Most dreams are boring, and immediately forgotten. For every monstrous nightmare that wakes you up in a cold sweat, or fantastical dream of flying, there are fistfuls of dreams where you’re probably just at work or something.
Kelly Bulkeley thinks all those boring dreams serve a purpose, but he’s particularly interested in the kind of dreams people tend to remember—what he calls “big dreams,” the intense, extraordinarily vivid dreams that only come around once in a while. In his book Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion, he looks at both research and evolutionary theory to ponder a famously intractable question: Why do we dream?
I spoke with Bulkeley, a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union, and director of the Sleep and Dream Database, about the adaptive psychological functions of dreaming, how culture shapes people’s dreams, and how to rigorously study something as ephemeral as dreaming.
Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Julie Beck: You are not one of those people who thinks that dreams are just brain static. So generally, what purpose do dreams serve and how much meaning should we ascribe to them?
Kelly Bulkeley: If you just look at the current science, it’s pretty clear that dreaming has a lot more psychological structure, a lot more personal meaning, a lot more cognitive sophistication than a random static point of view would suggest.
So certainly I'm waving the banner of, yes, dreams have dimensions of meaning. I’m not going to say that every dream has heaven-sent revelations or anything like that, but we’re learning a lot about what those dimensions of meaning are.
The short definition is that dreaming is imaginative play in sleep and that’s the way I think of dreaming in an evolutionary context. It’s a hardwired, neurologically-grounded process that occurs throughout our species, that has deep roots in mammalian evolution. There's something very profound in how our minds and brains are operating during sleep and one of the ways I think it’s best to conceptualize that is that dreaming is a kind of play in a set apart from space where ordinary rules of reality are suspended temporarily and we try out different strategies, we rehearse different kinds of behavior.
Beck: It’s easy to see that play idea when I dream I went to a meeting or something super bland like that. Is that just us working out the things that we deal with every day?
Bulkeley: One thing that play does is help us process experience, and this is true of dreaming as well. Whatever we’re engaged with in the waking world we’re very likely to dream about. At one level that seems kind of like “Duh,” but at another level that’s another argument against the idea that dreams are just random nonsense. Dreams actually are pretty accurate mirrors, of the emotional concerns and relational activities that we engage in in the waking world. Most dreams are pretty much about the people you know, in the places you usually hang out, doing the things you're usually doing, with some weird things going on around that.
Beck: Especially as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten dreams that are so much like life that it’s confusing. I will dream that my boss is mad at me and then I don’t understand that it was a dream until much later in the day.
Bulkeley: Well, the mind doesn’t turn off, it just shifts into a different mode in sleep. So the same things that engage us and motivate us in the day are still rattling around at night.
Beck: But most of these mundane dreams we forget, right?
Bulkeley: Yeah, there seems to be kind of a natural ebb and flow to dream recall. Different people have higher or lower dream recall frequencies, and each individual during the course of their lives seems to have higher or lower periods of dream recall. There are a couple of general demographic patterns that do seem to hold forth, children tend to remember more dreams than do older people. All of these are kind of nature/nurture questions in terms of how to explain them. Same thing with the pretty widely replicated fact that women tend to remember more dreams than men—is that because women naturally remember more dreams or because women are more socialized to be attentive to their inner emotional lives and men are more supposed to forget about their feelings and focus on chopping wood or whatever?
So there’s some patterns to dream-recall broadly but for the most part people remember some dreams and not others and we can’t see a whole lot of rhyme or reason to that.
Beck: How much of that forgetting is because our sleep is so regimented by the outside world and we use alarms to wake ourselves up?
Bulkeley: The transition from sleeping to waking is a perilous process, the mind and the brain are really shifting in a lot of ways and a remembered dream is a survivor of that process. To just kind of slam someone out of sleep into wakefulness, that makes it hard to retain whatever remnants there may have been from a dream. There are also cases where an alarm clock might wake you up in the middle of a dream that you might have otherwise slept on through and never remembered, so sometimes alarm clocks can kind of catch a dream that you otherwise might have missed. But the overall kind of chronic effect has to be seen as diminishing the frequency and likelihood of dream recall.
