The Study of a 32-Year Long Dream Journal

The Study of a 32-Year Long Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyThe latest series to be uploaded into the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) is the biggest yet: the “Brianna Journal 1984-2016,” 2,448 dream reports from a woman who kept a journal fairly consistently for 32 years.  This series offers an amazing opportunity to observe in unusually close detail the emotional contours of an individual’s life as she makes her way through a challenging and often dangerous world.

Brianna (not her real name) shared these dreams with me and Deirdre Barrett last year, which we initially studied for a presentation at the 2016 conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  Using the word search functions of the SDDb, I performed a “blind analysis” on three subsets of Brianna’s dream journals, meaning I 1) tabulated the frequencies of word usage for several categories of dream content, 2) compared her frequencies with baseline averages for each category, and 3) made inferences, based on nothing other than her dream patterns, about her concerns and activities in waking life.  For instance, I inferred that Brianna is closer to her mother than her father, is interested in books and writing, is not interested in sports, and has significant involvement with issues of death and dying.  Brianna herself, who attended the conference presentation, confirmed these and other inferences, which helped demonstrate the general idea that patterns in dreaming can accurately reflect people’s waking life concerns.

Now I have finally uploaded the complete collection of dreams Brianna shared with me, which provides a broader overview of her dreaming experiences over the span of more than three decades.  I will share more details from my analysis at the upcoming 2017 IASD conference (held in Anaheim, California, June 16-20).  For now, here are some of the initial findings of my study of this remarkable series.

Length: This is a long series in at least three ways: total number of dreams (2,448), time span covered by the journals (32 years), and average number of words per report (292).  The median word length is 168 words, meaning half the reports are shorter than that, and half the reports are longer.  Looking at the distribution of word lengths in the series as a whole, 851 of the dreams have between 1 and 99 words, 794 of the dreams have between 100 and 299 words, and 803 of the dreams have 300 or more words.  A series with this many dreams at both the short and long ends of the spectrum poses special challenges for analysis.  For now, I will study the series as a whole, but at some point I will look at subsets of varying lengths (e.g., the dreams of 50-300 words in length, of which there are 1,192).

Cognition: The series as a whole has a remarkably high frequency of dreams with at least one word relating to thinking (71%), speaking (56%), and reading/writing (19%).  The dreams have lots of strange, irrational material, too, but much of the content is oriented around normal cognitive activities that are also important in her waking life (Brianna is, in fact, a literate, well-educated, and sociable person).  The high proportion of cognition references could be a result of the unusual length of her dreams, and/or it could be an accurate reflection of her waking personality.  Either way, this is a topic worth further investigation.

Death: One out of every seven (15%) of Brianna’s dreams has a reference to death.  That is quite high compared to other dream series I have studied, and it strongly suggests that death and dying are major concerns in Brianna’s waking life.  I know enough about her to confirm the general accuracy of this inference, and now I am curious to look more closely at how this theme weaves its way through her series as a whole.

Religion: The frequency of references to religion is also unusually high in this series, and the list of specific words used in the dreams makes it fairly easy to accurately infer that Brianna is Jewish.  In previous studies I have found that patterns in dreaming offer good clues to a person’s beliefs and attitudes towards religion.  The Brianna series seems to be another illustration of that premise, and through deeper analysis I hope to understand better how religious and spiritual themes in the dreams track with Brianna’s waking life interests, concerns, and experiences.

Note: this post was originally published in Psychology Today, March 10, 2017.

Tracking Robert Bosnak’s Dreams

Tracking Robert Bosnak's Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThe Sleep and Dream Database has just added a new series of dreams to its collection, thanks to the generosity of Robert Bosnak.  In his 1996 book Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming he included an appendix with a series of 51 dreams recorded during a seven-week period of travel and personal transition.  With his permission I have transcribed and uploaded this series into the SDDb, where it can be found under the survey label “RB Journal 1996.”


