Dreams and Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

Dreams and Shakespeare: Julius Caesar by Kelly BulkeleyProphetic dreams of doom go unheeded in Shakespeare’s tragedy about violent political strife among the greatest leaders of ancient Rome.

In Julius Caesar, strange dreams and nightmares join with other frightening portents to besiege the people of Rome from all sides.  Terrible storms, weird avian behavior, and a haunting Soothsayer add to the pervasive sense of inescapable doom pressing down on the city.  The very foundations of the world, both political and cosmic, are cracking apart.  Forces of chaos have been set loose within the empire.  And yet, not a single one of Rome’s political leaders has the visionary capacity to recognize the signs of danger. For their failures to heed these warnings, they pay with their lives.

The great Caesar himself sets the tone in an early scene, when the Soothsayer gives him an unmistakable warning: “Beware the Ides of March.”  Caesar is the first character to make the grievous mistake of dismissing as trivial something that turns out to be a vital truth.  For the supreme leader of the Roman empire, the reason for rejecting the Soothsayer boils down to one word: he is a dreamer.  To be a dreamer, then, is to have nothing of significance to say to the ruling authority.  But as the play later reveals, it is the dreamer who had the most significant message of all for the ruler.  This complex polarity of dreaming and political power recurs throughout this play, and in many of Shakespeare’s other plays as well.

Though named after Caesar, the play focuses more attention on Brutus, the popular Roman senator who faces an awful moral choice: Should he stay loyal to his long-time friend and comrade-in-arms, who has shown no evidence of tyrannical tendencies?  Or should he defend the city and people he loves from the imminent threat of a dictator seizing total control of their government?  The agony of making a decision has disrupted his sleep, to the point where nightmarish feelings and images begin seeping into his waking mind, threatening his mental balance.

His sleep-deprived condition makes Brutus easy prey for the deception of Cassius, who fabricates the letter from the people of Rome urging Brutus to take charge of the rebellion against Caesar.  Brutus muses over the line about needing to “awake.”  What he really needs is to sleep, yet the letter urges him (metaphorically) to do the opposite. By taking the letter at its face value, Brutus compounds his mistake—accepting something as true that is in fact the opposite.

The most powerful prophetic dream in Julius Caesar is also the one that receives the most egregiously mistaken interpretation.  The dream occurs to Calphurnia, Caesar’s wife, one of the only female characters in the play.  She does not narrate the dream herself; her husband tells it for her.  He relates that she cried out three times in her sleep about his murder, then woke up and told him about a dream of a statue with blood pouring out from all sides.  This is almost exactly what happens to Caesar later that day, and at first he accepts the dream’s warning and plans on protecting himself at home rather than going out.

But Decius has been sent by the conspirators for the exact reason of luring Caesar out of his palace and escorting him to the Senate, when they will lie in wait, knives at the ready.  Calphurnia’s dream poses a direct obstacle to their plan, so Decius must quickly devise an alternative reading of the dream, one that calms Caesar’s fears and persuades him to lower his guard.  Using a combination of fawning flattery and rank misogyny, Decius leads Caesar away from the dream’s true meaning and toward a false interpretation that actually facilitates the fatal fulfillment of the prophecy.

Immediately after this debate over the proper interpretation of Calphurnia’s dream, the next scene opens with the reading of a letter by a character named Artemidorus of Cidnos, a well-regarded teacher who finds out about the assassination plot.  His letter contains a true account of the plot, and if he had succeeded in giving it to Caesar, it would have saved the ruler’s life.  But as with all the other portents of impending doom, Caesar ignored this one, too, and Artemidorus calls for the ruler’s attention in vain.  The character of Artemidorus of Cidnos may have had a historical source, but at least some of the people in Shakespeare’s audience would also have associated him with Artemidorus of Daldis, another famous Roman teacher who wrote the Oneirocritica, the most influential manual of dream interpretation for many centuries.  The Oneirocritica was well-known in Shakespeare’s time, and most of the popular dream interpretation manuals available to the public were based on the system of Artemidorus of Daldis.  Perhaps it is just a coincidence that a scene with a failure to properly interpret an important dream about Caesar is followed by a scene in which a character named Artemidorus fails to convey an important message to Caesar.  But some of the audience, and maybe Shakespeare himself, would have followed a connecting thematic thread through these scenes, and many other as well, about the dangers of missing a warning of dangers in dreaming.

The murder of Caesar sets loose a similar dynamic in the streets of Rome.  A young poet, Cinna, awakens with a dream of feasting with Caesar, and like Caesar he hesitates in setting foot out of the house that morning because of the ill omen.  But some irresistible force compels him to go forth, where he encounters a mob of people inflamed by Marc Antony’s speech against Brutus and the other assassins.  The mob confuses Cinna the poet with another man named Cinna who helped the conspiracy against Caesar.  Even though the young poet tells the angry people of their mistake, they violently attack him anyway.  The madness of the vengeful crowd dispenses with the need to distinguish truth from illusion.

