Four Reasons Why You Should Take a Nap

Four Reasons Why You Should Take a Nap by Kelly BulkeleyNaps are not an indulgence or a sign of laziness, but a simple way of rejuvenating your mental and physical well-being. 

Here are four reasons why you should find a time and place for a brief daytime snooze.

1. You probably need it.

Many people today are sleep deprived at moderate to severe levels.  Long work hours, busy personal lives, noisy urban environments, and the stimulation of various personal devices are all making it harder than ever to get as much sleep as our minds and bodies require. A quick siesta cannot make up for all the sleep you’ve lost, but taking a nap whenever you have the chance will protect your health and diminish the long-term effects of sleep deprivation.

2.  You may be a naturally polyphasic sleeper.

Millions of years ago, our primate ancestors lived in trees, and they were polyphasic sleepers, meaning they slept at multiple times across the day and night.  When our species emerged we came down from the trees and became mostly monophasic sleepers, with one major period of sleep during the night.  But some humans have always had a strong innate tendency toward a polyphasic sleep cycle, and this is true for some people today, too.  Such people naturally need to take naps at various points during the day.  They are not lazy or slothful, they just have biological constitutions that function best with polyphasic sleep.  Unfortunately, they often have to conform with the work schedules of a monophasic society, just as naturally left-handed people have to adapt to the architecture and design of a right-handed world.

 3. You can boost your performance with a well-timed nap.

The greatest athlete-napper in the world right now has to be Mikaela Shiffrin, the gold-medal winning alpine skier from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.  She regularly naps between runs on race days, keeping her mind and body at maximal freshness.  Many top-level athletes also give themselves the opportunity to nap before a competition.  For example, the basketball player J.J. Reddick of the Philadelphia 76ers takes a nap between 2 and 4 pm every day before an evening game.  When he wakes up, he begins a pre-game routine that leads him right to tip-off.  These athletes know the power generated by healthful sleep, and they have learned to focus that power on optimizing their performance.  You can apply this same principle in your own life, by letting yourself nap before facing a major challenge or task that requires you to be at your best.

4. You can explore lucid dreaming.

Many people find it easier to enter into lucid dreaming during a nap than during a regular night’s sleep.  (A “lucid” dream is one in which you know you are dreaming within the dream).  During a nap the mind is still fairly close to waking consciousness, which allows for more cross-fertilization between different modes of awareness.  This is actually a widespread practice through history for people seeking creative insights and alternative perspectives towards waking life challenges.  Artists, scientists, and advanced meditators have all drawn inspiration from brief, lucid spells of daytime sleep that open new ways of looking at reality upon awakening.

 

This post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 7, 2018.

 

Why It’s So Hard to Sleep in the NBA

Why It's So Hard to Sleep in the NBA by Kelly BulkeleyPro basketball players and coaches suffer chronic sleep deprivation. Can they find help in their dreams?

On January 8, 1964, a 17-year old high school student named Randy Gardner set the world’s record for continual wakefulness: 264 hours, more than eleven straight days without sleep.  Gardner was helped in his effort by Dr. William Dement, a pioneer of sleep medicine who stayed with him round-the-clock to help him achieve his goal.  The worst times came during the wee hours of the night, when Gardner’s resolve faltered, but Dement said they found a sure-fire way to keep sleep at bay:

Fortunately, playing basketball always worked. We almost had to drag him out to the backyard, but once he was there and got moving, he was much better.” 

This little anecdote from the early history of sleep research illuminates a problem at the heart of the modern National Basketball Association.  Professional basketball players are virtually guaranteed to suffer chronic sleep deprivation. For months on end they stay up late into the night and engage in intense, highly stressful physical competitions held in brightly lit, hyper-stimulating arenas full of thousands of screaming people.  They must endure a constantly changing schedule of long-distance travel, shifting time zones, and unfamiliar food and lodging.  It would be hard to intentionally design a system more likely to disrupt the natural, healthy rhythms of sleep.

Fortunately, a new awareness of the importance of sleep is growing among the players, coaches, and even the league schedulers. Two of the league’s premier players, Lebron James and Kevin Durant, have made their views on the subject clear:

James: “Sleep is the most important thing when it comes to recovery.  And it’s very tough with our schedule. Our schedule keeps us up late at night, and most of the time it wakes us up early in the morning. … There’s no better recovery than sleep.”

