What Kinds of Technology Do People Dream About Most Frequently?

What Kinds of Technology Do People Dream About Most Frequently? by Kelly BulkeleyThe past one hundred years of human history have been dramatically transformed by the invention of several new technologies, each of which has impacted people’s lives in profound and complicated ways.

In light of empirical research showing strong continuities between waking and dreaming, we can hypothesize that modern technologies have also made a tangible impact on the content of people’s dreams.

And indeed, there is evidence in support of that idea. By analyzing a collection of more than 16,000 dream reports available for study on the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), it becomes possible to examine which kinds of technology have most influenced people’s dreams in terms of their frequency of appearance.

The results suggest the newest technologies are not necessarily the most important ones in the world of dreams.

To explore this question I looked at all the dream reports on the SDDb of 25 words or more in length for Females (N=10,168) and Males (N=6,590), and selected the “Technology and Science” category from the 2.0 word search template.

This is a quick and dirty approach, but it has the virtue of providing an easy and relatively straightforward means of getting an evidence-based response to the question.

The results for the Females were 990 dream reports with at least one reference to a word in the “Technology and Science” category, approximately 10% of the total number of dreams. The figures for the Males were 602 and 9%.

Looking in more detail at which terms appeared most frequently (these include singular and plural uses of the term), the results for the Females were these:

Phone, 3.55%

Movie, 3.18%

Video, 1.26%

Computer, 1.2%

Machine, .91%

Radio, .65%

Camera, .62%

Television, .26%

And for the Males:

Phone, 2.69%

Movie, 2.47%

Video, 1.27%

Computer, 1.03%

Machine, 1.02%

Radio, .47%

Camera, .49%

Television, .36%

I did a parallel search with the same two sets using the SDDb 2.0 word search template category for Transportation. These results—24% of the dream reports for both Females and Males had at least one reference to a Transportation word—are much higher than the Technology and Science frequencies.

Looking more closely at specific forms of transportation appearing in people’s dreams, these were the results for the Females:

Car, 9.12%

Boat, 1.92%

Bus, 1.81%

Airplane, 1.49%

Truck, 1.26%

Elevator, 1.16%

Bicycle, .86%

And for the Males:

Car, 8.18%

Boat, 2.12%

Bus, 1.65%

Bicycle, 1.56%

Airplane, 1.46%

Truck, 1.37%

Elevator, .67%

The first thing to note is the remarkable gender balance. On almost all the categories and word clusters, the Female and Male frequencies are extremely close. (The main exceptions are slightly more Bicycle references for the Males, and slightly more Phone, Movie, Car, and Elevator references for the Females.) This consistency across so many terms suggests that modern technologies have impacted men and women about equally.

Secondly, the analysis indicates that the most frequently appearing modern invention in dreams is the automobile. It seems that technologies of transportation have had more of an impact on people’s dreams than have technologies of communications and entertainment.  Add in trucks and buses to cars, and the predominance of the internal combustion engine in dreaming becomes even greater.

Why might this be? I’m not sure, but I wonder if technologies of transportation have more of a visceral impact on people’s lives. Telephones, movies, videos, and computers can be fascinating and absorbing, but they do not directly affect a person’s body with the kind of sensory intensity that people feel during a car ride.

Whatever the explanation, the results of this brief study indicate that the most frequently appearing type of modern technology in dreams is one that was invented more than one hundred years ago. Newer technologies like computers and videos have not (yet) made as big an impression on the dreaming imagination.

Maybe future developments in virtual reality will enable a more powerful stimulation of people’s physiological responses, prompting a rise in VR-related dreams. But that remains a far-off possibility.

Until then, cars remain for most people the dream technology of choice.


Note: here are the word strings for the specific technology and transportation searches:

Phone: phone phones telephone telephones iphone iphones. Video: video videos. Computer: computer computers. Machine: machine machines machinery. Radio: radio radios. Camera: camera cameras. Television: television televisions tv tvs.

Car: car cars auto autos automobile automobiles. Boat: boat boats ship ships. Bus: bus buses. Bicycle: bicycle bicycles bike bikes. Airplane: airplane airplanes plane planes. Truck: truck trucks. Elevator: elevator elevators.

The Technology of Dreaming

For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream.”

So said the famously hard-working inventor Thomas Edison in 1921 in his Diary and Sundry Observations.  Edison claimed the only truly restful sleep was totally unconscious, and he regarded dreaming as a waste of mental energy that could be put to more productive use in waking life.

Nearly a century later Larry Page, another iconic figure of technological progress, offered a very different approach to dreams.  In a 2009 commencement address at the University of Michigan he said, “You know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know how, if you don’t have a pencil and pad by the bed to write it down, it will be completely gone the next morning? Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23.”  Page awoke from his dream and immediately began writing notes about downloading the entire worldwide web with all links intact—the seed idea for what he later built into Google.  His advice to the graduates: “When a really great dream shows up, grab it!

