Dreaming in the Digital Age

New Technologies for Exploring the Art and Science of Dreams

The Historical Lineage of Digital Dream Research

Looking at the pros and cons of new technologies for the study of dreams.

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            Humans have been curious about their dreams throughout recorded history. Some of the earliest written texts in ancient China, Mesopotamia, and Greece talk about puzzling dreams and their possible meanings. In every literate culture, books have been written that analyze the varieties of dreaming experience, carefully examining different types of dreams and their relations to different types of people and waking situations. The Ramesside Dream Book of ancient Egypt (13th century BCE) is the oldest known example of this genre. Others include the Atharva Veda from India (11th century BCE), the Oneirocritica by the Roman interpreter Artemidorus (2nd century CE), the dream manuals attributed to the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sirin (beginning in the 8th century CE), and the encyclopedic Categorical Study of Dream Interpretation by the Chinese scholar Zhang Fengyi (16th century CE). 

            These books show there has been a long, multi-cultural lineage of people from all around the world interested in studying the multiplicities of dreaming, using the best research tools available in their efforts.

            New technologies are giving 21st century researchers the ability to pursue these same goals with greater speed, depth, and accuracy than ever before. We are able today to gain vistas that our predecessors were striving for but did not have the tools to reach. This blog will talk about the pros and cons of new technological advances in the study of dreams, such as the use of “big data” methods of analysis, improved mind/body sensors, brain scanning devices, virtual reality systems, and mobile phone apps for dream journaling and interpretation. 

            These tools have the potential to transform our understanding of dreams, not only for researchers but also for ordinary people who could benefit from having greater access to scientifically grounded, real-time feedback about their own individual dreaming patterns. If it is true, as all the world’s cultural traditions have taught and modern psychology has confirmed, that dreams are a valuable source of personal insight and creative inspiration, then using these technologies can potentially enhance the innate power of people’s dreams, boosting abilities they already possess but have never fully developed. Some of these potentials are becoming reality right now, while others will take longer to emerge. 

            These technologies have potentials for abuse, too, and I will also write about those.  Any tool that can do great good can also do great harm. Some of the best illustrations of the dangers come in science fiction stories and movies, with vividly rendered dystopic visions of mind control via dream manipulation. Unfortunately, reality is catching up quickly with these dark-hued stories. Anyone interested in technological methods of enhancing our knowledge of dreaming should also pay close attention to new technologies that threaten to diminish or even eliminate the capacity for dreaming. 

Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., is a psychologist of religion and director of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb).

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