Big Dreams

The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion

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Kelly Bulkeley
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Big dreams” is a term that the famed Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung coined to denote memorable dreams that guide people through their life’s development. On a larger socio-cultural scale, dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley argues that big dreams have contributed to shaping religions. Trained in the psychology of religion, Bulkeley is a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, senior editor of the American Psychological Association’s journal Dreaming, and former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. Through a cognitive science of religion approach—a meta-analysis of interdisciplinary dream studies by cognitive scientists, psychologists, and humanities scholars—Kelly offers a survey of what is known so far about sleep and dreams to help explain the function of big dreams in “the experiential origins of religious beliefs and practices” (3). Bulkeley’s 2008 book Dreaming in the World’s Religions (New York University Press) provided a cross-cultural comparative religious study of dreams. Big Dreams seeks to advance how especially memorable, impactful dreams have a significant role in the formation of religions. He argues that these dreams historically tend to connect to and help develop mystical concepts such as demonism, prophecy, healing, and contemplative practices in religions.

A difficulty here has been that big dreams are hard to empirically evaluate. Sleep and dream researchers have focused mainly on recent dreams reported through surveys and sleep laboratory experiments in which they mostly encounter average dreaming experiences. Even among those studies, there is no consensus on why people dream or on the function of dreaming. The digital Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb)—a collection of over 20,000 dream reports from diaries, surveys, cultural texts, and experiments—enhances Bulkeley’s ability to analyze “large numbers of high-quality reports from a wide variety of people and sources” to find “consistent patterns in the subjective experiences described by all these people” (86). From his meta-analysis, Bulkeley argues that (a) sleep is a time in which the brain/mind is “active and adaptive,” not passive or dormant; (b) dreaming is a healthy form of imaginative play in sleep; (c) “big dreams provoke greater consciousness”; and (d) “dreaming is a primal wellsping of religious experience” (8).

Bulkeley shows how particularly intense dreams matter in the study of religion because they have directly inspired texts, rituals, and beliefs. Religious scholars who encounter influential dreams in their research will find Big Dreams highly useful. “My aim,” Bulkeley writes, is “to develop a broad mapping of big dreams using empirical data from many fields of study” in a way that “should make sense to readers,” whether or not they have a background in studying dreams (207). In that, he succeeds. He opens each chapter with a common, skeptical viewpoint about sleep and dream studies which he then answers using data from cultural, experiential, and experimental sources.

In part 1, Bulkeley reviews what scientists have discovered about the nature of sleep and how it has evolved between different species, including circadian rhythms and their necessity to biological and mental health. Of particular interest to religious scholars will be chapter 4 on the ways in which culture shapes sleep habits and dreaming. Here, historical and scientific data merge to illuminate the conditions under which dreams are formed. Dreaming is a social and not purely individual experience, Bulkeley shows. Socio-economic, religious, political, and other factors come into play in quality of sleep and the types of dreams recalled. In part 2, Bulkeley demonstrates how dreams have meaningful patterns, whether the content is outlandish or related directly to the dreamer’s waking life. Bulkeley argues that imaginative, creative play in dreams contributes to healthy psychological development. Dreams accurately reflect the “reality of people’s waking thoughts, emotions, and cultural experiences” (131).

In part 3, Bulkeley categorizes memorable, significant, “big dreams” into four types: “aggressive” nightmares; sexual dreams; “gravitational” dreams in which a person falls or is threatened by other forces of nature; and most crucial for the study of religions, “mystical” dreams. In “mystical dreams,” dreamers “envision powers that transcend the ordinary limitations of physical reality” (196). Bulkeley focuses on dreams in which the dreamer is flying or is visited by a person who died. The psychological impacts from such dreams, he argues, do not “encourage naïve superstition” but rather, they “stimulate an adaptive and distinctly human sense of possibility and hope beyond the given realities of current waking life” (196).

In part 4, Bulkeley assesses dream-based religious experiences through the analytical lenses of comparative religions, psychology and cognitive science, and sleep and dreaming studies. Here, Bulkeley skirts the “horizons of uncertainty that surround all of our ideas and beliefs, including the best of our cosmological theories” (17). At his boldest, Bulkeley suggests that practices such as lucid dreaming can bring about religious contemplation. Overall though, part 4 feels tentative, prompting questions for further exploration.

Big Dreams will appeal to a wide cross-section of religious scholars as Bulkeley draws from scientific, historical, mythological, and literary sources to show how dreams influence religions. Certain chapters have an imbalance where contemporary case studies are absent. Modern cases would have provided significant data for the continued influence of big dreams on religious experiences, particularly around the growth of self-spirituality and new religions. Still, Bulkeley successfully provides readers with a “broad mapping”; finer details may be taken on by other scholars. For example, Bulkeley’s analysis of sexual dreams vaguely addresses “violations of taboos” and “extremely strange content,” but lacks attention to queer sexuality, which could be indicative of normative dreams beyond the procreative framework he outlines. In a time of greater sexual and gender dynamics in society, these would have been vital points to bring up, but dream studies likely have yet to explore any such data. Such absences seen through the eyes of different scholars will open doors for new studies that blend the experiences and empirical sciences of dreaming to better illuminate the formation of religions, cultures, and individual lives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Laursen recently completed a Ph.D. in history at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kelly Bulkeley is Visiting Scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is former President of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, Senior Editor of the APA journal Dreaming, and author of Dreaming in the World's Religions (2008).



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