Tracking Robert Bosnak’s Dreams

The Sleep and Dream Database has just added a new series of dreams to its collection, thanks to the generosity of Robert Bosnak.  In his 1996 book Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming he included an appendix with a series of 51 dreams recorded during a seven-week period of travel and personal transition.  With his permission I have transcribed and uploaded this series into the SDDb, where it can be found under the survey label “RB Journal 1996.”


This is a fascinating and valuable series of dreams for a number of reasons. It was recorded by a Jungian analyst with extensive training and professional experience in dream analysis, and it was recorded during a time of significant changes in his waking life. I have known Robbie for nearly 25 years now, since the Chicago conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams in 1990, and I consider him a good friend and colleague.  So it is no easy task to bracket out my familiarity with his life and pretend to study the word usage frequencies of his dreams “blindly.”   Nevertheless, here’s what strikes me in comparing the RB Dreams 1996 to the SDDb male baselines, focusing exclusively on the numerical results and what I’ve learned from past studies:

By my count, this series of 51 dream reports has 7469 total words, for an average of about 150 words per report.

Most of the reports (35) are between 50 and 300 words in length.  Twelve reports have 49 words or less; the shortest report is 13 words.  Four reports have 301 words or more; the longest report is 731 words.

I performed word searches on the whole series of 51 reports for the 7 classes and 40 categories in the SDDb template, and compared the results with the Male MRD Baseline frequencies for reports of 50-300 words.  It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, so the results should be viewed as suggestive rather than definitive.

You can see a google docs spreadsheet of the results here.

The RB dreams have higher frequencies of descriptive perceptual words for intensity, colors, and aesthetic evaluation, along with a slightly higher proportion of vision-related words.  This could be a product of the dreamer’s reporting style and post-awakening literary editing of the reports.  It could also reflect dream experiences of unusual sensory richness and detail.

There is no more fear in RB’s dreams than in the baselines, which would seem to rule out any unusual stressors or anxieties in waking life.  (The low falling frequency may also point in that direction.) The high proportion of happiness-related words really jumps out—I’m not sure I’ve seen a series before with more happiness than fear.  The relatively high number of sadness references suggests sensitivity to loss and mourning.

The relatively low number of awareness-related words could be another product of reporting style, and it could also reflect a greater focus while dreaming on relational process rather than cognitive analysis.

The RB dreams have more references to flying than falling, which reverses the pattern I typically see in other dream series (more falling than flying).

The high proportions of speech, family characters, and friendly social interactions all point to a person who is actively and productively engaged with other people in waking life.  He seems closely involved with several immediate family members: His wife, daughter, son, brother, mother, and father.

The very high frequency of sexual references could reflect a greater degree of honesty in RB’s reporting compared to the baselines, and it could also indicate the significance of sexual activity and thoughts in waking life.

The high number of fantastic beings suggests someone with a lively imagination, perhaps familiar with video games or fantasy fiction.  A somewhat high proportion of Christianity words may reflect someone who knows Christian culture fairly well but is not an active practitioner of the faith.

Several features of these dreams—the high intensity, colors, happiness, flying, fantastic beings—make me wonder if this set includes at least a few reports of mystical dreams with unusual spiritual or existential meaning.

So how do these quasi-blind inferences fare once I explicitly take into account the facts that the dreamer is a successful psychotherapist who says, “I consider it to be a series in connection with the death of my father and a feeling of loss of soul”?

Not perfectly, that’s for sure.  I would not have predicted this was a series relating to the death of his father, based only on these word usage frequencies.  He does not use father-related words more than other family members, and the death references do not directly indicate his father has died.  There are 3 references to ghosts, but not explicitly to the ghost of his father.

I could be missing something, but at this level of analysis the manifest content of this series does not reflect the dreamer’s felt experience of the dreams.

However, the relatively high sadness frequency may pick up on this theme.  And the mystical themes I noted may underscore the sense of deep transformation he felt was happening during this period of time.  In that sense, the dreams may accurately reflect not the death itself, but the psychological consequences of the death, the still-rippling impact of his father’s loss on his experience of the world.