Durant: “Of course, on the basketball side, you have to fine tune your skills.  But on the other side, you have to fine tune your body. There’s a lot of remedies you can use as a basketball player to get better, but the easiest thing you can do is go to sleep.”

Much of the credit for the recent burst of attention to sleep and basketball goes to Dr. Cheri Mah, whose 2011 study of the Stanford University men’s basketball team found that increased sleep led to measurably better shooting, faster sprinting, and a higher sense of physical and mental well-being.  Mah’s findings have inspired men’s and women’s teams at all levels to take sleep more seriously as an integral factor in overall player health and performance.

Mah’s research has also spawned a method of predicting the winners of NBA games with alarmingly high accuracy.  ESPN writer Baxter Holmes has worked with Mah to devise a formula for evaluating how tired one team would be compared to another team on the night of a game against each other, especially on the second night of a back-to-back game.  Their formula takes many factors into account:

Whether the game is home or away, the time elapsed between tip-offs (including hours lost from flying east), how rested the opponent is from play or travel and whether it’s part of a longer run of four games in five nights, or five games in seven.

As Holmes reports, the formula has a success rate of about 75% in predicting the winner of a game when one team is likely to be very sleep deprived and the other team is likely to be very well-rested.  These predictions are made regardless of the team’s won/lost records, which is even more impressive in terms of identifying the direct competitive impact of healthy sleep.  If this formula were revised to include the won/lost records, it’s easy to imagine the success rate of the sleep-driven predictions rising to nearly 100%.

This season has also highlighted the sleep challenges of coaches as well as the players.  Two head coaches—Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets—have been forced by health concerns to leave their teams for several weeks of recuperation.  In both cases, doctors identified chronic insomnia as an important causal factor.

What can be done to help NBA players and coaches improve their sleep?  The league is under growing pressure to eliminate back-to-back games, which would surely remove a major cause of disrupted sleep.  But there’s only so much flexibility when trying to craft a season of 82 games for each of 30 teams in a time frame of 6 months.  Even if back-to-backs are eliminated, the NBA’s regular season schedule will continue to put enormous pressure on everyone’s ability to get a healthy amount of sleep.

At this point, most teams have a sleep consultant of some kind, so players and coaches already have access to basic information about behavioral changes one can make for improving sleep.  Unfortunately, knowing what you should do is not as easy as actually doing it.  According to one coach quoted by David Aldridge at NBA.com,

“We’re all told what to do, but we don’t do it.  We’re all told we have to eat healthy, we have to exercise and we have to get our sleep. All of us. Every coach. This is not like, ‘oh, wow, I never thought of that.’ But it’s hard to do it.”

What else is there?  What other options exist for promoting better sleep, besides the standard methods of appealing to guilt and fear, focusing on behavioral markers, and relying on external authorities?

There is another approach, one that works well for some people and might work very well for NBA players and coaches.  This approach draws on a new source of motivation for getting as much good sleep as possible: Better sleep is important because it leads to better dreaming. 

When you sleep, your mind does not simply shut down.  Rather, it enters a different mode of functioning, a mode that can be described as a kind of play.  Liberated from the constraints of the external world, your sleeping mind is free to imagine, explore, and experiment.  Sometimes, during the phase known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which occurs four or five times a night for most people, your brain becomes intensely activated, as much as when you are wide awake. These complex bursts of neural activation are an automatic, hard-wired feature of your sleep cycle, and they stimulate the psychological process of dreaming.

But why should anyone, let alone those who play or coach professional basketball, care about dreams?  There are at least three reasons.

First, even if you never remember any of your dreams, the process of dreaming still contributes to your mental welfare in waking life.  Researchers have found that dreaming promotes more efficient learning, memory formation, and the emotional integration of new experiences.  The “bizarre” aspects of dreaming—strange settings, odd characters, impossible events—can be understood as playfully stretching your mind’s abilities, with the beneficial effect of increasing your mental flexibility and improving your readiness to deal with unexpected situations in waking life.  In this way, dreaming is like mental yoga.  It loosens the rigid boundaries of your waking ego, expands the range of your imagination, and keeps your mind open and alert to new possibilities.

