Electric Dreams

Maslow's Map: A New System of Dream Classification
Chapter 3: Taking the Temperature of Your Dreams

Linda Lane Magallón

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Magallón, Linda Lane (1999).  Maslow's Map A New System of Dream Classification Chapter 3: Taking the Temperature of Your Dreams.  Electric Dreams 9(3). 2002 Vol. 9 Issue 3.

(Psychologist Abraham Maslow created a scale of needs to describe the human condition, from basic existence to optimum potential. The scale can be used to take the temperature your dreams.) 

Chapter 3: Taking the Temperature of Your Dreams 

Stephen Foster dreamed of Jeannie with the light brown hair, Byron of things that are, and Poe of dreams that no mortal ever dreamed before.

Earl Nightingale 

Once upon a time there were three neighbors. Each had a tree in the backyard.

• The first neighbor had rich soil. His tree produced a bounty of fruit.

• The second neighbor had poorer soil. Her tree produced branches and leaves.

• The third neighbor had very poor soil. Her tree grew short and misshapen. 

Then one day the third neighbor chanced to drop some fertilizer at the base of her tree. The rains came and went. The tree grew leaves, blossomed and bore sweet fruit. Next year, the neighbor fertilized her tree on purpose. She also turned up some of the soil, cleared a space for the tree to grow and watered the tree. Lo, the tree bore leaves, flowers and sweet fruit once again. So the third neighbor went to tell her neighbors of her good fortune. 

The first neighbor could not understand why the third neighbor had to do so much hard work. He pointed to his tree in the backyard. “See?” he said. “I do not labor, yet my tree bears fruit.” He did not realize that his house had been built in a comparatively fertile valley in the first place. 

The second neighbor did not conceive why the third neighbor would want to do so much hard work. She pointed to her leafy tree in the backyard. “My tree is just fine as it is,” she said. She could not comprehend the joy of eating sweet, juicy fruit. She had never had a taste. 

The third neighbor went home to contemplate. She wondered what might happen if her neighbors bothered to clear the ground, to feed and water their own dream trees. 

Levels of the Dream Tree 

What sorts of branches, leaves, fruits and flowers are growing on your own dream tree? Here’s some typical dreams for each level on Maslow’s Map. Human development tends to move from basic to growth needs. So, in terms of his scale, I’ll be working from the bottom up. 


1. Physiological - Foundational existence

• Elimination (bathroom dream)

• Suffocation and paralysis

• Mutilation and dismemberment

• Starvation and sickness


2. Safety and Security - Anxiety and threat

• Chase, entrapment and escape

• Physical attack

• Geographically lost

• Natural disaster

• Sensing something scary


3. Love & Belongingness - Relationship troubles

• Loss of a pet or a family member

• Being rejected

• Nudity in public

• Hiding from people

• Arguments


4. Self Esteem - Poor self respect

• Taking or forgetting an exam

• Arriving late, missing transport

• Misplacing your purse or wallet



5. Growth and Development

• Discovering a treasure

• Playing with color

• Friendship with an animal


6. Self-Actualization

• A great performance

• Singing your heart out

• Driving your car masterfully


7. Peak Experience

• Floating in bliss

• Amazed by insight

• Becoming aware


Each sample dream theme has been placed in a likely classification. It’s a place to begin consideration, not a rigid rule. For instance, "nude in public" is at the third step, the level of love and belongingness. There, you might be nervous about the reactions of strangers, fearing exposure to other people's judgment and scrutiny.   

However, "nude in public" might relate to another basic need:

1. Shivering in the snow (physiological)

2. Vulnerable to attack (safety and security)

4. Embarrassed (self esteem) 

But if your "nude in public" experience is positive, it might be at the growth level:

5. Posing for an art class (beauty)

6. Dancing before an appreciative audience (self-fulfillment)

7. Intermingled ecstasy (peak experience) 

Placement really depends on your waking concerns and desires backed by the action or reaction of your dreaming self. Thanks to your flexible dream psyche, there can be more than one theme within a single dream. If a chase scene (safety and security) converts to a game of hide and seek with your pursuer, you are moving up the scale (to love and belongingness, at least). Themes may also shift levels with each new dream of the night.  

