Dreaming – the Message and the Medium, Part 5


I hope that what I’ve written so far has been helpful in clarifying the question of dreams as communications, but now it’s time to actually try to answer it. In order to do that, we need a good idea of what communication is—something that sounds as if it ought to be straightforward, but on closer inspection turns out to be an intractable philosophical inquiry on a level with questions like “What is meaning?” and “What is knowledge?” What follows will be a very rough sketch of ways that such an inquiry might lead.

Phenomena like the ones I’ve been considering fit some dictionary definitions of communication better than you might expect, but always with reservations. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” But we are considering something that may only involve one individual—the internal evidence doesn’t preclude the possibility of something on the other end, but it doesn’t support it either.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it a little more broadly: “the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.” But what constitutes a success, and how do you recognize it?  Whether something counts as communication when you’re on both ends of it is still a point at issue— but being on both ends of it seems to be the only circumstance in which you could be absolutely sure that ideas and feelings were successfully conveyed.

But while the methods of interpretation and incubation I’ve described are clearly different from the communication we take for granted in our everyday lives, they fit some philosophical conceptions, like Quine’s. Quine would have denied that exchange is a feature of communication—it makes a handy metaphor to think of meaning as something we can toss back and forth like a ball, but to take that view of communication too literally is to completely misunderstand what takes place. What we have is not a process of exchange, but a process that gets patterns of associations to match in the right way. Whether or not it was the right way is something that we test rather like a scientist tests a hypothesis:  by seeing how well our subsequent observations match the predictions we made on the basis of the message we received. In this case, for “observations,” read “dreams,” and so long as you consider the “message” in general terms rather than in terms of particular dream-elements, you have a statement that most experienced interpreters could endorse.

You might notice that, unlike the dictionary definitions, this view allows us to completely bypass the problem of identifying someone at the other end. This was probably not because Quine wanted to extend the notion of communication to cover unusual cases like the one I’m concerned with here, but rather because he was concerned with capturing the dynamics of learning and using words, and the dynamics can be understood without considering either end in more than formal terms. And, perhaps in part, it was in recognition of the fact that proving that someone is on the other end is fiendishly difficult, even in the ordinary instances. This is called the problem of other minds, and philosophy doesn’t seem to be a step closer to solving it than when it first occurred to Descartes to problematize other minds 350 years ago.

This is something to take note of if you believe that it’s ridiculous even to entertain the question of whether communication could be taking place through dreams since there’s nothing you could possibly be communicating with. If you’re going to take up the skeptical position, you have to be consistently skeptical, which means being willing to deal with things like p-zombies, evil geniuses, and brains in vats. I would like to point out that even Descartes was not as radical a doubter as he might have been, as it is quite possible to question whether the “I” in “I think therefore I am” lasts longer than the thought does.

Brain in Vat - Memory
(Image Source)

If, on the other hand, you’d prefer trying to be a consistent materialist, you get to define communication entirely in the language of the physical sciences. I would like to point out that materialism is no better at accommodating the concept of identity than skepticism is, and so it would have to be done without reference to discrete entities of any sort, including individual beings. Have fun.

Once again, this does not suggest that there is anything on the other end—e.g., gods, spirits, or other/higher/true selves, the usual candidates who are invoked when it is claimed that dreams are communications designed to help us. What it does suggest is that there is something distinctly fishy about treating identity as a fundamental fact of reality rather than a perceptual convenience—no matter how you look at it. If so, then the question of intra-personal communication hinges on a distinction that does not have a firm basis in reality, and the question of whether dreams might sometimes be communications has more to do with how comfortable one is with a non-standard use of the word ‘communication’ than with metaphysics.

The notion of identity and its limitations have come up a few times throughout this essay already—it’s one that you can’t avoid for long once you start exploring dreams. It is especially salient in lucid dreams, when you are exploring the landscape of dreaming as the dream is taking place. In such dreams, you are constantly encountering mental phenomena you yourself did not consciously create, and which often seem at least as real as waking life. You are also encountering beings who act as if they have their own mental lives, which gives those p-zombies and other paraphernalia of skepticism a significance far beyond their usual role as fodder for thought experiments. The more intelligent and well-informed the beings you encounter, the more pressing the question becomes.

