Recent Interviews About “Big Dreams”

Recent Interviews About "Big Dreams" by Kelly BulkeleyIn the past couple of weeks I have spoken several times with journalists about Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion.  It’s a daunting experience to have smart people read what you’ve written and ask sharp questions about how you put together your argument… and all the more intimidating with a tape recorder running.  But I think the basic ideas from the book come through pretty well in these pieces.

The Huffington Post had an article in its Sleep + Wellness section on March 17 by Carolyn Gregoire (@carolyn_greg) titled “How Dreams Shaped the Evolution of Spirituality and Religion.

New York Magazine had an article in its online “Science of Us” section on March 25 by Mona Chalabi (@MonaChalabi) titled “I Keep Having Literal Nightmares About Trump. Am I Normal?”  This interview focused on research I’ve done on dreams and politics, but it also drew on ideas from Big Dreams.

Time Magazine had an article in its “Quick Take” section on March  that I wrote (with excellent editorial help) titled “The Surprising Link Between Dreams and Faith.”  Here’s a pdf version of it: Time_Quick Take (1)

The Atlantic Magazine had an article in its online site on April 5 by Julie Beck (@julieebeck) titled “What Can Our Craziest Dreams Teach Us?

 

 

 

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams

New Dissertations in the Study of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThis year I’ve had the honor of serving as an advisor for three doctoral dissertations in the study of dreams.  Dianne Jackie Frost at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Cynthia S. Sauln at Sofia University, and Mary Walsh at San Francisco Theological Seminary have done highly innovative work in exploring some of the most important and potentially transformative aspects of dreaming experience.  Each of them has shown amazing devotion and diligence, and their findings are truly original contributions to the field.

 

Dianne Frost’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology is titled “Engaging With the Imaginal: A Study of Women’s Dreamwork.”  Her study focuses on six women at a counseling center who participated in a group process of sharing dreams, exploring their images, and following their changes over a seven-week period (using methods drawn from the works of Steven Aizenstat, Jack Zimmerman, Virginia Coyle, Mary Watkins, and others).  Each of the women came to the process from a place of pain and crisis (interpersonal violence, depression, addiction, body image issues, etc.), and Frost shows how their dreams accurately reflect their emotional concerns and give witness to their suffering.  More importantly for therapeutic purposes, the dreams point the way towards healing, towards potentials for new life and new growth beyond the challenging conditions of the present. As the women shared their dreams and discussed possible dimensions of meaning, Frost found they developed a new depth of trust in their own strength, resilience, and creativity.

My favorite quote comes from the woman using the pseudonym “Cadence.” Cadence told Frost she had always looked to outside sources for guidance and advice in her life, but the insights she was gaining from her dreams made her realize she has a reliable source within herself:

“I felt like I needed someone else to guide me through, and this process really allows me to do that on my own.  It’s like I’m my own innate healer, with knowledge and images that only I can tap into and create a relationship with and learn from.”

Nothing in Frost’s approach limits it to women with these kinds of problems; her way of working with dreams could be usefully applied with many other groups of people who are striving for greater health and wholeness.

“In My Dreams I Am the Hero I Wish to Be: A Mixed Methods Study of Children’s Dreams, Meaning-Making, and Spiritual Awareness” is the title of Cynthia Sauln’s dissertation for her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology).  Sauln recruited 32 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who were willing, with their parents’ permission, to describe a vivid or unusual dream.  She invited the children to draw pictures of their dreams, and she asked them to fill out two surveys designed to assess their spiritual and religious beliefs.  Sauln says in her introduction,

“For the purpose of this study, children’s spirituality is defined as an awareness of the divine or something larger than themselves that can provide meaning for waking life events and understanding of the world around them. Especially for children, it is a personal experience that may be expressed as a ‘knowing’ and an interpretation of the mysteries found in nature, animals, relationships and connections with people, dreams, and/or in their religious practices and beliefs.”

Drawing on the work of Kate Adams, C.G. Jung, and others, Sauln argues that dreams can play a vital role in children’s spiritual development.  She shows the close connection between spirituality, health, and creativity in childhood, with dreams as a mode of experience bringing them all together. Ironically, many teachers and parents were so skeptical about dreams in general that they would not give their children permission to participate in Sauln’s study, even though the children themselves were invariably curious about their dreams and eager to discuss and draw pictures of them.  This made the data-gathering process much more difficult than Sauln expected.

However, there was a silver lining to these difficulties.  Her extra efforts to recruit participants led her to ultimately gather a group of children with an unusual degree of ethnic diversity.  There were several Hispanic children in her study whose dreams seemed especially significant in relation to their waking spiritual beliefs.  In my SDDb research I’ve found some evidence of relatively high Hispanic interest in spiritually meaningful dreams.  I wonder if future research from Sauln or others might explore Hispanic dream experiences in more detail.

