A Panel Discussion of Dreams and OSF’s “Alice in Wonderland”

A Panel Discussion of Dreams and OSF's "Alice in Wonderland" by Kelly BulkeleyBefore going to bed each night after a long day of rehearsals, the director of “Alice in Wonderland” wrote a letter, sealed it, and put it under her pillow. The letter was addressed to her theatrical hero, Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991), a revolutionary figure on the American stage whose adaptation of the Alice stories was first presented in the early 1930’s at the Civic Repertory Theater in New York City, which she founded with the mission of providing the highest-quality dramatic artistry for the widest possible audience.

The director, Sara Bruner, has for many years been one of the brightest creative lights at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a variety of acting roles.  The Le Gallienne adaptation of “Alice” is her first major directing opportunity at OSF, and she devised this pre-sleep practice of writing pillow missives as a way to gently soothe and channel her anxieties before sleep.  She would write to Le Gallienne about the challenges of the day, the unique demands of the production, and her creative hopes for the future.

This was one of the many intriguing insights to emerge from the panel discussion held at the recent regional meeting of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Ashland, Oregon, May 31 to June 2. The panel was on Sunday morning and feature an ideal line-up: Sara, the director; Emily Ota, the actor who performs as Alice; and Amrita Ramanan, the director of literary development and dramaturgy at OSF who helps Sara and the cast with the broader story-telling context of the “Alice” tales. Several people were curious about the role of the dramaturg in a theatrical production, and it was fascinating to hear Amrita describe the many ways in which she enhances the whole creative enterprise. It made me think of a dream studies analogy: at some level, a dramaturg enables what Jung called the process of amplification, helping the dreamer (or cast) recognize the concentric circles of biographical, cultural, historical, and mythological meanings surrounding the dream (or play), all as a way of enhancing its unique significance right now.

We did not record the session, alas, because we wanted to allow for more spontaneity in the discussion. (Passing microphones around in a small room is awkward, especially with professionals who are trained to project their natural voices.) But the panel certainly made it clear that the intersection of dreams and theater is a lively space for deep discussions about the nature of creativity, imagination, and the lived experience of an artistic life.

The panel was enhanced by Bernard Welt, a long-time IASD member and emeritus professor of Film and Humanities, who co-facilitated with me. Angel Morgan, the local host of the weekend gathering, also helped by asking great questions, as did Isaac Taitz, Stanley Krippner, and David Gordon.

In response to one of Isaac’s questions, everyone on the panel said they experience anxiety dreams about their work in the theater.  Emily even said she has found the appearance of such dreams to be an expected part of learning a new role: once she starts having nerve-wracking dreams about it, she knows the role has begun to sink in.

The panel also discussed at some length the stagecraft used to generate a sense of magical dreaminess in “Alice.” Without revealing any spoilers, I would say that Sara’s approach is deceptively brilliant, like a master class in the cognitive psychology of perception: it uses the simplest objects, shapes, and gestures to elicit in the audience a maximal response in their imaginations, prompting them to creatively join with the performers in (re-)telling a classic yet eternally new story.

This will not be the last such gathering to discuss dreams and theater with OSF artists. The annual conference of the IASD is scheduled for Ashland in 2021 (June 13-17), and there will likely be additional regional gatherings between now and then.  Think about coming to join us….

Dreaming and the OA: “Listen to the Dreamers”

Dreaming and the OA: "Listen to the Dreamers" by Kelly BulkeleyI want the OA to be real. I think maybe it actually is real.

A TV show of rare psychological insight and spiritual audacity (some have called it “bananas” and “bat-shit crazy,” but we’ll get to that), “The OA” reflects the brilliant creative collaboration of co-writers Brit Marling, who plays the eponymous lead character, and Zal Batmanglij, who directs most of the episodes. The second season of this Netflix original focuses directly on dreaming, leading to a revelation in the final moments of the last episode (no spoilers!) that radically alters the metaphysical stakes of the whole story. For anyone interested in dreams, this is truly peak TV.

Even though I have watched the whole series three times now, I am still discovering subtle, beautiful, profoundly intriguing moments in each episode that open up new dimensions of meaning. Several of these moments still echo in mind.

  • The OA’s horrible nightmare of drowning….
  • Karim’s vertiginous dream of falling….
  • Mary, Nina, and the big data dream study: “Listen to the dreamers”….
  • Poor Homer’s messy wet dream….
  • Eros as fuel for transformation….
  • The ancient network of trees….
  • Houses, open doors, and new rooms of the mind….
  • BBA’s painful education in the use of her innate hermeneutic gifts….
  • Hap’s mania for knowledge….
  • The enchanting power of stories, and our fear of disillusionment….

