Before going to bed each night after a long day of rehearsals, the director of “Alice in Wonderland” wrote a letter, sealed it, and put it under her pillow. The letter was addressed to her theatrical hero, Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991), a revolutionary figure on the American stage whose adaptation of the Alice stories was first presented in the early 1930’s at the Civic Repertory Theater in New York City, which she founded with the mission of providing the highest-quality dramatic artistry for the widest possible audience.
The director, Sara Bruner, has for many years been one of the brightest creative lights at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a variety of acting roles. The Le Gallienne adaptation of “Alice” is her first major directing opportunity at OSF, and she devised this pre-sleep practice of writing pillow missives as a way to gently soothe and channel her anxieties before sleep. She would write to Le Gallienne about the challenges of the day, the unique demands of the production, and her creative hopes for the future.
This was one of the many intriguing insights to emerge from the panel discussion held at the recent regional meeting of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Ashland, Oregon, May 31 to June 2. The panel was on Sunday morning and feature an ideal line-up: Sara, the director; Emily Ota, the actor who performs as Alice; and Amrita Ramanan, the director of literary development and dramaturgy at OSF who helps Sara and the cast with the broader story-telling context of the “Alice” tales. Several people were curious about the role of the dramaturg in a theatrical production, and it was fascinating to hear Amrita describe the many ways in which she enhances the whole creative enterprise. It made me think of a dream studies analogy: at some level, a dramaturg enables what Jung called the process of amplification, helping the dreamer (or cast) recognize the concentric circles of biographical, cultural, historical, and mythological meanings surrounding the dream (or play), all as a way of enhancing its unique significance right now.
We did not record the session, alas, because we wanted to allow for more spontaneity in the discussion. (Passing microphones around in a small room is awkward, especially with professionals who are trained to project their natural voices.) But the panel certainly made it clear that the intersection of dreams and theater is a lively space for deep discussions about the nature of creativity, imagination, and the lived experience of an artistic life.
The panel was enhanced by Bernard Welt, a long-time IASD member and emeritus professor of Film and Humanities, who co-facilitated with me. Angel Morgan, the local host of the weekend gathering, also helped by asking great questions, as did Isaac Taitz, Stanley Krippner, and David Gordon.
In response to one of Isaac’s questions, everyone on the panel said they experience anxiety dreams about their work in the theater. Emily even said she has found the appearance of such dreams to be an expected part of learning a new role: once she starts having nerve-wracking dreams about it, she knows the role has begun to sink in.
The panel also discussed at some length the stagecraft used to generate a sense of magical dreaminess in “Alice.” Without revealing any spoilers, I would say that Sara’s approach is deceptively brilliant, like a master class in the cognitive psychology of perception: it uses the simplest objects, shapes, and gestures to elicit in the audience a maximal response in their imaginations, prompting them to creatively join with the performers in (re-)telling a classic yet eternally new story.
This will not be the last such gathering to discuss dreams and theater with OSF artists. The annual conference of the IASD is scheduled for Ashland in 2021 (June 13-17), and there will likely be additional regional gatherings between now and then. Think about coming to join us….
I want the OA to be real. I think maybe it actually is real.
A TV show of rare psychological insight and spiritual audacity (some have called it “bananas” and “bat-shit crazy,” but we’ll get to that), “The OA” reflects the brilliant creative collaboration of co-writers Brit Marling, who plays the eponymous lead character, and Zal Batmanglij, who directs most of the episodes. The second season of this Netflix original focuses directly on dreaming, leading to a revelation in the final moments of the last episode (no spoilers!) that radically alters the metaphysical stakes of the whole story. For anyone interested in dreams, this is truly peak TV.
Even though I have watched the whole series three times now, I am still discovering subtle, beautiful, profoundly intriguing moments in each episode that open up new dimensions of meaning. Several of these moments still echo in mind.
The OA’s horrible nightmare of drowning….
Karim’s vertiginous dream of falling….
Mary, Nina, and the big data dream study: “Listen to the dreamers”….
Poor Homer’s messy wet dream….
Eros as fuel for transformation….
The ancient network of trees….
Houses, open doors, and new rooms of the mind….
BBA’s painful education in the use of her innate hermeneutic gifts….
Hap’s mania for knowledge….
The enchanting power of stories, and our fear of disillusionment….
The show has many virtues besides being awesomely dreamy. Brit Marling’s performance across the two seasons is staggering in its range and raw emotionality. The sociological portrait of the San Francisco Bay Area is razor sharp (I can attest as someone who once dated a blond girl from Mill Valley), but also deeply sympathetic towards all the characters in their efforts to survive and find meaning in this version of reality. There’s no ironic detachment here, no judgment or malice directed toward even the most awful characters. Everyone is on a journey of discovering who they are, why they are here, and what they need to do right now. This journey is gracefully embodied (the “movements” are a central theme) and tangibly material (battered, beloved cell phones play a big role), yet it’s also metaphysically soaring in the way it initiates the characters into realms leading far beyond life, death, and anything that resembles the normal world according to post-Enlightenment rationality.
