Dreams and Politics 2020: Preparing for New Research

To prepare for a new study of dreams during the 2020 U.S. Presidential election campaign, I am doing a brief review of my previous work in this area, to remind myself of what I have learned so far and what seems most important to investigate next.

I have been studying dreams and politics since 1992, and I’ve published several articles and a book documenting my findings up to now. Although I’m not the only scholar looking into these issues, I think it’s fair to say no one else has devoted more research effort towards illuminating the connections between people’s sleep and dream patterns and their political views in waking life. Perhaps everything I have found so far is wrong and misguided; hopefully I have at least clarified some of the right kinds of questions that should be addressed.

Guided by almost thirty years of experience, these are some of the questions I will be asking in 2020:

  •             In what specific ways are political beliefs, concerns, and issues reflected in dreams?
  •             How do people relate to politicians as characters in their dreams?
  •             Do liberals and conservatives sleep and dream differently from each other?
  •             Can dreams help people think more clearly and creatively about politics?
  •             Do dreams have special relevance for political progress on environmental issues?

I have several projects in the works aiming at gathering new data to help answer these questions. Many of these projects are collaborations with other researchers, which will hopefully expand the scope of the studies and open up new perspectives on this relatively unexplored area of dreaming experience. More on these projects soon….

Below is a list of my previous publications on this topic, with brief descriptions of the contents and findings.


Attitudes Towards Dreaming: Effects of Socio-Demographic and Religious Variables in an American Sample. (Co-authored with Michael Schredl.) International Journal of Dream Research 12 (1): 75-81.


Using data from a survey of 5,255 American adults, we looked at correlations between people’s attitudes towards dreaming and numerous demographic variables. We found an especially intriguing link between positive attitudes towards dreaming and high levels of concern about global climate change, one of the most prominent political issues in the world today. People who report little or no concern about climate change also tend to have negative attitudes towards dreaming.


Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition (Stanford University Press, 2018)


Lucrecia’s story is the most dramatic and well-documented case in history regarding the intersection of dreaming, politics, and prophecy. She was a young, illiterate woman in 16th century Spain whose prophetic dreams accurately foresaw a national catastrophe, and yet King Philip II ordered the Inquisition to arrest her on charges of heresy and treason. A vivid cautionary tale about what can happen when dreamers speak truth to power.


Three blog posts about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the 2016 election




These are reports on dreams I was gathering and analyzing during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign. Included are some dream reports grouped around thematic categories: friendliness with a candidate, anticipations, political disagreements, opposition to Trump, openness to Trump, and work & place. The study of 199 dreams specifically about Donald Trump involved a statistical analysis of the word usage in the dreams, and a comparison of the results with other kinds of dreams. Here is my conclusion: “To summarize these findings, it seems that when Trump appears as a character in people’s dreams, he does not disrupt the whole process; people continue dreaming more or less the way they typically do. But he does have a tangible and measurable impact on certain aspects of those dreams. A dream about Donald Trump typically involves fewer women and more talking, touching, and references to money and work. Men seem to become pacified around Trump in their dreams, while women seem to become more instinctually primed.”


A March 2016 blog post about “The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis”


A response to media discussions about the then-candidate’s admitted lack of sleep, with psychological speculations about his public behavior in light of empirical research about the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.


Dream Recall and Political Ideology: Results of a Demographic Survey. Dreaming 22(1): 1-9.


Using data from a survey of 2,992 American adults, the study found a significant difference between political liberals and conservatives on questions of dream recall. People on the political left consistently reported higher recall on all types of dreams than people on the political right.


2008 Election Dreams: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain


A collection of blog posts about dreams gathered by Sheli Heti and posted on her metaphysicalpoll.com website. The Obam dreams in particular are notable for their unusually mystical qualities.


2008 Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values. San Francisco Chronicle (August 17)


Reflections on the two fascinating dreams then-candidate Barack Obama described in his memoir Dreams From My Father, with psychological speculations about the future potentials of his Presidency.


