Do You Dream What I Dream?
Anthropologist Roger Lohmann sees a ghost in a dream while working in Papua New Guinea. Even though he knows it’s just a dream, he’s scared long after he wakes up. To make sense of his dream, Lohmann explores the role dreams play in our waking life and how different cultures make sense of dream worlds. Do all humans dream the same? Or do the cultures we are immersed in shape our dreams? Lohmann has six cultural dream theories that offer some answers to what dreams are and what they mean.
SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.
Roger Lohmann: I hope the sound is OK. I’ll go ahead.
So, the day was January 5, 1995. I was at Yakob Village in the center of New Guinea island doing ethnographic research with the Asabano people. And it was late in the night, just before dawn, and I had a dream. We were burying my sister, Sue, who had died decades before (when I was a little boy). But by this point, I was pretty grown up. It was very strange. I was there, and we were burying her. And then something even stranger happened, which is, she appeared as this really frightening ghost and started harassing me. I’d never felt threatened or afraid of my sister before or of ghosts. In fact, I woke up and I thought, I don’t even believe in ghosts! Yet I still feel afraid. And, in fact, I was still a little worried that a ghost might appear even after I was awake.
Jen: Chip, what did we just hear?
Chip: So that was a man named Roger Lohmann, and he was talking about an experience that he had years ago in Papua New Guinea.
Jen: Right, he had a really scary dream. I got that much.
Chip: But there’s something else going on here too, right? Like, Roger is a white guy like me. And typically, in our white Euro-American culture, adults aren’t that afraid of ghosts.
Jen: But, why? I mean if you have a terrifying dream and it feels real, why, culturally, do we talk ourselves down and say, It’s just a dream?
Chip: Our ideas about these things are shaped by people like Carl Jung. He was one of the most influential European psychologists of all time.
Lara Newton: So, the goal that Jungian analysis has for working with dreams is basically a goal of connecting who we are consciously with that other side of ourselves that we’re not familiar with—the unconscious side.
Chip: This is Lara Newton. She’s a Jungian analyst who interprets dreams and authored a book on brother-sister relationships. We called Lara to get a better understanding of how someone like Roger would normally interpret the dream he described earlier.
Lara: There seems to be some sort of conflict going on in his psyche: the conflict between his conscious position and information that possibly got stirred up from the work that he was doing in New Guinea. The dream is not about spirits in the Asabano people. The dream is about a spirit in his own psyche.
Jen: What I’m hearing is that for Lara, and the Jungian school of thought, this dream is about Roger’s conscious and unconscious minds. That’s one interpretation based on a European cultural context. But what I wonder, Chip, is why was Roger’s dream so frightening for him? Which brings me to an even bigger question, why do we dream what we dream?
Chip: I actually know the perfect person to ask.
Jen: I’m Jen.
Chip: I’m Chip.
Jen: And we’re the hosts of SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human.
Chip: In addition to being such a provocative dreamer, Roger also happens to be an anthropologist at Trent University, where he specializes in religion, cultural change, and cultural dream theory.
I called Roger at his home in Ontario.
Roger: Hi, Chip.
Chip: Hi, Roger. How’s it going?
Roger: Oh, it’s going pretty well.
Chip: Before we jumped into our conversation on dream interpretation, I played him a recording of Lara’s analysis.
My first question is, what did you think of that interpretation?
Roger: Well, it sounded like a pretty typically Jungian analysis. I thought it was useful in that it pointed to certain things that I think dreams do do. That is, when we’re looking at our dreams, we can see things happening in our mind that we might not have expected. That’s a useful kind of interpretation, but it’s only one. I guess we could say it’s the tip of the iceberg. There are so many different aspects of what’s happening in dreaming. And I think we need more than one theory to actually fully explain dreams.
Chip: Since Roger had that dream about his sister in Papua New Guinea, he’s written extensively about dreaming and edited a 2003 book, Dream Travelers: Sleep Experiences and Culture in the Western Pacific. He recently wrote a piece about his whole experience for SAPIENS.org, and we’re going to put a link to it in the show notes of this episode.
Roger: I’ve come up with a paradigm, a list of six different types of cultural dream theories that that we find in the ethnographic records. So, that is, what kinds of theories anthropologists have documented among various peoples. And if I can list them right now, they are briefly “nonsense theory”—
Sound FX. Nonsense theory
Roger: and this is the theory that dreams are just imaginary stuff coming from our own mind that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Chip: OK, so number one is “nonsense theory.”
