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.

Neuro-Nonsense: The Perils, and Promise, of Cognitive Science for the Study of Religion

Neuro-Nonsense: The Perils, and Promise, of Cognitive Science for the Study of Religion by Kelly BulkeleyThis is the text of a paper I presented at “The Psychology of Religion/Religion of Psychology” conference held at the University of Chicago Divinity School  on March 6, 2015.  My paper was the first in a panel devoted to “Disjunctions Between Contemporary Psychology and Religion.”

On July 17, 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced in Proclamation 6158 that the 1990’s were to be officially designated as the “Decade of the Brain.”  The Proclamation began with these lines:

“The human brain, a 3-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells that controls our activity, is one of the most magnificent—and mysterious—wonders of creation.  The seat of human intelligence, interpreter of senses, and controller of movement, this incredible organ continues to intrigue scientist and layman alike.”

President Bush’s Proclamation accelerated scientific efforts to learn more about how the brain works, with a special focus on finding new treatments for devastating neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.  To achieve that goal, powerful technologies were developed to analyze, measure, and influence the brain.  These tools are primarily aimed at addressing the growing medical needs of an aging population, but they have been applied in other areas of research as well, including the psychological dimensions of religion.

Other speakers may talk in more detail about the positive aspects of this turn towards the brain, and so will I.  But first, we should consider the casualties and costs of this historical shift, which has in many ways been disastrous for the psychology of religion.  Three particular losses—of historical awareness, therapeutic engagement, and interest in mysticism—will be the focus of my presentation, which Peter Homans, who taught here at the Divinity School for many years, might have considered a work of mourning, in the sense of responding to loss by the creation of new meanings.  If we can gain more clarity about what has been lost in this field since the “Decade of the Brain,” we can more fairly assess the potential benefits of neuroscientific research for religious studies.  We can also, at that point, consider the potential benefits of religious studies for brain research.

Let me briefly define some terms.

The psychology of religion, as we have already heard, comprises a multifaceted research tradition going back more than 100 years to the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud, William James, Carl Jung, and others.

Cognitive science is an alliance of six disciplines—neuroscience, psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and anthropology—that together, beginning in the 1970’s and accelerating in the 1990’s, have tried to improve on psychoanalytic and behaviorist models of the mind.

The cognitive science of religion, or CSR, is a 21st century development in the psychology of religion, drawing on contemporary scientific studies of brain-mind functioning.

CSR appeals to many researchers because it emphasizes experimental evidence and testable hypotheses, helping researchers escape the hazy hermeneutics and overly thick descriptions too often found in the contemporary study of religion.  CSR offers a bracing, forward-looking response to the tired and fruitless meanderings of post-modern scholarship.

Unfortunately, the cost of this approach has been a loss of interest in, or even awareness of, the findings of earlier researchers who carefully investigated many of the same topics as those found in CSR.  Anything that happened before the “Decade of the Brain” no longer seems relevant now that we have such powerful neuroimaging tools at our disposal.  This leads to CSR researchers claiming new explanations of phenomena that actually have a long history in the psychology of religion.  This is what Jeremy Carrette has called “disciplinary amnesia,” and our field has a bad case of it.

As a brief example, consider Pascal Boyer’s 2002 book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.  This is an admirable work in many ways, and highly influential in CSR, but it takes strangely little account of earlier research in the psychology of religion.  In a passage late in the book Boyer comments on the similarities between religious rituals and obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD).  He describes several neuroscientific studies, all conducted in the 1990’s, on dysfunctions in the brain associated with OCD.   Although he does not insist that all religious rituals are pathological, Boyer uses this neurological evidence to support his book’s overall argument that religious beliefs and behaviors are “parasitic” on normal processes of the mind.

I don’t want to engage right now with Boyer’s “mental parasite” theory of religion.  Rather, I want to point out that in two detailed pages of text comparing religious rituals and OCD, Boyer never once mentions Freud, whose 1907 article “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices” addressed exactly the same topic.  Indeed, Freud’s prescient article was crucial in defining the clinical syndrome of OCD itself, which Boyer now “explains” in CSR terms.

Why does this loss of history matter?  Maybe it doesn’t.  There is an argument to be made that a scientific field should not be overly concerned with or reverential towards its past.  After all, we don’t make people study alchemy before they can start learning chemistry.

