The Best Technology for Studying Dreams

The Best Technology for Studying Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyIt’s hard to beat the simple practice of keeping a dream journal.

Many exciting new tools are being developed to help us understand the nature and functions of our dreams. For example, researchers are developing technologies for generating a video “read-out” of a person’s dreams based on neural signals from the brain. They are devising methods to stimulate a sleeping person’s brain to instigate lucidity or consciousness during a dream, or even to prompt certain kinds of dream content.

However, none of these new technologies are as valuable for the study of dreams as one of the simplest tools available: the dream journal. A record of an individual’s dreams over time offers the most powerful tool we currently have for the study of dreams. Even compared to the most high-tech devices used by neuroscientists, the dream journal has big advantages in effectiveness, accessibility, and privacy.

Effectiveness

The new dream technologies mentioned above have very short track records. We still don’t know many details about their impact on brain functioning during sleep, nor do we know how the impact varies according to individual differences among people from across the demographic spectrum. And, all these tools rely on measurements of neural activity that have to be interpreted by the researchers and translated into meaningful mental content. That’s not an easy or purely objective process.

However, dream journals as a tool of studying and exploring dreams has a very long track record, going back many centuries (The Sacred Tales of Aelius Aristides in the 2nd century may be the oldest surviving example). We know from extensive psychological research that recording one’s dreams over time yields rich personal insights and self-knowledge. Psychologists have used dream journals starting with Freud’s own dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams, and continuing through Allan Hobson’s use of the “Engine Man’s” dreams in The Dreaming Brain, and now to the works of G. William Domhoff, Michael Schredl, and others who find that dream journals provide legitimate scientific insights into recurrent patterns of content. Only by tracking an individual’s dreams over time can these patterns be identified. Both for psychologists doing research and individuals seeking personal growth, the dream journal remains the most effective technology available.

Accessibility

The new dream technologies are generally used in hospitals or research laboratories. Some devices have been developed for home use, but they tend to be expensive and complicated to operate. Extensive training and preparation are required for the use of these tools, along with a sophisticated computer system and a reliable internet/electrical system. All of these factors have limited the accessibility of new dream technologies to a very small number of people.

The dream journal, by contrast, is available to virtually everyone. To keep a dream journal, you need no training or special preparation, and you don’t have to go to a laboratory or hospital. All that is required is a method of recording your dreams (e.g., by pen and paper, computer, voice-to-text), and a safe place to preserve them over time. This makes the dream journal by far the most accessible tool for studying dreams.

Privacy

Almost every type of new dream technology has connections to the internet that feed data from individual dreamer to the researchers and back again. Even if the researchers preserve the confidentiality of the individual’s data, which of course they should, the sheer presence of an outside observer peering into one’s dreaming experiences and reflections naturally heightens people’s concerns about personal privacy. Some of the new technologies, for example the dream-visualization tools and the dream-altering tools, clearly raise enormous ethical issues around protecting the privacy and integrity of one’s inner thoughts.

A dream journal has the advantage here of being a type of personal diary. Just as a diary provides a safe and private space for honest self-reflection, a dream journal offers the same kind of private space for exploring one’s dreams. A dream journal “works” as a tool without anyone else’s input. All you need is you, paying attention to your own dreams consistently over time. You can keep the results to yourself, and no one else needs to know anything about what you are doing.

None of this is to dismiss the exciting potentials of many new technologies to improve our understanding of dreams and perhaps even enhance our experience of dreaming in a meaningful way. But the enduring power and simplicity of the dream journal, and its advantages in effectiveness, accessibility, and privacy, suggests that a good strategy for new technologies is to build on the dream journal, amplifying what it can already do. Any new dream technology will be stronger if it is grafted onto a solid dream journal system as its roots.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on May 3, 2021.

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThis year I’ve had the honor of serving as an advisor for three doctoral dissertations in the study of dreams.  Dianne Jackie Frost at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Cynthia S. Sauln at Sofia University, and Mary Walsh at San Francisco Theological Seminary have done highly innovative work in exploring some of the most important and potentially transformative aspects of dreaming experience.  Each of them has shown amazing devotion and diligence, and their findings are truly original contributions to the field.

 

Dianne Frost’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology is titled “Engaging With the Imaginal: A Study of Women’s Dreamwork.”  Her study focuses on six women at a counseling center who participated in a group process of sharing dreams, exploring their images, and following their changes over a seven-week period (using methods drawn from the works of Steven Aizenstat, Jack Zimmerman, Virginia Coyle, Mary Watkins, and others).  Each of the women came to the process from a place of pain and crisis (interpersonal violence, depression, addiction, body image issues, etc.), and Frost shows how their dreams accurately reflect their emotional concerns and give witness to their suffering.  More importantly for therapeutic purposes, the dreams point the way towards healing, towards potentials for new life and new growth beyond the challenging conditions of the present. As the women shared their dreams and discussed possible dimensions of meaning, Frost found they developed a new depth of trust in their own strength, resilience, and creativity.