In the bloody battles for power that follow Caesar’s murder, the forces of Brutus are soon pushed to the brink of defeat.  Brutus senses his time has come because the ghost of Caesar appears to him in a quasi-dream state, terrifying him with the presentiment of his own impending death.  When the ghost departs, Brutus awakens Lucius and asks if he has been dreaming and cried out; Lucius confusedly says no, and Brutus struggles to process the uncanny reality of what he has just experienced. His epistemological uncertainty signals the further dissolution of his capacity to keep his waking and sleeping states from blurring into each other.

When the end comes, Brutus welcomes it as a long-desired rest.  Only now does he clearly foresee his future.  He conscripts the last of his friends, the slumbering Strato, to awaken and help ease him into an eternal slumber.

 

Contemporary performances:

The amazing production of Julius Caesar I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February, directed by Shana Cooper, had a setting so abstract and desaturated it could have been anywhere, or everywhere. Untethered to any specific time period, it explored the dark psychological dynamics of male aggression, vanity, and ambition.  The bloody choreography of masculine violence overshadowed the fine speeches about political virtue.  By the end of the play all the physical structures on stage had been torn to pieces and cast to the ground.  Tyranny had been averted, but at the cost of chaos.

Two casting choices made this production especially powerful.  First, Brutus was played by Danforth Comins, who performed as Hamlet in last year’s OSF production of that play.  Like Hamlet, Brutus agonizes over existential questions of duty, justice, and personal loyalty, and Comins gave the character a tremendous depth of consciousness, especially during his scenes of sleepless brooding.  Second, the part of the Soothsayer was played by Brooklyn Williams, a 12-year old girl who wore a sleeveless green dress.  This was a brilliant move, jarring to audience expectations perhaps, but unforgettably effective in showing that true wisdom, and even a hint of future growth, may come from the most improbable of sources.

  

References to sleep and dreams in the play:

I.2.29

Julius Caesar waves away the Soothsayer (who has just told Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March”): “He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.”

I.2.203

Caesar says he prefers to be surrounded by agreeable men who are “fat, sleek-headed,” “such as sleep a-nights.”

II.1.4

Brutus tries to awaken his sleeping assistant Lucius, whose deep slumber he envies: “I would it were my fault to sleep so soundly.”

II.1.48, 50

Brutus opens a letter supposedly sent to him from the people of Rome, encouraging him to lead the rebellion: “Brutus, thou sleep’st. Awake, and see thyself!”  He then repeats this line to himself.

II.1.64, 68

The stress of the conspiracy against Caesar has taken its toll on Brutus: “Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar, I have not slept.”  Brutus goes on to describe his agonized mental state as something “like a phantasma or a hideous dream.”

II.1.214

Cassius tells the other conspirators that Caesar has become more superstitious recently, a change from his previously skeptical views “of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies.”

II.1.248-252

Brutus finds Lucius asleep again, and praises the youth for his innocence: “Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies/Which busy care draws in the brains of men”

II.2.1-3

At night during a terrible storm, Caesar comes out of his bedroom and says “Thrice hath Calphurnia in her sleep cried out/’Help ho, they murder Caesar!’”

II.2.80-4

Caesar says he will stay home today because of the warning vision seen by his wife in her sleep: “She dreamt tonight she saw my statue,/Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,/Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans/Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.”

II.2.88-111

Decius, one of the conspirators, persuades Caesar that Calphurnia’s dream actually has a more favorable meaning: “This dream is all amiss interpreted./It was a vision fair and fortunate./Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,/In which so many smiling Romans bathed,/Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck/Reviving blood, and that great men shall press/For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance./This by Calphurnia’s dream is signified.”  Caesar is more pleased by the interpretation of Decius (“And this way you have well expounded it”) than by his wife’s (“How foolish do your fears seem now, Calphurnia!/I am ashamed I did yield to them”).

II.3.1

Artemidorus of Cidnos reads a letter of warning that he plans to deliver directly to Caesar.

III.3.1-4

Cinna the poet goes out in the streets despite having just had an unsettling dream: “I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar;/And things unluckily charge my fantasy.”  Moments later he is attacked by a mob who mistakes him for one of the conspirators.

IV.3.286

Brutus invites his comrades to rest before the next day’s battle: “I pray you, sirs, lie in my tent and sleep.”

IV.3.318-323

After Lucius and the others fall asleep and the candle burns low, Brutus sees the ghost of Caesar: “Ha, who comes here?—/I think it is the weakness of mine eyes/That shapes this monstrous apparition./It comes upon me.—Art thou any thing?/Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,/That mak’st my blood cold and my hair to stare?”

IV.3.333-350

Deeply startled, Brutus wakes everyone up and asks if they saw anything: “Didst thou dream, Lucius, that thou so criedst out?”

