Electric Dreams

John Herbert's Pioneering Online Research and Dream Groups

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

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  Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2002 Aug). John Herbert's Pioneering Online Research and Dream Groups. Electric Dreams 9(8).

John Herbert's work became know to me in the early 1990's through the grassroots dream grapevine, but hadn't been able to track him down on the Net. Search engines in those days were not what they are today. In 1994 he found me and I had a chance to go through two of his online groups, one as a commentator and the other using one of my dreams. It was immediately clear to me from John's work (at this time on AOL SeniorNet venue) that were just the structure we needed in the Electric Dreams community for our own groups which had been using a round-robin approach that was less structured. John Herbert's approach provided a quick, yet in-depth approach to online dreamwork.

Further, Herbert's research provided a background support for the emerging communities of concerned dreamers on the Net. Was it safe? Did people benefit from it? What were they getting out of it?

Herbert's research on CMC (computer mediated communications) vs. Face-to-Face dream groups suggested that many aspects of dreamwork work just as well with CMC and some aspects are even superior. Herbert has a great deal of experience with face-to-face groups and highly values them as well, the issue was not one of competition, but of providing real data and empirical support for the dream movement to advance online. J

Herbert speaks about his early development:

" Most of my professional life has been associated with aviation, but my introduction to group dream work started with an Edgar Cayce group in New York in the 1960's. I later attended one term at the C.G.Jung Institute in Zurich, which started my serious work with dreams. My desire to learn more about dreams and research led me to back to school, first at San Francisco State Univ. (M.A.Psychology, 1970) and recently to a Doctoral program in Psychology at Saybrook Institute (San Francisco), where I was introduced to Montague Ullman's "If it were my dream" approach by Stanley Krippner, who has been my major mentor. Progressively, I became more active in face-to-face group dreamwork; I have studied under Ullman and have moderated FTF groups for several years. " (Wilkerson & Herbert 1995, Electric Dreams 2[6])

Herbert then shifted his attention to online dreamwork:

"I became aware, however, of the changing modes of communication available to the electronic community and I wanted to find out if it might be possible to conduct group dream work on electronic BBSs. As part of the research for my dissertation, I have done test groups on the Internet (alt.dreams), Delphi, Compuserve, the WELL, and America OnLine. Group Dreamwork is currently being conducted on AOL in the Seniornet sector\Communities Message area\Group Dream Work topic. I have over 3500 of my own dreams stored in electronic format, and I have been able to use them for research, documenting how dream metaphors have commented on various life situations." (Wilkerson & Herbert 1995, Electric Dreams 2[6])

Online Dreamwork Found To Be More Meaningful

Herbert's awareness of the usefulness of dreamwork in group settings offline led to a pilot study he compared these to an online group and found this online group produced more meaningful responses than the offline group. This result was reproduced later in a more extensive study. (Herbert 2000)

Why more meaningful online? The speculations centered on the asynchronous nature of this online group. That is, with a delay in posting the dream, the questions, the replies and the comments spread out over a week or two, the participants had time to ~reflect~ and give more considered answers. However, dreamworkers such as Fred Olsen and Jeremy Taylor were reporting very meaningful dreamwork taking place in real time chat rooms. It was hypothesized that the anonymity also contributes to participants expressing their ideas more freely. Herbert also observed that the online groups elicited more new information from the dreamer. That is, the dreamers were more responsive in online venues. Again, this seems to be due to the extra time the dreamer has to reflect on the situation.

