Electric Dreams

Who Do We Ignore When We Interpret A Dream?

  Linda Lane Magallón 

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Magallón, Linda Lane (2004 March).
Who Do We Ignore When We Interpret A Dream? 
Electric Dreams 11(3).

It's the same 'ole dichotomy. In this corner, we have the scientist who focuses on dream stimuli and claims that dreams have no meaning. In that corner, there is the psychologist who claims that a focus on stimuli robs the dream of meaning. Why, oh, why, does it have to be the battle of the either-or?

I believe I need both. Knowing what induces, triggers or stimulates a dream does not rule out an awareness of meaning and significance for me. In fact, I don't think that a method or theory (either stimulus-based or symbol-based) that ignores the life of the dreamer can be very meaningful. In order to explain flying dreams, I have come up with a schema that differentiates between stimulus connection and the sort of symbolic interpretation that's bereft of connection. It may seem ironic, but the interpretation of flight needs to be grounded before it can soar.

First, I present an example of a symbolic interpretation plucked from a source that doesn't bother to look at the dreamer's life for correlation. Second, I show what stimulated the dream. Third, I put daytime event together with dream stimuli to produce an explanation that includes both.

However, my search for meaning doesn't stop there. For me, the significance of an event involves its total context: past, present...and future. I might come up with an interpretation that satisfies me as I contemplate my dream while curled up in bed. But it isn't truly significant for me unless it changes me. It's what I do after I get out of bed that's the deciding factor. It's the follow-up that provides the finishing touch.

Here's some examples.

 A) Dream: The wind kisses my face as I soar over the city skyline.

1. Symbolic Interpretation (Freudian):

  • A concealed wish for an orgasm. Now, let's talk about the Oedipus Complex.
  • There is little attempt at correlation with a dreamer's life. In my opinion, the idea that everyone has an Oedipus Complex or that every flying dream involves a concealed wish for sex has not been adequately demonstrated. It's a belief-based hypothesis.

2. Stimuli: I won $5 in the lottery. Because it was warm night, I had the fan on.

  • Day residue, emotional: My exuberant response to winning the lottery.
  • Current event, tactile: The passage of air over my skin from the blowing fan.

The still-present echo of exuberation from the day combines with the nighttime tactile sensation of flowing air to evoke a picture of soaring, sensual flight. The hypothesis that emotions and touch influence dreams has been borne out by lab experimentation and case studies.

3. Significance:

Winning small amounts of money gives me a "high," but it's not one that lasts long or can be counted on to be repeated. What else can I do that can give me more substantial exuberance, one that I value "highly"? Like joy?

4. Follow Up:

Emotion plus sensory movement turned out to be a fruitful avenue of exploration. I came to realize that every time I finished writing an article, I had a sense of satisfaction that I could turn it into glee if I ran up the stairs like a kid. Allowing my Inner Child an opportunity to indulge in that sort of activity resulted in more flying dreams.

B) Dream: A huge black cat hovers in the air over a young blonde girl.

1. Symbolic Interpretation (Jungian):

  • The Shadow is threatening my Anima. Now, let's go on a encyclopedic search for examples of Animas and Shadows and felines throughout mythic history.
  • No attempt at correlation with dreamer's life; belief-based hypothesis.

2. Stimuli: Several years ago, my car's paint job had been ruined by the spray that was dropped by helicopters as they were dusting for med-flies. Today, I sprayed my hair, then went to play with one of our cats, Endora, who scratched me. I didn't wash the wound and later wondered about the wound being infected by either the hair spray or the cat. Endora had been atop a ledge, peering down on my daughter below. Endora was preparing to jump because she'd had enough of the two of us and wanted to escape. I didn't want her to let her go.

  • Past visual memory and associated concept: Overflying helicopters = threat to my car, which protects me like a skin from a spray.
  • Day residue, tactile: Hair spray and scratched skin.
  • Day residue, visual: The cat, my daughter and me.

Pictures from the distant past plus associated concepts are combined with echoes of daytime events, both tactile and visual. My dreaming mind often ignores daytime inanimate objects (like cars and walls) and concentrates on the animate ones, instead. Thus, animals and people (including me) can seem to "hover" in my dreams. In this case, the background prop (the ledge) didn't have enough energy to etch an impression on my inner picture screen.

3. Significance:

I realized that Endora needed some time off from our overwhelming attention. I value dreams for pointing out relationship issues.

4. Follow-up: The next day, I was more respectful of her space.

C) Dream: I flew at head level, watching the scenery go by.

1. Symbolic Interpretation (If This Were My Dream technique):

  • "Flew" = "flu" or the feeling of an upset stomach.
  • "Head level" = "a level headed response to a dilemma."
  • To the members of a dream group, I read a report that included both my dream and notes on the daytime event that preceded it. The hypothesis that my dream contained these particular puns was based solely on their associations between the dream and daytime event. There was no attempt at correlation with me (the dreamer).

