In traditional societies dreams were and are considered portals to the spirit world and in virtually all of the world’s religions dreams are treated as vehicles that can support contact with the spirit world. In some religious traditions the cultivation of dream recall and work with dream images is considered a spiritual discipline. In short, dreams have long been considered sacred and a part of the religious landscape by virtually all of the world’s religious traditions.
Despite the importance of dreams for religion, investigators in the psychology of religion have rarely if ever investigated potential links between dreams and spiritual practices or spiritual experiences. Conversely, investigators in the psychology of dreams have likewise neglected the study of potential links between religion and dreams. An exception to this general rule have been the psychologists working within the psychoanalytic and depth psychology traditions. Despite the valuable contributions made by these scholars with respect to understanding dream-religion links, their methods have tended to be largely hermeneutical or qualitative. A recent paper, however, in the Journal of Pastoral Psychology (published online 10 September 2013) has begun to reverse the trend of neglect of the rigorous study of dream-religion links.
The author of this paper, Kelly Bulkeley, surveyed some 2,992 demographically diverse American adults on their dreaming and religious practices. He asked participants to indicate how often they attended religious services and how often they recalled their dreams. He also asked whether they shared their dreams with others. He also asked a subgroup of participants to provide examples of recent dreams they had and he then compared dream content of religious to non-religious people.
The major finding of this survey study was that the most religiously observant people in America tend to report lower dream recall rates than do non-religious people. Bulkeley also reported that he found no significant differences in dream content between religiously observant and nonobservant people, other than a higher frequency of Christianity-related words in the dreams of the most religiously observant people.
Before I discuss the implications of these fascinating findings for both the science of religion and the science of dreams it is worth considering in more detail the data uncovered by Bulkeley in his pioneering work here. In another service to the science of dreams, Bulkeley has created a data/web archive of dream-related data at the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), a digital archive and search engine devoted to empirical dream research. All of the data presented in the paper under review here is publicly available on the SDDb website.
So let us examine the data in Bulkeley’s recent paper more closely. Only 4.8% of females who attended religious services on more than a weekly basis (perhaps daily?) reported dream recall “almost every AM” while 17% of female participants who never attend religious services reported dream recall “almost every AM”. Backing up this finding is the fact that 8.4% of religiously observant female participants reported that they never dream while only 3.7% of non-observant female participants never dream. Interestingly, this low to zero dream recall effect among religiously observant females did not obtain for male participants: 6.4% of religiously observant males (attended services on a weekly plus basis) reported dream recall almost every AM and 7.7% of non-observant males reported dream recall almost every AM. There were similarly no differences in dream recall rates for any of the other categories of religious attendance rates. Nor were there any substantial differences between religiously observant and non-observant males in nightmare recall or dream sharing rates. Thus the lower dream recall rates appears to hold only for females.
But when we look more closely at the female data the picture gets more complex. For example, 16.8% of religiously observant females recall dreams at least once a week while only 13.7% non-observant female participants recall dreams once a week. Similar differences were obtained for female participants who recall dreams less than once a month. Thus, the low to zero dream recall effect among religiously observant females occurs only for females who attend religiously services on a weekly-plus basis.
I will not discuss the analysis of dream content differences here though they are fascinating as well. For now I want to focus on why the most religiously observant females report low to zero dream recall rates relative to their non-observant female counterparts. To pursue the answer to this question it would be necessary to first rule out as many artifactual possibilities as possible. Were the two groups comparable in terms of background demographic factors? For example, is the dream recall effect restricted to one age group of females? Assuming that potential confounds are not insurmountable then what are the possible explanations for this dream recall effect uncovered by Bulkeley?
A long standing observation in the psychology of religion differentiates between extrinsic and intrinsic forms of religiosity. Though, this contrast is not entirely supported by the data the general view is that extrinsically oriented religious people may attend religious services faithfully and frequently their religiosity is focused on social-support circles rather than interior changes. Would the religiously observant females who report few or no dreams load high on extrinsic forms of religiosity while the non-observant females who report higher dream recall rates load high on intrinsic forms of religiosity? These sorts of questions can be pursued in future studies on this intriguing finding.
What does the low dream recall rate among religiously observant females tell us about dreams? If dream “use” i.e. recalling and sharing dreams reflects dream function then reduction in dream use suggests that the individual no longer needs whatever it is that dreams provides. The idea is that you recall dreams when you need them. You stop recalling dreams when you no longer need them. If, for example, dreams link you up to the spirit world, once you have established that link in some kind of regular, reliable way then you no long need dreams so you recall fewer of them. Or if dreams provide a form of overnight emotional regulation but you are at a point in life where emotional turbulence is no longer a major concern then you will recall fewer dreams. Or if your religious practices help you regulate your emotional life pretty effectively then dream recall may add nothing of value for you so dream recall rates decline etc.
But if this functional explanation of the low to zero dream recall effect for religiously observant individuals is true then why does it hold only for females? Pursuing this question in future studies may unlock some secrets of dream–religion functional links. In any case Bulkeley has performed a significant service for both the psychology of dreams and of religion by uncovering this new empirical fact on dream recall patterns among highly observant religious females.