Dreaming – the Message and the Medium, part 4


In the course of the last few posts, I’ve had to consider:  a chocolate mustard bio bun (with bogus trading cards), jellyfish soup, Welsh stereotypes, ponies and the exercitus Romanus. I’ve also had to address a number of questions regarding dreams:  dream incubation and the factors that contribute to its success; the weight one should give to a dream’s connection with memories of the previous day; the emotions and moods that characterize dreams; the fact that your memory is often much better than you think it is; and what to do on the occasions when something seriously weird happens—although I still haven’t fully addressed that last one yet. But the main point is the question of dreams as messages, and in spite of all the detours, I haven’t lost sight of it.

You may have noticed that none of the dreams I’ve considered so far contains an unambiguous message. This is because, in my experience, this is normal for dreams. When we take advice from dreams, what we’re usually doing is reevaluating our waking-life conduct based on the new perspectives on it that the dream brings to our attention. This often has to do with our dream-self’s conduct, in recognition of the fact that we are not a different person when asleep than while awake—something I don’t think anyone would deny when it’s put in those terms.* It may also include things like setting and ‘plot’— features that we may not feel responsible for in the same way, but which certainly didn’t come from nowhere.

This is good; if my experience is representative, it is possible to receive explicit advice from a dream, but it only happens when you’ve been ignoring the subtler kind for a while. During a few months in 2009, I saw a progression from dreams giving this sort of implicit advice to dreams which deliberately twisted the advice I was getting from people around me—either portraying them as obviously wrong or showing them advising exactly the opposite of what they had actually said. Eventually, I did get explicit advice from a dream character who was explicitly represented as an oracular figure. But these were unusual conditions, and not the sort you’d find yourself in if you could possibly avoid it.

The idea of having your own personal oracle might be appealing, but I doubt that dreams can function in that way for long. It’s something that occasionally happens rather than a more-or-less constant function of dreaming, or something that you can train yourself in. I actually found it happening less often as my understanding improved rather than more– possibly a tacit recognition that my conscious, waking-life judgment is up to the task, but it’s also possible that being a person who values independence has something to do with it. I wouldn’t want someone just stepping in to tell me what to do—even if it was me on some level—even if it was something spooky and metaphysical. Especially if it was something spooky and metaphysical. And that may very well explain why even the implicit advice I find when I consider my dreams normally has to do with what factors to consider when I make decisions rather than advice on what option to choose, which seems to be what most people are after and what they receive when they consult their dreams for advice.

I would be curious to compare others’ accounts with mine, but unfortunately, most of the literature seems to showcase single instances of dreams offering advice rather than longitudinal accounts. A part of me suspects that this is because such accounts would fail to support the right kind of narrative, but who knows? Maybe the people who have experiences like that just have better things to do than write about them. I couldn’t say what would happen for someone who had more than their own personal well-being in mind—whether raising the stakes in that way would also result in more pronounced results. But I would suppose that the factors that make for a successful incubation would still apply.

It is still a little surprising to me that I received as strong a response as I did regarding the dreams in part 3 since they concerned what was, in the grand scheme of things, almost certainly a minor decision. I’m inclined to attribute it to being sick, or, rather, the circumstances entailed by it—lack of food, lack of company, relatively few distractions. It may have functioned as a sort of natural incubation ritual.

This may also go some ways towards explaining the remarkable coincidence at dinner that evening—not using ‘coincidence’ as a half-assed attempt at an explanation, the way it is often used colloquially, but simply to express the unlikelihood of such a thing happening without any causal relationship at work. Again, if my own experience is representative, the weird stuff is more likely to happen under unusual bodily conditions, even those within the range of normal experience.

There are a number of ways to interpret what happened—and importantly, at least two that don’t require positing a metaphysical agent with a pressing interest in how I spend my winter break. In the interests of not going seriously off-topic again, I’ll leave it at that.  This project depends on being clear on where the boundaries of my knowledge lie, and so there’s not much I can say when the phenomenon itself makes a mockery of the attempt.

If I were to offer an opinion, though, I would say that there are two important things to keep in mind in cases like that:  first, that they do happen, and second, that by themselves they do not actually prove anything—except, perhaps, that the world is a stranger place than you thought.

Pleasant dreams.



-To Be Continued-

* Well, except for John Locke. But he had to deny it in order to keep his theory of personal identity from being inconsistent, so he doesn’t count.



Dreaming – the Message and the Medium, Part 2


Dream incubation is the practice of trying to influence one’s future dreams while one is awake. This can involve anything from elaborate rituals to simply focusing on one’s intentions during the day.

