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.
Colin 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.
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.
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.’
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:
What 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.