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Dream Catchers

How a 1950s professor built a gigantic database of thoughts and feelings.

George Marks / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

If only he’d written it all down: “One night at their campfire, accompanied by whisky ablutions,” Miguel A., a native Zuni finally told the anthropologist everything: 

all his remaining secrets, those “deeply held private beliefs” he held and the truth of his experience as a Zuni, an event that filled the anthropologist-friend with elation, he recalled decades later. Drunk as he was, he made a mental note to write everything down, but he failed to. “That night, as I crawled into my sleeping bag, I had an exhilarating sense of having gained a profound new insight into the mind and heart of [Miguel] and through him into the quality of life in the pueblo.

You can guess what happens the morning after: “All had vanished,” the anthropologist recalled, “except the memory of the intense excitement I had experienced. Even this was a hollow thing.”

In Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity, Rebecca Lemov, a professor of the History of Science at Harvard, recollects with flair, affection and dazzling detail, a post World War II project to do away with mornings after like this one: those episodes of mourning that follow some lost telling of some last secret of some human heart. You were so sure that what you heard last night and the way you heard it illuminated everything that mattered—like all the best campfire stories, filled with omens from places within and beyond, darker than any night: like those nocturnal admissions and communions that start-off near a campfire, nearly as hot as the fire itself, and that everyone “forgets” the next day. Such forgetful mornings after seem as unavoidable as the dying of a flame.

The “database of dreams” was, Lemov writes, “one of the most promising and yet strangely forgotten undertakings in American social science—a dizzyingly ambitious 1950s-era project to capture people’s dreams in large amounts and store them in an experimental data bank.” The mastermind of the database was Bert Kaplan, a brilliant and enterprising student of the great cultural anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, and according to Lemov’s riveting history, one of the great early visionaries of data storage. Kaplan and his team, the Committee on Primary Records in Culture and Personality of the National Research Council, sought to transcribe and store people’s accounts of what they dreamed about in this “experimental data bank” as well as a range of subjective testimony delivered by various tests and tellings. Among the methods for surveying subjectivity, the fabled Rorschach inkblot test. Lemov conveys the charged atmosphere that animated their research: “It was vital for future endeavor to plumb the depths of the human psyche to know exactly what a certain inkblot or picture held for a certain person (a bear? a clown? an eviscerated body on a dissection table?)”

Rorschach test cards were in wide circulation among social scientists after the World War II.  “Oh those crazy cards again,” Hermann Goring exclaimed when the test was given to him for a second time while he awaited trial at Nuremburg.  As the Nazis’ encounter with “those crazy cards” suggest, the test were granted great authority by the end of World War II, “especially within American juridical, clinical, and “pure research” circles.” As the inkblots gained prominence and prestige during the post-war period, the protocols for administering the test became more elaborate. As Lemov remarks, there was a lot more to the tests than “inkblots or drawings on cards or some ideas about scoring. They involved procedural rituals, standardized steps, and elaborate instructions about everything from how far away the subject must be from the image (arm’s length) to how not to lead or coerce the subject.”  All of this was to “work like an impersonal but very accurate machine for extracting samples of the “self.” 

The unit of storage that Kaplan and his team eventually settled on was another kind of card, which was arguably no less fateful for the future course of culture: the Microcard. Though it would ultimately be superseded by microfiche sheets, Lemov reports, the Microcard was in the mid-fifties arguably “the latest in micropublishing technologies, capable of reducing a normal page to one-twenty-fourth of its original size.” The cards made Kaplan’s archive work. “If one walked into the library at UCLA or the University of Wisconsin in 1958,” Lemov writes, one could find “stacks of mini-pages with unseeable words condensed like textual thumbprints on cards.” One of the records printed on these cards reads like condensation of Jorge Luis Borges and Rube Goldberg:

When a Hopi grandmother dreamed of white chickens in a snow-filled evergreen forest one night in 1949: when a young man from the northeast Pakistani frontier saw visions of water snakes; when four German exchange students and several patients in a Lebanese mental hospital answered psychological test questions, looking at inkblots, drawing pictures, filling out sentences—all this information entered researchers’ records and merged in a single archive.

While Lemov casts Kaplan’s project as “a pioneering exercise”, it was also of its moment. This vast catalogue of intimate details was assembled in the service and spirit of early twentieth-century social science, with its aspirations to produce a comprehensive account of the human mind, both within and across cultures. According to Lemov, the Kaplan group believed that “data sets culled from hundreds of workers—when put together en masse and miniaturized by advanced machines made a grand vision possible”—a vision of the whole universe of subjectivity.

