Aggression in Dreams

Aggression in Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyHitting, fighting, chasing, shooting, killing—these are not only common themes in the news each day, they are also recurrent features of our dreams at night. Few studies have focused specifically on aggression in dreaming, even though Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, claimed that “the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man” (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930). A combination of old and new methods of research can shed light on how this primal instinct plays out in our dreams.

Who Has Aggressive Dreams?

The Hall and Van de Castle system (1966) of dream content analysis has codes for three kinds of social interactions: friendly, sexual, and aggressive. Research using the HVDC system has suggested a few basic patterns in the frequency of aggression in dreams:

  • Men have more aggression, especially physical aggression, in their dreams than do women.
  • Women are more likely to be victims than initiators of aggression in dreams.
  • Children have more aggression in dreams than do adults, especially involving attacks by animals.
  • Older people have less aggression in dreams than do younger people.

Hundreds of studies have used the HVDC method over the past several decades, and their findings support the basic idea that aggression is an innate feature of human dreaming.

Why Do We Have Aggressive Dreams?

An additional perspective comes from using word search technologies to identify significant patterns of meaning in dream content. The Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has a template with a category for physical aggression, and a large collection of dreams to study for a specific theme like this.

The SDDb Baseline dreams are a good place to start—a set of 5,321 dreams (3,227 females, 2,094 males) that represent a composite portrait of dreaming in general (the reports were given in response to a question about “your most recent dream”). Although limited in many ways, the Baseline dreams offer an empirical basis for making comparisons across different sets of dreams. This can help in identifying trends and patterns that would be difficult to see otherwise.

Applying the word search category for physical aggression to the female Baselines, we find that 15.1% of the dreams include at least one word relating to physical aggression. Applying the same word search category to the male Baselines yields a result of 21.5% of the dreams with at least one reference to physical aggression. (The combined Baselines figure is 17.6%.) So this analysis confirms the finding of the HVDC system that men’s dreams, on average, seem to involve more physical aggression than do women’s dreams. The top ten words used in these dreams were the following: Hit, kill, fight, chasing, killed, shot, fighting, chased, war, shooting.

Turning to the dreams of individuals who have kept track of their dreams for a lengthy period of time, a great deal of variation appears in the frequency of physical aggression. For example, “Tanya,” a young woman, has a relatively high proportion of physical aggression in her dreams (25.4%, in 563 reports), about the same as “Lawrence,” an older man (25.7%, in 206 reports. Another young woman, “Jasmine,” has low physical aggression in her dreams (10.5%, in 800 reports), just like “RB,” an older man (11.8%, in 51 reports).

There is clear evidence that experiences with physical aggression in waking life can increase the frequency of its appearance in dreaming. The best examples are “Mike,” who served as a medic during the Vietnam War and whose collection of dreams includes a very high proportion of physical aggression (76.3%, in 97 reports). In the four sets of dreams from “Beverley” from 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016, the first set has much more physical aggression (11.9%, in 253 reports) than in the other three (5.7%, in 687 reports), which accurately reflected her involvement in that earlier time period with a violent religious cult.

To help shed light on the role of culture in dreams of physical aggression, the SDDb also includes sets of dreams from non-Western people, which can be analyzed in the same way. For the Mehinaku people of the Amazonian rain forest, a collection of 383 dreams had 22.5% with at least one reference to physical aggression. For a group of Nepalese college students, their dreams (535) had 18.1% with a reference to physical aggression. Three groups of African church members reported dreams (142) with a 19% frequency of physical aggressions. These findings are close enough to the SDDb baselines overall figure of 17.6% to suggest that culture is not a decisive factor in this aspect of dream content.

Concluding Insights

Aggression appears to be a normal feature of human dream content, across different cultures.

Men seem to have more physical aggression in their dreams, although some women have high levels, too.

Dreams of physical aggression can accurately reflect actual aggressions in waking life, so an unusually high level of dream aggression, or a sudden change in dreams to a higher level of aggression, might be a therapeutically valuable sign.

