The 7 Worst Things Ever Said About Dreams

dreams-are-random1.  The most evil type of man is the man who, in his waking hours, has the qualities we find in his dream state.

(Plato, The Republic, IX.571-576)

2.  For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words….For when dreams increase, empty words grow many.”

(Ecclesiastes 5:3, 7)

3.  I talk of dreams; which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy; which is as thin of substance as the air, and more inconstant than the wind…

(Mercutio, in William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, I.iv.102-106)

4. Dreams are a vanity, God knows, pure error.  Dreams are engendered in the too-replete from vapours in the belly, which compete with others, too abundant, swollen tight.

(Pertelote to Chanticleer in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.)

5.  The forebrain may be making the best of a bad job in producing even partially coherent dream imagery from the relatively noisy signals sent up to it from the brain stem.

(J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, “The Brain as a Dream-State Generator,” 1977)

6.  In this model, attempting to remember one’s dreams should perhaps not be encouraged, because such remembering may help to retain patterns of thought which are better forgotten.  These are the very patterns the organism was attempting to damp down.

(Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison, “The Function of Dream Sleep,” 1983)

7.  Dreaming is a free-rider on a system designed to be conscious while we are awake, and which is designed to sleep….  So far, no hypothesis put forward requires that we think of dreaming as more than a side-effect of the relevant functions of sleep.

(Owen Flanagan, “Dreaming Is Not an Adaptation,” 2000)

Word Searching as a Tool in the Study of Dreams, or, Dream Research in the Era of Big Data

I’m giving a presentation with that title on Saturday, June 23, at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, held in Berkeley, California.  The presentation is part of a panel session, “What’s New in the Scientific Study of Dreams.”  I’m giving an overview of the word searching method I’ve been developing over the past several years, with a special focus on four “blind analysis” studies I’ve performed with the help of Bill Domhoff.  A youtube video preview of the presentation can be found here.

Here’s how I define blind analysis in the paper:

A blind analysis involves an exclusive focus on word usage frequencies, bracketing out the narrative reports and personal details of the dreamer’s life and making inferences based solely on statistical patterns in word usage—not reading the dreams at all, and basing one’s analysis strictly on numerical data.  The aim is to assess the patterns of dream content with the fewest possible preconceptions, as objectively as possible, before reading through the narratives and learning about the individual’s waking activities and concerns.

Dreaming of Nature and the Nature of Dreams

The First Australian Regional Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams starts on April 19, and I have prepared a video talk for the conference titled “Dreaming of Nature and the Nature of Dreams.”  The talk can be found on Youtube, and the statistical data I reference can be found in Google docs.  More info about the IASD and the Australia conference is here.

I start the talk by briefly mentioning some of my early writings about the interplay of dreaming and nature: a 1991 article “Quest for Transformational Experience: Dreams and Environmental Ethics,” my doctoral dissertation/1994 book The Wilderness of Dreams and its notion of “root metaphors,” Herbert Schroeder’s chapter on dreams and natural resource management in my edited 1996 book Among All These Dreamers, the study of politically conservative and liberal people’s dreams and views of the environment in 2008’s American Dreamers, and Dreaming in the World’s Religions, also in 2008, with several stories of the inspirational roles that dreaming play in the nature awareness of indigenous cultures in the Americas, Africa, and Oceania.

The main focus of the talk is the findings I’ve made about the statistical frequency of nature references in dream content, using the word search methods of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb).  For this presentation I created a baseline sample of 2087 dream reports of more than 50 words but less than 300 words in length, from a total of 1232 females and 855 males.  The sample includes children, college students, and adults.  All are American and all are educated and/or computer literate.

Using tools on the SDDb that anyone can access, I studied these 2087 dream reports for references to the following categories of nature content: Weather, fire, air, water, earth, flying, falling, and animals.  (Can you guess which of the four classic elements (fire, air, water, earth) appears most often in dreams?  Can you guess which animals appear most frequently?) After laying out my findings I discuss the technological and political issues involved in bringing the insights of dreaming to bear on waking world environmental problems.

About halfway through the talk, our cat Strauss makes an appearance over my right shoulder.  It was a sunny day by Portland, Oregon standards, and the local birds were very active outside my window.  It was hard not to look at what he was looking at!


Snakes, Dreams, and Jung’s Red Book

People have reported dreams of serpents and snakes throughout history in cultures all over the world.  In terms of Jungian psychology, snake dreams have a powerful archetypal quality.  They give people an extremely memorable and uncanny experience of the “otherness” of the collective unconscious. Jung has a few things to say about the symbolism of serpents and snakes at various points in The Red Book:

“The serpent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity, but also a wise bridge that connects right and left through longing, much needed by our life.” (247)

“Why did I behave as if that serpent were my soul?  Only, it seems, because my soul was a serpent….Serpents are wise, and I wanted my serpent soul to communicate her wisdom to me.” (318)  (This comment comes after a long dialogue in active imagination with a great iridescent snake coiled atop a red rock.)