Average and Normal Dreams 

What’s the temperature of your latest dream? What would you guess is your average temperature for the year? By the way, if you keep a dream journal, you won’t have to guess! Are there times when you are more likely to have one particular type of dream than others? Why is that? 

Nobody has taken a Gallop poll of American dreams, nor of any other country that I’m aware. It would be interesting to uncover the average temperature of dreams in your own culture and compare it with others. When I look at Abraham Maslow’s schema, I’d say that we usually dream at the level of basic needs. 

Then, there’s the question of whether the average dream is a healthy one. For Maslow, “normal” did not mean normative, or behaving like the cultural majority. “Normal” meant having the full package of desirable or healthy traits including self-knowledge and the right to question the rules or ethics of society. His list of emotional illnesses included prejudice, chronic boredom, lack of zest and loss of purpose. “There is a character difference between the man who feels safe and the one who lives his life out as if he were a spy in enemy territory,” he said.(1) Maslow theorized that emotionally healthy people see the world more accurately than their anxiety-ridden peers. 

With this new definition, Maslow challenged a fundamental premise of modern psychology: that we can devise accurate theories about human nature just by paying attention to the mentally ill or to the statistically average. He argued that both Freudians and Behaviorists had for too long side-stepped the higher aspects and achievements of humanity by studying “mainly crippled people and desperate rats.” 

He also differentiated between psychotherapy, which makes sick people well, and psychogogy, which makes well people better. Since dreamwork has been mainly associated with psychotherapy, it is best suited to resolve basic level problems.  

Basic Needs Dreamwork 

Dreamwork means work. There is something about your dream that is missing, misunderstood or a mystery. Dreamwork requires repair, attention, adjustment or analysis. The significance must be found, the meaning gleaned, the content altered in order to return your troubled psyche to harmony. In basic level dreams, your dream psyche has to do a lot of struggling and coping. Or a lot of mundane activity.  

Symbol interpretation techniques can unlock your dream when it is not a literal description of the situation. You might decipher symbols to uncover the hidden stimuli for your dreams. 

Behavior modification methods can help you

1) recover from nightmare

2) resolve conflicts and concerns

3) take responsibility and intervene when there are problems

4) distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate defenses

5) separate real and pseudo-threats

6) clean up the toxic spills in your psychological environment 

As a behaviorist, Maslow was successful in producing a marked increase in self-esteem of a very shy and retiring woman. At his advice, she practiced asserting herself in twenty specific but non-crucial situations, like insisting that her grocer should order a certain product for her and disregarding his objections. After 3 months there were definite differences. Unlike her former attire, she wore form-fitting clothes and appeared in public in a swim suit. He husband reported improvement in her previously inhibited sexual behavior, too. And the content of her dreams changed. 

Many dreams certainly feel like a confused and chaotic mishmash. That’s why we wake and ask ourselves, “What the #$% was that?” and go running for the dream dictionary. Or we launch a dreamwork method to unravel the knot in our stomachs and puzzlement in our minds. These sorts of therapeutic techniques occur after the dream has already happened, which is why I call it “end of the stream” work. However, if you become lucid, you can do dreamwork while the dream stream is still in motion. And to prevent the mishmash from happening in the first place, you can take preventative measures at the source of stream, before you sleep. 

Dreamwork can provide meaning for your current waking life or explain your childhood. Using dreamwork methods, you can find cultural influence in your dreams and link them to the myths and lore of the past. Basic level dreams are current-past in orientation and can describe how you got to where you are and who you are now. But they also tend to support maintenance of the status quo.

Dreamwork For Change 

Seen from the Wide Band view, it might be argued that a truly effective therapy won’t just respond to the dream at hand. Instead, it will result in a permanent shift in the average needs level of your dreams. A dream life that consists mostly of relationship troubles might be replaced by dreams that reflect concerns about your chosen profession. Or vice versa, depending on whichever area requires growth. 

Some dreams do respond to what I call "lite dreamwork." This sort of dreamwork advises: just become lucid, just hug your kid, just stand up to your dream enemies or just affirm your good intent and the big, bad monster goes away.  

Maslow was of the opinion that deeply entrenched personality traits require effort to change. He knew that simple behavioral techniques don't work well, for instance, on fear that is sharply ingrained. There is a tendency of the well-organized syndrome to resist change or to maintain itself. Even if changes occur, it can reestablish itself.  

