The Boston Globe Ideas section recently published a short interview I did with Kelly Bulkeley, author of the quite interesting “Dreaming in the World’s Religions”. It’s an attempt to extract some common psychological themes from the descriptions of dreaming and dream-states in various religious texts. In a sense, Bulkeley is employing a similar strategy to the one I pursue in Proust Was A Neuroscientist. While I looked at art to learn about the brain – what can a Cezanne watercolor teach us about the visual cortex? – Bulkeley wants to use the case reports of dreams in the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad-Gita, etc. to learn about how the unconscious works, and why we so often feel the divine in the hallucinations of REM.
Kelly Bulkeley first became interested in dreams as a teenager, after being haunted by a recurring nightmare of being chased by Darth Vader. He’d wake up in a cold sweat, terrified of that glossy black mask. While the typical adolescent would probably choose to avoid “Star Wars” paraphernalia, Bulkeley ended up pursuing the deeper meaning of the dreams: Why were these imagined experiences so vivid and powerful? Where did they come from? What was their significance?
Bulkeley discovered that the content of dreams – the particular stories we tell ourselves when asleep – had been disregarded as a scientific subject. “Studying dreams still seemed like a very Freudian activity,” he says, “and nobody wanted to do anything that Freud might have done.”
This led Bulkeley to divinity school. For most of recorded history, he explains, dreaming has been intertwined with the divine. A vivid nightmare was a prophecy, a coded message from the gods. What Bulkeley wanted to do was use this rich religious tradition to better understand the process of dreaming. “You see the same type of dream occur over and over again, in all these different religious texts,” he says. “I think this universality can teach us something interesting about how the brain works.”
A visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., Bulkeley recently published “Dreaming in the World’s Religions,” a vast survey of religious dreams and religious attitudes toward dreaming. He analyzes the sexually tempting nightmares of St. Augustine and the mourning dreams of “The Illiad,” the conception dream of Buddha’s mother and the “vision quests” of the Ojibwa people. But Bulkeley isn’t interested in these dreams because of what they teach us about the divine. “I’m not a particularly religious person,” he says. Rather, he hopes that these old narratives will inspire new research. A dream might not be real, but it can still illuminate the reality of the human mind.