Roger: That’s right. Number two is “discernment theory.”
Sound FX. Discernment theory
Roger: And that’s the idea that dreaming is a heightened perception of reality, that what we see in dreams is somehow giving us an insight that we couldn’t get about reality from ordinary waking life.
A third kind of theory is “message theory”—
Sound FX. You’ve got mail. Message theory.
Roger: and this is the idea that dreams are messages. A fourth is “generative theory.”
Sound FX. Generative theory
Roger: This is an idea that dreams have a kind of magical power. That is, if you dream something, that makes it happen.
Chip: And the fifth?
Roger: Fifth is “soul travel theory.”
Sound FX. Soul travel theory
Roger: And this is the idea that what we see in dreaming is what the soul sees as it travels outside the body. And the sixth kind of cultural dream theory is “visitation theory.”
Sound FX. Visitation theory
Roger: And this is the idea that what we see in dreams are visitations from, typically, spirit beings. So, the people you see in dreams are spirit beings coming to see you.
Chip: To be clear, are these types of ways of dreaming, or are these six types of interpreting those dreams that happen in different cultural contexts around the world?
Roger: That’s a really interesting and perceptive question because the two are intimately connected, I would say. You can’t always separate the interpretation of the dream from the dream itself.
That’s not to say that it’s not possible to have a dream and then think, What did that mean? Oh, maybe this was a symbol for something, and I hadn’t thought about that at the time. That is possible. But there is a, what some anthropologists would call, a pre-interpretation that’s happening while we’re dreaming. Because if I believe that my dream is a visit from God, the dream is going to have a very different character than if I believe my dream is just my random fantasizing.
And dreams are not unusual in this regard. Just about everything in our experience is like that. And that’s one of the great contributions of anthropology, I think, to understanding humans is we realize we can’t just assume that people are the same in their experience of the world whether awake or asleep. They are understanding reality quite often fundamentally differently, depending on their cultural model of what reality is.
Chip: Does this group of theories, then, help us understand the dream that you had?
Roger: Yeah, I think you could use it in a various number of ways. One way would be simply to try and analyze my reaction to it. And in my SAPIENS article, I talked about how my reaction was not what I expected it should be because my normal waking belief at that time was the “nonsense theory.” Dreams are imaginary nonsense, nothing to worry about. But my actual reaction, my visceral reaction, even after I woke up, was to be afraid of this. And so, what that tells me is that we humans can have more than one cultural dream theory going on in our heads at the same time, and one can be the dominant official version. But then there can be multiple other ones that are going on lurking beneath the surface.
Chip: OK, so you had two different dream theories competing in your brain, and you had this visceral experience with your sister. What did you make of this as an anthropologist?
Roger: Immediately, my anthropological mind kicked in. So, I started thinking, What could this say to me about what’s really happening? And at that time, I didn’t have the same understanding of dreams that I do now. But I was still willing to take it as telling me something about cultures combining in my mind, because the Asabano people have been talking about how dead people are to be feared—that there are ghosts—and that had been something that hadn’t been part of my conscious reality for years (at least not since I had been a real little kid, when people do tend to believe in ghosts, stories, and so on). So, I started to think that this is shedding a light on how, depending on what you believe about dreams, the nature of the dream is going to be quite different.
Chip: Do you have a sense at all of how this dream could be interpreted by the community that you lived in in Papua New Guinea?
Roger: Sure. I mean it would depend really on which person you talked to. Of course, as we know in anthropology, there’s so much cultural variation in what people believe and how they react to things, even in one small community! In this case, the Asabano people, there’s only about 200 in all. Even in a small community like that, I found plenty of diversity. So, one person would have a favorite theory in interpreting his dreams, and another would have another.
Chip: So, there’s no, like, unified theory of dreaming, even in this community?
Roger: That’s right. I would say that we see several different dream theories were circulating.
Chip: Like “soul travel theory,” for example?
Roger: For someone who would subscribe to that theory, they would see this experience as having been my soul having traveled to the afterworld, where it met up with my sister, who was behaving as she was for unknown reasons. One possibility that I think Asabano people would likely think of would be that she was trying to scare me to death, basically, because—
Chip: like, literally scare you to death?
