Shakespeare’s Enduring Impact on Psychology

The 23rd of April is the traditional day for celebrating English playwright William Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. April 23 also happens to be the date on which he died in 1616, at the age of 52. A special reason to reflect on his legacy this year is the 400th anniversary of the publication in 1623 of the “First Folio,” the original collection of his works.

One way to appreciate the psychological value of Shakespeare’s plays is to look at his characters as case studies of mental and emotional typology. In this view, the character of King Lear gives us a vivid and psychologically accurate portrayal of an aging man struggling with mortality and loss of power. Many other examples like this emerge in the plays. Othello can be seen as embodying the violent irrationality of jealousy. Lady Macbeth shows the deranging effects of intense guilt. Falstaff exemplifies a life driven by animal appetites. Ophelia illustrates the suicidal despair of a dissolving self. When Freud first introduced his idea of the Oedipal complex and the dynamics of desire in parent-child relations in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), he immediately connected it to the Bard: “Another of the great creations of tragic poetry, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has its roots in the same soil as Oedipus Rex.

As useful as these analyses may be as a form of psychological shorthand, we need to be careful not to let such a reductive approach diminish either the characters or the plays, which are always larger than just one perspective can encompass. Trying to think in broader terms about Shakespeare’s works as a whole and their ongoing relevance to psychology, the following three general themes seem to me the clearest and most significant.

Respect for psychological diversity: Over the course of 38 plays, Shakespeare created hundreds of characters with an astonishing variety of personalities, thoughts, feelings, motivations, and behaviors. Even more impressively, he gave each of them a distinctive voice and fully-realized presence within the world of their play, enabling them to articulate their individual human experiences (most explicitly in their soliloquy speeches, alone on stage with the audience). In a striking expression of this humanistic, diversity-embracing spirit, Shakespeare never demonizes his villains, nor does he deify his heroes. The bad characters (Iago, Caliban, Richard III) are definitely bad, but they are also portrayed with genuinely sympathetic qualities. The good characters (Henry V, Prospero, Rosalind) are truly good, but we see their flaws and vulnerabilities, too.

The power of the imagination: Many of Shakespeare’s plays build up dense networks of metaphorical interaction between sleep, dreaming, illusion, madness, children’s play, love, revelation, and the practice of theater itself. Some of the most psychologically acute speeches in the plays revolve around this theme of the mind’s image-generating power in its many manifestations. Although wild and dangerous, Shakespeare portrays the human imagination as a creative source of new critical awareness of ourselves, society, and the world around us. In this way, his plays provide a kind of psychological map of the symbolic resonances between different realms of imaginal experience.

Transformative effects of art: Shakespeare not only created plays with a wide range of characters, he also created plays for a wide range of audiences. His stories addressed everyone in his society, from the elite royals to the lowly groundlings and everyone in between. The plays were meant to be entertaining, of course, but it seems that Shakespeare wanted to have a deeper impact on his audience by stimulating, within the imaginal space of live theater, a flow of provocative insights about individual and collective life. These dramatically-generated insights can have transformative effects because they unsettle our assumptions and open our minds to surprise, wonder, and growth. Even for the audiences of Shakespeare’s time, his plays were hard to understand. He twisted traditional tales, subverted conventional genres, used an endless stream of bizarre words, mixed ethereal poetry with bawdy puns, and devised elaborately convoluted plots. He intentionally kept his audiences off-balance and uncertain, not to confuse them but to open their eyes to fresh possibilities of human experience, to new dimensions of perception, feeling, and empathic connection. At the risk of anachronism, I’d say we should appreciate mind-expanding complexity as a feature of Shakespeare’s art, not a bug.

Happy birthday, Will!


(This post was first published on the website of Psychology Today, April 18, 2023.)

Recurring Dreams

Many dreams contain recurrent elements that have appeared in previous dreams. These elements include characters you have encountered before, in settings where you have been before, doing things you have done before. The long-term consistency of your dreaming offers a unique window into the nature of your personality and the foundational realities of your waking life.

