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.

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThis year I’ve had the honor of serving as an advisor for three doctoral dissertations in the study of dreams.  Dianne Jackie Frost at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Cynthia S. Sauln at Sofia University, and Mary Walsh at San Francisco Theological Seminary have done highly innovative work in exploring some of the most important and potentially transformative aspects of dreaming experience.  Each of them has shown amazing devotion and diligence, and their findings are truly original contributions to the field.

 

Dianne Frost’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology is titled “Engaging With the Imaginal: A Study of Women’s Dreamwork.”  Her study focuses on six women at a counseling center who participated in a group process of sharing dreams, exploring their images, and following their changes over a seven-week period (using methods drawn from the works of Steven Aizenstat, Jack Zimmerman, Virginia Coyle, Mary Watkins, and others).  Each of the women came to the process from a place of pain and crisis (interpersonal violence, depression, addiction, body image issues, etc.), and Frost shows how their dreams accurately reflect their emotional concerns and give witness to their suffering.  More importantly for therapeutic purposes, the dreams point the way towards healing, towards potentials for new life and new growth beyond the challenging conditions of the present. As the women shared their dreams and discussed possible dimensions of meaning, Frost found they developed a new depth of trust in their own strength, resilience, and creativity.

My favorite quote comes from the woman using the pseudonym “Cadence.” Cadence told Frost she had always looked to outside sources for guidance and advice in her life, but the insights she was gaining from her dreams made her realize she has a reliable source within herself:

“I felt like I needed someone else to guide me through, and this process really allows me to do that on my own.  It’s like I’m my own innate healer, with knowledge and images that only I can tap into and create a relationship with and learn from.”

Nothing in Frost’s approach limits it to women with these kinds of problems; her way of working with dreams could be usefully applied with many other groups of people who are striving for greater health and wholeness.

“In My Dreams I Am the Hero I Wish to Be: A Mixed Methods Study of Children’s Dreams, Meaning-Making, and Spiritual Awareness” is the title of Cynthia Sauln’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology).  Sauln recruited 32 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who were willing, with their parents’ permission, to describe a vivid or unusual dream.  She invited the children to draw pictures of their dreams, and she asked them to fill out two surveys designed to assess their spiritual and religious beliefs.  Sauln says in her introduction,

“For the purpose of this study, children’s spirituality is defined as an awareness of the divine or something larger than themselves that can provide meaning for waking life events and understanding of the world around them. Especially for children, it is a personal experience that may be expressed as a ‘knowing’ and an interpretation of the mysteries found in nature, animals, relationships and connections with people, dreams, and/or in their religious practices and beliefs.”

Drawing on the work of Kate Adams, C.G. Jung, and others, Sauln argues that dreams can play a vital role in children’s spiritual development.  She shows the close connection between spirituality, health, and creativity in childhood, with dreams as a mode of experience bringing them all together. Ironically, many teachers and parents were so skeptical about dreams in general that they would not give their children permission to participate in Sauln’s study, even though the children themselves were invariably curious about their dreams and eager to discuss and draw pictures of them.  This made the data-gathering process much more difficult than Sauln expected.

However, there was a silver lining to these difficulties.  Her extra efforts to recruit participants led her to ultimately gather a group of children with an unusual degree of ethnic diversity.  There were several Hispanic children in her study whose dreams seemed especially significant in relation to their waking spiritual beliefs.  In my SDDb research I’ve found some evidence of relatively high Hispanic interest in spiritually meaningful dreams.  I wonder if future research from Sauln or others might explore Hispanic dream experiences in more detail.

Mary Walsh’s dissertation for her Doctor of Ministry in Advanced Pastoral Studies from San Francisco Theological Seminary is titled “Prophetic Imagination and the Neuro-physiology of Trauma in Substance Abusing Adolescents.”  Walsh is a practicing psychotherapist whose doctoral studies have examined the theological dimensions of suffering, caregiving, and healing.  For two years she worked as a therapist at a high school for troubled adolescents, with a focus on their dreams in relation to several other measures of mental and physical health.  The students at her school came from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of them were suffering multiple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   In addition to talking about their dreams, she measured the students’ heart rate variability to track their neuro-physiological coherence during the treatment process.  Walsh’s use of sophisticated biofeedback technology will make it possible to illuminate new dimensions of dreaming and its role in mind-body healing.  I’m very curious to see what further uses can be made of biofeedback technologies like these.

Walsh has gathered an extremely valuable set of data that provides unique insights into the life experiences of young people at the most neglected margins of society.  Although she still has some writing to do, her project is putting together a compelling argument in favor of the therapeutic effectiveness of group dreamsharing for this poorly-served population.

It should be obvious I’m very proud of these three researchers!  Each of them has stayed true to her original vision and persevered in her scholarly work despite all manner of obstacles and static from uncomprehending administrators, teachers, etc.  Their success bodes well for the future of dream studies.