This means that sleep is especially important for basketball players and coaches who are continuously trying to optimize their performance, because if they sleep well, their dreams will naturally boost their mental health and adaptive flexibility, whether or not they consciously remember any of them.

Second, chances are you that do remember at least a few of your dreams.  If you pay even a little attention to them, you’ll notice they often revolve around your current emotional concerns.  Whatever preoccupies you in waking life—whatever you care most about—is very likely to show up in your dreams. In this way, dreams offer a surprisingly honest mirror of how you’re feeling about the most important people, challenges, and conflicts in your waking life.  Every dream you remember is an opportunity to expand your self-awareness and strive for greater emotional balance.

For pro basketball players, good sleep can open the door to a valuable source of fresh information about how they’re playing, how their bodies are responding, and how they’re getting along with teammates, coaches, opponents, fans, and the media.  Dreams are a powerful tool for identifying hidden fears and emotional obstacles that get in the way of peak athletic performance.

Third, if you actively engage with your dreams by writing them in a journal, several things will happen.  Your recall will likely increase, as you become more consciously attuned to the rhythms of your sleeping mind.  Your sense of time will expand, as you understand more of your past and envision more of your future.  You will notice the emergence of creative insights and innovative ideas that offer new ways of problem-solving in waking life.  Eventually, your dreams will begin changing as you psychologically “level up,” discovering new challenges and new opportunities for growth. You may become “lucid” or self-aware in some of your dreams, and able to interact more intentionally with the characters and settings.  You can practice dream incubation, a method of formulating a question before sleep and then observing any subsequent dreams for possible responses to the question.

Looking at these potentials in a basketball context, good sleep combined with keeping a dream journal can set the stage for developing advanced forms of mental strength and clarity that will empower players to actualize their talents to the fullest.  Dreaming can be a path towards deeper mindfulness, as Hindu and Buddhist meditators have known for many centuries.  For NBA players and coaches, who need to keep their focus laser sharp despite constant distractions, a regular dialogue with their dreams can be a grounding practice that connects them with their core motivations and ultimate center of balance.

None of this is possible if the basic rhythms of one’s sleep cycle are badly out of sync.  But once you start making an active effort to improve your sleep, you will also be improving the conditions for your dreams.  And once you start actively exploring and cultivating the immense powers of your dreaming mind, the sky is the limit.

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, April 5, 2018.

1,001 Nights of Dream Recall

1,001 Nights of Dream Recall by Kelly BulkeleyBetween January 8, 2015 and October 4, 2017, I remembered and recorded a dream every night for 1,001 consecutive nights.  Now I’m studying the dreams and trying to find insights that can help in exploring the dream series of other people.  I don’t expect anyone to accept my personal dreams as conclusive evidence for any general theory of human dreaming.  Instead, I offer them as way of being transparent about the experiential grounding of my research pursuits.  This is one of the ways I get ideas for new projects.

All of the dreams are available online for further study in the SDDb, in the “Sample Data” section.

From a scientific perspective, the value of an introspective project such as this is to generate working hypotheses for future studies.  Trying to study another person’s long diary of dreams can be very challenging, especially at the outset when the researcher is facing a huge mass of texts with multiple dimensions of meaning.  I appreciate anything that can provide some initial orientation and help to steer the direction of the analysis.  By studying my own dreams, which I know from both a first- and third-person perspective, I can quickly and easily identify some patterns of meaning that seem worth further exploration.   Maybe they will apply to someone else’s dream series, maybe they won’t; either way, it helps the analytic process get going.

Remembering and Recording the Dreams

The method I use for keeping my dream journal is fairly typical.  I keep a pad of paper and a pen by my bedside, and when I wake up in the morning I immediately write down whatever dreams I can remember, before getting out of bed or turning on the light.  Then later in the morning I type the dream into a digital file, along with associations, memories, and thoughts about what the dream might mean.

