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.

Digital Dream Analysis: A New Article on Word Search Methods

Digital Dream Analysis: A New Article on Word Search Methods by Kelly BulkeleyThe latest issue of the journal Consciousness and Cognition has an article of mine titled “Digital dream analysis: A revised method,” that’s the fruition of several years of data-driven work.  It lays out the latest developments in testing and refining the word search template programmed into the Sleep and Dream Database, a digital archive and search engine designed to promote scientific dream research.  The original article I wrote using this word search method was in a 2009 issue of Consciousness and Cognition, titled “Seeking patterns in dream content: A systematic approach to word searches.”  The new article builds on that earlier piece and extends it in two ways.

First, it presents a revised, 2.0 version of the word search template that has many improvements on the 1.0 version presented in the 2009 article.  I’m sure there will be more refinements in the future, and hopefully more researchers developing their own templates as well.  But for now, the 2.0 version is useful as a well-tested and fairly comprehensive tool for analyzing dream content simply, quickly, and reliably.

Second, the article applies the 2.0 word search template to a number of previously studied collections of dreams from very high quality sources (Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle, J. Allan Hobson, and G. William Domhoff).  In doing so I followed the advice of Kurt Bollacker, database engineer for the SDDb, who suggested I take “classic” studies in dream research from the past and try applying my new method to their same data.  That’s what I have done in this article: use the word search method to analyze the same sets of dreams those researchers studied, so we can see what the new method can and cannot tell us about meaningful patterns in dream content.

Here is the abstract for the article.  The whole thing, I’m told, is available for free download until November 22, 2014.

“This article demonstrates the use of a digital word search method designed to provide greater accuracy, objectivity, and speed in the study of dreams.  A revised template of 40 word search categories, built into the website of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), is applied to four “classic” sets of dreams: The male and female “Norm” dreams of Hall and Van de Castle (1966), the “Engine Man” dreams discussed by Hobson (1988), and the “Barb Sanders Baseline 250” dreams examined by Domhoff (2003).  A word search analysis of these original dream reports shows that a digital approach can accurately identify many of the same distinctive patterns of content found by previous investigators using much more laborious and time-consuming methods. The results of this study emphasize the compatibility of word search technologies with traditional approaches to dream content analysis.”