Certain developments in the second season brought to my mind a passage from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, the pioneering American philosopher and psychologist. This book was based on a series of lectures James gave at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-1902, and in the very first lecture he made a point that he considered essential in the study of religion and spirituality. He warned against “discrediting states of mind for which we have an antipathy,” and he coined the term “medical materialism” to describe misguided efforts to use physiology to debunk religious experiences. “To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary,” James said, because all of our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings are conditioned by the workings of our brains and bodies. The key question is not where a religious experience comes from, but where is it going, what does it do? What are its fruits in the world? What effects does it have on the individual and his or her surroundings? Is it life-affirming or life-negating?
Something to ponder as you’re watching the show.
As full disclosure, some time ago I had a conference call with the creative team of “The OA” during their preparations for season 2, and our discussion centered on the topic of dreams. They didn’t have a list of questions to ask, they were just interested in hearing what’s going on in current dream research. I was more than a little star-struck, so I rambled on about the most interesting findings I could think of and how certain artists have had (in my humble opinion) more or less success in accurately conveying to their audiences the deepest mysteries of dreaming experience.
This isn’t the first time I’ve offered advice to people putting together some kind of show or media project on dreams. Whatever else I discuss with these teams, I always feel that I’m basically on my knees, begging them:
Please don’t make dreams look stupid. Please. More people will see a single episode of your show than will read all the books on dreams combined. These people will watch your show, and it will subtly but meaningfully influence how they relate to their own dreams. Please don’t spread misinformation or harmful stereotypes.
With the team from “The OA” I never felt even a whisper of this sentiment. On the contrary, they totally get it. They get it that dreams are portals to other dimensions of ourselves and the cosmos. They get it that artists have a special power to open people’s minds and expand their sense of what’s possible. They get it that this reality, the world in which we are living right now, is in desperate need of reconnecting via dreams and other altered states of consciousness with existential truths we’ve always known but have somehow lost, or had taken away from us.
For some viewers, it’s all just too weird. There are characters, scenes, and interactions that violate any number of typical narrative expectations, which some critics have found confusing and disorienting. The show deeply respects its viewers, but it does ask a lot of them in terms of cognitive flexibility and openness to new experience.
Here’s the OA trying to explain her inter-dimensional travels to a skeptical Karim in the penultimate episode:
“You don’t think I know that sounds insane? That it’s difficult to hear? I’m asking you to imagine that reality is stranger and more complicated than you or I could possibly know. And sometimes we get glimpses of it, in dreams, or in déjà vu, when you feel like what’s happening has happened before well maybe it has, but a little differently, and somewhere else.”
The OA is asking the same of the audience. She is asking for a willingness not just to suspend disbelief for an hour or so, but to banish disbelief entirely, and to open our minds to dreaming, déjà vu, near-death experiences, and a whole host of paranormal phenomena that might seem random, crazy, or trivial from a conventional perspective, but actually offer us precious glimpses of other potential realities and other dimensions of ourselves, dramatically expanding our metaphysical horizons.
A new study explores the demographic variables that correlate with positive vs. negative attitudes towards dreams.
In the latest issue of the International Journal of Dream Research, Michael Schredl and I published the results of a new study on people’s attitudes towards dreaming. Several studies have been done previously looking at differences in people who have a positive view towards dreams versus people who have a negative view towards dreams. Most studies have found that younger people have more positive attitudes towards dreams than older people; women have more positive attitudes than men; and people with high dream recall have more positive attitudes than people with low dream recall.
Our study replicated those findings, and went beyond them by looking at three additional variables: ethnicity, education, and religion. The results shed new light on the sociology of dreaming in the contemporary United States.
The study involved an online survey of 5,255 American adults, administered by YouGov, a professional opinion research company. In addition to their demographic background, the participants were asked several questions about their attitudes towards dreams. These questions took the form of six statements about dreams, presented in random order. The participants were asked if they agreed or disagreed with each statement:
Some dreams are caused by powers outside the human mind.
Dreams are a good way of learning about my true feelings.
Dreams can anticipate things that happen in the future.
Dream are random nonsense from the brain.
I am too busy in waking life to pay attention to my dreams.
I get bored listening to other people talk about their dreams.
The first three of these statements were considered positive, in that they regard dreaming as something real, powerful, and valuable. The second three statements were considered negative in dismissing dreams as unreal or insignificant.
Our analysis of the results led to several new and interesting findings. In terms of ethnicity, the blacks in this sample had significantly higher frequencies of agreement with the positive statements about dreams, and lower frequencies of agreement with the negative statements, compared to whites. Hispanics had more agreement with the positive statements than the whites, but not as much as the black participants. At the same time, Hispanics agreed more with the negative statements than either the blacks or whites.
In terms of education, we analyzed the participants in two groups: those who had attended at least some college, and those with at most a high school degree. The differences were fairly small between these two groups. The people with more education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “bored by other people’s dreams” statement. The people with less education were somewhat more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements.