V.5.1

Facing the end, Brutus says to his weary comrades: “Come, poor remains of friends, rest on this rock.”

V.5.20-3

Brutus says he knows his “hour has come” because he has seen the ghost of Caesar “two several times by night.”

V.5.36-46

Brutus bids farewell to his friends, even one who has fallen asleep on the rock: “Strato, thou hast been all this while asleep,/Farewell to thee, too, Strato.”  By this point he welcomes death: “Night hangs upon my eyes; my bones would rest,/That have but labored to attain this hour.” A moment later, his other friends run away. Strato awakens, and holds the sword by which Brutus kills himself.

Dreaming Is Play: A New Theory of Dream Psychology

Dreaming Is Play: A New Theory of Dream Psychology by Kelly BulkeleyThe scientific study of dreams has fallen on hard times.  In an era dominated by cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoactive drugs, and computer models of the mind, dreaming seems less relevant to psychology today than at any time since Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900.

The problem, ironically, is not a lack of empirical evidence about the nature and function of dreams.  Rather, the problem is too much evidence that does not seem to add up to a coherent theory or a useful guide for therapeutic practice.

Psychoanalysts from Freud onwards have used clinical case studies to argue that dreams, despite their cryptic symbolism, are meaningful and can be tremendously helpful in therapy.  In the 1950’s, however, neuroscientists discovered that dreaming correlates with automatic processes in the brain during sleep, suggesting that dreams are in fact nothing but neural nonsense.  At about the same time, quantitative researchers began using statistical methods to analyze tens of thousands of dream reports.  Instead of bizarre symbols or random nonsense, these researchers found a large number of clear, straightforward continuities between dream content and people’s emotional concerns in waking life.

The results from each of these areas of research appear to contradict the other two, making the quest for common ground all the more difficult.

New developments in cognitive science offer a better way forward, by illuminating the evolutionary features of the human mind as they relate to the survival needs and adaptive challenges facing our species.  When we look at dreaming in this broader context, a simple yet powerful thesis emerges: dreaming is a kind of play, the play of the imagination in sleep.

Zoologists have found evidence of play behaviors in all mammals, especially among the youngest members of each species.  Play occurs within a temporary space of pretense and make-believe where actions are not bound by the same constraints that govern the normal, non-play world.  A major function of play, most researchers agree, is to practice responses to survival-related situations in a safe environment, so the young will be better prepared when they become adults to face those situations in waking reality.  Creativity, flexibility, and instinctual freedom are the hallmarks of play, in humans as well as other animals.

All of these qualities of play are prominent in dreaming, too.  Dreaming occurs within sleep, a state of temporary withdrawal from the waking world in which the imagination is given free reign to wander where it will.  Dreaming tends to be more frequent and impactful in childhood; young people experience dreams of chasing, flying, and lucid awareness much more often than do older people.  The contents of dreams often have direct references to survival-related themes like sexuality, aggression, personal health, social relations, and the threat of death.  Although dreams in general are not as wildly bizarre as often assumed, they do have the qualities of spontaneous creativity and rich variation that stimulate the mind to look beyond what is to imagine what might be.

Thinking about dreaming as a kind of play has many advantages, foremost of which is overcoming the conflicts between the different branches of dream research.  Dreaming is indeed rooted in natural cycles of brain activity, as neuroscientists have argued, but it no longer makes sense to treat dreams as meaningless by-products of a sleep-addled mind.  If we saw a group of children playing an imaginary game of house, would we be justified in assuming their brains are somehow malfunctioning?  Not at all.  In the same way, we should recognize the playful qualities of dreaming as integral to healthy cognitive functioning.  In the language of computer programming, dreaming should be appreciated as a vital feature of the mind, not a bug to be fixed or eliminated.

A dreaming-is-play perspective has clear benefits for the practice of psychotherapy.  Rather than laboring to uncover deep hidden messages, therapists can explore the imaginative dynamics of their clients’ dreams for useful clues to their emotional concerns and waking life challenges (while still pursuing deeper symbolic levels, if so desired).

This can be especially helpful in caring for trauma patients.  Research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has shown that during successful treatment the patients’ recurrent nightmares gradually become less fixated on the trauma and more open to an increasing variety of dream themes, characters, and scenarios.  In other words, the more playful their dreams become, the more progress the patients are making towards psychological health.

I once did a research project with a woman, “Nan,” who was nearly killed in a car accident and spent several days in intensive care with severe spinal injuries.  Her dreams following the accident were filled with fear, aggression, and misfortune, exactly what we would expect of someone with acute PTSD.  But Nan told me she put her hopes on one unusual dream, which came about four months after she was hurt.  In this dream there was a magical paintbrush that allowed her to paint the colors of the rainbow, just like a beloved character she remembered from a childhood story.  This was the first time since Nan’s accident that one of her dreams had so many references to colors, positive emotions, and good fortunes.  The green shoots of playfulness that emerged in this dream anticipated, and perhaps even stimulated, her eventual recovery of health.

