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.
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.