How Not to Raise a Witch

How Not to Raise a Witch by Kelly BulkeleyMany years ago a student told me a story about her childhood dreams that still haunts me.  It’s not a happy story—in fact I find it incredibly sad—but it’s kept me thinking about what we know, and don’t know, about the potentials of dreaming.

 

Wanda (a pseudonym) was a student in a religious studies course I taught for upper level undergraduates at Santa Clara University.  The topic of the class was religious and psychological perspectives on dreaming, and we covered the history of Western dream theories from ancient Greek myths to modern sleep laboratory research.  I encouraged the students to think about how the various theories related to their own dream experiences as one way of testing the validity of those theories.

 

After class one day Wanda told me that when she was a child, she often had dreams that seemed to anticipate future events.  She didn’t think it was a big deal, and the predictions were often about trivial things, but she was always intrigued by the possibilities her dreams revealed.

One night when she was thirteen-years old, a few weeks before her 8th grade prom, she dreamed that her mother would be in a car accident the very night of the dance.  In the dream Wanda saw that, for some unknown reason, her prom dress was in the car, and so was her mother’s collection of record albums.

She shared the dream and its strange details with her best friend, and they were both stunned when, right before the prom, Wanda’s mother did indeed have a car crash.  Without telling Wanda, her mother had taken her prom dress to be hand-tailored, and on the way to the tailor she was taking her stereo and albums to loan to a friend.  Fortunately no one was injured, but the accident seemed to conform very closely to what Wanda had recently dreamed.

At this point I should note something Wanda had mentioned in earlier class discussions, namely that she was raised in a strictly fundamentalist Christian family.

Excited by the weird accuracy of her dream, Wanda told her mother about it, and also about other dreams she felt had accurately foreseen future events.  To her surprise, her mother became frightened and angry.  She said she didn’t want to hear any more dreams like that.  “I am not going to be the mother of a witch!” she shouted.

Realizing how upset her mother was, Wanda simply stopped having such dreams.  She said it was like she chose to shut something off inside her.

And now, many years later, she didn’t know how she could turn it back “on” again even if she wanted.

In other cultural contexts, Wanda’s extraordinary dreams would be taken as indications of her natural aptitude for training as a shaman, healer, or diviner.  But in the cultural context of Wanda’s fundamentalist Christian family these kinds of powers, especially when emerging in a female, were harshly repudiated as “witchery.”

It’s possible, of course, that Wanda made up her story.  I have no way of independently verifying what she told me.  She certainly seemed honest and sincere to me, and I saw nothing in her behavior during the class to make me doubt her character.  She was a good but not spectacular student, quiet and reserved among her peers.  She gained no special favor by telling me what she did.  Actually, given that SCU is a Catholic school, it probably wasn’t a wise thing for her to share such a heretical experience with a teacher.

There’s no compelling scientific evidence proving that dreams can predict the future, although there is an argument to be made that dreaming has the adaptive function of simulating potential threats that may arise in waking life (Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli have done research in this area).  But Wanda’s dream was so accurate and so detailed, and it involved a threat not to her but to someone else.  How is that possible?  We just don’t know.  Current science cannot explain this kind of ability.

We do know, however, that humans vary widely in their dream recall, with some people naturally much more receptive to the products of their nocturnal imaginations than others.

We also know that some Christian authorities have a troubled history of demonizing unusual dream experiences and persecuting people, especially women, who show an interest in them.

And we know, thanks to works like Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams, a study of dream reports gathered in 1933-1939 Nazi Germany, that extremely oppressive cultural forces can disrupt people’s capacity to dream, scaring them away from their own inner lives.

In light of all that, I’m left thinking that Wanda was likely telling me the truth.  She was a “big dreamer” with the misfortune to be born in a cultural context that was hostile to her gift.

Who Sleeps Worst in the US? The Surprising Truth

Who Sleeps Worst in the US? The Surprising Truth by Kelly BulkeleyAn excellent guest post on Ryan Hurd’s Dream Studies website by A.L. Castonguay looks at sleep as a misunderstood public health issue.  Specifically, who in America is sleeping relatively well, and who is sleeping poorly?  The latter group is important to identify because inadequate sleep can lead to physical, emotional, and cognitive problems–not to mention disrupted, diminished dreaming.

Castonguay draws upon data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on sleeplessness in the US to discuss factors of age, region, employment status, and obesity, among other demographic variables.  Castonguay’s analysis shows that people who most often report sleeplessness, “defined as insufficient sleep (less than 7 hours per night) on more than 14 days within the past 30, are predominantly people of color…between the ages of 25-44, unable to work, and obese.”

These findings raise a number of questions about the cultural and behavioral influences on sleep.  I have also found in previous research that poor sleep corresponds to economic anxieties and employment concerns (e.g., Chapter 5, “Work and Money,” of American Dreamers).  I just received data from a new demographic survey of American adults, and a quick scan of the results point in the same direction–people at the lower end of the income scale sleep worse than people at the top end.

