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.

Four Ways to Keep Dreaming Into Old Age

Many adults dream less as they get older, and they miss it. They miss the pleasantly curious feeling of waking up with an alluring new message from the unconscious in their minds. A drastic drop in dreaming is not, however, an inevitable feature of aging. People can continue having vibrant, inspiring dreams all through their lives if they follow a few simple practices.

The typical trajectory of dreaming through the life cycle starts with the highest levels of dream recall in childhood and adolescence, and usually diminishes in the later stages of adulthood. According to a 2018 survey of 5,255 American adults on their attitudes towards dreams (available in the Sleep and Dream Database), 57% of men between 18 and 34 years of age remember at least one dream a week. For men between 35 and 54 the figure is 50%, and for men 55 and older it’s 45%. For women, recall is even higher in early life, with 60% between 18 and 34 remembering at least one dream a week, then the drop-off is sharper, with a figure of 53% for women between 35 and 54, and 41% for women 55 and older.

For both men and women, the percentage of people who say they rarely or never remember their dreams increases with age. With men, 27% of 18-34 year olds have little or no dream recall, but that rises to 30% for men between 35 and 54, and 36% for men 55 and older. With women, little or no dream recall is reported by 23% of 18-34 year olds, 28% for women between 35 and 54, and 36% for women 55 and older. It’s also important to note that many older people still have very frequent dream recall: 7% of men and 8% of women age 55 and older remember a dream nearly every morning.

These survey findings indicate that age is not destiny with your powers of dreaming. If you follow the four simple practices below, you will be able to remember more of your dreams and discover new ways of bringing their creative energies into your waking life, no matter what your age.

  1. Wake up slowly. When we are asleep and dreaming, our brains operate in a distinctive mode that’s different from normal waking consciousness. If you wake up too abruptly (for instance, to a loud alarm clock), your mind does not have enough time to transfer your experiences from the dreaming mode into the waking mode. So try this: when you wake up, either after a long night’s rest or an afternoon nap, give yourself a few calm moments to make the sleep-wake transition. Try not to jump out of bed, turn on the light, or check your phone for at least a minute or two, so the dreams you were just experiencing have a better chance of crossing the memory threshold into your waking awareness.
  2. Keep a dream journal. Even the most vivid dreams can fade soon after waking. If you place a pad of paper and a pen or pencil by your bedside, you can record your dreams quickly and conveniently. Voice-to-text apps can also work well for dream recording, but they have the downside of relying on a phone, with its many distracting features. Keeping a dream journal has at least two big benefits. One it enables you to preserve your dreams over time so you can study them for meaningful patterns. Two, it invites new dreams by making it easier for them to enter into the waking world.
  3. Share your dreams with others. One of the most natural forms of human communication is dream-sharing. Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, people have made a regular practice of sharing and discussing their dreams with family, friends, and members of their community. Sharing dreams can provide unique opportunities for developing more empathetic understanding between different people, with more emotional honesty and authentic self-expression. Talking about dreams with people who are important to you will deepen your relationships with them, and further stimulate your recall capacities.
  4. Welcome visitation dreams. The one exception to the age-related decline of dreaming is the experience of visitation dreams, in which someone who has died appears as if alive again in a dream. All other typical dreams (flying, falling, being chased, sexuality) tend to diminish through the life span, but visitation dreams become more frequent later in life. This makes sense, because older people are more likely than younger people to have close friends and family members who have died, and who can thus appear in these kinds of dreams. Although strange and uncanny, visitation dreams often bring positive feelings of reassurance and consolation to the dreamers regarding the death of their loved ones. Even if it remains uncertain where these otherworldly dreams ultimately come from (is it a ghost? A spirit? An image from the unconscious?), their emotional benefits make them among the most meaningful types of dreams people experience in the latter years of life.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, March 15, 2022.

Threat Simulations in War Dreams

An outbreak of war and violent conflict is very likely to prompt a wave of nightmares of traumatic experiences, mournful losses, and threat simulations. This seems to be part of our internal crisis-response system when the external world descends into chaos and bloodshed, and our minds struggle to make sense of what is happening and find a way to survive the dangers.

A few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I had a conversation with two journalists from Eastern Europe who were working on a project relating to dreams. The focus of their project was not the war, but it inevitably came up in our conversation. They shared a couple of dreams with me, and afterwards sent me another from a friend of theirs.  With their permission, I am sharing the dreams below. I find the dreams haunting, horrifying, profoundly creative, and ultimately hopeful.

P., 27 years, male, a semiotics graduate from Czechia

A few days after the start of the war in Ukraine I had this dream:

I went to visit my parents at their house in a Czech village. I wanted to talk to them that night about everything that happened after the war started, but the conversation didn’t go as well as I had hoped and it wasn’t a very warm meeting. I felt disappointed.

Then I was all alone in the room when suddenly I heard a crackling sound from outside. I turned to the window and I saw a great rising glow that blinded me completely. I knew it was a nuclear bomb explosion, and at that moment time seemed to stop for a while. I realized that these were the last moments of my life. (I even recalled some fragments of my life passing through my mind.) Then I woke up.

At first, I wanted to forget about the dream, it felt too horrifying, but then I realized that maybe it is useful in something. It allowed me to imagine an absolute ending, the worst-case scenario. The next morning, I felt different, as if I had to do everything in my life from now on to ensure, such a situation would never happen.

P., 27 years, male, a semiotics graduate from Czechia

I was walking down a street of a historic town, alone or with a friend. I saw two political marches going against each other, one with banners over their heads with microscopes drawn on them, and the other with wooden swords. There was a tension rising, and I wouldn’t expect they would attack each other, which they did, and suddenly it was chaos everywhere on the street. I thought, ok well maybe there was a chance I would expect they could start fighting, but still I wouldn’t expect it would get so harsh, given the fact that their wooden swords were clearly only replicas of the real medieval weapons. So I went on to hide in a back street, but it was noise all over the place, it was a nightmare. I woke up.

