A Panel Discussion of Dreams and OSF’s “Alice in Wonderland”

A Panel Discussion of Dreams and OSF's "Alice in Wonderland" by Kelly BulkeleyBefore going to bed each night after a long day of rehearsals, the director of “Alice in Wonderland” wrote a letter, sealed it, and put it under her pillow. The letter was addressed to her theatrical hero, Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991), a revolutionary figure on the American stage whose adaptation of the Alice stories was first presented in the early 1930’s at the Civic Repertory Theater in New York City, which she founded with the mission of providing the highest-quality dramatic artistry for the widest possible audience.

The director, Sara Bruner, has for many years been one of the brightest creative lights at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a variety of acting roles.  The Le Gallienne adaptation of “Alice” is her first major directing opportunity at OSF, and she devised this pre-sleep practice of writing pillow missives as a way to gently soothe and channel her anxieties before sleep.  She would write to Le Gallienne about the challenges of the day, the unique demands of the production, and her creative hopes for the future.

This was one of the many intriguing insights to emerge from the panel discussion held at the recent regional meeting of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Ashland, Oregon, May 31 to June 2. The panel was on Sunday morning and feature an ideal line-up: Sara, the director; Emily Ota, the actor who performs as Alice; and Amrita Ramanan, the director of literary development and dramaturgy at OSF who helps Sara and the cast with the broader story-telling context of the “Alice” tales. Several people were curious about the role of the dramaturg in a theatrical production, and it was fascinating to hear Amrita describe the many ways in which she enhances the whole creative enterprise. It made me think of a dream studies analogy: at some level, a dramaturg enables what Jung called the process of amplification, helping the dreamer (or cast) recognize the concentric circles of biographical, cultural, historical, and mythological meanings surrounding the dream (or play), all as a way of enhancing its unique significance right now.

We did not record the session, alas, because we wanted to allow for more spontaneity in the discussion. (Passing microphones around in a small room is awkward, especially with professionals who are trained to project their natural voices.) But the panel certainly made it clear that the intersection of dreams and theater is a lively space for deep discussions about the nature of creativity, imagination, and the lived experience of an artistic life.

The panel was enhanced by Bernard Welt, a long-time IASD member and emeritus professor of Film and Humanities, who co-facilitated with me. Angel Morgan, the local host of the weekend gathering, also helped by asking great questions, as did Isaac Taitz, Stanley Krippner, and David Gordon.

In response to one of Isaac’s questions, everyone on the panel said they experience anxiety dreams about their work in the theater.  Emily even said she has found the appearance of such dreams to be an expected part of learning a new role: once she starts having nerve-wracking dreams about it, she knows the role has begun to sink in.

The panel also discussed at some length the stagecraft used to generate a sense of magical dreaminess in “Alice.” Without revealing any spoilers, I would say that Sara’s approach is deceptively brilliant, like a master class in the cognitive psychology of perception: it uses the simplest objects, shapes, and gestures to elicit in the audience a maximal response in their imaginations, prompting them to creatively join with the performers in (re-)telling a classic yet eternally new story.

This will not be the last such gathering to discuss dreams and theater with OSF artists. The annual conference of the IASD is scheduled for Ashland in 2021 (June 13-17), and there will likely be additional regional gatherings between now and then.  Think about coming to join us….

New Dream Research in 2019

New Dream Research in 2019 by Kelly BulkeleyDreaming, play, theater, science, religion, social and political crisis.

Jung, Freud, Shakespeare, a troupe of immigrant artists, Alice in Wonderland, Lucrecia de Leon, the US President.

These are the topics and the people I will be discussing most frequently in a series of presentations lining up for 2019.  Each presentation will speak directly to the interests of a particular audience, and each one will also connect to the other talks I’m giving in ways that I hope will lead to a greater interwoven whole.

(All of these conferences and gatherings are still in the planning stages, so details may change.)

 

Society for Psychological Anthropology

Biennial Meeting, Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

April 4-7

This will be part of a panel on “New Directions in the Anthropology and Psychology of Dreaming” organized by Robin Sheriff and Jeannette Mageo.

