Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God?

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God? by Kelly BulkeleyA recent essay in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times made several observations about religion in contemporary America by analyzing a huge collection of Google search data. In “Googling for God,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examined the search results for various religious terms and questions in relation to where the people lived and when they performed the searches. Stephens-Davidowitz’s work offers an excellent illustration of the pros and cons of using big data analytics to study religion. Three quotes from his essay show where the biggest challenges can be found.

  1. “If people somewhere are searching a lot about a topic, it is overwhelming evidence those people are very interested in that topic.”

This is the key methodological principle used in Stephens-Davidowitz’s analysis: the frequency of Google searches correlates to the intensity of personal interest. At one level this seems like a reasonable premise. In fact, this principle is very close to the “continuity hypothesis” used by dream researchers to correlate frequencies of dream content with personal concerns in waking life. Many dream researchers, myself included, have pursued studies of dream content using the continuity hypothesis to make inferences about people’s waking lives—if a person dreams a lot about sports, for example, we can confidently predict that sports are an important concern in the person’s waking life.

Stephens-Davidowitz does something similar when he connects Google search data to people’s religious concerns and questions. The problem, however, is defining “very interested.” What exactly can we infer about a person based on their entry of a Google search term? They are “interested,” of course, but interested in what way, and how strongly? What prompted their search? Is there anything distinctive about people’s searches for religious terms compared to non-religious terms?

Until these kinds of questions can be answered (ideally with lots of systematically analyzed empirical evidence, not just one-off studies), the use of Google search data to draw conclusions about religion remains on shaky ground.

In dream research we have many decades of studies that have helped us hone in on “emotional concerns” as a primary point of continuity between dreaming and waking. We also have statistical baselines of typical dream content to help us identify meaningful variations in the frequency of certain aspects of dreaming (see, for example, the Dreambank of G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, and the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) that I direct). If the use of Google search data included these kinds of analytic aids, the results would be much stronger and more convincing.

  1. “Sometimes Google search data, because of Google’s status as a kind of universal question service, is perfectly suited to give us fresh insights into our offline lives.”

The idea of Google as a “universal question service” has great appeal, not the least because so much of the information is easily accessible for public study. This is one of the great boons of the era of big data, and new studies of this treasure trove of information are bound to increase in future years.

A potential problem, however, is a tendency to blur the distinction between a) what Google offers its users and b) who those users are. The fact that Google enables people to ask all kinds of questions does not mean that all kinds of people are asking those questions. Google users are not necessarily representative of the US population as a whole, and we do not know how representative the Google users are who are searching specifically for religious terms. We do know that when people perform a Google search they are connected via technology to the internet, they are interacting with a global corporation, and they are being shown numerous commercial responses to their search. These circumstances should qualify our assumptions about who uses Google and how they engage with the search function.

  1. “There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.”

This quote comes at the end of the essay, and it perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of explaining the significance of Google search results. According to the findings cited by Stephens-Davidowitz, Kim Kardashian gets ten times the search results of Jesus Christ. What exactly does that mean? That Kim Kardashian is ten times more interesting than Jesus? That she is ten times more popular, or more important, or more influential?

The problem is that Google search data do not meaningfully measure any one thing, other than the tautological fact of having entered a specific search term. The results of analyzing these data seem admirably clear and quantitative—4.7 million vs. 49 million!—but they do not easily or self-evidently map onto the actual beliefs, feelings, and attitudes of the general population.

The good news is that these are tractable problems. Real progress can be made by more detailed studies and more systematic correlations of the data with genuinely meaningful aspects of people’s lives. This fascinating essay by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz helps people who study religion see where these new analytic endeavors can be most fruitfully pursued.

 

Note: first published September 24, 2015 in the Huffington Post.

Google’s Deep Dreaming Project

Google's Deep Dreaming Project by Kelly BulkeleyGoogle recently released a computer program that may help understand various aspects of visual imagination in dreaming.  Check out these images in their “Inceptionism Gallery” here.  The main discussion of the program is from a June 17 post on the Google Research Blog, here.  Other images can be found at the Twitter hashtag #deepdream.

I talk in more detail about Google’s project and its relevance for dream research in a Psychology Today blog post here.

The Technology of Dreaming

For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream.”

So said the famously hard-working inventor Thomas Edison in 1921 in his Diary and Sundry Observations.  Edison claimed the only truly restful sleep was totally unconscious, and he regarded dreaming as a waste of mental energy that could be put to more productive use in waking life.

Nearly a century later Larry Page, another iconic figure of technological progress, offered a very different approach to dreams.  In a 2009 commencement address at the University of Michigan he said, “You know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know how, if you don’t have a pencil and pad by the bed to write it down, it will be completely gone the next morning? Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23.”  Page awoke from his dream and immediately began writing notes about downloading the entire worldwide web with all links intact—the seed idea for what he later built into Google.  His advice to the graduates: “When a really great dream shows up, grab it!

