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.


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.

Of Idiosyncratic Interpretations and Metaphor Mongering

In 2013, Dr. Patrick McNamara published an essay on Psychology Today entitled “The Folly of Dream Interpretation.” It is a provocative article—which is probably why I’ve been seeing it linked to so much lately —but for me, it wasn’t the provocative claims that were most questionable, but the assumptions about dreaming that were behind them. It seems to me as if the scientific establishment is in need of a bit of friendly provocation itself….

The Article

I first became aware of McNamara’s blog about six years and two laptops ago. It was a time when I was reading everything on dreams I could get my hands on, regardless of whether I was sympathetic to its views or not. As I recall, I was not terribly sympathetic to Dr. McNamara’s.

But somewhere along the way, I lost track of him, and have only just got around to revisiting the blog. My overall impression is that he has some interesting ideas, but in the context of an unworkable theoretical framework. But I’ll start with a brief summary.

McNamara has noted that there are countless sites on the internet devoted to dream interpretation, even though there is no scientific consensus as to which method of interpretation, if any, is valid. Websites offer “idiosyncratic interpretations,” “metaphor mongering,” and—the one I’m sure every interpreter is thoroughly tired of hearing—“nonsense.” He also disapproves of members of the scientific establishment offering interpretations to common dream themes. In both cases, the problem seems to be the lack of data supporting such interpretations.

The data we do have come from studies that show correlations between the appearances of certain elements in dreams—e.g., number of unknown male characters with acts of aggression. McNamara believes that it will be through massive numbers of correlative studies linking dream elements to waking experiences/behaviors that “the dream code” will be cracked.

There are several claims here I’d like to consider—but let me start with the one I find myself in broad agreement with.

Dream Interpretation Websites

Like Dr. McNamara, I am not overly impressed with the quality of much of what’s on the Web today. You can find sites that offer generally sound advice, but even what’s sound is often very poorly justified. It seems that people giving interpretations do not feel obliged to explain the principles by which they are supposed to work, and that the people receiving them do not feel the need to ask for any. This is an attitude towards authority that is, frankly, a little frightening:  it makes me wonder how many people are adopting the same uncritical attitude towards authority in other areas of life, such as politics, where it also seems to be growing rarer for people to give or to ask for reasons.

But dream interpretation may be a special case, at least in one respect:  the dream dictionary is—somehow—the default mode of interpretation in our culture, and perhaps, like an ordinary dictionary, it’s expected to be authoritative just by virtue of what it is. Some of them are honest enough to represent themselves as only starting places for interpretation, some even have research behind them—but as far as theory goes, you’ll probably get no more than a passing reference to Freud and Jung. And, because the dream dictionary is a cultural given, people are less likely to ask themselves: “What kind of a thing does a dream have to be for a dictionary to be the right way to interpret it? Do I have reason to believe that it’s that kind of thing?”

Unlike McNamara, however, I do not think we should wait for data that support one interpretive method over others before practicing interpretation. If we have even the faintest inkling that our dreams are personally significant, then they call out to be understood; sometimes they call out urgently. To say that we can afford to wait indefinitely implies that our dreams must not be very important to begin with—which is only a small step from not being important enough to consider at all.

We have to weigh the advantages of acting on incomplete knowledge versus inaction every day; and while inaction is often the safer option, it seldom offers us the possibility of enriching our lives. I do not like the suggestion that exploring beyond the frontiers of knowledge should be restricted to professional scientists. We may be living in the 21st century, but we still have opportunities for bravery, for acting masterfully, for enjoying life in all its colorful ambiguity—and this holds true even if we live in a culture that does its best to make us nervous and vaguely uncertain about everything.  I’m certainly not going to put off drinking coffee until nutritional science makes up its mind about whether it’s healthy or not, and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to, either.

More to the point, I do not think that a dream is the right kind of thing to be interpreted by correlating variables any more than I think it’s the right kind of thing to be interpreted with a dictionary. If we did wait for a scientifically confirmed method of dream interpretation, I’m afraid we’d be waiting an awfully long time.


(Image Source)


But let’s back up for a second—a google search for dreams turns up millions of websites. Millions! Six years ago, you were lucky to find a couple dozen websites specializing in dreams, and maybe a dozen more specifically devoted to lucid dreaming. Mind you, you had to wade through all the inspirational and aspirational websites—“follow your dreams,” etc.—in order to get to what you were looking for, and so it was difficult to say with certainty just how many there were out there. But I was able to keep up with all the ones I could find, and that has been impossible for a while now.

Millions of people are curious about dreams—this should be wonderfully exciting to the scientists who study them. As far as I’m aware, though, there has not been a corresponding boom in dream science since then—I’ve even read statements to the effect that there’s less interest than there used to be. I realize that this is partly a matter of funding, and that institutions are by nature slow-moving and resistant to change, but how much public curiosity is there going to have to be before the scientists start getting curious?

-to be continued-

The Fourth Factor: Part 4


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Anyone want to donate their ego to science?

Towards a Science of Dreams

The other day, while watching a video lecture on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it occurred to me to compare literary studies to dream science. Neither one is my profession, so I can be presumed to be relatively unbiased in the comparison (as well as completely unqualified to make it)…. [click here to read more]

This article has been substantially edited and moved to my new blog, Prism of Dreams.