“Dreaming, Play, and Social Change”

This presentation offers a novel theory of dreaming—as a highly evolved form of play—and discusses its implications for new research in psychology and anthropology. The theory integrates findings from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, religious studies, and developmental psychology (especially D.W. Winnicott). This approach moves beyond the fruitless debates over the “bizarreness” of dreaming. From the play perspective, bizarreness in dreaming is a feature, not a bug. In dreams the mind is free to play, to explore, imagine, and envision new possibilities beyond the limits of conventional reality. Of special interest to anthropologists, the content of dreams, i.e., what people playfully dream about, mostly revolves around social life. Many of the cognitive abilities vital to waking sociality are also present in dreaming, which correlates with research showing that dream content accurately mirrors people’s most important waking relationships. In some instances, dreaming goes beyond mirroring the social world to actively striving to transform it; the playfulness intensifies, and the dreaming imagination labors to create something new, to go beyond what is to imagine what might be. This visionary potential is often activated during times of social conflict and crisis. Three brief examples will illustrate the playful dynamics of dreaming in relation to a crisis in the dreamer’s community: 1) the prophecies of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain; 2) the creatively inspiring “big dreams” of a group of immigrant artists; and 3) the politically-themed dreams of present-day Americans about their current President.

For more information, click here.

 

International Association for the Study of Dreams

Regional Conference, Ashland, Oregon

May 31 to June 2

This is the general description of the event, which I am helping to host with Angel Morgan. On Saturday morning I will give a talk on the role of dreams in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” both of which will be performed that weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Theater, Dreams, and Art”

Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage” and Carl Jung wrote that a dream is theater in which the dreamer is the scene, player, prompter, producer, author, public, and critic. The best plays are like the best dreams: surprising, decentering, mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, emotionally exhausting, and acutely memorable. They are unreal, yet realer than real; retreats into fantasy that catapult us into fresh engagement with the world. Many talented artists, as well as everyday creative people, have said they feel the same kind of freedom to explore their emotions in dreams that they do when they have an encounter with the artistic process. Many often connect the two by first logging their dreams, then drawing on the raw emotional content and imagery from their dream experiences to feed their art. That said, bridging dreams with theater and art tends to offer a wide variety of fascinating approaches. In this conference we hope to inform and inspire dreamers of all ages and backgrounds, as well as those who use theater, dreams, or art in their work, such as: parents, psychologists, therapists, counselors, writers, actors, directors, dancers, visual artists, and musicians.

For more information, click here.

 

International Association for the Study of Dreams

Annual Conference, Kerkrade, the Netherlands

June 20-26

This is part of a panel I am organizing with Svitlana Kobets and Bernard Welt on “Visionary Dreams in Art, Religion, and History.”

“Vision and Prophecy in the Dreams of Lucrecia de Leon”

This presentation explores the visual imagery, religious symbolism, and prophetic warnings contained in the dreams of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Madrid who was persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition as a traitor and heretic, despite the fact that many of her dream warnings came true.

This is part of a panel Jayne Gackenbach is organizing on the interplay of artistic practice and scientific inquiry.

“Dreaming Is Play: A Bridge Between Art and Science”

This presentation offers a theory that dreaming is a kind of play, the imaginative play of the mind during sleep.  This theory has directly inspired me in new activities with art and artists: supporting regional theater, collaborating with the Dream Mapping Troupe, and cultivating a forested dream library.

For more information, click here.

 

American Academy of Religion

Annual Conference, San Diego, California

November 23-26

This is a “call for papers” topic that will soon be posted by the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) group of the American Academy of Religion, and open for submissions from all AAR members. If the CSR steering committee receives enough good proposals on this topic, there will be a panel session at the conference in San Diego with three or four presentations.

“Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) Approaches to Dreaming”

The rise of psychology of religion in the early 20th century was driven in part by Freud’s and Jung’s efforts to understand the nature of dreams. What would a new 21st century approach to dreams look like, using the resources of CSR? Specifically, to what extent do cognitive functions known to operate in religious contexts (e.g., memory, imagination, metaphor, teleological reasoning, social intelligence, agency detection, dual-systems cognition) also operate in dreaming? To what extent does this shed new light on the various roles that dreams have played in the history of religions (e.g., theophany, healing, prophecy, moral guidance, visions of the afterlife)? Proposals are welcome that draw together detailed accounts of religiously significant dreaming with specific CSR concepts and theories.

For more information, click here.

 

 

Dreaming Is Play: A New Theory of Dream Psychology

Dreaming Is Play: A New Theory of Dream Psychology by Kelly BulkeleyThe scientific study of dreams has fallen on hard times.  In an era dominated by cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoactive drugs, and computer models of the mind, dreaming seems less relevant to psychology today than at any time since Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900.