Mary Walsh’s dissertation for her Doctor of Ministry in Advanced Pastoral Studies from San Francisco Theological Seminary is titled “Prophetic Imagination and the Neuro-physiology of Trauma in Substance Abusing Adolescents.”  Walsh is a practicing psychotherapist whose doctoral studies have examined the theological dimensions of suffering, caregiving, and healing.  For two years she worked as a therapist at a high school for troubled adolescents, with a focus on their dreams in relation to several other measures of mental and physical health.  The students at her school came from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of them were suffering multiple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   In addition to talking about their dreams, she measured the students’ heart rate variability to track their neuro-physiological coherence during the treatment process.  Walsh’s use of sophisticated biofeedback technology will make it possible to illuminate new dimensions of dreaming and its role in mind-body healing.  I’m very curious to see what further uses can be made of biofeedback technologies like these.

Walsh has gathered an extremely valuable set of data that provides unique insights into the life experiences of young people at the most neglected margins of society.  Although she still has some writing to do, her project is putting together a compelling argument in favor of the therapeutic effectiveness of group dreamsharing for this poorly-served population.

It should be obvious I’m very proud of these three researchers!  Each of them has stayed true to her original vision and persevered in her scholarly work despite all manner of obstacles and static from uncomprehending administrators, teachers, etc.  Their success bodes well for the future of dream studies.

Dream Education = Religious Studies Education

Dream Education = Religious Studies Education by Kelly BulkeleyThis is an excerpt from a panel on dream education at the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  My co-panelists were Phil King and Bernard Welt, with whom I wrote Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education.

 

Any class on dreams that occurs within a school context must, at a minimum, provide educational benefits consistent with the school’s mission.  These benefits usually include critical thinking, literacy skills, knowledge acquisition, global citizenship, etc.  All of us on the panel agree that classes on dreams can do a wonderful job of providing these educational benefits and contributing to the general goals of almost any kind of school.

 

But dream classes can do more than that.  Indeed, dream classes are always doing more than that, whether or not the teacher and students are explicitly aware of it.   Something happens when dreams enter the classroom, something very different from other topics of study.  Each of us on the panel has different ways of talking about that educational surplus.  For me, what’s interesting is how every class on dreams becomes at some level a class on religious studies.  By that I mean a class that studies human expressions of ultimacy via symbols, metaphors, and myths.  The historical aspect of this may be most obvious.  Prior to the rise of psychology as a Western academic discipline in the mid-nineteenth century, the primary arena in which people shared, discussed, and explored their dreams was religion–in Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the spiritual traditions of the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Oceania.  Any class that’s trying to provide a solid base of knowledge about dreams can’t ignore the history of religions.  This is true whether you are teaching in psychology, literature, biology, or any other discipline—as soon as you start telling your students about dreams, you’ll need to talk about religious history, too.

 

I understand this might seem daunting to educators without any training or background in comparative religious studies.  I’m not saying you have to include large amounts of this material in your curriculum.  But I am saying you should think carefully about how you’re going to present the topics of your class within this bigger historical framework.  You should let your students know there IS a bigger historical framework, even if that’s not the specific focus of your class.

 

There’s another way that dream classes become religious studies classes, even more important than the historical aspect.  Whenever dreams become a topic of classroom discussion, the students are inevitably prompted to reflect on their private dream experiences.  The class may not explicitly involve personal dream sharing, or keeping a journal, or anything directly about the students’ own dreams—but I guarantee you, the students are thinking about their dreams in relation to what’s coming up in the class.  Especially if the teacher is a good one and gets the students excited about the topic, they’re going to be curious to explore their own dreams.  And once they do that, they’re very likely to come across themes, questions, and experiences that go to the heart of many of the world’s religions—for example, the prospect of death and an afterlife, the struggle of good and evil, the illusory nature of reality, prophetic anticipations of the future, nightmarish suffering and existential dread, haunting encounters with supernatural beings, and so forth.

 

Teachers can ignore all this if they wish, but I think it’s better if they at least recognize that their students are wondering about these kinds of issues in their dreams and thinking about how the class is, or is not, helping them make better sense of their experiences.  Again, this doesn’t mean you have to devote extensive class time to the religious implications of dreams in people’s lives.  You could devote some time to this topic, of course, and I think you’d be surprised at what your students would say if given the chance!  But it’s enough if you simply let the students know that, just as people in the past drew religious inspiration and philosophical insight from dreams, so do many people today.  It’s not a matter of ancient superstition carrying over into the modern world, but rather a recognition that humans in all times and places, up to and including us today, are dreamers, and our dreams bring us into contact with ideas, feelings, and energies that most cultures through history have regarded as religiously meaningful.  Whether or not we use religious language, the personal impact of certain dreams can be intensely meaningful and even transformative.  As dream educators, we have to give our students some degree of informed awareness of those spiritual dimensions of dreaming potential.