2. Daytime events: I was a passenger in a car that was swerving along a winding road. I almost got car-sick until I opened the window.

  • Day residue, tactile (interior): The queasy feeling.
  • Day residue, visual: The scenery passing by as I "flew" down the highway.

I certainly did have the feeling of an upset stomach and some people in the group claimed that I had a "level-headed" response to my dilemma. But I had not written, "I flew," I'd actually written, "I fly," because I always use the present tense to record a dream. "Fly" was converted to "flew" by the members of a dream group because, to them, the dream was past tense. Also, I rarely use the phrase "level headed" in waking life, and have never applied it to myself. I think the level of flight above the ground relates directly to the height of my head as I "flew" down the highway. Once again, an inanimate object, the car, was left behind when my daytime event was transposed to dreamspace.

3. Significance: This is the reason why I find the "If this were my dream" approach to dream interpretation to be so problematical. It's not the group's dream. It's my dream. How come they weren't paying attention to me? Why weren't they asking my opinion and discovering my associations instead of projecting theirs?

4. Follow-up: At a succeeding meeting, I demonstrated the "dreamer interview" method of interpretation to the group. This method does pay attention to the dreamer.

As you can see, symbolic interpretation systems might acknowledge the underlying stimulus. But more often, they ignore it in favor of their own theory-story about the overt imagery. They interpret the "movie" without paying attention to the dreamer's life or to the dreamer's associations between dreams and waking life.

Now let's say, just for the sake of argument, that a dream has nothing to do with a dreamer's waking life. So whose life does it have to do with? Freud's? Jung's? The other members of the dream group? Some nebulous something in the sky or under the sea?

You might contend that I'm being very ego-centric by linking dreams with my mundane waking life. That I'm ignoring the larger "meaning" of life. Are you surprised to know that I agree with you? But probably not for the reason you think.

Contemporary dream theories often act as though they have a real meaning, a real significance, a real realness. For instance, Jung would have us treat his theory and the archetypal attributes of his theory as "real." And not just real, universally real. That's a pretty powerful claim to make. But I'd like to point out that it's the waking ego who speculates and makes this claim. And who gets left in the lurch? Anybody who lives in the land of the dream, that's who.

Now, as far as this discussion goes, I don't care if you think that a dream is a real reality of its own or not. Nor do I care if you think there are significant others living there. Contemporary dream theories tend to ignore this possibility. But what they do acknowledge, even depend on, is that there is a self in the dream. Granted, it may be an unconscious self, but it's a self, nonetheless. So, at least one person lives in the land of dreams: the dreaming self.

My question is very simple: if we want to understand the meaning of the dream, why don't we consult the dreaming self? Well, Freud and Jung seem to think that we do. But I think they confuse states of consciousness.

Jung had plenty of altered state experiences (other than dreams) in his life and his theory of archetypes basically comes from that source. Freud suggested that the "meaning" of dreams could be found by seeking answers in a state between waking and dreaming. The actual in-the-dream-self is not supposed to be conscious. As in, poor thing, it has no voice of its own. We, the great and powerful Oz-egos (and our waking altered state cohorts), must speak for the dreaming self because it can't speak for itself. Wanna make a bet?

Well, I can understand that Freud and Jung didn't understand nor appreciate lucid dreaming; its popularity didn't spark until after their time. Thus, the idea that you can become aware enough to ask the dream, to ask dream characters, questions (like "What does this dream mean?") wouldn't have occurred to them. But the practice of incubating a dream has long been known. The practice of consulting the dream (as an oracle) has been around a long time, too. Jung and Freud may have retained the latter, but they ignored the former. I'd like to bring it back.

So here's a formula to consult the dream if you don't have lucid dreams. You ask a question (like "What does that dream mean?" or "What's your opinion about my interpretation of that dream?" or even, "What do you think about this theory of dreams?"). Then, you wait for a dream to respond. Not a waking visualization. Not a waking free association. Not waking automatic writing or channeling. You wait for a sleeping dream.

And that way, you can discover that your dreaming self has her opinions, too. And that they don't necessarily correspond with Jung's. Or Freud's. Or yours.

Or they might, after a fashion. For instance, I have discovered that, like me, my dreaming self really enjoys puns. I don't mean the puns that I discover when I'm awake and compare dreams with my waking life. I mean that my dreaming self has made up and pointed out and laughed at puns while I'm still dreaming. In the land of dreams. Whether I'm lucid or not. The dream may be mine to manipulate, but it's her life to live. And life is meaningful, in and of itself.

(Dream Flights)