The obesity figures are striking, especially when shown on a regional map of the US.  The Southern part of the US has the highest proportion both of people who are obese and who get insufficient sleep.  We don’t know what’s cause and effect, but it seems there’s a strong and dynamic relationship between the two problems.

It turns out that the states with the lowest relative frequencies of insufficient sleep are California, Oregon, and the Dakotas.  Who knew?

One point Castonguay doesn’t mention that intrigues me is the relatively good sleep of Asians and Hispanics compared to other people of color (Black, American Indian, Multiracial).  The number of participants in these racial/ethnic groups may be low and thus less statistically representative, but the figures are consistent with hints I’ve found in my own research.

If, as the topline results indicate, culture plays a role in quality of sleep, we need a lot more detailed information about how individual people’s sleep experiences are shaped by the multiple strands of cultural influence, including ethnic background, economic status, education, family life, and eating behaviors.

 

Dystopian Dreaming

Dystopian Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhile sitting in the audience and taking notes during the recent IASD conference in Berkeley, I found myself marking several instances where something the presenter said triggered my dystopian imagination.  I confess to being a long-time fan of science fiction and fantasy stories about frightening future worlds controlled by alien invaders, zombie hordes, inhuman technologies, totalitarian governments, and/or rapacious capitalists (I made a list of some favorites below).  I enjoy these stories as literary nightmares: vivid, emotionally intense simulations of real psycho-cultural threats, looming now and in our collective future.

 

At the IASD conference I realized I could turn this interpretive process inside out.  I began to look at dream research from the genre perspective of dystopian fiction.  What would an uber-villain in such stories find appealing in state-of-the-art dream research?

 

Let me be clear, these are my own shadowy speculations and in no way reflect anything directly said or intended by the presenters!

 

Sleep paralysis induction.  There is now a proven technique for inducing the nightmarish experience of sleep paralysis–that is, causing someone to enter a condition in which their bodies are immobilized but their minds are “awake” and vulnerable to terrifying images, thoughts, and sensations.   I can imagine this technique being put to nefarious use by military intelligence agents, state-controlled psychiatrists, and cybernetic overlords.  The ability to trap a person within a state of sleep paralysis would be a horribly useful tool for anyone bent on total mind control.

 

Transcranial magnetic stimulation.  This technology enables the direct manipulation of neural activity during REM sleep, targeting specific regions of the brain.  If the technology were refined with malevolent purposes in mind, it could potentially disrupt people’s normal dreaming patterns, controlling what they do and don’t dream about.  An evil scientist could thus invent a kind of anti-dream weapon, a magnetic beam aimed at the head of a sleeping person and programmed to stun, control, or destroy.

 

Disrupting PTSD memory formation.  Trauma victims can diminish the symptoms of PTSD if they perform a series of distracting cognitive tasks with six hours of the trauma, thereby disrupting the formation of long-term traumatic memories.  The future militarization of this method seems inevitable.  Anything that alters memory can be used by evil governments to manipulate people against their will, either to do things they don’t want to do (black ops soldiers) or forget things that have been done to them (massacre survivors).

 

Remote monitoring of a person’s sleep.  The Zeo sleep monitoring system (which I’ve used for three years) has now developed a wireless version that instantly relays the user’s sleep data from the headband via a bedside mobile phone to the Zeo database.  This kind of technology opens the door to real-time remote monitoring of people’s sleeping experience, and potentially the ability to reverse the flow of data and influence/shape/guide people while they sleep.  If enough people were linked into the system, it could serve police states as a valuable tool in 24-hour mind-body surveillance.

 

My interest in these morbidly malevolent scenarios is not entirely theoretical.  Over the past few years of developing the Sleep and Dream Database I’ve been thinking of the darker possible applications of this technology, less Star Trek and more Blade Runner.  If it’s true, as most researchers at the IASD are claiming, that dreams are accurate expressions of people’s deepest fears, desires, and motivations, then it’s also true a real potential exists to put that dream-based information to ill use.

 

Projecting even farther forward, I wonder if there might be some kind of future inflection point where the amount of data we gather suddenly reveals much bigger patterns and forms of intelligence than we had previously been able to recognize or scientifically document.  What would happen if this leap of knowledge enabled our collective dreaming selves to somehow unite to challenge the dominance (one might say totalitarian regime) of waking consciousness?

 

I think about all this as I continue building up the SDDb, trying to make good decisions and avoid the nightmare pitfalls.  Dystopian fantasies help me clarify what’s at stake, where the dangers lurk, and how the future may unfold.

 

You may be familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 science fiction short story “The Nine Billion Names of God.”  If so, you’ll understand why, as I work on developing new database technologies for dream research, I meditate on the phrase, “The Nine Billion Dreams of God.”

 

 

 

Dystopian Films and TV: Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Children of Men, Logan’s Run, The Matrix, Soylent Green, V for Vendetta, Battlestar Galactica, The Prisoner, Gattica, Terminator, Alien, Total Recall, 28 Days

 

Dystopian Novels: The Hunger Games, Fahrenheit 451, Neuromancer, 1984, Brave New World, The Time Machine