R., 27 years, female, Slovak student of filmmaking and French philology

Personally, I can only recall one fragment of a dream linked with tanks. The dream contained some banal everyday story, which I don’t remember and meanwhile, tanks were coming in the night by streets accompanied by something between fireworks and airstrikes, the night sky over the tanks was spectacularly on fire. In the dream, the tanks that kept coming felt like everyday routine.

The interesting thing is, I’ve heard from three more friends from Prague, that they also dreamed about tanks in particular. My first guess “why” is about something deeply rooted in the historical memory of local people. When someone says “when tanks arrived”, or just “the tanks” most of the time it refers to the Occupation of Czechoslovakia in the August of 1968. In general, mostly the older generations use this term(s). Also, many people at protests or in the media are making this reference nowadays- between the tanks of the Warsaw Pact troops back in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and Russian tanks in the war with Ukraine now.

M., 27 years, female, Slovak translator and student

(I experience the worst intrusive images of violence associated with war during the day, probably also tied to the fact that I work as a translator for Memory of Nations, thereby I work with recollections of torture (by Nazis), hiding before Russian soldiers liberating Czechoslovakia, who were looting and looking for women to rape, interrogations by State Secret Services etc daily.)

“Amongst the few dreams about the war in Ukraine, I can most vividly recall the following. At that time, I had a fever, it was approximately 4 days after the war started and we were preparing some items to donate to a local charity.

Dream: I work in the local charity, we are collecting the items and sorting them for transport to the Ukrainian border. Lorries with new items keep coming, the hall is full of boxes with clothes, sleeping bags, toys, food, we are working day and night to sort the incoming material help, but it is impossible. We start to receive many calls, amongst them also video calls from Ukrainian president Mr Zelenskyj. In the style of his famous video-addresses to the world and his own citizens, each of the calls are like a short vlog, in which he encourages Ukrainians to fight, calls others to help and reprimands us for not working efficiently. With every call, the addresses become more bizarre, Zelenskyj becomes angrier and at the end, the calls purely consist of Zelenskyj absurdly scolding us for being lazy, disorganized, responsible for many deaths because we cannot even sort out material help properly.”

Basketball Diary #5: The Court of Greg Brown III

This has been a rough season for fans of the Portland Trailblazers basketball team. The players are learning a new system from their rookie head coach, Chauncey Billups, in his first season in that role. Their star player, Damien Lillard, plays poorly (by his standards) at the outset, then is forced to undergo season-ending surgery. Three other players in the original rotation—Cody Zeller, Larry Nance Jr., and Nassir Little—go down with injuries. The General Manager of the team, Neil Olshey, is summarily fired after years of internal conflict, leaving the operations in the hands of neophyte executives and detached ownership. Just before the trade deadline they deal away three of their best remaining players—Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Jr., and the beloved C.J. McCollum. In return the Blazers receive some promising guys (Josh Hart, Justice Winslow, Keon Johnson), plus draft picks and salary cap flexibility (an aspect of the game I don’t understand and don’t want to understand). In the midst of it all, the team wins a few surprising games, but loses many more, often by huge margins. Now, with a season-ending injury to Jusuf Nurkic, the lone remainder from the starting line-up at the beginning of the season, the Blazers have been reduced to a fragment of what they hoped to become this year.

Perhaps the green shoots of new growth that signal better things for the future can be observed in player performances today, even in recurrent circumstances of dispiriting defeat. Three guys in particular—C.J. Elleby, Trendon Watford, and Greg Brown III—have been interesting to watch this year, as their roles have shifted dramatically from regular “DNP (coach’s decision)” benchwarmers to starters and vital rotation players. Each of them has an impressive set of skills and abilities they are testing and honing against the toughest competition they’ve ever faced. Sometimes it’s painful to watch, but just as often there are flashes of potential that seem to be harbingers of future greatness. Twenty-year old Greg Brown III, for instance, has so much athletic talent and basketball intuition, I can easily imagine him continuing to grow and eventually becoming a dominant player in his own right. When he’s on the court now, there’s always a sense he might do something amazing, some huge, leaping feat of blocking a shot, stealing a pass, or slamming an alley-oop dunk on a fast break. He and C. J. Elleby are the best on the team at that latter move, one that electrifies a crowd and pumps up the whole team.

My dreams about the Blazers this year have been vague and impersonal, but this brief one (following a 124-92 blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets) expresses special hope for the future play of Greg Brown III:

Lots of Energy

I am helping Greg Brown III with his basketball court, the game that is happening there….Lots of energy, with players moving quickly back and forth on the court….

The feeling is that the court is his, Greg Brown III’s. Like he owns it and reigns over whatever happens on it. Hmm. It’s true, now that I think about it, GBIII is the only player on the team right now who is emotionally demonstrative when he makes an amazing play. After dunking hard over another player, he doesn’t pretend to be cool and nonchalant. No, he lets everyone in the arena know what he just did. He expresses authentic, heartfelt enjoyment of these heroic moments, which is really all that we fans want, a chance to share in those moments of enjoyment. It also makes it easier to sympathize when he tries to dunk or block a shot and fails spectacularly, which happens rather frequently, too.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the ownership and management of the Trailblazers have essentially given up on this season, and on this group of guys. That’s too bad, because we may be seeing a glimpse of the future court of Greg Brown III—that is, a glimpse of what he and the guys like him could do with their potentials if fully supported and developed. It’s worth noting that the Blazers are still in contention for the tenth and last seed in the playoffs. And there’s more than a month of regular season games to go….