The most intriguing results came from the religion question. We found that religious orientation correlates strongly with attitudes towards dreaming. Atheists and agnostics were mostly likely to disagree with the positive statements and agree with the “random nonsense” statement. The Protestants and especially the Catholics were more likely to agree with the “powers outside the human mind” and “anticipating the future” statements. The participants who identified themselves religiously as “something else” had the least negative and most positive attitudes towards dreaming of all the groups. This seems like an especially important avenue for future research, looking more carefully at the “something else” population to study how their unconventional religious outlook affects their attitudes towards dreams. Our findings suggest that dreaming is an especially important part of these people’s spiritual lives.
This study provides new clarity about the demographic qualities that are most often associated with positive or negative attitudes towards dreams. The people in contemporary American society who are most intensely engaged with dreaming (“hyper-dreamers”) tend to be young, female, non-white, slightly less educated, and more spiritual than religious. The people who are least engaged with and most dismissive of dreams (“hypo-dreamers”) tend to be older, male, white, slightly more educated, and atheist or agnostic. These are broad tendencies with lots of individual variation, but they do suggest a deeper connection between certain clusters of demographic qualities and how people relate to their dreams in the present-day United States.
Dream research in the first half of the 20th century was mostly about proving Freud right. In the second half of the 20th century it was mostly about proving Freud wrong. Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, we may finally be reaching a more balanced understanding of what psychoanalysis can and cannot teach us about dreaming.
This was my strong impression after a recent symposium on “The Science of Dreams” at UCLA, hosted by Vwani Roychowdhury, Maja Gutman, and Douglas Hollan. The symposium opened with a lecture by George Bermudez, a practicing psychoanalyst and member of the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. Bermudez led the audience through a brilliant review of psychoanalytic dream theory from Freud onward, leading to a surprising and innovative final point that I find especially promising for the future of the field.
Bermudez started, as one does, with Freud’s 1900 opus The Interpretation of Dreams and its notions of wish-fulfillment, the four mechanisms of the dream-work, and the “topographical” model of the psyche (conscious, preconscious, unconscious). Bermudez made sure to mention the next big development in Freud’s thinking about dreams, in his 1920 work Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when he introduced a new “structural” model of the mind (ego, superego, id). Freud felt the need to create this new model in part to explain post-traumatic nightmares, which did not seem capable of being interpreted as instinctual wish-fulfillments. In the new model, Freud distinguished between dreams from the id seeking pleasure, and dreams from unconscious portions of the ego seeking mastery and waking-life adaptation. Both types of dreams are still wish-fulfillments, but with the latter type Freud granted the ego more strength and agency than he had suggested in his earlier writings.
This new line of thought about the adaptive abilities of the ego became especially important in the American branch of psychoanalysis. Bermudez highlighted a fascinating but often-neglected 1954 article by Erik Erikson in which he re-interprets the “Dream of Irma’s Injection,” one of Freud’s own dreams that he used as his first example in Chapter 2 of The Interpretation of Dreams. In “The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis,” Erikson expands on Freud’s model by calling attention to the psycho-social dynamics of dreams (in Freud’s case, the anti-Semitism that negatively impacted his early medical career). Rather than dwelling on childhood conflicts from the past, Erikson regarded dreams as more forward-looking, giving the ego an opportunity to defend against anxiety, manage unruly instincts, and adapt to social reality.
Bermudez cast some subtle shade on Melanie Klein, for reasons I could not follow, and he acknowledged that one of the great post-Freudians, Harry Stack Sullivan, had virtually nothing new to say about dreams. But he did discuss Heinz Kohut’s idea of “self-state” dreams, which reflect the current condition of the self, its strengths and vulnerabilities, as it confronts a personal crisis or trauma. And he mentioned the gnomic ideas of Wilfred Bion regarding an “alpha function” of the mind that transforms experiences and sense impressions from the day into psychic material that can be dreamed at night. Both Kohut and Bion have developed elaborately detailed extensions of psychoanalytic theory, making it hard to evaluate their ideas about dreams outside of that context. But to their credit, they are seeking ways of conceptualizing the endlessly surprising multiplicity of meanings that emerge from dreams. Rather than trying to force all new data into the strictures of orthodox psychoanalytic theory (which even Freud himself didn’t do), Kohut and Bion have boldly opened new vistas in the therapeutic use of dream interpretation.
The most dramatic part of the lecture came at the end, when Bermudez described his work using the “social dreaming matrix” model of Gordon Lawrence. Lawrence’s approach is to lift the dream out of a purely individual context and connect it with other people’s dreams; everyone then explores the group dream imagery as a synergistic reflection of the social world in which we all live. The goal is to tease out meanings of collective significance, expanding the adaptive functionality of dreams to include social concerns, conflicts, and crises. This is both a radical departure from a conventional psychoanalytic approach to dreams and a natural extension of the practical knowledge that psychoanalysts have gained while using Freud’s ideas over the past one hundred years.
As Bermudez enthusiastically described his own practical work with social dreaming, it became clear that psychoanalysis is finding a way to stay true to its roots in Freud’s original insights while also recognizing the potential for completely new insights to emerge in response to present-day challenges and needs. We don’t need to prove Freud was right or wrong. We just need to keep listening to the dreams.
Note: this post originally appeared in Psychology Today, May 2, 2019.