The show has many virtues besides being awesomely dreamy. Brit Marling’s performance across the two seasons is staggering in its range and raw emotionality. The sociological portrait of the San Francisco Bay Area is razor sharp (I can attest as someone who once dated a blond girl from Mill Valley), but also deeply sympathetic towards all the characters in their efforts to survive and find meaning in this version of reality. There’s no ironic detachment here, no judgment or malice directed toward even the most awful characters. Everyone is on a journey of discovering who they are, why they are here, and what they need to do right now. This journey is gracefully embodied (the “movements” are a central theme) and tangibly material (battered, beloved cell phones play a big role), yet it’s also metaphysically soaring in the way it initiates the characters into realms leading far beyond life, death, and anything that resembles the normal world according to post-Enlightenment rationality.

Certain developments in the second season brought to my mind a passage from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, the pioneering American philosopher and psychologist. This book was based on a series of lectures James gave at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-1902, and in the very first lecture he made a point that he considered essential in the study of religion and spirituality. He warned against “discrediting states of mind for which we have an antipathy,” and he coined the term “medical materialism” to describe misguided efforts to use physiology to debunk religious experiences. “To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary,” James said, because all of our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings are conditioned by the workings of our brains and bodies. The key question is not where a religious experience comes from, but where is it going, what does it do? What are its fruits in the world? What effects does it have on the individual and his or her surroundings? Is it life-affirming or life-negating?

Something to ponder as you’re watching the show.

As full disclosure, some time ago I had a conference call with the creative team of “The OA” during their preparations for season 2, and our discussion centered on the topic of dreams. They didn’t have a list of questions to ask, they were just interested in hearing what’s going on in current dream research. I was more than a little star-struck, so I rambled on about the most interesting findings I could think of and how certain artists have had (in my humble opinion) more or less success in accurately conveying to their audiences the deepest mysteries of dreaming experience.

This isn’t the first time I’ve offered advice to people putting together some kind of show or media project on dreams. Whatever else I discuss with these teams, I always feel that I’m basically on my knees, begging them:

Please don’t make dreams look stupid. Please. More people will see a single episode of your show than will read all the books on dreams combined. These people will watch your show, and it will subtly but meaningfully influence how they relate to their own dreams. Please don’t spread misinformation or harmful stereotypes.

With the team from “The OA” I never felt even a whisper of this sentiment. On the contrary, they totally get it. They get it that dreams are portals to other dimensions of ourselves and the cosmos. They get it that artists have a special power to open people’s minds and expand their sense of what’s possible. They get it that this reality, the world in which we are living right now, is in desperate need of reconnecting via dreams and other altered states of consciousness with existential truths we’ve always known but have somehow lost, or had taken away from us.

For some viewers, it’s all just too weird. There are characters, scenes, and interactions that violate any number of typical narrative expectations, which some critics have found confusing and disorienting. The show deeply respects its viewers, but it does ask a lot of them in terms of cognitive flexibility and openness to new experience.

Here’s the OA trying to explain her inter-dimensional travels to a skeptical Karim in the penultimate episode:

“You don’t think I know that sounds insane? That it’s difficult to hear? I’m asking you to imagine that reality is stranger and more complicated than you or I could possibly know. And sometimes we get glimpses of it, in dreams, or in déjà vu, when you feel like what’s happening has happened before well maybe it has, but a little differently, and somewhere else.”

The OA is asking the same of the audience. She is asking for a willingness not just to suspend disbelief for an hour or so, but to banish disbelief entirely, and to open our minds to dreaming, déjà vu, near-death experiences, and a whole host of paranormal phenomena that might seem random, crazy, or trivial from a conventional perspective, but actually offer us precious glimpses of other potential realities and other dimensions of ourselves, dramatically expanding our metaphysical horizons.

That’s as real as it gets.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 24, 2019.

Attitudes Towards Dreaming: New Research

Attitudes Towards Dreaming: New Research by Kelly BulkeleyA new study explores the demographic variables that correlate with positive vs. negative attitudes towards dreams.

In the latest issue of the International Journal of Dream Research, Michael Schredl and I published the results of a new study on people’s attitudes towards dreaming. Several studies have been done previously looking at differences in people who have a positive view towards dreams versus people who have a negative view towards dreams. Most studies have found that younger people have more positive attitudes towards dreams than older people; women have more positive attitudes than men; and people with high dream recall have more positive attitudes than people with low dream recall.

