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The Big Dream survey

Over 500 people filled in my survey about their dreams. The results suggest people have ‘big dreams’ which they find insightful and adaptive, but such dreams are rare, and usually in times of crisis. Big dreams sometimes involve a visit from a deceased loved one.

et-moon-560Colin Ludlow was a successful TV writer in his 50s, when he went into hospital to have a tumour removed from his bowel. After the operation, he contracted pneumonia and MSRA. He spent the next month in intensive care, close to death. During that time, he had a series of very vivid dreams. He never used to recall his dreams, but he can still remember these dreams today, and felt compelled to write a book about them, Twenty Four Dreams Before Dying.

The 24 dreams were quite cinematic, slightly flowery and romantic (several of the dreams involve medieval knights or World War II heroes), and often centre around a voyage (in one, he rides a tricycle to heaven), a great undertaking, a battle. In the last dreams in the series, the battle is won and he returns home, across the sea, to the land of the living. He’s not sure what to make of the dreams, but feels they helped him to face death, and that he’s less afraid of death, more open to the possibility of an afterlife, as a result. They helped prepare him for the journey, like a pre-flight safety video.

I went to the launch of Colin’s book, and was struck by his story. Personally, I rarely remember my dreams, or find them particularly significant, except for one period of my life, when I was traumatized and my psyche was quite dissociated (ie there were traumatic memories I struggled to integrate). I had a series of dreams in which I was pursued by a terrifying tramp-figure, who was trying to kill me. In the final dream, I was in a lorry with the tramp driving, and we crashed through the side of a barrier on a cliff. I manage to pull the tramp to safety just before the lorry crashes over. I feel those dreams helped me through a crisis, by helping me recognize and accept the dissociated parts of me, which is what I take the tramp to symbolize. I also think the dreams were prophetic – a few months later, I crashed through a barrier on a cliff, while skiing, and had a near-death experience which helped to heal me of PTSD.

At Colin’s book launch, I asked the neuroscientist Chris Frith (a friend of Colin’s) whether neuroscience presently believed there is any meaning to our dreams. He said no. In fact, this is not quite true. While the old, rigid psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams is not widely accepted anymore, there are several ‘dream labs’ in universities, who have arrived at various conclusions as to why we and other animals dream. They’re now considered a form of ‘threat rehearsal‘, and also a way of solving problems and consolidating memories – when I was taking my finals, I dreamt my essay plans were assault courses over which I had to clamber.

Big Dreams

I’m still curious about the phenomenon of ‘big dreams’. Carl Jung came up with the phrase. He wrote: ‘Unlike ordinary dreams, such a dream is highly impressive, numinous, and its imagery frequently makes use of motifs analagous to or even identical with mythology.’ And a big dream may not be just about you, it could be a ‘collective mythological dream’ for your tribe.

The ‘big dream’ fits with what was known in ancient culture as ephiphany dreams, in which a god or dead person visits you and tells you some important information. Epiphany dreams were rare, and the examples passed down to us usually occur to famous leaders, with gods telling them to invade a country or establish a city. But there was a democratic culture of epiohany dreams too – you could spend the night in a dream-cave to get advice from the god Aesculapius. Galen, the great medic, says he became a doctor after Aesculapius appeared to him and also to his father in a dream.

Sebastiano Ricci’s Dream of Aesculapius (1710)

However, the ancients and medieval Christians thought that most dreams were ‘mundane’, ie caused by the body and basically meaningless, and some could come from the ivory gate of false dreams. In any case, they were not considered easy to interpret, so dream interpretation manuals were always popular, like the Atharva Veda, which is full of such pearls of wisdom as ‘If, in a dream a flat-nosed, dark, naked monk urinates, there will be rain.’

Survey results

I thought it would be interesting to ask you about your dreams. I wanted to test the hypothesis (1) that there are ‘big dreams’, ie dreams that seem unusually vivid, significant, and insightful, (2) that such dreams are rare, and (3) that they particularly occur in times of crisis and transition – like Colin in intensive care, or me struggling with PTSD, when the psyche has a lot of work to do to adapt. I would suggest that in times of crisis, particularly confrontation with death, our subconscious ‘wakes up’ and communication with the dream-world becomes more vivid.

