Ample evidence connects dreams with spiritual and religious experiences, yet dreams remain understudied as a source of supernatural agent concepts.
Stories about life-changing dreams appear frequently in religious literature and oral tradition. Many people throughout history claim to have encountered supernatural agents in dreams, such as spirit beings or sacred ancestors.
- The Tikopia in Polynesia consider certain dreams to be the result of spirit beings directly communicating to the dreamer.
- The Jívaro in South America believe that dreams give access to spirit beings who often are — or become — the focus of their sacred rituals and stories.
- According to the traditions of the Suni and Quiché Maya, dreams are direct communications from sacred ancestors.
In some societies, dreams are believed to be instances of the dreamer’s soul wandering outside the body, where it communes with gods, spirit beings, or ancestors in the spirit realm. In fact, the very idea of a spirit realm could have originated from the direct experience of such a realm in dreams.
For most of human history, dreams were taken seriously as a source of knowledge about reality. Dreams were viewed as literal communication with spirits, requiring careful attention and interpretation.
Certainly, dreams played an important role in the natural development of religion in human cultures.
The cognitive science of religion
Researchers in the cognitive science of religion seek to explain the origin of religious belief and belief in the supernatural in terms of natural human cognition. The idea is that, through a process of gradual cognitive and cultural evolution, religion naturally emerged in human societies over tens of thousands of years.
Alongside the popular theories of the hyperactive agency-detection device and minimally counterintuitive concepts, dreams may also serve as a natural explanation for the origin of belief in supernatural agents.
Neuroscientific study of dream states reveals how the biological architecture of the dreaming brain can produce vivid encounters with supernatural agents. These encounters, affirmed by shamans or other important religious figures, could have influenced the development of new religious beliefs in the millennia-long cultural evolution of human societies.
The neuroscience of REM dreams
Neuroscientist and sleep researcher Dr. Patrick McNamara — a pioneer on the connection between dreams and belief in supernatural agents — explains that “all humans are endowed with brains innately primed to daily generate god concepts in dreaming.”
Whether or not supernatural agents really exist, our brains are wired to produce dreams which feature supernatural characters.
REM sleep is one of the main types of sleep, characterized by rapid eye movements (REM) and a brain activation pattern similar to the waking state. Memorable dreams typically occur during REM sleep. Each night, sleepers progress through 3 or 4 sleep cycles, and REM sleep accounts for about 22% of total sleep time in humans.
Dr. McNamara focuses on REM sleep due to the salient characteristics of REM dreams: relationality, emotionality, and dissociation.
In general, dreams during REM sleep are less thought-like and more bizarre, emotional, and aggressive than dreams from non-REM sleep. Researchers have connected these characteristics with the pattern of brain activation and de-activation present during REM dreaming.
REM sleep is associated with brain activation in the amygdala and the wider limbic system, which are heavily involved in emotions. These areas of the brain are associated with the computation of value, and resulting REM dreams often feature heightened emotions and desires compared to non-REM dreams.
At the same time, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — which is associated with thought and judgment when awake — shows decreased activity, leading to the bizarre, socially inappropriate content of REM dreams.
Other characteristics of REM dreams are apparent dysfunctional REM states. For example, intensely sleep-deprived people often experience REM-intrusions into waking consciousness, resulting in dissociative symptoms such as absorption, derealization, and depersonalization.
In these states, the subject has difficulty distinguishing themselves from the environment or others around them and has a diminished sense of self. These dissociative symptoms result because the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is less active during REM than normal waking consciousness.
Religiously Significant Dreams
Dreams are mental simulations of alternate realities, often a past event with a different outcome or an anticipated future event. Virtually all dreams involve interactions between the dreamer and other characters and are narratively structured around a goal toward which the dreamer is striving. The prevalence of interactions between the dreamer and dream characters shows the strong relational aspect of REM dreams.
Often, the other characters in an REM dream interfere with the dreamer’s goal. In fact, dreamer-involved aggression is present in 60% of male dreams and 51% of female dreams. We’ve all had dreams in which we grow increasingly frustrated with the other characters who constantly fight us or get in our way, as though they had minds of their own.