Psychologists and anthropologists share a lot of common ground when it comes to the study of dreams. Dreaming clearly emerges out of the brain, mind, and personal life experiences of each individual. Yet dreaming also clearly reflects the individual’s cultural environment–the languages, customs, concepts, and practices of his or her broader community. To understand dreams, we have to find ways of understanding both of these dimensions of meaning.
A new wave of anthropological research is expanding our knowledge of how dreams reflect and actively respond to cultural, social, political, and religious influences in people’s lives. Especially in times of collective change and crisis, dreams become a powerful source of insight into the dynamic interplay of psyche and culture.
At a recent gathering of professional anthropologists with an expertise in psychology, dreams were the subject of a lively panel discussion. The Society for Psychological Anthropology (SPA) held its biennial conference in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico in early April, and the session titled “New Directions in the Anthropology of Dreaming” was convened by Jeannette Mageo and Robin Sheriff. I was the lone non-anthropologist on the panel, and even though I knew most of the presenters beforehand, I was not really up-to-date with current thinking in their field. What transpired at this panel makes me very excited for the future of anthropological dream research and its potential to contribute to bigger interdisciplinary conversations about the nature and function of dreaming.
Bruce Knauft (Emory University) explored how the practices of dream yoga and deity-identification among practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism produce qualities of consciousness that Western psychologists have recently recognized as “lucid dreaming.” Knauft described the meditative practices, elaborate visualizations, and mantra recitations that Tibetan Buddhists use to achieve dreams of transcendent consciousness. Such dreams, he argued, can fundamentally alter people’s experiences of subjectivity and facilitate the realization of greater levels of self-awareness. Western psychologists are slowly realizing that cognitive processes like these are indeed possible in the sleeping state, in ways that religious traditions have been actively teaching, cultivating, and documenting for centuries.
Roger Ivar Lohmann (Trent University) shared a conversation he had about dreams and religion with one of his informants from the Asabano people of Papua New Guinea. The Asabano live in small hamlets in the forest, where colonial missionaries have converted many of them to Christianity, although with numerous hold-over characteristics from their traditional spiritual beliefs and practices. The Asabano take their dreams very seriously and regard them as valuable evidence supporting their fundamental beliefs about death, heaven, and the spiritual conditions necessary for good hunting. Lohmann described how the reality of dreaming for the Asabano creates a “night residue” effect in their lives—their memories of dreaming directing influencing their waking behaviors and personal ontologies. Especially during times of cultural crisis (e.g. the imposition of colonial ideologies and governmental controls), such dreams creatively integrate new experiences with past memories and traditions to produce what Lohmann called an “autonomic culture updating process.”
Matt Newsom (Washington State University) described his study of a collection of dreams from contemporary college students in Germany, with a focus on collective memories and identity formation in the shadow of World War II. Newsom gathered several hundred dreams from a school in Berlin and found that many of them revolved around struggles with resurgent German nationalism and violence towards immigrants and refugees. In this sample from people living in a predominantly liberal city, the students felt profoundly anxious about these cultural tensions, and they were trying to develop identities that were grounded in some other source of collective meaning and social connection. The question of “where do I belong?” seemed to be at the forefront of their dreaming minds, even though this concern was rarely discussed openly in their waking lives. Newsom said these findings supported the idea that dreams have value “for identifying unspoken social and historical anxieties present in a given society.”
Jeannette Mageo (Washington State University), the co-convener of the session, focused on the importance of image-based metaphors in dreams, and what they can reveal about the mental models we use to make sense of our lives. These models derive from cultural sources, and they shape how we think, feel, and behave. We do not accept them passively, however. Cultural models can produce tensions in an individual’s life, and these tensions are revealed with special clarity and eloquence in dreams. Mageo’s work with contemporary American college students has revealed that problematic cultural models of gender make it painfully difficult for some young adults to develop a strong and authentic sense of identity. In their dreams these models of gender (e.g., “super-masculinity,” “Cinderella”) can be observed, and they can potentially be changed through the introduction of novel metaphors and spontaneous imagery that challenge or defy the models’ strictures.
Robin Sheriff (University of Hampshire), the other co-convener, has been exploring dreams as a source of insight into the experiences of contemporary American college students with social media, celebrity culture, digitally-mediated realities, and emerging adult identities. In this presentation Sheriff described a subset of dreams from young women dealing with the theme of “stranger murder,” e.g., being randomly attacked by a serial killer. Sheriff explored the anxieties, tensions, and conflicts being expressed in these dreams, which relate in complex ways to the highly popular podcast genre of lurid stories about stranger murders. At one level, the dreams function as threat simulations in Revonsuo’s sense of the term, preparations in dreaming for a danger that might actually strike in waking. At another level, Sheriff showed how these dreams critique the cultural practices and social pathologies that give rise to those threats and dangers. Her larger claim was that dreaming offers a special window into the turbulent developmental dynamics of 21st century digitally-mediated subjectivity.
