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.

 

 

My Worst and Best Nights of Sleep

My Worst and Best Nights of Sleep by Kelly BulkeleyIn the previous post I noted that my monthly average ZQ over the past 3+ years (August 6, 2009 to December 19, 2012) has regularly hovered around 90, with the highest monthly average being 96 and the lowest 86.  Now, looking more closely at the data, I can see that my worst and best nights of sleep varied quite dramatically from that median, in both directions.

 

The ZQ is the Zeo sleep monitor’s overall sleep quality score, a number that accounts for total amounts of REM sleep, deep sleep, and time awake during sleep.  Using this metric, I was able to identify the extreme ends of my overall range of sleep.  My lowest ZQ was 57, on November 9, 2009.  On that night I slept a total of 4 hours and 48 minutes, with 1 hour 10 minutes of REM sleep, 55 minutes of deep sleep, and 5 minutes in waking.  My highest ZQ was 127, on January 7, 2012, when I slept a total of 10 hours 59 minutes, with 3 hours 37 minutes of REM sleep, 1 hour 27 minutes of deep sleep, and 0 minutes in waking.

Here are the 16 lowest ZQ nights from the last three years:

57       November 9, 2o11

58       January 21, 2010; August 29, 2011

60       September 16, 2011; July 16, 2012

62       October 3, 2012

63       June 16, 2012; September 10, 2012

64       December 16, 2009; May 20, 2010

65       August 12, 2010; September 9, 2011; September 12, 2012

66       November 4, 2011

67       March 15, 2010; January 6, 2012

I still need to double-check to see that none of these low ZQ nights was the result of faulty technology.  But assuming they’re all valid records of a given night’s sleep, I immediately notice a few things.  First, there are no consecutive nights of very low ZQ.  The closest are September 10 and 12, 2012, when my children were in the midst of ending summer and starting the new school year.   Second, many of the lowest ZQ nights came in the late summer and fall of 2011, when my family was moving to a new city.  It makes sense that my sleep would be especially disrupted during that transitional time.  Third, the low ZQ on October 3, 2012 was very likely due to my anxious feelings the night after the first Presidential Debate of the 2012 campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

I suspect that some of these low ZQ nights came before an early-morning departure for a trip, or following a late and stimulating social event.

Overall, it looks like nearly all the low ZQ nights have some direct connection to an unusual circumstance in my waking life.

Here are the 13 highest ZQ nights from the last three years:

127     January 7, 2012

125     November 21, 2010

123     November 22, 2009

120     November 23, 2011

119     January 8, 2012

117     November 16, 2011; January 9, 2012

116     November 22, 2010

115     November 23, 2010, November 24, 2010, July 15, 2011

114     October 21, 2010, January 21, 2012

My highest streaks are January 7-9, 2012, November 21-23, 2011, and November 21-24, 2010.  Not surprisingly, all of these nights of very high ZQ took place during vacations at the same quiet and beautiful oceanside resort.  No mystery there!  Late fall and early winter seem to be the prime times for high ZQ, though I’ll have to separately analyze nights on vacations vs. nights at home to see if the influence comes from the changing season (longer nights) or the fact of being on a holiday trip, or some combination of the two.

It looks like the biggest rebound from a low to a high ZQ night occurred on January 6-7, 2012, when I went from a 67 to a 127.  The first night was prior to an early-morning departure for a vacation, and the second night marked the beginning of that vacation.

Again, my overall impression is that the highest ZQ nights occured in direct relation to certain kinds of unusual waking life circumstances at that time.

Here, it seems, is another instance of deep consistency in my sleep patterns. My worst and best nights of sleep deviate by a comparable degree from my normal ZQ baseline of around 90.  My worst nights are 30+ lower than the baseline, and my best nights are 30+ higher than the baseline.

Next step is to look at possible connections with dreams….

 

1001 Zeo Nights

1001 Zeo Nights by Kelly BulkeleyLast night (December 19, 2012) I recorded my 1001st night of sleep data using the Zeo sleep monitoring system.  I first started using the Zeo on August 6, 2009, and have worn it 81.25% of the time since (1001 out of 1232 nights).  Most of the non-Zeo nights have been due to miscellaneous technical problems.  I was surprised at how quickly I acclimated to wearing the headband while sleeping, and I have worn it consistently throughout this period, even on the non-Zeo nights. I’m confident that my data, even though it excludes roughly 1 out of every 5 nights, fairly represents my sleep experiences during this time.

 

The stability of my sleep patterns jumped out at me when I first reviewed the data.  For more than three years the basic elements of my sleep–the amounts of REM, deep, and light sleep–have remained very consistent.  A typical night includes approximately 30% REM, 15% deep, and 55% light sleep.  These percentages vary to a degree, but I found the same fundamental proportions (something like 1/3 to 1/6 to 1/2) in nights of very short total sleep as well as nights of very long total sleep.

