The Origins of Religion in Dreaming

The Origins of Religion in Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyOne of the oldest theories about the origins of religion argues that religious beliefs and practices are derived from the experience of dreaming.  This theory is most often associated with the 19th century British anthropologist E.B. Tylor, as expressed in this passage from the 1873 work Primitive Culture:

“The evidence of visions corresponds with the evidence of dreams in their bearing on primitive theories of the soul, and the two classes of phenomena substantiate and supplement one another….That this soul should be looked on as surviving beyond death is a matter scarcely needing elaborate argument. Plain experience is there to teach it to every savage; his friend or his enemy is dead, yet still in dream or open vision he sees the spectral form which is to his philosophy a real objective being, carrying personality as it carries likeness.”

This same idea was also expressed, in even sharper language, by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche just a few years later, in his 1880 book Human, All-Too Human:

“Misunderstanding of the dream. –The man of the ages of barbarous primordial culture believed that in the dream he was getting to know a second real world: here is the origin of all metaphysics.  Without the dream one would have had no occasion to divide the world into two. The dissection into soul and body is also connected with the oldest idea of the dream, likewise the postulation of a life of the soul, thus the origin of all belief in spirits, and probably also of the belief in gods.  ‘The dead live on, for they appear to the living in dreams’: that was the conclusion one formerly drew, throughout many millennia.”

I have just finished writing the manuscript for a book that tries to put this idea to the scientific test.  The book is titled Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion, and it will be published by Oxford University Press later this year or early next.  The basic thesis is that Tylor, Nietzsche, and others are right, dreaming is indeed an experiential source of religious beliefs and practices, and the best evidence from cognitive scientific research backs them up.

Rather than trying to give an all-encompassing theory of religion, I focus on a few specific areas of religious experience where dreams play an especially influential role: demonic seduction, prophetic vision, ritual healing, and contemplative practice.  The title of the book draws on psychologist C.G. Jung’s notion of “big dreams” as rare but extremely vivid dreams that make a strong and lasting impression on waking awareness.  I use resources from traditional psychology of religion (e.g., William James, Sigmund Freud) as well as from newer works in the cognitive science of religion (e.g., Emma Cohen, Harvey Whitehouse, James W. Jones) as guides in applying scientific dream research to the study of religion.

This is also the first book I’ve written using the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) as a primary resource.  I’m just learning how to use the digital tools of the database myself (an upgraded version of the site will come online in the next few days), and the more SDDb analyses I did for this book, the more excited I became about possibilities for future projects in data-driven dream research that look at religious and cultural phenomena with fresh, empirically curious eyes.

The Call of Cthulhu: A Pioneering Effort in Empirical Dream Research

The Call of Cthulhu: A Pioneering Effort in Empirical Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyH.P. Lovecraft (pictured to the left) wrote the short story “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926, and first published it in 1928 in the magazine Weird Tales.  The story centers on Professor George Angell, Semitic languages expert at Brown University, who dies under suspicious circumstances and leaves his papers to the care and disposition of his grand-nephew Thurston.  Among the papers is a peculiar file titled “CTHULHU CULT.”  As Thurston reads its contents he realizes that just before Prof. Angell died he discovered a horrifying, sanity-shattering truth–Beneath the ocean dwells a blasphemous creature of primordial evil, worshipped in bloody rituals by secret groups all around the world trying to hasten the day of its return. Professor Angell diligently gathered and analyzed several types of data to reach this shocking (and perhaps fatal) conclusion.  Foremost among his sources of evidence are first-hand reports of strange and unusually memorable dreams.

 

Was Professor Angell the first empirical dream researcher?

 

“The Call of Cthulhu” describes a process of studying dreams that is more scientific than anything found in the works of Freud and Jung, who were contemporaries of Lovecraft.  Nothing like it appears until the content analysis method of Hall and Van de Castle in the 1960’s.  Prof. Angell’s investigation thus predates by several decades a major shift in dream research from a reliance on clinical case studies toward more systematic analyses of large, demographically diverse collections of data.

The first section of the Cthulhu Cult file bears the title “1925–Dream and Dream Work of H.A. Wilcox.”  Young Wilcox was an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design who created a bas-relief sculpture of a strange monster that attracted Prof. Angell’s keen attention. The bas-relief was inspired by a bizarre series of dreams that Wilcox, always a sensitive and emotionally troubled soul, began having in late February of 1925.  He first visited Prof. Angell to show him the piece on March 1.  Asked its age, Wilcox oddly replied, “It is new, indeed, for I made it last night in a dream of strange cities; and dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girdled Babylon.” (49)

When Wilcox described hearing sounds in his dreams that might be rendered as “Cthulhu fhtagn,” Prof. Angell became intensely interested.  “He questioned the sculptor with scientific minuteness” (49), determining that Wilcox did not have any prior familiarity with secret societies or occult lore.  Whatever Wilcox was dreaming about did not arise from any specific experience or knowledge gained in his waking life.  The dreams clearly came from some place, or some thing, else.

