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About Dreams

You're getting this mini-article on dreaming because the commenter on Discovery News seemed to glitch for me this morning when I read this article: "a href="http://news.discovery.com/human/dreams-just-brain-exercise.html">Dreams, Just Brain Exercise.</a>

I started commenting to that idea and the commenter failed, but my comment ran on into a fairly well-organized little article, so here it is -- my view on dreams and dreaming.

The usual sorts of dream interpretations often fall apart because people have different cultural expectations of dream symbols. But if dreams are just a sort of meaningless warmup, why is it that dream deprivation can be so devastating to health and emotional balance? Dream deprivation will eventually drive a person around the bend.

Dreams historically have often contained solutions to problems the waking mind was working on solving, the classic one being that scientist who dreamed of the shape of the carbon ring.

I would not say that all dreams are meaningful. But at the same time I won't say they're all meaningless either. You can be jogging to warm up at the top of the day and also keep going in the direction that you intended to go while making real progress.

I am a novelist. From childhood, I've had two types of dreams -- boring ones that are just a hash of whatever I read and whatever happened in life, your mixmaster approach to life-so-far in which I dream that I'm myself and deal with exaggerated versions of cool things and stuff that scared me. Then there are the others -- the Plot-Dreams. I dream that I'm someone else, could be anyone, could just be a conscious point of view floating in space.

I will live a scene from a book I'm going to write. Then shift point of view and live another scene in the next dream and the next until I get the point that yes, this is one of my novels coming to consciousness and write it down. Once I start writing the novel idea, then I stop dreaming it. THese dream-openers and concepts have turned out to be some of the best writing I've done in my life.

People who have precognitive dreams may be having psychic perceptions or they may just be putting all the pieces together in their sleep and recognizing a likely event before it happens. Either way though, the content of some dreams is meaningful and organized.

Psychologists I talked to including psych teachers had a hard time analyzing the Plot-Dreams because they weren't personal -- they're stories for the general public, the origins of creative work that are always only good beginnings that need to be completed when I'm awake. Their symbolism has much more to do with "the human condition" and what makes a good story in general than what I'm going through in life at the time. Most of all, their themes aren't always about me at all.

So it's like trying to find personal inner psychological significance relating to current events in the first pages of someone's project-focused presentation -- it may have something to do with immediate life circumstances but is much more going to relate to the actual creative task at hand.

I am aware that I spent most of my life learning how to write novels, cared passionately about it and that I trained into it from early childhood. Perhaps my random morning jog always took that turn in the road toward storyland simply because I was that concentrated on the problem -- learning to write good stories. While I rested, even in childhood, my mind was still working on "I want a really good story idea" and so I wandered into organized good story ideas rather than random hash like most of my more forgettable dreams.

My dreams are often more sensory than other people report -- and sometime around junior high I read some articles on writing that suggested bringing in all the senses, not just sight and sound, remember touch and taste and hearing and hunches too. So maybe I'm a trained dreamer and maybe so was the carbon-ring scientist and maybe my Dreamtime isn't that far from the rich cultural information an Australian native finds in a Dreamtime shaped by thousands of years of culture to have certain symbols and beings.

I always like to think about both the physical known-world as science currently sees it, the very conservative "I can only count on what science has shown to be true to be true" with a healthy wallop of uncertainty and awareness science can be dead-wrong so many times from Camarasaurus head on an Apatosaur body to some of the really loony whoppers... and the mystical view of life where all of the less tangible, less definable yet perceptible phenomena also have another large body of human knowledge supporting them.

I like to look at life from both ends of that and live with the uncertainty, which makes me a genuine skeptic enjoying the uncertainty and aware that the body of human knowledge is and hopefully always will be a very tiny fraction of the unknown.

Dreams serve a real function in life, both physical and psychological. Big-brained creatures dream, especially mammals and birds. I've watched my cat dream often and wonder what he's pawing or chasing or purring at. That exercise seems to be important to psychological health and without it, people get run down and edgy fast. Traumas can repeat themselves again and again in nightmares. Flashbacks or hallucinations may be waking dreams bursting into conscious life. Is that a healing process? Is that a way that the mind comes to terms with the trauma, just as a fever is a way the body fights infection by changing body temperature to something bacteria might die off in

I began keeping dream journals in early childhood because some author, I don't remember who, mentioned in an article that he did as a source of story ideas. So I am more likely to be able to remember dreams that matter -- the plot-dreams or any that do hold solutions to personal inner conflicts or were just beautiful or interesting -- and distinguish them from the goofy one that's obviously just Yesterday Hashed.

Where the idea that dreams can be interpreted by psychologists to map a personality tends to fall apart is that people's personal symbolism is going to vary a lot. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Or sometimes it means "that stinky guy that was at th erestaurant when I had my birthday party" instead of a sexual symbol. I think the dream interpretation lists of symbols are generally shallow because those interpretations, while common, are not the only possible meanings of those symbols and they can mean something opposite or completely unrelated depending on the dreamer's life, goals, focus and habits.