During the three years of recording this series of 1,001 dreams, I did my best to wake up slowly each morning, so the images and feelings from the preceding dreams could coalesce in my memory.  I don’t believe I dreamed more during this time than I did in previous periods of my life; rather, I devoted more energy to remembering the wispier, more evanescent kinds of dreams that, in previous years, had not crossed the threshold into waking memory.  I made a more determined effort to protect the space around the transition from sleeping to waking, even during circumstances when that was difficult to do (e.g., on international plane flights, during family holidays).  Often it took a few moments of quietly lying in bed with my eyes closed before the vague feeling “I know I was just dreaming,” could eventually take form into a specific memory of what I was just dreaming about.  Often there were “aha!” moments when suddenly a whole long dream came back to me, which I surely would have forgotten if I had immediately leapt out of bed upon awakening.

I also put more conscious intention into the other end of the transition, from waking into sleeping, as I carefully set up my journal and pen each night before turning out the light.  I did not set specific dream incubation questions during this time, but simply tried to signal to myself that I was ready and willing to record whatever dreams might come during that night’s sleep.

These were not extreme or burdensome behaviors; they required consistency of purpose, but no heroic feats of will.  I never set any long-term goals or numerical targets.  Instead, I just focused on each new night and each new dream, figuring the time would come when I could survey the series from a broader perspective.

About a month ago I finally did the math, and realized that October 4th would mark 1,001 nights of dream recall in a row, an enchanting milestone.  This seemed like a large enough collection of dreams to pause, look back, and see what I could learn.

Patterns of Word Usage

The reports comprise a total of 93,050 words, with an average length per dream report of 93 words, and a median length of 73 words.  The shortest dream in the series has 9 words, and the longest has 728 words.  The average length of these dreams is not unusual, compared to other people whose dreams have been analyzed in this way.  Some people have much longer dreams than I do, and some people have much shorter dreams.  This series of 1,001 dreams, then, includes mostly dreams of middling length.

To highlight the patterns and themes in a series like this, I start by comparing it to what I call the “SDDb baselines,” two large collections of male (N=2,135) and female (N=3,110) dreams that have been systematically gathered and analyzed using a template of 8 classes and 40 categories of word usage.   I use the baselines a measuring stick for identifying possible continuities and discontinuities between the dreams and the individual’s waking life.

The results of this comparative analysis are presented in an accompanying spreadsheet, “1001 Nights Data.”  Some of the discussion below draws on an earlier analysis I wrote about an overlapping set of my dreams.

In relation to the SDDb baselines (an average of 100 words per report for the females and 105 for the males), my dreams are a little shorter than average (93 words per report).  The results for each of the 8 classes of word usage are summarized below.  Compared to the male and female baselines, my 1,001 dreams have:

  1. Perception: More references to vision and colors.
  2. Emotion: Many more references to wonder/confusion, and more to happiness.
  3. Characters: Fewer references to family characters (although the word “wife” is mentioned very frequently), more references to animals (especially cats), and slightly more references to females than males.
  4. Social Interactions: Slightly more references to sexuality.
  5. Movement: Fewer references to death.
  6. Cognition: More references to thought, fewer to speech.
  7. Culture: Fewer references to school, food/drink, religion, somewhat more to sports (especially baseball and basketball).
  8. Elements: More references to water, somewhat more to earth.

These findings provide the basis for a “blind analysis,” which means making predictions about continuities between these patterns of word usage in dreaming and the individual’s waking life activities, beliefs, and concerns.  If I pretend I knew nothing about the dreamer of these 1,001 dreams, and I only had these word usage frequencies to consider, I would infer this individual:

  1. Is visually oriented
  2. Often experiences wonder/confusion
  3. Is relatively happy
  4. Is married
  5. Cares about cats
  6. Has fairly equal relations with men and women
  7. Is sexually active
  8. Is not concerned about death
  9. Is not highly verbal
  10. Is not highly involved with schools
  11. Is not highly concerned about food/drink
  12. Is not highly concerned about religion
  13. Has lots of interactions with water and earth

1,001 Nights of Dream Recall by Kelly BulkeleyMost of these inferences—I’d say 11 of 13—are unmistakably accurate in identifying a continuity between a pattern of dream content and an aspect of my waking life concerns.  The two I would question are numbers 10 and 12.  Regarding the low frequency of dream references to school, I do in fact engage in a great deal of teaching and educational work, but it’s almost entirely online, and I rarely set foot inside a traditional school any more.  Also, I no longer have school-age children living at home.  So it seems my dreams are continuous with my physical behaviors relating to schools, but not with my computer-mediated educational activities.

