Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Thoughts on keeping a dream diary

The first three volumes of my dream diary

After reading Gary Lachman’s article in the February 2022 issue of Fortean Times based on his book Dreaming Ahead of Time: Experiences with Precognitive Dreams, Synchronicity and Coincidence, I was inspired to begin recording my own dreams.  I started doing so on 6 February 2022.

Below I have listed my observations on the process of keeping a dream diary; describe a precognitive dream experiment I participated in, and an online course I undertook; and muse on the role artificial intelligence might play in assessing the content of dream diaries.  This is a work in progress, and I shall add to it as new thoughts come to mind, but at the present time I do not have anything earth-shattering to report.  Still, others contemplating keeping a dream diary may find my notes useful.  Readers will be relieved to learn that I do not describe the contents of any of my dreams.


A Thoughts on recording my dreams
B My participation in an online precognitive dream experiment
C The Science of Sleep and Dreams online course
D The use of artificial intelligence?
E References


A Thoughts on recording my dreams

1 Doing this properly is quite time-consuming.  Anyone contemplating keeping a dream diary should be aware of the commitment involved.  That is probably a major reason why keeping a dream diary is rare, and early enthusiasm can quickly tail off (Schredl and Göritz, 2019).

2 If waking in the night with a dream in short-term memory, do not wait until morning to write it down as there will probably be little if any of it left.  If I delay writing by a couple of minutes it quickly becomes increasingly difficult to recall it and soon retrieval is impossible.  Record it while it is fresh.

3 Turning on the light was disruptive, but I quickly found writing them on a pad in the dark and copying them out on getting up was quite a pleasant start to the day.  I write down everything I can remember, with no censorship.  If I think I have remembered a detail later, I do not include it because there is no guarantee it was part of the original dream.  I do not use paragraphs, as it would mean imposing an external structure.  Any commentary when transcribing a dream is placed in square brackets to emphasise it is not part of the dream itself.

4 Writing in the dark uses a lot of paper because lines need to be spaced out.  You may start to think more positively about junk mail leaflets, as long as they are only printed on one side and aren’t too shiny.  Pencil is kinder to the bed linen than biro.  Top tip when using a pencil in the dark: make sure it is the right way round.  If using loose sheets of paper, number them beforehand as it is easy to jumble them.

5 Some writers suggest using an audio recorder to transcribe a dream in the dark.  I have not tried this for two reasons.  First, audio is slower to transcribe than written notes because of stopping and starting, and the effort may be demotivating.  Secondly, it seems likely that speaking would wake me up more than writing would.  However, I am comfortable with writing in the dark, and others may find making a spoken record the better method.  It would still need to be transcribed for future reference.

6 Immediately saying a keyword or two helps me to remember the dream until I have started writing.  Occasionally I have remembered a dream after trying to grasp it for a few minutes, but it is rare and more often I’m left with the frustration of having the equivalent of a ‘tip of the tongue’ which doesn’t materialise.

7 The bulk comprise scenes that are personal and everyday, albeit sometimes containing highly unusual elements.  I am generally more gregarious in dreams than in real life.  The scenarios are generally arbitrary, though I can often trace aspects to my past history and to wider social and political events.  Disappointingly, there are very few surreal or erotic moments.

8 Elements rarely feel as though they are symbolic, though it is possible I have missed their significance.  Some feel symbolic based on a feeling, but it may be merely a random element which can be interpreted as symbolic: apparent symbolism could be in the (mind’s) eye of the beholder, reading into it more than the dream warrants.

9 Sometimes evidence of anxiety and emotional baggage is demonstrated, but a strong emotional component is infrequent.

10 There are various suggestions available for encouraging dreams, but good sleep hygiene, particularly regular hours, is important (Hooper, 2018).

11 Attempting to ‘seed’ [incubate] my dreams with particular thoughts before falling asleep has no discernible effect, nor does stating the intention to recall a dream to myself

12 Aspects of films I have watched in the evening though do seem sometimes to feed through, perhaps because of greater emotional impact.  I don’t detect overt influences from my reading, even psychical research.

