The Frontal Cortex

Dreaming of God

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.


  1. #1 N.S. Palmer
    November 7, 2008

    What does it mean to say that an experience is “real”? I’m still trying to figure that one out.

    The philosopher Brand Blanshard, in his book “The Nature of Thought,” poses a puzzle. Suppose that we were awake 12 hours a day and asleep 12 hours per day. Suppose further that our dream life was just as complete and logically coherent as our waking life. Would we be able to determine which was which, and if so, how?

    I suppose that if we could pop open our heads and check the status of our frontal cortex, that would suggest we were dreaming. However, it’s a serious question. We frequently treat notions such as “reality” as if they were completely simple and self-evident when in fact they are not. Merely assuming one way or another on such fundamental issues (even though they are not part of empirical science) introduces a covert bias into our reasoning and our conclusions.

    Are dreams correlated with certain brain states? They certainly are. Are dreams real? I can’t answer until you tell me what you mean by “real”.

  2. #2 mike rambo
    November 9, 2008

    If you are not going to discuss Jung, I don’t see how you are going to get anywhere.

  3. #3 jb
    November 12, 2008

    Mayayana(MY) Buddhists don’t make a big distinction between our experience of the external world while awake and in dreams. The historical Buddha taught about how we operate in the world of relative truth in the first turning of the Wheel: say, I’m sitting at the computer writing this and you others are going to read what I write later. And he also taught that everything we experience are appearances in our mind and that those experiences are colored by the stuff we project onto them (the second turning of the Wheel= teachings of the MY), thus the similarity to dreams. Google ‘Atisha’s slogans’ for further information.
    Still, on the level of the relative truth, events in dreams and in waking life too can be read as signs on how one is doing on the spiritual path. Buddhists would probably say these are messages from one part of your mind to another part, or from the universe, rather than messages from God as in theistic religions.
    In part it is a cultural thing and not just religious. Cavemen and women must have looked to the movement of celestial objects to predict the movement of migratory animals even before they were used to tell when to plant crops. The Chinese character for teacher is based on a primitive pictograph that shows two horizontal line representing ‘heaven’ with three straight lines hanging from it, ‘the sun, moon, and stars’ “mutations of which reveal to men the transcendant things” says Dr. L. Weiger, S.J. author of Chinese Characters.

  4. #4 jb
    November 15, 2008

    Correction: mahayana (greater vehicle), not mayayana.

  5. #5 Kinseher Richard
    November 24, 2008

    Dr. phil. Högl describe on his page, that a lot of the transzendent experiences in different religions (starting with Gilgamesh) are based on Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs).
    NDEs are different from dreams, but it might be interesting, to compare them.
    Because it is possible to explain Near-Death-Experiences completely as the result of the normal brain function – and Darth Vader is obviously no God, but only an experience (which is stored in the episodic memory).

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