When specifically asked to describe a recurrent dream, people will usually share a common dream scenario with intense emotionality and/or counter-factual weirdness. For example:

“I’m speeding downhill in a car with no brakes…”

“I discover surprising new rooms in a familiar house…”

“I’m back in school taking a test on a subject I don’t know…”

These dreams can be extremely vivid and memorable just by themselves. As a repeating series, they become even more attention-grabbing.

To interpret recurrent dreams like these, it helps to look at them as metaphors, as attempts to understand something we do not know in terms of something we do know. With the no-brakes scenario, we might ask the dreamer, is there anything in waking life that feels like you’re speeding dangerously out of control? With new-rooms dreams, where in your waking life do you feel moments of wonder and growth, or unexpected insights? With the school-testing dreams, is something happening in waking life that makes you feel unprepared, or out of your depths, or judged by others?

In describing a recurrent dream, people will often say the same single dream has happened many times, but after further discussion it usually emerges that the recurrent scenario almost never appears exactly the same way in each dream. In most cases there are shifts, differences, and changes to the basic scenario, some small, some big, all of which can be considered as meaningful variations on the theme. For instance, the no-brakes dreams might shift over time in what kind of car is being driven, where is it going, and what happens at the end. The new-rooms dreams might vary in what kinds of architectural spaces are discovered and what the dreamer discovers inside. The school-testing dreams could differ in the school and class settings, the subjects being studied, and the results of the test.

These variations on the recurrent theme can be very helpful in understanding why the dreams come when they do. If the basic scenario of a recurrent dream has metaphorical meaning, how do the changed details in a particular dream connect the metaphor to something happening in the waking world right now? A key question with recurrent dreams is why they appear when they do. What is it in current life that has triggered another instance of this theme? Recurrent dreams are rarely about trivial matters. Something important is at stake, something so important that repeated efforts at sparking conscious attention are required. Perhaps the dream is a warning: watch out, you’ve been in this situation before! Perhaps the dream is highlighting an opportunity: hey, do you see that? Do you recognize its value?

By looking closely at the metaphorical dimensions of your recurrent dreams, at both their basic themes and their many variations, you can gain more insight into the ongoing psychological relevance of these lifelong companions of your sleeping mind.

Note: if you have distressing recurrent nightmares about a single repetitive theme with no variations, you might consider consulting with a mental health professional.

(This post was originally published on the website of Psychology Today, January 23, 2023.)

Escape from Mercury: A New Science Fiction Novel

Escape from Mercury is a science-fiction novel about a secretive NASA mission to the planet Mercury, what the astronauts find at its shadowy north pole, and what they must do to reach Earth again. The book portrays an alternate history of America from the 1960’s to the 1980’s in which NASA’s Apollo program does not end shortly after the Lunar landings but continues and expands with new missions to other planets in the Solar system. It’s a surreal space Western that combines period-specific Apollo program technologies with dark theology, musical metaphysics, and the psychology of dreaming.

Escape from Mercury is only available in a limited paperback edition. No authorized electronic version of the text exists. The shape, size, and cover design reflect the aesthetics of pulp sci-fi novels of the 60’s and 70’s. Alas, the price of EfM, $9.99, is an order of magnitude more expensive than those books. However, T.A. and I take comfort in the fact that our publisher paused the production process at one point to ask if we really and truly wanted to set the price the book at such a low, barely profitable figure.

My previously published writings have been non-fiction works of dream research. To write about dreams, however, is always to write about the stories of people’s lives. My non-fiction has always included many narrative elements as a result, even when I’m trying to make technical academic points. Escape from Mercury is the Yin to the Yang of those writings. Here, the foreground changes places with the background: the narrative story-telling takes the lead, with the scholarly theorizing in a supporting role. And yet, the non-fictional elements in EfM are essential to the alternate-reality plot. For example, we present (thanks largely to T.A.’s expertise) an historically accurate portrait of how the 70’s era Apollo Applications Program would have continued to develop its plans for interplanetary missions following the original Lunar landings. EfM also includes numerous references to the origins, functions, and interpretation of dreams, all of which is grounded in actual research and historical fact. If you have enjoyed any of my other books, I think you’ll like EfM.

