Every chance I get, I pull a neurobiologist or psychologist aside and compel him or her to tell me about the latest research on dreams and dreaming. The topic fascinates me. Not long ago I cornered Dr. Loma Flowers, a community psychiatrist in the mostly African American community of East Palo Alto, California into a phone interview. Dr. Flowers once hosted a national talk show on Black Entertainment Television during the 1980's and is arguably the most prominent black woman researcher focused on dreams.
Her race matters because African Americans have historically maintained a stronger belief than other ethnicities in the power of dreams.
"We respect them more," says Flowers, and aren't as quick to dismiss them as "unpredictable and irrational." According to Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California and leading researcher in the field of dreams and religion, who I also spoke to by phone not long ago, African Americans also tend to have a higher recall than dreamers of other races. Or maybe it's just that we remember them because we pay more attention in the first place.
"We're assaulted with micro and macro aggression every day," explains Dr. Flowers, "from driving while black to racial profiling. Those issues come up in our dreams." In this nocturnal world of violence nightmares are actually our friends, says Flowers. "They're on your side, like flashing red lights" providing a warning signal to take action before it's too late.
Not only are African Americans more likely to believe in the power of dreams but according to dream research and author Tony Shafton, more than 90 percent of African Americans surveyed believed that dreams had the ability to predict the future. Shafton went into more detail in a phone interview with this reporter, noting that seventy percent of respondents in his study also believed in visitation dreams, where the dreamer receives a message from the dead, usually an ancestor. And while studies such as Shafton's are rare to nonexistent, anecdotally, this belief that dreams can have a psychic, predictive quality permeates the culture.
"Dreams serve important functions," says Edward Bruce Bynum, Ph.D., director of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Families and the Interpretation of Dreams. "Whether you remember them or not, all mammals dream." Dr. Bynum points to the remarkable and unexplained phenomenon known as "crisis telepathy," for example. We've all heard of this: it's when a family member dreams of a loved one at the exact moment when they're in mortal danger. "That happens all the time," says Bynum. Why or how, no one knows exactly. In fact, among scientists dream research "is sort of a taboo subject to write or talk about," says Bynum.
But there has always been a "powerful reverence for dreaming" among the African indigenous traditions along the West African coast, he adds. For the Yoruba, Ibo, Ikan, and other groups in that part of the world, dream images are "a connection to the Gods, ancestors, and healing prophecy."
"We know culturally that [some] racial and ethnic groups have long histories of interpreting dreams," agrees Dr. Bulkeley. "The Bible is full of powerful revelations and teachings about dreams. Joseph trusts in his own dreams, and helps to interpret those of the Pharoah as well."
In researching his book, Dream Singers: The African-American Way with Dreams, Anthony Shafton interviewed some 120 African American poets and writers. One of them, Angela Jackson, a Chicago-based poet and writer, told him that she relied on her own dreams as a foundation for her novel, Where I Must Go, winner of a 2009 American Book Award and a Best Fiction Award from the African American Arts Alliance.
Like the author, the novel's protagonist, Magdalena Grace, uses dreams "to lift her into a higher state of awareness," says Jackson.
It's too bad, says Dr. Bulkeley, that the larger culture has reduced dreaming to a psychotherapist's office, a sleep lab, or perhaps, at times, a cocktail party.
"In other cultures dreams are simply a part of the oxygen that they breathe."
Dr. Loma Flowers is formerly a community psychiatrist in East Palo Alto, and currently Founder and President of the non-profit Equilibrium Dynamics in San Francisco.