Douglas Hollan (UCLA) was the panel’s designated respondent, and he acknowledged that in recent years, the field of anthropology has not paid enough attention to dreams. The present panel was thus an important step forward towards encouraging anthropologists to pay more attention to a truly cross-cultural phenomenon, one that is deeply rooted in the minds and cultural environments of all humans. Hollan noted the recurrent theme of dreaming as a powerful resource during crises and conflicts, with both personal and collective aspects of meaning. To the degree that these meanings are brought into conscious awareness and integrated with waking life identity, a kind of natural therapeutic process can emerge with potentially transformative effects for individuals and communities. All of the panel presentations gave evidence of this possibility, suggesting many new paths for inquiry, exploration, and research.
Anyone interested in dreams will find the works of these scholars enormously helpful in understanding the cultural dimensions of dreaming. Based on the quality of this panel’s presentations and the mutual enthusiasm of the presenters, it seems likely the future will bring more discoveries and insights from this group and their colleagues.
If you woke up one morning with a vivid dream in mind, who could help you understand it? Do you know anyone who specializes in dream interpretation?
In earlier times you could bring your dream to a local shaman, sage, or priest. During the 20th century you could consult with a psychoanalyst or some other kind of psychologist.
Today, however, few religious leaders have any interest in dreams. Most professional psychologists receive no training in dream interpretation. The same is true of neuroscientists, who tend to dismiss all dreams as random nonsense from the brain.
If you felt your dream was more than random nonsense, where else could you turn for help and insight?
Here’s a thought: Ask an artist.
Many artists have surprising skill and aptitude as dream interpreters. I just watched this in action with a group of international artists who gathered at a forest retreat in Estacada, Oregon for a weeklong workshop on dreams, art, and multicultural identity, co-facilitated with Alisa Minyukova. I was hoping the members of this group (we’re calling ourselves the Dream Mapping Theater) could offer feedback on my theory that dreaming is a kind of imaginative play in sleep. What I found was much more interesting—a glimpse of the possible future of dream interpretation.
The artists in the group came from many different cultural backgrounds, with a diverse array of creative talents. Yet they all shared three key virtues that made them remarkably effective at exploring the meanings of dreams.
First, they were unusually curious and open-minded people, full of questions and willing to follow the conversation wherever it led. The bizarreness of dreaming did not bore them or make them anxious. On the contrary, they were especially interested in otherworldly dreams that transgress and transcend the boundaries of waking reality.
Our work together began two years ago with informal conversations about the weirdness of “immigration dreams,” in which a person born in one place and living in another has dreams that creatively merge their multiple cultures, languages, and identities. The artists were struck by the radical difference between their freedom in these dreams and their increasing constraint in the waking world, with hardening national borders and tribal identities. They became curious to learn more about their dreaming selves and the wider range of movement and awareness they experience in dreaming. This kind of mental flexibility does not come easily to everyone, but artists may have more capacity for it than most.
Second, the members of this group were quick to see connections. They were hyper-associative, in the best possible way. They could rapidly identify dream images and themes with personal relevance to their families, friends, and early childhood experiences. They eagerly noted symbolic parallels in their dreams to movies, paintings, poems, and other kinds of art. They made lightning-fast references to history and politics, language and religion, mythology and metaphysics. Because each member of the group came from a different cultural tradition, we could discuss the potential meanings of each dream from an amazing variety of perspectives.
More than two thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle said “the most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of observing resemblances.” Artists seem to possess this faculty in abundance.
Third, and most impressively, the members of this group knew how to bridge the conscious and unconscious parts of their minds. They were skilled at transforming subtle inner feelings into dramatic external works. Indeed, they all have professional training in communicating their deepest personal intuitions in forms that other people can perceive and understand. Once they realized they could apply this craft to their dreams, the ensuing creative explosion was a sight to behold.
Lana Nasser, a performer and story-teller born in Jordan now living in the Netherlands, shared an intensely realistic dream of “osmosing” with trees to diagnose their health from the inside. She spent much of the week exploring the forest and working with others to create an immersive robe of moss, lichen, and ferns. We filmed her one night slowly fading and morphing into a fantastically glowing green tree.
Victor Mutelekesha, a sculptor born in Zambia now living in Norway, told us a frightening dream involving fire. Early in the week he noticed an old burn pile in the forest, and before we knew it he had stripped down and buried himself in the deep, wide circle of black charcoal. (It was about 40 degrees and drizzling at the time.) The resulting footage of his Promethean emergence out of the ashes was a stunning creative response to the raging flames of his dream.
Jennifer Cabrera Fernandez, a dancer and vocalist born in Mexico now living in Italy, described an eerie dream of being paralyzed and transformed into a “stone witch.” It sounded like a nightmare, but she connected the witch’s body posture with the ancient Aztec gods of her cultural heritage, making it an image of strength, not weakness. On the last night of the workshop we turned an old horse barn into a dream temple of the stone witch, with bonfires casting a wild reddish glow on Jennifer’s elaborately painted face and body.
It took a special set of circumstances, and a talented and mature group of individuals, to generate this kind of volcanic creativity. But I suspect that many artists could, with a little guidance and encouragement, also become excellent interpreters of dreams.
This might sound like what Sigmund Freud called “wild psychoanalysis,” a dangerous dabbling in realms of the mind that should be left to medical experts. It’s true that sharing dreams requires a high degree of sensitivity, caution, and mutual respect. But it’s also true that people were safely talking about their dreams long before the rise of psychoanalysis in early 20th century Europe. Dreaming is a natural and healthy function of the human mind, available to everyone. Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, sharing dreams has been a normal part of everyday life.