American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else (Beacon Press, 2008)


This is a book-length study of dreams and politics in American society during 2006-2007. A group of ten people from various parts of the country, six of them political conservatives and four liberals, kept a year-long journal of their dreams, which they discussed with me in relation to their political views and the dire situation of the country at that time (Iraq and Afghanistan wars, housing crisis, impending recession). The book offers a summary of the research I had done on this topic so far.


Sleep and Dream Patterns of Political Liberals and Conservatives. Dreaming 16(3): 223-235.


Using data from a collection of detailed surveys from 234 American adults (134 liberals, 100 conservatives), several patterns emerged in relation to their sleep and dream behaviors. Here is what I found: “Conservatives slept somewhat more soundly, with fewer remembered dreams. Liberals were more restless in their sleep and had a more active and varied dream life. In contrast to a previous study, liberals reported a somewhat greater proportion of bad dreams and nightmares. Consistent with earlier research, the dreams of conservatives were more mundane, whereas the dreams of liberals were more bizarre.”


Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (co-edited with Kate Adams and Patricia M. Davis) (Rutgers University Press, 2009)


This is an edited book, written in the shadows of 9/11, as an effort to find common ground across religious and national differences. We started the project in the early 2000’s, and it took a long time to pull all the different chapters together. Patricia wrote a brilliant chapter on a significant auditory dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., his “vision in the kitchen” of 1956.


Dreaming of War in Iraq: A Preliminary Report. Sleep and Hypnosis 6(1): 19-28.


A study of dreams related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which began on March, 19, 2003. The dreams I gathered came from various sources, and I grouped them into several thematic categories: personal symbols, op-ed commentaries, political transformations, empathetic identifications, and fearful anticipations.


The Impact of September 11 on Dreaming. (Co-authored with Tracey L. Kahan.) Consciousness and Cognition 17:1248-1256.


During the fall quarter of 2001, Prof. Tracey Kahan was teaching a class at Santa Clara University on sleep and dreaming, and she had asked the students to keep a dream journal during the quarter. After the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 in New York City, Tracey and I engaged in a study of the students’ journals. We found that the 9/11 attack appeared in several people’s dreams, both directly and indirectly. We also found that on all the basic measures of people’s cognitive functioning during their dreams, there was no difference between the dreams that did or did not have 9/11-related content. In other words, the terrorist attack impacted what people dreamed about, but not the way they dreamed.


Dream Content and Political Ideology. Dreaming 12(2): 61-78.


I called this a “pilot study,” involving 56 people, divided into four equal groups: liberal males and liberal females, conservative males and conservative females. I had a most recent dream from each person, and a content analysis of the dreams suggested an intriguing difference regarding political ideology: “people on the political right had more nightmares, more dreams in which they lacked personal power, and a greater frequency of “lifelike” dreams; people on the political left had fewer nightmares, more dreams in which they had personal power, and a greater frequency of good fortunes and bizarre elements in their dreams. These findings have plausible correlations to certain features of the political ideologies of people on the left and the right, and merit future investigation in larger-scale studies.”


It’s All Just a Bad Dream. San Francisco Chronicle (December 6): A27.


An Op-Ed article I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about people’s dreams during the agonizing wait to determine who would be the winner of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, Al Gore or George W. Bush. Most of the dream reports I gathered were nightmares from liberals: “Aliens taking over the Earth and turning all humans into slaves; terrorists attacking the country with biological weapons; the dreamer falling into the ocean and being chased by a hungry shark or losing control of a car and driving off a cliff — these are some of the distressing images that are filling Democratic imaginations.”


Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society (Editor) (State University of New York Press, 1996)


This book gathers the best researchers I could find on the theme of dreams and social justice. Included are chapters on dreams in relation to education, sexual abuse, ecology, crime, race, gender, religion, and cross-cultural conflict. In chapter 10 I present a report on my first direct research project devoted to dreams and politics: “Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election.” The chapter describes several dreams about the 1992 candidates (Ross Perot, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton), the debates, the media coverage, voting, and all the fears, hopes, and disappointments surrounding the election. The goal of this project was to prove Calvin Hall wrong in his claim that dreams “have little or nothing to say about current events in the world of affairs” (The Meaning of Dreams, 1966).


Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology (State University of New York Press, 1999)


The final chapter of this book is titled “Dreaming in Russia, August 1991,” an essay originally published in the Stanford University alumni magazine. It recounts my waking and dreaming experiences at a conference of dream researchers in Moscow, right in the midst of the failed military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, which precipitated the fall of the Soviet Union.


The Quest for Transformational Experience: Dreams and Environmental Ethics. Environmental Ethics 13(2): 151-163.


One of the first articles I ever published, this also appears as chapter 5 in Visions of the Night. In response to environmental philosophers who point to Western dualistic thinking as a primary source of our society’s mistreatment of nature, I suggest that dreaming is a psychologically innate and highly effective means of stimulating the transformation of dualist thought and the opening of new conscious awareness towards the environment.


Dreaming in a Totalitarian Society: A Reading of Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. Dreaming 4(2): 115-126.


This was based on a paper I wrote for a graduate seminar at the University of Chicago Divinity School, perhaps in 1988 or 1989. The course was taught by Peter Homans, and it focused on the neo-psychoanalytic theories of D.W. Winnicott and Heinz Kohut. I had been reading The Third Reich of Dreams on my own, and for the final paper of the class I used Winnicott’s ideas about play, transitional space, and the True vs. False Self, to analyze and reflect upon the dreams gathered in Beradt’s book. Here was my core Winnicottian claim: “Dreams are one of the ways that humans, from childhood to adulthood, develop the relationship between their inner psychic reality and external social reality. Beradt suggests that dream studies can be a potent means of studying troubled societies, and of helping those societies overcome their problems.”

Digital Dream Analysis: A New Article on Word Search Methods

170px-Asclepius_and_hygieia_reliefThe 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.”

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work

work nightmare“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.



Penelope and Odysseus: The Perils of Dream Interpretation



I’d like to illustrate some basic principles of dream interpretation by telling a story. It’s a very old story, one you may have heard before, but I’d like to tell it again because even though it’s “just a story” it highlights the real perils that come when these dream interpretation principles are overlooked.

The story has to do with the meeting of Odysseus and Penelope in Book 19 of The Odyssey. In many respects this encounter is the point of greatest dramatic intensity in the entire poem, and at the heart of the scene is a dream-Penelope’s dream of the twenty geese that are suddenly slaughtered by a mountain eagle. Odysseus, after leading the Achaean army to victory against the Trojans and after enduring a seemingly endless series of trials and adventures, has returned at last to his island home of Ithaca, where he has found a mob of rude noblemen besieging his palace. The crafty warrior has disguised himself as an old beggar in order to gain entrance into the palace without being recognized, and he is plotting violent revenge against the men who would steal his throne. Penelope, who for many years has desperately clung to the hope that Odysseus would someday return to her, has invited this strange wanderer into her private chambers to ask if he can tell her any news of her husband. The beggar fervently promises the Queen that Odysseus is very close and will return very, very soon. Penelope replies to the beggar’s story by saying she wishes his words would come true, but she doubts they will. She then asks her old servant woman, Eurycleia, to bathe the stranger and arrange a comfortable place for him to sleep. The Queen steps away while the old nurse washes the beggar’s feet. Then, before parting for the night, Penelope returns to the beggar and says (all quotes are from the translation of Robert Fagles, 1996, Viking Press),

“My friend, I have only one more question for you….
[P]lease, read this dream for me, won’t you? Listen closely….
I kept twenty geese in the house, from the water trough
They come and peck their wheat-I love to watch them all.
But down from a mountain swooped this great hook-beaked eagle,
Yes, and he snapped their necks and killed them one and all
And they lay in heaps throughout the hall while he,
Back to the clear blue sky he soared at once.
But I wept and wailed-only a dream, of course-
And our well-groomed ladies came and clustered round me,
Sobbing, stricken: the eagle killed my geese. But down
He swooped again and settling onto a jutting rafter
Called out in a human voice that dried my tears,
‘Courage, daughter of famous King Icarius!
This is no dream but a happy waking vision,
Real as day, that will come true for you.
The geese were your suitors-I was once the eagle
But now I am your husband, back again at last,
About to launch a terrible fate against them all!’
So he vowed, and the soothing sleep released me.”
(The Odyssey 19.575, 603-621)