I mean, we all live in the world, we’ve got places to go and things to do. So I think practically speaking if you don’t have to use an alarm clock don’t, there are times when you have to, but to give oneself a break from that can give a little more space for the dreams to return.
Beck: What distinguishes big dreams from the typical boring ones?
Bulkeley: We kind of set the premise for it with how most dreams on average tend to be pretty mundane, having to do with day to day activities and we don’t even remember them. So that’s the baseline. But then there’s some dreams that strike people as being really different, and what that means in the first instance is they can’t forget them. It’s just kind of blazed in your memory.
That usually is kind of a product of a couple of things: A physiological response, and often big dreams have really intense visual imagery and sensation. There’s kind of a hyperrealism that people will feel. And that right there opens the way to the philosophical aspect of big dreams, which is the way they challenge our epistemological sense of the world. Like, how do we know what’s real? How do we know what’s waking and dreaming? Big dreams are ruptures between dreaming and waking, and kind of merge both. These kinds of dreams have been reported by cultures all over the world throughout history. They happen to people in all place and times as far as we can tell. And that leads to the question: What’s getting activated and intensified in the normal dreaming process to generate these really extraordinary dream vision experiences?
Beck: How often do people have these? Are there times in life when they might be more likely to have them? Are certain people more likely to have them?
Bulkeley: They’re very rare, is the quickest answer. For some people it’s a dream they remember from childhood. Carl Jung, the psychologist who coined the term “big dreams,” was asking his psychiatric patients about their earliest childhood dreams, which for the most part were really big intense dreams, and he found those to be super valuable in a clinical context, they helped him make sense of the deepest conflicts and issues in the patient’s life. So childhood seems to be a fertile time for big dreaming.
Beck: You separate “big dreams” into four types, [as seen in this figure]—aggressive dreams, sexual dreams, gravitational dreams, and mystical dreams. Can you just walk me through each one as to what functions those serve?
Bulkeley: There’s as many different kinds of big dreams as there are people in some ways. But I’m trying to find ways to connect the psychological and religious and philosophical dimensions of dreaming with the scientific knowledge we have about how the mind and the brain work and the evolutionary context of our species.
Beck: That’s a lot.
Bulkeley: It is, but I think dreaming is a really interesting nexus between religion and science.
So each of the types is associated with a carryover effect, which is a physiological response from the dream, where the dreamer wakes up and is still feeling that dream feeling, if that makes sense. With an aggressive prototype, that's kind of the fight/flight response. Where it all got started for me was a series of chasing nightmares in adolescence where I’d wake up, and, wow, even though my eyes were open and I was in my bedroom not being attacked by the tiger or by Darth Vader or whomever, my body was reacting in that moment. So I consider that one prototype. That's sort of the negative, the antisocial side of things.
And then the other side of the horizontal axis on that figure is the sexual prototype which is, you could say, prosocial in contrast to the aggressive side. Those are dreams that have a very different physiological carryover effect.
Beck: Yeah, we all know what that one is.
Bulkeley: Unmistakable. And something that in the history of religion is kind of interesting, is to see how Christian monks like, really bum out about wet dreams. Because that’s a hardwired physiological part of the sleep cycle and certain dreams have an incredible vividness and intensity that, as Saint Augustine said, “in sleep they not only arouse pleasure but even elicit consent.” Even though you might in waking life be pledged to a certain kind of chastity or ascetic beliefs about sexuality.
Sexual dreams are a whole other cluster of big dreams, which also include dreams of pregnancy, I think of it as procreation generally.
Beck: I thought it was very interesting that you put those under that category because to me they are nightmares.
Bulkeley: Well they can be. A nightmare from an evolutionary sense sometimes can be an adaptive warning. Like, “Hey, get ready! Watch out! This is possible!” I’ve got kids who have grown by now, but I had plenty of weird dreams and nightmares of dangers to them. We’re biologically primed to watch out for our little progenies.
Beck: So you wouldn’t equate nightmare with only the aggressive type?
Bulkeley: No, I wouldn’t. There could be a sexual nightmare for sure. The emotional tenor isn’t fixed. In evolutionary terms there’s probably a better reason to emphasize the bad possibilities a little bit, to keep us out of trouble, keep us alive, but there are good possibilities that get imagined in dreams as well.
Beck: Sorry, I derailed the categories there. We did aggressive and sexual.