I made a SurveyMonkey survey and sent it out via my newsletter, Facebook and Twitter, and to the members of the London Philosophy Club. I received 508 responses – thank you! Obviously there are methodological problems with this survey – the pool of respondents are probably mainly middle-class British and Americans in their 30s-70s. However, the results are still interesting.

Firstly, it’s clear that people do have dreams which they find significant and insightful (79.5% do), and that such dreams are rare – 27.8% have had less than 10 such dreams in their life, 18% said they’d had such dreams more than 10 but less than 100 times, and only 17% say they have such dreams very often.


Secondly, as I hoped, such dreams particularly seem to occur at ‘crisis / transition / deep change’:


And thirdly, 62% of people felt that these ‘big dreams’ had helped them adapt to that crisis:

Chart_Q3_151218What were the contents of these significant ‘big dreams’? Well, some of the replies suggest the sort of collective mythological content which Jung predicted (one lady dreamt she was a male martyr being impaled on a tree while vikings rode round her on bisons, which is…kind of mythological). A few of the ‘big dreams’ were about collective political situations – responding to the Paris attacks, for example. But not many. Most of the ‘big dreams’ people reported were about personal relationships, sometimes indicating subconscious feelings and bringing the insight that the relationship is not a goer:

Once in a relationship I was dissatisfied with, I had a dream it was the wedding day, I was at the end of the aisle with my dad about to walk down it, turned to him and said “I just can’t do it dad” and ran out of the church! Ended relationship soon after!

I would very often dream of my partner who had in the dreams the face of one of my male friends who has a more suited personality for me. It was like I couldn’t even be happy with my boyfriend in my dreams! I knew It had to stop… I broke up and immediately I felt a shift in my life and regained my joy and confidence.

Dreams about stressful work relationships and work crises were also quite common:

I was having issues at work with two people, I dreamt I was locked in a cell and they were throwing poo at me. Summed up the situation and scared me if I’m honest

Rather than the alchemical or mythological symbols Jung predicted, dreams seem to be pragmatic in their symbolism – they’ll use whatever metaphor or symbol seems to fit the situation.

In my dream I was operating on my boyfriend, taking his organs out one by one (like in operation game) and studying them to see what they told me about him. this was painful for him. when I woke up I realised this was what I was doing to him by asking questions I felt I needed the answer to (about previous relationships). I realised this was hurting him & that it wouldn’t tell me anything. this realisation enabled me to let go of this need – and helped save our relationship (for a while).

Dreams also seem to help people become aware of (and potentially change) their relationship to themselves. They will often use the metaphor of exploring a big house:

“I was in my house, and came across a door that led into a part of the house, with more rooms, that I hadn’t known was there. It was when my marriage was breaking down, and I was facing life as a single parent. I had the dream three or four times, and when I woke, it was with a sense of awareness that there were new places in my life to discover and live in, and where I would be safe and at home.”
“At times when I feel insecure, I often dream about my house being broken into. This is a recurring dream. Having done lots of research down the years, I understand that the house is symbolic, in that it represents the ‘mansion of the soul’ and or a play on words as has been my experience, where the question could be – ‘Is your house in order?'”

Another recurring metaphor is water / swimming pools / drowning / facing a storm or tsunami / crossing a river:

I dreamt I was trying to swim across the river Mersey with my friends with all my clothes on, so this made it difficult, my friends were helping he along. It was around the time I was going through an acrimonious divorce. I knew that everything would eventually turn out “all right” as my friends gave me support in my dreams and in real life.