Regarding the low frequency of religion references, I most certainly do have great interest in religion, going back to my masters and doctoral studies at the Divinity Schools of Harvard and University of Chicago.  So the inference seems very wrong at this level.  And yet, at another level it seems more accurate.  I was not raised in a religious household, I do not personally identify with any official religious tradition, and I rarely attend religious worship services.  Compared to other people I’ve studied with very high frequencies of references to religion in their dreams, I am a much less personally pious person.  Perhaps what this suggests is that the dreams are accurately reflecting the fact that religion may be an important intellectual category for me, but it is not a personal concern.  My spiritual pursuits are more likely to be expressed in dreams with references to other word categories like water, art, sexuality, animals, and flying.

Shorter versus Longer Dreams

Earlier this year I looked at different set of my dreams to get some idea about possible differences between shorter and longer dreams.  This question rose in relevance when I realized, as noted earlier, that my increased recall seemed to depend in part on the recollection of relatively shorter dreams that in the past I did not fully remember or write down.

There were two main findings of that earlier study.  First, most of the patterns in content appeared in dreams of all lengths, from the shortest (less than 50 words per report) to the longest (more than 150 words per report).  Here’s a summary of what I found:

“The results of this analysis suggest that shorter dreams are not dramatically different from longer dreams in terms of the relative proportions of their word usage.  The raw percentages of word usage do rise from shorter to longer dreams, of course, but the relative proportions generally do not.”

Second, the longer dreams did have proportionally more references to a few word categories, chiefly Fear, Speech, Walking/Running, and Transportation. Another quote:

“These are the word categories that seem to be over-represented in longer dreams.  They are significant contributors to what makes long dreams so long.”

Returning to the present collection of 1,001 dreams, I divided the series at the median point into two groups: the shorter dreams (72 words or less, 500 reports total) and the longer dreams (73 words or more, 501 reports total).  I used the same SDDb word searching template with each of the two groups as I used with the full series, and then I compared their frequencies of word usage.  The biggest variations between the shorter and longer dreams appeared in the following categories:

  • Touch
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Physical aggression
  • Walking/Running
  • Speech
  • Transportation
  • Water

This list adds a few other categories that may be characteristic of longer dreams.  Each of these categories has a dynamic quality.  Touch is a physical interaction.  Fear and anger are strong and unpredictable emotions, usually prompted by something in the external environment.  Physical aggression combines the previous categories (touch, fear, anger) and possibly intensifies them.  Walking/Running and Transportation both involve physical movement from one place to another.  Speech implies a context of interpersonal communication, people talking with each other.  Water, the “universal solvent,” is ever-shifting in its states (gas, liquid, solid) and its movement through human life.

When these elements appear in my dreams they seem to have the effect of expanding the range of experience, stimulating more interactions, and lengthening the narrative.

Conclusion

I don’t know if any of this applies to anyone else’s dreams.  I do, though, believe that several of the insights gained here can provide working hypotheses for studying other series of dreams.  I will be keeping these ideas in mind as I explore new dream series:

  • The recall and recording methods of the dreamer influence the types of dreams included in the series.
  • Personal relationships are an area of especially strong continuity between waking and dreaming life.
  • The use of religion-related words in dreams may be discontinuous with spiritual interests in waking life.
  • Shorter dreams have mostly the same general proportions and patterns of content as found in longer dreams.
  • Longer dreams tend to include more dynamic elements.

 

####

 

Notes:

The accompanying spreadsheet can be found here:

https://www.academia.edu/35024762/1001_Nights_Data.xlsx

More description of the SDDb baselines can be found in Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

The earlier study of short versus long dreams can be found here:

Short vs. Long Dreams: Are There Any Differences in Content?

 

A Guide to the Sleep and Dream Database

A Guide to the Sleep and Dream Database by Kelly BulkeleyJust added to the SDDb library is A Guide to the Sleep and Dream Database, a text I hope will help to make the resources of the site more accessible to teachers, students, researchers, and anyone interested in dreams.