This is a fascinating and valuable series of dreams for a number of reasons. It was recorded by a Jungian analyst with extensive training and professional experience in dream analysis, and it was recorded during a time of significant changes in his waking life. I have known Robbie for nearly 25 years now, since the Chicago conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams in 1990, and I consider him a good friend and colleague.  So it is no easy task to bracket out my familiarity with his life and pretend to study the word usage frequencies of his dreams “blindly.”   Nevertheless, here’s what strikes me in comparing the RB Dreams 1996 to the SDDb male baselines, focusing exclusively on the numerical results and what I’ve learned from past studies:

By my count, this series of 51 dream reports has 7469 total words, for an average of about 150 words per report.

Most of the reports (35) are between 50 and 300 words in length.  Twelve reports have 49 words or less; the shortest report is 13 words.  Four reports have 301 words or more; the longest report is 731 words.

I performed word searches on the whole series of 51 reports for the 7 classes and 40 categories in the SDDb template, and compared the results with the Male MRD Baseline frequencies for reports of 50-300 words.  It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, so the results should be viewed as suggestive rather than definitive.

You can see a google docs spreadsheet of the results here.

The RB dreams have higher frequencies of descriptive perceptual words for intensity, colors, and aesthetic evaluation, along with a slightly higher proportion of vision-related words.  This could be a product of the dreamer’s reporting style and post-awakening literary editing of the reports.  It could also reflect dream experiences of unusual sensory richness and detail.

There is no more fear in RB’s dreams than in the baselines, which would seem to rule out any unusual stressors or anxieties in waking life.  (The low falling frequency may also point in that direction.) The high proportion of happiness-related words really jumps out—I’m not sure I’ve seen a series before with more happiness than fear.  The relatively high number of sadness references suggests sensitivity to loss and mourning.

The relatively low number of awareness-related words could be another product of reporting style, and it could also reflect a greater focus while dreaming on relational process rather than cognitive analysis.

The RB dreams have more references to flying than falling, which reverses the pattern I typically see in other dream series (more falling than flying).

The high proportions of speech, family characters, and friendly social interactions all point to a person who is actively and productively engaged with other people in waking life.  He seems closely involved with several immediate family members: His wife, daughter, son, brother, mother, and father.

The very high frequency of sexual references could reflect a greater degree of honesty in RB’s reporting compared to the baselines, and it could also indicate the significance of sexual activity and thoughts in waking life.

The high number of fantastic beings suggests someone with a lively imagination, perhaps familiar with video games or fantasy fiction.  A somewhat high proportion of Christianity words may reflect someone who knows Christian culture fairly well but is not an active practitioner of the faith.

Several features of these dreams—the high intensity, colors, happiness, flying, fantastic beings—make me wonder if this set includes at least a few reports of mystical dreams with unusual spiritual or existential meaning.

So how do these quasi-blind inferences fare once I explicitly take into account the facts that the dreamer is a successful psychotherapist who says, “I consider it to be a series in connection with the death of my father and a feeling of loss of soul”?

Not perfectly, that’s for sure.  I would not have predicted this was a series relating to the death of his father, based only on these word usage frequencies.  He does not use father-related words more than other family members, and the death references do not directly indicate his father has died.  There are 3 references to ghosts, but not explicitly to the ghost of his father.

I could be missing something, but at this level of analysis the manifest content of this series does not reflect the dreamer’s felt experience of the dreams.

However, the relatively high sadness frequency may pick up on this theme.  And the mystical themes I noted may underscore the sense of deep transformation he felt was happening during this period of time.  In that sense, the dreams may accurately reflect not the death itself, but the psychological consequences of the death, the still-rippling impact of his father’s loss on his experience of the world.

Again, I wouldn’t have come up with any of that just from looking at the statistical frequencies.  But knowing this series came during a period of mourning, I can see where the waking-dreaming connections emerge, and I’ll be curious to see if future studies discover similar patterns with people who have recently lost a close loved one.

Knowing that Bosnak is a psychotherapist with a successful practice makes sense of many features of his dreams—the high speech, friendly social interactions, happiness, and low physical aggression.  The high frequency of sexual references may relate to his professional work, and so might the unusual detail of his perceptual descriptions, indicating well-honed observation skills.

In chapter 8 of his book Bosnak describes his understanding of these dreams, which goes into much greater depth than a strictly quantitative method can provide.  His goal is to teach readers how to explore the deeper patterns of their own dream series.  I highly recommend that chapter, and Bosnak’s work in general, as an excellent resource in learning how to study large collections of dreams.


