Dystopian Dreaming

Dystopian Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhile 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



What I Learned at the 2012 IASD Conference

What I Learned at the 2012 IASD Conference by Kelly BulkeleyHere are excerpts from notes I took during the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, held in Berkeley, California, June 22-26.  In parentheses I’ve put the names of the people who were presenting or commenting at the time.


Jung’s focus on the number 4 is “dangerous” and promises a “seductive wholeness.”  (John Beebe)


In electrophysiological terms, as measured by the EEG, lucid dreaming can be described as meditation in sleep. (Jim Pagel)


A challenge for lucid dreamers: How to distinguish a failed lucidity technique from a sage warning from the unconscious. (Jeremy Taylor)


The pioneering French filmmaker George Meliere drew upon the fantastically creative, compelling illusions of dream experience to create a tradition of visionary cinema that we see today in “The Matrix” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” (Bernard Welt)


In a sample of 170 German school children, those who talk with their parents, siblings, and friends about dreams tend to have higher dream recall, suggesting a positive relationship between dream socialization and recall. (Michael Schredl)


People who are high dream recallers seem to have more activity in the brain’s tempero-parietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex, in both waking and sleep conditions.  These brain areas have been associated in waking with mental imagery and mind attributions (theory of mind), respectively. (Jean-Baptiste Eichenlaub, et al.)


Sleep laboratory researchers are perfecting a method of awakening a person several times during the night at precise moments in the sleep cycle in order to induce an experience of sleep paralysis. (Elizaveta Solomonova)


Neuroscientists are experimenting with the use of transcranial direct current stimulation to directly affect the brain activity underlying dream experiences.  (Katja Valli)


Reflective awareness in dreaming can give humans an adaptive edge because in dreams we have the ability to anticipate, explore, and practice possible selves and possible worlds.  This ability can be cultivated through disciplined intentional mental practice.  We can change our brain anatomy simply by using our imaginations.  (Tracey Kahan, quoting Norman Doidge in the last sentence)


The “Inception” app is “worth a free download.” (David Kahn)


The mantra of the quantified self: If you track it, it improves. (Ryan Hurd)


In dream education with adolescents and young adults, the most relevant aspect of dreaming to their waking lives may be relational skills and emotional intelligence, helping them better navigate the complex currents of friendship, romance, and family life. (Phil King and Bernard Welt)


Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" by Kelly BulkeleyWerner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” has just been released in the US, and it’s worth seeing for anyone interested in paleolithic cave art and the origins of human consciousness.

The Chauvet caves of Southern France contain paintings dating back more than 30,000 years.  Herzog was granted a brief amount of time to take a small film crew into most, but not all, of the cave system.  The project undoubtedly appealed to Herzog’s gonzo filmmaking impulses, but he also found a proto-cinematic quality to the paintings that seemed to evoke for him a feeling of kinship between modern director and paleolithic cave-painter.

He interviewed several scientists and cave mavens, not all of whom add much to our understanding of the cave paintings.  But there’s a cool French archeologist with pony tail and scarf who says he began dreaming of  lions after spending five days of intensive research in the portion of the cave filled with lion images.   He’s my new hero!

As the film goes on and viewers become better oriented within the caves and more acclimated to their 3D glasses, Herzog presents several long, contemplative scenes that bring to life the implicit energy and vitality in the overlapping multitude of animal figures.  I appreciate Herzog’s willingness to acknowledge the deep psychological impact the paintings have, and to consider the implications that the paintings were designed for that very purpose–to elicit feelings of wonder and awe, to expand the viewer’s imagination, to hint at realities beyond the visible and below the surface.

The Interpretation of Snake Dreams: A Short Film

The Interpretation of Snake Dreams: A Short Film by Kelly BulkeleyBy far the most frequent question that leads people to this website is, how do I interpret my weird dream about a snake?  I’ve written some general answers to that question, and when possible I’ve offered people specific responses to their dreams.  Now, thanks to the video creativity of Ed Kelley, I have a new resource for people who are interested in snake dreams.  Ed directed, filmed, and edited a short film titled “The Interpretation of Snake Dreams” in which I discuss the multiple meanings of snake dreams through history and in different religious traditions.  I hope this work will give people new ways to understand and explore the presence of numinous serpents in dreams.   Do not expect a simple instructional video.  If you have had a powerful dream of a snake and found your way to this site, I trust you will recognize something of your experience in this film.