The guide is the first in a series of what I’m titling SDDb Research Papers.  This series will present new findings from projects that use the dream materials and analytic tools of the SDDb.  The papers will share works-in-progress in the empirical study of dreams.

Here is the abstract for the first paper:

Intended for newcomers to dream research, this guide offers an introduction to the functions of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), an open-access digital archive that includes tens of thousands of dream reports, along with survey data about sleep, dreaming, and demographic variables.  Readers are shown how to use the Survey Analysis and Word Searching functions of the SDDb to study a variety of questions about dreaming.  The topics discussed here as illustrations include gender and age variables in dream recall; differences between men and women in the frequency of fear in their dreams; and the meaningful patterns of content in a woman’s long-term dream journal.

A Guide to the Sleep and Dream Database by Kelly Bulkeley

What the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine Means for Dream Research

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has an indirect but significant connection to dream research. For those of us who believe the scientific study of dreaming needs to be grounded in the evolutionary biology of sleep, the news of the 2017 Nobel should be a cause for celebration.

The prize was awarded to three Americans—Michael W. Young, Michael Rosbash, and Jeffrey C. Hall—in recognition of “their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm” (quoted from the Nobel committee’s public statement).  The key point, from a dream research perspective, is that these three investigators have shown we have a genetically hard-wired need to sleep.

What the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine Means for Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyAll life on earth is fundamentally oriented toward the cyclical presence and absence of the sun. Every kind of living being has evolved internal clocks of approximately 24 hours in length that guide and regulate their biological processes and behaviors. These internal clocks are known as circadian rhythms, and they have long been observed as powerful factors in plant and animal life.  But only recently have the details of how these clocks work become known, thanks to the work of this year’s trio of prize winners.  Their studies, going back to the 1980’s, explain how circadian rhythms are programmed into the genetic activities of each cell at the molecular level.

The researchers focused on the circadian rhythms of the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), as a model for understanding similar rhythms in the cells of other organisms.  They identified a specific gene in each cell whose activities oscillated in a 24-hour rhythm.  During the night, this gene encodes a specific kind of protein that accumulates in the cell.  It reaches a high point at the beginning of day, after which the gene shuts itself off and the protein slowly dissolves, reaching a low point at the beginning of night when the process repeats itself.  According to this year’s prize winners, the feedback loop involving this specific gene is a key part of the self-sustaining internal chronometer that shapes the functioning of all biological organisms, from flies to humans.

The committee that decides each year’s award made it clear in its statement that the work of Hall, Rosbash, and Young has important relevance for medical practice and social welfare:

“Our wellbeing is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock, for example when we travel across several time zones and experience ‘jet lag.’ There are also indications that chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases.”

Most commentators on the 2017 prize have highlighted this last point, about the diagnosis and treatment of illness.  Circadian rhythms influence the human body in numerous ways: via hormone levels, metabolism, temperature, and of course the sleep/wake cycle. Disruptions to the biological clock, whether through behavior (e.g., traveling across several time zones) or internal malfunctioning (e.g., a genetic mutation), can lead to a variety of serious health problems, including diabetes, obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression, bipolar disorder, memory defects, Alzheimers, and attention-deficit disorders.

The hope is that the more we learn about the elemental mechanisms of circadian rhythms, the better we can treat these problems, and prevent them from occurring in the first place.  Further research in chronobiology may show us there are better and worse times of the day for undergoing surgery, taking a medication, or participating in a psychotherapy session.

What the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine Means for Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyIt may also give us new insights into the rhythms, cycles, and recurrent patterns in human dreaming.  Anything that gives a new understanding of sleep has the potential to provide a new understanding of dreams, since dreaming naturally emerges out of the state of sleep.  The ubiquity of dreaming in human experience throughout recorded history, in cultures all over the world, strongly suggests it is a phenomenon deeply rooted in our evolutionary heritage.  It strengthens the argument in favor of this idea to show, as this year’s Nobel winners have done, that the circadian rhythms guiding our waking and sleeping behaviors are encoded in every cell in our bodies.   There can no longer be any question that sleep is an absolutely vital feature of healthy human life.  The study of dreams can build on this solid foundation in evolutionary biology to explore in more detail what exactly is happening in the mind and body during sleep that contributes so powerfully to human health.