 

The Art and Science of Dreaming

The Art and Science of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyWhy do we have dreams?  Where do they come from?  What, if anything, do they mean?  These mysterious questions have puzzled humankind since the earliest days of history.  The best answers, I suggest, come from integrating the insights of art and science.  Dreaming is rooted in the physical workings of our brains, and it expresses our highest spiritual yearnings and deepest psychological concerns.  In dreams the mind, body, and soul come together in a creative ferment, giving us new perspectives on the emotional realities of our lives.

Looking first at art, people throughout the ages have regarded dreams as a source of creative inspiration.  A number of famous works of Western art and literature were directly influenced by their creator’s dreams. 

Among writers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dreamed up several key scenes in her novel Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson had a dream about a divided soul at war with itself that gave him the core plot idea for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte drew upon their dreams for bizarre, symbol-laden images of melting clocks and floating bowler hats. In more recent years, a number of prominent movie directors have experienced dreams that influenced their films, including David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, and Akira Kurusawa in Dreams.  Contemporary musicians have also described their dreams as creative inspirations.  Paul McCartney had a dream that gave him the tune for “Yesterday,” and Sting’s song “The Lazarus Heart” came from a personal nightmare.

If we consider religion as another realm where humans express their deepest creativity, then we can see even more evidence of the inspiring power of dreaming.  In the Hebrew Bible, visionary dreams come to Abraham and Jacob, while Joseph saved his people by his ability to interpret dreams.  In the New Testament, prophetic dreams of guidance help Jesus’ parents before their child’s birth and Paul during his missionary travels.  The Muslim Prophet Muhammad told of his dreams in the Qur’an, and each morning he asked his followers what they had dreamed, so they could better discern God’s will.  Hindu and Buddhist mystics consider all of life to be a dream, a great illusion shaped by our desires.  Many indigenous cultures around the world have myths (e.g., the Australian Aborigine’s “Dreamtime”) and rituals (e.g., the Native American vision quest) to help their members learn more about the creative potentials of their own dreaming.

Do the insights of artists and mystics stand up to the findings of modern science?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  Based on the latest evidence from research in cognitive psychology, it appears that dreaming is a natural and normal aspect of healthy brain/mind functioning.  Not all dreams are heaven-sent revelations or artistic breakthroughs, but in general dreaming is an accurate and meaningful expression of our fears, concerns, conflicts, and desires in waking life. 

Since the 1950’s scientists have known about the different stages of sleep, and it appears that dreams occur most often during the stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  During REM sleep our brains are very active, but in a different configuration than in waking.  In REM the brain centers for instinctual emotions and visual imagination are highly activated, while the parts of the brain responsible for focused rational attention are less active.  This evidence fits the general qualities of many dreams—less rational, more emotional and visual—and it supports the idea that our capacity for dreaming is hard-wired into the human brain.

However, it is important to recognize that dreams occur in stages of sleep other than REM.  REM sleep may be the most common trigger for dreaming, but research has shown that dreams can occur throughout the sleep cycle.  This means that we still do not have a complete picture of the dreaming brain.  We cannot “reduce” dreams to REM sleep.

Most people remember one or two dreams a week, but that can vary depending on many factors.  Some people remember at least one dream almost every night, while others say they have never recalled a dream in their whole life.  Researchers have found that small efforts to pay more attention to dreams can lead to big increases in dream recall.  It’s like the movie “Field of Dreams”: If you build it, they will come—if you open your waking mind to the possibility that your dreams have something meaningful to say, you’re likely to start remembering more dreams.

When people ask me how to interpret their dreams, I start by emphasizing that only the dreamer can know for sure what his or her dreams really mean.  “Experts” like me can offer ideas and possibilities based on our research, but ultimately you are the final authority on your own dreams.

Sometimes dreams speak in direct and literal terms.  For example, you may be scared of flying, and thus you might have a nightmare of crashing in an airplane.  But sometimes dreams speak indirectly, in a language of metaphor and symbol.  Your nightmare of a crashing airplane may symbolically reflect your waking anxieties about your finances, your health, or a personal relationship.  To understand your dreams you need a flexible mind that can perceive these kinds of metaphorical connections between dream imagery and your emotional concerns in waking life.

One of the most important functions of dreaming is to look ahead, to anticipate what might happen in the future and prepare us for possible dangers and threats.  This isn’t a simple matter of “prophecy,” although that’s what ancient people called the same basic process.  Scientists today have found that many of our most memorable dreams revolve around visions of worst-case scenarios, and it seems that these kinds of dreams are like fire drills, getting us ready in case those dangers actually occur in the waking world.  Even though many of our dreams are negative and disturbing in this way, they are still promoting our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

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This article appears on pp. 22-23 in the August 2011 special issue on Sleep and Dreams in Vintage Newsmagazine, a publication in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Thanks to editor Betsy Troyer for inviting me to contribute.