Which of these two world-changing innovators had it right? Should we strictly limit our sleep and ignore our dreams as Edison did?  Or should we listen to our dreams and try to follow them as Page recommended?

The Technology of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe Technology of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThe Technology of Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

The world is filled with people trying to be like Edison, working nonstop and vowing to “sleep when I’m dead,” but this behavior appears foolish and self-defeating in light of current research in sleep medicine. Numerous studies over the past several decades have shown that inadequate sleep has a negative impact on human health, with harmful effects on our emotional, cognitive, physical, and immunological well-being.  What counts as “adequate” differs for each individual, but only a tiny portion of the population can sleep four or five hours a night and function the next day in an optimally healthy way.

The basic message of this research: A sure way to make yourself less productive is to artificially limit your individual sleep needs.

We can’t do without sleep.  But can we do without dreams?

The scientific evidence is less clear on this point.  Some people insist they never remember their dreams, although closer investigation usually finds they can recall a few dreams, just very infrequently.  (Even Edison mentioned a couple of dreams in his diary.)  Demographic surveys indicate most people remember one or two dreams a week.  Women tend to remember more dreams than men, and younger people more than older people.

Intriguingly, researchers have found that dream recall can be dramatically increased with little more than simple encouragement and having a pad of paper and pen by one’s bedside, as Page did.  It’s fairly easy, in other words, to remember more dreams if that’s what you want.  Build it and they will come.

Neuroscientists have begun to fill in the picture of what happens in the brain while we’re dreaming.  During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreams seem to occur, activity slows down in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for focused rational thought.  Activity increases in the limbic system, an older part of the brain involved with emotions, memory formation, and instinctual responses (e.g., fight/flight, sexual arousal).  Neural activity also increases in regions of the brain devoted to visual processing.

These findings make perfect sense in relation to empirical studies of dream content showing it to be loosely structured, highly associative, emotionally varied, and filled with intense visual images. The neuroscience of REM sleep matches up well with people’s subjective experiences of dreams, giving us more confidence there’s a real connection here between brain and mind.

Dreaming now seems best understood as the psychological expression of a distinctive mode of brain functioning devoted to memory, emotion, and playful meaning-making. It is inherently and powerfully creative, not only in producing experiential worlds of astonishing depth and realism but also in stretching our minds to make surprising new connections between disparate ideas, feelings, and impressions.  Contrary to the stereotype of dreams as nothing but random nonsense, current research shows their content is meaningful at many levels, accurately reflecting our most important concerns and activities in waking life.

Edison was right to this extent: We can ignore our dreams, if we so choose.  But Page was right on the bigger point.  Dreaming is not wasteful; it has its own neurological integrity and psychological value.  It taps into a deep inner wellspring of creative thinking that leads us beyond what is to imagine what might be.

In this sense we can think of dreaming as a kind of innate technology of the mind, a natural tool of creative consciousness.

The question for dream researchers then becomes, how can we use that tool better?  How can we refine it, improve it, make it stronger?

This might sound like the start of a Dr. Frankenstein tale, with mad scientists rashly meddling in mysteries they don’t understand.  But we are not the first to ask these questions.  Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, people have used a variety of techniques to actively stimulate their inborn capacity for powerful dreaming.

For example, the Native American ritual of the vision quest involves several days and nights of solitary fasting in the wilderness as a means of inviting a revelatory dream.  The Muslim practice of istikhara uses special prayers, purifications, and sleep positions to elicit a dream that helps resolve an important question or decision.  The Indian sage Naropa taught his followers how to control their dreams through yogic methods of chanting, breathing, visualizations, and bodily postures.  Temples devoted to the Greek god Asclepius thrived for centuries as holy sites where people came to worship, diet, exercise, and sleep in hopes of receiving a healing dream.

Cultural practices like these represent time-honored, ethically sensitive techniques for intensifying dreams and deriving more insight from them.     

Eventually we will integrate our best models of dream content with highly advanced neuroscientific maps of brain activity during sleep, and this will set the stage for a new generation of technologies that directly stimulate the brain to produce more creative dream experiences.  By fine-tuning the neural parameters of sleep we’ll be able to filter out the noise and amplify the signals of the dreaming imagination.

The Technology of Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

Undoubtedly this will be good news for the movie business.  As George Lucas recently said at the USC School of Cinematic Arts when asked to predict the future of film, “The next step is to be able to control your dreams. You’ll just tap into a different part of your brain. You’re just going to put a hat on or plug into the computer and create your own world… We’ll be able to do the dream thing 10, 15 years from now. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky thing.”

That timeline seems about right to me, although I would envision devices that generate a more interactive and mutually respectful process between waking and dreaming, with a focus on awareness and growth rather than control for control’s sake.