Many dreams of physical aggression do not, however, reflect actual experiences of aggression. These dreams may use violence as a metaphor (e.g., a dream of physical attack as a metaphor of feeling emotionally vulnerable). They may reflect instances of fictional aggression (e.g., seen in a movie). They may be anticipations of violence that may happen at some point in the future (e.g. a threat simulation).

Aggression in dreaming can be viewed as an internal form of play-fighting—the most common form of play in the animal kingdom, and very frequent among humans, too. Play-fighting functions as a way of preparing for future challenges, and also for diminishing and defusing emotional tensions that can lead to actual violence. The same psychological dynamics of play-fighting seem to be operative in dreaming, too.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 31, 2021.

Nightmares of a Smart Home

Nightmares of a Smart Home by Kelly BulkeleyDreams from Germans in the 1930’s highlight the danger of new home technologies.

I have always been a strong advocate for the creative potentials of dreaming and its capacity to envision future realities. Now, however, I worry that dreams from an earlier era may have predicted a new technology with frightening potentials for abuse in our world today.

One of the most important books in 20th century dream research was The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt, published in English in 1968. Beradt was a journalist in Germany, and when the Nazis rose to power she, as a Jew, could no longer find work. Instead, from 1933 until 1939, when she and her husband fled Germany to the United States, Beradt collected people’s dreams about the Nazis. She cast a wide net among friends and acquaintances, asking for dreams about their country’s increasingly dire political situation. The resulting book was not only searing testimony of the psychological brutality of the National Socialist regime. It also illustrated how dreams can accurately reflect collective fears during times of social crisis.

Many researchers have been deeply moved by The Third Reich of Dreams and inspired to explore new ways of drawing cultural insights from individual dreams. When I first encountered Beradt’s book in the 1980’s during graduate school, I was struck by the poignant reflections in these dreams of people’s experiences in an increasingly totalitarian environment where “others” were attacked as inhuman, racial purity and blind loyalty were exalted, and no one could escape the pervasive atmosphere of fear and vulnerability.

I was especially intrigued by a type of dream that Beradt described as the ultimate example of political toxicity. These were nightmares in which the oppressive power of the state reached directly into people’s homes and turned their own possessions against them. From a woman described as a housewife, in 1933:

“A Storm Trooper was standing by the large, old-fashioned, blue-tiled Dutch oven that stands in the corner of our living room, where we always sit and talk in the evening. He opened the oven door and it began to talk in a harsh and penetrating voice. It repeated every joke we had told and every word we had said against the government. I thought, ‘Good Lord, what’s it going to tell next—all my little snide remarks about Goebbels [Nazi Minister of Propaganda]?’ But at that moment I realized that one sentence more or less would make no difference—simply everything we have ever thought or said among ourselves is known.” (45)

Reading Beradt’s commentary on this dream today sounds eerily prescient, and uncomfortably resonant with current concerns about new home technologies. Remember, she was writing more than fifty years ago, about events that happened thirty years before that:

“Here we see a person in the process of being fashioned by a very elusive and even today not fully understood form of terrorization, a terrorization that consisted not of any constant surveillance over millions of people but rather the sheer uncertainty about how complete this surveillance was…. What dream could better suit the purposes of a totalitarian regime?” (47)

She went on:

“A greengrocer had exactly the same type of dream about a cushion he placed over the telephone when the family gathered in the evening for a cozy chat, a precaution everyone took in those days. The atmosphere of coziness became one of terror: the cushion—a sentimental keepsake cross-stitched by his mother and ordinarily kept in his easy chair, his domestic throne—began to talk. It testified against him and went on and on, repeating family conversations ranging from the price of vegetables and the midday meal to the comment ‘Old Potbelly [Hermann Goering, Nazi Party leader] is getting fatter by the day.’” (49)

Such dreams expressed a catastrophic loss of privacy and safety, even within the personal confines of one’s own home. Objects which used to give people pleasure and comfort now turned against them and became their enemies. She continued:

“I received quite a few reports about similar dreams involving household objects—about a mirror, a desk, a desk clock, an Easter egg. In each of these cases, all that remained in the recollection was the fact that the object concerned would denounce people. The frequency of such dreams may have increased as people became more and more aware of the methods the regime employed.” (49)

Beradt did not rely on any psychological theories in her approach to these dreams. Indeed, she did not try to interpret the dreams at all, at least in a conventional sense. Rather, like the journalist she was trained to be, she focused on reporting the cases that gave the most vivid illustrations of life in a totalitarian society. She used the political ideas of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell (especially his novel 1984) as guides in connecting the personal dream imagery to collective political realities.