Ullman Method Developed For Online Use

John Herbert went on to develop several series of online dreamwork protocols and techniques with a special interest in the AOL SeniorNet Bulletin Boards. He favored the parts of Montague Ullman's method over other dreamwork techniques as the method allows a group to participate in the construction of meaningful metaphors and other reasons, but above all, because "…ultimately only the dreamer can take responsibility for which of the associations are meaningful." (JH 2000, pg 19)

Much has been written about the Ullman method, developed for peer groups to discuss dreams. (see Ullman, M. and Zimmerman, N. 1979, Working with Dreams. Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher, Inc and http://www.pp.htv.fi/msiivola/monte/ ) The most famous line "If this were my dream…" comes from this process, though Ullmanites are quick to point out that its only a fraction of a whole process. John Herbert worked with his initial groups to deploy aspects of the process that would lead to meaningful extractions of metaphors in a reasonable amount of time. The process was simple; a dream from the group was posted, and during the first stage, questions could be asked of the dreamer who might or might not respond. Then the moderator asked for comments in the "If this were my dream" style and the dreamer could respond to them if they wished. The final Electric Dreams DreamWheels were (and still are) modeled closely around John Herbert's process, as are many other online dream groups.

Herbert and Ullman both feel that the role of the moderator was important and that much can be achieved when we go past the "Oh, I had a dream like that too!" phase. In Herbert's process, the moderator presents the phase structure format and decides when to move from one stage to the next, keeping the structure of the group together. The moderator may also participate as a peer in asking questions about the dream and later making comments. Herbert felt that by extending a structure over time, more in-depth work could be done and noted that, "Intent, commitment, and sustained involvement are crucial elements. For thoughtful, contributing group members, the electronic medium may provide adequate communication to work with dream metaphors." (Herbert 2000, p 55)

In Herbert's doctoral dissertation, the element that fell out as the most important was intent:

"In reference to the question about the elements required
for a successful dream study group, intent is a most critical factor. It is important to the success of any online dream groups, that a member has ample time to reflect on the dreamer's metaphors before responding. As one dream group member commented, 'I like being able to 'sit with' a response and ponder it at my own pace.'" (Herbert 2000, p 118)

In the question stage, the questions are limited to clarifications of the dream rather than questions that might call for interpretations beyond description. One might ask what color the coat was, or if anyone one else was in the large room, but not what a coat means to the dreamer or if the dreamer was agoraphobic in large rooms in waking life. This stage is an important learning stage for new dreamworkers and is the beginning of both an existential/phenomenological approach as well as the beginning of owning one's own projections. That is, if one is limited to asking descriptive questions about the dream, an attention to details in the dream texture become deeper and the body of the dream image richer. Focus on the kind of leather in a coat adds substance to the dream and moves towards particulars, while asking what the leather in general means can lead to abstractions of the image. Further, by withholding questions about the meaning of the dream (or traditional meanings of the dream) the dreamworker learns to differentiate his/her own internal mechanisms that give the dream expression. Working with the clarification of descriptions is a distinctly different way to express the dream images than moving past them into their (other) meaning and values.

Herbert has noted (Herbert 1991) that too much emphasis on this stage can freeze up and make later stage "If this were my dream…" expressions of the dream stiffer and more difficult for the participants. However, we have found on the DreamWheels that this stage vitalizes the dreamer who may not feel they get much attention to their dreams, or know how to give attention to a dream image. In other words, the non-defensive questions of clarification are felt as an expression of care an attention, and allow the person sharing the dream to feel the others in the group are interested. Besides the inherent value in this, it can also lead to better dream recall both after the dream and in later dreams. That is, the impact of caring attention can enter into the dreaming process itself and provide more colorful, detailed, emotionally deep dreams.
Is the trade-off worth it? Do the benefits to the dreamer offset the difficulties of providing a more elaborate dream image for the group to have to digest? There is no research at this time, but a study of the populations used in the two groups (Herbet's AOL SeniorNet and the DreamWheel) might indicate that the answer depends on the psychological sophistication of the group and perhaps the mean age of the group as well. Robust groups that are heavily invested in trying something new or have introspective skills may be better able to handle more elaborate imagery than other groups.

The Comment Phase.

