The Study of a 32-Year Long Dream Journal

The Study of a 32-Year Long Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyThe latest series to be uploaded into the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) is the biggest yet: the “Brianna Journal 1984-2016,” 2,448 dream reports from a woman who kept a journal fairly consistently for 32 years.  This series offers an amazing opportunity to observe in unusually close detail the emotional contours of an individual’s life as she makes her way through a challenging and often dangerous world.

Brianna (not her real name) shared these dreams with me and Deirdre Barrett last year, which we initially studied for a presentation at the 2016 conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  Using the word search functions of the SDDb, I performed a “blind analysis” on three subsets of Brianna’s dream journals, meaning I 1) tabulated the frequencies of word usage for several categories of dream content, 2) compared her frequencies with baseline averages for each category, and 3) made inferences, based on nothing other than her dream patterns, about her concerns and activities in waking life.  For instance, I inferred that Brianna is closer to her mother than her father, is interested in books and writing, is not interested in sports, and has significant involvement with issues of death and dying.  Brianna herself, who attended the conference presentation, confirmed these and other inferences, which helped demonstrate the general idea that patterns in dreaming can accurately reflect people’s waking life concerns.

Now I have finally uploaded the complete collection of dreams Brianna shared with me, which provides a broader overview of her dreaming experiences over the span of more than three decades.  I will share more details from my analysis at the upcoming 2017 IASD conference (held in Anaheim, California, June 16-20).  For now, here are some of the initial findings of my study of this remarkable series.

Length: This is a long series in at least three ways: total number of dreams (2,448), time span covered by the journals (32 years), and average number of words per report (292).  The median word length is 168 words, meaning half the reports are shorter than that, and half the reports are longer.  Looking at the distribution of word lengths in the series as a whole, 851 of the dreams have between 1 and 99 words, 794 of the dreams have between 100 and 299 words, and 803 of the dreams have 300 or more words.  A series with this many dreams at both the short and long ends of the spectrum poses special challenges for analysis.  For now, I will study the series as a whole, but at some point I will look at subsets of varying lengths (e.g., the dreams of 50-300 words in length, of which there are 1,192).

Cognition: The series as a whole has a remarkably high frequency of dreams with at least one word relating to thinking (71%), speaking (56%), and reading/writing (19%).  The dreams have lots of strange, irrational material, too, but much of the content is oriented around normal cognitive activities that are also important in her waking life (Brianna is, in fact, a literate, well-educated, and sociable person).  The high proportion of cognition references could be a result of the unusual length of her dreams, and/or it could be an accurate reflection of her waking personality.  Either way, this is a topic worth further investigation.

Death: One out of every seven (15%) of Brianna’s dreams has a reference to death.  That is quite high compared to other dream series I have studied, and it strongly suggests that death and dying are major concerns in Brianna’s waking life.  I know enough about her to confirm the general accuracy of this inference, and now I am curious to look more closely at how this theme weaves its way through her series as a whole.

Religion: The frequency of references to religion is also unusually high in this series, and the list of specific words used in the dreams makes it fairly easy to accurately infer that Brianna is Jewish.  In previous studies I have found that patterns in dreaming offer good clues to a person’s beliefs and attitudes towards religion.  The Brianna series seems to be another illustration of that premise, and through deeper analysis I hope to understand better how religious and spiritual themes in the dreams track with Brianna’s waking life interests, concerns, and experiences.

Note: this post was originally published in Psychology Today, March 10, 2017.

Recent Interviews About “Big Dreams”

Recent Interviews About "Big Dreams" by Kelly BulkeleyIn the past couple of weeks I have spoken several times with journalists about Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion.  It’s a daunting experience to have smart people read what you’ve written and ask sharp questions about how you put together your argument… and all the more intimidating with a tape recorder running.  But I think the basic ideas from the book come through pretty well in these pieces.

