What We Learnt from Reading Dreams

July 29, 2016

Another day at the height of World War Two had come to a close. Lars (not his real name), a 36-year-old man from the native American Hopi tribe was getting ready for bed. People in his community were far from the destruction in Europe, but they had been listening to war news every night on the radio. When Lars fell asleep that night, his dream would bring those reports to life.

He lay in his bed dreaming of some European city – a city that, though he had never been there, seemed like Paris to him. As he walked around he saw that the place had been badly bombed. It was a vision of Paris, but as the dream went on, he realised, spookily, that it appeared to be located in a valley near to where he lived. Eventually, the dream evaporated, Lars woke up and, sometime later, the war ended.

Lars is long gone, but we know what he dreamt about that night. In fact, we can peer into hundreds of dreams from around the world – thanks to an archive that recorded many nightly visions experienced by the Hopi and other tribes. Today, new collections of dreams are being created – indeed there are several apps for smartphones that do this. But what can archives like these actually tell us about the meaning of dreams? And who decided to start collecting them in the first place

Our interest in dreams is probably as old as our ability to form words. But the first major effort to collect records of such things and make them easily accessible took place during and after World War Two. The largely forgotten archive was the brainchild of American psychologist Bert Kaplan and his legacy has recently been documented in a book called Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity by Harvard researcher, Rebecca Lemov.

For years, anthropologists contributed to the project by interviewing people from various tribal cultures around the world. Records from these interviews would be kept in the archives, deposited at various locations, in the form of microcards. These were cards onto which miniaturised text was printed – with more than a hundred pages squeezing onto a single card in some cases.

Magnifying readers made the cards legible, but the technology was quickly superseded. Today, we call on the vast storage capabilities of digital databases instead. Data no longer needs to be shrunk – just uploaded.

For eight years, Lemov travelled from library to library consulting bits of the Database of Dreams. Sometimes the records had been untouched for decades and, in one case, librarians had thrown them “in the dump”. But when Lemov did get access to the records she was looking for, she uncovered dreams from all kinds of people.

Black clouds

One account describes the hallucinations of a Lebanese woman, suffering from typhoid, who imagined a beautiful plum that her father took from her in exchange for Turkish gold pounds. These were later seized without permission to pay a doctor. “When I woke up and couldn’t find my gold pounds I began to scream,” the woman told the researchers who interviewed her.

There were also the South Pacific islanders who dreamt about one of their own – a man who had “gone crazy” after the arrival of the US Navy in the region and a native American who dreamt of “flying into black clouds” where she was confronted by a relative.

As we all know, sometimes we have dreams which seem to make “sense” to us – we have a fair idea of why we dreamt them in the first place. But quite often they have puzzling details – or are altogether weird.

“Dreams don’t travel perfectly, they are elusive,” comments Lemov, “and I don’t think technology will easily do away with that.”

And yet there are some who think technology can help to unravel the meaning of dreams. Apps like Dreamboard and Shadow offer users the ability to record descriptions of their dreams. In turn, the app makers attempt to look for patterns and signals in order to benefit our general understanding of what dreams are and what we might learn from them.

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