The problem, ironically, is not a lack of empirical evidence about the nature and function of dreams.  Rather, the problem is too much evidence that does not seem to add up to a coherent theory or a useful guide for therapeutic practice.

Psychoanalysts from Freud onwards have used clinical case studies to argue that dreams, despite their cryptic symbolism, are meaningful and can be tremendously helpful in therapy.  In the 1950’s, however, neuroscientists discovered that dreaming correlates with automatic processes in the brain during sleep, suggesting that dreams are in fact nothing but neural nonsense.  At about the same time, quantitative researchers began using statistical methods to analyze tens of thousands of dream reports.  Instead of bizarre symbols or random nonsense, these researchers found a large number of clear, straightforward continuities between dream content and people’s emotional concerns in waking life.

The results from each of these areas of research appear to contradict the other two, making the quest for common ground all the more difficult.

New developments in cognitive science offer a better way forward, by illuminating the evolutionary features of the human mind as they relate to the survival needs and adaptive challenges facing our species.  When we look at dreaming in this broader context, a simple yet powerful thesis emerges: dreaming is a kind of play, the play of the imagination in sleep.

Zoologists have found evidence of play behaviors in all mammals, especially among the youngest members of each species.  Play occurs within a temporary space of pretense and make-believe where actions are not bound by the same constraints that govern the normal, non-play world.  A major function of play, most researchers agree, is to practice responses to survival-related situations in a safe environment, so the young will be better prepared when they become adults to face those situations in waking reality.  Creativity, flexibility, and instinctual freedom are the hallmarks of play, in humans as well as other animals.

All of these qualities of play are prominent in dreaming, too.  Dreaming occurs within sleep, a state of temporary withdrawal from the waking world in which the imagination is given free reign to wander where it will.  Dreaming tends to be more frequent and impactful in childhood; young people experience dreams of chasing, flying, and lucid awareness much more often than do older people.  The contents of dreams often have direct references to survival-related themes like sexuality, aggression, personal health, social relations, and the threat of death.  Although dreams in general are not as wildly bizarre as often assumed, they do have the qualities of spontaneous creativity and rich variation that stimulate the mind to look beyond what is to imagine what might be.

Thinking about dreaming as a kind of play has many advantages, foremost of which is overcoming the conflicts between the different branches of dream research.  Dreaming is indeed rooted in natural cycles of brain activity, as neuroscientists have argued, but it no longer makes sense to treat dreams as meaningless by-products of a sleep-addled mind.  If we saw a group of children playing an imaginary game of house, would we be justified in assuming their brains are somehow malfunctioning?  Not at all.  In the same way, we should recognize the playful qualities of dreaming as integral to healthy cognitive functioning.  In the language of computer programming, dreaming should be appreciated as a vital feature of the mind, not a bug to be fixed or eliminated.

A dreaming-is-play perspective has clear benefits for the practice of psychotherapy.  Rather than laboring to uncover deep hidden messages, therapists can explore the imaginative dynamics of their clients’ dreams for useful clues to their emotional concerns and waking life challenges (while still pursuing deeper symbolic levels, if so desired).

This can be especially helpful in caring for trauma patients.  Research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has shown that during successful treatment the patients’ recurrent nightmares gradually become less fixated on the trauma and more open to an increasing variety of dream themes, characters, and scenarios.  In other words, the more playful their dreams become, the more progress the patients are making towards psychological health.

I once did a research project with a woman, “Nan,” who was nearly killed in a car accident and spent several days in intensive care with severe spinal injuries.  Her dreams following the accident were filled with fear, aggression, and misfortune, exactly what we would expect of someone with acute PTSD.  But Nan told me she put her hopes on one unusual dream, which came about four months after she was hurt.  In this dream there was a magical paintbrush that allowed her to paint the colors of the rainbow, just like a beloved character she remembered from a childhood story.  This was the first time since Nan’s accident that one of her dreams had so many references to colors, positive emotions, and good fortunes.  The green shoots of playfulness that emerged in this dream anticipated, and perhaps even stimulated, her eventual recovery of health.

The evolutionary success of our species is largely due to the tremendous flexibility and adaptive creativity of our minds.  Current scientific evidence is telling us that dreaming is a powerful, neurologically hard-wired process that strengthens precisely those distinctively human psychological abilities.  Our playful reveries during sleep function like mental yoga: stretching our cognitive abilities in new directions, exploring the boundaries and potentials of awareness, and preparing us for whatever the waking world may bring.