Once again, the degree to which the dreamer is personally invested in the attempt seems to be the key variable for its success, but in an experimental context, this is very difficult to control for. To give a group of people a common intention for a dream incubation is like giving them a list of New Year’s resolutions to follow. You wouldn’t expect as high of a success rate as you would in people who were dedicated enough to make their own. And even when researchers have dreamers choose their own intentions, as some have, successes are rare—which is understandable, as people aren’t always as dedicated as they think they are.  The success itself is the surest measure of how strong the intention was*, but that doesn’t pass muster when the influence of intentions on dreams is what you’re trying to investigate in the first place.

But even if the circumstances that make for success are compatible with laboratory conditions, there’d still be a problem:  the response would probably not be comprehensible without interpretation. It might not even be recognizable as a response—if not to the dreamer, whose privileged relationship with his own dream often translates into a privileged understanding, then certainly not to a researcher who is duty-bound to ignore hunches of this sort.

Interpretation is considered even more dubious than incubation in scientific circles, and indeed, it may not be possible to demonstrate success using quantitative methods. Philosophers have considered a similar problem –  how to judge the accuracy of translation and, more generally, interpretation – but haven’t found a satisfying solution. It seems that there’s no way to prove that someone isn’t talking nonsense when they’re speaking a language you don’t understand. All you can do is trust that something meaningful is taking place—philosophers call this the principle of charity— and use the process of elimination to figure out what it might be. Success results in a fluent interaction – but there is no independent standard that can be appealed to.

This is no small concern within philosophy. In America, and, I would suppose, in other places where analytic philosophy is the dominant tradition, the principle of charity might be one of the first things that a student learns about in an introductory-level class. Professors know that it’s easy not to understand a book when you start with the assumption that it’s going to be nonsense; making sense of something is an active process for a which a null-hypothesis attitude constitutes a refusal to engage with a work beyond a superficial level. It’s basically an intellectual form of passive-aggression. Consequently, they try to keep students from falling into that trap. But scientists don’t seem to be as charitable as philosophers:  in a scientific experiment, trust as a condition of success automatically introduces the problem of confirmation bias—a problem it is far easier to avoid dealing with than to resolve.

But my own fieldwork, at any rate, suggests that there is more to dream interpretation than the confirmation bias at work. Once I had started working intensively with my dreams, I soon figured out that what I wrote in my journal often provided the impetus for dreams, and my notes on those dreams provided the impetus for yet more dreams. Such exchanges took place spontaneously, and I found what I wrote being corrected more often than I found it being confirmed. I learned a great deal about dreams from books, websites and various articles, but after a certain point, I was mainly learning from the dreams themselves.

This is why it is difficult to deceive yourself for long when you regularly engage in dream interpretation—at least, if you want to understand more than you want to see your beliefs confirmed, which is always going to be the sticking point. It is possible to interpret dreams incorrectly, but the process is self-correcting if you’re willing and able to receive corrections. This doesn’t remove the possibility of confirmation bias in any given case, but it strongly suggests that there are other factors involved—in other words, that finding meaning in dreams is not itself a species of self-delusion.

But it is unreasonable to expect either confirmation or correction from your dreams unless you’ve already made a fair start at interpreting. If you’re sifting through dozens of dream-reports for the occasional thing you understand, it’s just not possible. Without a certain level of precision, there’s no opportunity for correction, and no way that corrections could be conveyed to you anyway.

Even an absolute beginner, though, might find it useful to see how the process plays out. And just as it’s easier to get a grasp on the grammar of a language when you can see mistakes and corrections as well as successful instances, there’s a lot to be learned by seeing how an interpretation goes amiss.


But first, the basic principle—what it’s like when you get an interpretation right.

One of the features of dreams that is hardest to define is mood— the emotional “connotations” of people, objects and events, or of the dream as a whole. Overlooking mood is one of the easiest mistakes to make when you’re trying to understand your own dreams—at least, I often find that to be the case.

But I have to think this one is particularly prone to being overlooked because it’s so individual, and often seems to be at odds with what takes place in the dream. We don’t have a very good vocabulary for talking about mood, either—statements like “the place had a melancholy atmosphere” or “he had a sinister air about him” are the best we can do without getting poetic. And if you jump to a conclusion based on preconceived notions of what a dream means, those subtle, hard-to-define qualities have a way of vanishing from consciousness.

Here’s an example of what I mean by mood, and why it’s so important.

