Data-mining our dreams

Using computer analysis to decode the meaning of dreams
October 20, 2013

The Dream, 1910 (credit: Henri Rousseau/Museum of Modern Art)

Many people assume that this quest to interpret dreams has failed. This conclusion is premature, Kelly Bulkeley, former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams and author of Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History,” writes in The New York Times. …

“I have conducted several experiments in “blind analysis,” a technique developed with the help of the psychologist G. William Domhoff at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“Professor Domhoff sends me an electronic file of dream reports from a participant whose identity is hidden from me. Without reading the narratives of the dreams, I upload the file into a computer program (and database) designed for this purpose. The program enables the use of a word-search template to analyze the reports. The template includes categories for perceptions, emotions, characters and many other common features of dream content.

“For each category I compare the word-usage frequencies of an individual’s dreams with those from previous studies of dream content, looking for unusually high or low frequencies that might signal a meaningful connection. Then I make inferences about the person’s concerns, activities and relationships in waking life and send them to Professor Domhoff. He forwards them to the participant, who confirms or disconfirms my conjectures. …

“In studies in 2010 and 2012 that were published in the journal Dreaming, I inferred correctly, based on nothing but the unusual frequencies of certain categories of dream content, that one participant was a newspaper reporter with an active sex life and a pet dog, and that another was an emotionally troubled student who played soccer and was worried about her family. …

“The question then becomes, what else can we learn? How much more might a technologically enhanced system of “big data” dream analysis teach us about people’s lives?”