Electric Dreams

The Senoi Do Not Practice Senoi Dream Theory:
A Reply To Strephon Kaplan-Williams

G. William Domhoff, Ph.D.

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Domhoff, G. William Ph.D. (2005 April). The Senoi Do Not Practice Senoi Dream Theory:
A Reply To Strephon Kaplan-Williams. Electric Dreams 12(4).

This article is in response to: Kaplan-Williams, Strephon (2004).
Revisiting the Senoi Dream Theory: The Bad Logic of Sir G. William Domhoff.
Electric Dreams 11(12).

Just as Jeremy Taylor is "seriously misinformed" about everything having to do with the Senoi between 1930 and 1948, so too is Strephon Kaplan-Williams completely wrong in his comments on a reply I wrote to an article by Taylor in the late 1990s.

Although my exchange with Taylor was long ago, I am glad to have another opportunity to comment on the issues raised by Kaplan-Williams for two reasons. First, I sense that most dreamworkers agree with Taylor, Kaplan-Williams, and Patricia Garfield in regard to Senoi dream practices even though every anthropologist of the 20th century who studied the issue would say they are wrong. Second, I recently updated my original study of Senoi Dream Theory with new evidence and put it on my web site at dreamresearch.net for anyone who wants to judge the arguments and evidence for themselves:


Kaplan-Williams is first of all wrong to say that I made a "personal attack" or "ad hominem" argument. Saying someone is "wrong" ("seriously misinformed") about a specific issue is not a personal attack. If I had claimed Taylor is unintelligent, or biased, or politically motivated, or some other untrue and irrelevant point, it would be a "personal attack." But I am simply saying that he is factually wrong about every claim he made about the Senoi between before 1948 when it comes to Senoi Dream Theory.

Secondly, Kaplan-Williams is wrong to say that I use "logic" in refuting Taylor, In fact, I use evidence related to the 1930s and 1940s, the time period for which Kaplan-Williams keeps insisting there is no evidence except that presented by Stewart. Since Stewart was there in the 1930s and everything else is from a later date, says Kaplan-Williams, Stewart's claims therefore have to be taken as believable unless they can be shown to be wrong with information from that time period.

Well, there is evidence from that time period. Most of all, it was provided by the new-found friend who hosted Stewart's visit to the Senoi, H. D. Noone. Trained as an anthropologist, and able to speak the native language, Noone discussed Senoi dream beliefs in his 1936 monograph without any reference to any of the dream practices talked about by Stewart. He also gave examples of murders by Senoi, which contradicts Stewart's claim that the Senoi are a completely non-violent people.

Taylor says, in effect, that evidence from after 1948 does not count. That's because the culture of the Senoi allegedly was destroyed, or taken underground, due to the sporadic counterinsurgency war the British, along with their mainstream Malaysian allies, fought against the Malaysian Communist Party between 1948 and 1952, a party based in Chinese immigrants to Malaysia and backed by the Chinese Communist Party. Part of that guerilla war took place in the highlands where the Senoi lived. Some Senoi fought alongside the British, but others were put into encampments for many months to insure their villages could not be sources of support for the Communists. Still, most Senoi were not rounded up, and many of those who were soon made their way back to the jungle.

Be all that as it may for the moment, what about interviews in the early 1960s with Senoi from the 1930s who worked with Noone and Stewart? Do they count? Such interviews, by Robert K. Dentan, an anthropologist who lived with the Senoi for months in one of the same settlements studied by Noone, and knew the language well, reports that these holdovers from the 1930s say that they never practiced the kind of Senoi Dream Theory Stewart claims to have discovered. This is in fact devastating evidence as far as I am concerned. It was Dentan's fine work that led me to do further work on the issue.

There is now new evidence from the late 1940s. It is from a man, John D. Leary, who was active on the British side in the counterinsurgency war. In 1995 he used government documents and interviews to write a detailed book on the role of the Senoi in that war. As one small part of that book, he commented on a key aspect of Stewart's claims:

"On a number of occasions when I had cause to stay overnight in Senoi huts, either on ambush, for the tribal groups' protection, or just for shelter, I did not see any of the after-breakfast gathering of parents and children to discuss their previous night's dreams; most Orang Asli [the anthropological term for indigenous people in Malaysia] did not seem to have any kind of formal meal in the morning." (See my on-line updated book for this and other citations in this reply.)

Leary's comment about "no formal meal" fits exactly with an account of the morning habits of Senoi by a British man who married a Senoi woman in the 1930s and lived with her group.

Kaplan-Williams says I describe my "witnesses" as "infallible." To the contrary, my main point would be that multiple fallible witnesses who knew the language said roughly the same things, which lends credibility to their general account.

Kaplan-Williams is annoyed that I would doubt the reliability of Stewart, but who would you believe, Stewart or the people I cite in my on-line update of my book, if you knew the following about Stewart from archival documents and interviews with people who knew him?
  1. Stewart had no training in anthropology at the time. He was a self-described vagabond who loved to travel around the world on tramp steamers. (He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology after World War II.)
  2. He had no knowledge of the Senoi or any intention to visit them until he met Noone (quite by accident) and was invited to go along on a survey expedition of Senoi groups.
  3. He did not know the language.
  4. He spent at most 6-8 weeks with Senoi groups on two separate visits in the 1930s.
  5. There is no mention in his dissertation of the elaborate Senoi Dream Theory he later attributed to the Senoi.
  6. As already noted, several of the claims Stewart made in the 1950s about the Senoi and their dream theory are contradicted by what his friend Noone wrote in the 1930s, and by what Senoi who were young adults in the 1930s told Dentan in the 1960s.
  7. The people who knew Stewart best in the 1930s, including one former teacher, Dorothy Nyswander, and one of the foremost anthropologists in the world, Edmund Leach, and one of his own brothers, Omer C. Stewart, a highly respected empirical anthropologist at the University of Colorado, all told me that Stewart was a storyteller and raconteur whose claims were not taken seriously by those who knew him.
Kaplan-Williams leaves out a key issue in my exchange with Taylor. As noted, Taylor claims that Senoi cultural practices were either destroyed or taken underground during the battle between the British and the communists in Malaysia. Based on this claim, Taylor argues that studies of the Senoi after, say, 1948 are not relevant to whether they practiced Senoi Dream Theory in the 1930s.