Roger: That’s right, because many of them believe that the dead want us to die—because then we’ll be reunited. So, on one hand, our dead ancestors and family members love us, they care about us, but they also miss us. And so, they might want our deaths in some situations. So that might be one interpretation, but there would be a number of others. It could be seen as, for example, a message from the Holy Spirit. The Asabano were recent converts to Christianity at that time, and they might have thought that this was a message that I should adopt Christianity to protect myself from demons or what have you. So, there would be various possible explanations.
Chip: And that’s like a change, then. This is kind of the way in which as cultures change, the interpretations of dreams also change. And so, is that pointing, then, to the relationship between culture writ large and dreaming?
Roger: Yes, and I think you’ve really hit on something vital here. On one hand, there’s the sort of obvious aspect of this. If you believe a certain thing about dreaming, that dream is going to affect you differently than if you believe something else. So, for example, if I believe that dreams are spirit visits, I’m going to react very differently to that dream than if I believe that dreams are just my inner psyche dealing with conflicts in life, you know? So that’s the more surface-y insight, I think, about the relationship between dreams and culture—culture being learned knowledge about the world.
But then the deeper, and more interesting in my view, scientific discovery about the relationship between dreams and culture is that we now know that dreams are actually depicting scenes of our past memories and our more recent memories juxtaposed.
And this is the brain’s trying to sort through new experiences and make sense of them, and to update our cultural models of reality.
From that point of view, we can see that dreams actually are culture, that it’s, when we are watching a dream, we’re seeing the process of culture being made and updated in our own brains, and it’s happening without our permission. You know, this is an autonomic process, like our heart beating blood or our intestines absorbing nutrients.
The sounds of someone sleeping.
Then a computer voice saying, “Enter sleep mode. Culture updating.”
And then the sound of someone hitting an alarm and waking up/getting out of bed. And then, “Update complete.”
Chip: Speaking with Roger gave me a lot to consider about my own experiences as a human, an anthropologist, and a dreamer. I, for one, don’t remember my dreams—which I’m guessing is the case for some, or even a lot, of you, our listeners. That doesn’t mean I don’t dream. It’s just that, when I wake up, my dreams are not something I’m thinking about. But what I’m hearing from Roger is that even if we’re not aware of it, our dreams may be actively shaping our understanding of the world around us—helping to explain the things we’re experiencing. In fact, that’s how Roger started studying dreams in the first place.
Roger: I’ve been interested since the beginning of my career in anthropology in the distinction between imaginary and real. I was very curious about the supernatural world. Why people do believe in these things anyway? Going right back to the beginning of anthropology, Edward Burnett Tylor, in the early 1870s, proposed that people believe in spirits and gods because they see dreams in which they see, for example, dead people still alive. And then they think, Well, I must have witnessed, say, my dead relative is still alive. And so therefore they believe in these things.
Chip: If we think about the biggest question of where does religion come from, you’re saying Tylor is suggesting that it’s actually dreaming that played a central role in the origins of, you know, all belief in gods and spirits in the afterlife and then everything beyond us?
Roger: That’s right. So that was one of his big ideas. I would say that’s, of course, not enough to explain religion. There’s a lot more happening than that! But that is one important aspect that I’ve traced through not only dreaming but other kinds of experience.
My approach to understanding why people tend to believe in spirits has to do with experiences that convince them, different kinds of experiences that they consider evidence. So, it might be a dream, it might be that you have something happen that’s a coincidence and so you assume that, therefore, indicates a spirit caused it. You hear people sometimes say something was meant to be. And, of course, another important kind of experience that convinces many people is hearing our elders and our peers talking about it. And this gets back to culture again, because humans rely so heavily on culture as a means of adapting to the world. And so, this means that we have to be willing to believe one another.
Chip: You started studying dreams because you wanted to understand how people explained their own experiences with the supernatural. And what you’ve found is that dreams impact how we think about all kinds of things. But, how do the things around us impact the way we dream? For example, say, food.
Roger: Well, of course, food, depending on if you have indigestion or not, food can affect your dreams in a very direct, physical way, absolutely. And I was actually interested to hear my Asabano friends tell me the same thing, that they were familiar with that. Although they often think that dreams have deep spiritual meaning, they also sometimes have a dream that they think, Oh, this is just gobbledygook because I ate something bad.