“I have united with the serpent of the beyond.  I have accepted everything beyond into myself.” (322)

“If I had not become like the serpent, the devil, the quintessence of everything serpentlike, would have held this bit of power over me.  This would have given the devil a grip and he would have forced me to make a pact with him just as he also cunningly deceived Faust.  But I forestalled him by uniting myself with the serpent, just as a man unites with a woman.” (322)

“The daimon of sexuality approaches our soul as a serpent.” (353)

These passages make it clear that Jung regarded snakes both negatively and positively, both as “chthonic devils” (318) and as indispensable guides for the soul.

From a Jungian perspective, snake dreams offer people the dangerous possibility of connecting with the wisdom of the collective unconscious and drawing strength from its archetypal energies.

If you’re interested in learning more about snake dreams in history, scroll down the list to see this post. (titled “What Do Dreams of Snakes Mean?”)

If you’d like ideas about how to interpret snake dreams, see this post.

For more information about actual snakes, take a look at the website of the East Bay Vivarium.

Jung’s Seminar on Children’s Dreams

imagesChildren’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940 by C.G. Jung, edited by Lorenz Jung and Maria Meyer-Grass, translated by Ernst Falzeder with the collaboration of Tony Woolfson (Princeton University Press, 2008).

This new English translation of C.G. Jung’s seminar on the earliest remembered dreams of childhood marks a dramatic advance in the study of Jungian dream theory.  The book makes available to English readers a fascinating, informative, and thought-provoking source of insight into Jung’s practical approach to dream interpretation.  It will appeal to anyone who wants to learn more about how Jung actually worked with dreams.  The book will also serve as an important resource for teachers and researchers in their use and/or criticism of Jung’s psychology of dreams.  Although the title suggests a narrower focus, Children’s Dreams in fact provides the best single source for understanding the broader dimensions of Jungian dream theory.

From 1936 to 1940 Jung taught the seminar at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.  The participants included some of his brightest followers, including Marie-Louis Von Franz, Aniela Jaffe, and Jolande Jacobi.  Each meeting of the seminar involved one of the participants presenting and analyzing an early childhood dream report (or brief dream series), after which Jung would comment and other participants would ask questions and respond to Jung’s ideas.  We cannot know how faithfully the transcript represents what actually happened in the seminar, but the written text does give the strong sense of a lively, intelligent, free-flowing conversation among people who knew Jung’s theories very well and wanted his guidance in applying them.

Virtually no mention is made of the ominous political situation in Europe at this time, i.e., the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany and the outbreak of World War II.  A Jung critic might take this as a retreat from the real problems of the world into the self-reinforcing fantasy world of dream symbolism.  A more sympathetic reader might wonder if the seminar participants found this work so compelling precisely because they knew that dark forces were afoot and they wanted to gain better practical insight into the deep psychological roots of the darkness threatening their civilization.

The first chapter, Jung’s introductory lecture to the class, is itself worth the price of the book.  In clear, straightforward language Jung lays out the basic principles and themes of his approach to dream interpretation.  He puts special emphasis on the earliest remembered dreams of childhood because these types of dreams often relate to primordial themes in the collective unconscious and thus offer an especially good view of archetypal dynamics.  In this Jung highlights a key notion in his overall psychological system: “[T]he unconscious is older than consciousness….The unconscious is what is originally given, from which consciousness rises anew again and again.” (7)   Children have less conscious superstructure than adults and thus more direct exposure to oneiric blasts from the collective unconscious. This is not always a good thing.  On the contrary, one of the remarkable features of the dreams presented in the book is their relentlessly negative, violent, frightening character.  Most of the dreams are nightmares, many of them recurrent.  This may reflect the fact that the seminar participants drew most of the dream reports from their clinical practices with people suffering psychophysiological problems.  It may also reflect what Jung considered the numinous power of the archetypes, their overwhelming energy and consciousness-stretching impact on people, particularly early in their lives.

In the introduction Jung lays out his method of analyzing dreams in terms of a four-part dramatic structure:

1. Locale: Place, time, ‘dramatis personae.’

2. Exposition: Illustration of the problem.

3. Peripateia: Illustration of the transformation—which can also leave room for a catastrophe.

4. Lysis: Result of the dream. Meaningful closure. Compensating illustration of the action of the dream. (30)

Each dream in the book is analyzed according to this structure.  This creates a helpful unity across the length of the book, which at 468 pages requires an extensive commitment of time and energy to read all the way to the end.  For teaching and reference purposes the book can be read piecemeal, in selections of one or two dream discussions (each one goes for 10-15 pages).  But we found real value in reading the book start to finish because many of the most interesting exchanges between Jung and the participants pop up unexpectedly in reference to different dreams.  As the seminars proceed Jung refers back to previous dreams and their analyses, so there is definitely a cumulative quality to the text.

Jung’s Children’s Dreams will not, in all likelihood, satisfy contemporary researchers who ask about the reliability of memory processes in dream recall, particularly dreams that people are remembering from many years in the past.  Nor will those who question Jung’s assumption about the universality of the archetypes find any reason to give up their skepticism.  But for those who already appreciate and value Jungian dream theory, Children’s Dreams will be a cause for joy.  The book is comparable to Freud’s epic Interpretation of Dreams (1900) in providing a rich, complex, highly detailed exposition of Jung’s psychology of dreams and dream interpretation.

(Originally published in DreamTime 2009, co-authored with KB’s mother, Patricia Bulkley)