Studies indicate dreams can be used as ‘therapeutic ally’

Philadelphia InquirerJanuary 13, 2014 

During these long winter nights, you might find yourself visited more often by dead relatives.

Even if you can barely recall their faces, they can appear in dazzling hi-def detail while you sleep.

Not only might you dream about your father in his mustard-yellow alpaca cardigan, but you might even detect the clove scent of his aftershave and hear his gravelly voice telling you to dump your girlfriend.

“The brain definitely has this amazing capacity to create an entirely lifelike experiential reality in our dreams,” said Kelly Bulkeley, former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Berkeley, Calif.

It also seems to run a subconscious calendar. People from the past can rise from the depths, reeled in by thin threads tied to the winter holidays.

“People are gathering this time of year. There definitely is a circumstantial trigger,” Bulkeley said. “This is what dreams do – they keep us connected to our roots as they try to imagine where our future lies.”

Dream research

Using a new wealth of information, he said, studies are revealing the remarkable commonality of recurrent dreams. Most are negative. Children tend to dream about being chased by monsters or animals, but adults are haunted mostly by failed exams and fear of forgetting to get dressed.

And yet, the more dreams are studied, the clearer it becomes that these thoughts from the mists of the mind are as deeply personal as they are mysterious.

Dream research has been advancing dramatically with help from new technology, said Bulkeley, one of the small cadre of researchers who collect data from computerized “dream banks.”

Last he checked, Bulkeley had 14,000 dreams in his personal collection, much of which is shared with colleague G. William Domhoff of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Domhoff has more than 30,000 in his bank.

Using computers, they sift through the data looking for patterns, key words and images.

“In the past, if a dream researcher wanted to analyze the difference between the way the blind dream versus the sighted, if they collected 200 dreams, that was considered a good-sized sample,” said Deirdre Barrett, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of “The Committee of Sleep,” about how artists, scientists, and athletes use dreams to solve problems.

Now, with tens of thousands of dreams in the bank, Barrett said, “there are all these samples that allow you to pick out tiny elements of dream content. We can select for rare medical conditions and study how do the dreams vary.”

A recent study in Japan, she said, has used technology to create videos reflecting the content of dreams. Researchers recorded brain-wave patterns as each subject looked at pictures of animals, people, and objects. They then looked for correlating patterns when the subject was asleep, and converted them into visual images.

“It was the coolest-looking thing,” Barrett said.

‘Therapeutic ally’

Dream research has remained a small domain because its advancement does not seem to have direct clinical applications, with the exception, she said, of post-traumatic distress nightmares and a few other rare disorders.

Dreams can serve as a “therapeutic ally,” giving clues about the nature of anxieties, frustrations, and desires. “But it’s not a magic eight ball.”

Some of Barrett’s work has looked at the practical implications of dreams.

“People dream solutions to architectural designs or chemistry, writers dream plots for novels, musicians hear scores. Just about any practical human pursuit can get a huge breakthrough in a dream,” Barrett said. “If we’re in a rut and not seeing a solution, dreams can show us a way outside of the box.”

The one truth that remains constant, Bulkeley said, is the only expert about your dreams is you.

“People can give you helpful advice, but it’s always up to the dreamer to say this is what I think it means,” he said. “If anyone takes out a dictionary and tells you this is what your dreams mean, run the other way.”

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service