A dream with violent content might mean what a psychologist thinks it does -- or might to the dreamer be a pleasant happy dream loosely related to the content of video games or playing cops 'n robbers. The kid who likes playing the robber in the game doesn't always grow up to be a criminal. But psychologists can sometimes filter that through a political and ideological slant that may even be completely unrelated to the dream content.

From what you're saying, any kid dreaming of being a robber or a cowboy or whatever is just hashing up the movies or games and relaxing in a deep way.

The one thing that is clear is that if this is one of its physiological functions, it's an absolutely necessary one. Maybe our brains are like computers on Windows, if there is too much Windows up time the system gets more and more sluggish -- and you have to boot down completely in order to refresh yourself and look at the world with rested eyes.

Humans impose order on randomness and often find deep meaning in it. The patern of the stars resolves into constellations and the map with constellations is much easier to navigate. Big brains need to be exercised... and I see some strong connections between the capacity for dreams and right-brained creative thinking, which is as valuable in science as it is in the arts.

Dreams don't need to have an external meaning to be meaningful or useful or enjoyable to the dreamer. They are intensely personal, they are your own and may be the brain's way of processing the massive amount of information that comes in every waking day. Trained dreamers, lucid dreamers or novelists with plot-dreams ond mystics may wind up choosing a jogging path consciously but that's a valuable addition to mental skills even if it's just making use of something random that happens physiologically to big-brained creatures.

Please post your thoughts on dreams or dreaming. If you've had meaningful dreams or important dreams, write about it and if it had any connection with waking life, write about that too. I am very curious about others' experiences with dreaming because I'm starting to see how much my dreams were shaped by my singleminded goal of becoming an SFF novelist. You are the expert on your dreams and their meaning is what they mean to you.
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Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
callianassa
Nov. 11th, 2009 04:02 am (UTC)
Very few psychologists still practice dream interpretation, let alone according to rigid symbolic frameworks. I don't know of any practitioner that would accept dreams as a valid personality measurement. At best, they use them as clues. I am interested to see if the Red Book will trigger any sort of Jungian revival, though.

Personally, I think the most important thing in dream analysis is how a dream feels to a dreamer. A repetitive dream is probably significant. So is one is persistently remembered after waking, for someone who doesn't usually remember dreams. When a friend brings a dream to me, all I usually need to do is point them towards what they were already thinking.

Although the idea of dreams assisting memory is discredited in general, I'm pretty sure that's not true for me. They're almost always rehashes of the day. Sometimes they're creative, sometimes not, but I can usually trace every element to something I encountered or thought of since the last time I slept. Occasionally I can go to sleep, dream of a skill I've been working on, and do much better at it upon waking. My memory is way better than normal. I don't think it's a coincidence.
robertsloan2
Nov. 11th, 2009 07:35 am (UTC)
You're right about dream interpretation. I used to do it as part of my tarot reading practice and it was so simple. I never consulted any of the books. I listened and occasionally asked a leading question to help them clarify their memories. The querents inevitably interpreted the dream as they told it. The dreamer understands the meanings of her or his personal symbology and may be the only person who actually can.

It's fun though and I got very good at asking the right questions on intuition that led them to articulate the dream's meaning and use it. They'd always remember the important ones.

I don't think that your dreams assisting your memory is coincidence either. I think this is a facet of lucid dreaming that may be related to my Plot Dreams, a kind of concentration that sets the mind to working more efficiently.

I think I envy the simplicity of your nonmemorable dreams. Ugly chunks of my past are a larger proportion of the unmemorable ones than daily events, partly because my days don't have much variety to them most of the time.

The good ones do include whole chunks or sequences of skills I'm working on learning. Dreaming that I'm drawing something usually means once I wake up, that particular type of drawing will go a lot better. The repetitive ones are two types -- plot dreams of course, which don't stop till I write them, and the ones that are flagging some real ongoing problem that I'm not paying attention to and need to do something about.

I had a recurring dream when I worked as a typesetter in Chicago that I'd hear the alarm, get up, shower, dress, get on the bus and go to work. In the shower or the bus ride or even after sitting down at the terminal and doing the worst job I'd ever done with a zillion errors, I'd wake up again, realize that had been a dream, shower, dress, get on the bus... over and over again repeating four to ten times a morning until one of the times I didn't wake up and actually arrived at work.

I was seeing a therapist at the time, a marriage counselor for a declining relationship. I told her the dream and she said "You really hate your job, don't you?" Got it right on the nose.
callianassa
Nov. 11th, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
Exactly. If you can't remember it, it probably wasn't all that important.

Even when I've had times in my life where every day was the same as the one before, old memories, however disturbing, were never really part of my dreams. I think I'm just not wired for flashbacks.

I do know a few people, though, who claim to only experience nightmares. Whether it's only nightmares that are emotionally charged enough for recall, or whether they really are only having nightmares for dreams, I sometimes wonder if that should be a sleep or anxiety disorder of its own. It seems common enough, and I know some people who make that claim who definitely aren't doing it for attention.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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