Dreams, death and bereavement

One of the most common types of ‘big dreams’ people remembered involved meeting loved ones who have passed away –  43% of respondents said they’d met a deceased loved one in a dream, of which two thirds think this was their memory, and one third believed this was the actual loved one’s spirit visiting them:


These spirit visitations helped people adapt to the crisis of bereavement

my father had died and I vividly met him in a dream where I felt that he was acknowledging me as a person and showing his acceptance and deep love for me 🙂

Or to adapt to an upcoming bereavement:

When my toddler nephew was dying, I had a dream of him as an infant, and there was a group of relatives / ancesters standing along a river some on one side and me and others one the other side of this very nerrow river maybe stream. On my side of the river we passed infant Mike down the row of relatives till he came to me I then gave Mikey to an ancester on the other side of this river with the understanding he was “with us now, and we will take care of him.” I woke up and I heard a disembodied voice saying “he is no longer of this earth and will be at peace now.” I knew then he wasn’t going to make it through his cancer treatment and would die. He died one or two days later.

Or sometimes the visit was simply an ancestor spirit offering support in a later crisis:

my late dad giving me a hug & telling me everything would be alright because i’m strong. This was a very bad time as i had just been diagnosed with ms. the dream was very vivid – i could see, hear & sense my dad very clearly & it left me feeling calm & comforted.

The anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor thought that dreams were the origin of religion and belief in the soul – because it feels like the soul leaves the body (33% of you say you’ve had an out of body experience while dreaming), meets the dead, and receives messages from some other dimension. People are more secular in their interpretation of dreams today, but interestingly, 47% of respondents still believed that some dreams come from God or a higher spirit:


I also asked people if they’d ever had ‘prophetic dreams’, ie dreams about events which subsequently happened. I only thought of this question after the initial release of the survey, so the data pool is smaller (138 people), but the results are still interesting – 38.2% said they’d experienced prophetic dreams, also often about relationships:

“Soon after a new man came into my life I had a series of vivid dreams with a common theme: he was driving to pick me up and I noticed someone sitting in the rear of the car; we were in his flat and he wouldn’t listen when I said I thought someone was in the kitchen…reader, he was married and playing away from home. My dreams quite often warn me of things that I don’t want to admit consciously”

“I kept on dreaming my partner was cheating (he was)”

“Dreamt would be broken into over Christmas. Was so vivid could see their faces. Put extra locks on front door. Got robbed anyway.”

“I dreamed my late father told me I was pregnant. I took a test the following day and I was!”

“I have twice dreamt the result of a sports event, taking place the following day. One was a 5-4 win in a football penalty shootout and the other a Six Nations game. Both were correct and I won money on the second one!”

Before you jump out of bed and accuse your partner of infidelity or put £100 on Manchester City, remember the warning of the ancients – it may be a false dream from the gate of ivory!

Lucid dreaming experiences were common among respondents:


And clearly we’re not embarrassed to discuss our dreams with others:


Around 30% of respondents said they had some sort of ‘dream practice’ – usually trying to remember their dreams in the morning, often writing them down in a journal, and sometimes discussing them with a therapist. One person with tinnitus says she uses her dreams to manage her physical condition, while another said they can tell from their dreams when their iron level is getting too low!

What about sex? Well, Freud would say all your dreams are about sex (Jung would say they’re all about alchemy). That doesn’t seem to be the case. But there’s some transgressive sex in there – 50% of you who describe yourself as either heterosexual or homosexual said you’d dreamt of a sex experience contrary to your usual preference, which makes me wonder if we’re all bisexual or trisexual in our subconscious self. We’re not that faithful in our dreams either – according to the Montreal dream lab, women only dream of having sex with their partner 25% of the time, the rest of the time it’s sex with someone else; with men, only one sixth of their sex dreams involve their partner.


So, to return to my initial hypothesis, it does seem that people have ‘big dreams’ which strike them as unusually significant and insightful. Such dreams are not common for most people. They usually happen in moments of crisis and transition. They are pragmatic in their use of metaphor and symbol, using symbols that fit your situation, although there are symbols and metaphors that reoccur quite often. People find them relatively transparent in their meaning. They seem to help people adapt to the crisis. They particularly give people insights into relationships – to oneself, to loved ones, to people at work. And they quite often involve a visit from a dead loved one, which helps people adapt to loss and bereavement. Hooray for dreams!

