Jared Loughner’s Dream Journal: A “Golden Piece of Evidence”?

Jared Loughner, the alleged gunman in the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was fascinated by lucid dreaming and kept a dream journal, according to an interview with Nick Baumann in Mother Jones magazine with Loughner’s close friend Bryce Tierney: “He [Tierney] also describes Loughner as being obsessed with ‘lucid dreaming’–that is, the idea that conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can inhabit and control–and says Loughner became ‘more interested in this world than our reality.’  Tierney adds, “I saw his dream journal once.  That’s the golden piece of evidence,” the friend said.  “You want to know what goes on in Jared Loughner’s mind, there’s a dream journal that will tell you everything.”

Jared Loughner seems to be a mentally ill person plagued by a variety of paranoid beliefs and anxieties.  For someone so scared of shadowy, unseen powers, it makes sense that Loughner would consider his dreams (and nightmares?) to be another source of existential danger requiring extreme force to combat and control.

As someone who has devoted considerable time and energy to studying the dream journals of both healthy and mentally disturbed people, I would caution against treating Loughner’s dream journal as evidence to be used against him in a legal proceeding.  The metaphoric, multi-layered aspects of dreaming do not allow for interpretations that can be sufficiently precise for courtroom purposes. 

I would predict, however, that Loughner’s dream journal will indeed provide a “golden” opportunity to understand his concerns, conflicts, fears, and desires.  The recent paper that Bill Domhoff and I wrote in the IASD journal Dreaming on the “Van” dream series showed that a systematic statistical analysis of long-term dream content can accurately identify an individual’s personality attributes, relationships, waking activities, and cultural preferences.  (Abstract below.)  Our paper builds on lots of previous research indicating that dream content is continuous with many important aspects of a person’s waking life. 

A more speculative prediction would be that Loughner’s dreams will contain a high frequency of weapons and physical aggression.  Over the years I’ve noticed a few young men who might be described as “loners”  having elaborate dreams of using very specific weapons to fight their enemies.  As Domhoff and I found with the Van series, the influence of video games may play a role here.   I don’t know if Loughner played video games, but either way I’m guessing his dreams will reflect a familiarity with, and enthusiasm for, various kinds of weaponry.

Update 1-12-11: Today’s New York Times includes an interview with another of Loughner’s friends, Zane Gutierrez, which confirms that the alleged killer took great interest in his dreams:

“[E]very day, his friend said, Mr. Loughner would get up and write in his dream journal, recording the world he experienced in sleep and its possible meanings. ‘Jared felt nothing existed but his subconscious,’ Mr. Gutierrez said. ‘The dream world was what was real to Jared, not the day-to-day of our lives.’  And that dream world, his friend said, could be downright strange.  ‘He would ask me constantly, “Do you see that blue tree over there?” he would admit to seeing the sky as orange and the grass as blue,’ Mr. Gutierrez said. “Normal people don’t talk about that stuff.'” (p. A14)

The mention of synesthesia (the merging of sensory qualities) adds more detail to the general impression that Loughner suffers from severe mental instability.  Likewise, his solipsism (only I truly exist) indicates a possible breakdown in the ability to distinguish between waking and dreaming realities. 

Religious mystics, particularly in Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist traditions, have frequently questioned the boundaries of waking and dreaming (e.g., Zhuangzi’s paradoxical “butterfly” dream) as a way of opening the mind to new possibilities and expanding one’s sense of compassion for all forms of life.  That does not seem to be the path Loughner followed.  The evidence so far suggests he tried to control his dreaming reality as a way of fighting off the painful, confusing pressures of waking reality.   

A warning from Plato’s Republic comes to mind: “[T]he most evil type of man is…the man who, in his waking hours, has the qualities we found in his dream state.” (IX.576.b)

Abstract for “Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach”:

             Building on previous investigations of waking-dreaming continuities using word search technology (Domhoff and Schneider 2008, Bulkeley 2009a, 2009b), this article demonstrates that a blind analysis of a dream series using only word search methods can accurately predict many important aspects of the individual’s waking life, including personality attributes, relationships, activities, and cultural preferences.  Results from a study of the “Van” dream series (N=192) show that blind inferences drawn from a word frequency analysis were almost entirely accurate according to the dreamer.  After presenting these findings we discuss several remaining shortcomings and suggest ways of improving the method for use by other researchers involved in the search for a more systematic understanding of meaning in dreams.

 Keywords: dreams, content analysis, word search

 (Domhoff and Schneider 2008; Bulkeley 2009, 2009)

 Bulkeley, Kelly. 2009. The Religious Content of Dreams: New Scientific Foundations. Pastoral Psychology 58 (2):93-101.

———. 2009. Seeking Patterns in Dream Content: A Systematic Approach to Word Searches. Consciousness and Cognition 18:905-916.

Domhoff, G. William, and Adam Schneider. 2008. Studying dream content using the archive and search engine on DreamBank.net. Consciousness and Cognition 17:1238-1247.

The Inception Files

The Inception Files by Kelly Bulkeley

It’s reasonable to expect a dream researcher would have a clear, informed opinion about the movie Inception.  Unfortunately I don’t.  Instead I’m caught between conflicting impressions, some favorable, mostly critical. Three factors inclining my thumb in an upward direction:

1. Christopher Nolan.  It’s great to see a brilliant director at the top of his game deciding to do a film entirely about the multiple realities of dreaming.

2. Intellectual daring.  As good dreams often do, Inception pushed its audience to think new thoughts and question their epistemological certainties.

3. Accurate portrayal of the “realness” of dreaming: When Ariadne (Ellen Page) is sitting at the sidewalk cafe she suddenly realizes she can’t say how she got there—and in that moment understands she is dreaming.  This is true for many people whose dreams start in media res and who simply accept their dreaming experiences as real while they’re happening.

Five problems drawing my thumb downward:

1.  Lack of dreaminess.  This was the biggest disappointment.  For a film supposedly about dreaming, it lacked the visceral power and alluring weirdness of actual dreams.  Everything fit together too neatly; every detail in the dream worlds had a direct explanatory cause, whether because of the emotional repression of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), or because of actions in outer reality.  It seemed a very cerebral take on dreams.

2. Heavy heavy heavy.  The press of gravity seemed to drag everything in the movie down, from the fantastic buildings crumbling into the sea to the elevator down to Cobb’s unconscious basement, from the suicidal plunge of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) to endlessly falling passenger van.  There was virtually no humor in the movie, no romance, no lighthearted playfulness.  Falling is indeed a common experience in dreaming, but that gravity-bound vibe took over the movie.

3. Loud, noisy, and filled with unnecessary action.  This may have been necessary to attract teenage boys, but it helped extinguish any kind of truly dreamy atmosphere.  On the contrary, all the Bond-esque mayhem and derring-do merely reminded me it was summer and I was in a movie theater paying $10 for a popcorn spectacle.

4. Lame motivation.  If I understood correctly after two viewings, Cobb and his crew were risking life and limb to help one mega-corporation stop another mega-corporation from getting too much money and power, so the first mega-corporation could…get more money and power?  Of course Cobb has the personal goal of getting back to his kids, but the murky corporate espionage theme made it hard to care about his team and their mission.

5. Didn’t make me forget The Matrix. I re-watched that film with my kids a few nights ago, and we loved every single scene of it–as soon as it was over we wanted to watch it again.  I don’t think Inception will generate that kind of long-term reverence and delight.