In the grandeur of this dream, quantity and quality merge. Kaplan and his group weren’t content to gather together a few exemplary “life stories.” With the aid of the most advanced technologies for extraction and storage, they aimed to gather together testimonies of subjectivity from as many parts of the world as they could and largely leave to others the work of drawing conclusions about the whole. This was not a digest of confessional poetry or a narrow selection of case studies or personal histories. It was “the most intimate of data mines, made of thousands and thousands of Rorschach test protocols...fleeting thoughts, random asides, irreverent inquires and sad memories, life stories and dreams.”

The database was intended to encompass an array of other data sets gathered by other research groups as well: data sets used as the basis for various published studies and now in danger of being lost, data that might someday be used for other kinds of studies and interpreted by new lights. Kaplan, Lemov tells us, “would declare with hope and a measure of glee that perhaps all behavioral and psychological data—records that lay unattended, uncounted, unused, disvalued, or improperly stored—could one day find a home in a centralized, hi-tech clearinghouse of his own.” Thus the database of dreams was to comprehend the whole world of subjectivity not by analyzing that world, but by containing it.

No principle of selection appeared to govern Kaplan’s database, except one: the preference of twentieth century anthropology for colonized peoples. Around two thirds of the data in his studies were gathered from native Americans. Thus the data the Kaplan group itself collected comprise a twice-told story of disappearance: the dreams and various other streams of consciousness—the “passing thoughts”—of people who saw their traditional ways of life, and their traditional ways for transmitting them, disappearing. And then—wouldn’t you know it?—the machine for preserving these quickly disappearing testaments of the inmost self gradually disappeared as well. The database of dreams was jettisoned in the mid-sixties.

Part of the problem was that the main work of Kaplan’s group, the gathering together of disparate data sets, wasn’t actually very sexy. While many social scientists agreed that there was a need for “systematic scientific data preservation”, very few really wanted to be especially involved in doing the work. Other reasons for the failure of the database of dreams are easy enough to understand in retrospect. Reading about it now, the collapse of Kaplan’s “Kubla Khan” will surprise no one familiar with the perennial difficulties of objectifying the subjective. Consider, for example the difficulty of reconciling the work of transcribing dreams with the imperatives of a uniform system of compilation.

And then there was the growing awareness that the kind of data that Kaplan and his group were collecting could be used to cast its subjects in the worst light. In 1964, Saul Friedman published an article in Newsweek entitled “The Sick Navahos”, drawing on Kaplan’s work. The article cast the Navajo as a people beset by superstition, schizophrenia and alcoholism, among a whole host of other disorders. The fact that Kaplan strenuously opposed the image of the Navajo put forth in Friedman’s article and moreover “had always confronted the overgeneralizing tendencies in culture-and-personality research” wasn’t enough to save his project from a “diplomatic nightmare” with the tribe. The article “essentially got Bert banned from continuing his research” among the Navajo.

All of this helped bring about the discrediting of Kaplan’s project. What might strike us now with the shock of the obsolete is the idea that anyone could have dreamed of doing all this compiling in the first place, and could have believed that there was a pressing reason for doing so. The sense of urgency that underwrote the database of dreams was the “international scale utopian” conviction, common in the social sciences around the middle of the last century that “a global understanding of man” was thought to be both crucial and possible. As the idea and ideals that originally animated Kaplan and his group disappeared, so did enthusiasm for their project.

How distant such idealism seems now: the strange idea that a vast gathering together of the most personal tokens and testaments can “somehow benefit[ . . .] human kind” is as distant as the prospect of a universal language or an untroubled dream of nuclear power. Nowadays, the gathering of personal details into a vast cloud of data is more likely to look like the work of a nightmare conspiracy to control and commodify our lives, a conspiracy as vast and penetrative as anything that any theorist could dream up in her darkest hour.

But the happier dream that dwelt at the center of the database of dreams isn’t so far from the waking, or nearly waking lives we live now. (I say nearly waking: think how often, while on-line, we are near sleep.) Think how many of us entrust the most evanescent elements of our personal lives—children’s drawings, puppy pictures and status updates—to new social media able to preserve all this detail better than any mother or grandmother could. And don’t we obscurely imagine that the preservation of all those cherished, disposable intimacies is about saving something beyond our own personal time-lines? Don’t we dimly hope that these disposable tokens of our private lives can somehow be gathered together to form some enduring, endearing common ground to replace all the common grounds we have lost and continue to lose? The database of dreams may have only just begun.