The evolutionary success of our species is largely due to the tremendous flexibility and adaptive creativity of our minds.  Current scientific evidence is telling us that dreaming is a powerful, neurologically hard-wired process that strengthens precisely those distinctively human psychological abilities.  Our playful reveries during sleep function like mental yoga: stretching our cognitive abilities in new directions, exploring the boundaries and potentials of awareness, and preparing us for whatever the waking world may bring.

Dreams and Healing in West Bengal

Dreams and Healing in West Bengal by Kelly BulkeleyThe close connection between dreaming and healing has a long and venerable history in Western civilization.  The ancient Greek healing god Asclepius was worshipped throughout the Mediterranean for many centuries, with people praying to the god for dreams to help cure their physical and psychological suffering.  The dream practices at the Asclepian temples became the deep spiritual basis for the Western medical tradition that many of us rely on today, although this fact is rarely acknowledged or appreciated.

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. June McDaniel, Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston, about dreams and healing.  Dr. McDaniel has expertise in the study of Hinduism and mystical experience, and she has done extensive field work among Hindu worship communities in West Bengal.  We were both attending the recent conference of the American Academy of Religion, for a panel discussion of my Big Dreams book, and in her comments she offered a fascinating glimpse of her findings among contemporary West Bengali Hindus:

“One of the most famous dream incubation temples in India is in Tarakeshwar in West Bengal- it was even the subject of a Bollywood film.  Crowds of people visit this temple to have big dreams, and the major goal is the miraculous healing of disease or misfortune.  People fast and bring the Bengali equivalent of sleeping bags to sleep at the temple before the statue of the god Shiva Taraknath, who will appear in dreams to directly heal the person, or inform them of what to do (which is usually to find particular herbs or go on a pilgrimage).  I spoke with some people there who were coming to thank the god for appearing in their dreams and helping them.   Some people will go to ask the god for favors (such as having a son or getting a better job), and the god will appear in the dream to let them know his answer.  Some had a series of dreams in which the god appeared.”

Dr. McDaniel’s description has remarkable similarities to the dream practices performed at the temples of Asclepius.  This suggests a truly cross-cultural recognition of the potential value of dreaming in efforts to heal people of their ills.  In West Bengal these practices are still an active part of people’s lives, as Dr. McDaniel found in her interviews with numerous healers and religious leaders.  I will be talking with her in more detail about this over the coming year, because findings like hers highlight a vital point: the future of dreams and healing depends in large part on learning the lessons taught by religious and spiritual traditions for thousands of years.  We do not have to perform other people’s rituals or worship their gods to recognize in their engagements with dreaming a shared set of interests and a potential storehouse of accumulated wisdom.

 

How to Misbehave in Other People’s Dreams

How to Misbehave in Other People's Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyWhat would you do if you could control not only your own dreams, but other people’s dreams, too?  What if you could enter other people’s dreams without their knowing it?  How would you use those powers?  Do the same ethical principles that guide our waking lives also apply in dreaming?

The new television series “Falling Water” has created a fascinating narrative world in which various characters explore these very questions, trying to make sense of amazing dream experiences that seem both radically anomalous and strangely natural.

The latest episode, titled “Three Half Blind Mice,” fills out several story lines that illuminate the many possibilities available to those who can enter into the realm of shared dreaming.

Without giving away specific plot twists, the motives that drive people in their shared dreaming are not much different from people’s motives in waking life.  One character seduces and sexually assaults another in her dreams.  Several characters are infiltrating other people’s dreams to make money, by generating unconscious fears that prompt them to make bad business decisions.  A scientist is using shared dreams to experiment with the powers of the mind.  A religious cult is using the dream world to gather, worship, and plan for a global spiritual revolution.  Everyone seems to have a ruthless determination to find and control a mysterious child blessed with special dream powers.

The three protagonists—Tess, Burton, and Taka—have mostly virtuous reasons for entering into the shared dream world.  Tess is seeking her child, Burton is trying to learn more about a recurrent woman in his dreams, and Taka is trying to help his catatonic mother.  These are morally good and virtuous reasons to explore the dream realm as they do.  But all three are quickly drawn into the more shadowy dimensions of shared dreaming, where right and wrong no longer seem so clear and nothing is as it appears.

So far, the challenges faced by the characters in the dream world are primarily posed by each other, humans versus humans.  There are no alien, transpersonal, supra-human forces at work, at least that have been revealed so far.  I’ll be curious to see if and when other forms of intelligence and intentionality enter into the dream world.  People who engage in a long-term study of their dreams often find they become more open to such possibilities, not less so—that’s been my experience from teaching and research, in any case.

