Dream Research

Impactful Dreams and Self-Perceptual Depth

The Self-implicating Aesthetic Outcomes of Impactful Dreams

I have a continuing interest in the self-perceptual depth that sometimes occurs through intensive self-reflection (cf. Kuiken, Carey, & Nielsen, 1987; Kuiken & Madison, 1987), especially during self-reflection involving dreams (cf. Kuiken & Smith, 1991; Nielsen, Kuiken, & McGregor, 1989; Kuiken, Dunn, & LoVerso, 2008). Dreams have long been associated with the potential for prompting intimacy and intricacy in self-perception, and one goal of research conducted by our group has been to identify how dreams facilitate such changes.

There is evidence that dreaming combines and juxtaposes memories in a manner that accentuates felt meanings (cf. Kuiken, Rindlisbacher, & Nielsen, 1990) and metaphorically transforms those meanings (Kuiken, Miall, Bears, & Smith, 2002). In ordinary dreams, such meanings can be further accentuated through intensive self-reflection, as often happens in psychotherapy. However, in some dreams, powerful endings influence waking thoughts and feelings independently of dream reflection or interpretation. Such impactful dreams include nightmares, transcendent (archetypal) dreams, and existential dreams (cf. Kuiken & Sikora, 1993; Busink & Kuiken, 1995; Kuiken, Lee, Eng, & Singh, 2006).

Transcendent dreams present a distinct profile of features, including: emotions and feelings (ecstasy), motives and concerns (magical success), movement style (vigorous activity), success/failure (goal achievement). sensory phenomena (extraordinary light), dream transitions (shifts in perspective), and dream ending (intense affect). Existential dreams also present a distinct profile of features, including emotions and feelings (sadness), motives and concerns (separation), movement style (ineffectuality/fatigue), success/failure (lack of goal achievement), sensory phenomena (light/dark contrast), dream transitions (affective shifts), and dream ending (intense affect). While transcendent dreams carry the numinosity of "big dreams" (Jung, 1969), existential dreams carry an incongrous "magnitude" that involves agonizing sadness and yet valued personal insights (Kuiken, 1995). While transcendent (archetypal) dreams have a mytho-poetic form with spiritual significance, existential dreams have a tragi-poetic expressiveness that deepens and transforms personal meanings (Kuiken, Lee, Eng, & Singh, 2006). In recent studies, we have linked each of these dream types to the exceptional aesthetic poignancy of sublime feeling; transcendent dreams are followed by what we call sublime enthrallment, and existential dreams are followed by what we call sublime disquietude (Lee & Kuiken, 2013; Kuiken, 2015).

We have studied individual differences in the occurrence of impactful dreams, finding that those who most frequently are affected by them are high in absorption (Kuiken & Nielsen, 1996) and also attuned to bodily shifts in feeling (Kuiken, Busink, Dukewich, & Gendlin, 1996). Perhaps more importantly, we have found that existential dreams are relatively frequent among people who are grieving, especially among those who report a particularly absorbing form of "dissociation" (Kuiken, Lee, & Prinsen, 2016). We suspect that this form of dissociation actually represents a form of self-relevant metaphoricity. That is, in these dreams self and other become as separate—and yet as intertwined—as the is and is not of metaphoric expressions (e.g., “My surgeon is [and is not] a butcher”; “I am [and am not] dream character X”). We are now attempting to replicate evidence (Kuiken, Porthukaran, Albrecht, Douglas, & Cook, M., 2018) that the aftereffects of existential dreams include the enriched metaphor comprehension that mediates self-perceptual depth, inexpressible realizations, and sublime feeling.