A while back, I had a dream where I had gone to a vaguely work-like place and found that many of my co-workers were dressed in beautiful Roman military uniforms. (This would have been a good time to realize, “Hang on, I’m probably dreaming—“ but my response was more along the lines of “I guess they’ve finally replaced flannel Fridays with something interesting.”) During most of the dream, I felt rather dejected for reasons that weren’t clear—it was one of those dreams without much of a plot.

Once awake, it was easy enough to connect the dream with concerns involving my workplace. I work as a transcriber, and what I record there is almost always less interesting than what I spend my free time writing—blog posts like this one, among other things.

Transcribing is a job where uniformity is the all-important principle. It’s the nature of the work, of course, but on occasions, even correctness takes a second place to it. There’s often more than one correct way of writing something, but they want everything to be consistent, and so it has to be one way rather than another. And it kills me little bit inside every time I have to write a German word without the umlaut or the compensatory ‘e’ after the letter. Do they think they’re just there to look pretty, or what?** And the job is one that requires physical endurance for me as well as the prolonged concentration it requires from everyone: sitting for a few hours a day is hard on my back.

Both these factors make the military context*** an appropriate representation—particularly the Romans, whose soldiers were well-known for their mass efficiency and for virtues like loyalty and stoicism. As you might expect from a people who borrowed their entire Pantheon from the Greeks, they were not known for their originality– something else that makes them an appropriate representation.

Caesar at the Battle of Alesia
(Image Source)

So the connection is made—I know which set of concerns I’m dealing with—and at this point, it becomes important to look at the details. In the dream, I find the uniforms beautiful. They evoke positive feelings, and that makes it impossible for me to read the dream as a critique of the people who are wearing it. Just think of all the less attractive ways I could have represented a group of people with the characteristics I’ve just described. And although the reason for my unhappiness in the dream was not made explicit, the fact that there is obviously something off about my own attitude emphasizes the same point:  there’s something positive there that I’m not seeing.

Many dreams draw attention to things that we miss in waking life, and often it’s the things that we would prefer not to see. This dream a very mild example, but I still could have considered it and thought: “This dream is about my workplace, which I find unpleasant. Roman virtues are boring, and I like the Greeks better anyway. The dream is showing me that I’m out of my element there, and unhappiness is the natural consequence of that.” And I could have supported such an interpretation with every part of the dream—except the beauty. And except for the fact that I would be finding nothing there I didn’t already know, which ought to raise a red flag anyway. Dreams have the power to change the way we see things, but not when we filter them through our present way of seeing as we interpret.

-to be continued-


*I’m sure many readers will be quick to disagree on this point, especially those who have tried to incubate a dream or induce lucidity and not had it work, in spite of wanting it a lot. I don’t consider this a counterexample because I think there’s more to the self than the bit that you experience as you, and the other bits have to be on board as well.

**To their credit, this problem has actually been fixed since the time of the dream.

***I’m sure that every dreamer has his or own themes, settings and so on that recur for no obvious reason; warfare is one of mine. When you find yourself having to interpret dreams with, say, military settings time after time, and you find them leading you to quite varied sets of concerns, the recurrence itself eventually calls for explanation.

I’m sure there are non-obvious reasons for this, and probably very interesting ones— but considered practically, it doesn’t really matter where such patterns originate. The important thing is becoming aware of how they subtly push us to view matters in one particular light rather than others.  On the theoretical side, this is also of interest because you would not expect to find such patterns if dreams arose as a sort of deterministic response to waking-life input. Our preferred metaphors may be appropriate for our waking-life concerns, but others may have been equally appropriate.

Dreaming – the Message and the Medium

…The next part of the dream took place in a museum.  Katya and Nina were there with me, some distance back, and there were many cats around.  On a raised platform in a sandy area was the statue of a three-headed dragon-like creature made of some black material.  A woman stood nearby, beautifully and elaborately dressed.  The robe-like dress she wore, red, brown and white, reminded me of the outfits of the figures on Minoan wall art. She also wore a white mask, ivory or similar, that covered most of her face.  She stood before me and bowed; I bowed back. She then began to speak to me rapidly in a foreign language, possibly Greek.  “Den katalaveno,” I told her, shaking my head. That is:  I don’t understand.… (September, 2010)

Minoan Ladies
(Image Source)



One of the most interesting arguments against dreams being messages is based on the observation that no exchange takes place, as communication requires—no back and forth, no give and take, no chance for correction or elaboration. Dreams just aren’t the right sort of thing to be communicative.

The problem with this argument is that if you limit yourself to making observations—as a scientifically-minded person is likely to do, perhaps without even consciously intending to— then communication cannot possibly happen. Communication is indeed a two-way affair, and if you yourself aren’t a participant, you’re certainly not going to observe any taking place.