Our study replicated those findings, and went beyond them by looking at three additional variables: ethnicity, education, and religion. The results shed new light on the sociology of dreaming in the contemporary United States.

The study involved an online survey of 5,255 American adults, administered by YouGov, a professional opinion research company. In addition to their demographic background, the participants were asked several questions about their attitudes towards dreams. These questions took the form of six statements about dreams, presented in random order. The participants were asked if they agreed or disagreed with each statement:

  • Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.
  • Dreams are a good way of learning about my true feelings.
  • Dreams can anticipate things that happen in the future.
  • Dream are random nonsense from the brain.
  • I am too busy in waking life to pay attention to my dreams.
  • I get bored listening to other people talk about their dreams.

The first three of these statements were considered positive, in that they regard dreaming as something real, powerful, and valuable. The second three statements were considered negative in dismissing dreams as unreal or insignificant.

Our analysis of the results led to several new and interesting findings. In terms of ethnicity, the blacks in this sample had significantly higher frequencies of agreement with the positive statements about dreams, and lower frequencies of agreement with the negative statements, compared to whites. Hispanics had more agreement with the positive statements than the whites, but not as much as the black participants. At the same time, Hispanics agreed more with the negative statements than either the blacks or whites.

In terms of education, we analyzed the participants in two groups: those who had attended at least some college, and those with at most a high school degree. The differences were fairly small between these two groups. The people with more education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “bored by other people’s dreams” statement. The people with less education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements.

The most intriguing results came from the religion question. We found that religious orientation correlates strongly with attitudes towards dreaming. Atheists and agnostics were mostly likely to disagree with the positive statements and agree with the “random nonsense” statement. The Protestants and especially the Catholics were more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements. The participants who identified themselves religiously as “something else” had the least negative and most positive attitudes towards dreaming of all the groups. This seems like an especially important avenue for future research, looking more carefully at the “something else” population to study how their unconventional religious outlook affects their attitudes towards dreams. Our findings suggest that dreaming is an especially important part of these people’s spiritual lives.

This study provides new clarity about the demographic qualities that are most often associated with positive or negative attitudes towards dreams. The people in contemporary American society who are most intensely engaged with dreaming (“hyper-dreamers”) tend to be young, female, non-white, slightly less educated, and more spiritual than religious. The people who are least engaged with and most dismissive of dreams (“hypo-dreamers”) tend to be older, male, white, slightly more educated, and atheist or agnostic. These are broad tendencies with lots of individual variation, but they do suggest a deeper connection between certain clusters of demographic qualities and how people relate to their dreams in the present-day United States.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 22, 2019. 

The Cultural Dimensions of Dreaming

The Cultural Dimensions of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyPsychologists and anthropologists share a lot of common ground when it comes to the study of dreams. Dreaming clearly emerges out of the brain, mind, and personal life experiences of each individual. Yet dreaming also clearly reflects the individual’s cultural environment–the languages, customs, concepts, and practices of his or her broader community. To understand dreams, we have to find ways of understanding both of these dimensions of meaning.

A new wave of anthropological research is expanding our knowledge of how dreams reflect and actively respond to cultural, social, political, and religious influences in people’s lives. Especially in times of collective change and crisis, dreams become a powerful source of insight into the dynamic interplay of psyche and culture.

At a recent gathering of professional anthropologists with an expertise in psychology, dreams were the subject of a lively panel discussion. The Society for Psychological Anthropology (SPA) held its biennial conference in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico in early April, and the session titled “New Directions in the Anthropology of Dreaming” was convened by Jeannette Mageo and Robin Sheriff. I was the lone non-anthropologist on the panel, and even though I knew most of the presenters beforehand, I was not really up-to-date with current thinking in their field. What transpired at this panel makes me very excited for the future of anthropological dream research and its potential to contribute to bigger interdisciplinary conversations about the nature and function of dreaming.

Bruce Knauft (Emory University) explored how the practices of dream yoga and deity-identification among practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism produce qualities of consciousness that Western psychologists have recently recognized as “lucid dreaming.” Knauft described the meditative practices, elaborate visualizations, and mantra recitations that Tibetan Buddhists use to achieve dreams of transcendent consciousness. Such dreams, he argued, can fundamentally alter people’s experiences of subjectivity and facilitate the realization of greater levels of self-awareness. Western psychologists are slowly realizing that cognitive processes like these are indeed possible in the sleeping state, in ways that religious traditions have been actively teaching, cultivating, and documenting for centuries.