In the Comment stage, the participants pretend that the dream is their own and image what the dream would mean for them. These dream-stories are then posted for the dreamer to take or not take as possible intuitions beyond what they may have themselves attributed to the dream. By posting them as one's own dream, there is a reduction of the feeling that the meaning or value of the dream is being imposed and the dreamer may pick and choose those insights using an inner authority. Herbert selected the "If this were my dream…" part of the Ullman/Zimmer process for the format of the comment stage. To further the notion that the dreamer was to take the dream on as his/her own, Herbert further suggested the people taking the dream on preface the comments with "In my dream…."
Even though the "If this were my dream" phrase begins the process of the dreamer owning the dream as his/her own, there can still be pretense. That is, one can say If this were my dream…" but really mean "If I were you, this is what you should do." Saying "In my dream" doesn't eliminate this attitude, but does further the respondent along this path.

Although the dreamer is not required to respond to the comments, the whole group is more cohesive and finds more of a sense of completion when this occurs. To allow the dreamer to be in control of the process, they can't be pushed to respond here, so it needs to be clear in the instructions that this is an option.

The moderator's final role is to give closure to the process and depending on the situation, begin the new stage one with another dream.

New Venues

Besides bulletin boards, Herbert also worked extensively with Jeremy Taylor on the AOL DreamShow, a live chat venue that was highly moderated. Variations of this process were outlined a presentation at the Association for the Study of Dreams in 2001 by Herbert and reprinted with permission on Electric Dreams 8(12). These include a useful table where venues can be rated across the x axis as real time vs delayed, and across the y axis a public vs. private. This doesn't provide the full spectrum of options online, but begins to tease apart some of the important differentials. New venues that include CMC Virtual Reality are coming out of development an into the mainstream and the addition of having one's actions or pictures will add new dimensions to the research. Other emerging technologies include haptic (body sensations) and other sensory enhancements. Robert Bosnak and Jill Fischer demonstrated importance of voice and the possible importance of polygraph devices that allow us to see a wide range of reactions, even though the groups may be meeting from different spots around the world. (Bosnak and Fischer, 2000)
For an exploration of these and other new dream sharing venues, see both the online CyberDreams Issue of ASD Dream Time 17(3).and the January 2000 Electric Dreams issue.

Herbert's work continues to inspire and produce new forms of dream sharing.


Bosnak, Robert and Fischer, Jill (2000) The Cyberdreamwork Movement. ASD Dream Time 17(3).

Herbert, John.W. (2000). Group Dreamwork Utilizing Computer Mediated Communication. A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of Saybrook Graduate School
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology. Saybrook Graduate School. Copyright 2000 by Herbert, John W.
All rights reserved. Available Online:

Herbert, John.W. (1991) "Human Science Research Methods in Studying Dreamwork: Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis of Face-to-Face and Computer Dream Work Groups" Unpublished Manuscript, Saybrook Institute, San Francisco. Available Online:

Herbert, John (2001 November). Reflections on Online Dream Groups. Electric Dreams 8(12). Retrieved December 28, 2001 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1995 June 8). Dream Sharing Experiment: The E-mail Dream Circle. Electric Dreams 2(8). Retrieved July 31, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1997 August). Cyberdream - History Notes. Electric Dreams 4(7). Retrieved July 26, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1998 October). A Short History on the Rise of Dream Sharing in Cyberspace. Electric Dreams 5(9). Retrieved July 8, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett ed. (1998 October). A Transcript from an Online Dream Group 'Coins of Life' An August 1998 DreamWheel. Electric Dreams 5(9). Retrieved July 8, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett and Branka (1999 August). Special Section: Dream Sharing with Serbia: A Special Report of a Dream Group Held During the Crisis in Kosovo: Transcripts and Notes by Richard Wilkerson & Branka. Electric Dreams 6(8). Retrieved July 14, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2000 April). "Mel", A full transcript of an Electric Dreams dream sharing group. Electric Dreams 7(4). Retrieved December 31, 2001 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2000 April) A Brief History of the Electric Dreams DreamWheel. Electric Dreams 7(4). Retrieved July 14, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams