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-

What is now Proved

I am a practitioner of the ancient art of coffee-roasting. In order to get the best possible cup of coffee, I need to consider many factors while I roast: the temperature of the beans, the length of time it takes them to get up to roasting temperature, the kind of roast my re-purposed pop-corn popper does best, the degree to which the beans are roasted. Every type of bean is a little different, and so trial and error is usually required before I get good results.

I am also a practitioner of the ancient art of dream-interpretation, and in some ways, it’s not that different. Every dream requires its own approach; sometimes the results are great, and sometimes not so much; and my own strengths are one factor that determines the approach I use.

And there’s yet another way in which they’re similar. If someone came up to me while I was roasting and, through the smoke and the din of rattling beans, said “There’s no point in going to all that trouble. Coffee is just coffee, it’s nothing special,” then I wouldn’t be able to refute them. If someone can’t taste the difference, how could I ever convince them there is one? Grinding my freshly-roasted beans and running them through a gas chromatograph? I like a good experiment as much as anyone, but I can think of better things to do with coffee.

The good news—at least regarding dreams—is that most people haven’t actually got as far as the taste-test yet. The problem is not actually proving that dreams are meaningful, but getting people to consider the possibility that they are.

The bad news is that, in the grand scheme of things, this may actually be much harder than proving it. Even in my early days of dream studies this was something that concerned me. I saw that the people around me could not even imagine the possibilities I was entertaining, and that put a gulf between us. As a thorough skeptic, I was unwilling to reject any possibility without strong reasons—but they were already certain such things were impossible, and also called it skepticism.

A while back, I wrote that in lucid dreams you can dream anything you can imagine. I did not write “In lucid dreams you can dream anything,” and that was intentional.

For a person to become convinced that something they consider impossible is real in a single leap is no small matter. It can happen, but when it does it’s called an epiphany—or perhaps a bombshell, depending. It is not an everyday occurrence, and it is seldom— if ever— triggered by line graphs or syllogisms. Even in philosophical debates, whose participants ought to be susceptible to abstract reasoning if anyone is, it is rare to catch someone changing their mind. The biggest victory you can expect in a debate is “I’ll have to think about that some more.” In other words, it is possible that you might be right.

And it’s no wonder. Proof is violent. It’s like hitching a ride on a stranger’s motorbike at midnight and doing your best to hang on. And the road leading from skepticism to certainty must be the bumpiest one in the world—certainly no less so than the one leading the other way.

It doesn’t help that, of all people, the scientifically inclined seem to find it hardest to recognize the fact that changing your mind involves changing yourself— and hardest to forgive others for repelling what is often – unconsciously – an attack. It is insulting to have a proposition forced on you by someone who got their own reasoning second-hand and may not have seriously considered its full implications. And if your truths don’t go down to your bones, then you yourself are the biggest argument against them. And in any case, it’s bad taste for scientific folks to play the Herald of Truth, since they could easily be doing the same for another truth tomorrow.

But it’s not the best taste under any circumstances, and so I’ll end this train of thought here. (Didn’t it start out being about coffee?)

In the grand scheme of things, I think art can do more real work towards changing minds than science can, just by virtue of getting people to suspend disbelief for long enough to know what it feels like instead of immediately putting them on the defensive. I haven’t seen “Inception”, I haven’t seen any of the movies or other media centered around dreams and cannot vouch for their factual accuracy or artistic merit, but I’m still glad that they’re out there, getting people to imagine things they’ve never imagined before.

“What is now prov’d was once, only imagined” –William Blake

Why News Articles About Dreams Mean Less Than We Think

Today, I’m going to take one of the many news articles about dreams on the internet and show why it’s crap.

The sad thing is that so many of them are, and that they get away with it so easily. Most people don’t know much about dreams, so they’re liable to trust anyone on a reliable news site who claims to know more. And because dreams are such a rare topic of discussion, badly-founded opinions survive for a long time.

And yet, articles on dreams do appear every once in a while. They mostly stay within the bounds of one of two popular opinions: that certain types of dreams have certain predictable meanings, and that dreams are complete nonsense. The article I’ll be examining here is one of the latter: an article from the health section of Time Magazine entitled “Why Dreams Mean Less Than We Think”.