The disguised Odysseus immediately replies,
“Dear woman,….twist it however you like,
Your dream can mean only one thing. Odysseus
Told you himself-he’ll make it come to pass,
Destruction is clear for each and every suitor;
Not a soul escapes his death and doom.”
(The Odyssey 19.624-629)

Penelope’s response to the beggar is this:
“Ah my friend, seasoned Penelope dissented,
Dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things-
Not all we glimpse in them will come to pass….
Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,
One is made of ivory, the other made of horn.
Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved
Are will-o’-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit.
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
Are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them.
But I can’t believe my strange dream has come that way,
Much as my son and I would love to have it so.”
(The Odyssey 19.630-640)

So, what has just happened here? What is going on between Odysseus and Penelope, and what is the significance of her dream and their exchange about its meaning? The traditional interpretation of this scene, shared with near unanimity by scholars from antiquity to the present, is this. Odysseus has heroically controlled his desire to rejoin Penelope and hidden his identity from her for two reasons: one, to test his wife’s fidelity during his long absence (remember Agamemnon and Clytemnestra), and two, to pick up information about how to destroy the hated suitors. Penelope’s dream of the 20 geese is a straightforward prophecy, whose true meaning the disguised Odysseus instantly recognizes. But Penelope, who has shown a stubborn skepticism throughout the story, refuses to accept the dream’s obvious meaning. Indeed, perhaps she unconsciously enjoys the attention of the suitors and does not really want Odysseus to come back.

My dissatisfaction with this widely held interpretation centers on its strange depreciation of Penelope’s intelligence. This is a woman whom several characters have praised for her unrivalled perceptiveness, cunning, and guile; this is the woman who devised the famous ruse of the funeral shroud, by which she successfully deceived the suitors for three years. All of the evidence in the poem makes it clear that Penelope is not a fool: she is extremely perceptive and capable of remarkably subtle deceptions. So why, when we come to Book 19 and her meeting with the “beggar,” should we now forget all that and regard Penelope as a pathetically unwitting dupe in the vengeful scheming of Odysseus?

Here is the moment when careful reflection on Penelope’s dream can open up new horizons of meaning. The Iliad and The Odyssey together contain, up to the point of Penelope’s dream of the 20 geese, four major dream episodes: Agamemnon’s “Evil Dream” from Zeus (2.1-83), Achilles’ mournful dream of the spirit of dead Patroklos (23.54-107), Penelope’s reassuring dream from Athena (4.884-946), and Nausicaa’s arousing marriage dream from Athena (6.15-79). Viewed in this context, Penelope’s dream is unusual in at least two ways:

  • One, this is the only dream that occurs “offstage,” out of direct view of the audience. We do not “see” the dream while it is happening; we only hear the dreamer describe it, after the fact.
  • Two, this is the only “symbolic” dream, with its meaning encoded in stylized imagery. The dream thus poses a riddle, which must be accurately interpreted for the true meaning to emerge.

I believe these two details suggest a very different reading of the encounter between Penelope and the disguised Odysseus. Could it be that this is not a “real” dream at all, that in fact Penelope has made it up? Could it be that Penelope is deliberately using the riddle of her dream as a test to find out the intentions of this man, whom she consciously suspects is Odysseus? Could it be that while he thinks he’s deceiving her, she’s really the one deceiving him?

This would not be the first time in Homer’s poems that dreams have been used to deceive and manipulate others-in fact, it would be the fourth time: Zeus sending the “Evil Dream” to Agamemnon, Athena sending the “marriage dream” to Nausicaa, and Odysseus (at the end of The Odyssey, Book 14) making up a story about the “real” Odysseus making up a dream in order to steal another warrior’s cloak on a cold, windy night (14.519-589).