Once you get to that point, the only possible explanations that allow you to keep thinking of yourself as a distinct, unified entity involve positing other distinct, unified, possibly non-physical entities with the ability to enter into your mental space uninvited. There is only one way to simultaneously maintain the belief that you yourself are such an entity and deny the existence of that other sort, and that is to ignore your dreams.

It’s interesting to speculate:  how many of the characteristic assumptions and attitudes of the modern world could only have taken root in a society where paying attention to your dreams is atypical? Most people in the West nowadays do not consider dreams important. Most of them do not consider it important that they don’t consider dreams important. And yet, if this attitude towards dreams were to start changing—which actually seems to be happening!—there’s no way it could fail to bring along a cultural revolution.

But to return to the main point, there is yet another angle of approach for understanding the question of dreams as communication:  communications theory. This discipline offers some interesting possibilities. It was founded in a time when the traditional notion of communication was having to be redefined and widened in order to capture a type of communication that had never before existed—mass media—and so it may be able to handle an unusual case of a different type.

One theorist—an early and an influential one— was Marshall McLuhan, whose central idea has provided this essay with its title. The medium is the message—but what does that actually mean?

McLuhan was one of those thinkers who wrote in his own idiom, and so it’s possible to find any number of interpretations of what he meant by it. For an outsider to communications theory, it’s rather a lot to pick through. But the important point seems to be that, when considering what is conveyed by a medium, what people are trying to convey through it is far less important than what the medium is communicating simply by existing and being available to us and changing the way we live our lives. And a medium is anything that is capable of communicating in this way—not just what we would ordinarily consider a channel of communication. Television is a medium, according to McLuhan, but so is a light bulb.

What happens if we consider dreaming as a McLuhan medium? Actually, something fascinating happens:  we are led to consider the form of the dream itself as communicative. Could the formal characteristics that have earned dreams a reputation for being random, for being meaningless, for being brain static—static, in communications theory, signifying something that impedes the reception of a message—be themselves communicative, simply by virtue of what they are? If so, then dreaming as a medium would tell us exactly what my chocolate mustard bio bun dream told me:  leave nothing out.

Out of all the claims that have been made about the benefits of dream interpretation, one of the most common is that it is a path to personal wholeness—and the typical characteristics of dreams do seem to provide an unexpected reinforcement for the “path to personal wholeness” view, while simultaneously raising a serious question as to whether it’s the interpretation that’s the beneficial part. By failing to observe the barriers we place between the various times and places of our lives, between ourselves and our emotions, between illusion and reality— even between the present and future, or between one person and another, if the more unusual accounts are to be taken seriously—dreams are already communicating a message of wholeness to us, even if we don’t take the trouble to interpret them. And no spooky metaphysics whatsoever are required. All we need to do is to tune in.


In the dream, the dog’s barking has just woken me up. I’m in bed (read:  floor mattress) in a room very much like the one I actually fell asleep in, and someone’s at the door. It turns out that someone has sent me a postcard. Strange, I think—who would be sending me a postcard when I’m on vacation in—

Greece, my brain nudges me.

Right, Greece. Thank you. The picture on the card shows a cemetery,with rows of what look like war graves, and a colorful sky in the background. I turn it over and see that it’s written in German—which narrows down who it’s from, anyway. I’m terribly curious, but I decide to read the card through before looking at the name at the bottom. The card folds out, becoming larger, and then it’s like I’m watching a movie. A room full of people are talking in turn, many of them wearing fancy, old-fashioned clothing. But my alarm wakes me partway through, and I never do get to find out who the postcard was from. (March, 2017)

So, in the end, it looks like we can’t say one way or another whether something other than ourselves might be trying to communicate to us through our dreams—something that those with an appreciation of Occam’s Razor might take note of. If you believe that dreams are by nature expressive and that our dreaming selves have access to various kinds of mental content that our waking selves do not, and that human beings tend to be concerned with their own well-being no matter what state they’re in, then helpful messages from dreams should come as no surprise.