Transcription note: To conform to current SDDb upload specifications, I made the following changes to the dream reports as presented in Bosnak’s book: I removed all quotation marks, dashes, and italics, condensed each report into a single paragraph, and added the location of the dream and number in the series to start each report. Some degree of meaning is lost with these changes.





Dreaming of the Dead: Patterns of Word Usage in Visitation Dreams

Dreaming of the Dead: Patterns of Word Usage in Visitation Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyHere’s a good example of how to use the word search function of the Sleep and Dream Database.   It focuses on “visitation dreams,” i.e., dreams in which people who are dead appear as if alive.  These vivid and highly memorable dreams have been reported in cultures all over the world, in many periods of history.  People today still experience visitation dreams with remarkable frequency (1).   As part of research I’m doing for a new book, I want to learn more about the basic patterns in visitation dreams.  I’m especially interested in their social and emotional aspects.  My hypothesis, based on cross-cultural evidence and the results of a 2007 content analysis study I did of mystical dreams (2), is that visitation dreams tend to be positive experiences, characterized by friendly interactions and low negative emotions.


Can I put that hypothesis to an empirical test?  Can I push the analysis of visitation dreams to a deeper level of detail and identify additional recurrent features?

The SDDb word search function makes this kind of research easier to pursue than ever before.  There’s a new set of dreams in the database, Demographic Survey 2012, which includes a question about visitation dreams.  On the word search page I scrolled down the list of constraint values to harris_2012:Q1030, Visitation Dream, and selected it.  I then selected “Female” from the top line of the constraint value list.  I clicked on “Word Search” again, and entered “25” in the Min Words box under Limit Response Length.  When I clicked “Perform Search” I had a set of 221 reports from women of visitation dreams of 25 or more words in length.  When I repeated this procedure and selected “Male” instead of “Female,” I had a set of 96 reports from men of visitation dreams of 25 or more words in length.

For both the Female and Male sets I searched for all 7 Word Classes and 40 Word Categories, one class or category at a time.  It took about 20 minutes to generate these figures.

The results both confirm and extend my initial hypothesis.  The visitation dreams have many more friendly than physically aggressive social interactions, and generally low proportions of negative emotions (3).  That’s a solid confirmation of previous findings, with some additional details to fill out the picture:

— The overwhelming majority of characters in the visitation dreams are elder family members.  For women, the most frequently used family character words are grandmother, mother, and father.  For men, the most used words are father and dad.

— Other than vision, speech, and some mention of intensity, these dreams have very few other elements of content: low non-visual perception, low colors, low emotions, low cognition, low nature, low non-family characters, low non-friendly social interactions, and virtually no culture references.

This quick exercise in using the SDDb’s word search function has taught me several things.  Visitation dreams do seem to be mostly positive experiences.  They very often include elder family members, i.e. well-known and personally intimate characters with whom the dreamer speaks and has friendly social interactions.  Evidently few other details matter; the dreamer’s focus is squarely on the appearance of the person who is dead but appears as if alive.  There may be some gender differences in which particular family characters show up  most frequently, but the basic patterns of content emerge clearly in both the women’s and men’s reports.

I’m sure I’ll find many more recurrent themes once I read through the dream narratives.  But already, after just a few minutes of statistical analysis, I have a good overview of the dreams that gives me an empirical context for highlighting further subtleties of significance.




(1) In American Dreamers I cite a 2007 survey of 705 American adults that found 38% of the participants had experienced a visitation dream at least once in their lives (p. 32).

(2) “Mystical Dreaming: Patterns in Form, Content, and Meaning” (2009),  Dreaming 19(1): 30-41.

(3) These two sets are not perfect matches for comparison with the SDDb Baselines, since they include all reports of 25+ words, whereas the SDDb Baselines are for reports of 25-49 words and 50-300 words.  But the baselines can still be useful in evaluating the broad patterns of the visitation dreams.

The Distinguishing Features of Big Dreams

The Distinguishing Features of Big Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyIf someone presented you with two sets of dreams, one of most recent dreams and one of highly memorable dreams, you could predict with a high degree of confidence which type of dream was in which set, based only on word usage frequencies.