Professor Angell then “besieged his visitor with demands for future reports of dreams” (49), which Wilcox provided in startling abundance.  On March 23 a fever seized Wilcox, completely unhinging his mind.  He raved about dreams of a “gigantic thing miles high which walked or lumbered about.” (50)

Then on April 2, the fever and delirium suddenly passed.  Wilcox recovered his senses, unaware of anything that had happened since March 23: ” “all traces of strange dreaming had vanished with his recovery, and my uncle kept no record of his night-thoughts after a week of pointless and irrelevant accounts of thoroughly usual visions.” (50)

So far, Prof. Angell’s investigation had used a method very similar to Freud’s and Jung’s, namely the close observation and interrogation of a mentally ill person.  But the professor widened his investigation to seek unusual dream reports from many other people.  The Cthulhu Cult file contained numerous notes and letters “descriptive of the dreams of various persons covering the same period as that in which young Wilcox had had his strange visitations. My uncle, it seems, had quickly instituted a prodigiously far-flung body of inquiries amongst nearly all the friends whom he could question without impertinence, asking for nightly reports of their dreams, and the dates for any notable visions for some time past.  The reception of his request seems to have been varied; but he must, at the very least, have received more responses than any ordinary man could have handled without a secretary. ” (51)

Professor Angell analyzed all of these dream reports in relation to each individual’s character, background, and occupation, and he identified a disturbing pattern that confirmed the awful hypothesis he had formulated while studying Wilcox’s dreams:

“Average people in society and business–New England’s traditional ‘salt of the earth’–gave an almost completely negative result, though scattered cases of uneasy but formless nocturnal impressions appear here and there, always between March 23 and April 2–the period of young Wilcox’s delirium.  Scientific men were little more affected, though four cases of vague description suggest fugitive glimpses of strange landscapes, and in one case there is mentioned a dread of something abnormal. It was from the artists and poets that the pertinent answers came, and I know that panic would have broken loose had they been able to compare notes…These responses from esthetes told a disturbing tale. From February 28 to April 2 a large proportion of them had dreamed very bizarre things, the intensity of the dreams being immeasurably the stronger during the period of the sculptor’s delirium. Over a fourth of those who reported anything, reported scenes and half-sounds not unlike those which Wilcox had described; and some of the dreamers confessed acute fear of the gigantic nameless thing visible toward the last.” (51)

The Cthulhu Cult file contained additional material from a 1908 police investigation of a voodoo cult in Louisiana, whose members performed sickening sacrifices while chanting strange words like Cthulhu, R’lyeh, and fhtagn.  This explains why Prof. Angell took such a desperate interest in Wilcox’s dreams–he had heard these words many years before, in a totally different but equally disturbing context.  The Louisiana police interrogated the cult members, who reluctantly explained the words they were chanting meant “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Cthulhu is one of the Old Ones, cosmic monstrosities who came from the stars and reigned over earth for countless eons but then died and now lie buried beneath the earth and sea, waiting, dreaming, reaching out to influence our minds: “When, after infinities of chaos, the first men came, the Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by molding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshy minds of mammals.” (60)  The Old Ones have a “mastery of dreams” (68, italics in original) that enables them to share their malignant secrets with humans of unusual receptivity and mental instability.

The remainder of the story involves Thurston’s own investigations into the death of several sailors on two ships in the South Pacific in late March of 1925, which he titles “The Madness from the Sea.”  The sailors had apparently found an uncharted island recently risen from the ocean depths, covered in slime and seaweed.  When they landed they discovered beneath the ooze an ancient city of vast, bizarrely shaped buildings.  They came to a massive portal, and when they opened it–

You can read the story yourself to learn the ultimate fate of the poor mariners.  Suffice it to say that their fantastic narrative, dismissed by local authorities as the ravings of lunatics, confirmed in every detail the story pieced together by Prof. Angell’s dream investigations.

Am I serious in suggesting that Professor Angell was the first empirical dream researcher?   Here’s a more precise version of my claim: Did any scientifically-minded person, either fictional or non-fictional, prior to 1926 engage in a study of dreams using these methodological principles:

1. Distinguish between extremely bizarre dreams and “thoroughly usual visions.”

2. Learn as much as possible about the dreamers’ background, character, and occupation.

3. Separate personal dream content from impersonal, seemingly alien content.

4. Look for analogies between dreams and art.

5. Gather reports from as wide a variety of reliable sources as possible.

6. Identify continuities between the frequencies of specific elements of dream content and the waking life concerns of the dreamers.