For myself, one nightmare that kept returning alerted me to a false sense of duty that had been programmed, imprinted, etched into my personality from childhood. Lite dreamwork would only repress it. Surface affirmations were a joke. It wouldn't go away for good until I'd unearthed its roots, pulled the weed and replaced it with a new plant. Interpretive therapy, conflict resolution therapy, cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy – all were involved in the eventual resolution.  

In such cases, lite dreamwork can actually enable you to deny or avoid the source of your troubles. I’ve found that some dream approaches detour me down false paths, because they address the wrong level of my current needs. They focus me on one level when it's really another that needs my immediate attention. Nowadays I determine the needs level of my dream first, before I decide which dreamwork, dream trek or dreamplay techniques are appropriate. 


To resolve problems and find meaning in life is admirable. But all dreamwork and no dreamplay makes you a “Type A” dreamworkaholic. To be a healthy dreamer, take a break. Set aside your practical expectations and serious needs every once in a while. Play with your dreams, instead. 

There are some activities that apply to your entire hero’s journey. You’ll always need to recall your dreams, of whatever kind, but you can make a game of it. Any old dream record will track the path you take, but a creative journal is an ongoing art project. And there are a variety of descriptive tools to use besides writing or speaking the dream, such as sketching, costume and dance.  

Dreamplay involves creative movement. There is something hidden, unexpressed or unexplored. The treasure is waiting to be found, the potential unlocked, the creativity celebrated.  

Your approach to a dream may vary, depending on whether it is a growth level dream or one that describes the basic needs. If you specialize in survival living, you may wind up painting your nightmares, fashioning anxieties out of paper maché and expressing your fears in poetry. But never exploring creativity at the growth level.

That’s why dreamplay is a great vacation from dreamwork. But it doesn’t necessarily move you up the scale. 

Growth Needs Dream Trek 

An egg can’t be explained without including what it can become. An ordinary dream can’t be explained without including its extraordinary potentials. The irony of healing and recovery is that it’s near-on impossible to attain an optimum state of health if you don’t really know what that state is. If you’ve never experienced them first hand, you might not know that dreams can be humorous, fantastic, inspirational and wonder-filled on a fairly consistent basis.

So many dreams fit the “Basic Needs” niche that the most popular dreamwork theories presume that’s the only kind of dreaming we do. But true dream health is more than just filling the belly, shedding light on our angst, recovering from conflict or healing the soul. It’s about developing human potential. It’s about learning. It’s about achieving emotional maturity. “Growth Needs” dreams journey into the future. 

The symbols and themes in growth level dreams nurture new life. They don’t play out old story lines. They are the seeds for emerging tales and legends. They are myth-making in progress. So, to slice and dice these dreams according to those theories of dreams whose foundations are at the basic needs level, constricts them.  

It is not fruitful to pin old meanings on a growth level dream. Such analysis squeezes the juice out of their innovative expression. Free association doesn’t work well because it relies on current understanding and past programming. Growth level dreams not only produce new links, they create new visions as well. Fortunately, growth level dream tend to be more coherent, so they are more readily understandable. Thus there is less need to interpret them using traditional means. Furthermore, growth level dreams can be so real and intense that their significance is in the experience, the being and doing *while* you dream. You don’t have to do dreamwork afterwards to “complete” them.  

Entering the growth phase does provide greater awareness of what’s necessary to be a positive person, though. It sends you back to the basic level so that you can clean up your act. So you can clear your dream environment and experience still more of those growth-level dreams.  

But just cleaning out the pollutants from the stream doesn’t do the whole job. Yes, it allows the dream fish to breathe easier. But you must add nourishment to feed them, to strengthen them, to help them grow. Enrichment activities like incubation, induction and in-dream creativity modify the quality of your dreams and lead to greater dream understanding.  

On your dream trek, you might

1) Get rid of false notions of your self: learn who you are and who you are not.

2) Learn to do well what you want to do, what you can do.

3) Learn the discipline of the master dream artist and refine self-expression.

4) Choose to risk curiosity for the sake of progress and exploration.

5) Make ideals come true (dream up a better world). 

Whereas dreamwork judges, defines and transforms, the dream trek celebrates, inspires and encourages. One is the road to recovery, the other the road to discovery.  

(1) Maslow, A. H. Motivation and Personality. (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 66. 



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