Why would Penelope make up such a dream? The answer emerges if we think carefully about what is happening at that crucial moment when the old nurse Eurycleia is washing the beggar’s feet. Penelope has removed herself and is standing alone, after a long and intimate conversation with a man who has detailed knowledge about Odysseus, who looks and sounds very much like Odysseus, who insists with passionate certainty that Odysseus will return to the palace the very next day. The question could hardly not arise for this most intelligent and perceptive of women: is this stranger Odysseus himself? If he is, then why isn’t he revealing himself? Penelope has just poured her heart out to him, saying how terribly she has suffered over the years-why won’t he drop his disguise and reunite with her this very moment?

When Eurycleia finishes washing the beggar’s feet, Penelope returns to him and says she has one last question-what is the meaning of her dream of the geese and the mountain eagle? The disguised Odysseus eagerly agrees with the words of the mountain eagle in the dream: the dream means “destruction is clear for each and every suitor.”

Penelope, however, disagrees. Her “two gates” speech that follows is a subtle but unmistakable way of saying “I don’t think so” to the beggar’s interpretation. She cannot agree with him for a simple reason: the mountain eagle and the beggar have both misinterpreted the dream. There are 20 geese in her dream, but more, many more than that number of suitors in the palace. As we learn in Book 16.270-288, where Telemachus tells Odysseus who all the suitors are and where they come from, there are a total of 108 men besieging the palace. Penelope’s refusal to accept the interpretation of the mountain eagle and the beggar is not due to stubborn skepticism, pathetic ignorance, or unconscious desire-she rejects the interpretation because it is wrong. The true meaning of the symbol of the 20 geese is surprisingly easy to find if we do not automatically assume that the mountain eagle and the beggar are right (that is, if we do not automatically privilege the hermeneutic perspective of Odysseus). The 20 geese symbolize the 20 years that Odysseus has been away fighting the war at Troy and journeying through the world. The exact length of Odysseus’ absence, 20 years, is mentioned five separate times in the poem, and most significantly the beggar himself comments to Penelope a few lines earlier in Book 19 that Odysseus has been gone for 20 years.

Thus, the first part of Penelope’s dream symbolically, and very accurately, describes her emotional experience of what has happened between them: Odysseus, by going off to fight in someone else’s war, has destroyed the last 20 years for her. What should have been the prime years of their marriage, the wonderful years of raising a family and creating a home, the years that Penelope would have “loved to watch” and care for, have been slaughtered by Odysseus. The second part of the dream expresses Penelope’s fearful perception of Odysseus right now, still standing apart from her in the disguise of a beggar. He doesn’t recognize her, and what the last 20 years have been like for her; all he can see are the suitors and a galling challenge to his honor. By posing this dream riddle to the beggar, Penelope is in effect asking if her suspicion is true: is the “real” Odysseus as blind to her feelings and as obsessed with killing the suitors as is the “dream” Odysseus? When the beggar agrees with the mountain eagle’s words in the dream, Penelope knows the unfortunate answer.

The mysterious poetry of Penelope’s two gates speech becomes all the more powerful when it is understood as a response to Odysseus’ failure of the dream interpretation test. To his reprimanding words, “twist it however you like, your dream can only mean one thing,” Penelope replies that dreams are always difficult to understand, and they do not always come true. The danger is that we will allow our desire to cloud our perception-taking as divine prophecy what is merely human fantasy. But some dreams, she goes on to say, do have the potential to come true-though only “for the dreamer who can see them.” That is precisely what Odysseus has failed to do. He has failed to see past his own desire for revenge.

I am reluctant to finish with this story, because there is so much more to be told (and so much more to be questioned, if you happen to disagree with my admittedly unorthodox reading of this scene). But I will close by reflecting on the interpretive principles guiding this approach to Penelope’s dream of the 20 geese. First, I chose to privilege the perspective of the dreamer, listening to her words, looking carefully at her experience, asking critical questions of her motivations, and ultimately grounding the dream’s meaning in the conditions of her waking life. Second, I focused special attention on the details of the dream, particularly on the exact number of geese, 20. Third, I located the dream in the context of broader cultural patterns, focusing in particular on how Penelope’s dream deviates from the narrative structuring of other Homeric dreams. And fourth, I tried to look beyond the seemingly obvious and self-evident to discover the new, the surprising, the unexpected.


Dystopian Dreaming

While 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