This title is provocative, a bid for readers’ attention based either on indignation at having their views contradicted or self-satisfaction at having them echoed. It leads us to expect something authoritative—say, evidence to support the statement. For an article like this one, which contains no evidence, it instead leaves the reader with the impression that they have read something authoritative, instead of the opinions of someone who doesn’t know much more than they do.

The article begins:

“Most people dream enthusiastically at night, their dreams seemingly occupying hours, even though most last only a few minutes. Most people also read great meaning into their nocturnal visions. In fact, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the vast majority of people in three very different countries — India, South Korea and the United States — believe that their dreams reveal meaningful hidden truths.”

Claim #1: “Most people dream enthusiastically at night.” Fair enough. Given that the vast majority of dreams are negative in tone, “enthusiastically” is perhaps not the best adjective to use, but it does make for an engaging beginning.

Claim #2: “…their dreams seemingly occupying hours, even though most last only a few minutes.” The jury is out on this one. My own opinion is that dreams do not require time in the way waking life experience does, and many experiments support this—but there are also experiments that seem to throw it into doubt. It’s even possible that this is something that varies among dreams and dreamers. So I’ll let this one slide.

Claim #3: “The vast majority of people in three very different countries believe that their dreams reveal meaningful hidden truths.” This is a claim made by the study this article is reporting on—a paper entitled “When Dreaming is Believing: The (Motivated) Interpretation of Dreams”. I checked, and it is indeed what the study claims—but I still have some reservations, which will become apparent in the next paragraph.

Paragraph 2

“According to the study, 74% of Indians, 65% of South Koreans and 56% of Americans hold an old-fashioned Freudian view of dreams: that they are portals into the unconscious.”

First of all: since when was 56% a vast majority? It’s barely a majority at all.

I don’t even know where to begin with the rest of the problems with this. To identify belief in an unconscious mind with Freudian psychology is just plain wrong. Almost every variety of dream interpretation holds that there is some sort of unconscious, although not all of them call it by that name. And to identify the view that dreams convey “hidden truths about the self” exclusively with Freud is worse yet: this could describe everything from orthodox Freudianism to mystical theology. But this is a problem with the original study as well as the article.

In a survey, participants had to rate four theories of dreams on their plausibility: psychoanalytic theory, reverse-learning theory, Activation-Synthesis, and the problem-solving theory of dreams. Even though I’m not a Freudian, I’d have to say that the psychoanalytic option is the best option there too, especially because of the way they phrased it: “dreams reveal hidden truths when emotions buried in the unconscious surface in disguised form”. There is a lot of leeway for interpretation there, as well as with the phrasing of the other options. It was irresponsible of the researchers to conclude that because that answer was most frequently chosen, most people endorse the Freudian view of dreams.*

And on that note: I wonder how many Freudians there are in India? I’d wager it’s somewhat less than 74% of the population.

Paragraph 3

“But after so many years of brain research showing that most of our everyday cognitions result from a complex but observable interaction of proteins and neurons and other mostly uncontrolled cellular activity, how can so many otherwise rational people think dreams should be taken seriously? After all, brain activity isn’t mystical but — for the most part — highly predictable.”

I usually don’t try to fight neurological claims—especially claims as vague as this one. Suffice it to say that the use of “otherwise” here contradicts all of paragraphs 5 and 6, which claim that most people aren’t rational.

Paragraph 4

“The authors of the study — psychologists Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University and Michael Norton of Harvard — offer a few theories. For one, dreams often feature familiar people and locations, which means we are less willing to dismiss them outright. Also, because we can’t trace the content of dreams to an external source — because that content seems to arise spontaneously and from within — we can’t explain it the way we can explain random thoughts that occur to us during waking hours. If you find yourself sitting at your desk and thinking about a bomb exploding in your office, you might say to yourself, “Oh, I watched 24 last night, so I’m just remembering that episode.” But people have a harder time making sense of dreams. Maybe 24 caused the dream, we think — or maybe we’re having a premonition of an attack. We love to interpret dreams widely, and those acts of interpretation give dreams meaning.”

As I have written before, I do actually believe that interpretation can give dreams meaning, although not in the way this article is assuming. For that matter, a study of how dreams themselves demonstrate heuristic thinking could be fascinating—if it were done better than this one was.