The set with more references to flying, air, family, animals, fantastic beings, Christianity, and death is more likely to consist of highly memorable dreams.

This is a testable hypothesis that emerges out of a comparison of the SDDb baselines for most recent dreams (MRDs) and highly memorable dreams (MemDs), available here.  To be clear, it’s a prediction of probability, not certainty.  Some highly memorable dreams have none of these elements, while some most recent dreams have several of them.  But according to the SDDb baselines, it is the statistical tendency of highly memorable dreams to contain significantly more of these elements than we generally find in most recent dreams.

Whether or not this hypothesis has any practical application, it adds new evidence in support of the theoretical claim that dreams are meaningfully structured not just for the individual dreamer but also in relation to each other.  There really are different types of dreams, and their differences can be expressed in increasingly precise terms.

Other researchers such as Harry Hunt and Don Kuiken have proposed psychological models to account for different types of dreams (what Hunt calls “the multiplicity of dreams”).  I am not yet at the point with the SDDb baselines to feel comfortable engaging directly with their approaches, but that is definitely a long-term goal.

At this stage I want to look more closely at the higher-frequency MemD elements and try to understand what they might contribute to the dreams’ long-term impact on waking awareness.

Flying: Not all dream references to flying involve magical powers–some relate to the flight of birds, or flying on airplanes, or floating in water, or time “flying” by.  But many of the references are indeed about people flying magically, and I think it makes good sense that overall, MemDs have significantly more flying references than MRDs.  I would be surprised if it were otherwise, based on the recurrence of magical flying dreams through cross-cultural history.  Genuine flying dreams tend to be quite vivid and realistic, and it’s reasonable to assume that such unusually stimulating sensations would make a lasting impact on waking awareness.

Air: Some of the air references occur in flying dreams, but in most MemDs the air references appear in different contexts: the dreamer is struggling to breathe, or facing a tornado, or noticing the wind blowing.  I don’t know about dreams of wind, but certainly with dreams of tornados and potential suffocation the memorability of the experience is likely to be very high.  A tornado is the most powerfully destructive form of air in nature, and suffocation is a perennial threat to human life, perhaps especially in sleep for people who snore or have apnea.

Family: References to family members appear often in MRDs; they appear even more often in MemDs.   I think it’s fair to say that most people’s strongest emotional relationships (both positive and negative) are with family members.  Thus it makes sense that their appearance in a dream correlates with high memorability.  Looking in more detail at the word search results, references to parents (e.g., mother, father, mom, dad) tend to be the highest, suggesting that dreams in which the individual is cast as a child or in a child’s role are more likely to be memorable.

Animals: Based on any of several different theories (psychoanalytic, developmental, evolutionary), it could be expected that MemDs would have a higher proportion of animals than MRDs.  Psychoanalytically, animals symbolize powerful instinctual energies. Developmentally, animals appear more often in children’s than in adults’ dreams, and MemDs are often recalled from early in childhood. In evolutionary terms, animals in dreams may reflect ancestral threats that we are innately primed to notice and remember.

Fantastic Beings: This category by definition includes characters who are not “real,” so their appearance in dreams naturally arouses some degree of heightened awareness and emotional impact.  Many of them are perceived as extremely frightening and dangerous to the life of the dreamer.  I was surprised by the SDDb baseline results that the MemDs do not have more fear-related emotions than the MRDs, but perhaps what makes some MemDs different is the supernatural source of the fear. There is a connection to be made here with the notion of “minimally counterintuitive supernatural agents” as used in the cognitive science of religion–dreaming is a rich experiential source of people’s religious and spiritual beliefs about such beings.

Christianity: Many references to Christianity in both MRDs and MemDs are relatively trivial references to Christmas, or mild oaths, or a person’s name.  But more often in the MemDs there are direct references to interactions with Jesus, battles with demons, visiting heaven, and worshipping in church.  In a majority-Christian country like the U.S., where all the SDDb baseline participants reside, this seems like an expectable result.  Insofar as Christianity, like most religions, is concerned with deep questions of morality, suffering, and faith, any dream that refers to religious teachings is likely to register more memorably in the dreamer’s awareness.

