When news of the recession, war, and environmental threats fills the airwaves, does it affect our dreams at night?
If you could look closely into Americans’ dreams, would they reveal a sense of who we are, and how we function as a society?
Or, do dreams simply reflect more personal issues we encounter in our own day-to-day existence, void of any larger context?
Those and similar questions are at the crux of “The Anthropology of Dreams and Dreaming,” a course taught by Robin Sheriff, an associate professor of anthropology at UNH.
“Studying a people’s dream theory opens a window onto a whole culture, a whole way of living, of being in the world,” says Sheriff, who introduced the course in 2007.
Many societies view the dream world as a parallel reality, one different from, but just as “real” as waking life. Being able to understand such relationships, Sheriff says, gives students a richer, more nuanced understanding of how people in other societies conceptualize the nature of being and reality.
“It’s impossible to talk about how people approach the experience of dreaming without also talking about their economic systems, their social structures, and their religious beliefs,” Sheriff says.
Anthropologists have long studied beliefs about dreams and dreaming in non-Western societies. Dreams continue to be taken seriously in many parts of the world, where they can be powerful omens of health, wealth, illness, desire, fear, and spiritual significance. “I can’t think of an indigenous people who don’t give a great deal of importance to dreams,” Sheriff says.
Contrast that with the United States, Sheriff says, where the culture generally dismisses dreams as having limited, if any, significance, even though many individuals still find their dreams compelling and meaningful.
Yet, her research leads Sheriff to believe that dreams still do matter, and can give us important insights. Do issues that are “under-discussed” in everyday life, such as the urgency of environmental issues, or the horrors of war, come forward in our dreams? Can we speak of a “political unconscious?” What, then, is the relationship between self and society? Between consciousness and conscience?
If history is any indication, dreams and the political unconscious are inextricable, Sheriff says. She relates an extreme case, documented by researcher Charlotte Berandt (discussed by Kelly Bulkeley, a religious studies scholar), who recorded the dreams of Germans living under Nazism, including those who opposed the regime. One woman reported a dream in which she was talking in her sleep—but in Russian so that no one could understand her. The dream reflects both the power of censorship and the impulse to resist it.
Such dreams, Sheriff says, support the concept of a political unconscious, a dimension of the dreaming mind that comments upon the political arena, including those parts of it cloaked in censorship, deception, or concealment.
Sheriff’s class, a 700-level course aimed at juniors and seniors, is based around scholarly research, and encourages students to compare non-Western and Western dream theories (including Freud’s theory of dreams and newer neuroscientific approaches) and to explore dream-sharing as a cultural activity. In one assignment, students observe dream-sharing on campus and compare these conversations to those they learn about in indigenous societies.
In their course reading, students examine how dreams are used to pursue knowledge (such as how to hunt effectively or what to name one’s child), and how dreams factor into religious systems. Their studies also delve into nightmares, and look at cultures where dreams are believed to be so real and powerful that they can induce “sleep paralysis,” and perhaps even death.
Confronted by such mysteries, Sheriff’s students are encouraged to consider a question posed by Havelock Ellis, a turn-of-the-century psychologist, who asked, “Dreams are real as long as they last. Can we say more of life?”
Students are encouraged to keep a personal dream journal, and are given tips for remembering and recording their dreams.
They are explicitly asked not to share dreams, however, that are very private or deeply personal, or otherwise inappropriate in a university setting. But they are encouraged to share dream experiences that could help illustrate, illuminate, or challenge course readings.
Sheriff is particularly interested in dream themes that haven’t received much attention in the scientific literature: media and politics. “Many of my students report dreams that have narrative plots that echo movies they’ve seen,” Sheriff says, “and, of course, celebrities are constantly showing up.”
Students’ dreams can be very somber or frightening, however. “One thing I see that’s pervasive in my students is that they seem to dream a lot about environmental disasters,” says Sheriff, adding that common themes feature angry animals and apocalyptic scenarios.
“Freud might have argued that the angry animal stands for the father,” Sheriff says, “and while that can be the case, many researchers believe that deep symbolic interpretation isn’t necessary to see what’s motivating a dream. Sometimes, an angry polar bear is an angry polar bear. Or a nuclear bomb is a nuclear bomb. It is as though our dreams are telling us to wake up.”
Although Sheriff is interested in how communal concerns show up in dreams, she also acknowledges that they can reflect private issues.
“Seniors seem to experience a spike in anxiety dreams,” she says. “And they can connect this to fears about how they’ll make a living, how they’ll cope as adults once they graduate. It’s a huge transition and they can be scared to talk about how scared they are.”
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