Paragraphs 5 & 6
“Human beings are irrational about dreams the same way they are irrational about a lot of things. We make dumb choices all the time on the basis of silly information like racial bias or a misunderstanding of statistics — or dreams. Morewedge and Norton quote one of the most famous modern studies to demonstrate our collective folly, from a paper written by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman that was published in Science in 1974. In that paper, Tversky and Kahneman discuss an experiment in which subjects were asked to estimate the percentage of African countries represented in the U.N. Before they guessed, a researcher spun a wheel of fortune in front of them that landed on a random number between 0 and 100. People tended to pick an answer that wasn’t far from the number on the wheel, even though the wheel had nothing to do with African countries.”

“Countless experiments over the ensuing decades have confirmed that most of us make this so-called anchoring mistake — that is, making a decision based largely on an unrelated piece of information, like a random number that appears on a wheel. Anchoring occurs all the time, like when you’re asked to look at your Social Security number before answering a question (you’re more likely to pick an answer close to the digits in your SSN). A team of researchers even showed in a 2003 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that people will endure more physical discomfort (exposure to an unpleasant noise) for less monetary compensation in a lab setting when they are anchored prior to the experiments to smaller monetary amounts. As I said, we all make dumb choices based on silly information. That’s why we invest meaning in dreams.”

There is no connection between the experiments cited and the claim that dreams do not mean anything. We have a term for that in logic: Non Sequitur. Ironically, if a reader were to think that the cited studies provide evidence that dreams are meaningless, they would be guilty of a  type of reasoning very similar to the one described above. This part is also borrowed from the study, and so we are once again looking at bad science as well as bad journalism.

Paragraph 7

“That being said, dumb choices aren’t necessarily bad ones. A final finding from the study: When people have dreams about good things happening to their good friends, they are more likely to say those dreams are meaningful than when they have dreams about bad things happening to their friends. Similarly, we invest more meaning in dreams in which our enemies are punished and less meaning in dreams in which our enemies emerge victorious. In short, our interpretation of dreams may say a lot less about some quixotic search for hidden truth than it does about another enduring human quality: optimistic thinking.”

It is true that people are prone to optimistic thinking, and those of us who are deeply involved with dreams tend to be more optimistic than most. Except for Freudians. And except for me. I’m quixotic minus the optimism—i.e., just plain obsessive.

But I do wish dream interpreters were a little more open to the possibility that dream-interpretation may involve self-deception. If you interpret your dreams night after night with an open mind, the process seems to be self-correcting, so perhaps there isn’t too much cause for worry. I just wish everyone wasn’t so damn certain. But unjustified certainty seems to be even more enduring than optimism is.

And for the final stroke: the study being reported does not actually attempt to prove that dreams mean less than we think, as the article’s title implies. The study takes it as a given that dreams are only meaningful as personal reactions to external events. What is being investigated—as the study’s title indicates— is how people’s beliefs affect their interpretations of dreams. From paragraph 3 onward, this news article is not actually reporting the study’s results, but borrowing from it to support a view of dreams that was assumed by the study to begin with, making the whole article nothing but a giant case of circular reasoning! It is not only misleading but fallacious from beginning to end.

When I decided to critique “Why Dreams Mean Less Than We Think,” I believed that what I would mostly have to correct were errors in the article itself. It wasn’t until I read the study it is reporting that I realized how many of the errors had simply been elaborated on. This, it seems, is how misinformation about dreams and dream-theories is spread.

I’ll have to return to the study sometime, and give it a going-over in its own right. But in the meantime, I can offer a resource for readers who actually want to learn about dreams: Dreamresearch.net. All of the studies reported there are extraordinarily conservative in the conclusions they draw about dreams, and even then I disagree with some of them, but it was my introduction to dream studies, and I would still recommend it to others who are looking for a place to begin. Or else you could read consciousness researcher Ryan Hurd’s thoughtful perspective on the study’s implications.


* The last time I checked, this study’s complete identification of Freud with the idea of dreams containing hidden meaning was also being parroted on Wikipedia’s dream page.

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?

The Quest for Normality

A friend of mine who is knowledgeable about neuroscience once told me that only one person in 1,000 has a normal brain. In a purely statistical sense, that means that normal is actually weirder than weird: mostly, it just serves as a useful reference point so that all the weird people can articulate the ways in which they’re weird to one another.

But even if you were to find a normal person and ask them what their dreams were like, I doubt they could tell you what a normal dream is. To do that, they would have to be a normal person with normal concerns playing a normal role in a normal society with a normal view on dreams—and at that point, normality becomes totally meaningless. No wonder researchers prefer just taking the average.

