The Fourth Factor: Part 3


I dreamed I was a student on a college campus. I had been organizing my locker, which was somewhere outside, when I found a note there: as a prank, Nina, a friend of mine, had been kidnapped, and if I wanted to find her I would have to figure out where she was being held. The only clue was a drawing of an electrical circuit. I was pretty sure it meant she was in the physics lab in the science building where I had studied electricity, but I didn’t go directly there. I wanted to find out who was behind this first and give them a piece of my mind, and I knew that if it looked as if I hadn’t figured it out, someone would come by to give me a hint. Sure enough, a girl approached me, hinting that the room I was thinking of was the room I should try. I forget what exactly I said to her, but I was angry, and I told her off for making me go through all of this…. (2010)

Most people are familiar with the term ‘dream-logic’, but there is no general agreement as to what it means. If it refers to the logic of dream-formation, it might mean the logic of the associative process, or the logic of emotional relevance, or the logic of myths, depending on your theoretical preference—but in common usage, it simply means the reasoning we use in dreams, but can no longer understand once we’re awake.

In the dream of mine above, the environment is a hybrid of indoors and outdoors, of familiar and unfamiliar. It is not atypical for a dream. If we put aside everything we take for granted about dreaming, we can see what a marvel it is that every night we navigate settings like this as easily as our familiar waking-life ones, and that the riddles we are presented with—like my drawing of the circuit—are so easily unraveled. Some conclude from this that the dreaming state involves a loss of our critical faculties, so that we accept any notion that occurs to us without question. So much for the inner critic. Others conclude that a dream is a communication tailored especially for us. But it also makes sense if we suppose we are responsible for our dream-environment as well as our response to it.

While dreaming, we take our intuitive understanding of dream-logic for granted—but over time, that understanding tends to improve. An experienced dreamer can manipulate dreams to achieve the results she wants; if she learns to recognize that she is dreaming while the dream is taking place, it becomes possible for her to dream anything she can imagine.

Both types of mastery dramatically increase opportunities for wish-fulfillment in dreams. According to psychoanalytic theory, however, neither the mysterious influx of knowledge that the former involves nor the full waking consciousness of the latter should be possible. It is a stretch to go from censor to critic, but an even longer one from critic to artist.

That’s why it is now time to depart from Freud. The secondary elaboration that he found in dreams may be real, but to call it secondary is to underestimate the complex role it plays in shaping our dream-experience.


While dreaming is a natural process, in the sense that it happens without our having to think about it—like breathing—it is also a learned process. Children tend to have primitive, fragmentary dreams, and the current evidence suggests that it develops alongside relevant cognitive skills, like spatial imagery. In that respect, it might be better compared to walking: going on two legs is natural for human beings, but we still have to learn how to do it.

Running is also natural for us—the human race would have gone extinct long ago if it wasn’t—but there is also an art to it. The person who has become conscious of how he puts one foot in front of the other, and has learned the proper way to breathe, will be a better runner than the person who hasn’t.

Dreams change when we become conscious of them. Anyone who keeps a dream journal for a while will experience an improvement of their memory for dreams because of the extra attention it requires. Simply reading about dreams, or spending time thinking about them, increases the chances that we will remember our dreams the following morning. It is not clear whether it is our dreams themselves that are changing, or simply our experience of them—or whether the distinction is meaningful—but in any case, we are witnessing a change in our mental life brought on by nothing but increased attention, which ought to make us wonder about what other effects our attention might be producing.

Through attention combined with the desire for a particular outcome—what you might call ‘willing’—even more is possible. If we wish to experience a certain type of dream, or a dream of a certain setting or character, it is possible to incubate it. Dream incubation involves focusing on our intention during the day, perhaps with the aid of a ritual, and having our intention carry over to our dream. We do not always successfully carry out these intentions in our dreams—just as we don’t in waking life—but successes are common enough to confirm the principle.

Sometimes dream incubation happens accidentally: there is no name for this, but it could be called passive incubation. If I go to sleep thinking, “I have to feed the cat when I wake up,” there’s a significant chance I may find myself feeding the cat in my dreams. Every dream that expresses our current waking concerns—and according to some theories, this is all we dream about—can be viewed as an instance of this.

And in practice, our attention almost always has an element of intention in it. People do not record their dreams for no reason, and it isn’t a huge stretch to consider that their reasons might somehow be reflected in their dream-lives. And if dreams are one of the most persistent concerns in your waking life—if the reason you record your dreams is to examine them, interpret them, relate them to your waking experience— then you cannot avoid the question: can dream interpretation function as passive incubation?

If it can, you are experiencing nothing less than the void gazing back into you. Carl Jung was horrified of the idea of dreaming as art: there was a time in his life when a woman in his visions whom he identified with his anima tormented him with the idea. He never accepted it, and it never made its way into his published work—but one might wonder what he would have said to a patient whose unconscious mind was behaving in such a way. Jung’s first great insight, as reported in Memories, Dreams, Visions, came about because he dared to challenge his beliefs. Perhaps analytic theory would look different if he had done so in that instance. But then again, most schools of therapy would have to look different if they recognized the extent to which their descriptions of dream-life are actually prescriptive.

Interpretation is passive incubation. Any dream researcher who relies on quantitative data also has good grounds to be horrified. ‘Unreactive data’ becomes an oxymoron; the ideal of being able to examine dreams and draw conclusions about an anonymous dreamer based upon what you find there fades into a fantasy. How much of the mountains of data collected by dream researchers includes subjects’ beliefs about dreams, or interpretive practices, or theoretical preferences? If it doesn’t—it is of dubious quality, if not worthless.

The idea may be equally horrifying if you are accustomed to looking to your dreams for something other than your own shifting projections—but the question of whether there is something more solid underneath, providing corrections to our biases the way our sensory experience does in waking life, may still be asked. The question may also be asked: is it really necessary to look to your dreams for anything else? You could learn a lot about yourself in an imaginal echo chamber, and not just the kind of thing Freudians look for. And if you were somehow to resolve all your issues, and look into your dreams with no intentions at all, what would you see? What would you see if you looked into your dreams with no desire but to see the truth?

Even someone who is utterly uninterested in speculations of this sort would do well to acknowledge that it is possible to engage in self-deception while dreaming, and equally possible while interpreting dreams. We human beings tend to be selective about what we see, and if we do not receive any feedback from outside ourselves, we have few opportunities to correct our faulty perceptions. In spite of everything Freud was mistaken about, the censor may actually be one of his more tenable ideas—if we remember that it is not some kind of peevish little man sitting in the back of our heads, but a constricted way of relating to our environment, awake or asleep.

We are the fourth factor.


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