But even if you’re hesitant to call this process communication, you could do a lot worse than treating it as if it was. I spent practically all of the time in which I practiced dream interpretation deliberately withholding judgment on the ontological status of the various beings I encountered in my dreams, and it doesn’t seem to have done any harm. It may even have been helpful:  leaving a question open effectively prevents us from getting so attached to our own theories that we’re tempted to distort our experiences to obtain additional support for them.

Once we’ve formed a false opinion of something, confirmation bias has a tendency to block off the flow of new impressions that might lead us to realize it’s false—and a true but overly narrow opinion can be almost as bad. If we do not find ourselves surprised by our dreams every once in a while, it is almost certainly because we don’t want to be surprised. And if wholeness is the message of our dreams— even if an uninterpreted dream is not very much like an unopened letter after all—it’s one that can easily be missed if we’re selective about what we take to heart.


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 3


So, to recap, emotions, mood, feeling tones are important in dreams, but they are also easy to overlook, either because the implications are uncomfortable ones or just through jumping to conclusions. It was the latter that happened with this dream last year.

In the dream, I’m in a grocery store with my mother—probably at a younger age, though it isn’t clear—and looking at the foods there. They have all sorts of interesting and exotic things. Purple coconuts! Blue kiwi fruit! Spiny melons! I go looking for something to eat on the car ride back—something I could never get anywhere else— and happen across a bun wrapped in clear plastic. It appears to be of the Asian variety, though the label declares it to be a Chocolate Mustard Bio Bun (with bogus trading cards). Sure, why not? But I decide to pick out a drink as well, just in case it turns out to be really foul.

The first thing I might note about the dream is that there’s an obvious reason why I might have found myself in such a scenario that night:  a couple days before the dream, I had caught the nasty stomach bug that had been making its way through the household, and I had eaten practically nothing since then. I hadn’t recovered enough to be hungry when the dream took place, but if the desire for food was there subconsciously, that would make it a classic case of dreaming as wish fulfillment.

I think many people would be inclined to find this a satisfactory explanation of the dream— but it’s just scratching the surface.  There are many details where the explanation falls short—to start with, the fact that I dreamed about choosing food to eat rather than eating it, and that curiosity seems to be the driving motive rather than hunger. Being (subconsciously) hungry may have contributed to the form the dream took, but there’s more to it than that.

(Image Source)

Let’s consider that food. I could summarize my culinary philosophy pretty well with “sure, why not?” I’ve eaten pastries labeled only in Korean on many occasions, and if I do get excited about something in a grocery store, it usually is some kind of weird fruit, as in the dream. This is all familiar territory—but why this dream, on this night? Does it have to do with something more significant that’s been on my mind, perhaps?

I noticed that, in the dream, I was concerned with making a choice among many options. And that observation alone was enough for me to draw a connection with my waking life at the time:  I was deciding how I would spend the winter break. It was December 29—just a couple days before the new year, which was my deadline for making up my mind. It wasn’t exactly New Year’s resolutions, since I was planning to have everything done by the end of February, but it was the same basic idea.

In considering the dream, I wondered whether the decision my dream-self made was really a good one. Is choosing how I spend the break a decision I should be making so indiscriminately? In Germany, after all, mustard-filled doughnuts are a prank food—you’re supposed to trick your friends into eating them, not pick them out yourself. That they’re associated with New Year’s is another reason to think this fact is relevant. And then there are those trading cards, which are apparently “bogus”—that also casts doubt on the decision. In the dream, I was simply indifferent to them—but I could connect them to trying to “collect” information, which is something that I might easily spend the break doing. Untrammeled curiosity has its advantages, but it can easily turn into a way to avoid doing things that require real effort.

Is that really something I want? No, it isn’t. Time is precious, and the dream is showing that I’m not taking the decision of how to spend it seriously enough—or at least, that’s what I thought until the following night.


The following night, I dreamed that I was a part of a class in some sort of dojo-like situation. There was a new student there, a boy. But later in the dream, he went missing, and so I had to go out to search for him. I figured that it was probably a prank of some kind that the animals there had played—there were many of them there, of all different kinds, and they had been gathering together and acting strangely. Through questioning them, I began to suspect that a certain insect-eating bird was behind it. Two ponies went by, each carrying two large baskets on their sides, but I didn’t stop to search them:  I knew the ponies were far too sensible for this sort of thing.