Dreams of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

 

Dreams of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by Kelly BulkeleyIn several studies over the past 24 years I have explored the various connections between dreaming and electoral politics. One of the recurrent findings has been that political events and activities, like Presidential elections, can impact the content of people’s dreams. Some politicians appear with unusual frequency in people’s dreams, which has led to the hypothesis that dream appearances are an index of political charisma: The more a politician appears in people’s dreams, the more likely the politician has made a personal and emotional connection with those individuals. (An important note, especially in the 2016 US Presidential campaign: Charisma can have a positive or negative valence, acting as a force of attraction or repulsion.)

This post represents a progress report on a longer-term project that will finish at the end of the year. The main findings presented here illuminate the impact of the US election on the content of people’s dreams. Contrary to many Western psychologists who focus exclusively on the personal significance of dreaming, the examples here suggest that some dreams also have collective levels of significance. Such dreams are not only about the individual dreamer. They also relate to concerns shared by other people in the community. Political dreams are a dramatic example of the broader dimensions of cultural meaning that can be found in dreams.

These reports come from three different sources: 1) personal contacts, 2) websites I manage devoted to dreams of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, and 3) the 2016 Demographic Survey I administered in May of this year.

Each source has its methodological advantages and disadvantages. The personal contacts allow for more detail and follow-up conversations, but they are limited by my sphere of contacts. The websites can gather detailed reports with follow-up possibilities, but with uncertain provenance; I cannot assess the reliability of the sources. The demographic survey provides a broad spectrum of participants from a reliable source, but the reports tend to be short on detail, with no chance for follow-up.

(Some of the early reports I received from personal contacts were described in the post of July 3, 2016.)

All of the data I gather during this election cycle will eventually be available in the Sleep and Dream Database.

The reports presented below have been grouped into six thematic categories: Friendliness with a Candidate, Anticipations, Political Disagreements, Opposition to Trump, Openness to Trump, and Work & Place. Each of these categories sheds new light on an important aspect of the interaction between dreaming and politics.

With any of these dreams, further interpretation would undoubtedly reveal deeper meanings that might have nothing to do with politics. For this presentation, the goal is simply to highlight the various ways in which political phenomena impact the content and emotional tone of people’s dreams.

 

Friendliness with the Candidate

A consistent theme in political dreams is a friendly interaction with a candidate or politician whom the dreamer favors in waking life. At one level, such dreams express the individual’s political support in metaphorical terms of friendliness, intimacy, and sharing personal spaces. Such dreams can be regarded as evidence that a politician has forged a meaningful connection with that individual.

26 male, liberal

I recently had a dream that I was friends with Hillary Clinton and at an event, giving a speech to introduce her.

41 male, very conservative

I dreamed Ted Cruz came to my house

60 male, moderate

Being at a party with Donald Trump

20 male, very liberal

Yes, Bernie Sanders was in my kitchen and I was very excited.

21 female, very liberal

I went to a gathering of Bernie Sanders supporters and my favorite teacher was there.

37 female, liberal

I had a dream the other night that I met Hillary, and she wanted to give me a hug. I was so thrilled. Then we hugged and it was super awkward.

26 male, liberal

I had a dream before Clinton announced her campaign in which I asked her if she would run; she smiled and said yes.

69 female, moderate, MD

We were at a public event taking place out doors with many people. Hillary was sitting next to me and we were talking together as if we were good friends who had known each other a long time. I asked her about her plans for universal healthcare once she is in office. However, we were interrupted and I did not get an answer. The dream is strange because I am not a Democrat. [Comments: “I have no idea why I would have dreamed about Hillary Clinton, other than I am considering voting for her because I am not fond of my party’s proposed candidates.”]

 

Anticipations

Several politically-related dreams look ahead to possible outcomes of future political events like elections. Often these dreams have the quality of a wish-fulfillment. They express what the dreamer hopes and wishes will happen in the future.

68 female, liberal

I dreamed I was watching TV to see the results of the POTUS election. It said Bernie won, and I ran into my front yard, hollering with joy. It was nice.

23 male, very conservative

Marco Rubio won several states and took the lead. I was very excited and happy.

42 female, not sure

I had a dream that the presidential candidate who won was announced on TV. When I went in the living room, I saw a picture of John Kasich on the TV.

20 female, very liberal

I had a dream very recently that they announced who the presidential candidates were going to be, and I remember very distinctly being disappointed learning that Donald Trump received 3/4 of the vote, while being pleasantly surprised upon learning that Barack Obama was running for another four years.

 

Political Disagreements

Some dreams create a symbolic arena for debating political issues. In sociological terms, politics provides a public venue for working out arguments between different groups, and this makes it fertile territory for dreams about social conflicts at many different levels, from the individual’s family to the whole human species.

24 male, conservative

Argued with family in favor of Donald Trump. They were mad, but possibly swayed to support him.

23 male, moderate

I once had a dream that I was voting for the Republican nominee. I voted for Jeb Bush, and the rest of my family voted for Cruz and Trump. Disturbing.

