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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.

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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.

Conclusion

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.

The Myth of Religious Violence

We all know the story. Europe in the 17th century was torn apart by the Wars of Religion. Then, after several decades of extreme violence, people decided to put religious differences to one side, and to come together in the rational, secular, liberal, tolerant state. We then exported this model of rational civilisation to the rest of the world, which is slowly accepting it, despite being backward, irrational and prone to religious violence (that means you, Muslims).

This is the foundational myth of the modern secular state. And like all myths, it is not entirely true. Its falsehood – or limited truth – can blind us to our own irrational violence.

Ecstasy plays a key role in this myth. Ecstatic experiences were central to the Christian conception of human nature and human society. Ecstasy was the ladder which connected humans to the divine. But in the 17th and 18th century process of secularization, ecstasy was rebranded as ‘enthusiasm’, and deemed a mental illness and a threat to public order. Enthusiasm was the ‘anti-self of the Enlightenment’, the enemy of reason. Ecstasy has to be locked up or banished if the rational liberal secular order can exist.

The pathologisation of ecstasy began in the 16th-century Reformation. Martin Luther mocked the monastic practice of trying to reach ecstasy through contemplation – monks and nuns were lazy fools getting rich off the gullible masses. You can’t get to heaven through your own contemplative efforts, only grace can save you. It is dangerous to rely on personal revelation or visionary experience, you should only rely on Scripture. Luther lambasted Anabaptist peasants for using personal revelation as a justification for violent revolution, calling them ‘enthusiasts’.

Cranmer and Cromwell (pictured either side of Henry VIII) waged a war on ecstasy in the interest of state power

His critique of the Church was used by kings in their attempts to seize power and money for their fledgling states. Henry VIII, for example, embraced the Reformist cause to increase his own power in England. His advisors, Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, used a Lutheran critique of monasticism to close down almost all the monasteries and nunneries in England and seize their assets. This is what secularisation originally meant – the transfer of assets and power from the church to the state.

Cranmer and Cromwell waged a war on ecstasy. When a Catholic nun called Elizabeth Barton prophesized against Henry and Anne Boleyn, she was hanged for treason. Thomas Cromwell declared: ‘If credence should be given to every such lewd person as would affirm himself to have revelations from God, what readier way were there to subvert all common wealth and good order in the world?’ Cranmer took the traditional invocation of the Holy Spirit out of the Book of Common Prayer. The Holy Spirit was deemed a threat to public order. Religion was reduced to a series of propositions, set by the state, which people must publicly affirm…or else.

In the 17th century, both Catholic and Protestant thinkers warned against ‘enthusiasm’ or any claim to personal revelation. It was a threat to reason and public order. One sees the political usefulness of this critique particularly in Thomas Hobbes’ remarkable polemic, Leviathan, published in 1651. Like a 17th-century Richard Dawkins, Hobbes rails against people who let their imagination carry them away, so that they start imagining fairy tales of God or angels or fairies speaking to them and telling them what to do. Such enthusiasts may then persuade the ignorant mob, who then disturb the public order and threaten the state.

This polemic against religious ecstasy is grounded in Hobbes’ materialism. We are material automatons. There is no such thing as a ghost in the machine or a Holy Spirit ‘out there’, no way any spirit could enter our bodies. Imagination is merely ‘decaying sense’, not some sort of ladder to the divine as medieval contemplatives believed. Medieval scholastics thought human nature was double – matter and soul. But this is nonsense. We are just matter.

Hobbes’ materialism is tied to his politics. In medieval Christendom, humans’ double nature (body and soul) was reflected in the double authority of the Church and the State, the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of Earth. But Hobbes insists we mustn’t set up a ‘ghostly authority against the civil’. This is to set up a ‘kingdom of fairies’. There can be only one power, one authority, one kingdom – the state. The state is the true kingdom of heaven, and we owe it total allegiance. As for religion, that can be reduced to the basic proposition that Jesus is Christ. Who doesn’t accept that?

Hobbes is unusually outspoken in his denunciation of religious enthusiasm, but one finds a similar idea in Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Hume and Shaftesbury. Religious enthusiasm is a threat to public order. Religion should be confined to the private sphere, while the public sphere remains secular, rational and polite. Ecstasy is not all bad, as long as it stays a private individual experience. This is what the Romantic Sublime is essentially – a private, individual experience. But enthusiasm is very dangerous when it’s collective, and when it spills over into the public sphere. We don’t want to go back to the 17th century, to those terrible Wars of Religion. We owe our primary allegiance to the secular, rational state.

This story is still very active today. It defines how we think of Islamic terrorism. Some reference to the Wars of Religion often appears in defences of western secularism and attacks on Islamic irrationalism. The story goes something like this: ‘We went through a period of religious violence in the 17th century until we invented the rational secular state, and everything calmed down and got better. Religion leads to violence, it causes more wars than anything else. If only you Muslims could evolve out of your religious irrationalism and embrace western rationalism. We will defend secularism from your irrational attacks, and support secular regimes in the Middle East. We will bomb you into rationalism.’

There are several problems with this ‘myth of religious violence’, as the historian William T. Cavanaugh calls it. Firstly, as Cavanaugh explores, it’s not an accurate account of the Thirty Years War, which was only dubbed the ‘Wars of Religion’ in the Enlightenment. Those wars often pitted Catholics against Catholics and Protestant against Protestants, in an ever-shifting series of battles which have more to do with the breakdown of the Hapsburg empire and the emergence of autonomous states than religious enthusiasm. As Peter Wilson concluded in his recent history, the emergence of the secular state wasn’t the antidote to the Thirty Years War – it was the cause of it.

Secondly, ecstasy and enthusiasm didn’t go away in the rational secular state. It took new forms, such as the capitalist ecstasy of the South Sea Bubble. Its most obvious new form was nationalism – the ecstatic worship of the state and state power. You can see this ‘migration of the Holy’ to the secular state in the French Revolution, in the cult of Napoleon, in the totalitarian worship of Hitler and Stalin, and – in a less extreme but no less powerful way – in American civil religion and the cult of the Star-Spangled Banner. Secularism didn’t really privatise religion, it created a new religion of the state.

Nationalist enthusiasm can be just as brutal, irrational and aggressive as medieval ecstatic movements. Nationalism caused far more wars and loss of life in the 19th and 20th centuries than monotheism. We think of secularism as tolerant and peaceful, but it often means state absolutism of a very brutal kind. That’s certainly what it meant in the Middle East, with the Hobbesian regimes of Ataturk, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, or Hafez al-Assad. Today, Western societies are in danger of reacting to Islamic terrorism by embracing a particularly nasty nationalism, as peddled by Putin, Trump and Le Pen. Who, faced with such Leviathans, would not yearn for God?

Secularism is often tied to an aggressive materialism which many people – including me – find suffocating, soulless and unreal. If you want to win the battle of ideas with Islamic extremism, you cannot simply preach secularism, nationalism and materialism. That will not do the job. People will always yearn for a transcendence beyond the human, particularly the young, the poor and the oppressed. We need to create and protect spaces for transcendence in secular liberal cultures, so that young people don’t feel they have to go to violent extremes to find it.