Dreams and Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

Dreams and Shakespeare: Julius Caesar by Kelly BulkeleyProphetic dreams of doom go unheeded in Shakespeare’s tragedy about violent political strife among the greatest leaders of ancient Rome.

In Julius Caesar, strange dreams and nightmares join with other frightening portents to besiege the people of Rome from all sides.  Terrible storms, weird avian behavior, and a haunting Soothsayer add to the pervasive sense of inescapable doom pressing down on the city.  The very foundations of the world, both political and cosmic, are cracking apart.  Forces of chaos have been set loose within the empire.  And yet, not a single one of Rome’s political leaders has the visionary capacity to recognize the signs of danger. For their failures to heed these warnings, they pay with their lives.

The great Caesar himself sets the tone in an early scene, when the Soothsayer gives him an unmistakable warning: “Beware the Ides of March.”  Caesar is the first character to make the grievous mistake of dismissing as trivial something that turns out to be a vital truth.  For the supreme leader of the Roman empire, the reason for rejecting the Soothsayer boils down to one word: he is a dreamer.  To be a dreamer, then, is to have nothing of significance to say to the ruling authority.  But as the play later reveals, it is the dreamer who had the most significant message of all for the ruler.  This complex polarity of dreaming and political power recurs throughout this play, and in many of Shakespeare’s other plays as well.

Though named after Caesar, the play focuses more attention on Brutus, the popular Roman senator who faces an awful moral choice: Should he stay loyal to his long-time friend and comrade-in-arms, who has shown no evidence of tyrannical tendencies?  Or should he defend the city and people he loves from the imminent threat of a dictator seizing total control of their government?  The agony of making a decision has disrupted his sleep, to the point where nightmarish feelings and images begin seeping into his waking mind, threatening his mental balance.

His sleep-deprived condition makes Brutus easy prey for the deception of Cassius, who fabricates the letter from the people of Rome urging Brutus to take charge of the rebellion against Caesar.  Brutus muses over the line about needing to “awake.”  What he really needs is to sleep, yet the letter urges him (metaphorically) to do the opposite. By taking the letter at its face value, Brutus compounds his mistake—accepting something as true that is in fact the opposite.

The most powerful prophetic dream in Julius Caesar is also the one that receives the most egregiously mistaken interpretation.  The dream occurs to Calphurnia, Caesar’s wife, one of the only female characters in the play.  She does not narrate the dream herself; her husband tells it for her.  He relates that she cried out three times in her sleep about his murder, then woke up and told him about a dream of a statue with blood pouring out from all sides.  This is almost exactly what happens to Caesar later that day, and at first he accepts the dream’s warning and plans on protecting himself at home rather than going out.

But Decius has been sent by the conspirators for the exact reason of luring Caesar out of his palace and escorting him to the Senate, when they will lie in wait, knives at the ready.  Calphurnia’s dream poses a direct obstacle to their plan, so Decius must quickly devise an alternative reading of the dream, one that calms Caesar’s fears and persuades him to lower his guard.  Using a combination of fawning flattery and rank misogyny, Decius leads Caesar away from the dream’s true meaning and toward a false interpretation that actually facilitates the fatal fulfillment of the prophecy.

Immediately after this debate over the proper interpretation of Calphurnia’s dream, the next scene opens with the reading of a letter by a character named Artemidorus of Cidnos, a well-regarded teacher who finds out about the assassination plot.  His letter contains a true account of the plot, and if he had succeeded in giving it to Caesar, it would have saved the ruler’s life.  But as with all the other portents of impending doom, Caesar ignored this one, too, and Artemidorus calls for the ruler’s attention in vain.  The character of Artemidorus of Cidnos may have had a historical source, but at least some of the people in Shakespeare’s audience would also have associated him with Artemidorus of Daldis, another famous Roman teacher who wrote the Oneirocritica, the most influential manual of dream interpretation for many centuries.  The Oneirocritica was well-known in Shakespeare’s time, and most of the popular dream interpretation manuals available to the public were based on the system of Artemidorus of Daldis.  Perhaps it is just a coincidence that a scene with a failure to properly interpret an important dream about Caesar is followed by a scene in which a character named Artemidorus fails to convey an important message to Caesar.  But some of the audience, and maybe Shakespeare himself, would have followed a connecting thematic thread through these scenes, and many other as well, about the dangers of missing a warning of dangers in dreaming.