Using the Zeo’s aggregate sleep quality score, the ZQ, my monthly average has hovered around 90 for this entire period.  My highest monthly ZQ was 96, in November 2010 (a year of a particularly restful Thanksgiving vacation) and my lowest monthly ZQ was 86, in June 2010 (of time of moving houses).  My average ZQ was between 88 and 92 for 33 out of the 41 months for which I have data.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share more detailed analyses of this collection of data.  During this time I have also been keeping a dream journal (@500 reports), and naturally I’ll be looking at patterns of dreaming in relation to the Zeo sleep measurements.  Soon I should have all this material, Zeo + dream reports, available for anyone to study on the Sleep and Dream Database.

If you have any questions or hypotheses you think I should test with this data, let me know!

 

Who Sleeps Worst in the US? The Surprising Truth

Who Sleeps Worst in the US? The Surprising Truth by Kelly BulkeleyAn excellent guest post on Ryan Hurd’s Dream Studies website by A.L. Castonguay looks at sleep as a misunderstood public health issue.  Specifically, who in America is sleeping relatively well, and who is sleeping poorly?  The latter group is important to identify because inadequate sleep can lead to physical, emotional, and cognitive problems–not to mention disrupted, diminished dreaming.

Castonguay draws upon data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on sleeplessness in the US to discuss factors of age, region, employment status, and obesity, among other demographic variables.  Castonguay’s analysis shows that people who most often report sleeplessness, “defined as insufficient sleep (less than 7 hours per night) on more than 14 days within the past 30, are predominantly people of color…between the ages of 25-44, unable to work, and obese.”

These findings raise a number of questions about the cultural and behavioral influences on sleep.  I have also found in previous research that poor sleep corresponds to economic anxieties and employment concerns (e.g., Chapter 5, “Work and Money,” of American Dreamers).  I just received data from a new demographic survey of American adults, and a quick scan of the results point in the same direction–people at the lower end of the income scale sleep worse than people at the top end.

The obesity figures are striking, especially when shown on a regional map of the US.  The Southern part of the US has the highest proportion both of people who are obese and who get insufficient sleep.  We don’t know what’s cause and effect, but it seems there’s a strong and dynamic relationship between the two problems.

It turns out that the states with the lowest relative frequencies of insufficient sleep are California, Oregon, and the Dakotas.  Who knew?

One point Castonguay doesn’t mention that intrigues me is the relatively good sleep of Asians and Hispanics compared to other people of color (Black, American Indian, Multiracial).  The number of participants in these racial/ethnic groups may be low and thus less statistically representative, but the figures are consistent with hints I’ve found in my own research.

If, as the topline results indicate, culture plays a role in quality of sleep, we need a lot more detailed information about how individual people’s sleep experiences are shaped by the multiple strands of cultural influence, including ethnic background, economic status, education, family life, and eating behaviors.

 

Dystopian Dreaming

Dystopian Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhile sitting in the audience and taking notes during the recent IASD conference in Berkeley, I found myself marking several instances where something the presenter said triggered my dystopian imagination.  I confess to being a long-time fan of science fiction and fantasy stories about frightening future worlds controlled by alien invaders, zombie hordes, inhuman technologies, totalitarian governments, and/or rapacious capitalists (I made a list of some favorites below).  I enjoy these stories as literary nightmares: vivid, emotionally intense simulations of real psycho-cultural threats, looming now and in our collective future.

 

At the IASD conference I realized I could turn this interpretive process inside out.  I began to look at dream research from the genre perspective of dystopian fiction.  What would an uber-villain in such stories find appealing in state-of-the-art dream research?

 

Let me be clear, these are my own shadowy speculations and in no way reflect anything directly said or intended by the presenters!

 

Sleep paralysis induction.  There is now a proven technique for inducing the nightmarish experience of sleep paralysis–that is, causing someone to enter a condition in which their bodies are immobilized but their minds are “awake” and vulnerable to terrifying images, thoughts, and sensations.   I can imagine this technique being put to nefarious use by military intelligence agents, state-controlled psychiatrists, and cybernetic overlords.  The ability to trap a person within a state of sleep paralysis would be a horribly useful tool for anyone bent on total mind control.

 

Transcranial magnetic stimulation.  This technology enables the direct manipulation of neural activity during REM sleep, targeting specific regions of the brain.  If the technology were refined with malevolent purposes in mind, it could potentially disrupt people’s normal dreaming patterns, controlling what they do and don’t dream about.  An evil scientist could thus invent a kind of anti-dream weapon, a magnetic beam aimed at the head of a sleeping person and programmed to stun, control, or destroy.