And artists are really, really good at it.
If you struggle with mental health problems, by all means bring your dreams to a psychotherapist. If you think your dreams might contain divine messages, go ahead and consult with a religious official.
But if you simply want help in exploring a strange dream and its possible meanings, try asking an artist. Think of it as a micro-commission in which you request (and pay?) an artist to give you creative feedback about the dream, providing a novel and illuminating portrait of your oneiric self.
The value of keeping a dream journal is inherent in the practice itself. Simply recording your dreams on a regular basis will increase your dream recall, deepen your self-knowledge, and help you maintain emotional balance in waking life. You can enjoy these benefits even if you never look back at your journal after recording each dream.
But if you do have the opportunity to look back and review your journal over a period of time, you can learn some amazing things about yourself and the world in which you live.
I’ve been keeping a dream journal for more than 30 years, and the discoveries never stop coming. I study my journal both for personal insight and for new ideas to explore in my research with other people’s dreams. At the end of each calendar year I go back over the last 12 months of my dreams to explore the recurrent patterns and themes, using the word search tools of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) to make an initial survey. This year’s review provides an incredibly accurate portrait of my concerns and interests in waking life, and gives me lots of inspiration for new research to pursue.
The results of the initial word search analysis are presented in the table in the previous post. I compared the results of my 2018 dreams with my dreams from 2016 and 2017. I also compared them with the male and female “baselines.” The baselines are two large collections of dreams gathered by various researchers to provide a source of “normal” dreaming in the general population. (I describe the baselines in more detail in my Big Dreams book.)
To analyze these dreams I used the SDDb 2.0 template of 40 word categories in 8 classes, listed in the lefthand column. The percentages to the right of each category indicate how often a dream in the given set includes at least one reference to a word in that category.
In 2018 I remembered one dream each night, as I did in 2016 and 2017. The average length of the dreams increased during this time (102 in 2016, 111 in 2017, 116 in 2018). This suggests the word search results will tend to be a little higher in the 2018 set, just because there are more total words to search. This will also be true in comparisons with the baseline dreams, which have an average length of 100 words (females) and 105 words (males).
Keeping that in mind, the 2018 dreams had more references to vision and color than previous years, while other sensory perceptions (hearing, touch, smell & taste) stayed the same. The table doesn’t show it, but the most frequently mentioned colors in my 2018 dreams were white, black, green, gray, and blue. For both of these categories (vision and color), my dreams have many more references than either the male or female baselines.
The emotion references in the 2018 dreams are pretty similar to 2016 and 2017. I have much more wonder/confusion than the male and female baselines, and somewhat more happiness.
The 2018 dreams have a rise in references to family characters, and to females generally. The frequencies of references to animals, fantastic beings, and males are quite steady from 2016 to 2018. Compared to the baselines, my family references are still rather low, my animal references are high, and my female references are very high.
The three categories of social interaction—friendliness, physical aggression, and sexuality—are all steady from 2016 to 2018. The sexuality frequencies are somewhat higher than the baselines.
The frequencies of my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines are all similar on the categories of walking/running, flying, and falling. My dreams have fewer references to death than the baselines.
The cognitive categories—thinking, speech, reading & writing—are consistent across 2016-2018, with higher frequencies of thinking than the baselines.
The cultural categories are also remarkably consistent from 2016 to 2018, with a slight rise in references to food & drink and art. Compared to the baselines, my dreams have fewer references to school and more to art.
Of the four elements, the frequencies of fire and air are consistent in my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines. My dreams have more references to water and earth.
This kind of analysis is quite superficial, of course. It ignores personal associations, narrative flow, and all the subtle qualities of dreaming that can’t be captured in numbers. That’s true, and yet it’s also true that a well-crafted word search analysis can reveal some fascinating themes that are both accurate and thought-provoking.
One of the most striking results of this initial analysis is the remarkable consistency over time of most of the word categories. There are a few significant changes, which I’ll discuss in a moment. But those changes are more dramatic when set in the bigger context of strong consistency across word categories as diverse as air (3% in 2016, 4% in 2017, and 4% in 2018), touch (12, 11, 13), anger (7, 8, 8), fantastic beings (4, 4, 3), physical aggression (16, 17, 17), flying (7, 6, 7), and clothing (18, 19, 21). As wild and unpredictable as individual dreams may be, in the aggregate they seem to follow steady long-term patterns.
Against that background of consistency, the changes that do occur over time are all the more intriguing.
The rise in references to vision and color from 2016 to 2018 seems related to the lengthening of my dream reports over this time. As my reports get longer, I apparently need to use more vision and color words to describe what happens in each dream.
The rise in references to family characters might be a return to a more “normal” ratio of family in my dreams. The family frequencies in 2016 and 2017 are actually the lowest I’ve ever had (extending the comparison back to 2010), so 2018 may be a bounce-back year. This would make sense in relation to my waking life: 2016 was the beginning of the “empty nest,” when the last of our children moved out of the house.