Roger Ivar Lohmann (Trent University) shared a conversation he had about dreams and religion with one of his informants from the Asabano people of Papua New Guinea. The Asabano live in small hamlets in the forest, where colonial missionaries have converted many of them to Christianity, although with numerous hold-over characteristics from their traditional spiritual beliefs and practices. The Asabano take their dreams very seriously and regard them as valuable evidence supporting their fundamental beliefs about death, heaven, and the spiritual conditions necessary for good hunting. Lohmann described how the reality of dreaming for the Asabano creates a “night residue” effect in their lives—their memories of dreaming directing influencing their waking behaviors and personal ontologies. Especially during times of cultural crisis (e.g. the imposition of colonial ideologies and governmental controls), such dreams creatively integrate new experiences with past memories and traditions to produce what Lohmann called an “autonomic culture updating process.”

Matt Newsom (Washington State University) described his study of a collection of dreams from contemporary college students in Germany, with a focus on collective memories and identity formation in the shadow of World War II. Newsom gathered several hundred dreams from a school in Berlin and found that many of them revolved around struggles with resurgent German nationalism and violence towards immigrants and refugees. In this sample from people living in a predominantly liberal city, the students felt profoundly anxious about these cultural tensions, and they were trying to develop identities that were grounded in some other source of collective meaning and social connection. The question of “where do I belong?” seemed to be at the forefront of their dreaming minds, even though this concern was rarely discussed openly in their waking lives. Newsom said these findings supported the idea that dreams have value “for identifying unspoken social and historical anxieties present in a given society.”

Jeannette Mageo (Washington State University), the co-convener of the session, focused on the importance of image-based metaphors in dreams, and what they can reveal about the mental models we use to make sense of our lives. These models derive from cultural sources, and they shape how we think, feel, and behave. We do not accept them passively, however. Cultural models can produce tensions in an individual’s life, and these tensions are revealed with special clarity and eloquence in dreams. Mageo’s work with contemporary American college students has revealed that problematic cultural models of gender make it painfully difficult for some young adults to develop a strong and authentic sense of identity. In their dreams these models of gender (e.g., “super-masculinity,” “Cinderella”) can be observed, and they can potentially be changed through the introduction of novel metaphors and spontaneous imagery that challenge or defy the models’ strictures.

Robin Sheriff (University of Hampshire), the other co-convener, has been exploring dreams as a source of insight into the experiences of contemporary American college students with social media, celebrity culture, digitally-mediated realities, and emerging adult identities. In this presentation Sheriff described a subset of dreams from young women dealing with the theme of “stranger murder,” e.g., being randomly attacked by a serial killer. Sheriff explored the anxieties, tensions, and conflicts being expressed in these dreams, which relate in complex ways to the highly popular podcast genre of lurid stories about stranger murders. At one level, the dreams function as threat simulations in Revonsuo’s sense of the term, preparations in dreaming for a danger that might actually strike in waking. At another level, Sheriff showed how these dreams critique the cultural practices and social pathologies that give rise to those threats and dangers. Her larger claim was that dreaming offers a special window into the turbulent developmental dynamics of 21st century digitally-mediated subjectivity.

Douglas Hollan (UCLA) was the panel’s designated respondent, and he acknowledged that in recent years, the field of anthropology has not paid enough attention to dreams. The present panel was thus an important step forward towards encouraging anthropologists to pay more attention to a truly cross-cultural phenomenon, one that is deeply rooted in the minds and cultural environments of all humans. Hollan noted the recurrent theme of dreaming as a powerful resource during crises and conflicts, with both personal and collective aspects of meaning. To the degree that these meanings are brought into conscious awareness and integrated with waking life identity, a kind of natural therapeutic process can emerge with potentially transformative effects for individuals and communities. All of the panel presentations gave evidence of this possibility, suggesting many new paths for inquiry, exploration, and research.

Anyone interested in dreams will find the works of these scholars enormously helpful in understanding the cultural dimensions of dreaming. Based on the quality of this panel’s presentations and the mutual enthusiasm of the presenters, it seems likely the future will bring more discoveries and insights from this group and their colleagues.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on April 19, 2019.

 

The Art of Interpreting Dreams

 

The Art of Interpreting Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyIf you woke up one morning with a vivid dream in mind, who could help you understand it? Do you know anyone who specializes in dream interpretation?

In earlier times you could bring your dream to a local shaman, sage, or priest. During the 20th century you could consult with a psychoanalyst or some other kind of psychologist.

Today, however, few religious leaders have any interest in dreams. Most professional psychologists receive no training in dream interpretation. The same is true of neuroscientists, who tend to dismiss all dreams as random nonsense from the brain.

If you felt your dream was more than random nonsense, where else could you turn for help and insight?

Here’s a thought: Ask an artist.