The murder of Caesar sets loose a similar dynamic in the streets of Rome.  A young poet, Cinna, awakens with a dream of feasting with Caesar, and like Caesar he hesitates in setting foot out of the house that morning because of the ill omen.  But some irresistible force compels him to go forth, where he encounters a mob of people inflamed by Marc Antony’s speech against Brutus and the other assassins.  The mob confuses Cinna the poet with another man named Cinna who helped the conspiracy against Caesar.  Even though the young poet tells the angry people of their mistake, they violently attack him anyway.  The madness of the vengeful crowd dispenses with the need to distinguish truth from illusion.

In the bloody battles for power that follow Caesar’s murder, the forces of Brutus are soon pushed to the brink of defeat.  Brutus senses his time has come because the ghost of Caesar appears to him in a quasi-dream state, terrifying him with the presentiment of his own impending death.  When the ghost departs, Brutus awakens Lucius and asks if he has been dreaming and cried out; Lucius confusedly says no, and Brutus struggles to process the uncanny reality of what he has just experienced. His epistemological uncertainty signals the further dissolution of his capacity to keep his waking and sleeping states from blurring into each other.

When the end comes, Brutus welcomes it as a long-desired rest.  Only now does he clearly foresee his future.  He conscripts the last of his friends, the slumbering Strato, to awaken and help ease him into an eternal slumber.

 

Contemporary performances:

The amazing production of Julius Caesar I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February, directed by Shana Cooper, had a setting so abstract and desaturated it could have been anywhere, or everywhere. Untethered to any specific time period, it explored the dark psychological dynamics of male aggression, vanity, and ambition.  The bloody choreography of masculine violence overshadowed the fine speeches about political virtue.  By the end of the play all the physical structures on stage had been torn to pieces and cast to the ground.  Tyranny had been averted, but at the cost of chaos.

Two casting choices made this production especially powerful.  First, Brutus was played by Danforth Comins, who performed as Hamlet in last year’s OSF production of that play.  Like Hamlet, Brutus agonizes over existential questions of duty, justice, and personal loyalty, and Comins gave the character a tremendous depth of consciousness, especially during his scenes of sleepless brooding.  Second, the part of the Soothsayer was played by Brooklyn Williams, a 12-year old girl who wore a sleeveless green dress.  This was a brilliant move, jarring to audience expectations perhaps, but unforgettably effective in showing that true wisdom, and even a hint of future growth, may come from the most improbable of sources.

  

References to sleep and dreams in the play:

I.2.29

Julius Caesar waves away the Soothsayer (who has just told Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March”): “He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.”

I.2.203

Caesar says he prefers to be surrounded by agreeable men who are “fat, sleek-headed,” “such as sleep a-nights.”

II.1.4

Brutus tries to awaken his sleeping assistant Lucius, whose deep slumber he envies: “I would it were my fault to sleep so soundly.”

II.1.48, 50

Brutus opens a letter supposedly sent to him from the people of Rome, encouraging him to lead the rebellion: “Brutus, thou sleep’st. Awake, and see thyself!”  He then repeats this line to himself.

II.1.64, 68

The stress of the conspiracy against Caesar has taken its toll on Brutus: “Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar, I have not slept.”  Brutus goes on to describe his agonized mental state as something “like a phantasma or a hideous dream.”

II.1.214

Cassius tells the other conspirators that Caesar has become more superstitious recently, a change from his previously skeptical views “of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies.”

II.1.248-252

Brutus finds Lucius asleep again, and praises the youth for his innocence: “Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies/Which busy care draws in the brains of men”

II.2.1-3

At night during a terrible storm, Caesar comes out of his bedroom and says “Thrice hath Calphurnia in her sleep cried out/’Help ho, they murder Caesar!’”

II.2.80-4

Caesar says he will stay home today because of the warning vision seen by his wife in her sleep: “She dreamt tonight she saw my statue,/Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,/Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans/Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.”

II.2.88-111

Decius, one of the conspirators, persuades Caesar that Calphurnia’s dream actually has a more favorable meaning: “This dream is all amiss interpreted./It was a vision fair and fortunate./Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,/In which so many smiling Romans bathed,/Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck/Reviving blood, and that great men shall press/For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance./This by Calphurnia’s dream is signified.”  Caesar is more pleased by the interpretation of Decius (“And this way you have well expounded it”) than by his wife’s (“How foolish do your fears seem now, Calphurnia!/I am ashamed I did yield to them”).

II.3.1

Artemidorus of Cidnos reads a letter of warning that he plans to deliver directly to Caesar.

