Dreams and religion

In the many discussions on the new cognitive science of religion, one never hears mention of the relation of dreams to religion. Yet dreams have always been central to the religious mind. The early anthropologists of religion (like Tylor and Frazer) and scholars in the Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic traditions all pointed to dreams as a source for religious consciousness. Kelly Bulkeley’s recent excellent review of Dreaming in the world’s religions: A comparative history (New York University Press, NY; 2008) makes it abundantly clear that dreams were central to religious experiences in virtually all of the world’s major religious traditions.

For most of our history, claims Bulkeley, our ancestors regarded dreams as essentially “religious” phenomena. Most often dreams (at least “big” dreams) were regarded as communications with the supernatural world or as messages from supernatural agents. The information imparted in dreams very often concerned future prospects for the dreamer. Dreams were universally considered to be prophecies or oracles whose images needed to be correctly interpreted in order to divine the future. To obtain a “big dream” a suite of religious practices were recommended involving fasting and praying (all religions) in addition perhaps to lying on the right side (Islam) or sleeping overnight in a ritually-prepared temple (Greece and Rome). Or one might go off alone on a vision quest into the wilderness (indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and Australia).

Nor did our religious ancestors treat dreams uncritically as necessarily true in every regard. According to Bulkeley, instead there was considerable respect for dreams as powerful phenomena whose images had to weighed and tested before they could be trusted to yield knowledge of the future. Rules and rituals were devised to “test the spirits” of the dream as well as the images within a dream. Dreams were to be ignored or treated with special rituals to drain them of their negative power if they contained nightmarish or demonic images. If dreams passed the tests, they were then treated as containing veiled but reliable information from the deity concerning the future of the dreamer.

Persons who could reliably interpret dreams were highly sought after and gained considerable prestige as religious seers or healers. Dreams were central religious tools for religious specialists in every culture, and they were certainly vital for primeval shamans and other specialists who devised rituals of ancestor worship.

Many cultures produced classics or texts on dreams, such as Artemidorus’ Oneiocritica, Zhang Fengyi’s Meng-zhan-lei-kao, and the Ramesside Dream Book in ancient Egypt. These works were used for centuries to interpret and understand dreams in their respective cultures. Indeed, dreams figure prominently in all the world’s holy scriptures, including the Hindu Atharva Veda, the Zorastrian Gatas, the Confucian and Daoist ritual texts, the dreams of Abraham and Joseph in the Hebrew scriptures, the dreams of Joseph and the apostles in the New Testament, key Suras in the Koran, and the dreams of the Prophet Muhammad himself recounted in the Islamic Hadiths. In addition, divining or oracular rituals (such as the I-Ching and oracular bones in China, the oracular priestesses’ rites of ancient Greece and Rome, the Ifa Yoruba divination rituals, and the “smoking mirror” rituals in the Americas) were very likely derived from dream interpretation rituals.

In short, Bulkeley asserts, dreams were a central form of religious consciousness throughout all of human history, and yet they have not yet been considered as a source of religious conciousness by modern cognitive neuroscience.

This neglect of dreams by scientists who study religion may be due to the bad rap given to dreams by pop psychology and popular science books. These works often describe dreams as either bizarre and thinly disguised revelations of a selfish ego, or as the meaningless and epiphenomenal froth of a sleeping brain. Even expert dream scientists such as Allan Hobson have been read in such a way as to write dreams off the map in terms of their significance for everyday life. For most scientists, then, dreams are considered to be merely byproducts of a partially activated brain that necessarily produces bizarre, fleeting images caused perhaps by indigestion or random misfiring of primitive portions of the brain. These byproducts are then dismissed as annoying – or mildly amusing – images that intrude on the more important rational cogitations of waking thought. Whatever they are in reality, these intrusive images should have and can have little or no impact on the all-important rational mind during waking life.

Yet this entire take on dreams is wrong. It does not comport with the facts uncovered by scholars and scientists who specialize in the study of dreams.