A big difference between Escape from Mercury and my other writings is that I don’t really want to say anything about it. With non-fiction books, it’s much easier to summarize the basic ideas and discuss them in general terms, which helps in giving potentially interested readers an idea of what the text is about. With EfM, even what I have written here feels like too much, like I’m giving things away we would prefer the readers to discover on their own. We’re not trying to be cryptic, or at least not too cryptic. We just want to give you a chance to enjoy the story without any spoilers getting in the way.

Generating Dream Images Using AI

The practice of dream interpretation may be on the brink of a revolution, thanks to the emergence of powerful online tools for generating original images from text. However, an informal experiment with three long-term dreamers indicates there is much work still to be done to realize this potential.

The goal here is not to review a specific tool or approach. Rather, I want to highlight the key issues that any image-generator must address if it is to be successfully deployed with dreams. After considering several online resources, I selected one with the advantages of being fast and free, with several image styles available. I asked three dream-journaling friends if they would be willing to share a descriptive phrase of a vivid image from one of their dreams and let me try it with the image-generator. I framed it as a novel kind of dream-sharing process, in the spirit of Jeremy Taylor and Montague Ullman, with each of the different images representing an “if it were my dream…” projection, but in this case from an AI system rather than a group of people.

Let me begin with the most negative response, since I found it so surprising and thought-provoking. This comes from “Sarah,” a woman in her 30’s whose dream image was “I’m holding a baby, it’s not mine.” I used the online tool to create eight different images of this dream and then shared them with Sarah. Here is what she told me in reply:

“Oh my gosh, every single one of those images is absolutely horrifying with the exception of the last one!  They feel very distorted and have bad trip vibes. Viscerally, I can feel my throat close like I’m about to vomit. I do not like them at all and the word coming to mind is abomination…”

Sarah went on to say she didn’t even like the last image very much, it just wasn’t as terrible as the others.

Sarah’s response makes it clear that in some instances, the AI-generated images can prompt a strongly negative response from the dreamer. Alas, there is no technological solution to this problem: the same image might be neutral to me, appealing to you, and yet an abomination to someone else. But the potentially negative impact can be minimized. In dream-sharing groups we use the “if it were my dream…” preface for precisely this reason, to elicit another person’s perspective on the dream while also protecting the dreamer from intrusive, unwanted projections. A practical suggestion for future versions of these systems is to include in a “dream mode” a cautionary note about the potentially startling and unsettling effect of the image-generator when used with dream material, plus a brief statement about the value of considering multiple perspectives on the dream, even perspectives that initially seem strange or off-putting, and a reminder that ultimately only the dreamer can know what their dream truly means.

The second dreamer’s response was more positive, highlighting the potential benefits of this technology if it can be properly calibrated to work with dreams. This comes from “Rose,” a woman in her 30’s, whose dream image was “A forearm with a tattoo of a unicorn.” I entered this phrase into the system and created images using the same eight visual styles. Here is Rose’s response:

“This memory was a relatively ‘small’ moment in a dream and yet these images spark my curiosity and add to the dream. I’m drawn into all of them and I feel that they expand my understanding of the dream. I’m reminded of how much I enjoy looking at tattoos. They tell a story on the skin and yet even people who have the most prominently displayed tattoos rarely tell the deeper story/meaning of their art to the many people who see them.”

Here, the AI-generated images provided the dreamer with new ways of thinking about her dream and stimulated further reflection on how the dream relates to her cultural experiences in the waking world. This is exactly what a conventional dream-sharing group seeks to elicit with the process of everyone offering different projections onto the single dream—the varying perspectives enhance and enrich the dreamer’s sense of meaning, relevance, and possibility.

Significantly, none of the images provided an exact match to Rose’s dream. In the context of dream-sharing, the goal is to provide an interesting and hopefully stimulating angle on the dream, not to replicate it with photographic accuracy. The latter might be impressive, but it would offer little or no insight to the dreamer.

The third dreamer, “Stanley,” a man in his 70’s, found the images neither horrifying nor particularly insightful, though he did enjoy the weird artistry of several of them. His dream phrase, “Giant birds take me home from an island in the sky,” gave the system an extra challenge, with several of the images failing to yield a coherent visual representation. Stanley’s overall response is worth pondering:

“I suspect that the AI program interprets “dream” to mean impressionistic, gauzy, dreamlike, as the conventional thought of it goes. Or did you include the word dream in your input to the AI? [I did not.] Perhaps it just inferred it from the impossibility of the situation. At any rate, many of my dreams are very concrete and clear, with no fuzzy bits. I see every brick in a building, every leaf on the trees, every line on a person’s face.”