This is why the concept of a default, normal dream is such a questionable one: dreams exist in a dynamic relationship with the dreamer’s life, and normality in life is not an easy concept to define. It is probably also why there is no universally accepted definition of what a dream is: there are many styles of dreaming, potentially as many as there are dreamers.

‘Style’ is a good word to use here: in writing, too, there is no such thing as a normal style, and efforts to define one start to look outdated pretty quickly. As with writing, dreaming style tends to become more pronounced as people take an interest in their dreams.

But if you tried to determine the average writing style in a society that devalued literacy the way mainstream Western society devalues dreaming, you would probably discover that it was muddled, confused, and not communicating anything worth knowing. If you then created a theory on the nature of writing based on your results—well, I guess you’d end up with the Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis of literature.

Devaluing dreams is typically Western; so is the view of dreaming as an inward-looking state, which is what makes dreaming one of those conversation topics. Everybody knows that other people’s dreams are boring—or else a little too interesting. As private affairs, it is unreasonable to expect strangers or casual acquaintances to take an interest in them.

I suspect that for dreamers to have individual styles—at least, those who care enough about their dreams to pay attention to them— is also characteristic of the westernized world rather than characteristic of dreams in general. If you look at ancient Egyptian art, or Aztec art, you only see one style;* art, like dreaming, was a community affair. But it is expected for a modern-day artist to develop their own.

This gives a poignancy to the quest for normality, which is also typically Western. We are the weird ones—all together, and each of us alone.

*With exceptions, of course.

To be a Builder of Bridges: Part 2

Wunder ist nicht nur im unerklärten
Überstehen der Gefahr;
erst in einer klaren reingewährten
Leistung wird das Wunder wunderbar.

Miracle’s not only in the unexplained
Outlasting of the threat;
Only in the clear, consummate
Achievement is the miracle defined.

–Rainer Maria Rilke


Before moving on, I have an admission to make: I am not really qualified to write this. I am singularly lacking in credentials of every sort, and I would be to a semiotician what a bounty hunter is to a law enforcement officer if anyone were paying me to do this. But for all that, I may still be in the right.

The ultimate test for a system of dream-interpretation is whether it’s useful. A system does not have to be true to be useful: there are 2,000-year old navigation devices that got people where they needed to go, even while the theory behind them was wrong. By this standard, I don’t think any system of dream interpretation would actually fail the test. The reasons why are interesting, but this isn’t the place for them.

However, the subject of this essay is neither truth nor utility, but structure – the shape of our question  and the corresponding array of answers it might yield. I am not concerned with what dreams mean, but with how we can derive meaning from them – the possible structures that the dream, the dreamer and the interpretation make together. Many theories of dreaming assume that the interpretation process must somehow retrace the original dream-formation process, but for the moment, how a dream takes shape is also outside my purview.

It is important to consider structure first because it keeps us from asking stupid questions and then wondering later on why the answers we get make no sense. It also makes the assumptions we bring to our study visible by allowing us to recognize possibilities that we have unconsciously excluded.

A case in point: J. Allan Hobson, the creator of the activation-synthesis hypothesis—considered one of the foremost theories of dreaming for the past few decades— clearly did not consider the full implications of making ‘bizarreness’ one of his defining characteristics of dreams.

Bizarreness, by Hobson’s definition, refers to “unlikely elements in the dream narrative”—but unlikely compared to what? The word implies a comparison that Hobson does not explicitly state. What he probably means is, “unlikely compared to waking life or narratives of waking life”—but why should either one be the standard by which a dream is judged? When you are trying to determine the relationship between the brain dreaming and the brain awake, as Hobson is, this amounts to assuming what you’re trying to prove.

If we begin by assuming that events in dreams that are impossible in waking life are errors—for instance, a human character turning into an animal— we cannot hope to find a perspective in which those ‘errors’ are meaningful in their own right. No literary critic would consider Gregor Samsa turning into an insect in Metamorphosis to be an authorial mistake (although I doubt any two could agree as to what it means). Perhaps dreams can be better compared to novels than to waking life; perhaps they are even more like myths, or poetry, or improvisational theater. But we are not entitled to that ‘better’. We can make all the comparisons we like later on, but we must begin by taking dreams on their own terms.


