Monday, October 21, 2013

Nightmares and Dream Data-Mines

Many of us can identify at least one book that had a significant impact on our later lives.  For me, one of those special books was Ann Faraday’s The Dream Game, originally published in 1974.  A high school English teacher leant me her book, and after devouring it I must have read a dozen more about the topic.  Trained in the Freudian, Jungian and Gestalt traditions of psychology, Faraday explored the systematic analysis of dream content, and tried to find ways to make her research findings relevant to the rest of us.  She was an important leader in the Human Potential Movement, and her work is still influential.  The Dream Game is a classic of its kind.

(My high school English teacher was also awesome.)

Other books followed, among them Celia Greene’s Lucid Dreams (1968) and Stephen LaBerge’s Lucid Dreaming:  the Power of Being Aware and Awake in Your Dreams (1985).  Books like these provided practical guidance for a personal study of dreams, techniques to increase conscious awareness of the dream state, and suggestions for making use of dream material in waking life.  Books about dream science and psychology also provided me a framework for better appreciating the work of H.P. Lovecraft, among other horror writers.

It is generally well known that Lovecraft made systematic and effective use of the dream material he collected.  Dreams and dream imagery are pervasive in his fiction; the word ‘dream’ or related terminology occur in numerous titles of his works.  Some of his later poetry, (for example, in the collection known as Fungi From Yuggoth), and several short stories are essentially entries from a dream diary barely transmuted into poetic or narrative form.  Has anyone ever subjected Lovecraft's more hallucinatory work to Freudian or Jungian analysis?  The result would be interesting, especially given what we know of his personal struggles from several competent biographers.

Lovecraft himself offers a dream psychology of sorts in the opening paragraphs of his short story Beyond the Wall of Sleep, (1919).  The first paragraph of the story provides a summary of his perspective on the significance of dreams.  He writes:  “Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences…there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation…”  (This fascinating story is discussed in an earlier post—“Clinical Lovecraft”, June 2013.)

Yesterday in The New York Times there was an interesting article by Kelly Bulkeley, a researcher and former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, (“Data-Mining Our Dreams”, Sunday, 10/20/13).  Some fools still believe that “dreams are just random signals sent from primitive regions of the brain.”  But anyone who has spent even just a week recording and thinking about their night time adventures knows that this is preposterous. 

Bulkeley reminds us that almost every culture throughout thousands of years of history has developed a system of dream interpretation.  To give just one familiar example, dreams are very frequent in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, where they serve as a source of prophecy, communication with God, and guidance during threatening times.  (Just as ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’, it seems safe to say ‘there are no atheists in dreamland”—the dreaming experience is a vivid reminder that there are matters beyond our comprehension lying just on the edge of our conscious minds.)

In the article, Bulkeley goes on to describe early work by Mary Whiton Calkins, who in 1893 collected and analyzed over 300 dreams, sorting them into categories based on content.  She found that dreams typically contain realistic settings with familiar characters, are primarily visual in terms of imagery, and are often negative in tone.  Subsequent research has uncovered additional interesting patterns:  artists are more likely to have nightmares than non-artists, children have more animals in their dreams than adults, and younger people are most likely to have ‘lucid dreams’—the experience of being awake inside a dream.

What Bulkeley and his colleagues want to do is to use digital technology and computer algorithms for much more powerful analysis of a larger sample of dream material.  They have been developing the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), a kind of digital archive containing several thousand dream reports. A special search engine allows various ways to derive patterns from the material for empirical research into the meaning of dreams. 

“This information can be explored and analyzed in many different ways, enabling users to identify large scale patterns as well as instances of unusual or anomalous content.”  Bulkeley feels that meaningful aspects of dreaming are quantifiable using digital procedures. Technology applied to “big data” dream analysis will yield new insights about people’s lives.  (

But I wonder:  What if instead of entering dream reports into the SDDb we entered horror stories?  Horror entertainments are also a record of collective dreams and nightmares.  What strange anomalous patterns would the data show?

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