Sleep and dreams make up one of the last and most intriguing frontiers in human self-discovery. For as long as we have existed, humans have wondered after the nature of dreams and the underlying processes. What, exactly, are dreams, we ask? Are they prophetic visions of the future? Advice from beings greater than ourselves? What makes us see the things we see when we sleep?
ìSince the dawn of history, humankind has been preoccupied with the source and significance of dreams. Primitive societies perceived their dreams as an integral part of their lives. A North American Indian who dreamed that he had been bitten by a snake would treat himself for snakebite immediately upon wakening. Some tribes believed that the source of dreams was in the soul, which left the body to roam the world during sleep and which signaled its return when the sleeper awoke. It was therefore forbidden to wake a sleeper suddenly, for the soul might not have managed to return to his body. In ancient religions, from the Sumerians and Babylonians to the Greeks, dreams were perceived as a means of communication between the gods and mortals. Dreams were the instrument for prophesying and understanding the intentions and desires of the gods. A despairing Saul complained to the prophet Samuel, ëand God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets nor by dreamsí (1 Samuel 28:15).î (Lavie 65)
As is typical of our species, over time we have come up with countless different explanations for the dream phenomenon. Dreaming is an experience that all people share, but one that is so difficult to accurately describe or explain that we still find ourselves running around in circles on the issue.
Since the study of dreams is such a vast and largely disputed field, we have chosen to focus on the dream hypothesis of one culture, the North American Cherokee Indian tribe, and carry out an experiment to test it. Cherokee tradition holds that our ancestors connect us to the sky. We are linked to Father Sky and Mother Earth, and the spirits of both realms communicate with us subconsciously. Accessible spirits such as these also exist in trees, animals, and all other living things.
Although the finer points of belief differed from group to group, the connection with the sky was universally present. Some watched through the open tops of teepees as the night sky changed, looking for the Three Brothers, known to us as the Pleiades. The positioning of constellations such as the Brothers was believed to hold great significance. For example, some in the tribal community believe that messages gleaned from such observation forewarned the Native Americans about the coming of the Europeans; the messages were apparently detailed enough to include the types of weapons the white men would bring with them.
Should our experiment fail to show the link weíre looking for, there are several reasons not to be shocked. The Cherokee placed a great deal of importance on the interpretation of dreams and sleep behavior, considerably more than those in modern, highly skeptical society. Children were raised to pay attention to their dreams and what they had to say; indeed, what more trustworthy advice is there than that which comes from the ancestors? We, on the other hand, live lives shaped by television and have trouble seeing the stars for all the light pollution our cities create. Never has there been a culture more divorced from the natural world - perhaps the natural connection with the sky ceases to exist when people stop cultivating it.
In no way do we mean to credit or discredit the religious beliefs or social values of the Cherokee - we are simply curious as to how scientifically verifiable their folklore is. There is a great deal of oral, circumstantial evidence to support these beliefs, but we are looking for something more definite and more readily analyzed, namely empirical data.
According to Cherokee tradition, the following sky conditions produce the specified effects in dreamers.
Total cloud coverage in the night sky:
No dreams or unclear images or events
Partial cloud coverage:
Short dreams with distinct images, although they arenít always relevant
Strong dreams with clear images, strong relevance and sometimes revelations
Vivid, clear dreams with distinct images and life-related messages (easily remembered)
Depends on cloud coverage
Cloudy: Dreams with no significance
Clear: Dreams with messages that will tie into other dreams
Dreams of change or forgotten people
We will use this information as our hypothesis for the study; we will operate under the assumption that these conditions will prove themselves to be true.
Past dream research has focused largely on one night of a subjectís sleep, making it impossible to study that subjectís sleep patterns or rhythms. In our study we will gather data over one weekís time for each of our subjects, and analyze the effect of sky behavior on what and how we dream. Hopefully, we will come away with a better understanding of our unconscious relationship with the movements and patterns of the sky.
Materials and Methods
Our plan is to assemble a group of roughly twenty people with diverse backgrounds and ages. In order to keep the results accurate, the subjects will not have knowledge of the goal of the experiment or the identity of the other subjects. We will give each person an empty composition notebook to serve as their personal dream journal for the next week. Upon waking each morning, they will be asked to write down a general account of the nightís dreams and answer a series of questions about them. The frequency of colors appearing, the total length of the dream, its intensity and other factors will be rated on a numerical scale. At the end of the week, we will collect the notebooks and pass them on (with the previous subjectís writings removed) to the next set of subjects. We will test Cherokee dream beliefs using information sent to us by Ms. Carolyn Sky Dancer, a member of the tribe. If our (adopted) hypothesis is correct, weather patterns should have a discernible effect on the themes, duration, and intensity of the groupsí dreams.