Beyond their entertainment value, these dream technologies of the not-so-distant future will help us cultivate a more unified consciousness that takes advantage of our brain’s amazing creativity throughout all phases of the sleep-wake cycle.


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




Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier

In developing the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), a digital archive and search engine for dream research, I have been acutely aware that I possess no formal training in computer science or internet technology.  My doctoral degree is in religion and psychological studies, and I learned many things in the course of my graduate education, but nothing about how to conceive, build, or use a digital database.


Fortunately I’ve benefitted from the wisdom of three people—Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier—who have helped me understand how to translate my psychology of religion interest in dreams into the functional mechanics of a digital database.

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier by Kelly BulkeleyLarry Lessig was a first-year law school student with my soon-to-be wife at the University of Chicago, at the same time I was a doctoral student at the U. of Chicago Divinity School.  It was 1986 and 1987, and we spent a lot of time hanging out with Larry and a few other frighteningly smart, frighteningly conservative law students.  Once I asked Larry what he was doing for fun, and he said he was spending a lot of time in cyberspace.  I had recently read William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which popularized the term cyberspace, and excitedly I said to Larry, I’ve been reading Gibson’s work too, it’s so interesting how he envisions a disembodied reality of pure information flows…. Larry let me finish, then said he was spending time in actual cyberspace, exploring the earliest iterations of the world wide web.  While I was reading cool science fiction about cyberspace, Larry was really in cyberspace, figuring it out, studying its original development as it happened.

I look back on that conversation and think of it as planting a seed that’s coming to fruition now with the SDDb.  In 1999 Larry wrote a book called Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace, and from that book I’ve learned the basic principle that everything we create in the digital world depends on the choices we make about how to structure information and its access.  It’s not just machines doing things on their own, it’s us making machines that do certain things and not others.  We can make good choices or bad choices about how we design those machines, freedom-affirming choices or freedom-limiting choices.

Thanks, Larry, for helping me understand that.

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier by Kelly BulkeleyI met Kurt Bollacker through Dominic Luscinci, a statistician in San Francisco who had worked with Kurt on another database design project.  I really can’t believe my good fortune in having Kurt help me turn the SDDb from several pages of scribbled notes into a highly functional reality.  I’ve learned a little about his work as Digital Research Director of the Long Now Foundation, and it reassures me that I have found a person who has not only the technical skill to build the SDDb but also the philosophical vision to see where the digital future is leading us, and to design the database with that vision in mind.

One of the things I learned from Kurt early on was, “Data accumulate value over time.”  I’ve adopted that as a kind of mantra for the SDDb.  Data accumulate value over time.  Information that seems trivial or useless today can be a treasure to researchers in the future.  An awareness of that historical dynamic has a practical consequence for building databases: It means we should aim at a simple, flat, and state-free architecture that can exist independently of any specific type of software.  Because software systems come and go, the best way to create a database that will endure far into the future is to structure the information in a way that will make it easy to transfer from one type of software to another. That’s a key principle in the overall design of the SDDb, and one that I hope will make the database useful to dreamers and researchers for many years to come.

For that and more, thanks, Kurt.

Thanks to Larry Lessig, Kurt Bollacker, and Jaron Lanier by Kelly BulkeleyThe third person I want to acknowledge as an influence is Jaron Lanier and his book You Are Not a Gadget. I’m a religious studies scholar, so forgive me, but Jaron strikes me as a latter-day techno-prophet, warning us of the apocalyptic perils that lie ahead if we allow soulless machines to become our masters.  His book is a passionate call to fight against “cybernetic totalism” and the economic power of “lord aggregators” of the web—I love that term—whose driving interest is to commercially exploit our personal information.  As someone trying to build a database that includes a lot of personal information, I have thought long and hard about Jaron’s cautionary ideas, and I’ve done my best to design the SDDb in a way that will enhance rather than diminish people’s freedom and creativity in exploring the world of dreams.

I read Jaron’s book in the summer of 2011, and soon afterwards he was profiled in a New Yorker magazine article.  The article was actually kind of lame, focusing more on his counter-cultural appearance and behavior than the substance of his ideas.  Well, as fate or synchronicity would have it, the day after the New Yorker article came out, I bumped into Jaron down at the market, Andronico’s at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar in north Berkeley.  He was there with his daughter in the produce section.  Normally I’m very reluctant to just walk up and talk to anyone, let alone prominent people, but this was too coincidental, especially since I had learned in Jaron’s book about a 15th century text called “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” a fantastic dream text I’d never heard of before, which I immediately bought and started reading.