Here is another essential point: not all dreams are like a Salvador Dali painting, or any other work of surrealist art. Some dreams, like Stanley’s, have strong elements of naturalism and perceptual clarity.

Looking ahead, the best way to realize the transformational power of this technology as a tool for dream interpretation will be to collaborate closely with experienced dreamers, ideally those who are also experienced artists, in the basic training of the algorithms. If actual dreams and dreamers are included in the learning input of these systems, their output will be much more useful for the interpretive process.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on July 12, 2022.

Generating Dream Texts Using AI

Does it matter if we can’t distinguish between human and computer-generated dreams?

A new generation of AI tools can be trained on a set of texts, then take a prompt and create new texts that are semantically similar to the original texts. As researchers experiment with different applications of this technology, the question naturally arises as to what would happen if these tools were trained with a collection of dream reports. If an AI system then produced a new set of texts, what would be the significance of these computer-generated “dreams”? Is there any value to pursuing this line of inquiry, either for AI development or for dream research?

Yes, there are some potential benefits here for the study of dreams and for efforts to improve the AI systems. However, we will first need to overcome the negative effects of an inevitable but ultimately dead-end experiment. This experiment will present a collection of texts to a panel of dream experts and ask them to identify the human vs computer-generated dreams. The almost-certain result will be that the experts cannot reliably distinguish between real and fake dream reports.

What would this mean? One might easily conclude from such an experiment that dream research as a whole is untrustworthy and self-deluded in its claims. The results would seem to demonstrate a fundamental lack of objectivity in the study of dreams.

This may seem sensible, but it reflects a lack of familiarity with actual dream research. For most researchers, the question of how to distinguish between real and fake dream reports is not something they worry about. Why not? The reason is simple: The virtually infinite creativity of dreams means that there is NO linguistic marker (other than what the dreamer may indicate) that can absolutely and consistently distinguish a genuine dream report from another kind of text. Even if you have analyzed a long and large collection of texts from the past, that does not prevent future dreams from taking unprecedented, unpredictable new forms.

Indeed, many researchers lean into the idea that there are no boundaries to what forms dreaming can take. They approach extremely unusual and bizarre types of dreams, what Jung referred to as “big dreams,” not with skepticism about their legitimacy, but with special interest in their potential creativity and symbolic complexity. Moreover, psychoanalysts generally don’t care about this issue, either, because from a Freudian perspective it does not matter if you made up a dream—your “fake” dream still reveals your unconscious conflicts, just as your “real” dreams do.

Because this question of real vs. fake dreams is something that researchers themselves generally do not believe has pragmatic relevance for their work, such an experiment would be more of a gimmick than anything else. It would reveal nothing of significance for the study of dreams and might cast an unfair shadow of doubt on the credibility of those who work in the field.

So is there any positive use for this technology? Yes, several possibilities beckon. One such use could be termed a “personalized dream extender.” If an AI were trained on a set of an individual’s dreams and were then prompted to generate a “new” dream, the result might provide the individual with some “aha!” insights. Perhaps there could be some therapeutic applications of this, too, by giving the individual a more expansive sense of the potentials of their own imaginations as mirrored back by the AI-generated dreams.

However, even this practice would require careful framing, to prevent people from assuming the AI system has authoritative knowledge of their dreaming selves. Our present-day cultural presumption of superiority for virtually any new technology could lead in this case to people losing faith in their own dreaming capacities when encountering AI-generated dreams, or, perhaps more ominously, unconsciously trying to mold their dreaming to become more aligned with what the AI is telling them they should be dreaming.

Another positive potential for this technology would involve an experiment that could be genuinely interesting in its results and would make good use of dream researcher expertise. The experiment would be this: Train several different AI systems on the same set of dreams, then have each of the systems generate its own set of new dreams. At this point, bring in a panel of dream experts to discern and identify the significant differences between the sets. The results could give insight into what makes each individual AI system different from the others and suggest ways to improve and refine their algorithms. More than that, the findings of such an experiment could reveal aspects of the “unconscious” of each system, highlighting its implicit values and subtle biases. This could contribute to the vital collective task of learning more about how these extremely powerful and increasingly widespread AI tools actually function in the world.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on July 26, 2022.