But later on, it turned out that one of them had been carrying the boy, asleep, in one of the baskets. I followed them with a boat along a small river until I reached the grove where they had brought him. It turned out that the boy was from Wales, and missed his home, and they were trying to help by taking him there. I thought that perhaps we could work things out so that he’d be happier here.

The dream left me wondering whether I had interpreted yesterday’s properly—one point in particular. In the dream analysis of the previous day, I had identified the chocolate mustard bio bun as a prank food; in this dream, I identified something as a prank but turned out to be wrong about it. Was I also wrong about the dream interpretation? It could be a coincidence, but coincidence is the sort of non-explanation that prevents you from ever reaching a real one, and so I’ve got to take a closer look at this dream too.

The setting here seems to be mostly the work of imagination—I can’t link it to a real place, although it is vaguely reminiscent of the wildlife hospital where I once worked. Certainly, it’s the only place I’ve lived where I was surrounded by such a wide variety of animals, though usually not running around freely, as in the dream.

Other than that, the associations to the animals don’t seem to lead me anywhere. But the ‘received wisdom’ on animals in dreams that is currently in circulation—I think it originated with Carl Jung—is that they tend to represent the ‘wilder’ parts of you—instincts, drives, strong emotions, that sort of thing. That would make for an interesting interpretation here. One of the most common nightmare-scenarios is being pursued by a wild animal of some kind—but there’s no question of threat with the animals in this dream. They’re free, but not out of control – I even seem to be able to communicate with them somehow. And when a problem occurs, my response is not to panic, but simply to round up the usual suspects—and, in the end, to admit that a couple of them knew better than I do. If this is what’s going on in the dream, it’s quite a positive snapshot of intrapsychic relations—I can’t be entirely sure I’m seeing the result of working with dreams, but doubt you’d see something like that without devoting time to some practice aimed at increasing self-knowledge.

Ponies do seem to be a particularly steady, trustworthy kind of animal—clever ones, too. I understand that some people probably have quite different associations with ponies—but mine mostly come from dealing with one pony in particular. This makes the task of interpreting much easier than it would be, say, for someone who spent their life working with horses, since I don’t have so many memories or facts to sort through. Possibly relevant to the dream, this particular pony was adept at untying his own tether, and those of other animals as well—which did lead to them running around loose on occasion.

There are lots of ponies in Wales, right? So there probably is a connection of some kind there. But actually, the reference is a little puzzling since I don’t know much about Wales. Not even its stereotypes. Yes, those are a type of association, and not being nice doesn’t keep them from showing up in dreams, especially when there aren’t any personal associations to draw on. In practice, the things we know almost nothing about are the easiest to interpret of all – again, because there’s not so much sorting to do. I sometimes suspect they’re more likely to show up in dreams because there’s none of the ambiguity that comes with actual experience. Oh, well. Let’s see what the English have to say—courtesy of Flanders and Swann.


Flanders and Swann
(Image Source)


“A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”


The English, the English, the English are best

I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.

The rottenest bits of these islands of ours

We’ve left in the hands of three unfriendly powers

Examine the Irishman, Welshman or Scot

You’ll find he’s a stinker, as likely as not.

(Skip ahead a bit.)

The Welshman’s dishonest and cheats when he can

And little and dark, more like monkey than man

He works underground with a lamp in his hat

And he sings far too loud, far too often, and flat!


Oh, right—music. The bardic tradition and such. Thank you, Flanders and Swann. I had somehow forgotten that.  And actually, when I look at the excessively long list of things I’m considering spending my break doing, there’s something that I now notice isn’t there— music. This dream isn’t explicitly offering advice– but could it be calling attention to that?

That was about as far as I had got by that evening. I had made some headway with the dream, but I still hadn’t cleared up the matter of how it was connected to the first one, and so it was still on my mind.

