The Future of Dreaming

New ways to enhance the power of the mind in sleep.

Posted Sep 05, 2014

     Dreams have powerfully influenced the lives of individuals and communities throughout human history.  Yet people today often assume that modern science has proven dreaming is nothing but random nonsense.  In fact, over the past 100 years researchers have discovered that dreaming is a profoundly complex mode of brain-mind activity devoted to emotional processing, adaptive preparation, and playful meaning-making. It is inherently creative, not only in producing life-worlds of astonishing realism but also in stretching our minds to make surprising connections between disparate ideas, feelings, and impressions.  When we dream we tap into a deep inner wellspring of creative thinking that leads us beyond what is to imagine what might be

     We may think of dreaming as a kind of innate technology of the mind, a latent tool for cultivating self-reflective consciousness.  This means the future of dreaming will be driven by a single key question: How can we use this tool better?  How can we refine it, improve it, and amplify its power?

     Unfortunately these prospects are clouded by the increasingly widespread use of prescription drugs with side effects that severely disturb people’s dream lives.  One example is the sleep aid Zolpidem, marketed as Ambien, which eliminates dream recall for some people while triggering harsh nightmares for others.  Many other medications are associated with similarly dramatic and unpredictable alterations in dreaming.  Why do the drugs have these adverse effects?  No one knows for sure.  Little research has been done to investigate the causes or long-term consequences of so much disrupted dreaming, a troubling fact given modern society’s ever-increasing use of prescription drugs.  These medications have many valuable benefits, of course, but we need to learn more about their impact on the mind’s capacity for normal, healthy dreaming.

     Does this mean the future of dreaming might be no dreams at all?  Some people say they never remember their dreams, although closer investigation usually finds they do recall a few of them, just very infrequently.  Demographic surveys indicate most people remember at least one or two dreams a week.  Women tend to remember more than men, and younger people more than older people. 

     Recent findings from neuroscience confirm that dreaming is a natural, deeply rooted part of the human sleep cycle.  Imaging studies of the brain in sleep have revealed regular, multi-dimensional patterns of neural activation over the course of a night’s sleep.  These brain patterns seem to correlate with patterns in dream content, which tends to be loosely structured, highly associative, emotionally varied, and filled with intense visual images.  Much more work needs to be done in this area of research, but the initial results suggest the neuroscience of sleep matches up well with people’s subjective experiences of dreaming.

      The most transformational technology for the future of dreaming is not brain scanning, however.  Rather, it is the emergence of new digital databases that apply powerful methods of analysis to collections of data vastly larger than anything previously available to researchers or the general public.  These technologies have boosted by many orders of magnitude our ability to identify large-scale patterns in people’s dreams and connect those patterns with meaningful aspects of their waking lives. 

      Over the past several years, with the collaboration and support of G. William Domhoff at U.C. Santa Cruz, I have conducted several experiments in “blind analysis,” involving the analysis of frequencies of word usage in a set of dreams to make predictions about the individual’s waking life concerns.  The results of these experiments have been very encouraging, and I have many new ones in the works, as will be discussed in future posts. 

      However, this is just the beginning of the era of digital dream research.  My experiments with blind analysis are like Pong compared to the Halo of what’s eventually going to be developed.  As databases grow and the algorithms of interpretation improve, people are going to be able to explore their dreams in ways never before possible. 

      The most immediate beneficiaries will be people who rarely remember their dreams.  Programs will be designed to stimulate their recall so they can better access this unique source of self-knowledge.

      Many others will potentially benefit as well.  Psychotherapists and their clients will be able to use customized systems of digital dream journaling to gain new insights into the clients’ emotional concerns.  Athletes will be able to track their dreams for clues about improving their practice routines, recovering from injuries, and optimizing their game-day performance.  Artists and innovators in many different fields will learn how to incubate dreams for outside-the-box solutions to challenges they face in their work.

      Not just individuals but the public as a whole will find value in these developments.  Databases of dreaming will provide a new kind of social barometer to observe and measure the broad emotional impact of collective events like natural disasters, political elections, and military conflicts.

      Eventually researchers will integrate the best models of dream content with the best maps of brain activity during sleep, and this will set the stage for a new generation of technologies that directly stimulate the brain to produce more creative dream experiences.  By fine-tuning the neural parameters of sleep we’ll be able to filter out the noise and amplify the signals of the dreaming imagination.