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?

 

 

 

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.

Digital Dream Analysis: A New Article on Word Search Methods

Digital Dream Analysis: A New Article on Word Search Methods by Kelly BulkeleyThe latest issue of the journal Consciousness and Cognition has an article of mine titled “Digital dream analysis: A revised method,” that’s the fruition of several years of data-driven work.  It lays out the latest developments in testing and refining the word search template programmed into the Sleep and Dream Database, a digital archive and search engine designed to promote scientific dream research.  The original article I wrote using this word search method was in a 2009 issue of Consciousness and Cognition, titled “Seeking patterns in dream content: A systematic approach to word searches.”  The new article builds on that earlier piece and extends it in two ways.

First, it presents a revised, 2.0 version of the word search template that has many improvements on the 1.0 version presented in the 2009 article.  I’m sure there will be more refinements in the future, and hopefully more researchers developing their own templates as well.  But for now, the 2.0 version is useful as a well-tested and fairly comprehensive tool for analyzing dream content simply, quickly, and reliably.

Second, the article applies the 2.0 word search template to a number of previously studied collections of dreams from very high quality sources (Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle, J. Allan Hobson, and G. William Domhoff).  In doing so I followed the advice of Kurt Bollacker, database engineer for the SDDb, who suggested I take “classic” studies in dream research from the past and try applying my new method to their same data.  That’s what I have done in this article: use the word search method to analyze the same sets of dreams those researchers studied, so we can see what the new method can and cannot tell us about meaningful patterns in dream content.

Here is the abstract for the article.  The whole thing, I’m told, is available for free download until November 22, 2014.

“This article demonstrates the use of a digital word search method designed to provide greater accuracy, objectivity, and speed in the study of dreams.  A revised template of 40 word search categories, built into the website of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), is applied to four “classic” sets of dreams: The male and female “Norm” dreams of Hall and Van de Castle (1966), the “Engine Man” dreams discussed by Hobson (1988), and the “Barb Sanders Baseline 250” dreams examined by Domhoff (2003).  A word search analysis of these original dream reports shows that a digital approach can accurately identify many of the same distinctive patterns of content found by previous investigators using much more laborious and time-consuming methods. The results of this study emphasize the compatibility of word search technologies with traditional approaches to dream content analysis.”

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

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.