The argument is not wholly wrong, though:  a dream is definitely not a message, as is sometimes claimed. Rather, dreaming is a state—it’s the medium, not the message. Surprisingly, confusion on this fundamental point doesn’t seem to present a barrier to reaching a good practical understanding of a dream—at least, when the interpreter is experienced.

Or perhaps not so surprisingly.


However, it may cause frustration for beginners, and may lead those who start from a biological point of view to reject dream interpretation prematurely. It also results in problematic hypotheses as to what it is you’re communicating with—a highly interesting question I’ll be leaving to one side until the very end.

But even if dreams are only communicative in a metaphorical sense, communication makes a far better metaphor than decoding does. If you think of dream interpretation as breaking a code, then you’re likely to think that there might be a manual out there somewhere with all the answers—or that once you have a satisfying understanding of a dream, there’s nothing left to do—or, perhaps, to think that success can be quantitatively defined. But if you think of interpretation as part of an ongoing conversation, then much more is required—and much more is possible.


I should emphasize that I think this question of dreaming as communication ought to be taken seriously, and that my view isn’t based on wild conjectures—or, for that matter, conjectures of any sort.  I first became convinced that it was possible because, at a critical juncture of my life, I asked my dreams a question and received an answer. And then I kept asking questions and kept receiving answers. They were answers I did not understand—this was a time when I had never yet attempted a dream-interpretation— but they were so clearly answers that the need for understanding them suddenly became important.  It was this that led me to explore the writings of Freud, Jung and other interpreters—not anybody’s proof or argument, not idle curiosity, but the need to understand.

This may sound paradoxical—how can you receive an answer that you don’t understand, but which you know to be an answer? But if you’ve ever traveled in a country whose language you don’t speak, you’ll know this is no paradox. The greater part of communication happens through a shared sense of context, through the form of what is exchanged rather than the content. If you know what a restaurant is, you can order a meal at one no matter where you are. Maybe you’re failing to observe the local etiquette, maybe the dish you receive isn’t the one you wanted—and I now believe that, in a figurative sense, both were true of my own early incubation attempts. But while I could not understand the dreams, but I could see my own questions reflected in them. It was clear that dreams were capable of behaving like messages—although there was still that question of what, if anything, was on the other end.

As I’ve said before, it’s never safe to generalize about dreams from your own experience, but I’ll have to do so here since this is an aspect of them that is rarely explored—and explored almost entirely by people who are already sure they know what’s on the other end. I won’t try to start entirely from scratch, à la Descartes – you’ll have to wait for Vestigia for that – but it is a point in question, and so I’m not going to start off making assumptions about it. I intend to stay as closely to the experience as possible, which means focusing on my own end of it. And when I can’t be sure of the factors that made that experience possible, I can’t offer advice, much less promise results—only offer a few educated guesses.

Certainly, an exchange like the ones I experienced can only happen when you remember your dreams regularly. In my case, I had already been recording at least one dream every night for two years before I tried doing anything with them, and so my recall was already quite good.

I also believe that my waking-life journal, into which all my attempts at interpretation were entered, played a key role. Writing thoughts down has a way of making them more solid, and it commits you to a definite stance that can be responded to. If your preferred method of interpretation involves talking things over with one or more fellow dreamers or a therapist, I’d expect the same effect—but again, only if it ends with a definite stance, however transitory it might prove to be.

Being in an isolated position probably helped make it possible, if only because it meant less distractions. From the time dreams became one of my most significant concerns, I was living in places where I was a stranger. Half the time, it was in places where I had only a limited grasp of the local language, and the other half among family members from whom I was keeping some rather big secrets, which is even more effective than a language barrier in preventing communication from taking place.

I also had questions I genuinely wanted the answers to and had reason to believe my dreaming mind was capable of answering, which shouldn’t be considered too lightly. To ask your dreams for the answer to a question is a form of dream incubation, and the rule there seems to be that you won’t get an answer unless you really want one. If it doesn’t matter to you one way or the other when you’re awake, why should you care more when you’re asleep?

This has been the major problem with experiments investigating dream incubation, which have so far failed to turn up any impressive results. People can influence their dreams through incubation, but they can’t simply decide to want something. Even knowing what it is they want requires an level of self-understanding well above our cultural baseline.  And if an incubation experiment was your first experience working with dreams, you’d have no idea what it is that would be answering your questions. I’m sure many people would prefer to receive no answer than to find themselves in such an exchange.

-to be continued-

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.