To determine the effect of the sky conditions on our dreamers, we will keep track of and record the weather nightly, as well as the phases of the moon.
The study we have chosen to undertake is a tricky one - dreams are a subjective business and hard to rationalize or explain in purely scientific terms. As we all know, it is highly difficult even to explain a dream in language that both makes sense and conveys the true nature of the dream. One almost has to experience a dream for oneself to grasp it. When describing or analyzing a dream, ìthere are cognitive uncertainties that may be due to an inability to describe abnormal or ambiguous dream actions in the language of the waking state.î (Hobson 298)
Hopefully, by keeping the subjects unaware of the exact nature of the study and of the others involved, we will keep fictitious dream reports to a minimum. If subjects are unable to recall their dreams from the previous night, we will ask that they simply write that fact down, as it is a useful piece of information as well.
Each subjectís notebook will have a copy of this sheet affixed to the inside cover-
This is part of a study that depends on you! Please be willing to take the first few minutes after you wake up to tell us about your dreams.
Here are the general things weíd like to know, but certainly feel free to elaborate and add your own tidbits. You never know what may be useful!
-What was the dream about? Even if you donít remember all the details, what was the theme or dominant thought?
-Include specifics (if possible) such as familiar people, strong or recurring colors, unique objects or actions, etc. Can you find a strong relevance to your life at this point in any part of the dream?
-How intense was the dream? Was it so real that you were convinced it was actually happening, or were you aware of the fact that you were dreaming?
-What was the mood of the dream? Did you feel uneasy, happy, terrified, sick?
-At what time of day did the dream take place? Was it light or dark?
-Did you experience this dream during nighttime sleep or during a midday nap?
If you are unable to remember your dreams, just write ìnone.î Be sure to write the date for each entry at the top of the page, and separate your accounts clearly.
Please rate each dream based on the following scales.
Colors - How vividly did you perceive the colors in the dream?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Character development - How recognizable were the other characters in your dream? If you didnít recognize anyone you knew, how strong were the personalities/presences of the others in the dream?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Intensity - How involved were you in the plot of the dream? How absorbing was it? A good indicator for this one may be the clarity of your memory of the dream.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Life Relevance - Did this dream remind you of something that currently concerns you? Did it give you a new perspective on something youíre currently dealing with?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Thank you very much and happy dreaming!
Pam, Brett, and Sean
We plan to conduct a mini-study with the class on the day of our presentation, to give them a closer look at dream interpretation. On the day of our presentation, we will ask the class to write down what they can recall of their dream activity from the previous night. We will use the night in questionís weather information to draw what conclusions we can from the data the class presents us with.
Our study will not require an extensive list of materials - just composition notebooks and willing and cooperative subjects. Each subject will use the same notebook for the entire course of the week and will not have access to anyone elseís notebook.
Once again, our aim here is not to prove one religious view of dream behavior correct, or to trivialize anyoneís culture by reducing it to ratings on a one-to-ten scale. After hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting the validity of the Cherokee dream hypothesis, we are simply curious to see if it can be verified using more scientific means. If we find a strong correlation between sky patterns and dreams, or if we find that there seems to be no relation at all, we will certainly not attempt to pass judgment on the beliefs or those who hold them. This is, of necessity, a small study, and one from which no definite conclusions can be drawn. Besides, religion is a world wholly apart from science, and even if people hold beliefs that conflict totally with scientific findings, they should be accorded the same amount of respect and dignity as anyone else.
All in all, we were quite satisfied with the journal material that was returned to us by our subjects. Most of them were willing to take the time to record their dreams in a nicely detailed way, and we can only hope that they were honest about what they dreams contained. As for following the instructions to the letter, they werenít quite so compliant. Perhaps we defined our terms poorly or didnít emphasize the importance of the numerical data enough, but we found that the intensity scale seemed to be the only one the subjects had a good handle on. Color wasnít discussed very much, and people didnít appear to want to elaborate on their dreamsí relevance to their current life situations. Although almost none of them recorded numbers for the character descriptiveness scale, several had dreams with extremely vivid characters, both familiar and unknown.
