The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann wrote a New York Times op-ed recently about all of my favorite topics: dreams, sleep, religion, psychology, culture, and science. In "To Dream in Different Cultures," Luhrmann suggested that different beliefs and practices regarding sleep can lead people to have to different kinds of dream experiences. I wrote a letter in response, focusing on the religious studies angle of her argument. There's an intriguing psychological angle, too: a great deal of research shows that people's attitudes about dreams can have a direct impact on the their dream recall frequency.
I originally wanted to make both points because together they strongly support Luhrmann's notion that people's dream experiences are dynamically interactive with their cultural environment. But that was more than could fit in the available space, so I left the psychology research out.
Now I can put both pieces together, the religious and the psychological, to offer a more interdisciplinary response to Luhrmann's essay.
First, the letter:
In "To Dream in Different Cultures" (May 13, 2014), T.M. Luhrmann writes that "the intriguing question is whether different sleep cultures encourage different patterns of spiritual and supernatural experience." The answer from the history of religions is clearly yes.
People in monotheistic traditions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam report dream revelations of God, angels, and demons. People from "wisdom" traditions like Buddhism and Daoism have ego-less dreams of transcendent awareness. People from Native American traditions dream of animal spirits and ancestral guides.
Each type of dream has a profound meaning within its cultural environment, but that meaning can be lost when interpreted from a different context (e.g., a Native American ancestor dream might look like a demonic temptation to a Christian missionary).
As Ms. Luhrmann suggests, we should keep these different cultural frameworks in mind when we use modern psychological theories to explain various kinds of religious experience.
Second, the psychological research:
Many studies have looked at possible correlations between personality and dream recall frequencies, without much success. People with the qualities of openness to experience, absorption, and thin boundaries (in Ernest Hartmann's sense of the term) are more likely to be high dream recallers, but the effect is not very strong.
The psychoanalytic concept of repression also seems to play a role in dream recall. Whatever you think of Freud's theories, it seems reasonable to accept his premise that people are less likely to remember (or to admit to remembering) dreams with disturbing, immoral, socially taboo content.
Experimental studies have shown the variability of dream recall depends partly on external circumstances. Many different factors can impede people's ability to remember their dreams, including pathologies of sleep (e.g., apnea, insomnia), stressful problems in waking life, use of alcohol and drugs (many of which have the side-effect of diminished dream recall), the sleep behavior of bedtime partners (e.g., spouses, children, pets), and adverse conditions during the process of awakening.
The variability of dream recall depends not only on external factors like the conditions of awakening, but also on internal factors like personal interest and motivation.
Veronica Tonay's 1993 study found that for high dream recallers, the strongest correlation among all the personality variables she examined was a positive attitude towards dreaming. She also found that low dream recall was correlated with a negative attitude about dreams.
The key finding in this area of research, and the point of greatest significance in relation to Luhrmann's essay, is that these attitudes can change, with corresponding changes to dream recall. Psychologists like Michael Schredl have found that giving people even a slight amount of encouragement to remember their dreams leads to an actual increase in their recall frequency, especially for people who are low recallers. Schredl says that several studies have shown
...how sensitive DRF [dream recall frequency] is to comments of the experimenter; simple encouraging comments produced a marked increase in DRF. Even the completion of a short dream questionnaire yielded a higher DRF after four weeks. (Schredl 2007, p. 89)
These findings might be questioned because of the possible influence of "demand effects" that bias people into giving answers they believe will be pleasing to the researchers. But in a way, that is exactly what these studies have tried to determine. Is a person's dream recall frequency a fixed quantity that never changes, or does it have some degree of flexibility depending on interest, openness, and encouragement? The research suggests that when people want to remember more of their dreams, they can usually do so.
The influence of personal attitude works in both directions. The tangible impact of a negative attitude towards dreaming has been demonstrated by Dominic Beaulieu-Prevost and Antonio Zadra, who have done research comparing people's estimates of their dream recall frequency with their actual dream recall as measured by home diaries. It turns out that people with negative attitudes toward dreaming consistently underestimate how often they remember their dreams. According to Beaulieu-Prevost and Zadra,
A negative attitude toward dreams appears to bias one's estimate of dream recall frequency... In comparison to individuals with a positive attitude toward dreams, individuals with a negative attitude pay less attention to the dreams they recall and this, in turn, impedes their encoding into long-term memory... Individuals with a relatively negative attitude towards dreams show a clear pattern of dream recall frequency underestimation. (Beaulieu-Prevost & Zadra 2003, 924-925)
These psychological findings give new insight into the remarkable malleability of dream recall. The door is open to a pursuit of deeper connections with Luhrmann's anthropological research, the religious studies material cited earlier, and new developments in brain-mind science, all helping us better understand the full range of creative potentials emerging in the dreaming imagination.
Dominic Beaulieu-Prevost & Antonio Zadra, "Dream recall frequency and attitude towards dreams: A reinterpretation of the relation," Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 38 (2005), pp. 919-927.
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (New York: Avon Books, 1965), especially chapter 7, section A on "The Forgetting of Dreams."
Ernest Hartmann, Boundaries in the Mind: A New Psychology of Personality (New York: Harpercollins, 1992).
T.M. Luhrmann, "To Dream in Different Cultures," http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/opinion/luhrmann-to-dream-in-different-cultures.html
Michael Schredl, "Dream Recall," in The New Science of Dreaming, ed.s P. McNamara and D. Barrett (Westport: Praeger, 2007), vol. 2, pp. 79-114
Veronica K. Tonay, "Personality correlates of dream recall: Who remembers?" Dreaming, vol. 3 (1993), pp.1-8.