But it’s not that simple in the psychology of religion.  Not only does the loss of historical self-awareness lead to unwarranted claims of novel discoveries, it also makes it harder to avoid going down paths that earlier researchers have found to be dead-ends.  Here again, the case of Freud is helpful.  Too few people know or appreciate the fact that Freud was originally trained as a neuroscientist, receiving his education from some of the best medical research institutions in the world at that time.  Freud knew as much about the brain as anyone, and in 1895 he began drafting “A Project for a Scientific Psychology,” in which he planned to use neuroscientific evidence to explain mental life in purely physical terms.  But then, a couple years later, he gave up on this plan, and turned to the study of dreams.  Why did Freud abandon his neuroscientific vision?  Not because he lacked hi-tech brain scanners.  Freud gave up on the 1895 Project because he realized that experimental neuroscience was not enough, and would never be enough, to understand the human mind.  Focusing on the material workings of the brain can only take us so far, before we have to include the analysis of emotion, desire, consciousness, family, culture, and many other dimensions of psychological experience that are difficult to measure or experimentally manipulate.

Paul Ricoeur, in his 1970 book Freud and Philosophy, gave Freud credit for developing a “mixed discourse” between force and desire, energetics and hermeneutics, the workings of the brain and the meanings of the mind.  Freud may have been limited in his view of those forces and desires, but he had the right idea: we need hybrid theories and concepts that can clarify, rather than obscure, the subtle, multidimensional complexities of the human psyche.

This kind of approach has been eclipsed in recent years by the emphasis on brain science as the ultimate source of explanatory truth.  We seem to be going back to a place that Freud abandoned at the end of the 19th century.  It’s worse than just reinventing the wheel, it’s forgetting why we ever needed a wheel in the first place.

The second loss, of therapeutic engagement, reflects another adverse consequence of the “Decade of the Brain.”  Throughout the 20th century the psychology of religion was stimulated by the clinical work of Freud, Jung, and many, many other skilled therapists who delved deeply into the mental worlds of their clients, and in the process gained remarkable insights into the religious and psychological dynamics of their lived experiences.  Both medical psychiatrists and pastoral counselors found useful information here, and their shared interest inspired many fruitful conversations about the role of religion in healthy human development.

In recent years, however, these interpersonal, humanistic practices of therapy have been swept aside and replaced by the increasingly widespread use of psychoactive drugs.  The mental health system, in the U.S. at least, has turned into an impersonal delivery service for prescription medications and short-term cognitive behavioral therapy.  This bears little resemblance to the rich, intimately detailed clinical practices that for so many years were integral to the psychology of religion.

To be clear, many psychoactive drugs save lives and help people stabilize enough to benefit from other treatments.  But the skyrocketing use of these medications has severely undermined the efforts of psychotherapists and pastoral counselors to practice their healing crafts.   Unfortunately I see few people in CSR who regard this as a problem for the field.

The third loss I want to mention regards an appreciation for the multiplicity of religious experiences, from mystical visions and dreams to possession, trance, and ecstasy.  These phenomena are difficult to measure using brain scanning technology, and in any case such “altered states of consciousness” obviously deviate from the mind’s functioning in a normal waking condition—the state to which most psychoactive drugs and cognitive therapies are trying to return a person.  Hence, CSR researchers have tended either to ignore mystical experiences or treat them as pathological failures of normal brain functioning, like bad pieces of neural code. The result is a shallow, homogenized view of human religiosity that excludes precisely those unusual, intensified experiences that William James said more than 100 years ago were key to a psychological understanding of religious life.

On this count we should be no less skeptical toward supposedly “pro-religion” researchers like Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, whose brain imaging studies of people in meditation allegedly reveal a common neurological core of all mystical experiences (what they refer to as “absolute unitary being”).  Their claim does not stand up to either empirical or conceptual scrutiny, and yet many people have accepted it because it seems to give a neuroscientific “seal of approval” to the study of mysticism.  This to me is the worst of all worlds: taking poor practices from neuroscience and using them to dumb down the psychology of religion.

