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The Coming Revolution in Dream Research

The Web and crowdsourcing have the potential to revolutionize dream research

Ever since the early 20th century dreams have been studied with the scientific method. But at all times in the 20th century there were only a tiny number of scholars or scientists who specialized in dream research. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung created the “depth psychology” or psychoanalytic approach to interpretation of dream content while Mary Calkins, working around the same time as Freud and Jung inaugurated a more statistically based approach to a valid description of dream content. After these initial contributions to dream research at the beginning of the 20th century, interest in dreams in the scientific community declined until the electrifying discovery of REM sleep in 1953. The discovery of REM sleep at mid-century created a genuine revolution in the scientific study of dreams. Literally thousands of studies into dreams were conducted post-1953.

Nineteen-fifty-three was a tremendous year in the history of the biologic sciences as Crick and Watson discovered the genetic code and the DNA molecule, while Aserinsky and Kleitman discovered REM sleep. While subsequent investigations of the genetic code have led to tremendous scientific, medical, technical and industrial advances, subsequent investigations of REM have sometimes seemed to only deepen the mystery of REM sleep and dreams. Despite tens of thousands of studies on REM sleep and dreams it has to be said that we are really no closer to discovering the nature, significance, meaning or functions of dreams. Indeed, many experts on dreams and REM sleep have simply given up the quest and declared that dreams have no meaning or function at all or if they do have some sort of meaning that “ meaning” is imposed upon the dream “after the fact” by the waking mind.

It has now been at least 50, 000 years since early humans began to paint their dream images on the cave walls, and over a hundred years since scientists began to study dreams. The revolution in the study of dreams sparked by the discovery of REM sleep over 60 years ago has not produced any solid understanding of the functional significance of dreams. What we need now is a revolution in the way we study dreams. The internet may bring about just such a revolution if it is used in the right way.

We have all now heard about the practice of crowdsourcing out big problems that need new breakthrough solutions. Imagine a kind of Facebook for dreams. A website, portal or community for people from all over the world who are interested in posting a dream or series of dreams or who is interested in merely learning about the dreams. Imagine a site that allows you to upload an ongoing dream journal so that millions of longitudinal data sets from millions of people now become available online for study? Imagine a platform that then allows the 100 million or so participants in the site to comment on their own or other’s dreams. A person interested in decoding a meaning to their own dream life could work actively and inter-actively with their own dream images thus altering dream content over time. Perhaps the site allows one to click a button that will automatically allow users to translate dream narratives into visual animations of those narratives so that the dreamer can “watch” the dream they just unfold before their eyes as in a cinema. Imagine the dreamer having the ability to hone the animations repeatedly until the “cinema” faithfully captures the visual and emotional content of the dreams? If the dreams were nightmares perhaps the dreamer could work with the images to alter the frightening content until the nightmare faded away. Imagine communities of dreamers at this website with some specializing in sexual dreams, others in precognitive dreams, others in religious dreams and still others in creative dreams.

The processes of “dream incubation” or “dream interpretation” or “lucid dreaming” or “dream sharing” or “dream recall” or “dream work” would take on whole new meanings when you have 100 million or even a million or even 100,000 dreamers all sharing their experiences in a single community. And here is the important point: so too would the scientific process of searching for potential functions of dreams take on whole new meaning in such a community. Remarkably I see no such web community or social network out there at present. I think one such site has the potential of becoming such a revolutionary community but it is only at its initial stages it seems. Nevertheless the potential is clearly there. The dreamboard site already boasts tens of thousands of dreams posted at the site and it has technical capacities that make some of the above speculations not wholly absurd.

More from Patrick McNamara Ph.D.
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