The rise in references to female characters is the most intriguing. The references to male characters stayed mostly the same from 2016 to 2018 (47, 44, 43), so the 2018 increase in female references leads to a big gender gap (59% female vs. 43 male). The baselines actually have slightly higher frequencies of male references vs. female references, so the variation in my 2018 dreams is even more unusual.
What might account for this change? My first thought is political. American society, as I currently perceive it, is dominated by destructive masculine energies, and change is only going to come once we bring more women to positions of power. I’m trying harder than ever in waking life to listen to female voices, and that intention may have influenced the patterns of my dreaming.
Two other features of the analysis pique my curiosity.
One is the rise of references to art over 2016-2018 (7, 14, 15), which I believe correlates with my increased participation as a board member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I wonder if other people who become more involved with an artistic group or practice also experience a rise in their dreams about art. I also wonder if my rise in art references might be connected to my higher frequencies of vision and color.
The other feature I’d like to explore further is the consistently low frequency of references to religion during all three years (3, 4, 3). This might seem odd since I have two graduate degrees in religious studies, and I’ve written several books about religion. But at the same time I never attend church, and I don’t belong to any religious group or denomination. My dreams seem to reflect the latter reality, my personal behavior rather than my scholarly pursuits.
In a recent survey that I’ve been analyzing with the help of Michael Schredl, we asked people to choose one of the following categories to describe their religious identity—Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Agnostic, Atheist, Nothing in Particular, and Something Else. I would definitely categorize myself as “something else”—not one of the religious identities, but not one of the non-religious identities, either. And it turns out (previewing the statistical findings Michael and I will soon publish) that people who identify religiously as “something else” have the highest interest in dreams compared to other groups. This makes me more curious than ever to understand the beliefs of people who religiously identify as “something else,” and how those beliefs relate to their attitudes towards dreaming.
I’m left with a final question, which will guide me in 2019: To what extent do these patterns reflect the past, and to what extent do they map the future?
I recently had an odd dream about a cat that left me with more questions than answers.
It was, I can personally testify, a dark and stormy night. I had gone to bed in a state of extreme emotional distress. Earlier in the day one of our cats had disappeared, and I was sure that he—the aptly named Phantom—had slipped outside through an inadvertently open door. After searching the house several times, I began walking through our neighborhood, whistling and calling. It was foggy and raining, with a temperature in the low 30’s. There were dogs everywhere. Every single one of our neighbors, as I discovered during several hours of pacing the streets around us, has at least one dog, and they literally hounded me as I looked and called for Phantom, who in the very best of circumstances is unlikely to come when I whistle. The fall of darkness meant the local coyotes would soon be on the prowl, the main reason why our cats are mostly indoor dwellers. My anxiety soon shifted into profound guilt and despair. It was all my fault… If Phantom had gotten outside the hedge surrounding our yard, he could have shot off in any direction, spooked by cars, people, and barking dogs in every yard. Never having been beyond the hedge, he’d have no idea how to get back to the safety of our house. The more time passed, the further away he might be wandering. I was the cause, it was my negligence, I had let him get out, and now he was lost in the night somewhere, with dangers all around….
After hours of fruitless searching, I fell exhausted into bed around 10 pm. (I had just returned two days earlier from an overseas trip, so I was already quite bedraggled and sleep-deprived.)
Sometime after 1 am I awoke, with the sound of the rain falling on the skylight. I immediately decided to get up, go outside, and whistle some more for Phantom. This would be the quietest time of night in our neighborhood, when even the dogs would be asleep, and I’d have the best chance of hearing him if he meowed in response.
As I quietly got dressed, I thought about a dream I’d been having just before waking up. In the dream Phantom comes walking towards me, tail held high.
A sad, depressing wish-fulfillment dream, I thought to myself. No, it’s worse than that, it’s a cruel and desperate fantasy that taunts me with a vision of what I want to be true, not what sadly is true. Stupid dream, I angrily thought as I put on my rain gear and grabbed a flashlight. Stupid dream.
And when I walked downstairs to the front door, there he was. Sitting on the living room couch in the darkness, looking straight at me.
For a dizzying moment, I wasn’t sure if I was really awake or still dreaming.
No, it was really him. Phantom came running up to me with his tail held high.
I still don’t know where he had been. Apparently not outside, but nowhere inside that I could find after careful, intensive searching. If he had been inside, why the f*** didn’t he come out for almost twelve hours?
And…. What do I make of my dream now?
The fact that Phantom appeared almost immediately after I awoke does not necessarily diminish or detract from the dream’s wish-fulfilling function. It could be that in this case, my wish just happened to come true in waking life, as well as in the dream. Freud would be fine with that, I think.
Another possibility is that Phantom came out of hiding before I woke up, and I somehow heard him through the closed door of our bedroom, and then incorporated that auditory stimulus into my dream. Maybe.
Perhaps, in the extremities of my emotional distress and biorhythmic disorientation, I was unusually open to subtle perceptions I don’t normally notice, and I somehow “felt” his presence, safe and close by. Hmm.
A more speculative possibility is that Phantom, either awake or sleeping, reached out to me in my dream and let me know he was back. True, there is rather little evidence at present for interspecies telepathic communication in dreams. Still, I wouldn’t rule it out completely.
