
Reading/writing 0.9 2.3
Nature
Weather 2.2 2.3
Fire 4 4.8
Air 5.7 3.3
Water 11 9.4
Earth 6.6 5.3
Flying 6.6 4.1
Falling 5.7 7.4
Characters
Family 39 45.4
Animals 18 20.1
Fantastic beings 6.6 5.3
Social Interactions
Friendliness 28.5 37.3
Physical aggression 22.4 16
Sexuality 2.2 1.5
Culture
School 16.7 16
Transportation 12.7 11.9
Technology 7 5.1
Money 4.8 2.5
Christianity 5.7 2.3
Death 4.8 7.6