Many artists have surprising skill and aptitude as dream interpreters. I just watched this in action with a group of international artists who gathered at a forest retreat in Estacada, Oregon for a weeklong workshop on dreams, art, and multicultural identity, co-facilitated with Alisa Minyukova. I was hoping the members of this group (we’re calling ourselves the Dream Mapping Theater) could offer feedback on my theory that dreaming is a kind of imaginative play in sleep. What I found was much more interesting—a glimpse of the possible future of dream interpretation.

The artists in the group came from many different cultural backgrounds, with a diverse array of creative talents.  Yet they all shared three key virtues that made them remarkably effective at exploring the meanings of dreams.

First, they were unusually curious and open-minded people, full of questions and willing to follow the conversation wherever it led. The bizarreness of dreaming did not bore them or make them anxious. On the contrary, they were especially interested in otherworldly dreams that transgress and transcend the boundaries of waking reality.

Our work together began two years ago with informal conversations about the weirdness of “immigration dreams,” in which a person born in one place and living in another has dreams that creatively merge their multiple cultures, languages, and identities. The artists were struck by the radical difference between their freedom in these dreams and their increasing constraint in the waking world, with hardening national borders and tribal identities.  They became curious to learn more about their dreaming selves and the wider range of movement and awareness they experience in dreaming. This kind of mental flexibility does not come easily to everyone, but artists may have more capacity for it than most.

Second, the members of this group were quick to see connections. They were hyper-associative, in the best possible way. They could rapidly identify dream images and themes with personal relevance to their families, friends, and early childhood experiences. They eagerly noted symbolic parallels in their dreams to movies, paintings, poems, and other kinds of art. They made lightning-fast references to history and politics, language and religion, mythology and metaphysics. Because each member of the group came from a different cultural tradition, we could discuss the potential meanings of each dream from an amazing variety of perspectives.

More than two thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle said “the most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of observing resemblances.” Artists seem to possess this faculty in abundance.

Third, and most impressively, the members of this group knew how to bridge the conscious and unconscious parts of their minds. They were skilled at transforming subtle inner feelings into dramatic external works. Indeed, they all have professional training in communicating their deepest personal intuitions in forms that other people can perceive and understand. Once they realized they could apply this craft to their dreams, the ensuing creative explosion was a sight to behold.

Lana Nasser, a performer and story-teller born in Jordan now living in the Netherlands, shared an intensely realistic dream of “osmosing” with trees to diagnose their health from the inside. She spent much of the week exploring the forest and working with others to create an immersive robe of moss, lichen, and ferns. We filmed her one night slowly fading and morphing into a fantastically glowing green tree.

Victor Mutelekesha, a sculptor born in Zambia now living in Norway, told us a frightening dream involving fire. Early in the week he noticed an old burn pile in the forest, and before we knew it he had stripped down and buried himself in the deep, wide circle of black charcoal. (It was about 40 degrees and drizzling at the time.) The resulting footage of his Promethean emergence out of the ashes was a stunning creative response to the raging flames of his dream.

Jennifer Cabrera Fernandez, a dancer and vocalist born in Mexico now living in Italy, described an eerie dream of being paralyzed and transformed into a “stone witch.” It sounded like a nightmare, but she connected the witch’s body posture with the ancient Aztec gods of her cultural heritage, making it an image of strength, not weakness. On the last night of the workshop we turned an old horse barn into a dream temple of the stone witch, with bonfires casting a wild reddish glow on Jennifer’s elaborately painted face and body.

It took a special set of circumstances, and a talented and mature group of individuals, to generate this kind of volcanic creativity. But I suspect that many artists could, with a little guidance and encouragement, also become excellent interpreters of dreams.

This might sound like what Sigmund Freud called “wild psychoanalysis,” a dangerous dabbling in realms of the mind that should be left to medical experts.  It’s true that sharing dreams requires a high degree of sensitivity, caution, and mutual respect. But it’s also true that people were safely talking about their dreams long before the rise of psychoanalysis in early 20th century Europe. Dreaming is a natural and healthy function of the human mind, available to everyone. Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, sharing dreams has been a normal part of everyday life.

And artists are really, really good at it.

If you struggle with mental health problems, by all means bring your dreams to a psychotherapist. If you think your dreams might contain divine messages, go ahead and consult with a religious official.

But if you simply want help in exploring a strange dream and its possible meanings, try asking an artist. Think of it as a micro-commission in which you request (and pay?) an artist to give you creative feedback about the dream, providing a novel and illuminating portrait of your oneiric self.

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(Note: photo credit to Isak Tiner)