Dream Education = Religious Studies Education

This is an excerpt from a panel on dream education at the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  My co-panelists were Phil King and Bernard Welt, with whom I wrote Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education.


Any class on dreams that occurs within a school context must, at a minimum, provide educational benefits consistent with the school’s mission.  These benefits usually include critical thinking, literacy skills, knowledge acquisition, global citizenship, etc.  All of us on the panel agree that classes on dreams can do a wonderful job of providing these educational benefits and contributing to the general goals of almost any kind of school.


But dream classes can do more than that.  Indeed, dream classes are always doing more than that, whether or not the teacher and students are explicitly aware of it.   Something happens when dreams enter the classroom, something very different from other topics of study.  Each of us on the panel has different ways of talking about that educational surplus.  For me, what’s interesting is how every class on dreams becomes at some level a class on religious studies.  By that I mean a class that studies human expressions of ultimacy via symbols, metaphors, and myths.  The historical aspect of this may be most obvious.  Prior to the rise of psychology as a Western academic discipline in the mid-nineteenth century, the primary arena in which people shared, discussed, and explored their dreams was religion–in Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the spiritual traditions of the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Oceania.  Any class that’s trying to provide a solid base of knowledge about dreams can’t ignore the history of religions.  This is true whether you are teaching in psychology, literature, biology, or any other discipline—as soon as you start telling your students about dreams, you’ll need to talk about religious history, too.


I understand this might seem daunting to educators without any training or background in comparative religious studies.  I’m not saying you have to include large amounts of this material in your curriculum.  But I am saying you should think carefully about how you’re going to present the topics of your class within this bigger historical framework.  You should let your students know there IS a bigger historical framework, even if that’s not the specific focus of your class.


There’s another way that dream classes become religious studies classes, even more important than the historical aspect.  Whenever dreams become a topic of classroom discussion, the students are inevitably prompted to reflect on their private dream experiences.  The class may not explicitly involve personal dream sharing, or keeping a journal, or anything directly about the students’ own dreams—but I guarantee you, the students are thinking about their dreams in relation to what’s coming up in the class.  Especially if the teacher is a good one and gets the students excited about the topic, they’re going to be curious to explore their own dreams.  And once they do that, they’re very likely to come across themes, questions, and experiences that go to the heart of many of the world’s religions—for example, the prospect of death and an afterlife, the struggle of good and evil, the illusory nature of reality, prophetic anticipations of the future, nightmarish suffering and existential dread, haunting encounters with supernatural beings, and so forth.


Teachers can ignore all this if they wish, but I think it’s better if they at least recognize that their students are wondering about these kinds of issues in their dreams and thinking about how the class is, or is not, helping them make better sense of their experiences.  Again, this doesn’t mean you have to devote extensive class time to the religious implications of dreams in people’s lives.  You could devote some time to this topic, of course, and I think you’d be surprised at what your students would say if given the chance!  But it’s enough if you simply let the students know that, just as people in the past drew religious inspiration and philosophical insight from dreams, so do many people today.  It’s not a matter of ancient superstition carrying over into the modern world, but rather a recognition that humans in all times and places, up to and including us today, are dreamers, and our dreams bring us into contact with ideas, feelings, and energies that most cultures through history have regarded as religiously meaningful.  Whether or not we use religious language, the personal impact of certain dreams can be intensely meaningful and even transformative.  As dream educators, we have to give our students some degree of informed awareness of those spiritual dimensions of dreaming potential.


What I Learned at the 2012 IASD Conference

Here are excerpts from notes I took during the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, held in Berkeley, California, June 22-26.  In parentheses I’ve put the names of the people who were presenting or commenting at the time.


Jung’s focus on the number 4 is “dangerous” and promises a “seductive wholeness.”  (John Beebe)


In electrophysiological terms, as measured by the EEG, lucid dreaming can be described as meditation in sleep. (Jim Pagel)


A challenge for lucid dreamers: How to distinguish a failed lucidity technique from a sage warning from the unconscious. (Jeremy Taylor)


The pioneering French filmmaker George Meliere drew upon the fantastically creative, compelling illusions of dream experience to create a tradition of visionary cinema that we see today in “The Matrix” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” (Bernard Welt)


In a sample of 170 German school children, those who talk with their parents, siblings, and friends about dreams tend to have higher dream recall, suggesting a positive relationship between dream socialization and recall. (Michael Schredl)


People who are high dream recallers seem to have more activity in the brain’s tempero-parietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex, in both waking and sleep conditions.  These brain areas have been associated in waking with mental imagery and mind attributions (theory of mind), respectively. (Jean-Baptiste Eichenlaub, et al.)