The Huffington Post had an article in its Sleep + Wellness section on March 17 by Carolyn Gregoire (@carolyn_greg) titled “How Dreams Shaped the Evolution of Spirituality and Religion.

New York Magazine had an article in its online “Science of Us” section on March 25 by Mona Chalabi (@MonaChalabi) titled “I Keep Having Literal Nightmares About Trump. Am I Normal?”  This interview focused on research I’ve done on dreams and politics, but it also drew on ideas from Big Dreams.

Time Magazine had an article in its “Quick Take” section on March  that I wrote (with excellent editorial help) titled “The Surprising Link Between Dreams and Faith.”  Here’s a pdf version of it: Time_Quick Take (1)

The Atlantic Magazine had an article in its online site on April 5 by Julie Beck (@julieebeck) titled “What Can Our Craziest Dreams Teach Us?

 

 

 

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God?

Big Data and the Study of Religion: Can a Google Search Lead to God? by Kelly BulkeleyA recent essay in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times made several observations about religion in contemporary America by analyzing a huge collection of Google search data. In “Googling for God,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examined the search results for various religious terms and questions in relation to where the people lived and when they performed the searches. Stephens-Davidowitz’s work offers an excellent illustration of the pros and cons of using big data analytics to study religion. Three quotes from his essay show where the biggest challenges can be found.

  1. “If people somewhere are searching a lot about a topic, it is overwhelming evidence those people are very interested in that topic.”

This is the key methodological principle used in Stephens-Davidowitz’s analysis: the frequency of Google searches correlates to the intensity of personal interest. At one level this seems like a reasonable premise. In fact, this principle is very close to the “continuity hypothesis” used by dream researchers to correlate frequencies of dream content with personal concerns in waking life. Many dream researchers, myself included, have pursued studies of dream content using the continuity hypothesis to make inferences about people’s waking lives—if a person dreams a lot about sports, for example, we can confidently predict that sports are an important concern in the person’s waking life.

Stephens-Davidowitz does something similar when he connects Google search data to people’s religious concerns and questions. The problem, however, is defining “very interested.” What exactly can we infer about a person based on their entry of a Google search term? They are “interested,” of course, but interested in what way, and how strongly? What prompted their search? Is there anything distinctive about people’s searches for religious terms compared to non-religious terms?

Until these kinds of questions can be answered (ideally with lots of systematically analyzed empirical evidence, not just one-off studies), the use of Google search data to draw conclusions about religion remains on shaky ground.

In dream research we have many decades of studies that have helped us hone in on “emotional concerns” as a primary point of continuity between dreaming and waking. We also have statistical baselines of typical dream content to help us identify meaningful variations in the frequency of certain aspects of dreaming (see, for example, the Dreambank of G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider, and the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) that I direct). If the use of Google search data included these kinds of analytic aids, the results would be much stronger and more convincing.

  1. “Sometimes Google search data, because of Google’s status as a kind of universal question service, is perfectly suited to give us fresh insights into our offline lives.”

The idea of Google as a “universal question service” has great appeal, not the least because so much of the information is easily accessible for public study. This is one of the great boons of the era of big data, and new studies of this treasure trove of information are bound to increase in future years.

A potential problem, however, is a tendency to blur the distinction between a) what Google offers its users and b) who those users are. The fact that Google enables people to ask all kinds of questions does not mean that all kinds of people are asking those questions. Google users are not necessarily representative of the US population as a whole, and we do not know how representative the Google users are who are searching specifically for religious terms. We do know that when people perform a Google search they are connected via technology to the internet, they are interacting with a global corporation, and they are being shown numerous commercial responses to their search. These circumstances should qualify our assumptions about who uses Google and how they engage with the search function.

  1. “There are 4.7 million searches every year for Jesus Christ. The pope gets 2.95 million. There are 49 million for Kim Kardashian.”

