Electric Dreams

Electric Dreams Interview with Robert J. Hoss, M.S.

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Hoss, Robert J., M.S. (2006 June). Electric Dreams Interview with Robert J. Hoss, M.S.
Electric Dreams 13(6).

Robert Hoss, M.S., is author of Dream Language: Self-Understanding Through Imagery and Color, Executive Officer and Past President of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and faculty member of the Haden Institute for Dream Leadership Training and adjunct faculty of Scottsdale College. A scientist, and former researcher in the field of light energy, he was a pioneer with multiple patents and was Corporate Vice President at both American Express and IBM. He now devotes his science and management skills to dream studies, for which he has been a frequent guest on radio and TV, and an internationally acclaimed lecturer and instructor for 30 years. He has established the DreamScience Foundation for providing seed grants for dream research. His unique, simple but powerful Image Activation dreamwork approach is based on his training in Gestalt therapy and background in Jungian studies, the neurobiology of dreaming, plus his pioneering research on the significance of color in dreams.

EDreams: How did the book get the title Dream Language instead of something related to dream color?

RJH: Color is only a part of the dream language, a language of association and metaphor which expresses our inner story as we deal with unresolved emotional issues of the day. The unique state of the dreaming brain creates a “language” that is in many ways more complete and representative than our waking language. As the full title indicates, imagery and color are both components of dream language.

EDreams: So what exactly is dream language and how is it different than everyday language?

RJH: To use the metaphor of the Right (imagistic) Brain vs Left (discursive) Brain, waking language has a focus on the left-brain naming and words, while dreaming language has the emphasis on association, imagery, emotion and holistic processing, more right-brain like processing . In waking life we speak with words that identify things with names (example: "I am going skiing!"). If we listen to what is going on inside our minds, behind that statement, we realize that we are recalling past visual memories of skiing, feeling the excitement, and visualizing our anticipation. This inner part of our speech is like dream language - all the associations, memories, emotions and visualizations - but without the words.

EDreams: How does this language come about in a dream?

RJH: This "language" comes from the unique state of the dreaming brain. Much of the rational cerebral cortex, the speech centers and episodic memory is inactive - while much of the midbrain and associative cortex is active, particularly the limbic system. The limbic system is involved in emotional processing, and many researchers now believe that processing of unresolved emotions of the day is a function of the dream state. Dream imagery and associations may be stimulated by the limbic system and particularly the amygdala and hippocampus which are active in dreaming and link sensory data and imagery with emotion and memories respectively. With the cerebellum and sensory associative cortexes active these associations can take on a wealth of dream sensations beyond imagery and color, including motion, sound and sometimes tactile.

EDreams: If dreams are processing emotion, then do powerful images in a dream indicate that the dreamer is processing strong feelings from waking life?

RJH: Right. According to a number of researchers dreams are stimulated by emotion, and deal with emotional processing of events of the day. Ernest Hartmann, indicates that the “central image” of the dream reflects the emotions of the dreamer and the intensity of that image reflects the intensity of the emotions.

EDreams: Why doesn't the dreaming brain simply represent the emotion in the same context it is found in waking life? Why doesn't the divorced woman just dream about her husband?

RJH: One theory is that flow between connections responsible for episodic memory (daily events) is reversed during dreaming, such that only the emotional memories associated with the event are accessible during the dream. Thus as we process these emotions, the associated imagery and dream sensations form a dream story that represents our feelings about the event but don't necessarily represent the event itself.

EDreams: How does this help us understand the language of dreams?

RJH: If we see a door in a dream and wonder why they dreamed of a door, that is our Left-Brain thinking. But our Right-Brain sees the image from the point of view of an associated function or emotion. One dreamer might see their door as an opening to a new place and another might see their door as a means for keeping things out. These associations are driven by the emotional state of each dreamer. The one who associates it with an new passage may be at a point of new discovery in their lives; and the other who sees it as a way to keep things out, may be in need of safety or isolation in their life. Each dream image has a deeply personal association which is why dream dictionaries (which attribute the author's associations to the dream image) don't work and are largely invalid.

EDreams: How can we understand a dream image?

RJH: Dream images are personal associations and can be decoded in a number of ways. First we can look at the metaphors in the narrative we use to describe the dream – ask do any of the phrases you have used sound like they also describe something in our waking lives.

EH Dreams: How is your dreamwork approach different than others?

RJH: There are many useful and effective dreamworking techniques, all providing different results and views on the dream and the dreamer. My approach is designed to answer two questions:
1) What does that thing in the dream mean to me?
2) how can I use it to change my life?
The procedure I use is based on a short scripted Gestalt based process by which the dreamer "becomes" an important dream image and speaks as that image, answering 6 questions that target specific emotional states (conflicts, fears and desires). This virtually always results in statements that are obvious metaphors for emotional events in the dreamer's life. Within a minute or two the dreamer can understand "what does that thing in the dream mean to me". Next I look for the Jungian patterns to determine if there are clues that the dream might contain a compensating message for misconceptions that have left the dreamer stuck. If these are not obvious then I ask the dreamer to spontaneously imagine a new dream ending, in an attempt to create a new metaphor that may relate to a possible solution for their waking life situation. We check it out to make sure it is practical and healthy and then determine next steps to implement the solution.