We decided to focus on the intensity aspect of the Cherokee beliefs, largely because it was the only part for which we had good data across the board. We recorded the moonís behavior over the course of the study, as well as the sky conditions from midnight to six a.m. Using these factors in combination, we determined that October 13 and 15 should be, according to our hypothesis, the nights most conducive to vivid dreams, as the moon was in a late phase and the weather was clear. We called them ìgoodî nights. Oppositely, October 2 and 25, with heavy cloud cover and a darkened moon, were tested as ìbadî nights.
To our (pleasant!) surprise, an unpaired t-test (see data) revealed that the good nights were indeed more likely to produce strong dreams; dreamers recorded an average intensity 2.795 points higher on these nights. Our p-value, 0.0194, encouraged us to treat this data as reliable and more than likely not due to chance alone. In this limited study, at least, the Cherokee dream beliefs appear to have been borne out.
Naturally, not everything went according to plan. We certainly appreciate our subjectsí willingness to participate, but their promptness in returning the journals for analysis was less than ideal. Although we handed out twenty journals, due to various (and much apologized-for) reasons, we failed to get them all back. Also, if we had it all to do over again, we would reword the prompt in the front cover of the journals. We think we got a little ambitious in what we asked our subjects to do - on later reflection, the numerical analysis is a rather difficult and vague thing to do for oneís own dreams.
Based on our results, we make no endorsement or disavowal of the belief system of the Cherokee - that wasnít what this project was about. After an imperfect test of a small group of people, the basic tenets of the tribal dream analysis system seem to have worked out. An experiment larger in scope may or may not confirm these results, but even that wouldnít ìproveî much of anything. The Cherokee will continue to believe what they do because it is theirs, not because some college students with a handful of data tell them to. What we have observed may be coincidence, or, for all we know, may speak of a profound cosmic truth, but it is certainly not our place to make that call.
There were some intriguing unlooked-for consequences of the study. Although we made no predictions about it, the prominent presence of media figures in subjectsí dreams was not a great surprise to us. If anything, we expected electronic culture to have deadened our sense of oneness with nature and the heavens. As it turned out, it has made its presence known without appearing to block out the celestial link. Some subjects dreamed about famous figures more than others (the Mel Gibson/Danny Glover series was particularly riveting), but there was a clear pattern to be seen.
Two of the subjects were housemates, and we gave them journals to write in on different weeks, so as to avoid any unwanted corruption of the results. Their dreams seemed to follow a roughly consistent pattern, centered not surprisingly on Pam, as these were her friends. Their first night working with the journal found, in both cases, them dreaming about an old house of Pamís they had both visited separately. We explained this away as a response to their thinking about Pam and the assignment before falling asleep, but it was still remarkable how closely their entries jibe. Again, we can only hope that we were given accurate accounts of the dreams - such is the uncertainty of a study as subjective as ours.
Were we to do a second study based on the findings of the first, we said we would like to know more about the effect of the media on the subconscious, specifically how deeply the messages we receive through television, radio, and film are able to penetrate. From what we saw, celebrities seem to occupy an oddly prominent place in our thoughts. Perhaps this was a result of the group we examined, but it would make for an interesting project.
ìOne possible function of sleep: to produce dreams.î (Behavioral Brain Research, Volume 69, Issue 1, July 8, 1995, pp. 203-206).
ìDream Interpretation in Ancient Civilizations.î (Dreaming, Volume 10, Issue 1, March 1, 2000, pp. 7-18).
ìA Historical Loop of One Hundred Years: Similarities Between 19th Century and Contemporary Dream Research.î (Dreaming, Volume 10, Issue 1, March 1, 2000, pp. 55-66).
Anch, Michael A., et al. Sleep: A Scientific Perspective. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Arnoff, Michael S., M.D. Sleep and its Secrets. New York: Plenum.
Hobson, Allan J. The Dreaming Brain. New York: Basic.
Lavie, Peretz. The Enchanted World of Sleep. New Haven: Yale University.
Return to the Topic Menu
IMPORTANT: For each Response, make sure the title of the response is different than previous titles shown above!
Weather & Earth Science Resources
Tropical Ecosystem Courses
Tools & Other Stuff