This quote comes at the end of the essay, and it perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of explaining the significance of Google search results. According to the findings cited by Stephens-Davidowitz, Kim Kardashian gets ten times the search results of Jesus Christ. What exactly does that mean? That Kim Kardashian is ten times more interesting than Jesus? That she is ten times more popular, or more important, or more influential?

The problem is that Google search data do not meaningfully measure any one thing, other than the tautological fact of having entered a specific search term. The results of analyzing these data seem admirably clear and quantitative—4.7 million vs. 49 million!—but they do not easily or self-evidently map onto the actual beliefs, feelings, and attitudes of the general population.

The good news is that these are tractable problems. Real progress can be made by more detailed studies and more systematic correlations of the data with genuinely meaningful aspects of people’s lives. This fascinating essay by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz helps people who study religion see where these new analytic endeavors can be most fruitfully pursued.

 

Note: first published September 24, 2015 in the Huffington Post.

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 Origins of Religion in Dreaming

The Origins of Religion in Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyOne of the oldest theories about the origins of religion argues that religious beliefs and practices are derived from the experience of dreaming.  This theory is most often associated with the 19th century British anthropologist E.B. Tylor, as expressed in this passage from the 1873 work Primitive Culture:

“The evidence of visions corresponds with the evidence of dreams in their bearing on primitive theories of the soul, and the two classes of phenomena substantiate and supplement one another….That this soul should be looked on as surviving beyond death is a matter scarcely needing elaborate argument. Plain experience is there to teach it to every savage; his friend or his enemy is dead, yet still in dream or open vision he sees the spectral form which is to his philosophy a real objective being, carrying personality as it carries likeness.”

This same idea was also expressed, in even sharper language, by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche just a few years later, in his 1880 book Human, All-Too Human:

“Misunderstanding of the dream. –The man of the ages of barbarous primordial culture believed that in the dream he was getting to know a second real world: here is the origin of all metaphysics.  Without the dream one would have had no occasion to divide the world into two. The dissection into soul and body is also connected with the oldest idea of the dream, likewise the postulation of a life of the soul, thus the origin of all belief in spirits, and probably also of the belief in gods.  ‘The dead live on, for they appear to the living in dreams’: that was the conclusion one formerly drew, throughout many millennia.”

I have just finished writing the manuscript for a book that tries to put this idea to the scientific test.  The book is titled Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion, and it will be published by Oxford University Press later this year or early next.  The basic thesis is that Tylor, Nietzsche, and others are right, dreaming is indeed an experiential source of religious beliefs and practices, and the best evidence from cognitive scientific research backs them up.

Rather than trying to give an all-encompassing theory of religion, I focus on a few specific areas of religious experience where dreams play an especially influential role: demonic seduction, prophetic vision, ritual healing, and contemplative practice.  The title of the book draws on psychologist C.G. Jung’s notion of “big dreams” as rare but extremely vivid dreams that make a strong and lasting impression on waking awareness.  I use resources from traditional psychology of religion (e.g., William James, Sigmund Freud) as well as from newer works in the cognitive science of religion (e.g., Emma Cohen, Harvey Whitehouse, James W. Jones) as guides in applying scientific dream research to the study of religion.

This is also the first book I’ve written using the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) as a primary resource.  I’m just learning how to use the digital tools of the database myself (an upgraded version of the site will come online in the next few days), and the more SDDb analyses I did for this book, the more excited I became about possibilities for future projects in data-driven dream research that look at religious and cultural phenomena with fresh, empirically curious eyes.

The Religious Content of Dreams: A New Scientific Foundation

This is an article from the journal Pastoral Psychology 58 (2009), 93-106.  It was the first time I tried applying word search methods in the analysis of a specific aspect of dream content in a series of dreams from a particular individual.  Although I don’t foreground the idea, it’s an early attempt at “blind analysis” in terms of an approach to identifying continuities between dream content and the individual’s concerns and activities in waking life.

PP The Religious Content of Dreams 2009