EDreams: This seems like a very simple view, could it be so straight-forward?

RJH: Since the book was based on a course I have taught over many years, I do try to make understanding the very complex processes that go into dreaming clear and easy to grasp in Dream Language. Dream Language begins with a grounding in the latest research and psychological theories related to dreams, and converts these basic facts about dreams and dreaming to a simple set of tools that the reader can apply to their own dreamwork. Most things in nature are simple when we understand their true nature, and so it is with dreams. If we simply "become" the dream image and let it speak, it explains itself.

EDreams: How does your research in color in dreams fit into Dream Language?

RJH: I engaged in a decade long investigation into the significance of color in dreams. What I found is that colors in dreams are symbols just as any other dream image, and that color expresses emotion just as other dream imagery contains personal emotional memories. What was exciting for me to discover is that it is that dream color associations are similar to the waking human emotional and physiological response to color. The human system responds to particular colors with particular feelings, attitudes and instinctual associations. In waking life, red stimulates us, for example, while blue calms and soothes. This is a nervous system and brain response that happens at an unconscious, autonomic level, not a cultural learned response. These emotional responses are represented by the color in our dreams. Although learned associations with color can and do enter our dreams, for the most part color associations are deeper and related to feeling not cognitive process.

EDreams: How then does dream color effect the meaning of a dream image?

RJH: Just as images combine in dreams to form bizarre but emotionally meaningful combinations, color combines with imagery to add an additional emotional component.

EDreams: What colors do we typically dream of?

RJH: I performed a content analysis on about 24,000 dreams from two databases and determined that the most often reported colors in dreams are black and white in near equal proportion. The second most often reported colors are a nearly equal grouping of red, yellow, blue and green – what have been called the "psychological primaries". Since the eye-brain system processes color based on presence and absence of these 6 colors, it is uncertain whether there is a physical reason for this or whether it has some psychological significance, or both. Carl Jung discussed the psychological significance of the pairing of black and white as related to the integration of the conscious and unconscious. He also attributed the presence of the "psychological primaries" in a dream as related to a creation of a state of completion.

EDreams: Can we then interpret color in our dreams independently of culture and personal psychology?

RJH: I generally like to begin with the deeper subliminal emotional response to color since feeling has more presence in dreams than cognitive associations. Each dreamer is going to have learned and cultural responses as well or may have a cultural attitude that modulates the meaning for that dreamer. Red might excite the emotions in all humans, but this excitement may be seen as unwanted in one culture and desired in other.

EDreams: Can you give an example of how color might change or modify the meaning of a dream?

RJH: A woman might be wearing a red hat in a dream, and she might associate the color red with her "desire to live life to its fullest". Here the red adds a feeling of vibrancy to the imagery of a woman in a hat that would not have otherwise been there. If the hat were gray, it might indicate she is shielding or avoidance of any emotional stimulation for example.

EDreams: You gathered together in Dream Language the responses and associations various researchers have discovered with color - but you didn't stop with just noting color associations, you went on in your research. Do dream colors tell us more than about the meaning of the dream?

RJH: I believe they do, and the preliminary research we did with a number of subjects and roughly 8,000 dream samples, indicates that we can recognize emotional events in a persons life from the color in their dreams recorded over a period of time. Looking at a lifetime of color dream records we can find correlation between the frequency of the dream colors they have reported and personality characteristics.

EDreams: How do you balance these two notions, that there are common autonomic responses to color and yet personally individual reactions to color?

RJH: Luscher made a distinction between the "objective" response to color (our autonomic biological response) and the "functional" response (our attitudes and personal emotional associations). I use this difference in the Color Questionnaire that I structured for research and dreamwork. Whereas the Color Questionnaire is a table of statements or emotional themes known to relate to our autonomic response to color, it is used in a way that is intended to trigger our personal associations.

EDreams: So you let people know the difference between dream dictionaries and good dreamwork?

RJH: Right, the color charts are not the meaning of color. They are not to be used like a dream dictionary. They were designed to trigger personal emotional associations around a base of known autonomic associations. Solid dreamwork involves understanding your personal emotional associations with the dream in context with your waking life, and allowing the dream to reveal underlying conflicts and beliefs in a safe manner. I include various approaches and suggested procedures for both individual and group dreamwork in Dream Language.

EDreams: Would you like to say anything in conclusion about dream studies and dreamwork?

RJH: I think it is very exciting to realize that understanding dreams can be quite simple and need not be the bizarre unrelated stories we may have struggled with. It is also exciting to know they have meaning for us that can help us progress and transform if we know how to speak the language. I am glad to have been able to contribute to this research and show how dream colors as well as dream imagery combine to reveal and transform our lives. We don't want us to miss the message just because we don't know the language.

You can visit Robert's website at www.dreamscience.org or see him at the next annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, June 20-24th, 2006 in Bridgewater State College, Bridgewater MA. www.asdreams.org/2006