But work with Senoi in the most remote highlands of Malaysia by the British anthropologist Geoffrey Benjamin, who has taught at the University of Singapore for decades, shows there was in fact great cultural continuity into the 1960s. Benjamin told me that Taylor overstates the degree to which the counterinsurgency of the 1940s disrupted Senoi culture. If this point is granted, then Benjamin's work on Senoi spiritual beliefs, which reveals a complex and subtle belief system, but nothing we would recognize as "Senoi Dream Theory," stands as further evidence that Stewart was not a reliable observer.

It is within this evidentiary context that I raised my point about Taylor's approach not being a scientific one when he focuses on an anecdote relating to H. D. Noone's death that is provided by a Senoi in captivity. I said the crucial issue is the comparison of rival hypotheses for their ability to explain the most systematic and reliable evidence currently available, not whether there is some faint hope that the most unlikely hypothesis just possibly may be true based on an anecdote in a popular book. I said that if Senoi Dream Theory is to be given the benefit of an alleged "reasonable doubt" on this slim basis, then any unlikely hypothesis can hang on forever in the dream community, deadening the impetus to entertain new hypotheses and collect new data, which are the lifeblood of science. The whole enterprise becomes futile, frozen in rival camps. No common ground is possible. People new to dreams have to decide whether to join the Freudian camp, the Jungian camp, the Gestalt camp , the Senoi camp, or some other camp.

I think the argument about Senoi Dream Theory is a crucial one for all dreamworkers to face in terms of their general stance toward science and evidence. Where a person stands on whether the Senoi practiced Senoi Dream Theory is a crucial litmus test. Basically, if a person insists that the Senoi practiced Senoi Dream Theory in the face of the existing evidence, then I would say he or she does not take a scientific approach. More generally, to the degree that the dreamwork community as a whole still believes in Senoi Dream Theory, and proscribes anyone who raises questions, it is frozen in time, unable to move forward to a solid basis for its work.

I received some intimations on all this when I was on a panel at ASD in the mid-1990s with Taylor and other advocates of Senoi Dream Theory. Indeed, it was this panel that led to the written exchange between Taylor and me that has belatedly come to Kaplan-Williams' attention. Although the packed audience was polite to me, it was clear that everyone believed Taylor and the other advocates. At the very least, ASD was providing a forum for all viewpoints in just the way Kaplan-Williams says it doesn't on this issue.

One person renowned as a psychic gave me an insight into this preference when he said that my arguments at the panel session sounded solid enough, but that his own experience predicting the future based on psychic experiences led him to side with Taylor. In case my point is not completely clear, I mean that it looks to me like the tribe has to back one of its own, and Taylor is certainly a leading member of the dreamwork tribe. I don't know of any dreamworker who has ever publicly disagreed with Taylor, or Patricia Garfield, about Senoi Dream Theory. If there is evidence to the contrary, I'd be happy to hear about it.

In closing, I do agree with Kaplan-Williams when he says that I should "try and come up with some great positive results about dreams and dreaming that you created yourself." I agree because I know it is all too easy to be a critic. Anyone can be a critic. That's why I like the hard work that Dentan, Benjamin and another anthropologists did to teach us about what Senoi actually believe and do.

It's also why I have spent most of my dream research time doing empirical studies of dream content, where I think that Calvin S. Hall, his colleagues, and his students have come up with the kind of new results Kaplan-Williams is talking about. Most of that information is summarized on our web site at dreamresearch.net, especially in the on-line version of Finding Meaning of Dreams, a book published in 1996. It contains every finding with the Hall/Van de Castle coding system up until that time.


Those findings, in turn, fit with some theories better than others, and they led us to try out some new ideas of our own. They led me from a generally psychodynamic theory of dreams to a cognitive approach, and more recently to a neurocognitive approach, which can be sampled at


Trying to do empirical research on any topic is a humbling experience. It makes you realize how difficult it is to come up with any solid results. Doing research makes one skeptical of all-knowing critics, and also of high-sounding theorists who have never bothered to do any actual research. Looking back over many years, and later results, we turned out to be wrong many times. That's why my theoretical orientation changed over the years.

For my money, Stewart is just another high-sounding theorist. As everyone who ever knew him told me, he was a big talker who was not believed by anyone who knew him at the time. He didn't do any of the kind of research that Kaplan-Williams advocates for me.

But when Stewart's writings from the 1950s were picked up by people in the 1960s who did not know him, people who were imbued with the spirit of the human potential movement, they were prepared to believe him with little or no hesitation. As I argue in my on-line update on the Senoi, his claims became one key basis for the dreamwork movement that Kaplan-Williams helped found, even if those new to the dreamwork movement do not realize the important role Stewart's ideas played.

Let's face it. The Senoi never practiced Senoi Dream Theory. Which always leads me to ask: What else do we currently believe that will turn out not to be correct? I hope Kaplan-Williams and others in the field of dreams sometimes ask themselves the same question.