7. Concentrate the analysis on a specific period of time, seeking evidence of individual dream reactions to an objective external phenomenon.

8. Contextualize the findings in evolutionary history, using dream data to illuminate age-old truths only dimly perceived by the rational mind.

Is there any one else who studied dreams like this earlier than 1926? Carl Jung, maybe. A few other investigators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were using one or another of these principles, but to my knowledge no one integrated them with the same systematic focus and scholarly sophistication as did the late Professor George Angell.

 

Note: Page references are to the story as published in The Colour Out of Space, Jove/HBJ Books (New York, 1963), pp. 45-75.

 

Note added 12/13/12: Thanks to Bob Van de Castle for pointing out that psychologist Lydiard Heneage Horton (1879-1945) of Columbia University was developing systematic methods for studying dream content as early as 1911, with his M.A. thesis on “The Flying Dream: Its Significance in Psychotherapy.”   His Ph.D. thesis, titled “The Dream Problem and Mechanism of Thought,” was published in 1925. It is certainly possible that Lovecraft knew of Horton’s work and used him as a model for Professor Angell.

As I look at Van de Castle’s “Our Dreaming Mind” for his comments on Horton, I should also note the importance of Mary Calkins, a psychologist from Wellesley College who in 1893 gathered 381 dream reports from 6 female students and analyzed them in terms of various aspects of content.

 

Mary Shelley’s Baby Comes Back to Life

Mary Shelley's Baby Comes Back to Life by Kelly BulkeleyIn February of 1815 a baby girl was born two months prematurely to Mary Godwin, seventeen years old at the time, and the poet Percy B. Shelley.  Twelve days later Mary went to the child during the night and found she had died in her sleep.  On March 19, 1815 Mary recorded the following dream in her journal:

 

“Dreamt that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits.”

 

It would be easy to interpret this dream as a guilt-driven fantasy, a classic Freudian wish fulfillment.  We don’t know for sure, but we can fairly assume that Mary felt deeply saddened and somehow personally responsible for her child’s death.  The dream, in this view, satisfies her desire to defy death and magically restore her child’s life rather than tragically losing it.

The limits of that interpretation become apparent when the dream’s waking life impact is taken into account.  The dream did not diminish or obscure Mary’s awareness of what had happened.  On the contrary, the dream made Mary more aware of the reality of her child’s death and more conscious of her agonizing feelings of loss.  Far from a soothing delusion, this dream’s message to Mary seems almost cruel in its stark honesty: “Awake and find no baby.”

A better interpretation, I believe, starts with the dream’s emotional impact on her waking life. Mary’s dream marks a significant moment in her mourning process, her psyche’s way of making sense of a devastating loss and trying to reorient towards future growth.  Mary’s dream does not hide or disguise her child’s death.  When she wakes up, her first thought brings a fresh sense of loss and sadness.  But the dream also introduces a spark of vitality into Mary’s awareness.  Warmth, fire, and vigorous activity do indeed stimulate the creation of new life.  Mary’s dream is not delusional about that piece of primal wisdom. Mary may not have been able to bring her baby back to life, but she still had the drive, desire, and knowledge to create again.

Out of her mourning Mary did find new creative energies.  In January of 1816 she bore a healthy son, William.  That summer, she and Percy Shelley visited the poet Lord Byron at his villa beside Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where Mary conceived the idea for her first novel: “Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus.”

Mary Shelley's Baby Comes Back to Life by Kelly Bulkeley“Frankenstein” surely reflects the same wishful fantasy as Mary’s dream of the previous year, i.e., bringing the dead back to life.  But the differences are significant: In her dream, a mother tries to reanimate her daughter, whereas in “Frankenstein,” a male scientist tries to animate a creature stitched together from many different bodies.  The dream portrays a natural human desire for a personal relationship, while the story presents an unnatural and inhuman desire for impersonal control over another’s life. In “Frankenstein” Mary adds to her dream a dimension of horror and madness, along with a prescient critique of the self-destructive hubris and masculine grandiosity of modern science.  I don’t know much about her relationship with Percy Shelley, Byron, and other male poets, but I would guess that “Frankenstein” also reflects Mary’s feelings about gender, sexuality, and literary creativity.