Sleep laboratory researchers are perfecting a method of awakening a person several times during the night at precise moments in the sleep cycle in order to induce an experience of sleep paralysis. (Elizaveta Solomonova)


Neuroscientists are experimenting with the use of transcranial direct current stimulation to directly affect the brain activity underlying dream experiences.  (Katja Valli)


Reflective awareness in dreaming can give humans an adaptive edge because in dreams we have the ability to anticipate, explore, and practice possible selves and possible worlds.  This ability can be cultivated through disciplined intentional mental practice.  We can change our brain anatomy simply by using our imaginations.  (Tracey Kahan, quoting Norman Doidge in the last sentence)


The “Inception” app is “worth a free download.” (David Kahn)


The mantra of the quantified self: If you track it, it improves. (Ryan Hurd)


In dream education with adolescents and young adults, the most relevant aspect of dreaming to their waking lives may be relational skills and emotional intelligence, helping them better navigate the complex currents of friendship, romance, and family life. (Phil King and Bernard Welt)


Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education

Phil King, Bernard Welt and I have written the newly released DREAMING IN THE CLASSROOM: PRACTICES, METHODS, AND RESOURCES IN DREAM EDUCATION, from the State University of New York Press.  It has been a long time coming, and we are grateful to all the teachers we interviewed in the course of our research.

The back-cover endorsement comes from Ernest Hartmann, psychiatrist from Tufts University Medical School, who says, “This book will be extremely useful to educators at all levels.  It can be considered the King James Bible of the field of dream education.”

The cover of the book is a photo taken by Justin Knight of the walking labyrinth in the back courtyard of Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The creation of this labyrinth was inspired by a dream experienced by Laura Lamp, an administrator at HDS.

The first two chapters lay out the basic issues and principles that come into play any time a teacher brings the subject of dreams into the classroom.  We especially emphasize dreaming as a resource in writing and composition classes, connecting dream experience with the development of fundamental academic skills.

Then come chapters on teaching dreams in specific disciplines at the college and graduate level: psychology, anthropology, philosophy and religious studies, general humanities, film studies, and psychotherapy and counseling.  After that is a chapter on dream education in community/alternative settings, and a chapter on dream education with younger students in primary and secondary schools.  We finish with reflections on “the future of dream education.”

It felt good last week to give a copy of the book to my youngest son’s 4th grade teacher, Jeff Grether at Windrush School, whose dream-and-writing assignment is mentioned on p. 182.

Now that I’ve got my own copy in hand, I feel the most valuable part of the book comes in the appendices, which offer an amazing variety of resources for teachers and aspiring teachers:

A. A Dreams Reading List

B. Course Syllabi

C. Establishing and Organizing Community Dream Groups

D. Outline for Short Presentations on Dream

E. Using the Dreambank

F. Preserving Narrative Meanings in Dream Content Analysis

G. Interdisciplinary Dream Course Template

H. Proposing a Course on Dreaming

I. Assessment of Educational Effectiveness in Dream Studies

J. Why I Teach Dreams in Freshman Composition (by Barbara Bishop)



A New Book for Dream Teachers

If you’re a teacher with students who might be interested in learning about the subject of dreams, we’ve written a book specifically for you. Phil King, Bernard Welt, and I are pleased to announce the May 2011 publication of Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education, by the State University of New York Press.  The book provides a guide for teaching students about dreams primarily in college- and graduate-level classes.  It also looks at dream education in elementary and high schools and in alternative forms of community education.  Psychology is the primary discipline of dream education in the modern West, and Phil King writes with authority and grace about the most effective practices in teaching college psychology students about dreams.  Bernard Welt brings his vast knowledge of dreams in film and literature, along with his experience as a teacher of academic writing, to highlight several areas outside psychology where dream education has proven beneficial.   Anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies are the disciplines which I took the lead in writing about, along with the chapter on elementary and secondary education.  We all went through each chapter line by line, producing a truly collaborative work that draws not only on our experiences but on in-depth interviews we did with dozens of teachers across the academic and non-academic spectrum.

The road to publication has been long and full of twists, turns, and unexpected detours. I’m grateful to Phil and Bernard for their persistence, passion, and friendship in writing this book.