“The following singularly grotesque example of this type of dream was dreamt by a young girl: ‘I dreamt I awoke in the middle of the night to discover that the two cherubs that hang over my bed were no longer looking upwards but were instead staring down at me. I was so frightened that I crawled under the bed.’” (50)

These nocturnal visions from another place and time offer an uncanny foreshadowing of present-day anxieties about the dystopian dangers of new household technologies. It takes no great leap of imagination to see connections between Beradt’s haunting collection of dreams and the latest generation of “smart” lamps, appliances, thermostats, and the like. People are inviting into their homes devices that were the stuff of surreal nightmares in Nazi Germany. The marketing for Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri emphasize their power to relieve us of domestic toil, increase our comfort, and save us money. And yet, despite the many benefits of these systems, recent reports (here, here, here, and here) have shown how easily they can be abused in exactly the ways foreseen by Beradt’s dreamers—secretly recording private conversations and revealing embarrassing, immoral, and incriminating behavior.

For people living in Germany in the 1930’s, their futuristic dreams of smart devices reflected a terrifying realization of the intrusive power of the state and its dominance over the most intimate personal aspects of their lives. The challenge today is preventing their nightmares from becoming our realities.

Note: This essay first appeared in Psychology Today on September 12, 2019.

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work by Kelly Bulkeley“Sleep, the gentlest of the gods, the spirit’s peace, whom care flies from: who soothes the body wearied with toil, and readies it for fresh labors.”

 

That’s how the Roman poet Ovid described sleep in his first century CE masterpiece the Metamorphoses.

 

Many people today desperately seek the restorative blessings of sleep just as Ovid described, but instead they find themselves plagued by bad dreams about work.  Rather than providing a peaceful respite from the burdens of waking life, sleep for many people has become a battleground of job-related stress and financial anxiety. In a recent online survey I conducted with Harris Interactive, 2252 American adults were asked to describe a dream relating to their work or employment status.  All the reports are available via the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) website.  (Here’s a link to the reports of 10+ words in length.)  These dreams offer a fascinating window into the workplace experiences of people across a wide demographic swath of American society.

Reading through the dream reports, it becomes clear that each job or profession has its own distinctive type of nightmare:

A trucker dreamed of a car cutting him off, so he had to slam on the brakes and then fight to control his rig as it started to jack-knife.

A nurse dreamed of her patients unhooking themselves from their monitoring equipment and wandering off, which led to the nurse getting fired for incompetence.

A waiter dreamed about having too many customers to serve, forgetting where the tableware was, and losing track of all the orders.

An electrician had vivid recurrent dreams about needing to fix strange gadgets with hundreds of wires, none of them labeled.

Several teachers had bad dreams about being unprepared for class, dealing with uncooperative students, and struggling with new technologies.

Numerous office administrators had nightmares of phones not working, desks piling up with unfinished work, and calculators streaming out endless amounts of rolled paper.

Whatever makes people feel powerless, overwhelmed, or out of control in their particular type of work, that’s going to drive the content and emotions of their dreams.

Sometimes people’s anxieties are transformed by the dreaming imagination into bizarre scenes that reflect a kind of surrealistic commentary on their employment situation.  Ovid would surely be delighted by metamorphic dreams like these:

A 30-year old woman from Arizona dreamed that “giant staplers were chasing me down the hall” at the school where she works. 

A 35-year old software developer from Minnesota dreamed of going to apply for a job and finding the interviewer was an alien with green skin and a large almond-shaped head. 

A 62-year old woman from Illinois dreamed that a computer was chasing her yelling “Program me!”

A 64-year old man from Minnesota who recently lost his job dreamed he had gone back to his office, but instead of the familiar building it was a strange storehouse for used furniture: “I think the dream meant that my former job was basically warehousing people who needed to move on.”

