What Kinds of Technology Do People Dream About Most Frequently?

What Kinds of Technology Do People Dream About Most Frequently? by Kelly BulkeleyThe past one hundred years of human history have been dramatically transformed by the invention of several new technologies, each of which has impacted people’s lives in profound and complicated ways.

In light of empirical research showing strong continuities between waking and dreaming, we can hypothesize that modern technologies have also made a tangible impact on the content of people’s dreams.

And indeed, there is evidence in support of that idea. By analyzing a collection of more than 16,000 dream reports available for study on the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), it becomes possible to examine which kinds of technology have most influenced people’s dreams in terms of their frequency of appearance.

The results suggest the newest technologies are not necessarily the most important ones in the world of dreams.

To explore this question I looked at all the dream reports on the SDDb of 25 words or more in length for Females (N=10,168) and Males (N=6,590), and selected the “Technology and Science” category from the 2.0 word search template.

This is a quick and dirty approach, but it has the virtue of providing an easy and relatively straightforward means of getting an evidence-based response to the question.

The results for the Females were 990 dream reports with at least one reference to a word in the “Technology and Science” category, approximately 10% of the total number of dreams. The figures for the Males were 602 and 9%.

Looking in more detail at which terms appeared most frequently (these include singular and plural uses of the term), the results for the Females were these:

Phone, 3.55%

Movie, 3.18%

Video, 1.26%

Computer, 1.2%

Machine, .91%

Radio, .65%

Camera, .62%

Television, .26%

And for the Males:

Phone, 2.69%

Movie, 2.47%

Video, 1.27%

Computer, 1.03%

Machine, 1.02%

Radio, .47%

Camera, .49%

Television, .36%

I did a parallel search with the same two sets using the SDDb 2.0 word search template category for Transportation. These results—24% of the dream reports for both Females and Males had at least one reference to a Transportation word—are much higher than the Technology and Science frequencies.

Looking more closely at specific forms of transportation appearing in people’s dreams, these were the results for the Females:

Car, 9.12%

Boat, 1.92%

Bus, 1.81%

Airplane, 1.49%

Truck, 1.26%

Elevator, 1.16%

Bicycle, .86%

And for the Males:

Car, 8.18%

Boat, 2.12%

Bus, 1.65%

Bicycle, 1.56%

Airplane, 1.46%

Truck, 1.37%

Elevator, .67%

The first thing to note is the remarkable gender balance. On almost all the categories and word clusters, the Female and Male frequencies are extremely close. (The main exceptions are slightly more Bicycle references for the Males, and slightly more Phone, Movie, Car, and Elevator references for the Females.) This consistency across so many terms suggests that modern technologies have impacted men and women about equally.

Secondly, the analysis indicates that the most frequently appearing modern invention in dreams is the automobile. It seems that technologies of transportation have had more of an impact on people’s dreams than have technologies of communications and entertainment.  Add in trucks and buses to cars, and the predominance of the internal combustion engine in dreaming becomes even greater.

Why might this be? I’m not sure, but I wonder if technologies of transportation have more of a visceral impact on people’s lives. Telephones, movies, videos, and computers can be fascinating and absorbing, but they do not directly affect a person’s body with the kind of sensory intensity that people feel during a car ride.

Whatever the explanation, the results of this brief study indicate that the most frequently appearing type of modern technology in dreams is one that was invented more than one hundred years ago. Newer technologies like computers and videos have not (yet) made as big an impression on the dreaming imagination.

Maybe future developments in virtual reality will enable a more powerful stimulation of people’s physiological responses, prompting a rise in VR-related dreams. But that remains a far-off possibility.

Until then, cars remain for most people the dream technology of choice.

 

Note: here are the word strings for the specific technology and transportation searches:

Phone: phone phones telephone telephones iphone iphones. Video: video videos. Computer: computer computers. Machine: machine machines machinery. Radio: radio radios. Camera: camera cameras. Television: television televisions tv tvs.

Car: car cars auto autos automobile automobiles. Boat: boat boats ship ships. Bus: bus buses. Bicycle: bicycle bicycles bike bikes. Airplane: airplane airplanes plane planes. Truck: truck trucks. Elevator: elevator elevators.

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.

Dream Incubation: An Interview with Arianna Huffington

Dream Incubation: An Interview with Arianna Huffington by Kelly BulkeleyThe Huffington Post recently published an interview I did with Arianna Huffington about dream incubation.  She has a long-standing interest in sleep and dreams, along with spiritual curiosity and an appreciation for scientific research–a perfect audience for what I’ve been working on over the past couple of years.  What I told her about dream incubation comes from chapter 15 of the book Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (Oxford U. Press), due out in early 2016.  That’s the next-to-last chapter of the book, which starts with a section on the evolution of sleep, laying a scientific foundation for understanding how dreams have emerged in the human species.  The second section looks at empirical patterns in ordinary dream recall and content, drawing on research from the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb).  The third section focuses on “big dreams,” i.e. rare but extremely vivid and memorable dreams that make a long-lasting impression on waking awareness.  I discuss scientific research on four prototypes of big dreaming that recur especially frequently, throughout history and in cultures all around the world: aggressive, sexual, gravitational, and mystical.  Finally, in the fourth section, I use this information about big dreams to shed new light on several kinds of religious experience found in many different traditions: demonic seduction, prophetic vision, ritual healing, and contemplative practice.  Dream incubation appears in the chapter on ritual healing, with lots of discussion of the Roman orator Aelius Aristides in the 2nd century CE, who wrote about his dream incubation experiences at a temple of the ancient Greek healing god Asclepius.