We had a guest for dinner that night—a friend of my aunt’s and uncle’s I had met only once before. I was still not quite on good terms with food again, but was present anyway. My uncle, as usual, hogged the conversation, mostly talking about the home improvement shows he’d been watching while he’d been down with the stomach bug. Our guest was not familiar with any of them, she said, but she did watch cooking shows—there was one she liked in which two teams of contestants each received a basket full of food—

Basket? At that word, she had my undivided attention. I’ve seen some pretty odd things happen over the years, many of them in connection with my dreams, and it would not surprise me so much if something odd were happening right now.

– and they had to use everything in the basket to make a meal, which often resulted in dishes with bizarre combinations of ingredients.

And that’s the solution right there—that’s why the bun isn’t a prank. It’s about including everything – thus the mix of national influences as well as the mix of ingredients – just as the second dream is about including everyone. I should mix things together, combine them, even if it might have some rather strange results.

In retrospect, it was clear that there was something important I had failed to consider in the first dream:  the mood of excitement that characterized it. It was not an unpleasant dream, and there was nothing in the dream itself that implied there was anything questionable about my attitude—other than the “bogus trading cards,” which I probably gave too much weight to. In the dream, I did not make them a factor in the decision at all, and that was actually a good response.  But I did not take account of that when I was considering it later, and so ended up going in a wrong direction—whereas I might have been able to figure it out if I had gone back to consider the dream more globally.

This is quite a good solution, but it leaves me with an even bigger question:  what the hell just happened? What are the chances of being handed the key to the problem like that from someone who couldn’t possibly have known they were doing it? There is a name for this kind of thing—synchronicity—but a name is not an explanation. I doubt I would have ever understood the second dream if it hadn’t happened; I rarely watch TV, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to watch a cooking show, and I had never even heard of this one. It’s almost as if the dream were following associations that shouldn’t have been there yet—like day residue coming a day early.

But several months later, something finally occurred to me. There is the remote possibility that Katya, who does watch cooking shows, mentioned it at some point—once, I had even filmed her application as a contestant to one. That was between six to eight years ago, and while I couldn’t for the life of me say what the show’s name was now, I can’t think of many reasons why one would choose to make a soup out of jellyfish.

But I can guarantee that even if the knowledge of the show’s premise was already there, I would never have figured it out if the conversation hadn’t taken place that night. I only went to the trouble of dredging up the memories because something so unusual had happened, and it was only because it had happened that I knew what to look for. Otherwise, it would have just been another dream that remained a mystery.

-to be continued-

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-

Of Idiosyncratic Interpretations and Metaphor Mongering, Part 3

“Metaphor Mongering”

I wish I knew exactly what it was about interpreting dream-elements metaphorically that Dr. McNamara finds objectionable. It cannot just be because Freud and the ancient Greeks did so. As McNamara doesn’t state it outright, I can only infer from what he does say:  he has interpretations of the so called “typical dreams” or “universal dreams” in mind, and these were not arrived at in a sufficiently respectable way—hence the problem.

I have my own problem with this sort of interpretation—but again, it cannot be McNamara’s problem because his own preferred approach is open to the same objection.

Interestingly, the examples he provides in his article of interpretations of “typical dreams” are so far from being “idiosyncratic interpretations” that they come close to being clichés. As a starting point for trying to understand a dream, you could do a lot worse; I have a number of dreams in my own series in which an ID of some sort is involved, and it is obviously—obviously to me, at least—functioning as a representation of identity. Although, come to think of it, I’ve never seen any sort of ID dream on lists of “typical dreams” before.

I should explain that I put “typical dreams” in quotation marks because I think it’s a bit of a misnomer. Most classes of dreams that consistently make the list—flying, falling, being unprepared for a test, being pursued by a dangerous person or creature, being naked in public—aren’t actually common—just widespread, and more common than might be expected given the rarity of such scenarios in our waking lives.

It’s possible that these dreams are widespread because they’re based on experiences we’ve had in common—cultural ones, like school attendance, or language, or the conceptual networks that underlie it. But from an interpretive standpoint, this isn’t very helpful, even if true. As far as I can tell, the only thing that is special about such dreams is that knowing the scenario enables one to predict which kind of emotions characterized it, something that normally can’t be taken for granted

And even then, I can easily find exceptions in my own records—for example, one dream where I was doing my laundry in a room full of washing machines while naked. It’s not characterized by feelings of vulnerability, embarrassment or anxiety, as every popular dream article ever written would lead you to expect; my dream-self didn’t seem bothered by the situation, and neither did the other people who were around. It’s still possible to read those emotions into the dream, if you’re determined to—but I suspect it had more to do with procrastination than with feeling exposed.


