I like to use the term
"event-clumps" to remind myself that every memory is a composite. It
consists of several elements, like picture, thought, emotion,
sensation, instinct and intuition. I need the reminder because of the
intimate relationship between memory and dream. It's all too easy to
gloss over a dream when I write out the narrative and thus miss
underlying clues to its meaning.
Many memories have a visual component that has become associated with a
non-visual element. For instance, an episode of an attack by the
neighbor's dog might encode picture and emotion together in the
formula, German Shepherd = fear.
I can retrieve that event-clump by seeing a new dog of the same breed,
which triggers a new sensation of fear. This is a common waking
However, the opposite is also true: I feel the same sort of fear when
my boss "attacks" the quality of my work. While I'm in the midst of
this highly charged employment situation, the picture of the German
Shepherd doesn't register on my conscious mind. But the event-clump
comes as a package, nonetheless. If I recall the work incident before I
sleep or if its intensity has not yet dissipated, the event-clump that
describes the fear-emotion in picture-form will be readily available
material for the construction of a dream. The event-clump is one of the
"bricks" that builds my world of sleep.
A memory does not have to have a visual aspect, though. When you lose a
tooth, the sensation of a lump in the mouth can be encoded with
anxiety. If a bit of food gets stuck in your teeth, then loosens later
(whether awake or asleep), it could trigger a tooth-loss dream. The
sensation alone might provoke such a dream, but such an event-clump is
far more likely to become available for dream production if several of
its components are repeated in the current scenario. If you eat popcorn
in a darkened theater while watching a horror movie, both sensation and
anxiety are felt. Same feelings, different environment, different
A dreamer I'll call Kimara recently shared a dream with me. In the
dream, Kimara was walking though a maze of streets, in and out of and
around buildings, passing other people along the way. Finally, she
walked into another woman's apartment and became very concerned that
she was in the woman's private space. As Kimara was trying to decide
whether to go or stay, a man walked right
into her apartment, too.
When awake, Kimara recognized some of the buildings that had appeared
in her dream. When she was younger, she lived in a war zone, although
not in the line of fire. The buildings were part of an
event-clump from that period in her life. The event-clump consisted of
the image of her environment plus a certain level of anxiety and fear.
But the dream was not about Kimara's childhood; it was about a current
occurrence that had triggered the same sort of anxiety. Kimara is a
saleswoman. She travels to various businesses to make
presentations and talk to company representatives. The offices that she
visits often consist of a maze of cubicles she must circumvent in order
to get to the person she will meet. So I asked her, "Where
have you been lately - where you had to walk through halls or
past cubicles to get to a woman's office - where you were nervous about
intruding into her space - but where her fellow employees had no
problem barging in?"
When I described her
dream by stripping away past imagery and concentrating on its
underlying elements, Kimara had no trouble recalling the recent daytime
event that had invoked her dream. The
So, why didn't she just dream up a literal repeat
of that visit? Because Kimara is not a video camera or a robot. She's
not just a pretty face! She's a thinking, feeling, active organic
being. Her waking drama wasn't our movie, it was her life. It contained
all the layers of human experience, including those that would not be
visible to an outside observer, who can only view the surface of her
sensation of motion, the shape of structure, the number, type and
positions of dream characters, the thoughts and feelings - these were
the component parts of her office visit.
Kimara was nervous in an environment that she doesn't usually associate
with such fear and anxiety. So the event-clump that was triggered by
her feelings and sensations referred back to an environment that was
far more dangerous than her current one. Small wonder. The event-clump
of her childhood is so potent that she will probably continue to access
it, unless the connection between image and emotion is severed and the
anxiety-plus-picture is rewritten with a new formula.
If a new, more intense event comes along, that picture might replace
the old buildings. Or, through cognitive therapy, Kimara might
reprogram herself to associate anxiety with another picture: one that
will help dissipate it. For instance, fear = a dragon.
A dragon can start as a terrifying monster that
morphs over time into a colorful legend that morphs into a cartoon
playmate. I'm not suggesting that Kimara get rid of fear altogether.
Fear serves a very usual purpose, warning us of real potential and
imminent danger. I'm suggesting that Kimara practice techniques to turn
down the volume to a level she can more easily handle.
Spontaneous life occurrences will program potent event-clumps and some
may recur as repeating dreams for years. They are still potent, still
active, if circumstances with the same feeling tones
continue to be a factor in our lives. Sometimes we can change life
circumstances so that they, and the negative feelings that accompany
them, become less and less frequent. Sometimes we can change the images
associated with those non-visual elements, so that they are easier to
cope with, or even become a source of amusement and entertainment!
Kimara may not have much say about war in the larger world, but she has
a lot to say about her own private space. There, she can try out new
ways to face up to fear. There, she can come to appreciate the creative
ways in which her inner mind paints the components that are hidden to