The Fourth Factor: Dreaming from the Top Down, Part 1

… the fairest
flowers o’ the season
Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.

Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?

For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.

Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

–William Shakespeare, “The Winter’s Tale”

“The contradiction of my theory of dreams on the part of another female patient, the most intelligent of all my dreamers, was solved in a simpler fashion…. I had one day explained to her that a dream is a wish-fulfilment. On the following day she related a dream to the effect that she was travelling with her mother-in- law to the place in which they were both to spend the summer. Now I knew that she had violently protested against spending the summer in the neighbourhood of her mother-in-law…. Was not this a flat contradiction of my theory of wish-fulfilment? One had only to draw the inferences from this dream in order to arrive at its interpretation. According to this dream, I was wrong; but it was her wish that I should be wrong, and this wish the dream showed her as fulfilled.”

–Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams”


Freud’s anecdote, as given above, may be taken as evidence of just how far psychoanalytic theory can bend over backwards to accommodate its failures. But when examined closely, it offers much more than that. Consider: if an analysand can dream in such a way as to contradict her analyst, then could the opposite happen? Do analysands ever dream in compliance with the theories of their analysts? Could it be that theorists dream in compliance with their own theories?

These possibilities don’t seem to have ever occurred to Freud. Few contemporary theorists have seriously considered them either, even those who freely use their own dreams, or their patients’, in support of their theories. They haven’t yet thought far enough to consider that there might be a loop in their chain of reasoning. I intend to demonstrate that a loop is not only there, but that it represents a key to understanding and working with dreams.


There are several ways in which a dream can be meaningful. When I first examined the problem in depth, I divided these ways into two broad categories: meaning from the bottom up and meaning from the top down. Since then, I have discovered that the dream-world is also round, but the categories may still prove useful.

Meaning from the bottom up is what most people are referring to when they ask whether dreams are meaningful, or claim that they are. Here, meaning is conceived of as something buried within a dream, to be teased out by the dreamer or his analyst through various methods of interpretation, such as dream dictionaries, Freud’s method of association, or Jung’s method of amplification.

The other category, meaning from the top down, is less commonly considered. Here, meaning is conceived of as something that arises out of the dreamer’s interaction with the dream while it is happening, or with the memory of the dream after awakening. For many dreamers and theorists, this does not seem to count as meaning. There is something illegitimate about it, possibly because it seems like an admission to people with a materialistic philosophy—i.e., most people in the West nowadays, and almost all scientists—that they are making it all up as they go. It is normally only those who practice lucid dreaming—the art of dreaming while being aware that one is dreaming—who take making it up as they go seriously.

In the series of posts, “To be a Builder of Bridges,” I did not consider the question of how dreams mean, but how we can derive meaning from them, a subtle but important distinction. How dreams mean is more basic, but how we derive meaning from them is where we begin, and so I would recommend reading those posts first.

In those posts, I wrote about three styles of interpretation: cipher, allegorical, and volitional. In practice, people who view meaning from the bottom up tend to prefer the first two, and people who view meaning from the top down prefer the latter, but the divisions are not absolute. Meaning from the top down is in flat contradiction of some individual theories of dreaming, but none of the categories is formally at odds with it. A symbolic or cipher method may recognize that dreaming itself is a process of interpretation, in which case the task of the awakened dreamer is to undo the interpretation of the previous night, like Penelope in reverse— or like an artist examining his newly-finished work and seeing its significance for the first time. Behind the recognition of meaning from the top down is the recognition of dreaming as an art.

It is curious that of the two giants of dream interpretation, Freud and Jung, it is Freud who came closer to understanding this. To Jung, a dream was something belonging to nature, and so opposed to art; to Freud, it was a deception, and so allied with it. But both of them would have done well to consider the argument of Polyxenes.


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