13 Quite a few people from my past have made appearances, some of whom I have not (consciously) thought about for years, and many have no particular significance for me (one wonders how many dreams of others I might appear in).  If I recall enough dreams will everybody I have ever known (plus a few celebrities I haven’t) eventually appear – the dream equivalent of Piccadilly Circus, where it is said that anyone standing there long enough will eventually meet everybody they know?

14 It is doubtful any content is precognitive, but perhaps some are but have not yet been fulfilled, or I have failed to notice.  As most focus on me, there seems little scope for premonitions of large-scale events (Auerbach, 2017; Knight, 2022).  The possibility of a precognitive element is an excellent reason for keeping a dream diary; little to lose, much potentially to gain.

15 There may be some telepathic content, bearing in mind the number of individuals from my past and present who pop up, but it is impossible to tell unless someone confirms it, which is unlikely.  I could ask people I know who appear in my dreams, but it’s not something I care to broach (if anyone dreams of me and cares to admit it, I’d love to hear from them).

16 Auerbach suggests a psychic element may be signalled by a change in the dream’s quality, a sense it is different to the ordinary non-psychic dream.  I have not noticed anything of this nature, but as dreams often contain unusual elements, I’m not sure how I would be able to tell the difference in practice.

17 Age is a factor, dream recall (and dream theme diversity) reducing in adulthood (Nielsen, 2012), possibly related to decreasing amount of REM sleep.  This may influence the number I record.  It is a shame I didn’t do this sooner.

18 Sometimes when I recall a dream I seem to remember only a fragment of it.  I label it to indicate it is part of a longer dream I am aware of having had, but of which I cannot recall further details.

19 It can be impossible to know if I have run separate dreams together where there are disjunctions.  There may be a sense, either a vague feeling or thematic similarity, that part of an earlier dream has ‘bled through’ into a later one, and I cannot be sure if some aspect is left over from a previous dream, or is in fact part of the current one.

20 There is no way of knowing how much the dream content is altered by the act of recall, whatever the lag between waking and recording it, but it is reasonable to assume the longer the delay, the greater the chance it will be simplified.  I often sense there is a complexity just tantalisingly out of reach of verbalisation.

21 The transcript is an approximation of the dream, as any verbal description of a visual scene would be.  Some of the richness of the experience is lost in recording it, however comprehensive the attempt to capture the details.

22 Occasionally I go a night (or more) without recording a dream, but there does not seem to be any difference between those nights and the nights I do record a dream.  For example, I am not noticeably more tired, and there is no correlation with having drunk alcohol during the preceding evening.  Waking up not having recorded a dream is like having a party going on next door to which I’ve not been invited.

23 I have never recalled a lucid dream, even though I wake frequently during the night, including in the late stages of sleep, a condition said to be conducive (Oxenham, 2016).  Nightmares are not unknown, but are mild and fortunately rare.

24 Is this stuff really worth remembering, and does it have any value other than demonstrating the extraordinarily wide range of scenarios it is possible to generate effortlessly while asleep?  Is the recorded dream a product of bits and pieces generated by firing neurons compiled into what passes for a coherent narrative, having no meaning whatsoever?  A huge weight of historical testimony would say there is a meaning, but perhaps the meaning is read into the dream.  Or perhaps lack of meaning is the point: corrupted inputs to combat the problem of overfitting, thereby allowing learning to generalise to new situations (Hoel, 2020), in which case, while dreams may perform a crucial function cognitively, they have no wider purpose.

25 Either way, recording dreams regularly, if one has the time to do it in an unhurried manner, is relaxing.  There is a satisfaction in making something of material which otherwise would disappear and be wasted.  One comes to regret the ones that got away (Whyte, 2017).  Dreams may not be the royal road to the unconscious, but they provide a fascinating way of learning a little about what is going on down there, whatever their function.


B My participation in an online precognitive dream experiment

This was an experiment run by Dr Elizabeth Roxburgh, Dr Malcolm Schofield (both at the University of Derby) and Dr David Vernon (at Canterbury Christchurch University).  Malcolm is the editor of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and David is a former editor of JSPR.  Both are SPR Council members, so known to me.

The experiment was in three parts.  In the first I had to fill in a number of personality surveys.  The second was a trial so I could familiarise myself with the experimental procedure.  I was asked to keep a dream diary (which I was doing anyway) and over two nights try to dream about a target image I would be shown the following day.

Before I was shown the target, I was sent a form to describe my dream(s), including emotional content as well as the events.  Then I had to rate four pictures for closeness to the themes of my dream on a scale of one to a hundred, and finally choose the one which most closely accorded with my night’s dreaming.

That was a practice run, and the following week I did the same again, the result constituting data for the experiment.  On each occasion, after I had chosen my image I was sent feedback to show whether I had selected the target.  The first week I did select it, and I was hopeful I would achieve a clean sweep that hinted at psychic ability, but alas missed the second time, the trial which actually counted.


C The Science of Sleep and Dreams online course

The Science of Sleep and Dreams, run by the New Scientist Academy on the FutureLearn platform, is a reliable, albeit simplified, introduction to what is currently understood about sleep and dreams (though there is far less on the latter than the title suggests).  I took the online course in January 2023.  It is presented in clear terms in a mixture of text and short videos.  Prior knowledge is not required, though it can get technical at times.

The content is broken down into three weekly segments – sleep and dreams; learning in your sleep and sleep engineering; and how to sleep better – but in practice it can be completed in much less time.  A few links are provided to further resources.  Unlike some FutureLearn courses there is no interaction between tutors and students, but student comments allow for limited discussion of the topics.  Anyone interested in the subject of sleep will find it useful, but those whose focus is dreams can skip parts two and three.


D The use of artificial intelligence?

Difficulties with trying to link a dream diary to events in the real world in the search for possible psi influences are that the dreamer may either not make connections because of the volume to assess, or make connections that are spurious because criteria are too relaxed.  To help in avoiding these dangers it would be worth attempting to utilise methods that are automated, and objective compared to the efforts of the dreamer.

One possible approach is to employ artificial intelligence to scan dream diaries and link them to news databases for correlations.  Both dispassionate and able to handle enormous amounts of data quickly, it would be able to evaluate far more material than an individual could in an effort to discover meaningful links.

Similarly, the dream diaries could be compared to daily journals in order to take into consideration the influence of individuals’ experiences feeding through into dream content.  It would be able to discard those in order to focus on content that may have originated elsewhere.

By synchronising large collections of dream diaries, daily journals and news databases, possible instances of psi could be flagged.  Even if none was forthcoming, useful psychological insights might emerge.  Such a project would constitute a ‘mass observation of the unconscious’ of the sort Charlotte Beradt conducted in Nazi Germany (Beradt, 1968), but with the advantages of modern technology.


E References

Auerbach, Loyd. Psychic Dreaming: Dreamworking, Reincarnation, Out-of-Body Experiences & Clairvoyance, Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn, 2017.

Beradt, Charlotte. The Third Reich of Dreams: The Nightmares of a Nation, 1933-1939, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968.

Hoel, Erik. ‘Dream Power’, New Scientist, 7 November 2020, pp. 34-38.

Hooper, Rowan. ‘Broken Dreams’, New Scientist, 24 March 2018, pp. 32-36.

Lachman, Gary. Dreaming Ahead of Time: Experiences with Precognitive Dreams, Synchronicity and Coincidence. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2022a.

Lachman, Gary. ‘Dreaming the Future’, Fortean Times No 415, February 2022b, pp. 32-38.

Knight, The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold, New York: Penguin, 2022.

Nielsen, Tore. ‘Variations in Dream Recall Frequency and Dream Theme Diversity by Age and Sex’, Frontiers in Neurology, 4 July 2012. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fneur.2012.00106/full (retrieved 3 January 2023)

Oxenham, Simon. ‘Want to control your dreams? These tips may boost your chances’, New Scientist, 17 June 2016. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2094018-want-to-control-your-dreams-these-tips-may-boost-your-chances/ (retrieved 4 January 2023)

Schredl, Michael, and Göritz, Anja S. ‘Who Keeps a Dream Journal? Sociodemographic and Personality Factors’, Imagination, Cognition and Personality: Consciousness in Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice, Vol. 39, Issue 2, 2019, pp. 1-10.

Whyte, Chelsea. ‘We dream loads more than we thought – and forget most of it’, New Scientist, 10 April 2017. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2127471-we-dream-loads-more-than-we-thought-and-forget-most-of-it/ (retrieved 4 January 2023)