Here, by the by, is a New York Times article looking at how dream-labs are now studying such ‘big dreams’, particularly dreams of visits by dead loved ones.

An evening at a Spiritualist demonstration

A scene from the TV show Penny Dreadful

Yesterday evening I went to a demonstration at the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain. This was the first time I’ve been to such an occasion – I’m not really into psychics, seances, ouija, Tarot, all that jazz. But I’ve been reading the work of a pioneering late Victorian psychologist, Frederic Myers, and he was very into all of that. I’ll write more about him later this week.

Spiritualism is not a big religious movement in the west today – do you know anyone who’s a Spiritualist? or who’s been to a seance? – but it was huge in the second half of the 19th century, at one point attracting eight million followers in the US and UK. As Ann Taves has written, it was one of several forms of radical Protestantism which emphasized ‘religious experience’, like Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, Pentecostalism, the Emmanuel Movement and the New Thought movement. Like Swedenborg and Theosophy, Spiritualism helped shape the New Age idea of a ‘religion of all religions’. Historians usually suggest the movement began in 1848 with the three Fox sisters, who started to hear ‘rappings’ when they were teenagers living outside New York. The raps responded to questions, and informed the Foxes they were spirits communicating from beyond the grave.

Seances became a popular evening past-time for Victorians, and the centre-piece of a new religious movement, Spiritualism, based on a belief that spirits of deceased family members still communicate with the living through mediums (particularly women). Spiritualism was a comfort to the bereaved, and proved particularly popular after the US Civil War and World War One.

A photo of a seance in the 1920s featuring famous medium Eusapia Palladino
A photo of a seance in the 1920s featuring famous medium Eusapia Palladino

I’m not entirely sure about the Spiritualist conception of the afterlife, to be honest – it depends which spirit you asked – but on the whole the Spirits gave comforting and rather bland messages. ‘You’re doing great! We love you!’ It was like a form of self-affirmation alienated into the ether. But it could also be quite Gothic, with flying furniture, ectoplasm, past-life memories, science fiction fantasies, erotic transgressions by randy female mediums and their male interlocutors (it wasn’t me, it was the spirit!), and the occasional diabolical possession. Above all, there was a lot of fraud and chicanery. The Fox sisters themselves confessed to making the rapping noises by cracking their knee-joints (though they later recanted their confession), and other famous mediums like Eusapia Palladino were exposed as tricksters.

By the 1920s, debunkers like Harry Houdini had succeeded in ridiculing the Spiitualist movement and the wider phenomenon of psychic mediums, and though the occult made a resurgence in the 1960s and 70s, the Skeptic movement since then has succeeded in pushing psychic mediums out of the mainstream and into the classified ads and the furthest reaches of TV.  The tricks of fake-mediums are now well-known: bumping furniture with legs or hidden helpers, sneakily extracting information from sitters, planting helpers in the audience, cold-reading, giving bland and general answers, and above all manipulating people’s desire to be deceived. Making money by fooling the bereaved is pretty bad behaviour, and skeptics like Derren Brown are right to expose it.

Amie Butler and daughter Jolie

And yet…the idea that telepathic connections can exist between loved ones, and the idea that some people have supernormal gifts of empathy, insight, sensitivity, and even clairvoyance or clairsentience, is a lot older than Spiritualism. In ancient Greece, there were very few recognized Sibyls or Oracles, but those that existed were respected by the philosophers – indeed, Plutarch was a priest at Delphos. Is there anything worth exploring amid all the fraud and chicanery? The best way to find out, surely, is first-hand experience.