Chip: Just dinner talking.
Roger: So, they have a version of “nonsense theory” too.
But, I mean, that’s the physiological side of it, but then you could say that foods, of course, are important ideas, and our models of what is edible or not would appear in our dreams. If you’re used to eating rice every day, you might dream about rice. If you’ve never heard of another kind of food that is perhaps different and you’re trying to reconcile eating some kind of new, strange thing, that might appear in your dreams as well, as you’re trying to incorporate and make sense of it.
Chip: OK, what about light?
Roger: Oh, well, you know, there’s, light is actually kind of a more interesting topic to talk about in terms of sleep because the light levels and the type of light (whether it’s a bluish light or reddish light) actually influence our sleep cycles, how soon we fall asleep. I would say that light is even more important for understanding the physiology of sleep than it is dreams per se. However, light can be a symbol as well—the image of coming to a light or something being light or dark.
Chip: We’ve talked about food and light. Now I want to discuss language because I don’t remember my dreams and I don’t talk about them. So, I wonder, how does the way that we communicate about dreaming influence what we experience?
Roger: Language. Well, of course, language is made of culture. It’s one form of culture—it’s cultural information, but it’s also a code for communicating culture. It’s really profound that once you have the ability to communicate so precisely about our inner experiences, which comes with language, now we can talk about imaginary experiences—like dreams—as though they were real. And we can communicate them to one another, and we can form theories about them together. And that allows us to say, “Well, what was that thing that I saw?” Maybe it was my dead sister, you know, maybe she’s still alive, and she’s nasty now. Maybe she’s upset with me. So, you know, I might have had that thought process by myself if I were a non-linguistic species, but once I’ve got language, I can share it with others and then we develop these whole cultural dream theories about what it really is.
Jen: Wait, Chip, do you really never remember your dreams?
Chip: Yeah, pretty much. There was a time back in my 20s where I tried to do lucid dreaming, where you’re aware of your own dreaming, but it didn’t really work so much. Ever since, I go to sleep, I wake up, and that’s that. And actually, that’s what made Roger’s work so interesting to me, because as someone who doesn’t think about dreaming, doesn’t talk about dreaming, I think it’s really cool to have this framework to understand how, potentially, humanity thinks and talks about dreaming. And so, I can see using these six different ways of exploring dreaming in a different light for myself. How about you, do you dream at all?
Jen: I do!
Chip: Or remember your dreams?
Jen: I actively try to remember my dreams. I do! But it’s often me reflecting alone in the morning like, Whoa, what was that about? Often in the U.S., we hear about personal dream diaries. I don’t have a dream diary. But, it’s very individual. But what I find really interesting is in other cultural communities, you know, talking about dreams is a social practice, it’s an everyday practice, where it’s actually part of everyday life. And I think that’s just really interesting and maybe if we had more of that here, you might remember your dreams.
Chip: That’s a good point. But maybe that’s what this podcast is doing, it’s definitely made me think and talk about dreaming, and it’s entering into a conversation, right?
Chip: What if we, you know, continued the conversation. What do you think?
Jen: I think that would be great! And I think we could continue it with an even bigger group!
Chip: Yeah, like, our listeners, for example? Listeners, we would love to hear from you. What are your experiences of dreaming?
Jen: Do you think dreams are nonsense or something else? Something more?
Chip: Good questions. So, we’ll see you on social media. Make sure to hashtag us at #sapienspodcast, and we’ll look forward to continuing the conversation there.
Chip: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Cat Jaffee, and mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton. It was hosted by me, Chip Colwell.
Jen: And me, Jen Shannon.
SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with amazing contributions from our producer Paul Karolyi and production assistant Freda Kreier, who provided additional support.
Chip: Meral Agish is our fact-checker. And a special thanks this time to Roger Lohman and Lara Newton.
Jen: And a special, special thanks to Roger for offering his recordings of the Asabano people’s day-to-day activities, mouth harp music, and drumming. These recordings were captured in 1994 and played by Simolibo at Yakob Village.
Jen: This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support through Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and its staff, board, and advisory council.
Chip: Additional support was provided by the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas.
Jen: Thanks always to Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS.org.
SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.
Until next time, see you around fellow sapiens!