III.3.1-4

Cinna the poet goes out in the streets despite having just had an unsettling dream: “I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar;/And things unluckily charge my fantasy.”  Moments later he is attacked by a mob who mistakes him for one of the conspirators.

IV.3.286

Brutus invites his comrades to rest before the next day’s battle: “I pray you, sirs, lie in my tent and sleep.”

IV.3.318-323

After Lucius and the others fall asleep and the candle burns low, Brutus sees the ghost of Caesar: “Ha, who comes here?—/I think it is the weakness of mine eyes/That shapes this monstrous apparition./It comes upon me.—Art thou any thing?/Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,/That mak’st my blood cold and my hair to stare?”

IV.3.333-350

Deeply startled, Brutus wakes everyone up and asks if they saw anything: “Didst thou dream, Lucius, that thou so criedst out?”

V.5.1

Facing the end, Brutus says to his weary comrades: “Come, poor remains of friends, rest on this rock.”

V.5.20-3

Brutus says he knows his “hour has come” because he has seen the ghost of Caesar “two several times by night.”

V.5.36-46

Brutus bids farewell to his friends, even one who has fallen asleep on the rock: “Strato, thou hast been all this while asleep,/Farewell to thee, too, Strato.”  By this point he welcomes death: “Night hangs upon my eyes; my bones would rest,/That have but labored to attain this hour.” A moment later, his other friends run away. Strato awakens, and holds the sword by which Brutus kills himself.

Donald Trump: The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis

Donald Trump: The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis by Kelly BulkeleyIt seems that every pundit on the planet has taken a shot at explaining the phenomenal rise and mercurial character of Donald Trump, currently the leading contender to become the Republican nominee for US President. A recent op-ed piece by Timothy Egan in the New York Times, “A Unified Theory of Trump,” suggested a novel and I believe entirely plausible explanation for Trump’s behavior as a candidate: he is chronically sleep deprived.

Egan pointed to Trump’s comments last November in which he boasted about his disinterest in sleep. As reported by Nara Schoenberg in the Chicago Tribune, Trump told a crowd in Springfield, Illinois that “I’m not a big sleeper, I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.” A few days later Trump told Henry Blodget in an interview for Business Insider that he can get by on as little as one hour of sleep. Here is an excerpt from the interview; the sleep discussion comes at the very beginning:

HENRY BLODGET, CEO AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF BUSINESS INSIDER: You have an incredible work ethic, which is clearly part of your success. You’re tweeting at 3 o’clock in the morning, you’re up all night.

DONALD TRUMP: It’s part of my campaign. [Conservative radio host] Mark Levin said to me last night, I had a dinner-show at 8:30. He says, “I saw you on ‘Morning Joe’ at 7, I saw you in the debate. Where do you get the energy?” he said. I said, “Mark, you know what, I got one hour of sleep last night. Because I flew from Milwaukee at 2:30 in the morning. You know, by the time you’re finished up with all the stuff and the interviews.” It was a successful debate, so I stayed around.

I then flew, I went to New Hampshire. I went to a hotel, I stayed for one hour, because I got there at 5. And by the time I got there, I had to get up to get out at 6:30 something. So I slept for one hour over there.

He said, “Where do you get the energy?”

HB: So where do you get it? Where does it come from?

DT: Genetically. My father was very energetic, my mother was very energetic. He lived to a very old age and so did my mother. I believe that I just have it from my father, from my parents. They had wonderful energy.

In her Huffington Post commentary, “Can Sleep Deprivation Explain Donald Trump’s Behavior?” Krithika Varagur noted that in his 2004 book Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, he “claimed to sleep only from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., in order to gain a competitive advantage in his dealings. He advised readers, ‘Don’t sleep any more than you have to. … No matter how brilliant you are, there’s not enough time in the day.’”

I won’t speculate about Trump’s genetics, but I agree with Schoenberg, Egan, and Varagur that his behavioral patterns are characteristic of someone with chronic sleep deprivation, the symptoms of which include emotional imbalance, sudden mood swings, cognitive deficits, poor judgment, memory loss, irritability in social situations, increased appetites, loss of creativity, the tendency to continue with an error despite contrary evidence, and an inability to recognize and adjust to new conditions. Most of these symptoms do seem applicable to Trump. As Egan put it,

“His judgment is off, and almost always ill informed. He has trouble processing basic information. He imagines things. He shows a lack of concentration… in addition, Trump is given to inchoate bursts of anger and profanity. He creates feuds. In his speeches, he picks up on the angry voice in the mob and then amplifies it.”