My favorite quote comes from the woman using the pseudonym “Cadence.” Cadence told Frost she had always looked to outside sources for guidance and advice in her life, but the insights she was gaining from her dreams made her realize she has a reliable source within herself:

“I felt like I needed someone else to guide me through, and this process really allows me to do that on my own.  It’s like I’m my own innate healer, with knowledge and images that only I can tap into and create a relationship with and learn from.”

Nothing in Frost’s approach limits it to women with these kinds of problems; her way of working with dreams could be usefully applied with many other groups of people who are striving for greater health and wholeness.

“In My Dreams I Am the Hero I Wish to Be: A Mixed Methods Study of Children’s Dreams, Meaning-Making, and Spiritual Awareness” is the title of Cynthia Sauln’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology).  Sauln recruited 32 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who were willing, with their parents’ permission, to describe a vivid or unusual dream.  She invited the children to draw pictures of their dreams, and she asked them to fill out two surveys designed to assess their spiritual and religious beliefs.  Sauln says in her introduction,

“For the purpose of this study, children’s spirituality is defined as an awareness of the divine or something larger than themselves that can provide meaning for waking life events and understanding of the world around them. Especially for children, it is a personal experience that may be expressed as a ‘knowing’ and an interpretation of the mysteries found in nature, animals, relationships and connections with people, dreams, and/or in their religious practices and beliefs.”

Drawing on the work of Kate Adams, C.G. Jung, and others, Sauln argues that dreams can play a vital role in children’s spiritual development.  She shows the close connection between spirituality, health, and creativity in childhood, with dreams as a mode of experience bringing them all together. Ironically, many teachers and parents were so skeptical about dreams in general that they would not give their children permission to participate in Sauln’s study, even though the children themselves were invariably curious about their dreams and eager to discuss and draw pictures of them.  This made the data-gathering process much more difficult than Sauln expected.

However, there was a silver lining to these difficulties.  Her extra efforts to recruit participants led her to ultimately gather a group of children with an unusual degree of ethnic diversity.  There were several Hispanic children in her study whose dreams seemed especially significant in relation to their waking spiritual beliefs.  In my SDDb research I’ve found some evidence of relatively high Hispanic interest in spiritually meaningful dreams.  I wonder if future research from Sauln or others might explore Hispanic dream experiences in more detail.

Mary Walsh’s dissertation for her Doctor of Ministry in Advanced Pastoral Studies from San Francisco Theological Seminary is titled “Prophetic Imagination and the Neuro-physiology of Trauma in Substance Abusing Adolescents.”  Walsh is a practicing psychotherapist whose doctoral studies have examined the theological dimensions of suffering, caregiving, and healing.  For two years she worked as a therapist at a high school for troubled adolescents, with a focus on their dreams in relation to several other measures of mental and physical health.  The students at her school came from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of them were suffering multiple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   In addition to talking about their dreams, she measured the students’ heart rate variability to track their neuro-physiological coherence during the treatment process.  Walsh’s use of sophisticated biofeedback technology will make it possible to illuminate new dimensions of dreaming and its role in mind-body healing.  I’m very curious to see what further uses can be made of biofeedback technologies like these.

Walsh has gathered an extremely valuable set of data that provides unique insights into the life experiences of young people at the most neglected margins of society.  Although she still has some writing to do, her project is putting together a compelling argument in favor of the therapeutic effectiveness of group dreamsharing for this poorly-served population.

It should be obvious I’m very proud of these three researchers!  Each of them has stayed true to her original vision and persevered in her scholarly work despite all manner of obstacles and static from uncomprehending administrators, teachers, etc.  Their success bodes well for the future of dream studies.

What’s In a Lucid Dream?

What's In a Lucid Dream? by Kelly BulkeleyWhat do people dream about when they have lucid dreams?  What’s going on in the dream when someone has the realization, “I am dreaming”?  Here’s another example of how the word search function of the SDDb can help get a research project started.  The database includes a set of surveys (Demographic Survey 2012) in which the participants were asked to describe a lucid dream.  By word searching their answers you can get a quick sense of the overall patterns of their dream content.  This information gives you an empirical context for deeper study of particular dreams and particular themes within the dreams.

 

I’m following here the same approach I described in the previous post with visitation dreams, with one refinement.  Instead of searching for reports of 25 words or more, I performed separate searches for reports of 25-49 words and 50-300 words, for both females and males (see links below).  This produced smaller numbers of dreams for each analysis, but it allowed more of an apples-to-apples comparison with the SDDb baselines I’ve been developing (described in posts herehere, and here).  I now have provisional baselines for word usage frequencies in shorter (25-49 words) and longer (50-300 words) most recent dream reports.  These baselines guide the analysis below.

To repeat the method: From the SDDb’s word search page I scrolled down the list of constraint values and selected harris_2012:Q1035, Lucid Dream.  Then I selected Female from the top line of the constraint values, in the line for Gender, Q922.  I clicked on “word search,” and then entered the appropriate numbers in the Min Words and Max Words boxes under “Limit Response Length”  (25 and 49, 50 and 300).  I clicked on “Perform Search” and received a set of dream reports with these parameters.  I then searched the given set for each word class and word category, one by one. I followed the same procedure for the male lucid dream reports.