So anyway, we were both picking through the lemons, and I went ahead and said hi, I just read that New Yorker article about you. Jaron said yeah, he didn’t really recognize the person they were describing in the article. I quickly tried to think of something to say about how much I valued his ideas, but I’m not a very quick thinker, so all I could come up with was to say thanks for teaching me about “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream.”  I’m sure that comment came across as completely weird and off the wall, and so I hastily moved on to the cereal aisle, and that was that.

So Jaron, if you ever see this, I’m really sorry for stalking you in the Andronico’s produce section a couple of years ago.  What I really want to do is thank you, along with Larry and Kurt, for inspiring the mission, the content, and the code of the Sleep and Dream Database.  Thanks to you all.

Dreaming in the Digital Age: The Impact of New Database Technologies on Dream Research

Dreaming in the Digital Age: The Impact of New Database Technologies on Dream Research by Kelly BulkeleyFor several years I’ve been inspired and guided by an admittedly idealistic vision of future technology in the study of dreams:


One day, everyone in the world will have an easy and private way to enter their dreams into a collective database we can all access and study. 


If that were possible, if such a massive database existed, we could learn so much not only about dreams but also about consciousness, culture, and the evolution of our species.  The work I’ve been doing to develop the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has aimed at laying some initial scientific foundations for the day when this vision of a universal dream portal and archive becomes a reality.

Recently I’ve become involved as an advisor with SHADOW, a company founded by Hunter Lee Soik to develop an iOS app for recording dreams and exploring their meanings.  Working with SHADOW has made it clear that the technology for creating a universal dream database is emerging very quickly.

That’s a good thing, right?

In light of recent news about governmental and corporate abuses of data mining, it might seem a risky proposition to share one’s dreams in an online forum.  If dreams are as valuable and meaningful as researchers like me say they are, perhaps people should be more, not less, cautious about entering them into a public database. The intimate personal details of dreams make people naturally reluctant to share them in any kind of setting where they don’t feel a high degree of trust and safety.

In developing the SDDb and working with SHADOW I’ve tried to respond to these concerns by emphasizing 1) the practical measures we can take to protect people’s privacy and 2) the benefits of becoming a participant in a large-scale database.

Regarding privacy, the participants can set the standard by altering or removing any personally identifying details (like the names of people and places) in their dream reports.  Participants can also exclude any content they simply don’t feel comfortable sharing.  I encourage people to be as forthcoming as possible, but I always let them know it’s their decision about how much to share.

Although these editorial revisions add a little noise to the system, they can greatly diminish the chances that someone who wants to remain anonymous could be identified by his or her dreams.

Additionally, the host of the database should do his or her best to insure the privacy of its users, the security of their identifying information, and free access to their own data, which they may retrieve and remove from the database at any time.  The SDDb does that, and Shadow has promised to do so, too.

It’s important to offer the choice of opting out for participants who want to use the analytic tools of the database but don’t want to share their dreams publicly.  That’s the maximal position on privacy, and of course it would shrivel the database to utter uselessness if everyone adopted it.  Before people opt out I ask them to consider the idea that to benefit from the commons, you need to contribute to the commons.  The database will be more accurate and useful for you and for all other participants if you add your voice to the collection.

If privacy protection is taken as the shared responsibility of both the participant and the database host, the risks don’t disappear, but they shrink down to a size that makes it possible to balance them with the upside potentials.

These potentials start with a huge magnification of self-awareness for the participants, who gain an unprecedented ability to see how their individual dream patterns compare to the large-scale patterns of other groups of people.  Nothing like this has ever existed, but once it does I believe many people will be drawn to it as a unique and compelling source of self-knowledge.

The benefits will extend beyond personal insights.  A dream database of the scale we’re discussing could serve as a kind of social barometer, measuring collective reactions to collective events.  We already know that people dream vividly in reaction to turbulent social conditions of war, elections, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and celebrity deaths.  A large and sophisticated database could allow us to observe in real time the emotional impact of these and other public events on people’s dreams.

Beyond that, it would give us a new appreciation for the astonishing complexity of the human race and the wide variations in how people live.  For example, it would show us that vast numbers of people in the modern world are living in conditions of desperate suffering.  A truly universal database of dreams would be overflowing with nightmares of poverty, trauma, neglect, and abuse.  More widespread awareness of what it’s like to experience such harrowing dreams might be a potent lever for promoting positive social change.

This database of the future might also give us a new appreciation for the “ordinary mystics” among us, people whose unusual dreams connect them with hyper-creative dimensions of the imagination.  As a psychologist of religion I’ve always been struck by the parallels between mystical experiences in religious history and certain types of dreams that contemporary people have, dreams of magic and mystery and esoteric symbolism.  My sense is that more people have these kinds of dreams than is commonly recognized.  A large-scale database could open our eyes to the surprising prevalence of mystical dream phenomena among the general population.

The potential risks of these technologies are real, but so are the potential benefits.  The risks are limited and manageable; the benefits could be world-changing.