Mary’s dream of her baby daughter did not simply inspire the “bring the dead back to life” plot line of “Frankenstein.”  The dream prompted a transformative deepening of her awareness about the creative tension between life and death, an awareness that enabled her to infuse “Frankenstein” with critical insight, emotional poignancy, and existential wonder.

 

 

Nietzsche’s Prophetic Childhood Dreams of Death

Nietzsche's Prophetic Childhood Dreams of Death by Kelly BulkeleyIn Ronald Hayman’s 1980 biography Nietzsche: A Critical Life, he mentions two dreams that came to Friedrich Nietzsche early in his life.

1. “I heard the church organ playing as at a funeral. When I looked to see what was going on, a grave opened suddenly, and my father arose out of it in a shroud. He hurries into the church and soon comes back with a small child in his arms. The mound on the grave reopens, he climbs back in, and the gravestone sinks back over the opening. The swelling noise of the organ stops at once, and I wake up.”

Quoted in Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (Penguin, 1980), p. 18.  Nietzsche had the dream at the age of 5, at the end of January in 1850, six months after his father, a Lutheran pastor, died from a long and painful “softening of the brain.”  Nietzsche’s description continues: “In the morning I tell the dream to my dear mother.  Soon after that little Joseph [Nietzsche’s infant brother] is suddenly taken ill.  He goes into convulsions and dies within a few hours.”

2. “He saw the parsonage lying in ruins and his grandmother sitting alone among the debris. Waking up in tears, he was unable to sleep any more.”

From Hayman, p. 32.  Nietzsche had this dream the night of August 2, 1859, when he was 14 years old, after a big family party celebrating the 70th birthday of his grandfather, a Lutheran pastor like his father.  Hayman’s account continues: “In the morning he told Elisabeth [his sister] and his mother, who said neither of them must talk about the dream.  Always robust, their grandfather was still in good health.  But before the summer was over he caught a bad chill, which developed into influenza.  By the end of the year he was dead.”

These two dreams prefigure Nietzsche’s later philosophy in several ways.  They express a profound appreciation for the terrifying power of the unconscious, a tragic sense of fate and mortality, an openness to insights from “irrational” sources of knowledge, and a spiritual struggle with the death of God, the church, and His representatives on earth.

Hayman’s biography helps us see how Nietzsche’s early dream experiences gave fuel to the coming explosion of philosophical creativity.  In 1870, as a 25-year old professor at Basel University, he wrote in his notebook, “In one half of existence we are artists—as dreamers.  This entirely active world is necessary to us.” (p. 135)

These notes served as the basis for The Birth of Tragedy (1871), Nietzsche’s first published book.  The opening section of this work lays out an understanding of art, philosophy, and history that centers on the creative power of dreams.

“The beautiful illusion of the dream worlds, in the creation of which every man is truly an artist, is the prerequisite of all plastic art, and, as we shall see, of an important part of poetry also.  In our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous.  But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance; at least this is my experience, and for its frequency—indeed, normality—I could adduce many proofs, including the sayings of the poets….And perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ I have likewise heard of people who were able to continue one and the same dream for three and even more successive nights—facts which indicate clearly how our innermost being, our common ground, experiences dreams with profound delight and a joyful necessity.” (Translated by Walter Kaufmann, 1967, pp. 34-35)

This is not the place to explore the influence of dreams on The Birth of Tragedy or other writings in Nietzsche’s later career.  But it’s worth pointing out that both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung knew of Nietzsche’s philosophy and wove his ideas directly into their new psychological theories.  If you want to understand Freud and Jung better, go back to Nietzsche and his childhood dreams.

(Note: the picture shows Nietzsche in 1861, at the age of 16 or 17.)

Freud and Neuroscience: A Return to Origins

Freud and Neuroscience: A Return to Origins by Kelly BulkeleyA chapter I wrote with that title appears in the recently published book Disciplining Freud on Religion: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences, edited by Gregory Kaplan and William B. Parsons (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).  Here is the abstract: “Freud developed psychoanalysis on the basis of a neurological model of human mental functioning. Scholars and clinicians who value Freud’s theories but disagree with his materialist reductionism have generally tried to downplay the neurological roots of psychoanalysis by suggesting that his scientific rhetoric merely reflects a nineteenth-century worldview that Freud’s own ideas were destined to transform. Meanwhile, critics of psychoanalysis have insisted on the inseparability of Freud’s later theories from their earlier medical context, the better to reject psychoanalysis as outmoded pseudoscience. In neither case are Freud’s original interests in the neural underpinnings of psychological life examined with a fair and respectful eye. This chapter aims to recover and update the neurological foundations of psychoanalysis, with a special focus on the implications for Freudian theories and methods in the study of religion.”