What’s the truth about dreams? Are they merely bizarre, meaningless byproducts of a misfiring brain system? No – they’re not. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that dreams are highly complex cognitive products of a specialized brain system designed to produce a specialized product…dreams and only dreams.

Dozens of neuropsychologic and neuroimaging studies have now conclusively demonstrated that REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, that form of sleep most reliably associated with vivid dreams, is associated with a very particular brain activation pattern centered on the amygdala in the limbic system. Portions of the anterior cingulate gyrus, the parahippocampal gyrus, and ventromedial or orbitofrontal cortex are also consistently activated in tandem with REM. Contrastingly, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and sertoninergic systems are de-activated in REM sleep. The product of this unique pattern of activations and de-activations in the aforementioned neural systems is, inevitably, dreams.

So what are dreams and what functions, if any, do they perform? Dreams are involuntary symbolic acts that utilize existing memory images to construct new images that more or less successfully simulate or anticipate features of the dreamer’s lifeworld. The involuntary nature of dreaming underlines the fact that dreams are shaped by natural section and designed to perform some function. Whether we like it or not, dreams “happen” to us. We cannot shut them off.

Dreams can last as long as the longest REM episode (potentially 30-45 minutes). The visual and hearing senses (rather than taste or touch) predominate in dreams. Sensory input is diminished and overt motor output is prevented unless disease intervenes – which means that, generally speaking, you can’t actually act out your dreams as you’re having them. The mind is mostly cut off from the outside world and is flooded with material from within. Dreams take this flood of inner imagery and construct simulations of events that might come to pass in the waking world. Yet dreams are not simply a set of decontextualized memories and simulations strung together in a random manner. If that were the case, there would be no reason to expect consistent content across dreams or across a dreamer’s lifetime. Yet both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of dreams have consistently shown that dreams simulate consistent themes across individuals, in populations, and within an individual’s life.

Virtually all dreams involve the self or the dreamer interacting with other characters, in more or less familiar though intense ways. The dreamer is typically striving toward a goal, and this striving helps to create the narrative structure dreams typically employ. The typical REM dream contains between two and three characters in addition to the dreamer. When the other characters act to interfere with the dreamer’s intentions or goal-directed behaviors, there is aggression. Dreamer-involved aggression (adjusted for number of all social interactions except sexual interactions) is present in 60% of male dreams and half (51%) of female dreams. The dreamer is an aggressor in 40% of male dreams and a third of all female dreams. Very often the dreamer does not successfully attain his or her goal. More than half of all male dreams and 43% of female dreams involve a misfortune or a failure for the dreamer. One out of every three characters in male dreams and one out of every four characters in female dreams is involved in some kind of aggressive interaction.

Friendly encounters are slightly less common (38%) in dreams of males than in dreams of females (42%). Friendly interactions more often occur in non-REM (NREM) than in REM dreams. Percentage of dreams with at least one instance of sexuality is higher in males than in females but still is quite uncommon (less than 10% of all dreams). Settings of the action of dreams are familiar in about two-thirds of dreams of males and about 80% of dreams of females.

About 50% of characters in dreams are strangers to the dreamer. In some dream series, up to 80% of characters are unknown to the dreamer. Strangers in dreams are most often male, and these unknown males appear more often in dreams of males than females. Almost all murderers and soldiers in dreams are male. When male strangers appear in a dream, the likelihood that physical aggression will occur in that dream far exceeds what would be expected on the basis of chance. In short, male strangers signal physical aggression.

Why is there so much aggression in REM dreams and friendliness in NREM dreams? Brain and neurochemical activation patterns are significantly different for REM and NREM sleep, with REM sleep demonstrating high activation levels in limbic/amygdaloid sites, activation in dopaminergic and cholinergic circuits, and deactivation of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex sites, as well as cessation of activity in the noradrenergic locus ceruleus and the serotoninergic raphe nucleus. This pattern of activation and deactivation strikingly replicates the pattern associated with impulsive aggression in the waking state. We get friendliness in NREM dreams because higher cortical centers (like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) are partially reactivated during stage II NREM. But clearly the really interesting thing with regard to dreaming is that REM dreaming largely specializes in simulation of aggressive acts in support of dreamer goals.