Note: this was originally published in Psychology Today on October 23, 2017.

Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Jealous paranoia cannot distinguish between dreaming and waking in one of Shakespeare’s bawdiest works.

There are several reasons why “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has generally been considered one of Shakespeare’s minor plays.  It’s an absurd, bawdy farce set in an English country village around 1600, bereft of any epic characters, grand locales, or soaring lyrical speeches.  Revolving around the rakish antics of Sir John Falstaff, the play comes across as an entertaining trifle filled with sexual puns, slapstick comedy, and a variety of ridiculous schemes, disguises, and deceptions.  This may all be true, yet it overlooks an interesting element of darkness in The Merry Wives, an element that elicits the only references to dreaming in the play.

Master Ford is the husband of one of the two wives of the title, and there is very little merriment about him.  On the contrary, he stands out among the other characters for the intensity of his one driving emotion—jealousy.  Master Ford also stands out for his moral rigidity and insufferable pompousness, but it’s the jealousy that really defines him and motivates his behavior.  He says as much in a brief soliloquy, after meeting the other wife, Mistress Page, and hearing her talk about Falstaff.  Master Ford immediately concludes that both his wife and Master Page’s wife are having romantic affairs with Falstaff, and he criticizes Master Page for failing to keep close enough watch over his faithless spouse: “Has Page any brains? Hath he any eyes? Hath he any thinking? Sure, they sleep; he hath no use of them” (III.ii.26-28).

Master Ford decides that, despite other people’s doubts, he will wake everyone up by revealing the true sinfulness of these “revolted wives.”  He will appear suddenly at his house and catch the lecherous Falstaff in the act: “There I shall find Falstaff. I shall be rather praised for this than mocked, for it is as positive as the earth is firm that Falstaff is there. I will go” (III.ii.42-45).

Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor by Kelly BulkeleyIn the next scene a supremely confident Master Ford brings a group of companions to his house to apprehend Falstaff.  His wife, in the midst of sending out the dirty laundry, denies that Sir John is there.  Master Ford contemplates the laundry basket, which is about to be sent out for “buck-washing” (a traditional means of laundering clothes by soaking and rinsing them repeatedly with lye, ash, or urine), and utters some strange lines: “Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck; I warrant you, buck—and of the season too, it shall appear” (III.iii.155-157).

Several sexual allusions are compressed into Master Ford’s odd little speech.  Unfortunately for him, while he is fixated on the multiple meanings of “buck,” the laundry basket containing the hidden Falstaff is taken out of the house.  Now Master Page turns to his companions and makes a bold declaration: “Gentlemen, I have dreamed tonight. I’ll tell you my dream. Here, here, here be my keys. Ascend my chambers; search, seek, find out. I warrant we’ll unkennel the fox” (III.iii.158-162).

His use of “dream” here, the first mention of the term in the play, is meant ironically.  It seems unlikely that Master Ford is referencing an actual dream; rather, he’s playing with the term, to enhance the impressiveness of his ultimate victory.  Master Ford is framing what he believes will be his triumphant discovery of Falstaff as a prophetic dream: last night he dreamed of something that will be revealed to his companions when they find Sir John, the implication being that Master Ford foresaw the infidelity in his dream, and now his companions will see tangible proof that his dream has come true and he was right all along.

But there are at least a couple layers of deeper irony to his “dream” that Master Ford does not seem to recognize.  First, his companions do not find Falstaff in the house, so his allegedly prophetic dream fails to come true as he so grandly predicted it would.  Second, the certainty he feels about this dream, and about his wife’s sinfulness, is actually based on his own vain and substance-free fantasy that he assumes is as solid as the earth itself.  And third, if he had not been so absorbed in his resentful musings (“buck, buck, buck!”), he might have noticed that Falstaff was in fact right in front of him; so Master Ford’s dream did come true, but he was too captivated by his jealousy to realize it.  By making the self-aggrandizing claim that he had received a miraculous dream revelation of Falstaff’s illicit presence in his house, Master Ford only magnifies the humiliating mockery he feared would be the result of his efforts to unmask the sinners all around him.