Again, I wouldn’t have come up with any of that just from looking at the statistical frequencies.  But knowing this series came during a period of mourning, I can see where the waking-dreaming connections emerge, and I’ll be curious to see if future studies discover similar patterns with people who have recently lost a close loved one.

Knowing that Bosnak is a psychotherapist with a successful practice makes sense of many features of his dreams—the high speech, friendly social interactions, happiness, and low physical aggression.  The high frequency of sexual references may relate to his professional work, and so might the unusual detail of his perceptual descriptions, indicating well-honed observation skills.

In chapter 8 of his book Bosnak describes his understanding of these dreams, which goes into much greater depth than a strictly quantitative method can provide.  His goal is to teach readers how to explore the deeper patterns of their own dream series.  I highly recommend that chapter, and Bosnak’s work in general, as an excellent resource in learning how to study large collections of dreams.


Transcription note: To conform to current SDDb upload specifications, I made the following changes to the dream reports as presented in Bosnak’s book: I removed all quotation marks, dashes, and italics, condensed each report into a single paragraph, and added the location of the dream and number in the series to start each report. Some degree of meaning is lost with these changes.





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

H.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.


Nietzsche’s Prophetic Childhood Dreams of Death

In 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.)

Snakes, Dreams, and Jung’s Red Book

People have reported dreams of serpents and snakes throughout history in cultures all over the world.  In terms of Jungian psychology, snake dreams have a powerful archetypal quality.  They give people an extremely memorable and uncanny experience of the “otherness” of the collective unconscious. Jung has a few things to say about the symbolism of serpents and snakes at various points in The Red Book:

“The serpent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity, but also a wise bridge that connects right and left through longing, much needed by our life.” (247)

“Why did I behave as if that serpent were my soul?  Only, it seems, because my soul was a serpent….Serpents are wise, and I wanted my serpent soul to communicate her wisdom to me.” (318)  (This comment comes after a long dialogue in active imagination with a great iridescent snake coiled atop a red rock.)

“I have united with the serpent of the beyond.  I have accepted everything beyond into myself.” (322)

“If I had not become like the serpent, the devil, the quintessence of everything serpentlike, would have held this bit of power over me.  This would have given the devil a grip and he would have forced me to make a pact with him just as he also cunningly deceived Faust.  But I forestalled him by uniting myself with the serpent, just as a man unites with a woman.” (322)

“The daimon of sexuality approaches our soul as a serpent.” (353)

These passages make it clear that Jung regarded snakes both negatively and positively, both as “chthonic devils” (318) and as indispensable guides for the soul.

From a Jungian perspective, snake dreams offer people the dangerous possibility of connecting with the wisdom of the collective unconscious and drawing strength from its archetypal energies.

If you’re interested in learning more about snake dreams in history, scroll down the list to see this post. (titled “What Do Dreams of Snakes Mean?”)

If you’d like ideas about how to interpret snake dreams, see this post.

For more information about actual snakes, take a look at the website of the East Bay Vivarium.

Reading Jung’s Red Book

I’ve never read a book before that made my desk shake and tremble when I set it down.  That caused a minor atmospheric disturbance in my study every time I opened and closed the cover.  That required several changes of physical posture to view the contents of each page.  That should be considered, due to its alarming weight, a hazard to children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

My ambivalence starts here.  The florid design and gargantuan size of The Red Book by C.G. Jung (edited by Sonu Shamdasani) insists that we take this work Very, Very Seriously.  But we have to ask, is this how Jung wanted his unfinished private collection of fantasies and paintings to be presented to readers?

He plainly did not want to publish it during his lifetime.  He left no clear directive one way or another about its fate after his death.

By not expressly forbidding its posthumous publication, and by sharing the original text with his inner circle of family and friends, Jung indicated some willingness to make The Red Book a part of his public literary corpus.

I doubt, however, that he would have felt comfortable with the grandiosity of this back-breaking tome, which literalizes to an almost absurd degree the metaphors of prophecy and revelation he used to describe his “confrontation with the unconscious” during the years 1913-1930.

Jung’s Seminar on Children’s Dreams

imagesChildren’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940 by C.G. Jung, edited by Lorenz Jung and Maria Meyer-Grass, translated by Ernst Falzeder with the collaboration of Tony Woolfson (Princeton University Press, 2008).