Noises Off Metroactive
(Image Source)


But I was talking about metaphors. It’s an interesting topic, and my own ideas about it are already available here and here. Suffice it to say that I’ve found them to occur frequently in dreams but far from universally, and that they are definitely easier to generalize about than associations.

“the dream code”

The term “dream code” implies a certain view of dreams; so does the term “interpretive scheme,” and even “system of interpretation.” But who said that there was a dream code to be cracked? Who said that the solution would be a scheme or a system?

It’s astonishing to me that nobody else even seems to be asking this kind of question. It’s even more astonishing that, to many people, a theory only seems to ‘count’ when it provides a single, simple explanation for a complex reality. To me, this is the first sign that something is wrong.

Most functional theories of dreaming assign it a single function, which starts sounding a little odd if you consider physiological functions. Bones allow us to move; they also produce blood cells. Kidneys do not just filter the blood, but regulate many bodily functions—and just think of all the things a pancreas does! All analogies have their limits, of course, but it does make you wonder:  would we have discovered everything we know today about the human body if we had used nothing but double-blind tests and statistically significant correlations? If physiology had developed independently from the observations of practicing physicians? It is not problematic to propose that REM sleep has multiple functions, but somehow, for dreaming even to have one seems to be a little out-there.

I think that a major part of the problem here has to do with how we think about functions. For something to be considered an adaptive function in the strict sense, it must operate independently of our intentions—but responsiveness to our intentions is one of the most striking characteristics of dreams. One could argue that intentionality is the stuff that dreams are made on. Practically every goal-directed practice that’s done with dreams, from incubation to attaining lucidity, relies on this responsiveness – but dreams reflect our hopes, our fears, our emotions whether we attempt to do anything with them or not. When we work with dreams, we are not somehow imposing our own goals and desires on the dream – those very goals and desires themselves are already there. They arise out of the fabric of the dream by virtue of what it is.

Does being in a dynamic relationship with our intentions imply that something can’t have an adaptive function? By definition, it seems to, but as a statement about the world, it clearly makes no sense. We are dealing with an epistemological problem – one that we might be able to overcome if we recognized it, but the mismatch between the phenomenon under consideration and our customary way of conceptualizing it makes it look like an ontological problem instead and simultaneously renders it unsolvable.

For all that, it may be that dreams serve some function independently of the uses to which we can put them, but even if that were demonstrated, we would understand very little about them if we didn’t also consider the ‘accidental’ uses – again, simply by virtue of what they are.

The ‘single function’ type of theory should probably not be considered a reversion to Aristotelian metaphysics, although it certainly looks like one at times:  rather, is a concession to the limitations of our experimental methodology. But we’ve been making such concessions for a long time, and I wonder whether people are starting to posit such theories without really knowing why. This, if true, would be intensely problematic. And somehow, there is no longer any expectation that scientists should consider the merit of claims made by the people who work with them every day, such as therapists and other dreamworkers. This is also problematic, and may be symptomatic of a larger cultural problem:  we live in a society where there is nothing strange in going about your day believing that large sections of the population are irremediably irrational—i.e., according to some definitions, somewhat less than human.

This is not an approach that somebody who is sincerely interested in discovering the truth would take. When you really want to know, you do not stop asking “why?” when it becomes inconvenient. There are always reasons, and a failure to look for them often represents a failure of empathy as well as one of intellectual integrity. And, more often than not, a system that is tacitly encouraging such failures.

But to go back to where I started from—the “dream code”. Like all metaphors, code-breaking as a metaphor for dream interpretation can be productive within limits – for instance, when dealing with one individual dreamer. It’s reasonable to believe that one person will be consistent enough over time in order for themes and patterns of interaction to be visible in a dream series, even if you know nothing about the dreamer’s life. But beyond that, I wouldn’t expect to find any discernible patterns—except maybe the ‘typical dreams.’