A more naturalistic explanation would be that my unconscious mind simply calculated the odds of the various scenarios regarding Phantom’s fate, and concluded that the most likely result of the whole situation was his reappearance, naturally eliciting great happiness and relief on my part. Which is indeed what happened, and how I felt.
To quote the final words of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There, “which do you think it was?”
Dreaming, play, theater, science, religion, social and political crisis.
Jung, Freud, Shakespeare, a troupe of immigrant artists, Alice in Wonderland, Lucrecia de Leon, the US President.
These are the topics and the people I will be discussing most frequently in a series of presentations lining up for 2019. Each presentation will speak directly to the interests of a particular audience, and each one will also connect to the other talks I’m giving in ways that I hope will lead to a greater interwoven whole.
(All of these conferences and gatherings are still in the planning stages, so details may change.)
Society for Psychological Anthropology
Biennial Meeting, Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico
This will be part of a panel on “New Directions in the Anthropology and Psychology of Dreaming” organized by Robin Sheriff and Jeannette Mageo.
“Dreaming, Play, and Social Change”
This presentation offers a novel theory of dreaming—as a highly evolved form of play—and discusses its implications for new research in psychology and anthropology. The theory integrates findings from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, religious studies, and developmental psychology (especially D.W. Winnicott). This approach moves beyond the fruitless debates over the “bizarreness” of dreaming. From the play perspective, bizarreness in dreaming is a feature, not a bug. In dreams the mind is free to play, to explore, imagine, and envision new possibilities beyond the limits of conventional reality. Of special interest to anthropologists, the content of dreams, i.e., what people playfully dream about, mostly revolves around social life. Many of the cognitive abilities vital to waking sociality are also present in dreaming, which correlates with research showing that dream content accurately mirrors people’s most important waking relationships. In some instances, dreaming goes beyond mirroring the social world to actively striving to transform it; the playfulness intensifies, and the dreaming imagination labors to create something new, to go beyond what is to imagine what might be. This visionary potential is often activated during times of social conflict and crisis. Three brief examples will illustrate the playful dynamics of dreaming in relation to a crisis in the dreamer’s community: 1) the prophecies of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain; 2) the creatively inspiring “big dreams” of a group of immigrant artists; and 3) the politically-themed dreams of present-day Americans about their current President.
This is the general description of the event, which I am helping to host with Angel Morgan. On Saturday morning I will give a talk on the role of dreams in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” both of which will be performed that weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“Theater, Dreams, and Art”
Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage” and Carl Jung wrote that a dream is theater in which the dreamer is the scene, player, prompter, producer, author, public, and critic. The best plays are like the best dreams: surprising, decentering, mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, emotionally exhausting, and acutely memorable. They are unreal, yet realer than real; retreats into fantasy that catapult us into fresh engagement with the world. Many talented artists, as well as everyday creative people, have said they feel the same kind of freedom to explore their emotions in dreams that they do when they have an encounter with the artistic process. Many often connect the two by first logging their dreams, then drawing on the raw emotional content and imagery from their dream experiences to feed their art. That said, bridging dreams with theater and art tends to offer a wide variety of fascinating approaches. In this conference we hope to inform and inspire dreamers of all ages and backgrounds, as well as those who use theater, dreams, or art in their work, such as: parents, psychologists, therapists, counselors, writers, actors, directors, dancers, visual artists, and musicians.
This is part of a panel I am organizing with Svitlana Kobets and Bernard Welt on “Visionary Dreams in Art, Religion, and History.”
“Vision and Prophecy in the Dreams of Lucrecia de Leon”
This presentation explores the visual imagery, religious symbolism, and prophetic warnings contained in the dreams of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Madrid who was persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition as a traitor and heretic, despite the fact that many of her dream warnings came true.
This is part of a panel Jayne Gackenbach is organizing on the interplay of artistic practice and scientific inquiry.
“Dreaming Is Play: A Bridge Between Art and Science”
This presentation offers a theory that dreaming is a kind of play, the imaginative play of the mind during sleep. This theory has directly inspired me in new activities with art and artists: supporting regional theater, collaborating with the Dream Mapping Troupe, and cultivating a forested dream library.
This is a “call for papers” topic that will soon be posted by the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) group of the American Academy of Religion, and open for submissions from all AAR members. If the CSR steering committee receives enough good proposals on this topic, there will be a panel session at the conference in San Diego with three or four presentations.
“Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) Approaches to Dreaming”
The rise of psychology of religion in the early 20th century was driven in part by Freud’s and Jung’s efforts to understand the nature of dreams. What would a new 21st century approach to dreams look like, using the resources of CSR? Specifically, to what extent do cognitive functions known to operate in religious contexts (e.g., memory, imagination, metaphor, teleological reasoning, social intelligence, agency detection, dual-systems cognition) also operate in dreaming? To what extent does this shed new light on the various roles that dreams have played in the history of religions (e.g., theophany, healing, prophecy, moral guidance, visions of the afterlife)? Proposals are welcome that draw together detailed accounts of religiously significant dreaming with specific CSR concepts and theories.