22 male, moderate

I was being instructed by John Kasich in a college lecture and he reprimanded me. I went to Hillary Clinton and she acted as a counselor for me and prevented punishment.

62 female, moderate

I dreamt that Hillary had a major medical issue after securing the nomination. This caused the Democrats to act much like Ted Cruz and instead of going with Bernie Sanders – who would be the nominee- they tried to subvert the rules. This caused both parties to ask for a do-over. The Supreme Court ruled against them – Bernie lost.

 

Opposition to Trump

Several dreams I gathered expressed strong anti-Trump sentiments, which seemed mostly consistent with the dreamers’ waking life views of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The preponderance of anti-Trump dreams reflects the limits of my (mostly liberal) social circle, but it also reflects the high level of antipathy his campaign has generated among many Americans.

44 male, liberal

That gross Donald Trump wanted to sleep with my in my bed and I was like absolutely not. This was just last night.

35 female, very conservative

I have dreamed that Donald Trump was being generally unfriendly.

65 male, moderate

Donald Trump and I were having a conversation while walking through downtown – my wife is chasing us with a camera yelling “I didn’t get a picture.” I told him to ignore her she would cut off the top of our heads and he just chuckled and we went on discussing the issues and why I was against him. I was upset because he wouldn’t let me finish a sentence.

22 female, very liberal

I had a dream that Donald Trump was suing me for being a “slut” and I tried to fight him in court, but he won because I he had more money than me. I had to go to jail for years and was really distraught.

55 female, liberal

Just a couple of weeks ago, I had a weird dream about Donald Trump. Basically, I was telling him what I jerk I thought he was and why I disagreed with everything he stands for.

47 female, liberal, NY

I dreamt that I was dating Donald Trump. I guess it was at the point of the dating process where you proceed to sex, cause that is what the Donald was wanting. There was an anxiety building up in me, teetering towards panic as I realized I did absolutely not want to have sex with him but felt pressured to do so. He was coming at me with only a white dress shirt, unbuttoned on. I looked down and saw that he had a small, red, stubby little penis. His hands were little baby hands, reaching for me. I told him that I recently had surgery (which presently is actually true), and that I physically was unable to have sex, presently. He backed down, unable to reasonably pressure me, but I could tell he was frustrated, angry and annoyed about it. Later we were supposed to travel somewhere together, but I somehow was able to arrange that I would be going by myself. I was grappling with how I got myself into this situation, that I was actually dating Trump and how I could possibly tell my brother, without being mortified, cause I knew he would find that idea horrific. As did I. All I was thinking, how can I get out of this?! The thought of having sex with Trump made me sick to my stomach. [Comments: “It’s obvious to me. The thought of him is repugnant. It perfectly exemplifies how I feel about him as a woman. It also demonstrates his male ego, arrogance and rage. He brings up fear. It’s confirmed my feelings about him on a more primal level. I also have been almost obsessively following all news about him. I find it to be fascinating as a character study and a study of the American political landscape of this time in history. However I was horrified at having had this dream.”]

18 male, liberal, CA

I was at an outdoor rally, but Trump was in the center of the crowd. His presence there did irritate me, but then he continued to talk. At one point I boiled over with rage so I grabbed Trump in a chokehold and dragged towards the trash can. It was a rusted, old, metal trash can. I start to beat Trump with the trash can, slamming his head against it. He continues to talk during the whole beating, about his childhood, why he’s going to “Make America Great Again,” and his “small loan of a million dollars.” He eventually stopped talking with blood dribbling out of his ear. The trash can was bent out of shape. Then I woke up. [Comments: “I very much do not like Trump, but last night, my girlfriend’s boss was talking to her about Conservative fiscal policy and why she should be a Republican. This made me annoyed.”]

 

Open to Trump

People from across the political spectrum have experienced dreams in which they discover that Trump has previously unappreciated virtues and positive qualities. Even if the dreamers still hold an overall negative view of him, their dreams open up a new perspective on his character and candidacy. This might indicate an unconscious attraction to Trump’s candidacy, and/or a compensation for the intensity of the dreamer’s negative feelings toward Trump in waking life.

71 female, very conservative

The last dream was about Donald Trump. He was interacting with me on a private basis and he was the kindest, caring person.

19 male, very conservative

I dreamed that my band director got fired and was replaced by Donald Trump. He could conduct surprisingly well, thankfully.

29 female, very conservative

I dreamt that I was watching an old interview with Donald Trump in which he resembled George W. Bush and was much more genial and sensible than the raving megalomaniac he now is. The interview was part of a documentary that described how he used to be and I felt sympathy toward him for having been nice once.

54 male, moderate

I recently had a dream where I was watching a movie where Donald Trump was an actor playing one of the major characters, and I was thinking he wasn’t that bad in the movie, but I still despise him as a person.