Bulkeley: Those are dreams that are on what I call the relational axis. And there can be themes from all these in any one dream, but I think that analytically it helps to think of these themes.
So then the vertical axis. The dreams at the bottom, I call them gravitational dreams. Those are basically falling dreams. Things are just falling apart, you’re lost, you’re late for an exam. Those are probably the most frequent. I think those are reflecting some of our experiences as animate beings in a world of gravity and mass and physics and inertia. I think there’s an intuitive physics that operates in dreaming, and falling dreams, I think, are manifestations of that unconscious constant awareness that we are bound by entropy. And life is a constant struggle against entropy.
Then at the opposite end of that are dreams that rise above entropy, that rise above gravity, and these are dreams of flying, and dreams of coming back from the dead. Entropy captures us in gravitational dreams, but in these mystical dreams, entropy is overcome or suspended in some way. There’s beauty, there's structure, there’s order, there’s life rather than death. Flying is the great example because it’s something that as gravity bound creatures we’re not able to do and yet in our dreams we can imagine being liberated from the basic laws of the physical world. In terms of a carryover response, there’s feelings of awe, wonder, ecstasy.
Beck: So the gravitational dreams, you said you would include being lost or being late for a test in those. So it’s not literally always gravity, it’s just things going wrong or things falling apart?
Bulkeley: Well it’s Murphy’s Law. Whatever can go wrong does go wrong. I do think it reflects kind of an almost cellular awareness of entropy. Things tend to fall apart and life is a constant struggle to keep something together and to build something up. And sometimes in our dreams, those forces of entropy, we get caught in them. This is my theory, of course. Talk to somebody else and they'll say I’m crazy on this one. But what I’m trying to do is gather some of these typical dream themes and identify a unifying, scientifically sensible connection. And I think that’s what ties together all these different kinds of dreams of bad things happening, being lost, being confused, not being able to run fast, not being able to speak, various ways where we lose our powers.
Beck: Dreaming seems like a very individual activity—you’re literally locked in your own mind while you’re sleeping. But you write a lot about how it’s culturally influenced. Could you give some examples of how your culture might affect your dreams?
Bulkeley: I think there’s a really interesting and very lively two-way relationship between individual dreams and collective culture. There’s ways in which cultural myths for example, particularly sacred stories, filter into people’s dreams and shape their sense of what is or isn’t possible.
In contemporary American contexts you see this with people dreaming of movies. In past days, the ancient Greeks were dreaming of gods and goddesses; today we dream about Batman and Spiderman and other stars of the silver screen. Movies, just like myths in the past, and drama and painting and literature, all forms of culture in my view, are conveying imaginative themes and psychologically meaningful symbols that our dreams just eat up and use and process in various ways.
What I believe is that our dreaming minds are opportunistic, they draw upon themes and images and such from the culture as useful shorthand for various kinds of feelings, emotions, and ideas that get woven into our dreams. Then, of course, there’s plenty of evidence of people who’ve created culture inspired by their dreams. So there’s dreaming feeding into culture and then culture feeding into dreaming.
Beck: The dreams feeding into culture side of it, in the book you talk about that in the context of religion a lot. What are the ways that dreams have influenced culture in a religious context?
Bulkeley: Many religious traditions tell stories of people having had powerful dreams, that set the tone for the tradition or that opened up a connection between the divine and the human group. There’s traditions like Buddhism where Buddha himself was supposedly born from a magical dream that his mother had. In Islam, Muhammad talked about his dreams with his followers and asked them about their dreams. Native American traditions of course are well known for weaving dream experiences and images and such into various aspects of their culture from their religious ceremonies to art.
Dreaming provides what many cultures believe to be a good and reliable means for humans to stay connected with the divine, particularly coming into play during times of crisis. The classic example of that in the Bible would be Jacob going out in the desert, he's being chased by his brother, Esau, and then he has an amazing dream of God showing him this ladder, with angels going up and down it, and He gives him this moment of reassurance. That became kind of a key moment in the whole Judeo-Christian tradition of when you’re in bad shape, you’re out there in the desert, all by yourself sleeping on a rock, God will find you and God’s still with you.