But if this theory about Trump is true, then his political success seems even more bizarre than ever. How can someone who flaunts his psychological dysfunction be winning the fervent support of a large portion of the American electorate?

The answer may be embedded in the question. Trump’s supporters themselves may have a tendency to chronic sleep deprivation.

The behavioral signs are consistent with this idea. People who support Trump are remarkably unyielding in their attachment to him; nothing anyone says will change their minds. As Trump himself commented in January, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” His supporters seem to include many people who are angry, suspicious of reason, socially irritable, and uncreative in the sense of seeking a return to an earlier, simpler time, when America used to be great.

Stronger evidence comes from demographic studies of sleep. Trump’s supporters tend to be people at the lower end of the income scale, less educated, and, in their own words, feeling besieged by outside forces threatening to overwhelm the country. Empirical research has shown that people in precisely those demographic conditions are more prone to suffer insomnia and problems sleeping. For example, Sara Arber at the University of Surrey has shown correlations in the British population between poor sleep and low socio-economic status. Here is how I describe her findings in chapter 4 of my book Big Dreams:

“Research by Sara Arber and her colleagues at the Center for the Sociology of Sleep at the University of Surrey has found clear connections between socioeconomic status and sleep quality. In a study based on interviews with 8,578 British men and women between the ages of 16 and 74, Arber and her colleagues identified several social and economic factors associated with increased sleep problems: unemployment, low household income, low educational achievement, and living in rented or public housing. Women had worse sleep problems than men, and divorced or widowed people had worse sleep problems than married people. Overall, their study found that disadvantages in social and economic life were strongly correlated with poor quality sleep. Noting the negative health consequences of sleep deprivation, Arber and her colleagues suggested that “disrupted sleep may potentially be one of the mechanisms through which low socioeconomic status leads to increased morbidity and mortality.”

The last point bears emphasis. Poor socioeconomic conditions can lead to poor sleep, which in turn can lead to increased health problems and a shorter lifespan. Sleep seems to be a pressure point where adverse social forces can directly and negatively impact a person’s physiological health.

My research with the Sleep and Dream Database has also found that people at the low end of the economic scale tend to have more insomnia and trouble sleeping. In a 2007 survey I found, consistent with Arber et al.’s research, that people with higher education and higher annual income tended to have less insomnia than people with lower education and lower annual income. A 2010 survey found the same pattern: people without college degrees had somewhat worse insomnia than people with a college degree. On the personal finances question, people with the lowest annual income reported having worse insomnia than did the people with the highest annual incomes. (I discuss these surveys at greater length in chapter 4 of Big Dreams.)

Most Americans are sleep deprived not by choice or genetics, but because of the relentless stress and pressure of modern life. For those Americans at the lower end of the economic scale, with fewer opportunities and more anxieties about the worsening condition of the country, it becomes difficult to preserve normal, healthy patterns of sleep.

And then Donald Trump comes along and says sleep deprivation is nonsense, that’s just what losers think when they see a high-energy individual with a strong work ethic. Trump shows people how to re-brand their loss of sleep as a badge of honor, reconceive their misfortune as a virtuous strength, and transform their diminished inner life into an outward projection of aggressive confidence. It seems to work for him, and the implicit promise of his campaign is that it will work for his supporters, too.

 

References:

Arber, Sara, Marcos Bote, and Robert Meadows. “Gender and socio-economic patterning of self-reported sleep problems in Britain,” Social Science & Medicine 68 (2009): 281-289.

Arber, Sara, Robert Meadows, and S. Venn. “Sleep and Society,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sleep and Sleep Disorders (Charles Morin and Colin Espie, ed.s). New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 223-247.

 

Note: this essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on March 9, 2016.

Prophetic Rodents: Neuroscientists Find Hints That Rats Dream of the Future

Prophetic Rodents: Neuroscientists Find Hints That Rats Dream of the Future by Kelly BulkeleyNew findings from brain researchers at University College London in the U.K. suggest that sleeping rats have the capacity to imagine a place they have never been in waking. This intriguing study does more than support the idea that many animals do indeed dream, in modes appropriate to the neural capacities and environmental experiences of their species. Beyond that, the study shows that rat dreams may have one of the key features of human dreaming, namely the ability to simulate future scenarios and prepare for anticipated efforts to achieve our goals.