Lucid Dreaming Quiz Answers

Lucid Dreaming Quiz Answers by Kelly BulkeleyWho is more likely to say they have had a dream of being aware they are dreaming:

Men or women?  Women 66.8%, Men 59.8%

People between the ages of 30 and 49 or people age 65 and older?  Between 30 and 49 68.6%, 65+ 54.8%

Whites, African-Americans, or Hispanics? Hispanics 67.3%, Whites 62.4%, African-Americans 58.9%

People who make less than $25K a year or people who make more than $100K a year? <$25K 67.8%, $100K+ 64.8%

People who are politically progressive or people who are very conservative? Progressives 68.9%, Very Conservatives 58.3%

People who live in the Southern US or people who live in the Western US? Western 66%, Southern 59.6%

McCain voters or Obama voters? Obama 67.3%, McCain 56.8%

People who say they are “spiritual not religious” or people who say they are neither spiritual nor religious? Spiritual not religious 66.1%, neither spiritual nor religious 59.4%.

OK, what do you think we should we make of these results?

The differences aren’t huge, and in every case the low end of the spectrum is still greater than 50%.  I’d say these findings, based on a survey of 2992 American adults, adds more evidence to the idea that lucid dreaming is a widespread phenomenon among the general public.

Women tend to remember dreams than men, and younger people tend to remember usually recall more dreams than older people, so the results on gender and age make sense.

The racial/ethnic finding is intriguing.  I don’t know of any other research on this question.

The political results are certainly consistent with my previous research on this topic. 

The political dynamic may account for the regional difference, with somewhat more lucid dream recall in the West than the South.  As a California native this seemed an obvious one to me, but no one guessed it.

The spirituality/religion results mayreflect the appeal of lucid dreaming to people who are spiritual seekers of one form or another. 

The income difference isn’t that large.  From what I can tell of the results from the whole survey, income has more of an impact on the recall of frightening dreams (higher among those lower on the income scale). 


Proud to Be a Primate

Proud to Be a Primate by Kelly Bulkeley“Our goodness is as deep as our darkness”—that was Kimberley Patton’s gloss on the findings of Franz de Waal, a primatologist who spoke on Saturday at the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta.  De Waal’s new book, Age of Empathy (2010), shows that cooperation, reciprocity, and conflict-resolution are just as natural in primates as are aggression and competition.  Contrary to the Social Darwinist assumption that nature is bloody “red in tooth and claw,” de Waal’s research proves that non-human animals have all the basic building blocks of morality.  This means that human morality is not just a matter of controlling our violent, selfish instincts, but rather enhancing and refining our other instincts for empathy, compassion, and sociability.

 Also commenting on de Waal’s research was Armin Geertz, who highlighted the core idea of evolutionary biology that “all life is continuous.”  What seems unique about humans is actually an extension of abilities and behaviors we find in other animals.  Looking ahead to the future of primate research, de Waal said, “the trend is toward the continuity of humans and animals.”

 Is this true of religion? When elephants mourn their dead, chimpanzees dance in rainstorms, and wolves howl at the moon, are we seeing the building blocks of spirituality? Can animals have mystical experiences?   De Waal said it was difficult as a biologist to address such questions, but he did not rule out the possibility of affirmative answers. 

 Score a point for scientific open-mindedness.  

 What about dreaming? Both Patton and Geertz, professors of religious studies, mentioned dreaming as a universal human experience that factors into all religious traditions.  De Waal did not talk about dreams directly, but the cognitive abilities he has identified in non-human primates (empathy, imagination, pretend play, etc.), combined with the similarities in brain functioning across all primate species, strongly suggest that humans are not the only dreamers in nature.

 In his earlier book Chimpanzee Politics (1998) de Waal talked about the dreams of people who study primates:

 “That chimpanzees are experienced in the first place as personalities is evident from the dreams of those of us who work with them.  We dream about these apes as individuals, in the same way that other people dream about their fellow human beings as individuals.  If a student were to say that he or she had dreamed of an ape I would be no less surprised than if someone claimed to have dreamed of a human.

 “I clearly remember the first dream I had about the chimpanzees.  In it my preoccupation with the distance between them and me was apparent.  During this dream the large door to their quarters was opened for me from the inside.  The apes were pushing each other aside in order to get a good look at me.  Yeroen, the oldest male, stepped forward and shook my hand.  Rather impatiently he listened to my request to come in.  He refused point blank.  That was out of the question, he said, and besides, their society would not suit me: it was much too harsh for a human being.” (41)