Because of the decreased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during regular REM dreaming, the dreamer may not be able to discern that these characters are simply a part of their own mind. Instead, the dreamer often takes these other characters to be real and to have minds of their own.
This is called “theory of mind” attribution: the dreamer takes the dreamed character to be an agent, able to make its own plans and act accordingly.
Occasionally, REM dreams can become incredibly intense and lead to religious or spiritual experiences. In especially intense REM dreams, the dreamer’s sense of control can be subsumed by another character in the dream.
In these cases, the dreamer feels as though they have lost all agency while this other character appears omniscient and omnipotent; able to do whatever they want. The character effectively becomes a god or supernatural agent.
When this all-powerful agent is experienced as an enemy, a nightmare or even a dream of demonic possession results. In other cases, this character may be experienced as an absolutely good spirit or being, such as an angel or a manifestation of a Buddha.
Either way, the dream would be intensely moving and likely considered religious or spiritual upon waking.
How REM dreams generate supernatural agent ideas
In order for dreams to generate belief, they must be remembered, taken seriously, and shared with a larger community.
On average, people only recall one or two of their dreams per week, despite evidence suggesting that people usually have multiple dreams per night. Some methods can improve dream recall, such as writing down or sharing a dream memory immediately upon waking, before the memory fades.
In cultures where dreams are taken seriously, people would take care to recall their dreams immediately upon waking and use techniques to remember significant dreams so that they can be shared with others
Vivid dreams may feature supernatural agents associated with pre-existing cultural narratives. In a study in China, Buddhist monks reported more frequent appearances of divine beings in their dreams compared to nonreligious participants, who more often dreamed of relatives or animals.
This suggests that immersion in a religious or spiritual culture influences dream content.
In cultures where dreams are believed to be a means of contacting either the gods or ancestor spirits, these beliefs about the revelatory power of dreams encourage and guide the interpretation and recall of dreams.
The dissociative nature of REM dreams could convince people of the reality of the supernatural agents encountered therein. Although this does not necessitate continued belief in the reality of a supernatural agent upon waking, empirical evidence from existing tribal societies suggests that dreams played a critical role in originating many spiritual and religious ideas.
Dreams in traditional societies
In traditional societies, dreams are routinely shared with friends and family, perhaps over a morning meal. Vivid or upsetting dreams may be presented to a shaman or religious leader for interpretation. People who are more susceptible to intense dreams may become shamans themselves, connecting the wider community to the spirit realm and helping to preserve cultural knowledge across generations.
Over time, dreams like these could have shaped the cultural rituals and narratives of these small societies. Spirits experienced in dreams could have inspired new characters in culturally relevant tales and, eventually, become subjects of worship in their own right. New religious rituals could be inspired in dreams where the dreamer experiences spirits or ancestors sharing that new ritual with them.
Religious beliefs shape how people understand their dreams, and dreams can inspire new religious beliefs and rituals.
Looking back on thousands of years of the evolution of religion, perhaps dreams are one source that inspired the embodied religious rituals of song and dance which evolve into the foundations of contemporary religions.
REM dreams are relational, emotional, and memorable. The brain activation pattern associated with REM dreams can produce dissociative symptoms, causing the dreamer to experience the characters encountered dreams as real. In particularly intense dreams, these agents can appear omniscient and omnipotent — that is, supernatural.
When these dream experiences are shared and collected through community leaders, they may inspire new culturally relevant figures, narratives, and rituals. Over time, these narratives and rituals could have served as the deep roots for religion, taking on religious significance as societies expanded and grew more socially complex. In this way, dreams would have been an important source for supernatural agent concepts in the evolution of religion and religious cognition in human societies.
Of course, dreams are likely not the sole origin of beliefs about supernatural agents, but they certainly are an important source, even for people who have perfectly healthy sleep and dreams.
Jessie is a student in the M.A. program in philosophy at Boston College. She began her graduate studies after graduating magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame, where she studied philosophy and Russian. Her primary interests are existentialism, Russian philosophy, and the question of what a “self” is. She enjoys reading and writing about philosophy, theology, and literature.