This new English translation of C.G. Jung’s seminar on the earliest remembered dreams of childhood marks a dramatic advance in the study of Jungian dream theory.  The book makes available to English readers a fascinating, informative, and thought-provoking source of insight into Jung’s practical approach to dream interpretation.  It will appeal to anyone who wants to learn more about how Jung actually worked with dreams.  The book will also serve as an important resource for teachers and researchers in their use and/or criticism of Jung’s psychology of dreams.  Although the title suggests a narrower focus, Children’s Dreams in fact provides the best single source for understanding the broader dimensions of Jungian dream theory.

From 1936 to 1940 Jung taught the seminar at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.  The participants included some of his brightest followers, including Marie-Louis Von Franz, Aniela Jaffe, and Jolande Jacobi.  Each meeting of the seminar involved one of the participants presenting and analyzing an early childhood dream report (or brief dream series), after which Jung would comment and other participants would ask questions and respond to Jung’s ideas.  We cannot know how faithfully the transcript represents what actually happened in the seminar, but the written text does give the strong sense of a lively, intelligent, free-flowing conversation among people who knew Jung’s theories very well and wanted his guidance in applying them.

Virtually no mention is made of the ominous political situation in Europe at this time, i.e., the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany and the outbreak of World War II.  A Jung critic might take this as a retreat from the real problems of the world into the self-reinforcing fantasy world of dream symbolism.  A more sympathetic reader might wonder if the seminar participants found this work so compelling precisely because they knew that dark forces were afoot and they wanted to gain better practical insight into the deep psychological roots of the darkness threatening their civilization.

The first chapter, Jung’s introductory lecture to the class, is itself worth the price of the book.  In clear, straightforward language Jung lays out the basic principles and themes of his approach to dream interpretation.  He puts special emphasis on the earliest remembered dreams of childhood because these types of dreams often relate to primordial themes in the collective unconscious and thus offer an especially good view of archetypal dynamics.  In this Jung highlights a key notion in his overall psychological system: “[T]he unconscious is older than consciousness….The unconscious is what is originally given, from which consciousness rises anew again and again.” (7)   Children have less conscious superstructure than adults and thus more direct exposure to oneiric blasts from the collective unconscious. This is not always a good thing.  On the contrary, one of the remarkable features of the dreams presented in the book is their relentlessly negative, violent, frightening character.  Most of the dreams are nightmares, many of them recurrent.  This may reflect the fact that the seminar participants drew most of the dream reports from their clinical practices with people suffering psychophysiological problems.  It may also reflect what Jung considered the numinous power of the archetypes, their overwhelming energy and consciousness-stretching impact on people, particularly early in their lives.

In the introduction Jung lays out his method of analyzing dreams in terms of a four-part dramatic structure:

1. Locale: Place, time, ‘dramatis personae.’

2. Exposition: Illustration of the problem.

3. Peripateia: Illustration of the transformation—which can also leave room for a catastrophe.

4. Lysis: Result of the dream. Meaningful closure. Compensating illustration of the action of the dream. (30)

Each dream in the book is analyzed according to this structure.  This creates a helpful unity across the length of the book, which at 468 pages requires an extensive commitment of time and energy to read all the way to the end.  For teaching and reference purposes the book can be read piecemeal, in selections of one or two dream discussions (each one goes for 10-15 pages).  But we found real value in reading the book start to finish because many of the most interesting exchanges between Jung and the participants pop up unexpectedly in reference to different dreams.  As the seminars proceed Jung refers back to previous dreams and their analyses, so there is definitely a cumulative quality to the text.

Jung’s Children’s Dreams will not, in all likelihood, satisfy contemporary researchers who ask about the reliability of memory processes in dream recall, particularly dreams that people are remembering from many years in the past.  Nor will those who question Jung’s assumption about the universality of the archetypes find any reason to give up their skepticism.  But for those who already appreciate and value Jungian dream theory, Children’s Dreams will be a cause for joy.  The book is comparable to Freud’s epic Interpretation of Dreams (1900) in providing a rich, complex, highly detailed exposition of Jung’s psychology of dreams and dream interpretation.

(Originally published in DreamTime 2009, co-authored with KB’s mother, Patricia Bulkley)