14 Weirdest Dreams in Hollywood

14 Weirdest Dreams in Hollywood by Kelly BulkeleyThe April 2010 issue of the British film magazine Empire includes a feature in which I interpret the dreams of 14 movie actors and directors: Robert Downey, Jr., Kate Winslett, Peter Jackson, Milla Jovovich, Judd Apatow, Kristen Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Steven Soderbergh, Marion Cotillard, Rachel Bilson, Robert Carlyle, Ray Winstone, and Sam Mendes. 

The editor and “dream wrangler” who gathered the reports, Nick de Semlyen, did not tell me who the dreamers were–all I had to work with were the dreams themselves. 

Below are the full commentaries I sent in response, the “director’s cut” as it were. A pdf of the slightly shorter published article can be accessed here:

14 Weirdest Dreams in Hollywood

This method of blind analysis appeals to me because it strictly focuses one’s attention on the themes, symbols, and emotional dynamics of the dream itself, without prematurely seeking connections with the known details of the dreamer’s waking life.  This was not a pure experiment, however, because I did know the dreamers were involved in the film industry in some way.

For more on the blind analysis”method of studying dreams, see the paper I recently co-authored with G. William Domhoff, “Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach,” which will appear in a forthcoming issue (June, I’m told) of the IASD journal Dreaming

1) “My favourite dream is one I had in college, I was a homeless person on a bridge, wearing very tattered layers of clothing and the world was cast in this sepia tone and I was fishing with a piece of string off the bridge into the Thames for worms, and I would pull them out and put them in my mouth.”

 (Gillian Anderson)
            For many people college marks the transition to adulthood, when we leave our families and begin living on our own.  Here the dreamer is cast as a homeless person, in a scene of apparent misery and hardship.  As a metaphor, this could reflect the concerns a typical college student might feel about difficult life changes and, in a real sense, becoming “home-less.”

            But much more seems to be going on.  Consider the setting: the River Thames is the most historic waterway in Britain, an ever-flowing source of collective life and cultural power.  The dreamer is sitting on a bridge that spans this epic river.  She is connected to the water with a string, just as the bridge connects the two sides of land.  It’s a remarkable image of elemental symmetry, with the dreamer positioned at the very center.

            Then there’s the strange business of backwards fishing. Instead of taking worms from the earth and putting them into the river to go into the mouth of a fish, the dreamer pulls worms out of the river and puts them into her own mouth.  It’s the complete reverse of normal fishing—as if she were the one being fished.

            The dreamer probably didn’t know it, but the color sepia originally derived from the brownish ink produced by a certain species of fish (sepia means “cuttlefish” in Greek).  Details like this may be just a coincidence, but sometimes they point to deeper unconscious meanings. 

            So this whole dream is enveloped in a strangely “fishy” atmosphere, with a superficial drabness masking a deeper structure and hidden purpose. 

            It sounds to me like the first chapter of a heroic myth: the youth who begins as the lowest of the low is drawing strength from the waters of her ancestors, getting ready to seek fame, fortune, and adventure out in the wide world.  

 2) “I had a really cool dream that I was doing a scene with the young Jack Nicholson.  Five Easy Pieces era Jack. We were in the desert, with this really rad-looking ’70s car, and I was really killing this scene, being super-great in it. And then the wardrobe people came over and said ‘Oh my God, he’s wearing the wrong colour shirt’ and I was really upset — all this good work I’d done was ruined because Jack’s shirt wasn’t the right colour.”

 (Millo Jovovich)

             When people dream of celebrities it usually reflects some degree of psychological identification with the public personas of those famous people.  The dreams envision us being in the company of powerful, talented people who embody the qualities and strengths we wish to possess ourselves. 

            When the theme of time travel enters the picture it suggests a quest for a deeper connection, something akin to what Australian Aborigines seek in the Dreamtime, when the ancestors still walked through a freshly created world.  An actor’s version today might be something like this dream, going back to a legendary time when movie-making was a daring, creative adventure.

            The dream turns into a nightmare, however, when the dreamer is confronted with the brutal fact of her lower status on the actor’s totem pole.  No matter how good her work may be, her career is still vulnerable to the whims of bigger stars.     