Interestingly, in REM Behavior Disorder (RBD), the normal motor inhibition that occurs in tandem with REM sleep is abolished. Thus, when people with RBD go into REM sleep, they tend to act out their dreams. These patients exhibit complex and often violent motor activities during REM sleep, usually in association with dreams. This disorder, therefore, allows us to literally see what REM neurobiology produces in terms of mentation and what REM dreams are about. Common behaviors include screaming, punching, grasping, kicking or jumping out of the bed in pursuit of or in flight from a foe. When dreams of RBD patients are compared to controls, patients with RBD report a striking frequency of aggression, expressed by various standardized dream content indicators, including a higher percentage of “Dreams with at least one aggression” (66% vs. 15% in people without RDB), an increased Aggression/Friendliness interactions ratio (86% vs. 44%), and an increased Aggressions/Characters (A/C) ratio (0.81 vs. 0.12). In short, dreams of RBD patients dramatically confirm the very high levels of aggression associated with REM dreaming.

Now, how does all of this relate to religion? If the dreaming brain produced intense images and emotional states of aggression in our religious ancestors, why did these ancestors consider dreams to be messages from the gods and as portents concerning the future? Could dreams be one source of religiously inspired violence and fanaticism? This may be a reasonable suggestion. But remember that the data show that dreamers are more often depicted as victims of violence rather than as perpetrators. Violence in dreams typically comes from male strangers. There is little doubt that a major threat for ancestral human populations came from marauding male strangers out to pillage, kill, and rape. Thus, dreams may have helped our ancestors (and may help us even today) to prepare for real-life aggression from hostile strangers. But, again: how does this preparatory or simulation function of dreams relate to religious consciousness?

One possibility is that, at some point in the evolution of our species, the marauding, murderous male stranger became equated in people’s minds with the “free rider.” A free rider is an individual who seeks to benefit from others without paying the price of cooperation. Thus, all the aggression marshaled by the dreaming brain and intended to control or defeat male strangers was now redirected at outsiders and free riders. Religions everywhere present costly barriers to admission – such as circumcision rituals – that are designed to keep out these sorts of free riders. And we know that altruistic forms of punishment are most often inflicted by the gods and religious authorities.

But then how would this “male stranger = free rider” idea explain the universal tendency of religious people to ascribe prophetic content to dreams? Dreams, after all, were considered reliable indicators of future prospects for the dreamer. While being victimized by an aggressor in your dreams might conceivably help you to better defend yourself from violent people – or even from free riders – in waking life, it’s hard to see how it would help you predict the future. Another possibility is that the self as victim of aggression in a dream could be correlated with sacrifice in religious ceremonies. The killing of victims in religious sacrifices was very common in some traditional religions. But, again, it’s hard to see how the dream content would influence or be influenced by sacrificial rites in religious ceremonies – never mind the purported prophetic content of dreams. We have to conclude that we simply do not know why dreams were so important to religious traditions worldwide. It is a question still not addressed by the new sciences of religion.

References. All of the claims made in the text are substantiated in the following sources by the author.

McNamara, P., Johnson, P., McLaren, D., Harris, E., Beauharnais, C., & Auerbach, S. (2010). “REM and NREM sleep mentation.” International Review of Neurobiology, 92, 69-86.

McNamara, P. (2008). Nightmares: The science and solution of those frightening visions during sleep. Westport, CT: Praeger Perspectives.

McNamara, P. (2004). An evolutionary psychology of sleep and dreams. Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood Press.

Barrett, D., & McNamara, P. (Eds.). (forthcoming, 2012). Encyclopedia of sleep and dreams (3 volumes). Westford, CT: ABC-CLIO.

McNamara, P., Nunn, C. L., & Barton, R. A. (Eds.). (2010). Evolution of sleep: Phylogenetic and functional perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Barrett, D., & McNamara, P. (Eds.). (2007). The new science of dreaming (3 volumes). Westport, CT and London: Praeger Perspectives.

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