Weird and troubling as these dreams may be, they in fact make perfect sense in light of scientific research showing that dream content tends to accurately reflect people’s waking life emotional concerns.  Anything that worries us in waking life will likely show up in our dreams, either literally or metaphorically.  This idea of meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns has a lot of data to support it, much of it generated by G. William Domhoff and available on his dreamresearch.net website.

For many people today, worries about their jobs and personal finances top their list of emotional concerns in waking life.  Several of the survey participants spoke of their fears about losing their jobs or trying to find a new one.  A 27-year old Arizona man who has recurrent nightmares of being attacked by bears said, “You never know if you will have employment the next day.”  In such a tenuous economic environment, dream content will naturally reflect people’s job-related worries and preoccupations.

There seems to be a rough evolutionary logic to these kinds of bad dreams.  Several researchers, most recently Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli, have proposed that one of the functions of dreaming is to simulate possible threats in the waking world, helping to prepare the individual to better handle those threats if they ever actually occur.  In this view nightmares give us a safe opportunity to mentally practice survival-related behaviors and get ready for potential dangers.  The short-term pain of upsetting dreams is outweighed by their long-term gain in promoting greater vigilance and preparedness.

It should also be noted the same powers of imagination that generate vivid work nightmares can also generate many other kinds of dreams as well.  Here too there is good scientific evidence to support the idea that dreaming is an inherently creative and multidimensional activity.  During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the time of the sleep cycle when most dreaming occurs, the brain becomes hyper-associative.  The constraints of externally focused consciousness loosen, allowing innovative possibilities to emerge out of wide-ranging connections between perceptions, memories, instincts, and cultural influences.  This is why dreaming seems so crazy and scattered—and why it’s occasionally the source of brilliant flashes of creative insight.

If you have recurrent nightmares about work, try this: After getting in bed each night and turning off the light, take a moment to think about the amazing creative powers in your own dreaming imagination.  If your dreams can create vividly realistic scenarios of work, what other kinds of scenarios could they create?  What are the strangest, most otherworldly dreams you’ve experienced in the past?  What would you like to dream about now?

Your dreams may feel like foes, but with an open mind and playful spirit you can persuade them to become allies.

 

 

The Dream Logic of Twin Peaks

The Dream Logic of Twin Peaks by Kelly BulkeleyA cool new book has just been published, with special appeal to David Lynch fans.  Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks, edited by Marisa C. Hayes and Franck Boulegue, was released this month by Intellect Books in the UK.  Other titles in the Fan Phenomena series include Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dr. Who, and Batman.  We’re in great company!

 

Here’s a passage from the editors’ introduction: “When we refer to a show’s impact within the realm of fan phenomena, we move far beyond the game of numbers that determines the initial airtime of any given series.  The shows and films that persevere do so because they strike a chord within a dedicated, passionate group of followers.  Such programmes are often rejected by mainstream audiences or studios for being too ‘inaccessible,’ ‘offbeat,’ or ‘controversial,’ as witnessed with Twin Peaks.  The show’s vibrant and richly layered dream sequences, for instance, resemble what general audiences might stereotypically expect to find at a video art exhibition, not on network television.  Yet, it is often these very elements that are credited with building and extending a show or film’s lasting cult following.”

My chapter in the book has to do with the portrayal of dreams in the initial episodes of the series, especially Agent Cooper’s dream at the end of the third episode.  Apparently the ratings numbers went down precipitously right after this episode!  Too weird for some people, but a breath of fresh air for many others.

Other chapters in the book include “Peaks and Pop Culture” by Shara Lorea Clark, “Audrey in Five Outfits” by Angela K. Bayout, “Embodiment of the Mystery: Performance and Video Art Go Twin Peaks” by Gry Worre Hallberg and Ulf Rathjen Kring Hansen, “The Owls Are Not What They Seem: Cultural Artifacts in Twin Peaks” by Andrew Howe, “‘Yeah, But the Monkey Says, Judy’: A Critical Approach to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” by Scott Ryan and Joshua Minton, “Twin Peaks and the ‘Disney Princess’ Generation” by David Griffith, “Bond on Bond: Laura Palmer and Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks” by David Bushman, “Strange Spaces: Cult Topographies in Twin Peaks” by Fran Pheasant-Kelly, and “Gothic Daemon BOB” by Chris Murray.