Beck: Do you think that that’s still as much of a thing today? My casual, non-scholarly sense would be that people would probably be less likely now to think of dreams as prophecies or anything like that. Do you still see a strong connection there today?
Bulkeley: Well, it’s varied. I often have the experience of someone hearing I do something with dreams and at first they think the whole thing’s stupid and they’re just trying to dismiss it. Then two minutes later they’re telling me this really intense synchronistic type dream that they had years ago that still has them puzzled and freaked out. So I think that people are of many minds about dreams.
During sleep the mind can be incredibly creative. It can be a remarkable engine of problem solving and emotional processing that people from artists to athletes to inventors to mystics have drawn upon over the ages. We don’t know all sorts of things about where dreams come from or what they ultimately mean, but we have some better ideas than we had a few decades ago and more progress seems likely. I’m reluctant to oversell what dreams can necessarily do for people because people gotta figure it out for themselves, but I think what we’re definitely learning is that dreaming is a deeply ingrained part of being human, of being the kind of thinking, reasoning, imagining creatures that we are. Dreaming is as woven into our creativity as anything could be.
Beck: Dream interpretation is usually lumped in with astrology and other pseudosciencey stuff. But in the book you report that you’ve found some success in guessing things about people’s lives from self-reports of their dreams. How much are our lives and personalities reflected in what we dream about, in a scientific, measurable way?
Bulkeley: A couple of my colleagues and I and some grad students, we’re looking at ways to connect patterns in dream content with people’s concerns and activities and relationships in waking life. We’re having decent success. What I think we’re doing that’s smart is starting with really simple stuff. Relationships are a pretty clear presence in dreaming. For example, if a person is much closer to their mother than their father, it’s very likely they’ll have more dreams of their mother than their father. It can be negative too. If you really hate one of your siblings, that is very likely to trigger a higher frequency of dreams. So that raises the prospect, which we’ve been able to test a little bit, that if you get a set of 100 dreams and there’s way more references to mother than father, you can predict with some degree of confidence that that person has a stronger emotional relationship with their mother than their father. And then it's something that can be put to the test. You can ask the person or ideally get a third party assessment, that yes, they’re closer to their mother.
Beck: You write that particularly strange dreams might be accounted for by people thinking metaphorically in their sleep. Is that something that could ever really be studied in that way or is it just sort of beyond?
Bulkeley: I hope it’s not. It’s good that you brought that up because that is exactly the next step beyond what I just outlined. What I just outlined is a very literal approach. You dream a bunch about your mother, it connects up with your mother. But what if, as we know in dreams, there’s all sorts of metaphorical dimensions to things. How can we study or analyze that in the same kind of rigorous and systematic way that we do with the more literal dimensions? That’s tougher.
But to work with dreams and study dreams is to realize they speak in a language of symbol and metaphor with multiple dimensions of meaning at any given time. At some level as time has gone on I’ve become less attached to the idea that dreaming needs to do anything or accomplish anything, and more aware of how dreaming itself is a like a mental yoga. It’s like stretching the mind, it’s keeping the mind open and flexible and adaptive. That right there I think is a pretty big service.
Beck: You write that part of the difficulty of studying dreams is the “seemingly unbridgeable gap between dream as dreamt and dream as reported.” I thought that was interesting because I personally hate dream sequences in movies and books, because I’m always like ‘That’s not what dreaming is actually like though!’” It just seems so overwrought to me. I don’t know, maybe I’m just cranky. Even though I’d be hard pressed to say what it is like or to do a better job than they did. Do you think that is a gap that you’ve found any way to overcome or do you think there’s always going to be that disconnect when you try to study something as subjective and hard to describe as dreams?
Bulkeley: It’s a research challenge and it’s something we researchers talk about all the time. Some people say “Oh well, that gap between the dream as dreamt and the dream as reported means there’s no legitimacy to any of it.” In my view that’s sort of absolutist and not really a good way of thinking about knowledge anyway. We’re always filtering things through our perception. Even though experiences like dreams are subjective and always will be, if we get enough reports of them we can start to see objective patterns across all those individual subjectivities. Unless we’re going to assume that everybody’s wrong about their own experience and everybody's making things up. I think that’s too strict a standard, I think that we can legitimately identify patterns in these subjective experiences. But we don’t know for sure and that’s just life.