The Sibyl of Belgrave Road

So off I went, yesterday, to 11 Belgrave Road in Victoria, where the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain is based, on the second floor of an office block, above the Bipolar Association. They do ‘demonstrations’ most evenings, which you can attend for six pounds. I paid and went into the demonstration room, expecting candles, crystal balls, and ladies in crepe holding hands round a levitating table. In fact, the room was rather undecorated, with a piano in the back (no one played alas), and a statue of a man with a beard, who I think was Andrew Jackson Davis, one of the founders of the movement. There were only ten people there, and the medium herself, a lady in her mid 40s dressed in sweatpants, t-shirt and cardigan.

‘So, let’s begin the demonstration’, she said. I suddenly felt rather exposed – I hadn’t bargained for the fact the lady might attempt to communicate with some of my deceased relatives! She was a breezy sort of medium. She didn’t go into a trance or roll her eyes or put on a funny voice, like Eva Green in Penny Dreadful. She was very matter-of-fact. ‘I’m not always right’, she explained. ‘So correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t want to give a message to a wrong person. I’d like to begin over here’, she said, walking to the front-row, and to an old man flanked by two younger women. She spoke to the old man, who it turned out was German and couldn’t speak English, so his grand-daughter translated – the message went from the spirit to the medium to the grand-daughter to the man.

‘Your wife has passed into the spirit world?’


‘She died suddenly. It was an unexpected illness.’


‘You both always thought you would go first. And it’s been difficult.’


‘She says she was proud of being a good wife. She was very good at organizing your life. And so it has been a challenge being more independent. Like cooking for yourself. You can’t always find things in the kitchen. But you have been doing well. She is happy. Is there a special dish you cook with sausages.’

‘It is the only thing he knows how to cook’, replied his daughter.

The medium turned to the daughter.

‘Am I right that you’re an only child? And you were very close to your mother. She used to make coffee a special way, and you enjoyed making the coffee that special way while talking together.’


‘And there was something she would ask you to buy, something that was a secret between the two of you.’

‘Yes.’ We didn’t hear what this was. Cigarettes? Hashish?

The medium turned to the grand-daughter. ‘And she is very proud of you. You have just done some achievement.’

‘Er….I am studying?’ said the grand-daughter uncertainly.

‘Yes. And you’re the first person in your family to go to university?’


‘She’s very proud of you. She loves you all’, said the medium. ‘Thank you for working with me.’

I was impressed – she wasn’t floundering around or cold-reading at all, and it seemed quite specific at times. She seemed tired. ‘Can I go home now!’ she laughed. Next she turned to another woman in the front-row, an East Ender, smartly turned out, in her 60s.

‘I’m hearing someone who is very chatty. Is it your mother? She has a sort of sing-song voice. You were very close. You loved to go to Southend together. Sometimes you stayed for the weekend there?’

‘Yes, if the weather was bad and we couldn’t get back. We went to Southend a lot.’

‘You liked to go for tea there. That was something you treasured. You liked to lift up your little fingers while drinking tea.’

‘Yes, it was a shared joke.’

‘Ye Olde Tea Shop.’

‘Yes….I think there was one called that.’

‘She was a magpie. She liked collecting glittering objects.’

‘Yes, from every place we visited. The house is full of them.’

‘And your father used to leave you two to it.’

‘Yes, he’d say ‘what do you two find to talk about for so long?’ He was a loner.’

‘She says ‘forever…’, no, ‘always and forever‘. She made me say it properly.’

‘Yes. We’d always sign our letters with that.’

‘OK. Thank you for working with me.’

I was even more impressed. Southend! Tea shops! Very specific. But to what end? I mean, couldn’t the spirit have given more useful information than mere nostalgia?

Then the medium turned her attention to three people in front of me. ‘There’s a gentleman’, she said to the middle lady. ‘He was rather awkward in this life. He alienated a lot of people. This created separations in the family. It affected you too. He wants to make amends now. And he wants you to help. Good luck with that!’ The woman in front of me didn’t seem entirely sure but she went along with it.

I was really worried she would come to me next. I hoped she didn’t communicate with my recently-deceased grandfather – we weren’t that close, he was rather formal, and frankly I’m not sure a Spiritualist seance would really be his style. And what must he think of the life I lead!

