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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.

How Freud and Heidegger helped the Oxford rugby team to victory

John Carter - Oxford University v Cambridge UniversityJohn-Henry Carter is the most successful captain of Oxford rugby team ever, the only captain to lead the team to three successive victories in the Varsity match. The former flanker attributes that success not to his speed or his 6ft 3 frame, but to his training in psychodynamic therapy and existentialist philosophy.

After graduating, John played professional rugby at Sale Sharks in 2004, but his brief career was plagued with injury and he had to retire in 2007, after five operations. He was physically battered, but also morally disillusioned by ‘the primitive belief that meaning and consequence transpired through a scoreline’. He hadn’t found what he was looking for in professional sports.

He went to Oxford University to do a MSt in psychodynamic psychotherapy. While there, he got drawn back into rugby, and was invited to become manager of the team in 2011, at the age of 30. He became captain as well. At that point, although Oxford were winning games, the culture was “full of a misconceived idea of masculinity – sexism, homophobia.” He took on the challenge of leading the team because he thought he could change the culture and find that enigmatic thing he’d been looking for – spirit, being, soul.

At the same time, he worked on his PhD, about the mental struggles faced by professional rugby players when they retire. Based on in-depth interviews with six players, five of them internationals, it’s a fascinating insight into male identity and how it can find and lose itself in sports.

John uses the story of Peter Pan as an organizing myth for some of his insights in the PhD. He talks about how players live in ‘Neverland’ – a sort of dream-world of fantasy. The players he interviewed spoke of ‘living the dream’, ‘having to pinch myself’, ‘feeling high’, ‘like I’m on drugs’ when they’re playing at big matches. It sounds like ecstasy – or a sort of trance state. And in this dream-land, they will never lose, never get hurt, never got old.

They’re not just living out their own childhood dreams – they’re acting out the dreams of all the millions of spectators watching them too. The media like to say ‘the fans were in dreamland’. Well, that’s exactly right – fans use sport to enter trance-states, to regress to the fairy tale fantasies of childhood as they watch the game. The media feeds this fantasy, with language like ‘fairy tale’, ‘magic’, legend’, ‘talisman’, with every over-the-top slow-motion Wagnerian montage, and every ridiculously puffed-up publicity poster.




Bring on the World

The spectators like to fetishize their sports’ heroes inner lives. ‘How are you feeling? This must be the best moment of your life, is it?’ The same thing happens when an actor wins an Oscar, and they go into dreamland – that ultimate valorisation of their external self. And the truth is, they might not know how they’re feeling. Winning – for all that we fetishize it as the ultimate goal in life – is more emotionally complex than we realize. Many Olympic gold-medallists, for example, speak of their ‘depression, mourning, emptiness’ after they win.

As in Hollywood, the immersion in dreamland leads to a sort of ego-splitting – on the one hand you have the external self, the persona, a fantasy-self of power, heroism and invincibility. But behind that, hidden from everyone else, is the shadow self, which is weak, afraid, hurt and confused. But that self can’t be shown, can’t even be admitted to oneself, amid a culture (John writes) ‘defined by positive thinking and positive action through omnipotent dreamlike beliefs and tag-lines such as ‘Just Do It’’.

One reason many men love team sports is for the male bonding it allows – it enables them to be with each other and express love and physical intimacy, whether you’re a player or a fan. But men are often terrible at expressing that, and at being vulnerable and authentic with each other. So the vulnerability gets hidden behind a mask of machismo, sexism, homophobia, binge-drinking, ‘banter’ and the autistic exchange of sport stats and punditry. And beneath it all is a terror of losing intimacy and being on one’s own.

How did John do it differently at Oxford? Firstly, he redefined what it meant to win. Victory was not primarily about the scoreline, he insisted. It was ‘a commitment to the potential experience of being’. He says: ‘This commitment to ‘being’ felt like a spiritual alchemy – We embarked upon a voyage to simultaneously create and discover our ‘spirit’.’ The team embraced honesty, authenticity, trust, relatedness, creativity and play – the conditions to allow this ‘spirit’ to emerge.

In practical terms, this meant being ‘player-led’ rather than led by top-down diktat. It also meant John spent a lot of time talking to the players one-on-one, and in group conversations, in which all 30 of the team would take part and learn to be open, trusting and vulnerable with each other. ‘The consequence of it was much greater than I could have ever imagined. It was a really ethereal sense of being. I got to taste that sense of being.’

Again, this may sound unlikely, but it’s exactly what I do with Saracens, where it’s incredibly refreshing to hear players express their fear of failure, or death, and to be able also to express their feelings of joy, hope and love. It’s a mature model of male identity, of male strength and courage. John says: ‘It takes more courage than anything I’ve experienced to look at the parts of yourself you don’t want to see and to let other people see your vulnerability. That’s ultimate courage.’

The Saracens philosophy club (I'm the slightly smaller one in the middle)
The Saracens philosophy club (I’m the slightly smaller one in the middle)

I imagine some of you might be groaning and thinking this is the ultimate triumph of the therapised, feminised male – but John’s leadership made the team stronger, not weaker. If you think it made them weak, watch the highlights of their routs of Cambridge.

John’s now retired from rugby, for the second time. It is not easy to retire from rugby, because you’re losing your surrogate family. He describes retired players as ‘lost boys’. Of the six players he interviewed for his PhD, all of them said they felt depressed after retiring, and a third of them felt suicidal. Team sports allow men to recreate the small tribe in which humans have existed for most of their existence. And then, at retirement, suddenly you are in the lonely atomised world of modern neoliberalism.

But, after a period of grief and mourning, John’s enjoying his new life as a psychodynamic therapist, working both with sports teams, and with schools and individuals. What I personally admire in his work is his ability to describe and live a better sort of male identity than we sometimes fall for – more complex, more open to love and to suffering. Imagine if sportsmen went from being poster-boys for infantile fantasies of invincibility, to becoming ambassadors for the messy and sometimes wonderful experience of being human.

If you enjoyed this, read this piece on my first visit to Saracens, and this Telegraph article about my work with them. And here is a great journal article John wrote about his work.


In other news:

Here is the brief radio 4 thing I did on Aristotle and the politics of flourishing. And here is something I wrote on Neo-Aristotelianism in politics for the New Statesman, complete with an embedded animation about Aristotle made by the BBC and narrated by Stephen Fry!

It’s election season in the UK, and many politicians are making the right noises about mental health. But where’s the action, asks psychiatrist Simon Wessely.

Eurostat publishes new figures on European happiness – the Scandinavians are still the happiest!

Is studying philosophy a good protection against religious extremism? Interesting case-study of two brothers from Tunisia in the New York Times.

Wired magazine reports on Panoply, a new social network to improve mental health.

And here’s an article on a new headband you can buy for $300, that monitors your brain waves during meditation.

Julian Baggini has a new book out on free will, reviewed here by Terry Eagleton.

Something called ‘the Society for Atheistic Spirituality‘ has a $500 million donation to build a cenotaph for Newton. Hang on – was he an atheist?? Oh well.

Here’s a talk by my friend the psychologist Oliver Robinson, on why science and spirituality are friends, not enemies.

Finally, it’s Easter, a festival devoted to the idea that death is not the end for humans – an idea I happen to believe. Here’s a long and good article on the science of near-death experiences from the Atlantic magazine. Why, it asks, if NDEs are ‘just’ chemical, do they so often follow ancient mythical narrative structures of darkness and rebirth?

See you next week,