 

Disrupting PTSD memory formation.  Trauma victims can diminish the symptoms of PTSD if they perform a series of distracting cognitive tasks with six hours of the trauma, thereby disrupting the formation of long-term traumatic memories.  The future militarization of this method seems inevitable.  Anything that alters memory can be used by evil governments to manipulate people against their will, either to do things they don’t want to do (black ops soldiers) or forget things that have been done to them (massacre survivors).

 

Remote monitoring of a person’s sleep.  The Zeo sleep monitoring system (which I’ve used for three years) has now developed a wireless version that instantly relays the user’s sleep data from the headband via a bedside mobile phone to the Zeo database.  This kind of technology opens the door to real-time remote monitoring of people’s sleeping experience, and potentially the ability to reverse the flow of data and influence/shape/guide people while they sleep.  If enough people were linked into the system, it could serve police states as a valuable tool in 24-hour mind-body surveillance.

 

My interest in these morbidly malevolent scenarios is not entirely theoretical.  Over the past few years of developing the Sleep and Dream Database I’ve been thinking of the darker possible applications of this technology, less Star Trek and more Blade Runner.  If it’s true, as most researchers at the IASD are claiming, that dreams are accurate expressions of people’s deepest fears, desires, and motivations, then it’s also true a real potential exists to put that dream-based information to ill use.

 

Projecting even farther forward, I wonder if there might be some kind of future inflection point where the amount of data we gather suddenly reveals much bigger patterns and forms of intelligence than we had previously been able to recognize or scientifically document.  What would happen if this leap of knowledge enabled our collective dreaming selves to somehow unite to challenge the dominance (one might say totalitarian regime) of waking consciousness?

 

I think about all this as I continue building up the SDDb, trying to make good decisions and avoid the nightmare pitfalls.  Dystopian fantasies help me clarify what’s at stake, where the dangers lurk, and how the future may unfold.

 

You may be familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 science fiction short story “The Nine Billion Names of God.”  If so, you’ll understand why, as I work on developing new database technologies for dream research, I meditate on the phrase, “The Nine Billion Dreams of God.”

 

 

 

Dystopian Films and TV: Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Children of Men, Logan’s Run, The Matrix, Soylent Green, V for Vendetta, Battlestar Galactica, The Prisoner, Gattica, Terminator, Alien, Total Recall, 28 Days

 

Dystopian Novels: The Hunger Games, Fahrenheit 451, Neuromancer, 1984, Brave New World, The Time Machine

 

 

What I Learned at the 2012 IASD Conference

What I Learned at the 2012 IASD Conference by Kelly BulkeleyHere are excerpts from notes I took during the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, held in Berkeley, California, June 22-26.  In parentheses I’ve put the names of the people who were presenting or commenting at the time.

 

Jung’s focus on the number 4 is “dangerous” and promises a “seductive wholeness.”  (John Beebe)

 

In electrophysiological terms, as measured by the EEG, lucid dreaming can be described as meditation in sleep. (Jim Pagel)

 

A challenge for lucid dreamers: How to distinguish a failed lucidity technique from a sage warning from the unconscious. (Jeremy Taylor)

 

The pioneering French filmmaker George Meliere drew upon the fantastically creative, compelling illusions of dream experience to create a tradition of visionary cinema that we see today in “The Matrix” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” (Bernard Welt)

 

In a sample of 170 German school children, those who talk with their parents, siblings, and friends about dreams tend to have higher dream recall, suggesting a positive relationship between dream socialization and recall. (Michael Schredl)

 

People who are high dream recallers seem to have more activity in the brain’s tempero-parietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex, in both waking and sleep conditions.  These brain areas have been associated in waking with mental imagery and mind attributions (theory of mind), respectively. (Jean-Baptiste Eichenlaub, et al.)

 

Sleep laboratory researchers are perfecting a method of awakening a person several times during the night at precise moments in the sleep cycle in order to induce an experience of sleep paralysis. (Elizaveta Solomonova)

 

Neuroscientists are experimenting with the use of transcranial direct current stimulation to directly affect the brain activity underlying dream experiences.  (Katja Valli)

 

Reflective awareness in dreaming can give humans an adaptive edge because in dreams we have the ability to anticipate, explore, and practice possible selves and possible worlds.  This ability can be cultivated through disciplined intentional mental practice.  We can change our brain anatomy simply by using our imaginations.  (Tracey Kahan, quoting Norman Doidge in the last sentence)

 

The “Inception” app is “worth a free download.” (David Kahn)

 

The mantra of the quantified self: If you track it, it improves. (Ryan Hurd)

 

In dream education with adolescents and young adults, the most relevant aspect of dreaming to their waking lives may be relational skills and emotional intelligence, helping them better navigate the complex currents of friendship, romance, and family life. (Phil King and Bernard Welt)