But considering these can only show us one side of dreaming, and I would expect even these patterns to change as our culture changes—which it is doing more rapidly than it ever has before. If so, I expect that those with statistical approaches will find their results increasingly hard to replicate, resulting in everyone who believes that dreams are brain static saying: “I told you so.”

I can only hope that this cultural change includes changing attitudes towards dreams—as seems likely, judging by the obvious boom in interest on the internet. The next generations of dreamers will no doubt come with their own sets of misconceptions and questionable assumptions, but at least they will be paying attention.

(Part 1)  (Part 2)

Of Idiosyncratic Interpretations and Metaphor Mongering, Part 2

“Idiosyncratic Interpretations”

There are many people out there who consider dreams to be mere brain static, unworthy of serious consideration; Dr. McNamara is not one of them. He believes that dreams are meaningful, and meaningful in a way that rewards interpretation. In one article on his blog, he has even offered his own speculation into what such an interpretive method would look like. His latest article, which was posted since I wrote part 1, is teeming with suggestive statistics, and contains enough citations to experiments, surveys and anthropological studies to make even the most dubious take notice. But when set beside the article I am considering here – “The Folly of Dream Interpretation” – it doesn’t quite square. It almost seems as if McNamara approves of dream interpretation, but only in the abstract.

Perhaps his views have changed somewhat in the intervening years; I know I’d be hesitant to stand behind everything I wrote four years ago. But it is striking that his insulting epithets target exactly those features that are essential to good dream interpretation. For instance—idiosyncrasy.

What kind of a thing does a dream have to be in order for an idiosyncratic interpretation to make sense? This question, at least, is easy to answer:  it has to be idiosyncratic itself. It has to take its form and content from the mental habits of the individual dreamer, making sense only when they are brought to bear on it. This is not always the case—there are few aspects of dreaming where you can safely dispense with hedge words – but in my experience, it is true often enough that dream interpretation must be tailored to the individual dreamer if it is to be helpful.

This is why reading an essay will always be a poor second to learning to interpret one’s dreams alongside an instructor. But I hope that offering techniques alongside detailed case studies is better than nothing, and I know that writing as both interpreter and interpretee allows me greater freedom and scope than would otherwise be possible, since the same idiosyncrasies that make my dreams obscure to others make them transparent to me. And while I’m aware that nobody cares about my familiarity with transcendental idealism or my antipathy towards the muffin salesman at the local farmer’s market, such minutiae often prove to be the key to understanding a dream, and so I can’t avoid dragging them in, even at the risk of being uninteresting.

Of course, it probably wouldn’t be helpful if I went around giving such interpretations of other people’s dreams without any participation on their part – which is why I don’t do that. A guess is still not an interpretation, even if it’s a good one. If this is what Dr. McNamara means by “idiosyncratic interpretations”—not interpretations that take the individual characteristics of the dreamer into account, but which are produced by individuals and applied indiscriminately—then I would have to agree that it’s something objectionable.

But for me, it’s the “indiscriminately” that’s the problematic part; it cannot be for McNamara because he believes that it will be a universally applicable system of interpretation that will someday be proven correct. At least, that’s what his choice of experimental methods would seem to imply:  if there are correlations between certain dream-elements and certain concerns, life events or outcomes of dream action, it seems unlikely that we could pick up on any that weren’t universal, or at least demographically linked, by using quantitative methods alone.

I think this sort of method is hopeless when it is not restricted to examining the dreams of individuals; perhaps an example will make the reasons clear.

Let’s Consider Fairies for a Minute

What sort of beings they are, what sort of associations they conjure up – that sort of thing. As a being that is, to my knowledge, universally acknowledged to be imaginary, they make a good example. OK, ready?

I think it’s likely that most people will have thought of something that has positive connotations for them—little, winged, flower-dwelling beings, or maybe more of a fairy-godmother sort of character. I also think it’s likely that fairies that appear in peoples’ dreams will reflect these associations. Unfortunately, they seem to appear so rarely that I can’t be sure:  I checked every single dream series on DreamBank—in German and in English— and it only turned up a single dream with a fairy in it. The Sleep and Dream Database is more difficult to use for mass searches, but a search of the Most Memorable Dream texts—a good bet if you’re looking for fantastic beings of any kind—only yielded one result as well. Here are the relevant sections of the texts themselves.