Which of these two world-changing innovators had it right? Should we strictly limit our sleep and ignore our dreams as Edison did?  Or should we listen to our dreams and try to follow them as Page recommended?

The Technology of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe Technology of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe Technology of Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

The world is filled with people trying to be like Edison, working nonstop and vowing to “sleep when I’m dead,” but this behavior appears foolish and self-defeating in light of current research in sleep medicine. Numerous studies over the past several decades have shown that inadequate sleep has a negative impact on human health, with harmful effects on our emotional, cognitive, physical, and immunological well-being.  What counts as “adequate” differs for each individual, but only a tiny portion of the population can sleep four or five hours a night and function the next day in an optimally healthy way.

The basic message of this research: A sure way to make yourself less productive is to artificially limit your individual sleep needs.

We can’t do without sleep.  But can we do without dreams?

The scientific evidence is less clear on this point.  Some people insist they never remember their dreams, although closer investigation usually finds they can recall a few dreams, just very infrequently.  (Even Edison mentioned a couple of dreams in his diary.)  Demographic surveys indicate most people remember one or two dreams a week.  Women tend to remember more dreams than men, and younger people more than older people.

Intriguingly, researchers have found that dream recall can be dramatically increased with little more than simple encouragement and having a pad of paper and pen by one’s bedside, as Page did.  It’s fairly easy, in other words, to remember more dreams if that’s what you want.  Build it and they will come.

Neuroscientists have begun to fill in the picture of what happens in the brain while we’re dreaming.  During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreams seem to occur, activity slows down in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for focused rational thought.  Activity increases in the limbic system, an older part of the brain involved with emotions, memory formation, and instinctual responses (e.g., fight/flight, sexual arousal).  Neural activity also increases in regions of the brain devoted to visual processing.

These findings make perfect sense in relation to empirical studies of dream content showing it to be loosely structured, highly associative, emotionally varied, and filled with intense visual images. The neuroscience of REM sleep matches up well with people’s subjective experiences of dreams, giving us more confidence there’s a real connection here between brain and mind.

Dreaming now seems best understood as the psychological expression of a distinctive mode of brain functioning devoted to memory, emotion, and playful meaning-making. It is inherently and powerfully creative, not only in producing experiential worlds of astonishing depth and realism but also in stretching our minds to make surprising new connections between disparate ideas, feelings, and impressions.  Contrary to the stereotype of dreams as nothing but random nonsense, current research shows their content is meaningful at many levels, accurately reflecting our most important concerns and activities in waking life.

Edison was right to this extent: We can ignore our dreams, if we so choose.  But Page was right on the bigger point.  Dreaming is not wasteful; it has its own neurological integrity and psychological value.  It taps into a deep inner wellspring of creative thinking that leads us beyond what is to imagine what might be.

In this sense we can think of dreaming as a kind of innate technology of the mind, a natural tool of creative consciousness.

The question for dream researchers then becomes, how can we use that tool better?  How can we refine it, improve it, make it stronger?

This might sound like the start of a Dr. Frankenstein tale, with mad scientists rashly meddling in mysteries they don’t understand.  But we are not the first to ask these questions.  Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, people have used a variety of techniques to actively stimulate their inborn capacity for powerful dreaming.

For example, the Native American ritual of the vision quest involves several days and nights of solitary fasting in the wilderness as a means of inviting a revelatory dream.  The Muslim practice of istikhara uses special prayers, purifications, and sleep positions to elicit a dream that helps resolve an important question or decision.  The Indian sage Naropa taught his followers how to control their dreams through yogic methods of chanting, breathing, visualizations, and bodily postures.  Temples devoted to the Greek god Asclepius thrived for centuries as holy sites where people came to worship, diet, exercise, and sleep in hopes of receiving a healing dream.

Cultural practices like these represent time-honored, ethically sensitive techniques for intensifying dreams and deriving more insight from them.     

Eventually we will integrate our best models of dream content with highly advanced neuroscientific maps of brain activity during sleep, and this will set the stage for a new generation of technologies that directly stimulate the brain to produce more creative dream experiences.  By fine-tuning the neural parameters of sleep we’ll be able to filter out the noise and amplify the signals of the dreaming imagination.

The Technology of Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

Undoubtedly this will be good news for the movie business.  As George Lucas recently said at the USC School of Cinematic Arts when asked to predict the future of film, “The next step is to be able to control your dreams. You’ll just tap into a different part of your brain. You’re just going to put a hat on or plug into the computer and create your own world… We’ll be able to do the dream thing 10, 15 years from now. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky thing.”

That timeline seems about right to me, although I would envision devices that generate a more interactive and mutually respectful process between waking and dreaming, with a focus on awareness and growth rather than control for control’s sake.

Beyond their entertainment value, these dream technologies of the not-so-distant future will help us cultivate a more unified consciousness that takes advantage of our brain’s amazing creativity throughout all phases of the sleep-wake cycle.

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Note: This essay also appears on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-bulkeley-phd/the-technology-of-dreaming_b_4378041.html