 

 

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity by Kelly BulkeleySexual dreams have long been part of human experience, as we know from historical sources.  For example, the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, an ancient manual of dream interpretation, devoted several pages to the various types and classes of sexual dreams.

 

However, we do not know how widespread sexual dreams are, who has them most often, and when they begin.

 

In a survey I commissioned a couple of years ago, nearly 3000 American adults were asked the question, “Have you ever had a dream with sexual feelings or experiences?”  Of those who answered “Yes,” a follow-up question was asked: “Did you have any sexual dreams before your first sexual activity in waking life?”

The answers to the first question were 69% Yes and 24% No for the men (1912 of them), and 58% Yes and 34% No for the women (1058 total), with 7% of the men and 8% of the women responding “Not Sure.”

On most other typical dreams questions (e.g., chasing, falling, visitation) the women answered Yes more often than did the men.  Sexual dreams stood out as a significantly more frequent experience for the men.

For the follow-up question about sexual dreams before sexual activity, the gender disparity was even bigger: 48% of the men said Yes and 22% said No, whereas only 23% of the women said Yes while 39% said No.

Looking more closely at follow-up question results, the age of the participants mattered a lot.  The frequency of Yes answers was much higher for younger than older people, although the gap between males and females remained for all ages.

 

  Males     Females    
Age Yes No N/S Yes No N/S
18-29 76% 8% 15% 55% 22% 22%
30-49 55% 16% 29% 31% 37% 32%
50-64 44% 24% 33% 17% 39% 44%
65+ 37% 30% 33% 11% 48% 42%

 

Other demographic variables (e.g., race, income, education, religion) did not correlate with any significant differences.

What can we learn from these results?

First, we have to consider the limitations of the data. Many people are simply reluctant to talk about sex.  Dreams sometimes portray taboo, socially frowned upon sexual behaviors that people may not want to admit.  Some religious traditions teach that sexual dreams should be shunned as demonic temptations.  More generally, people vary in how well they can recall different types of dreams from earlier in life.

All these factors suggest the survey results are underestimating rather than overestimating the frequency of sexual dreams. Some of the participants probably answered “No” when the actual truth was “Yes,” while it’s unlikely that many participants said “Yes” when the accurate answer would have been “No.”

To explain these findings, we can appeal to both biology and culture.  It makes sense that young people entering their prime years of reproductive potential would have dreams that anticipate and prepare them for this fundamental biological goal.  Just as some nightmares simulate threats to our survival (e.g., being chased by wild animals) so we’re better prepared to face them in waking life, it could be that sexual dreams are simulating reproductive opportunities we will hopefully have in the future.  Such dreams might have less biological value or significance for older people.

It could also be that young people in contemporary America are more likely to dream about sex because they are immersed in a culture filled with sexually arousing content.  Dream content accurately reflects people’s biggest emotional concerns, and it’s plausible to assume that many young people today are thinking a lot about sex before they are sexually active.   Again, such dreams would be less likely among older people whose emotional concerns no longer center on sexuality.

Both biological and cultural factors could also account for the gender differences.  The process of sexual maturation may generate stronger physical pressures for young males than females, prompting a higher proportion of sexually explicit dreams.  Cultural portrayals of sexuality certainly seem to emphasize male rather than female perspectives, which may stimulate relatively more dreaming about this subject.

These explanations are admittedly speculative and open to question.  However, it is clear that dreaming is closely connected to our nature as sexual beings.  Even before sexual activity in waking life we tend to be sexually active in our dreams, anticipating how it will happen, what it will feel like, and with whom we’ll share the experience.  The fact that some dreams can lead to actual climax for both men and women suggests that dreaming is, at one level, a physiologically hard-wired means of preparing us for our lives as reproductive beings.

