Kelly Bulkeley knows the value of a dream. Those few hours during which a sleeping person’s mind is most active can be crucial for processing mentally or emotionally impactful events in waking life. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that dreams simulate potential threats and dangers in our waking world in ways that help us prepare to respond to them effectively,” he told Gizmodo. So when Bulkeley, a psychologist and dream science expert, learned that multiple Atlanta mayors, upon inauguration, reported that they almost immediately and entirely stopped dreaming, it made him sad. “I cried a little bit inside,” he said. “If our leaders were robust dreamers, I think they might be better.”
Mayor Andre Dickens, sworn in on Jan. 3, said he suffered anxiety and stress dreams on the campaign trail, but since he took the oath of office, when his head hits the pillow, he crashes for five and a half hours of predominantly dreamless sleep—save for one dream about the recent Super Bowl halftime show and a few about whatever he’d recently watched on TV. Shirley Franklin, the mayor from 2002 until 2010 who told me she “went home tired every night,” could only recall a few nightmares, in which she was wading through Atlanta’s sewers—while, in real life, she grappled with rebuilding the city’s busted subterranean pipe network. Dickens’ predecessor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who experienced stress dreams while campaigning, too, but couldn’t remember any dreams from her mayoral term, said, “When I announced that I was not running for [re-election], I began to dream again.” Four years leading the capital of the South was stressful, Bottoms said, so she felt that the resurgence of her dreams—or, rather, dream recall—signaled a welcome return to comfort and normalcy.
Odds are, Bulkeley said, these mayors didn’t really stop dreaming; they just stopped recalling their dreams. Scientists say that’s common among supposed non-dreamers; they’re actually just failing to remember their dreams due to myriad external factors, including when they awaken, stress, controlled substance use, or even just how interested they are in their dreams. Still, when I told Bulkeley about this apparent phenomenon—something I stumbled upon while reporting for a profile on Dickens for Atlanta magazine—he was fascinated, though he lamented that these leaders are or were missing out on healthy and beneficial mental exercise.
So why does this happen?
“It’s not just any job, and it’s not just any stress,” Bulkeley said. “They hold a symbolically important job. There’s something about holding executive office, I’m surmising, that’s psychologically a unique kind of human life. If something happens to the city of Atlanta, that person would presumably be called upon to speak on behalf of the city, in good times and bad.” Perhaps, he said, the magnitude of that psychologically heavy, symbolic role causes personal dreaming habits to recede.
Dickens’ Super Bowl dream—something that smacks of “peak America,” Bulkeley said—might indicate an aspiration for a sort of utopian Atlanta, whereas Franklins’ sewer dreams strike Bulkeley as what he calls “a political cartoon dream … an image that is just symbolically perfect” for providing a lens into a leader’s current challenges.
Nancy Collop, director of Emory University’s Sleep Center, said in an email to Gizmodo that it’s possible these mayors “are just sleeping better, or more deeply, and are waking up out of dreams” and forgetting them. Franklin, at least, said, while she held the stressful, demanding post, she felt she was getting “really restful sleep,” the occasional nightmare notwithstanding.
It’s possible, though, that these mayors don’t sleep as well as they feel they do or did. Dreams tend to occur during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, the deepest part of a person’s slumber that tends to happen in the latter half of the night. Bulkeley said, “when people get stressed, and things get intense, that’s the part of the sleep cycle people usually abandon.”
In short, Bulkeley said, higher stress levels result in less dream recall. The type of stress, though, plays a role, too. On the campaign trail, before a person actually has to shoulder the weight of their community’s troubles, a candidate might experience more vivid, albeit still distressing, dreams —about the threat of the competition, about the heft of the job they’re seeking, about anything. Or, Bulkeley continued, they might be able to practice answering questions before a debate or gear up for another big public appearance.
Though he’s perplexed by the seeming preponderance of dream cessation among these three Atlanta mayors, Bulkeley said he doesn’t think it’s an anomaly. They’re not the first high-profile professionals whose unconscious habits fluctuated, and they’re far from the only politicians to discuss their dreams. Perhaps they should better harness the potential of those dreams, he said.
A hypothesis for why humans evolved to dream is called the “threat simulation theory,” and it posits that dreams serve as a way to rehearse challenges we’re likely to face in waking life. One of America’s best-known leaders seemed to experience that during the height of his time in office.
“There are politicians who have talked about their dreams,” Bulkeley said. “The most famous is Abraham Lincoln, who famously had dreams related to Civil War battles.” The late U.S. president, while away from home leading the charge against the Confederate Army, dreamt about his young son hurting himself with a pair of pistols—because the boy owned his own guns. It prompted Lincoln to write his wife, Mary, to tell her to take the weapons away. “That’s a really nice illustration of what we call a threat simulation dream,” the psychologist said.
Any strong leader would benefit from having “that kind of mental resource available to deal with all the new impressing stimuli and input coming from the job,” Bulkeley said. “Dreaming is the way the mind maintains emotional balance and processes information, integrates our memories of the past with our present conditions, and [prepares us] for our future.”
As Dickens acquaints himself with a job that has him navigating the pandemic, fighting crime, and working to pull Atlanta out of its income inequality and housing affordability crises, he—and those who follow him as the city’s chief executive—might find solace and comfort in striving to become a robust dreamer.
An Atlanta-based pen for hire, Sean Keenan covers politics and social issues for Atlanta Magazine, The New York Times, Atlanta Civic Circle, and others. He’s been wrongly denied the coveted blue check on Twitter thrice, but that hasn’t stopped him from applying again. Readers can send Keenan love letters and hate mail via email or Twitter.