Of the four classical elements—fire, air, water, and earth—water tends to be the one that appears most frequently in people’s dreams.Some of this is due to the importance of water in our daily existence, and in the existence of all of Earth’s creatures. Some of it is also due to the psychological potency of water as a symbol of life, birth, emotions, fluidity, the feminine, the unconscious, and several other meanings that vary by culture and historical era. If you reflect on your own dreams and follow their development over time, you will likely notice the appearance of water in multiple forms. Here are some questions to keep in mind as you reflect on the presence of water in one of your dreams.

First, what kind of water appears in the dream? Is it a massive body of water like an ocean or lake? Is it a fast-moving river or stream? Is it water falling from the sky as rain or snow? Is it water in a domestic setting like a swimming pool, a bathtub, or a plastic cup? This is one of the reasons that water is so common in dreams—it can take so many different forms and appear in our lives in so many different settings. The tremendous variability of water makes it especially important to look closely at the exact details whenever water appears in a particular dream. Of all the possible forms that water can take, in your dream it took this specific form—when you think of the distinctive qualities of this type of water, what comes to your mind? Who or what in your life has these qualities, too?

Second, how do you interact with the water in your dream? Are you observing it from a distance, or are you immersed in it? Is it peaceful or dangerous, a gentle pond or a bursting dam? Are you swimming, floating, paddling, or sinking in it? Are you using water for bathing, drinking, washing, or cooking? These questions lead quickly to perennial concerns of human life. Civilizations have risen and fallen according to how well people have managed to use water for beneficial purposes while avoiding the destructive threats of water. As you reflect on your interactions with water in your dreams, you might think of it as you would a relationship with a human character. How are you getting along with water in your dreams? Is your relationship friendly and comforting, or tense and frightening, or something else? This might sound strange, but does the water in your dreams seem to want anything from you? Maybe not, but it’s worth at least considering the possibility that vivid dreams of water are calling you to pay attention to emotional realities outside your normal range of conscious awareness, to feelings that are vitally important yet hard to grasp or pin down.

Third, what might the water in your dream symbolize? With many dreams it is easy to trace images from the dream to a recent experience or perception in waking life, what Sigmund Freud called “the day residue.” However, even if you identify the literal source of an image, the water in the dream might still have symbolic meanings, too. For instance, water can symbolize emotions in their power and fluidity. It can symbolize the unconscious and everything that is submerged within the hidden depths of the psyche. It can symbolize the source of all life, the maternal matrix of uterine development, the wellspring of growth and vitality. The range of possible meanings can vary in different cultures and periods of history, so there is no one universal way of interpreting dreams of water. However, the essential importance of water in human life allows us to say with some confidence that water is a universal dream symbol of forces of nature that are both positive and negative, that we both can and cannot control, and that vitally connect us with vast energies, primal rhythms, and non-human forms of life. This is especially true for dreams that have extremely intense and unusual contents without any recent personal connections, what C.G. Jung called “big dreams.” The appearance of water in highly memorable big dreams can take many forms—magical tidal waves, eerie undersea cities, apocalyptic storms, and heavenly rainbows—in which the symbolism of dreaming merges with the symbolism of myths, fairy tales, and sacred narratives.

A final thought about water and dreams concerns the possible future impact of climate change. As the global climate rapidly changes in ways that are disrupting customary weather patterns, how will this impact people’s dreams? How will water themes in dreams change in a world in which some places have drastically less water and other places have drastically more? It seems likely that dreams will accurately reflect people’s rising anxieties in both directions, from too little and too much water: from long-term drought, water scarcity, and extreme conservation requirements, and also from sudden catastrophic floods, hurricanes, rainstorms, hailstorms, and blizzards. If Jung is right that dreams have an anticipatory function of looking ahead and preparing us for possible dangers and challenges in the future, then a new era of climate-stressed water dreams may already have begun.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on June 2, 2022.