33 female, liberal, NY

I had a dream that I was dating Donald Trump. I was very embarrassed about it, But I explained it by saying that his parents treated him very poorly and that’s why he acted out for attention. [Comments: “I’m very worried about the state of our country when his hateful rhetoric appeals to so many people, so he’s been on my mind. I think that he acts like a toddler who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way and my dream self was much more tolerant of that than I normally. But America should be very embarrassed.”]

34 female, progressive, NY

Trump and I were hanging out on a college dorm floor, just shooting the shit, chatting about life, etc., and I was thinking to myself, “why does this guy get such a bad rap/put on such a show? He’s a really cool dude… and, like, gets it…” (!!!!!!!!!!) [Comments: “It’s obviously his campaign team infiltrating my dreams through some sort of advanced technology/dream therapy, but it won’t sway me!”]

57 female, progressive, CA

I was sailing in high seas with my son (a sweet, gentle kid who is the opposite of Trump) when suddenly he turned into Donald Trump, and suddenly we were pulling the boat ashore. No more sailing. We went into a casual beachfront restaurant and got two seats at a table under an umbrella. Someone brought lunch. I got to choose my side dish but the entree was already chosen. We both had water, but he wanted an alcoholic drink. He couldn’t get the waiter’s attention. He finally went into the bar and came out with a half gallon carton of chocolate milk. (Bartender’s idea of a joke?) He poured one for himself then started going around to the other diners with the milk. He was his “on stage” attention-seeking self with them, whereas with me he had been surprisingly pleasant and low-key. When he came back to the table, he was naked. (!!) He sat in a “manspread” kind of way so his junk was just hanging out. He seemed to be wearing some sort of weird sparkly thong; I could see a gold chain glittering in his pubic hair. I felt slightly alarmed but more just curious, what did it mean that he was naked? Were we going to have sex? The dream ended. [Comments: “I’ve been surprised by some of his endorsements, but I figure he must be more charismatic in person than he is on stage. Maybe this dream was exploring that possibility. But even in my dream he acted like a narcissist (just had to get the other diners’ attention) and an entitled jerk (coming back to our table with no pants). As for the genitals, maybe because of that reference to his penis size in the debate?”]

18 female, conservative NY

I was his secretary or something and was in his office and in his lap and we started making out and I was kissing his neck and he was kissing mine and I never gasped so sharply in a dream and we were getting undressed until finally I was in my bra and tights and I was all ready and then he was like we can’t do this, you’re barely dressed! And I was like yeah, isn’t that the whole point? And he was like, no go put on a decent nightgown right now! And his wife was there and I was just really confused. (Comment: “I think this dream came from memories of reading the Donald Trump Fan fiction my friend told me about.”)

 

Work & Place

These two respondents indicated their high frequency of politically-related dreams stemmed from the significant role of politics in their waking-life work and place of residence. This is further evidence that the continuity hypothesis encompasses waking life concerns about politics.

30 male, conservative

I have lived in Washington DC for ten years. Many of my dreams somehow involve politics or politicians.

63 male, N/A

My job involves politics so I dream about it all the time.

 

Comments, reflections, and interpretations are most welcome!

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Related Writings

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

American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us About the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else. Boston: Beacon Press.

  1. The Impact of September 11 on Dreaming. (Co-authored with Tracey L. Kahan.) Consciousness and Cognition 17:1248-1256.
  1. Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values. San Francisco Chronicle (August 17).
  1. Sleep and Dream Patterns of Political Liberals and Conservatives. Dreaming 16(3): 223-235.
  1. Dreaming of War in Iraq: A Preliminary Report. Sleep and Hypnosis 6(1): 19-28.
  1. Dream Content and Political Ideology. Dreaming 12(2): 61-78.
  1. It’s All Just a Bad Dream. San Francisco Chronicle (December 6): A27.
  1. “Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election,” in Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 179-194.
  1. Dreaming in a Totalitarian Society: A Reading of Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. Dreaming 4(2): 115-126.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of the 2016 Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams

Review of the 2016 Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyAt this year’s annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), held June 24-28 in Kerkrade, the Netherlands, the world’s leading dream researchers gathered to share their latest findings. The conference ran for four and a half days, with six or seven simultaneous tracks of events going on from morning through the evening. It was truly a feast of dreaming!

Every year it takes me a while to process and digest all the events, conversations, and impressions that occurred during the conference. It’s way too much to take in while there, so I try to keep notes and then reflect on them over the summer and fall. As I look through my notes from this year, these strike me as the highlights from the latest IASD gathering:

Iain Edgar, an anthropologist at Durham University in the UK, gave a chilling presentation on his investigations into the dream beliefs and practices of Islamic jihadists, who are using social media with remarkable effectiveness to share their violent dreams and encourage others to do so as well.

Pilleriin Sikka, a lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skovde in Sweden, described the challenges of accurately measuring emotional content in dreams. (A current debate in the field: are dreams predominated by negative emotions, or do dreams have a roughly even balance of positive and negative emotions?) Her study highlighted the importance of transparency in the methods used for studying this aspect of dreaming, because different methods often yield different results.

