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)


Dream Recall and Political Ideology: Results of a Demographic Survey

Dream Recall and Political Ideology: Results of a Demographic Survey by Kelly BulkeleyAn article with the title above just appeared in the IASD journal Dreaming, vol. 22(1), March 2012, pp. 1-9.  It’s the latest in a series of research projects I began in 1992 on the interaction of politics and dreaming.  The abstract for the new paper is below; links to the other projects are below that.  All the data for the new project are available at the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb). 

Here’s a pdf file of the article:

Dream Recall and Political Ideology final

A brief report on the study just appeared in the “Week in Ideas” section of the Wall Street Journal.

The results of this new study are consistent with my previous findings suggesting that American liberals tend to be worse sleepers and more expansive dreamers than American conservatives, who tend to be better sleepers and relatively minimal dreamers.

Abstract: This report presents findings from a survey of 2992 demographically diverse American adults who answered questions about dream recall and questions about their political views. Participants who described themselves as “liberal” or “progressive” (n = 802) were compared to people who described themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative” (n = 1335). Previous studies have suggested that political liberals tend to have higher dream recall than political conservatives. The results of the present survey provide new evidence in support of this hypothesis. On all 11 questions asked about different types of dream recall, people on the left reported higher frequencies than people on the right. The same pattern was found when the two groups were divided by gender: Liberal males reported consistently higher dream recall than conservative males, as did liberal females compared to conservative females. These findings indicate that political ideology is at least one of the cultural factors influencing dream recall frequencies among American adults.

2008.  American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else (Beacon Press).

2006. Sleep and Dream Patterns of Political Liberals and Conservatives. Dreaming, vol. 16(3), pp. 223-235.

2002. Dream Content and Political Ideology. Dreaming, vol. 12(2), pp. 61-77.

1995. Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election.  In Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society (State University of New York Press).


Zeo Sleep Data and the Ur-Patterns of Dream Content

Zeo Sleep Data and the Ur-Patterns of Dream Content by Kelly BulkeleySo far I’ve done word search analyses on 20 series of dreams from individuals and 9 sets of dreams from large groups of people, a total of more than 18,000 dream reports. It’s too early to say anything definite about the patterns that have emerged from this data. More reports need to be gathered from a wider variety of people, and more improvements need to be made in the SDDb word search template.

Still, a few basic patterns have appeared in nearly all the collections I’ve studied. I’m calling them ur-patterns because they seem to represent deep structural elements of dream content (ur- as in “original” or “primal”). That’s my general hypothesis, anyway, and each new set of dreams is another chance to test and refine it.

Here are the ur-patterns I’ve identified so far:

  1. Of the five senses, sight words are used most often, smell and taste the least.
  2. Of the five major emotions (fear, anger, sadness, confusion, happiness), fear words are used most often.
  3. Of all the categories of cognitive activity, speech words are used most often.
  4. Of the four natural elements, water words are used most often.
  5. Falling words are used more often than flying words.
  6. There are more references to family characters than animal characters, and more to animals than to fantastic beings.
  7. There are more references to friendliness than physical aggression.

Looking at the KB DJ 2009-2010 series with Zeo sleep data (available at google docs), a scan for these patterns finds good but not perfect evidence for each one.

Vision-related words are used more frequently across all the Zeo measurements, with smell and taste words almost entirely absent. Fear words are used more frequently than other emotion words. Speech words are the most used among the cognition categories, and water is the highest among the natural elements, though earth is a consistently high second. The usage of falling words is always higher than, or equal to, flying words.

The family > animals pattern > fantastic beings was not as clear-cut. Fantastic beings always had the lowest word usage, but animals were not always lower than family. When the names of the dreamer’s immediate family were added to the search for characters, the total frequency of family-related words rose higher than the usage of animal words in 15 of the 17 subgroups.

The friendliness > physical aggression pattern was not perfectly evident either. In part this is due to a “false positive” problem in the SDDb template. The word search category for physical aggression includes the word “bit,” which the dreamer used in almost 10% of all the reports as a term meaning “small amount,” not a physical bite. I’ll provide revised numbers once I’ve fixed this. For now, looking at how often the word “bit” is used in each Zeo subgroup, it appears the physical aggression frequencies will drop below the friendliness frequencies in most, but not all, subgroups.