So, these three losses, of history, therapy, and mysticism—that’s the bad news of recent years.  But there is good news, too.  For instance, a new branch of research, known as social neuroscience, is taking more seriously the idea that we cannot just study brains, we have to study brains in bodies that live within families, who live within broader social and cultural contexts. It turns out that normal, healthy brain development depends fundamentally on a supportive social environment, on a lively stream of interpersonal relationships.  I know that in the last years of his life Don Browning, who taught religion and psychological studies here at the Divinity School, was having conversations with social neuroscientists in the University, and he engaged with them as Paul Ricoeur might have done, seeking new prospects for a mixed discourse.  Following Browning’s example, I encourage the psychology of religion and CSR to pursue more engagement with this area of brain research.

Still, even the good news has an asterisk attached.  I’ve begun wondering if the appearance of social neuroscience is actually a sign that the brain boom has peaked.  There seems to be a kind of self-deconstructing process at work here.  If we cannot understand the brain without looking beyond the brain, then neuroscience loses its status as an ultimate source of explanatory authority.

The future of the psychology of religion will not, I venture to say, center on brain research, or for that matter on genetics, or evolutionary biology, or the latest findings from any other scientific discipline.  Rather, the future will depend—and I’m sorry, this isn’t going to sound very exciting, but I think it’s true—on data management, meaning our ability to gather, sort, analyze, and creatively integrate information from many different sources.  The Decade of the Brain is over, but the Century of Big Data is just beginning.

I don’t know about each of your different areas of specialization, but in mine the “Moneyball” changes are happening very fast, with torrential volumes of new information and the emergence of amazingly powerful tools of analysis.  In 2009, motivated in large part by a fear of being left behind, I began developing the Sleep and Dream Database, an online digital archive and search engine for empirical dream research.  (With the help, I should say, of software engineer Kurt Bollacker, U.C. Santa Cruz psychologist Bill Domhoff, and his coding colleague Adam Schneider.)  At this point the database includes more than 15,000 dream reports from a variety of sources, including demographic surveys, personal journals, psychology experiments, and historical records.

There are many different analytic paths a psychologist of religion could follow using these materials.  [All of the following examples have links to sample data in the SDDb.]

For example, one could sort through all the dream reports in the SDDb with words relating to religion.

Or, one could look at just the dream reports of people who identify themselves as Born-Again Christians.

Or one could compare the dream recall frequencies of people (American adults) who do or do not consider themselves more “spiritual than religious.”

I mention the SDDb because it is a small but practical example of how to make adaptive use of big data technologies rather than becoming overwhelmed by them.  Of course, there are many limits to this kind of quantitative analysis of what Freud would call “manifest” dream content, along with many questions about personal privacy, interpretive authority, and data security.  But I would like to close my presentation by at least gesturing beyond the critique of neuro-nonsense, and offering the hint of a more constructive response to the question that has drawn all of us here, namely how to promote a more prosperous future in the psychological study of religion.

Thank you.

 

The Technology of Dreaming

For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream.”

So said the famously hard-working inventor Thomas Edison in 1921 in his Diary and Sundry Observations.  Edison claimed the only truly restful sleep was totally unconscious, and he regarded dreaming as a waste of mental energy that could be put to more productive use in waking life.

Nearly a century later Larry Page, another iconic figure of technological progress, offered a very different approach to dreams.  In a 2009 commencement address at the University of Michigan he said, “You know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know how, if you don’t have a pencil and pad by the bed to write it down, it will be completely gone the next morning? Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23.”  Page awoke from his dream and immediately began writing notes about downloading the entire worldwide web with all links intact—the seed idea for what he later built into Google.  His advice to the graduates: “When a really great dream shows up, grab it!

Which of these two world-changing innovators had it right? Should we strictly limit our sleep and ignore our dreams as Edison did?  Or should we listen to our dreams and try to follow them as Page recommended?

The Technology of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe Technology of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe Technology of Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

The world is filled with people trying to be like Edison, working nonstop and vowing to “sleep when I’m dead,” but this behavior appears foolish and self-defeating in light of current research in sleep medicine. Numerous studies over the past several decades have shown that inadequate sleep has a negative impact on human health, with harmful effects on our emotional, cognitive, physical, and immunological well-being.  What counts as “adequate” differs for each individual, but only a tiny portion of the population can sleep four or five hours a night and function the next day in an optimally healthy way.

The basic message of this research: A sure way to make yourself less productive is to artificially limit your individual sleep needs.

