Excerpt from The Spirituality of Dreaming, Chapter Two “Fraught with Truth”
In every known religious and spiritual tradition around the world, dreams have been regarded as a valuable means of communication between humans and the divine. Dreaming has played an important role in a variety of religious beliefs and practices, especially around the themes of healing, prophecy, creativity, and death. Some philosophers have speculated that dreaming is itself the origin of religion—that the core ideas of a disembodied soul, an afterlife, supernatural beings, and otherworldly realms all first emerged in human consciousness via dreaming. This is certainly the case with individuals who have converted to a religious tradition like Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism because of a powerful dream experience. In modern, mostly secular Western society, it might seem strange to connect dreaming with religion. But in the broad sweep of human history, dreaming and religion have always interacted with each other. What’s strange is our contemporary amnesia about this time-honored relationship.
We are all dreamers, every one of us: high and low, rich and poor, young and old. One of the first Christians to advocate for this key spiritual insight was Synesius, a leader of the early Christian church in what is present-day Libya. He taught that dreams have great value as a primary source of religious experience. Dreaming is a spiritual phenomenon, he maintained, and one that transcends all social boundaries and divisions. Synesius agreed with other ancient philosophers who also recognized dreaming as a portal of communication between people and the gods. But he went beyond most of his contemporaries in highlighting the all-embracing inclusiveness of spiritual dreaming. The idea that all people could have inspired dreams was a theme he found harmonious with the new Christian message of welcoming all people to the faith, even those from the most marginal parts of society. Synesius saw dreaming as the natural ally of a religion whose central animating creed is God’s love for all of humankind.
Unfortunately, when the institutional church began to organize, define, and codify its official theological beliefs, the universalist dream teachings of Synesius were not included. On the contrary, church authorities went out of their way to designate dreaming as a type of forbidden sorcery, akin to witchcraft or astrology. Many centuries later, however, Synesius’s insights have finally received validation. Modern researchers have shown that dreaming is indeed rooted in brain-mind processes shared by all human beings. Every time we sleep at night, our brains go through a complex cycle of activation, including several phases of high neurological arousal, known as . This term comes from the fact that while the brain is extremely active, the body is paralyzed—all except the eyes, which dart around under the lids. Some researchers refer to this phase as paradoxical sleep because it is a very deep sleep in some ways and a very light sleep in others. No matter what term we use, this phase of sleep is closely related to the experience of dreaming. If you awaken someone from the midst of REM sleep, the person is more likely (80 percent of the time, according to several estimates) to remember a dream than if you awaken them from non-REM sleep. Now to be clear, people remember dreams from non-REM sleep too—about 40 percent of the time—just not as often as they do in REM sleep. This means that while REM sleep does not cause dreaming, it does provide a reliable trigger for it. And everyone has several phases of REM sleep every night, whether or not we remember those experiences when we awaken.
But dreams can be difficult to understand. The oracle may indeed come to us all, as Synesius claimed, but she speaks in a very cryptic language. Few people in contemporary society have been taught anything about the nature or meaning of dreams, so whenever they do recall a dream, it poses a genuine challenge. You may feel this whenever you remember a new dream. Where should you begin in trying to interpret this strange expression of your nocturnal imagination? What should you focus on? How do you know if you are on the right track? When, if ever, will you discover the true meaning of the dream—and how will you know? Is there just one “correct” interpretation of a dream? There are no easy answers to these questions, and even asking them in certain settings can make others raise their eyebrows. No wonder so many people conclude that dreams are nothing but random nonsense.
And yet I believe that not only are we all natural dreamers; we are natural dream interpreters too. The basic skills involved in exploring, analyzing, and understanding the meanings of our dreams are within reach of everyone, from all backgrounds. We have an innate capacity both to dream and to make sense of dreams. Every time I teach a class or workshop, most people in the group make the surprising discovery that they are actually pretty good at interpreting dreams. Having such a skill is something they never knew about themselves. Present-day society gives us few opportunities to exercise and develop this ability, but it is a powerful potential within us all.