Interpreting a dream is a retrospective act. When we interpret, we do so from the perspective of waking life, where it is something over and done with; we are not working with a dream itself, but with the memory of a dream. Moreover, even though we call it “dream interpretation,” it is just as fair to say that what we’re doing is using a dream to interpret waking life. Waking life is what matters to us when we interpret – it’s where we are, it’s where we’re interpreting from. If we were to attempt to interpret a dream while dreaming, we would be looking at an entirely different process. There could be no talk of building bridges then.

Since the memory of a dream is the raw material for all interpretation, it is useful to consider what the memory of a dream consists of:

1. sensory impressions: visual and auditory images, tactile sensations, occasionally a smell or taste.

2. feeling-tones: emotions experienced within the dream and moods that seem to characterize the dream in a less defined way.

3. cognitive acts: planning, recognition, internal monologues, assessments of dream-events, settings, characters, etc.

4. changes: the actions, interactions and transformations that take place in a dream.

5. identity: a sense of agency which may or may not be experienced as it is in waking life.

All of these may be remembered as part of a coherent narrative or in a fragmentary way. Often, we seem to recognize people in dreams without being able to recall distinct sensory impressions of them, or we recall our actions without having any insight into our motivations or emotions. Sometimes we may not be actors in our own dreams, but disembodied witnesses.

Mostly, however, the memories of dreams seem comparable to memories of waking-life, though more like distant memories than recent ones. As with distant memories, we have to trust that we have retained something important, while admitting that they are incomplete and probably the result of an unconscious process of selection.

In reading a description of someone else’s dream, we are yet another step removed from the original experience. A dreamer may not always have taken the trouble to record those elements that are hardest to communicate, especially if they weren’t motivated by an interest in dreaming. Participants in dream-lab experiments seldom mention emotions unless they’re specifically asked to, and in order to do justice to mood and emotional atmosphere, you practically have to be a poet. But emotions are too unpredictable to guess at, and too important to ignore. The perceptions in dreams are illusory, and cognition in dreams is often inscrutable to the waking mind – at least on the surface. But emotions in dreams have as much claim to reality as any we experience.

As for waking life, which the dream must somehow be put into relation with, we have the totality of our life experiences—past, present, and future—our hopes, fears, thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and the lives of our family, peers, culture, and others we associate with. I exclude neither one-sided associations like that between an artist and his dead predecessors, or a fan with a celebrity he has never met, nor relations with supernatural beings which, real or not, are felt on an experiential level.

In considering dreams, we are often severely limited by what we can remember, but in considering waking life, we are spoiled for choice. It will often be obvious to a dreamer when a dream concerns the very recent past or an anticipated future, but instincts can be fallible. In practice, a method of interpretation will usually limit the range of life experience to be considered to the dreamer’s present thoughts, feelings, or concerns (a useful umbrella category). An orientation of this kind is necessary if the interpretation is to be useful, even if dreams do not by nature limit themselves in such a way. In any case, the present has a tendency to look a lot like the past, so there’s really no compelling reason to pin a dream down to a specific time except for utility.

A method of interpretation may also limit the dream-elements to be considered, either by formally disqualifying some of them—for example, by considering only visual images— or by ranking them according to the dreamer’s subjective concern. This is an approach that some theorists have tried to justify theoretically, but it can better be understood as a practical necessity. If one element makes a clear point of connection to the dreamer’s life, the rest of the dream will often seem to fall into place around it. If a series of dreams is considered as the basic interpretive unit rather than a dream or a dream-image, one dream may provide the key to understanding the others in a similar way.

One form of dream-interpretation may seem to be an exception to this general structural outline: interpretation using a dream-dictionary, especially one with a spiritual tone. But a translation in a dream-dictionary is best considered a method of interpretation rather than the end-result. The interpretation is not complete until the dream is somehow brought to bear on the dreamer’s life.

A real exception is the interpretation of dreams as events occurring in a reality other than the physical reality we inhabit, or as precognitions of events taking place in physical reality. The dream may be considered as either a literal or a symbolic representation of such events. Dreaming in the West has traditionally been thought of as an inward-looking state, but if we actually interact with supernatural beings or other dreamers in our dreams, then the situation changes. But it may not even be appropriate to consider this a form of interpretation, since the significance of such dreams seems to be experienced in a more direct way than the word ‘interpretation’ implies by those who claim to experience them. In short, it is a whole other kettle of fish, and a can of worms besides.