Titled “Hippocampal place cells construct reward related sequences through unexplored space” and published in eLife on June 26, the researchers built on previous work showing the importance of the hippocampus in remembering places and forming mental maps of where we have been. The hippocampus is also important for imagination, forethought, and planning future goals. Crucially for this study, the hippocampus is active in waking and sleeping, and researchers have long known that the same hippocampal “place neurons” triggered into firing by a waking-life experience of a particular place will also fire during sleep. The challenge of this study was to find out if hippocampal neurons associated with a place will fire in sleep before any waking experience of the creature actually being in that place. In other words, will the sleeping brain anticipate a desired action? Will it dream of the future?

The experiment involved training rats (with electrodes implanted in their brains) to run through a maze where they could see, but not reach, another chamber where food was visibly located. The rats could also see but not reach an additional chamber with no food. During rest periods, the researchers recorded the rats’ hippocampal activity. Then the researchers let the rats run through the maze with no blockages, so they could reach the new chambers. It turned out the rats’ hippocampal activity when they first entered the new chamber with food was a close match with their hippocampal activity in sleep—the same place neurons that first fired in sleep later fired in waking life, too. The rats seemed to dream of going into that chamber before they actually did so.

The same effect was not found in relation to the chamber with no food. The preceding rest period did not include any hippocampal activity related to the rats’ later experiences in that place. This finding led the researchers to stress the significance of desire and intrinsic motivation in triggering this “preplay” effect.

The ultimate conclusion of the study was that “goal-biased preplay may support preparation for future experiences in novel environments.” These results give us a better understanding of how preplay, or imagination in a more general sense, can “simulate future experiences in environments yet to be actively explored,” in humans and in other species.

The limits of this research are considerable. Only four rats were used as participants; the periods of “rest” were not clearly sleep stages of any specific kind; and the published results depended on an extremely technical analysis that could allow for many hidden errors. These limits should add a note of caution when assessing the possible implications of the research.

That being said, the findings of this study have a clear affinity with theories of dream function that emphasize the values of the anticipatory simulations frequently occurring in dreaming experience. C.G. Jung spoke of “the prospective function” of dreams, Montague Ullman said dreaming worked to maintain an optimal state of “vigilance,” Frederick Snyder viewed sleep and dreaming as a “sentinel” system to prepare for environmental danger, Rosalind Cartwright argued that dreams serve as “rehearsals” for future actions, and Jeremy Taylor has focused on recurrent nightmares as warnings of psycho-spiritual danger in the dreamer’s waking life. Antti Revonsuo and Katja Valli have been developing the “Threat Simulation Theory” as a way of connecting typical patterns in dream content with brain functioning and the evolutionary challenges of our species. In my 2016 book Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion, I will talk at length about the capacity for creative forethought and visionary insight in dreaming.

All of which is to say, dream researchers from other areas have been working with similar ideas for years, and these new findings from the University College London team are a welcome addition to the accumulating evidence in favor of dreams having some kind of preparatory function that helps to orient the individual toward successful adaptation in the waking world.

Lucid Dreaming: New Horizons for Research

Lucid Dreaming: New Horizons for Research by Kelly BulkeleyFor most of the 20th century, lucid dreaming received almost no attention from mainstream psychologists.  Most researchers seemed to think it was impossible to be dreaming and self-aware at the same time (the philosopher Norman Malcolm’s 1962 book Dreaming made exactly that argument).  Even if a few people reported having lucid dream experiences, it was easy to dismiss such claims as fantasies, exaggerations, or at best, a trivial gimmick of the mind.

Several years into the 21st century, we now know that all those assumptions about lucid dreaming were wrong.  Various degrees of consciousness in sleep are indeed possible, including the awareness that one is in a dream while it is happening.  According to demographic research, more than 50% of the general population has had at least one lucid dream experience in their lives.  Young people are especially likely to have lucid dreams, but older people have them, too.  Lucid dreams have been reported in cultures all over the world, throughout history.

In short, this is not a fringe phenomenon.  It reflects a natural capacity of the sleeping mind that is likely innate in all people.   Furthermore, this capacity can be strengthened and enhanced by several different methods, with many possible applications in waking life.  Western researchers are finally taking note.

In the newly published book Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (Praeger, 2014), Ryan Hurd and I edited a total of 30 chapters from leading experts on lucid dreaming from all over the world.  These chapters include reflections on cutting-edge neuroscience, clinical psychotherapy, education, anthropology, artistic creativity, and religious experience.  The book shows how far we have come in understanding this powerful dimension of our dream lives—and how much more there is still to learn.

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.

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

 

 

 

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.