The process of interpreting dreams starts with the recall of dreams and the realization that not all dreams are the same. They vary in length, form, content, theme, and intensity, which leads to the principle that different types of dreams often require different transparent, so obvious in their meanings, that no interpretation is required. Other dreams overflow with complex images, cryptic symbols, and strange emotions. In most cases, new insights come from looking at one’s dreams as expressions of the deeply rooted human capacity to think metaphorically: to make sense of the world in terms of creative metaphors. As we learn how to understand the metaphors of our dreaming imaginations, we enter a potentially transformative spiritual dialogue. If you are sleeping in a laboratory and a lab technician awakens you during a REM phase, you will probably remember a dream. If you are not artificially awakened but continue to sleep through the night, however, you may not recall that dream the next morning. Is an unremembered dream still a dream? That’s a tough philosophical question. Another tough question is this: if we normally forget so much of our dreaming each night, are the bits we do remember merely arbitrary fragments—flotsam from the mind’s nocturnal activities that happen to wash up on the shore of waking consciousness in the morning?
Here as much as anywhere in life, people form judgments based on their personal experiences. Someone who has little or no dream recall can find it hard to appreciate that many other people are high recallers who frequently have lively, colorful, richly detailed dreams. Fortunately, we can now refer to publicly available survey data with thousands of people’s answers to questions about their dream recall. That data can help us move beyond personal assumptions to a more evidence-based understanding of who remembers their dreams and how often they do so.
The big-picture view looks like this: About half the population of American adults remembers a dream at least once a week or more often. The other half of the population recalls their dreams less often than once a week. A small percentage (around 8 percent) of people say they remember their dreams almost every time they wake up, while a slightly smaller percentage (around 6 percent) say they rarely or never recall their dreams. In terms of demographic factors, age seems to have the biggest impact on dream recall. Younger people tend to remember dreams much more often than older people do. We do not have enough historical or cross-cultural data to tell if this decline in dream recall over the lifespan applies to people in all places and times, or if it stems from some specific cultural factor in modern society, or if it involves some combination of the two.
In terms of gender, women tend to remember more dreams than men do, but the difference is small, and some studies have found equal levels of dream recall in men and women. No studies to date have looked at the dream recall frequencies of nonbinary people, but a student in a class I recently taught did some research on this topic for their final paper, and they found that dream recall rates for nonbinary people are basically the same as the rates for men and women. No studies have looked at dream recall among people from different sexual orientations, either.
Race and ethnicity do have an impact, however, with Black people having slightly higher dream recall than Whites, and Hispanic people having higher recall than both. Other demographic factors like education, income, and regional location do not seem to have any influence on dream recall. This underscores an important point: dream recall is a steady feature of human experience no matter who we are, where we come from, or what our identity may be. Here is more evidence to support Synesius in his claim about the sacred universality of dreaming.
That being said, some studies have pointed to a few specific factors that seem correlated with higher dream recall. For instance, psychoanalyst Ernest Hartmann’s research found that people with what he called “thin boundaries” had higher dream recall than do people with “thick boundaries.” Hartmann’s concept of psychological boundaries tries to account for a basic difference in how people relate to the world. Some of us insist on making clear, sharp distinctions between reason and emotion, individual and group, and right and wrong, while other people need a more fluid sense of moving between and among these kinds of polarities. The former, Hartmann says, are people with thick psychological boundaries, and they are less likely to take an interest in dreams. People with thin boundaries, however, tend to have fewer limits on images and energies from their unconscious entering their conscious awareness. This, naturally, correlates with higher dream recall (and also with artistic creativity and vulnerability to mental illness).
Consistent with this distinction between thin and thick boundaries, other researchers have found that higher dream recall is associated with the personality trait of “openness to experience.” In studies I have conducted over the years, I have found that higher dream recall also correlates with an individual’s concerns about global warming, support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and liberal or progressive political views generally. In other words, people with progressive views tend to have higher dream recall than others.
Now, to be clear, these correlations are not absolute. Some people who hold conservative views and have thick psychological boundaries also frequently remember their dreams. And some people with very liberal views and thin boundaries have little or no dream recall. But it does seem significant, particularly when we are discussing a spiritual approach to dreaming, that dream recall seems to be highest among people who are vividly aware of their connections with other people, other forms of life, and the world as a whole.
We are all dreamers, then, at least potentially. We are all born with a brain-mind system that generates a regular stream of dreaming experience as part of its normal, natural, healthy functioning. Synesius was right: the creative power of dreaming is innately accessible to everyone, everywhere.