Anyway, the medium did approach me, despite me averting my eyes. ‘Can I come to you sir?’


‘Am I right in thinking you’re wondering whether to change career, if something doesn’t work out?’


‘Well, tell me yes or no,’ she said rather impatiently.


‘But you’re thinking a lot about your work. You’re very absorbed in what you do. It’s all-consuming.’

‘Well…yes, I suppose so.’ I do indeed wake up dreaming about the book I’m writing most days, and think about it a lot (that’s normal for most writers). But I’m also quite a slacker…

‘I’m hearing someone, it’s your father’s mother.’ This was an Irish lady called Deidre, who died in 1999, to whom I was close. ‘She says that you’re unbalanced at the moment. You’re too focused on work and she thinks you don’t have enough fun. She’s ticking you off, in a nice way. Do you go home much?’ ‘To my parents? Yes, a fair amount.’ This may have been a clever way of discovering if I had a family of my own. ‘You think a lot, you ponder a lot’. Well, I’m a philosopher. ‘And you need to balance your life more. You’re so serious now, and when you were a child you used to make everyone laugh so much!’ Now, I suppose everyone was more fun when they were a kid, but this got me. I sort of zoned out, so it seemed like the medium was standing miles away. It was true: I was the family clown when I was a child, and I have changed massively since I went through a period of mental illness in my early 20s, becoming much more thoughtful and serious. I feel proud of having come through that, and that I’m now doing work that helps other people. But here, supposedly, was my dead grandmother telling me to lighten up and have more fun!

‘Do you go to festivals?’ asked the medium.

‘Well, not usually, but I’ve been to a couple this summer’ (Latitude and Wilderness).

‘That’s more like it. She’s going to help you have more fun. Thank you for working with me.’

And so the demonstration ended, and I headed out into Victoria, where I saw a big advert above the entrance to the Tube, saying ‘Go To Festivals!’ The spirit-world was telling me to lighten up and ponder less. It was a lot to ponder. Why would the spirit of my grandmother still be in heaven, if there was reincarnation? Do our personalities just kick around for eternity, watching the lives of living relatives like rather dull soap operas? It felt a bit creepy, the idea of our ancestors watching us ‘always and forever’ – no wonder cultures that practice ancestor worship are more traditional.

One could go a little nuts if one became too obsessed with the spirit-world. And such seances or demonstrations don’t seem to me the basis of a good religion – this wasn’t a service, it wasn’t worshipping God, it wasn’t really encouraging virtuous behaviour, it was mainly satisfying our curiosity, our loneliness, our hunger for the sensational, and the advice given was on the whole quite bland (‘you’re doing great! she loves you!’) In my case, though, the advice was pretty good – I probably do need more of a life outside work. But the information that the medium produced could have come from the audiences’ own minds rather than spirits, which would explain why it was more reminiscence than active advice. In other words (and this was the conclusion Myers came to), many instances of supposed spirit-mediumship could actually be instances of telepathy, for which there is some good scientific evidence. The medium struck me as an extremely sensitive and intuitive person.

Well, perhaps I will try and interview her for a future blog. Or you could go and check out a demonstration for yourself. However, a word of warning – the world of psychics is full of charlatans looking to prey on the gullible and the unhappy. Even well-intentioned psychics probably get things wrong a lot of the time. Keep your scepticism intact!

On that note, check out this Guardian article about the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain and the dodgy sale of its previous headquarters in Belgrave Square.

And on a slightly different note, regarding that strange ‘zoomed out’ effect that happened to me, when the medium suddenly seemed miles away and much smaller (a strange cognitive effect which some other people online say they experience), the closest thing I can compare it to is the famous ‘dolly zoom’ shot in films, often used to symbolize moments of altered consciousness, numinosity, supernaturalism, horror, or even past-life memory!  Check out this video with some examples of it – it’s an interesting way cinema recreates an altered state of consciousness in its characters and in the viewer:

Evolution of the Dolly Zoom from Vashi Nedomansky on Vimeo.