Dreaming in the Digital Age: The Impact of New Database Technologies on Dream Research

Dreaming in the Digital Age: The Impact of New Database Technologies on Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyFor several years I’ve been inspired and guided by an admittedly idealistic vision of future technology in the study of dreams:

 

One day, everyone in the world will have an easy and private way to enter their dreams into a collective database we can all access and study. 

 

If that were possible, if such a massive database existed, we could learn so much not only about dreams but also about consciousness, culture, and the evolution of our species.  The work I’ve been doing to develop the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has aimed at laying some initial scientific foundations for the day when this vision of a universal dream portal and archive becomes a reality.

Recently I’ve become involved as an advisor with SHADOW, a company founded by Hunter Lee Soik to develop an iOS app for recording dreams and exploring their meanings.  Working with SHADOW has made it clear that the technology for creating a universal dream database is emerging very quickly.

That’s a good thing, right?

In light of recent news about governmental and corporate abuses of data mining, it might seem a risky proposition to share one’s dreams in an online forum.  If dreams are as valuable and meaningful as researchers like me say they are, perhaps people should be more, not less, cautious about entering them into a public database. The intimate personal details of dreams make people naturally reluctant to share them in any kind of setting where they don’t feel a high degree of trust and safety.

In developing the SDDb and working with SHADOW I’ve tried to respond to these concerns by emphasizing 1) the practical measures we can take to protect people’s privacy and 2) the benefits of becoming a participant in a large-scale database.

Regarding privacy, the participants can set the standard by altering or removing any personally identifying details (like the names of people and places) in their dream reports.  Participants can also exclude any content they simply don’t feel comfortable sharing.  I encourage people to be as forthcoming as possible, but I always let them know it’s their decision about how much to share.

Although these editorial revisions add a little noise to the system, they can greatly diminish the chances that someone who wants to remain anonymous could be identified by his or her dreams.

Additionally, the host of the database should do his or her best to insure the privacy of its users, the security of their identifying information, and free access to their own data, which they may retrieve and remove from the database at any time.  The SDDb does that, and Shadow has promised to do so, too.

It’s important to offer the choice of opting out for participants who want to use the analytic tools of the database but don’t want to share their dreams publicly.  That’s the maximal position on privacy, and of course it would shrivel the database to utter uselessness if everyone adopted it.  Before people opt out I ask them to consider the idea that to benefit from the commons, you need to contribute to the commons.  The database will be more accurate and useful for you and for all other participants if you add your voice to the collection.

If privacy protection is taken as the shared responsibility of both the participant and the database host, the risks don’t disappear, but they shrink down to a size that makes it possible to balance them with the upside potentials.

These potentials start with a huge magnification of self-awareness for the participants, who gain an unprecedented ability to see how their individual dream patterns compare to the large-scale patterns of other groups of people.  Nothing like this has ever existed, but once it does I believe many people will be drawn to it as a unique and compelling source of self-knowledge.

The benefits will extend beyond personal insights.  A dream database of the scale we’re discussing could serve as a kind of social barometer, measuring collective reactions to collective events.  We already know that people dream vividly in reaction to turbulent social conditions of war, elections, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and celebrity deaths.  A large and sophisticated database could allow us to observe in real time the emotional impact of these and other public events on people’s dreams.

Beyond that, it would give us a new appreciation for the astonishing complexity of the human race and the wide variations in how people live.  For example, it would show us that vast numbers of people in the modern world are living in conditions of desperate suffering.  A truly universal database of dreams would be overflowing with nightmares of poverty, trauma, neglect, and abuse.  More widespread awareness of what it’s like to experience such harrowing dreams might be a potent lever for promoting positive social change.

This database of the future might also give us a new appreciation for the “ordinary mystics” among us, people whose unusual dreams connect them with hyper-creative dimensions of the imagination.  As a psychologist of religion I’ve always been struck by the parallels between mystical experiences in religious history and certain types of dreams that contemporary people have, dreams of magic and mystery and esoteric symbolism.  My sense is that more people have these kinds of dreams than is commonly recognized.  A large-scale database could open our eyes to the surprising prevalence of mystical dream phenomena among the general population.

The potential risks of these technologies are real, but so are the potential benefits.  The risks are limited and manageable; the benefits could be world-changing.