…The woman was pulled into the crash and killed. She rises as a fairy angel spirit. Bob is now a red devil suited spirit and she makes him chase her in an opposite direction from us to save us. We are now tiny, like fairies and walk through a hedge with beautiful purple flowers. We see on the other side a meadow with a fairy castle at the far end…. [DreamBank:  Barb Sanders #2: #3461, 04/20/99]

…i was alone in a magical world and had fairies for friends. it was fun because i could fly and make myself disappear…. [Sleep and Dream Database:  Most Memorable Dreams]

For what it’s worth, they do seem to be positive characters in both.

My own records yield four dreams with fairies, all of them from the same two-year period. They are of a rather different sort.

The dream started off like a video game, with having to fight fairy-like creatures.  They were similar to humans in size and appearance….  (June, 2010)

…  In the movie, fairy-like beings took over children’s minds, forced them to act on their behalf.  Some people knew about this, though, and were freeing the children, who then joined the fight against them….  (October, 2010)

In my dreams, fairies are something to be avoided. They are menacing creatures rather than helpful ones, as they tend to be in the older sort of stories, and at least a few modern ones. And while four dreams may not seem like a lot, it’s enough to make them the most frequently and most consistently antagonistic class of character in my dreams, somewhere above zombies, the mafia and Lovecraftian cultists.*

(Image Source)

It is tentative—but even if it were completely hypothetical, it would be enough to illustrate the most significant problems with a purely quantitative approach. It is no mystery how the positive version and the negative version of fairies came into being:  portrayals in fiction, as the narrative framing in both my own examples suggests. I’d imagine you’d find the same sort of pattern with vampires, which recently received the same sort of mimetic reboot. But would both versions be interpreted the same way? A generic interpretation that tried to encompass both portrayals would be an absurdity.

Or could it be that I have a negative attitude towards something that other people feel more positively towards? That would be very interesting, and definitely more plausible—but it is far from obvious how a purely correlative approach would handle the discrepancy. For some people, I’d assume, fairies would be correlated with friendly interactions; for others, with aggressive ones. If the results turned out to be evenly balanced, there’d be no way to reach any conclusions; if it favored one side over another, it might turn out a result, but one that is wrong to those in the minority.

This is a major problem with any statistically-based approach:  it’s guaranteed to turn out wrong interpretations a certain percent of the time! And presumably, it would have no way of telling you whether you’re a dreamer for whom a given interpretation was correct that didn’t have a probability attached to it.

Not to mention another problem this example raises:  classes of characters so rare that statistical conclusions can’t be reached in the first place. And again—for me, it’s more closely linked to aggressive encounters than any other class of character. That’s got to be significant, but any way you cut it, a statistical approach would be useless.

And actually, there’s an even more significant problem—one that McNamara might not consider valid, but which a practicing interpreter will have probably had in mind from the very beginning:  the fact that reaching an understanding of a dream is not an intellectual exercise, but a process that, if done properly, gives a dreamer a sense of self-discovery, of felt meaning. You know you’re onto the solution the way you know you’ve managed to unlock a door after you’ve been wiggling the key around for a while. It’s not easy to explain such a thing, but I’m sure everybody knows what I mean, if only from movies and other media. It’s like what we feel when we witness an instance of dramatic irony, or poetic justice, or even find an object we had lost—suddenly, the whole thing becomes clear to us.

Merely looking an interpretation up in a book will probably not do this, even if correct:  it will probably just result in an interpretation being imposed over the dream because it lacks an organic connection with the dream itself. At best, a statistical method could merely do what the best dream dictionaries do already:  provide a dreamer with a place to begin thinking about their dream.

-to be continued-

*This list doesn’t include soldiers, who would rank higher by far if you were going by number of aggressive interactions, but they seem to me to belong to a different category altogether. The dreams don’t portray them as malevolent characters simply by virtue of what they are, like the ones on the list—something that marks them out clearly as carriers of projected fear and aggression. They may be threatening figures, but it’s a situational thing, not a personal thing.