 3) “I was standing under a huge tree — it must have been on the Serengeti, somewhere in Africa — and I was watching my family being eaten by lions. I had that dream over and over again when I was a kid… I’m guessing it came from some programme I saw on the telly. For that reason I’ve never been to Africa and I would never take my family there. Even now I’m shit scared of lions and when I go to the zoo I get the feeling that they can smell me and they’re plotting to get me. I’ll tell you how ridiculous my fear of them is: my daughter had to go to South Africa last year to do a film and I was begging her not to go. Because of the lions.”

 (Ray Winstone)

              One can imagine exactly the same nightmare being experienced by our human ancestors thousands of years ago when they actually lived on the Serengeti and had to worry about real lions attacking them.  The instinctual imprint of that fear still echoes in the dreams of people today.  A TV show might spark it, but the unconscious mind is already primed to raise the alarm.  Even if they seem out of place in modern society, even if they seem entirely foolish and unreasonable, these hard-wired instincts still shape our perceptions of possible dangers in the world. 

            There might be something more to the symbolism of the lions for this dreamer, perhaps having to do with family aggression or masculine authority.  The persistence of this fear from a childhood dream into adulthood makes me wonder if this is a person who, for better or for worse, puts great trust in his instincts and gut-level reactions. 

4) “When I was nine years old, I dreamed I was a hippo in a ballerina skirt, like the one in Fantasia. It got worse, because I had to pee in my dream and when I woke up I’d wet my bed. That’s pretty embarrassing, right?

 (Rachel Bilson)

             It shouldn’t be.  Bedwetting in childhood is fairly common, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.  A precocious desire to perform in the movies comes through in this dream, and also perhaps a warning that too much “fantasy” can interfere with impulse control and taking care of one’s basic physical needs.

 5) “I’m coming into a modern city and the buildings are charging each other with electricity, like big Tesla coils. Then I go on a date with two twins and they kill me at the end. Analyse that.”

 (Robert Downey, Jr.)

             This sounds like the dream of a maniacal super-hero! Or someone with extraordinary creative talents he struggles to control.  Or perhaps just someone who’s pulling our leg. 

            The vivid image of an electrically surging city, followed by the lustful fantasy of dating twins, leads to an abrupt end with the dreamer’s death.  As a brief set of images, whether from a dream or not, it does accurately portray the up-and-down psychology of a manic episode.  During such episodes the cognitive line between waking and dreaming can effectively disappear.

 6) “I have this dream about falling all the time. People say that if you ever hit the ground in a falling dream you’ll have a heart attack and die. So I try to stay with the dream and see what happens. I’ve actually fallen from very high distances, hit the ground, gone through and ended up in water. But I can still breath and finally end up in air again. Then I start flying. It’s a very cool dream; I kind of look forward to it now.”

 (Samuel L. Jackson)

              To actually die in a dream, rather than waking up just a moment before death, is indeed unusual.  When it occurs it tends to be very memorable and thought-provoking.     

            One of the general functions of dreaming is to expand our conscious sense of possibility and keep our minds flexible, adaptive, and open to alternative perspectives.  In this case the dreamer pushes the process further than most people are willing to go.  In many religious traditions these would be considered mystical experiences, and the dreamer might be taken aside for special training as a healer or shaman.

            Some research has suggested that people who can guide their dreams like this have better physical balance and spatial coordination in waking life.  Perhaps this dreamer is a dancer or an athlete of some kind?

 7) “The recurring one from my childhood was the witch of the west walking up my road, bending each lamp post over and blowing out each lamp one by one as she got closer and closer, and when she blew out the last lamp I woke up…like wailing. It happened over and over again.”

 (Sam Mendes)

             Recurring dreams from childhood often stem from problems and conflicts destined to last a lifetime.  Sometimes the dreams have a personal context, but often they draw upon collective images that express the shared concerns of all humankind (what Jung called “archetypes”). 

            I don’t know anything about the dreamer’s personal life, but his nightmares reveal a painful truth: death is coming to get us.  The reference to the Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” indicates an early turn to movies as a refuge from this fear.  Movies offer the fantasy of immortality—if death is cast as the wicked witch, perhaps the dreamer can be like Dorothy and escape her clutches.

            Although it might seem cruel for a child to be confronted so early with the dark specter of mortality, such dreams mark a valuable step in the development of mature consciousness.  Most of the world’s religious traditions regard an acceptance of death as the key to true wisdom.