In sum, the ur-patterns appear across virtually all the subgroups of Zeo sleep measurement. No matter what aspect of sleep was measured, the dream reports used the same basic frequencies of words in several major categories. High or low proportions of sleep did not correlate with any major change of dream content, at least at this level of analysis.

In future posts I’ll look at the few variations from these patterns (high physical aggression, animal, flying, and earth references) in relation to the dreamer’s waking life concerns, taking the possibility of metaphorical meaning into account.

I will also look at each of the five types of Zeo data and see if I can identify any particular variations that rise to the level of statistically significant correlation. If any such correlations emerge, they may guide us toward specific areas where a measurable aspect of sleep does interact with basic patterns of dream content.


Comparing Dream Content and Zeo Sleep Data

Comparing Dream Content and Zeo Sleep Data by Kelly BulkeleyAn advanced feature of the Sleep and Dream Database is the ability to analyze dream content using sleep stage measurements from the Zeo Sleep Manager as search constraints. So far, the SDDb has only one series with both dream reports and Zeo sleep data from the same nights (KB DJ 2009-2010). In coming months I will be pursuing new studies with other participants using a combination of dream journaling and the Zeo device. (If you’re interested in contributing to this research, please let me know!)

Using the word search template of the SDDb, I analyzed 135 dream reports with Zeo data in terms of total REM sleep, total light sleep, total deep sleep, total time awake during the night, and total ZQ (an aggregate number measuring overall sleep quality). For each of these five Zeo variables I divided the 135 reports into three or four subgroups of roughly equal number and average word length, then searched each subgroup to determine its frequency of using the seven word classes and forty word categories available in the SDDb.

At this very early stage of working with dream and Zeo data, my goal is to learn enough to be able to ask more refined questions in future research. The small size of these subgroups (28 the smallest, 52 the largest) means that the statistics are not definitive and surely include a fair amount of noise. The variation in average word length of the reports in each subset (105.53 the shortest, 142.49 the longest) is another reason to view these results cautiously. Some of the reports provide only a brief mention of sexual activity, omitting additional details for privacy reasons.  The KB DJ 2009-2010 series has 182 total dreams, but 47 of the reports do not have corresponding Zeo data.

If patterns in the sleep data do correlate with patterns in dream content, I suspect the effects are likely to appear at the extremes, at the high and low ends of each measurement scale. Unusual frequencies may be nothing more than random noise, but they may also be genuine signals of interaction between sleep physiology and dream content. I’m hoping to identify where these signals might be appearing in data.

The spreadsheet with all the results can be found on Google docs.

Over the next few weeks I’ll post some comments about these data and what I think they mean. For anyone who repeats the SDDb word searches I did on the KB DJ 2009-2010 series and finds an error in my spreadsheet, I’ll send you a free book!



High Zeo Scores, Big Dreams

High Zeo Scores, Big Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThe week before Thanksgiving I went on a family vacation to Mexico, just as I did last year.  My two all-time highest Z scores have come from these vacations–123 on the second night of the trip last year, and 125 on the first night of the trip this year.  Both times I was in a big sleep rebound mode, having slept poorly the previous few nights before traveling.  Both times I was in a very dark room and had absolutely nothing to do when I woke up.  In the 15 months I’ve used the Zeo, these were the most predictably opportune times for a maximal amount of sleep.  I’m glad to see the Zeo technology is capable of accurately representing the distinctive features of these kinds of unusual sleep experiences. 

My next highest Z scores came the two nights afterwards in both cases–116 and 116 following the 123 last year, and 116 and 115 following the 125 this year.  That third night this year, with the 115 Z score, I woke up from a very intense and elaborate dream.  I immediately looked at the Zeo clock–it was 3:33 am, which struck me as an odd bit of symmetry. 

I’ve transcribed the dream below.  It’s one of the longest I’ve had in quite a while.  Over the years I’ve had a few dreams similar to this, with an epic cinematic feel and lots of reality/perspective shifting.   My phobia about New York City is on full display here! 