Perhaps Master Ford would have let it go at this point, but then he hears Falstaff (who is himself thoroughly deluded about what’s actually happening) brag that he has already enjoyed the delights of Mistress Page and is planning to return to her house as soon as possible.  This seems to confirm Master Ford’s worst fears, and his jealousy heats to a full boil.  In another brooding soliloquy right after Falstaff leaves, Master Page repudiates sleep and dreaming and forces himself to face what he thinks is a damnable reality: “Hum! Ha! Is this a vision? Is this a dream? Do I sleep? Master Ford, awake; awake, Master Ford! There’s a hole made in your best coat, Master Ford!”  (III.v.137-140)

Again, the irony is that by forcing himself to “awake,” he is actually descending even further into his jealousy-fueled fantasy.  By rejecting dreaming, he is rejecting something that could in fact provide him with accurate insight into the perception-warping effects of his violent passions and emotional insecurities.

The production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” I saw recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival featured the actress K.T. Vogt as Falstaff, a brilliant piece of casting that breathed new life into the old rogue and his errant codpiece.  Master Ford was played by Rex Young, an OSF veteran whose evocation of fragile male pride was strong enough to drive the plot forward, but not so strong as to overwhelm the delightful antics of everyone else.  The aesthetic design of the OSF production was shaped by the giddy, gaudy 80’s, with pastel clothing and bouncy music, and in Master Ford’s second soliloquy, which ends with an angry pledge to fight back against his tormentors (“I’ll be horn-mad”), the musical accompaniment is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads—a perfect touch for the dramatic moment.  Master Ford is indeed committing himself to the darkest of purposes, and yet he does so to the beat of an irresistibly danceable song.

Perhaps “The Merry Wives” seems like a minor work because the shadow elements are limited to one character and never become so intense that they overwhelm the lighter elements of love, laughter, and play.  But those darker energies are there, and are a significant part of the story.  Here as elsewhere in Shakespeare, the seemingly illusory experience of dreaming provides a portal into hidden realms of emotion and desire that reflect the deepest and most honest realities of human life.

The final scene of the play is a festive forest spectacle in which the main characters disguise themselves as a troop of mischievous fairies and “moonshine revelers” in order to scare the poor Falstaff out of his wits.  This scene includes an evocation of sleep and dreaming that seems to reflect contemporary folk beliefs about the magical wonders and dangers of the night.  When Falstaff sees what he thinks are fairies coming, he falls to the ground and covers his eyes, because of the legend that fairies will kill those who look upon them without permission.  A moment later the first fairy (the parson Sir Hugh Evans) arrives and issues the following command to the other fairies:

“Where’s Bede? Go you, and where you find a maid

That ere she sleep has thrice her prayers said,

Raise up the organs of her fantasy,

Sleep she as sound as careless infancy.

But those as sleep and think not on their sins,

Pinch them, arms, legs, backs, shoulders, sides, and shins.” (V.v.52-57)

Some versions of Shakespeare have “Bead” instead of “Bede.”  To me, “Bede” makes more sense as a reference to the 8th c. monk Bede and his famous work of astronomy The Reckoning of Time.  In Shakespeare’s time Bede was still considered an authority on lunar events and the impact of the moon on earthly life.  I don’t know what “Where’s Bead?” would mean in this context (there’s no reference to a character with that name), but “Where’s Bede?” could mean something like, “Where’s our authority on the moon, because this is certainly a realm under a strong lunar influence?”  It’s the kind of thing an Elizabethan might typically say upon first entering a beautiful moonlit glade at night.

The rest of the passage suggests a sharp religious dichotomy: prayers and spiritual humility can protect against fairy attacks and prompt restful sleep and inspiring dreams (“raise up the organs of her fantasy”), while people who do not pray or “think on their sins” will suffer sharp pains all over their bodies during sleep. This scene has strong echoes of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” written a few years earlier, and of other plays in which sleep and dreaming are presented as eternal battlegrounds between competing supernatural beings fighting over our souls.  This may or may not have been Shakespeare’s personal view, but it does reflect widely held beliefs among his culture and the members of his audience.