The Fourth Factor: Part 4


I dreamed I was drinking at a drinking fountain in a school hallway, but although I was very thirsty, the water didn’t seem to help at all. I realized then that I was dreaming, and immediately woke up. (2009)

I find it interesting that my first in-dream recognition that I was dreaming was triggered by dissatisfaction. As I recall, the thirst I experienced in the dream was real, physiological thirst, which became apparent to me once I awakened, but I don’t think it was incidental that the dream took place in an academic setting. Some dreamworkers interpret schools and campuses in dreams as representing “a place where you are learning,” but going by my own experience, it ought to be “a place where I am dissatisfied”.

For somebody who isn’t deliberately trying to achieve that realization—“I am dreaming”—it will probably be the incongruities we experience as unpleasant that trigger it. In that much, Freud was right. But whatever the causes may be, the realization leads to one of three results: an awakening, a false awakening into another dream, or the continuation of the dream with the awareness that one is dreaming—what is commonly called a lucid dream.

This last case is the most striking example of continuity between the waking self and the dreaming self. If there were not something like waking consciousness already there to recognize that a dream was taking place, it would never be possible to dream in this way.

Some theorists—I am thinking of Bert O. States in particular, but he’s not the only one—explain this away by saying that in such a case we are only dreaming that we’re conscious, and so this state has nothing to do with waking consciousness. He supports this statement with an anecdote of a lucid dream of his own where he felt that he was not conscious or fully present in the dream.

But States does not take into account that there are a wide variety of ways a lucid dream can be experienced— some that are dream-like, some that are life-like, and some that feel more real than waking life. I have found that the feeling of presence in a lucid dream often fades if it is followed immediately by another, non-lucid dream rather than an awakening. I have also stopped for a moment in a lucid dream with my hand on a doorknob that felt startlingly real, and thought to myself that States was full of baloney. That’s a good enough refutation for me.

Although the existence of lucid dreaming has been verified in sleep laboratories, controversy is inevitable as long as there are theories of dreaming that cannot admit its existence while remaining intact. States’s is one of these theories; in addition, all theories of dreaming as memory processing presuppose a completely passive role for the dreamer, and can accept neither deliberate cognition nor full waking consciousness. Analytic theory does not bear up well either, although modern-day followers of Jung don’t seem to lose any sleep over it.

Within the last 30 years, however, new theories have emerged that are not only capable of accounting for lucid dreaming, but whose premises are largely drawn from lucid dream experiences. Many of them are inspired by Buddhist philosophy and the practice of dream yoga. The gist of such theories tends to be that the fourth factor plays the leading role—perhaps the only one—in dream formation.

And yet, I have found hardly any speculation on the influence of dream interpretation on dreams outside of my own writings. Stephen LaBerge and other theorists claim that our interpretations of dreams while they are taking place influence dream-content. Fair enough. There have also been studies of patients’ dreams changing over the course of psychotherapy, which comes pretty close. Some therapists seem to recognize this implicitly, acting as if it were the case without realizing its full implications, as Freud did in his anecdote. Better—but still not quite there.

But I am also claiming that our interpretations—including ex post facto interpretations—influence both the form and content of dreams, and the only speculation I have found on this comes from Dr. Harry Hunt. He seems to have reached much the same conclusions as I have by rather different pathways – although, curiously enough, he seems to have started from Freud’s fourth factor, too, so I can’t claim to have reached them entirely independently.

If the conceptual frameworks we use to make sense of the world accompany us into our dreams, our conceptions about dreams may sometimes be among them— and this possibility becomes a certainty if we admit that even in our non-lucid dreams we are implicitly aware of our dreaming state. And we must be aware in this way if we are able to behave functionally within the context provided by a dream. Freud once wrote that “He who should behave in the waking state as his dreams represent him as behaving would be considered insane.” But it would be just as insane to do the opposite, and apply our waking-life critical standards to what we experience in dreams as if it was waking life. I have actually had this happen a couple times, and it isn’t a pleasant experience.

In the past, our intuitive understanding of dream-logic has invariably been interpreted as a loss of critical thought and self-awareness. Ever since Descartes wrote his Meditations, our inability to tell dreams apart from waking life while we are dreaming has been a philosophical cliché. It has been for philosophers what a lamppost is for a drunk: a source of support rather than illumination.

But it is certainly not the only way of looking at the matter, and there may be a good deal of individual variation in what we lose and to what extent we lose it. And we should also keep in mind that awakening, too, involves a kind of loss, which is most noticeable in lucid dreams. I’m sure I’m not the only dreamer for whom waking up from one is invariably accompanied by the sensation of memories and knowledge suddenly draining away. In any case, even a modest amount of first-hand experience makes it obvious that the simple explanation – loss of critical thought – fails to do justice to the complex reality.


I said in part 1 that I would demonstrate that our conceptions about dreams influenced our dreams—but as it stands, this series of posts only demonstrates the possibility that this happens. For an interpreter of dreams, it is a possibility that calls for a questioning of even their most basic understanding of dreams—so, as usual, I have written something that will alienate the few people who will get it and puzzle everyone else. Since I am asking so much of people when I ask them to take my claim seriously, it will require more support than I can give here. For now, it will be sufficient to show how it can be more solidly demonstrated.

I feel confident in saying that it will not be through examining the dreams of people are not concerned with dreams, and whose dreams would therefore fail to show a feedback effect. It will definitely not be through double-blind tests: to see development and change, we must look at the dreams of individuals alongside their changing understandings of life and dreams. We must learn to see life and dreams intertwined, not trying to explain one with the other, but observing the fantastic mutability of both.

The longitudinal study of individuals who are highly involved with both dream- and waking life offers the best scope. Unless the dreamer is fanatical about keeping records of their dreams, life, and thoughts—or unless they deliberately cultivate a style of dreaming which values the general over the personal— a third party could never hope to trace the curves, the swerves, the give-and-take of the ever-changing relationship.

No two will be the same, of course, which is why you’d need to look at many before you could start to make generalizations about what is nature and what art. But a lone individual could make a real contribution if they set their mind to it.

Anyone want to donate their ego to science?


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