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.

 

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier

In developing the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), a digital archive and search engine for dream research, I have been acutely aware that I possess no formal training in computer science or internet technology.  My doctoral degree is in religion and psychological studies, and I learned many things in the course of my graduate education, but nothing about how to conceive, build, or use a digital database.

 

Fortunately I’ve benefitted from the wisdom of three people—Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier—who have helped me understand how to translate my psychology of religion interest in dreams into the functional mechanics of a digital database.

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier by Kelly BulkeleyLarry Lessig was a first-year law school student with my soon-to-be wife at the University of Chicago, at the same time I was a doctoral student at the U. of Chicago Divinity School.  It was 1986 and 1987, and we spent a lot of time hanging out with Larry and a few other frighteningly smart, frighteningly conservative law students.  Once I asked Larry what he was doing for fun, and he said he was spending a lot of time in cyberspace.  I had recently read William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which popularized the term cyberspace, and excitedly I said to Larry, I’ve been reading Gibson’s work too, it’s so interesting how he envisions a disembodied reality of pure information flows…. Larry let me finish, then said he was spending time in actual cyberspace, exploring the earliest iterations of the world wide web.  While I was reading cool science fiction about cyberspace, Larry was really in cyberspace, figuring it out, studying its original development as it happened.

I look back on that conversation and think of it as planting a seed that’s coming to fruition now with the SDDb.  In 1999 Larry wrote a book called Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace, and from that book I’ve learned the basic principle that everything we create in the digital world depends on the choices we make about how to structure information and its access.  It’s not just machines doing things on their own, it’s us making machines that do certain things and not others.  We can make good choices or bad choices about how we design those machines, freedom-affirming choices or freedom-limiting choices.

Thanks, Larry, for helping me understand that.

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier by Kelly BulkeleyI met Kurt Bollacker through Dominic Luscinci, a statistician in San Francisco who had worked with Kurt on another database design project.  I really can’t believe my good fortune in having Kurt help me turn the SDDb from several pages of scribbled notes into a highly functional reality.  I’ve learned a little about his work as Digital Research Director of the Long Now Foundation, and it reassures me that I have found a person who has not only the technical skill to build the SDDb but also the philosophical vision to see where the digital future is leading us, and to design the database with that vision in mind.

One of the things I learned from Kurt early on was, “Data accumulate value over time.”  I’ve adopted that as a kind of mantra for the SDDb.  Data accumulate value over time.  Information that seems trivial or useless today can be a treasure to researchers in the future.  An awareness of that historical dynamic has a practical consequence for building databases: It means we should aim at a simple, flat, and state-free architecture that can exist independently of any specific type of software.  Because software systems come and go, the best way to create a database that will endure far into the future is to structure the information in a way that will make it easy to transfer from one type of software to another. That’s a key principle in the overall design of the SDDb, and one that I hope will make the database useful to dreamers and researchers for many years to come.

For that and more, thanks, Kurt.

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier by Kelly BulkeleyThe third person I want to acknowledge as an influence is Jaron Lanier and his book You Are Not a Gadget. I’m a religious studies scholar, so forgive me, but Jaron strikes me as a latter-day techno-prophet, warning us of the apocalyptic perils that lie ahead if we allow soulless machines to become our masters.  His book is a passionate call to fight against “cybernetic totalism” and the economic power of “lord aggregators” of the web—I love that term—whose driving interest is to commercially exploit our personal information.  As someone trying to build a database that includes a lot of personal information, I have thought long and hard about Jaron’s cautionary ideas, and I’ve done my best to design the SDDb in a way that will enhance rather than diminish people’s freedom and creativity in exploring the world of dreams.

I read Jaron’s book in the summer of 2011, and soon afterwards he was profiled in a New Yorker magazine article.  The article was actually kind of lame, focusing more on his counter-cultural appearance and behavior than the substance of his ideas.  Well, as fate or synchronicity would have it, the day after the New Yorker article came out, I bumped into Jaron down at the market, Andronico’s at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar in north Berkeley.  He was there with his daughter in the produce section.  Normally I’m very reluctant to just walk up and talk to anyone, let alone prominent people, but this was too coincidental, especially since I had learned in Jaron’s book about a 15th century text called “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” a fantastic dream text I’d never heard of before, which I immediately bought and started reading.

So anyway, we were both picking through the lemons, and I went ahead and said hi, I just read that New Yorker article about you. Jaron said yeah, he didn’t really recognize the person they were describing in the article. I quickly tried to think of something to say about how much I valued his ideas, but I’m not a very quick thinker, so all I could come up with was to say thanks for teaching me about “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream.”  I’m sure that comment came across as completely weird and off the wall, and so I hastily moved on to the cereal aisle, and that was that.

So Jaron, if you ever see this, I’m really sorry for stalking you in the Andronico’s produce section a couple of years ago.  What I really want to do is thank you, along with Larry and Kurt, for inspiring the mission, the content, and the code of the Sleep and Dream Database.  Thanks to you all.

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work

Trouble on the Night Shift: Bad Dreams About Work by Kelly Bulkeley“Sleep, the gentlest of the gods, the spirit’s peace, whom care flies from: who soothes the body wearied with toil, and readies it for fresh labors.”

 

That’s how the Roman poet Ovid described sleep in his first century CE masterpiece the Metamorphoses.

 

Many people today desperately seek the restorative blessings of sleep just as Ovid described, but instead they find themselves plagued by bad dreams about work.  Rather than providing a peaceful respite from the burdens of waking life, sleep for many people has become a battleground of job-related stress and financial anxiety. In a recent online survey I conducted with Harris Interactive, 2252 American adults were asked to describe a dream relating to their work or employment status.  All the reports are available via the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) website.  (Here’s a link to the reports of 10+ words in length.)  These dreams offer a fascinating window into the workplace experiences of people across a wide demographic swath of American society.

Reading through the dream reports, it becomes clear that each job or profession has its own distinctive type of nightmare:

A trucker dreamed of a car cutting him off, so he had to slam on the brakes and then fight to control his rig as it started to jack-knife.

A nurse dreamed of her patients unhooking themselves from their monitoring equipment and wandering off, which led to the nurse getting fired for incompetence.

A waiter dreamed about having too many customers to serve, forgetting where the tableware was, and losing track of all the orders.

An electrician had vivid recurrent dreams about needing to fix strange gadgets with hundreds of wires, none of them labeled.

Several teachers had bad dreams about being unprepared for class, dealing with uncooperative students, and struggling with new technologies.

Numerous office administrators had nightmares of phones not working, desks piling up with unfinished work, and calculators streaming out endless amounts of rolled paper.

Whatever makes people feel powerless, overwhelmed, or out of control in their particular type of work, that’s going to drive the content and emotions of their dreams.

Sometimes people’s anxieties are transformed by the dreaming imagination into bizarre scenes that reflect a kind of surrealistic commentary on their employment situation.  Ovid would surely be delighted by metamorphic dreams like these:

A 30-year old woman from Arizona dreamed that “giant staplers were chasing me down the hall” at the school where she works. 

A 35-year old software developer from Minnesota dreamed of going to apply for a job and finding the interviewer was an alien with green skin and a large almond-shaped head. 

A 62-year old woman from Illinois dreamed that a computer was chasing her yelling “Program me!”

A 64-year old man from Minnesota who recently lost his job dreamed he had gone back to his office, but instead of the familiar building it was a strange storehouse for used furniture: “I think the dream meant that my former job was basically warehousing people who needed to move on.”

Weird and troubling as these dreams may be, they in fact make perfect sense in light of scientific research showing that dream content tends to accurately reflect people’s waking life emotional concerns.  Anything that worries us in waking life will likely show up in our dreams, either literally or metaphorically.  This idea of meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns has a lot of data to support it, much of it generated by G. William Domhoff and available on his dreamresearch.net website.

For many people today, worries about their jobs and personal finances top their list of emotional concerns in waking life.  Several of the survey participants spoke of their fears about losing their jobs or trying to find a new one.  A 27-year old Arizona man who has recurrent nightmares of being attacked by bears said, “You never know if you will have employment the next day.”  In such a tenuous economic environment, dream content will naturally reflect people’s job-related worries and preoccupations.

There seems to be a rough evolutionary logic to these kinds of bad dreams.  Several researchers, most recently Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli, have proposed that one of the functions of dreaming is to simulate possible threats in the waking world, helping to prepare the individual to better handle those threats if they ever actually occur.  In this view nightmares give us a safe opportunity to mentally practice survival-related behaviors and get ready for potential dangers.  The short-term pain of upsetting dreams is outweighed by their long-term gain in promoting greater vigilance and preparedness.

It should also be noted the same powers of imagination that generate vivid work nightmares can also generate many other kinds of dreams as well.  Here too there is good scientific evidence to support the idea that dreaming is an inherently creative and multidimensional activity.  During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the time of the sleep cycle when most dreaming occurs, the brain becomes hyper-associative.  The constraints of externally focused consciousness loosen, allowing innovative possibilities to emerge out of wide-ranging connections between perceptions, memories, instincts, and cultural influences.  This is why dreaming seems so crazy and scattered—and why it’s occasionally the source of brilliant flashes of creative insight.

If you have recurrent nightmares about work, try this: After getting in bed each night and turning off the light, take a moment to think about the amazing creative powers in your own dreaming imagination.  If your dreams can create vividly realistic scenarios of work, what other kinds of scenarios could they create?  What are the strangest, most otherworldly dreams you’ve experienced in the past?  What would you like to dream about now?

Your dreams may feel like foes, but with an open mind and playful spirit you can persuade them to become allies.