The results of this analysis, which took me about an hour to conduct, can be easily summarized.  Compared to the SDDb baselines, lucid dreams tend to have unusually low frequencies of words relating to visual perception, color, emotion, characters, social interactions, and culture.  Lucid dreams have higher than usual references to awareness, effort, and physical aggression (relative to friendliness).  Females and males share these basic patterns, though the men’s reports included more flying-related words.

These findings, though preliminary, seem strong enough to formulate a working hypothesis that lucid dreams are generally characterized by low visual references, low emotions, high awareness and effort, and relatively high physical aggression compared to friendly social interactions.

If I were now given two sets of dreams and told that one is a set of lucid dreams and the other a set of most recent dreams, I believe this working hypothesis could help me tell the difference without ever reading through the dreams, just by performing a few word searches.

Of course, each individual report has its own unique constellation of content.  Some lucid dreams are filled with visual perceptions, strong emotions, and friendly social interactions.  Indeed, I think it’s even more interesting to study such dreams now we know they are rather unusual.

If learning about the patterns of ordinary dreams gives us new insights into extraordinary dreams, then learning about the patterns of extraordinary dreams gives us new insights into extra-extraordinary dreams.

Female lucid dreams 25-49 words: 113 total

Female lucid dreams 50-300 words: 71 total

Male lucid dreams 25-49 words: 60 total

Male lucid dreams 50-300 words: 29 total

 

Dreaming of the Dead: Patterns of Word Usage in Visitation Dreams

Dreaming of the Dead: Patterns of Word Usage in Visitation Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyHere’s a good example of how to use the word search function of the Sleep and Dream Database.   It focuses on “visitation dreams,” i.e., dreams in which people who are dead appear as if alive.  These vivid and highly memorable dreams have been reported in cultures all over the world, in many periods of history.  People today still experience visitation dreams with remarkable frequency (1).   As part of research I’m doing for a new book, I want to learn more about the basic patterns in visitation dreams.  I’m especially interested in their social and emotional aspects.  My hypothesis, based on cross-cultural evidence and the results of a 2007 content analysis study I did of mystical dreams (2), is that visitation dreams tend to be positive experiences, characterized by friendly interactions and low negative emotions.

 

Can I put that hypothesis to an empirical test?  Can I push the analysis of visitation dreams to a deeper level of detail and identify additional recurrent features?

The SDDb word search function makes this kind of research easier to pursue than ever before.  There’s a new set of dreams in the database, Demographic Survey 2012, which includes a question about visitation dreams.  On the word search page I scrolled down the list of constraint values to harris_2012:Q1030, Visitation Dream, and selected it.  I then selected “Female” from the top line of the constraint value list.  I clicked on “Word Search” again, and entered “25” in the Min Words box under Limit Response Length.  When I clicked “Perform Search” I had a set of 221 reports from women of visitation dreams of 25 or more words in length.  When I repeated this procedure and selected “Male” instead of “Female,” I had a set of 96 reports from men of visitation dreams of 25 or more words in length.

For both the Female and Male sets I searched for all 7 Word Classes and 40 Word Categories, one class or category at a time.  It took about 20 minutes to generate these figures.

The results both confirm and extend my initial hypothesis.  The visitation dreams have many more friendly than physically aggressive social interactions, and generally low proportions of negative emotions (3).  That’s a solid confirmation of previous findings, with some additional details to fill out the picture:

— The overwhelming majority of characters in the visitation dreams are elder family members.  For women, the most frequently used family character words are grandmother, mother, and father.  For men, the most used words are father and dad.

— Other than vision, speech, and some mention of intensity, these dreams have very few other elements of content: low non-visual perception, low colors, low emotions, low cognition, low nature, low non-family characters, low non-friendly social interactions, and virtually no culture references.

This quick exercise in using the SDDb’s word search function has taught me several things.  Visitation dreams do seem to be mostly positive experiences.  They very often include elder family members, i.e. well-known and personally intimate characters with whom the dreamer speaks and has friendly social interactions.  Evidently few other details matter; the dreamer’s focus is squarely on the appearance of the person who is dead but appears as if alive.  There may be some gender differences in which particular family characters show up  most frequently, but the basic patterns of content emerge clearly in both the women’s and men’s reports.

I’m sure I’ll find many more recurrent themes once I read through the dream narratives.  But already, after just a few minutes of statistical analysis, I have a good overview of the dreams that gives me an empirical context for highlighting further subtleties of significance.

 

 

Notes:

(1) In American Dreamers I cite a 2007 survey of 705 American adults that found 38% of the participants had experienced a visitation dream at least once in their lives (p. 32).

(2) “Mystical Dreaming: Patterns in Form, Content, and Meaning” (2009),  Dreaming 19(1): 30-41.

(3) These two sets are not perfect matches for comparison with the SDDb Baselines, since they include all reports of 25+ words, whereas the SDDb Baselines are for reports of 25-49 words and 50-300 words.  But the baselines can still be useful in evaluating the broad patterns of the visitation dreams.