I apparently consume so much politics coverage that it’s begun to invade my dreams. Am I alone in this? How common is it for people to dream about politics or politicians?
Christian, 28, New York
As if we all weren’t hearing enough about the upcoming presidential election, there is data on dreaming as far back as the 19th century that suggests what you read or hear about politics by day can indeed affect your thoughts while you sleep. In 1893, Wellesley psychologist Mary Whiton Calkins wrote “Statistics of Dreams,” a catalogue of 375 dreams — both her own and those of her colleagues. As a whole, her work suggested that images and emotions from people’s waking lives often do infiltrate their dreams, a novel theory at the time.
Dream data-mining has come a long way since then. For instance, one 2011 study published in the journal Dreaming surveyed 1,335 American adults who described themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative,” as well as 802 who said they were “progressive” or “liberal.” Kelly Bulkeley, the author of the study (and one of the only researchers working in this field), wanted to test the theory that dreaming experience is affected by the same things that affect our waking lives — things like language, religion, and politics.
What he found was an apparent political divide in dreaming. His data showed that 73 percent of liberals said that they dreamed often, compared to just 64 percent of conservatives.
And the gap was even larger when it came to bad dreams — 26 percent of liberals said they had nightmares often, while only 15 percent of conservatives said the same.
But timing is everything when it comes to the politics of dreaming. When I asked Bulkeley how he first got into studying politics and dreams, he told me that he remembers a similar study being conducted during the Clinton administration. Back then, though, it was the conservatives — not the liberals — who were having more nightmares, though not necessarily featuring the Clintons themselves. Still, Bulkeley thinks the presidency was nonetheless relevant given what happened next. Fast forward to 2003: Bulkeley says that around this time he began to hear far more frequently from liberals than conservatives about nightmares, a shift that, he believes, was tied to high emotion about the Iraq war. And there has been one last recent period with a stark contrast between the American dreams of liberals and conservatives: In 2008, during the fierce contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Bulkeley explains that what really struck him back then were the dreams about Obama. “I mean, frankly, there was this mystical quality — his followers treated him like a messiah,” said Bulkeley, who earned a doctorate in religion and psychological studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His claims are backed by the Sleep and Dream Database, which he created in 2009 (though it includes data collected before then) and now contains over 20,000 dream reports from personal diaries, opinion surveys and psychological experiments. In 2008 alone, the words “Barack” or “Obama” crop up 3,809 times.
Here is one such dream from March 2008:
I was walking against the current through a crowd of people and Barack was walking toward me. He was so magnetic and seemed to be emitting a golden light — very shiny. I couldn’t look away. He smiled at me, and just as he was next to me I thought, I have to vote for him. Once he was gone, however, I snapped back into the "real world" and wondered what had just happened. I felt as though some spell had been cast over me, and I was pretty angry at him.
This succinct one comes from the same month:
I had a dream where Barack was winning the election, except instead of an election it was a volleyball tournament.
But there were a couple of saucy ones, too, like the following:
Barack and I were in the back seat of a moving car. He was on top of me. We were making out (clothed). Barack kept whispering in my ear, "Tell me what you want me to change ...Tell me what you want me to change ..." Each time I tried to tell him, he'd go, "Shhh, not too loud." I think he was trying to protect me. It was pretty hot. Let's just say I was on the fence between before I went to bed that night, and when I woke up, I wasn't.
That fervent attitude is important, argues Bulkeley, who has come up with his own political dreaming formula. “Frequency of appearance in dreaming would be an index of a politician’s charisma, and charisma is defined as generating an emotional connection and enthusiasm with a voter or group of voters,” he said. In other words: The more dreams a politician stars in, the more he or she has succeeded in making an emotional connection with the voting public. Which leaves us with one intriguing question: Which candidates are Americans dreaming about right now?
It might sound facetious, but given how unreliable polling data is — and given that researchers have correctly identified a person’s gender, job, and even their sexual satisfaction based on their anonymized dreams — it is not the strangest question one could pose in 2016. Alas, academic data on dreams (like most academic data) is pretty old by the time it’s published, so I had to look elsewhere.
I downloaded Dreamsphere, an app that allows you to see global dreams in real time. Unfortunately, despite boasting almost two million dreams (2,976 just today, as I’m writing this), the app wasn’t able to show me any dreams about Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump. Even if it did, I’d face a similar issue that all dream researchers do: Maybe people are having dreams that they can’t, or won’t, share accurately with others.
For example: It’s not highly scientific, but a search on Twitter for “dreamed about Trump” or “Trump in my dreams” reveals a handful of confessions:
fell asleep watching the debate, dreamed about trump where he was just yelling random things at me and I finally hit him with a chair— Michele (@inthefade) March 4, 2016
ok why was Donald Trump in my dreams ln— jess (@Jessayelizabeth) February 17, 2016
Got in a fight with Donald Trump in my dreams last night. Man, was that ever satisfying.— MIC:LEE / Barcode (@MikeLouisseize) December 10, 2015
For now, though, I think I’ll carry on looking at polling data and speaking to Americans who are awake to figure out what’s going to happen in November 2016. But it might interest you to know that Bulkeley is already hearing anecdotal evidence about Trump appearing in dreams — though you should keep in mind that the self-selecting pool of dream-research participants tend to be left of center. “Right away I’m hearing dreams of Trump driving people around and people not being happy where he’s leading them,” Bulkeley said. I suspect the 39 percent of Americans who would support Trump over Clinton are dreaming of happier scenarios.
Hope the numbers help,
Mona Chalabi is data editor at The Guardian U.S. You can send her questions for her “Dear Mona” column at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MonaChalabi.