We can’t do without sleep.  But can we do without dreams?

The scientific evidence is less clear on this point.  Some people insist they never remember their dreams, although closer investigation usually finds they can recall a few dreams, just very infrequently.  (Even Edison mentioned a couple of dreams in his diary.)  Demographic surveys indicate most people remember one or two dreams a week.  Women tend to remember more dreams than men, and younger people more than older people.

Intriguingly, researchers have found that dream recall can be dramatically increased with little more than simple encouragement and having a pad of paper and pen by one’s bedside, as Page did.  It’s fairly easy, in other words, to remember more dreams if that’s what you want.  Build it and they will come.

Neuroscientists have begun to fill in the picture of what happens in the brain while we’re dreaming.  During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreams seem to occur, activity slows down in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for focused rational thought.  Activity increases in the limbic system, an older part of the brain involved with emotions, memory formation, and instinctual responses (e.g., fight/flight, sexual arousal).  Neural activity also increases in regions of the brain devoted to visual processing.

These findings make perfect sense in relation to empirical studies of dream content showing it to be loosely structured, highly associative, emotionally varied, and filled with intense visual images. The neuroscience of REM sleep matches up well with people’s subjective experiences of dreams, giving us more confidence there’s a real connection here between brain and mind.

Dreaming now seems best understood as the psychological expression of a distinctive mode of brain functioning devoted to memory, emotion, and playful meaning-making. It is inherently and powerfully creative, not only in producing experiential worlds of astonishing depth and realism but also in stretching our minds to make surprising new connections between disparate ideas, feelings, and impressions.  Contrary to the stereotype of dreams as nothing but random nonsense, current research shows their content is meaningful at many levels, accurately reflecting our most important concerns and activities in waking life.

Edison was right to this extent: We can ignore our dreams, if we so choose.  But Page was right on the bigger point.  Dreaming is not wasteful; it has its own neurological integrity and psychological value.  It taps into a deep inner wellspring of creative thinking that leads us beyond what is to imagine what might be.

In this sense we can think of dreaming as a kind of innate technology of the mind, a natural tool of creative consciousness.

The question for dream researchers then becomes, how can we use that tool better?  How can we refine it, improve it, make it stronger?

This might sound like the start of a Dr. Frankenstein tale, with mad scientists rashly meddling in mysteries they don’t understand.  But we are not the first to ask these questions.  Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, people have used a variety of techniques to actively stimulate their inborn capacity for powerful dreaming.

For example, the Native American ritual of the vision quest involves several days and nights of solitary fasting in the wilderness as a means of inviting a revelatory dream.  The Muslim practice of istikhara uses special prayers, purifications, and sleep positions to elicit a dream that helps resolve an important question or decision.  The Indian sage Naropa taught his followers how to control their dreams through yogic methods of chanting, breathing, visualizations, and bodily postures.  Temples devoted to the Greek god Asclepius thrived for centuries as holy sites where people came to worship, diet, exercise, and sleep in hopes of receiving a healing dream.

Cultural practices like these represent time-honored, ethically sensitive techniques for intensifying dreams and deriving more insight from them.     

Eventually we will integrate our best models of dream content with highly advanced neuroscientific maps of brain activity during sleep, and this will set the stage for a new generation of technologies that directly stimulate the brain to produce more creative dream experiences.  By fine-tuning the neural parameters of sleep we’ll be able to filter out the noise and amplify the signals of the dreaming imagination.

The Technology of Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

Undoubtedly this will be good news for the movie business.  As George Lucas recently said at the USC School of Cinematic Arts when asked to predict the future of film, “The next step is to be able to control your dreams. You’ll just tap into a different part of your brain. You’re just going to put a hat on or plug into the computer and create your own world… We’ll be able to do the dream thing 10, 15 years from now. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky thing.”

That timeline seems about right to me, although I would envision devices that generate a more interactive and mutually respectful process between waking and dreaming, with a focus on awareness and growth rather than control for control’s sake.

Beyond their entertainment value, these dream technologies of the not-so-distant future will help us cultivate a more unified consciousness that takes advantage of our brain’s amazing creativity throughout all phases of the sleep-wake cycle.

####

Note: This essay also appears on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-bulkeley-phd/the-technology-of-dreaming_b_4378041.html