Looking at my Zeo sleep graph for that night, I see that entered a REM phase at 2:25 am that lasted until 3:20 am.  Then I entered a brief period of deep sleep until 3:25 am.  After another bit of REM sleep at 3:30 am I was awake by 3:35 am.

I’m usually done with my deep sleep by midnight or 1 am, so it’s unusual to see the 3:25 am deep sleep.  Since dreaming is usually associated with REM sleep and stage 2 NREM sleep (part of light sleep for Zeo purposes), I wonder if  a) my dream came during the long REM phase ending at 3:20 am, or b) it was all condensed into the short REM phase at 3:30 am, or c) I started dreaming during the long REM phase and kept dreaming through the dip into deep sleep, back into REM and then awakening at 3:33. 

If it were true that the dream continued from REM through the deep sleep phase and back into REM, perhaps that might be related to some of the dramatic shifts and metamorphoses appearing at various points in the dream narrative.

Trying to Escape in New York City

I’m in New York City, walking down a street crowded with people….I go into a weird alley area….fences and garbage and strange people….I see a guy hunched up behind a garbage can in the shadows….I try to get back to the regular street, but to do so I have to climb through a hole in the fence, then try climbing up and over another fence….it has barbed wire at the top, so I’m stuck….as I try to do all this, I get in worse trouble, the bad guys see me caught up….Then I go to an inside place where the top bad guy is sitting at a table….there’s no way for me to escape….they’re laughing and talking, and I join in, but there’s a sense of menace in the air, I’m very scared….at one point one of the guys grabs at my balls, I jump back in alarm….they have total control over me….then cops come after the bad guys, and we all flee….it becomes an endless chase, with me trying to get away….but I can’t….at one point I find myself watching the filming of a Clint Eastwood movie about World War II, with planes swooping over a big canyon area and shooting at soldiers below….it’s like this place belongs to Mayor Bloomberg, he’s letting them use it for the movie?….Then I see Japanese guards with pick axes attacking people….they’re coming after me, too?….I run….at some point there’s a parade through the NY city streets….My friend E. is in the parade, he goes forward with the rest, with a big truck behind him….I keep running….we go inside buildings, and now I’m trying to help the bad guys; the cops are worse, they’re our mutual enemy….I could get away, but I’m part of the group now….it’s like we’re in a big department store….at one point we swing on elastic straps hanging down from the ceiling lights….we fly through the air, swinging around to get away….there’s a flashback to when the main guy lost his son to the cops?….that explains why he hates them so much….a few of us run down an escalator and hold it steady for the rest to come quickly, while I go ahead and find an emergency exit….but it turns out to be a weird orange or red room with people in it, like a party place….not an exit….so I go back out….I run through the garage of a fire fighters station, and think about taking their uniforms to disguise us….but no….then outside, we seem to have a moment where the cops don’t know where we are….I sit down at the table of a sidewalk cafe, with the top bad guy….other people just left the table, so we sit there as if we’re normal….the cops ignore us here…but the waiter knows the top bad guy….they’re lovers?….now the table is like a pool of water, and the top guy and I are floating in it….the waiter guy turns into a weird creature or machine, and he goes hunting/searching through the building for information to help us….At one point I drop my wallet, I see it back by a garbage can….I quickly dash down to get it before someone else grabs it….at another point I’m hiding behind a garbage can, just like the guy at the beginning….toward the end my wife is there, she’s skeptical and disapproving of all the mayhem and property damage that’s being caused….then it’s like the end of a movie….I miss the final credits, and I ask my daughter what the last line said….she says, “thus ends the tale of Don Quixote”….oh, I realize the whole thing has been an adaptation of the Don Quixote story….the main guy is Don Quixote, and some little guy is Sancho?….the end, which I’m watching rather than being in, involves the final destruction and death of all the bad guys from the cops, who are robots or machines now….no way to stop them, their dominance is inevitable….now the movie is over, we walk back through the rubble of the city….My mother-in-law is with us?….she and my daughter are walking fast ahead of us….I’m worried that we need to get out of here quickly, we’re in a weird city place that’s dark and filled with rubble, I don’t want to have trouble for real….