Nils Sandman, a doctoral student at the University of Turku in Finland, reported on a national demographic study in Finland that found higher nightmare frequency is associated with insomnia, depression, low life satisfaction, suicidality, and generally poor health. This supports clinical theories that recurrent nightmares are possible symptoms of mental and physical illness.

kitt price, a senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Queen Mary University, London, described their historical and cultural analysis of the use in 19th and 20th century Britain of mass media to gather public reports of precognitive types of dreams. The BBC and other media outlets gathered thousands of such reports, many of which remain available for study today. price’s research suggests that interest in paranormal dreaming does not diminish in modern Western societies, but expresses itself through different kinds of media.

Alaya Dannu, an MFA student in creative nonfiction from the UK, discussed the ongoing influence via dreams of the beliefs and customs of civilizations that no longer exist (e.g., from pre-colonial Africa). She brought together art, anthropology, history, and her own personal experiences to illustrate the way dreaming helps to shape a personal and collective sense of identity over time.

Alison Dale and Joseph DeKonick, psychologists from the University of Ottawa, presented findings on gender differences in the dreams of Canadians that showed males have more dreams of aggression while females have more dreams with family and friend characters and more negative emotions. These findings fit with those from research on the dream patterns of other nationalities, adding strength to the idea that some tendencies of dreaming have roots in deep psychological processes shared by many if not all humans.

Don Kuiken, a psychologist from the University of Alberta, talked about his ongoing work on “impactful dreams,” focusing in this presentation on what he calls “existential” dreams of intense sadness, often following a loss or death of a loved one, which can paradoxically lead to “sublime disquietude” and greater aesthetic appreciation for life. Kuiken’s research has been an inspiration to me for many years, and this new development brings his impactful dreams work into dialogue with his earlier studies of dreams and the philosophical aesthetics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Wojciech Owczaraski, from the University of Gdansk in Poland, described a project devoted to gathering dream reports from survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII. This promises to be an important and heart-wrenching collection of dreams.

Caroline Horton and Josie Malinowski, psychologists at Bishop Grosseteste University and University of Bedfordshire, respectively, both in the UK, described their research testing the role of dreams in emotional assimilation. They found the strongest effects in dreams with greatest emotional intensity and personally important material. Researchers continue to debate the issue of how much of a role, if any, dreaming plays in memory, learning, and information processing. Several studies at the conference reported negligible results in experiments involving dreams and memory consolidation, and Horton and Malinowski’s project was the only one that found an angle of approach that might be promising.

Antti Revonsuo and Katja Valli, cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Turku in Finland, gave talks about their “social simulation theory” of dreaming, whereby dreams function to provide simulations of social situations that have relevance for evolutionary fitness and survival. This theory grew out of Revonsuo’s earlier studies of “threat simulation” in dreaming. The main advantage of Revonsuo and Valli’s current approach is that it builds on empirical research about dream content—quantitative data about the actual dreams of a large and wide variety of people. This kind of research has shown that dreams are filled with characters, social interactions, and verbal communications. These are the features of dreaming Revonsuo and Valli are trying to explain in terms of the evolutionary history of human cognitive functioning.

These are only some of the sessions I personally attended; there were many other great presentations I didn’t get to see but only heard about from other people.

The conference as a whole left several general impressions about the state of dream research.

First, new advances in various areas of investigation make it clear the mind’s activities in sleep are much more complex and sophisticated (“high-level”) than mainstream psychologists have long assumed. The numerous presentations on lucid dreaming and cognition during the sleep state support this deepening of our understanding of how the mind works (and plays) during sleep and dreaming.

Second, there has been tremendous growth in empirical data, but not as much progress in theoretical understanding. Researchers have more detailed dream material to look at than ever before, but they have very little to say that’s new about what dreams mean or how they function. My concern is that the real gains that have been made in describing the neurocognitive processes involved in dream formation are not improving our understanding of the role of dreaming in healthy human functioning. Very few researchers (Revonsuo and Valli being exceptions) try to locate their studies within a bigger theoretical framework. Perhaps this is simply the stage we’re at, following the demise of psychoanalysis and brainstem reductionism; we know that was wrong, but we’re still not sure what’s a better model. So in the meantime, we gather more data.

Third, and in tension with the second, the practical use of dreams in clinical and therapeutic contexts continues to expand and diversify. Professionals and laypeople involved in caregiving, whether in hospitals, school health centers, private therapy practices, hospice groups, churches, or non-governmental organizations, are using dreams as a valuable resource in helping people gain insights into their suffering and find their way back towards health and wholeness. Many conference presentations described the positive healing effects of bringing dreams into the therapeutic process, in almost every kind of clinical modality.

At some point the researchers and the clinicians are going to have to talk to each other…. perhaps with new technologies for studying dreams as the mediating link.