Death: Whether considered in religious or secular terms, death surely counts as a major existential concern of human life.  Dreaming itself has long been mythologically associated with death, and cultural traditions all over the world have stories about dreams as a portal to the afterlife.  In MemDs the theme of death takes many forms: other characters dying or being killed right in front of the dreamer, dead relatives appearing as if alive (i.e., visitation dreams), and, more rarely, the dreamer him or herself dying.  When the prospect of mortality arises in a dream, it’s not surprising that the individual takes notice and remembers.

What do these seven higher-frequency MemD elements have in common?

For one thing, several of them involve “counter-factuals,” i.e., phenomena that are literally impossible in ordinary waking life.  Magically flying in the air, encountering fantastic beings, seeing people who are dead appear as if alive–these are strikingly anomalous experiences that stand out from ordinary life and make a big impression on memory.

Secondly, several of the MemD themes involve dire threats to the individual’s life and well-being.  Dreams of death, demons, monsters, wild animals, suffocation, and tornados naturally arouse a host of psychological and physiological responses that can literally seize the dreamer’s attention and hold it long after waking.

Thirdly, a few MemD themes relate closely to the prominent themes of children’s dreams generally, with more animals and higher family references.  As I noted earlier, the SDDb baseline for MemDs includes numerous childhood-era dreams reported by children and adults, so it is definitely skewed toward children’s dream content.  That means the differences between MRDs and MemDs could be explained as artifacts of the differences between adults and children.  I grant there will be a large degree of overlap between highly memorable dreams and children’s dreams–precisely because the most memorable dreams people often recall are dreams from childhood.

Not all children’s dreams are big dreams–but many big dreams are dreams that have been remembered from childhood.






































Work Dreams, Lucid Dreams, Visitation Dreams: New Data from the Demographic Survey 2012

Work Dreams, Lucid Dreams, Visitation Dreams: New Data from the Demographic Survey 2012 by Kelly BulkeleyNow available in the Sleep and Dream Database are hundreds of new dream reports gathered as part of a demographic survey of 2252 American adults, conducted via online questionnaires administered by Harris Interactive.  I designed the survey to focus on three types of dreams that people often report with special frequency and/or intensity: Work dreams, lucid dreams, and visitation dreams.  I’ve just begun reading through the narratives, and they’re fascinating–I invite anyone who’s curious to take a look at the dreams for yourself, and let me know what patterns you see. (Update: I’m having some server issues, if you can’t access the site I’m sorry, please try again later and I should have it fixed.)


The work dreams are answers to the question, “Have you ever dreamed about your job or a situation at work?”  I’ve created a sample word search for the female work dreams and male work dreams, including all reports of five or more words.  For the most part these do not seem to be happy dreams.


The lucid dreams are answers to the question, “Have you ever dreamed that you were aware of being within a dream?” I’ve created a sample word search for the female lucid dreams and male lucid dreams, including all reports of five or more words.  At a minimum, these dreams testify to the frequency of lucid dreaming experiences among the general American public.


The visitation dreams are answers to the question, “Have you ever dreamed about someone who is dead appearing as if they were still alive?” I’ve created a sample word search for the female visitation dreams and male visitation dreams, including all reports of five or more words.  These kinds of dreams have played a big role in cross-cultural religious history, and I’m interested to study their occurrence among present-day Americans.


The survey also included questions about dream recall, nights of insomnia per week, and several other questions about demographic background (age, race, education, income, political ideology, religious worship, etc.).  These data, too, are available for you to study however you wish (although you may find it a little tricky–I’m still working on bugs in the SDDb system).  I’ll write soon about my initial findings with these demographic variables as they relate to patterns of sleep and dreaming.




The Tactful Dream Interpreter

The Tactful Dream Interpreter by Kelly Bulkeley“Once a Caliph saw his teeth falling out in a dream. He called a dream interpreter and asked him about the meaning of his dream. The interpreter replied: ‘The entire family of my master will perish.’ The Caliph became upset, and called for another interpreter and told him the dream. The second dream interpreter replied: ‘The dream of my master, the prince of believers, is true, for he shall live the longest amongst his relatives.’ Immediately the Caliph embraced the man and rewarded him for his skill and tactfulness.” (quoted in Amira Mittermaier, “Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination,” p. 63)