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Post by sol_drethedon on Tue Nov 19, 2013 11:12 pm


Anthony Walsh

Professor Hoyt Shepherdson

Philosophy 163

May 4, 1980

Dreams and Waking Life

Dreams are universal. Though we sometimes forget our dreams, each of us has at least virtually one dream when we fall asleep, and without much difficulty each of us could probably remember a dream in some detail. Over literally thousands of years, dreams have been treated by poets and studied by psychologists. Yet certain basic questions about dreams remain to be settled; where do they come from? What do they mean? Do they serve any purpose. This paper will consider how those questions have been answered by a variety of psychologists and experimenters. By analyzing their statements on the origin, meaning and function of dreams, it will attempt to explain the difference between dreams and waking life.

In ancient times, dreams were thought to come from God or some mysterious source outside the dreamer. In modern times, the search for their origin has focused
much more on the mind and natural experience of the dreamer than anything supernatural. Erich Fromm, for instance, says that nearly every dream we have is prompted by our reaction to some occurrence of the preceding day. I suspect that each of us has had such dreams. I myself has dreamed about driving a car across the ocean soon after a day at the beach, and about getting swallowed up by a lion after a visit to the zoo. But not every dream can be readily traced to an experience of the previous day, and even it could, the memory of an experience can not explain why and how a dream transformed it, why and how a day at the beach becomes a drive across the ocean. The gap between dreams and remembered experience is sometimes so wide, in fact that at least one modern psychologist locates their origin in something outside of experience. Carl G.Jung writes:
One cannot afford to be naive in dealing with dreams. They originate in a spirit that is not quite human, but is rather a breath of nature . . . If we want to characterize this spirit, we shall certainly get closer to it in the spheres of ancient mythologies or the fables of the primeval forest, than in the consciousness of modern man.
Fromm and Jung represent two poles of thought in modern theorizing about the origin of dreams . While Fromm traces the dream to a specific occurrence, Jung seeks its origin in something mystical, something "not quite human", something outside the dreamer's personal experience. But recent research on dreams, especially children's dreams --indicates that any search for their origin must at the very least begin with that experience. If dreams come from outside the dreamer's experience, children's dreams should be as Jung describes them: rich, complex, and full of strange, frightening archetypes(Jung, pp 69-75). But after 5 years of study, David Foulkes has found that young children's dreams are in general "rather simple and unemotional," that the complexity of children's dreams grows as the child does, and therefore that the content of a dream is closely linked to the development of the dreamer in the waking world. Clearly then, the dreamer's waking experience must provide at leat part of the answer to the question of where dreams originate.

Yet the whole answer involves much more than the experience of the day which precedes the dream. For one thing, the memories reworked in a dream may come from any part of the dreamer's life. Citing evidence gathered by Rechtschaffen, William C. Dement says that dreams move backward in time as the night progresses, that they gradually change from the contemporary world to childhood and "stored images". Furthermore dreams come not just from particular memories but from the whole personality of the dreamer. After analyzing thousands of dreams into their constituent elements, Calvin S.Hall and Vernon J. Nordby concluded that the dreams of individuals are "amazingly consistent in subject matter from one year to the next," that dreams originate from habitual ways of feeling and thinking, from " the wishes and fears that determine our thoughts and actions in everyday life." Hall and Nordby therefore emphasize the continuity between dreams and waking life. Yet even though they trace dreams to the personality of the dreamer. They also say that the source of the dream may lie far beneath the surface. The "wishes and fears" behind our dreams, they say, may have their roots not only in childhood but in "prenatal experience and racial history" (Hall and Nordby 146)

These contemporary findings about the deep-rooted origin of dreams take us back to the single most important study of their meanings-- Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1900. Freud explains dreams as the expression of certain drives within the dreamer, and he specifically states that a dream is the fulfillment of a wish." A brief paper such as this one can hardly do justice to Freud's theories but they may be summarized as follows: Dreams gratify desires that we repress in waking life, usually because of taboos against them. Since some of these desires would offend us even in sleep, the imagery of our dreams symbolizes the fulfillment of them in disguised form.

Freud's theories about the meaning of dreams have been widely influential. According to Foulkes, modern dream researchers now accept the principle that dreams express "profound aspects of personality" (Foulkes, Sleep. 184). But the idea that a dream is the disguised fulfillment of a wish has been challenged by a number of writers in different ways. Citing dreams in which the need to be free or the need to be alive is threatened, Fromm contends that such dreams express "not the fulfillment of the wish but the fear of its frustration" (Fromm, pp. 185-188).Other researchers have argued that dreams are physiological as much as psychological. According to Foulkes, dreams vary as the sleeper moves from a state of rapid eye movement(REM), when the eyes move rapidly under the eye lids, to a state of deep sleep (non-REM) in which the eyes do not move (Foulkes , Sleep. pp 1-40). The meaning of a dream may therefore depend on the state in which it occurs. Noting primarily that nightmares occur during non-REM sleep. Foulkes speculates that a nightmare may be "a kind of unconscious 'panic' response to the slowing of life functions . . .that occurs during the profound non-REM state" ( Foulkes, Dreams," p 88). Yet the mere fact that Foulkes is speculating here illustrates the difficulty of explaining dreams by means of the body alone. If we cannot always interpret dreams as the fulfillment of wishes, neither can we interpret them as the product of physical stimulation. For all the research that has been done on the physiology of dreaming, for all the monitoring of dreamers' brain waves, eye movements, heart beats and breathing patterns, researchers cannot fully explain dreams without a reference to the dreamers personality. Robert W. McCarley, for instance says that dreams originate from the activity of the sensory system--especially the eyes during REM sleep, and that this activity sends messages to the higher levels of the brain, where the messages are "synthesized . . . .into a coherent story." But to explain the story, Mc Carley has to move beyond physiology. Contributions to "the ultimate synthesis." he says may include the "motivational state, memories, drives and personality of the dreamer."

To know what a dream means, then, we have to know something about the personality of the dreamer--which is to say,, something about the dreamer's waking waking life. In fact as Dement notes, one of the difficulties of understanding anyone else's dream is that we can learn of it only after the dreamer has wakened and reported on what he or she remembers of it (Dement, pp 59-65). Some knowledge of the dreamer's life is therefore essential to any understanding of a dream, and no single formula will explain all dreams. To interprete the content of a dream, says Fromm, we must know the the dreamer, his or her emotional state at the moment of going to sleep, and the elements in the dream that correspond with reality as he or she ordinarily sees it(Fromm , pp. 36-38)


If the meaning of a dream depends on the personality of the individual dreamer, then dreams must be individually interpreted, and any generalization about the meaning of all dreams is suspect. We cannot say that every dream is a prophesy, or a reincarnation of ancient myth, or-- as Freud says, the fulfillment of a wish. But the problem of saying anything universal about the meaning of dreams should not keep us from asking questions about their function, about what they contribute to our lives. And the question I wish to raise now is simply this: to what extent do dreams help us cope with the life that we live in when we are awake?

One answer is that dreams restore our psychological balance by putting us in touch with our instincts. According to Jung, the world around us threatens our individuality by tending to make us lead "a more or less artificial life" (Jung p.49). Dreams give us an alternative to this life: a world of vivid , seemingly ridiculous images, of disrupted time, and of common place things with "a fascinating or threatening aspect" (Jung p.39). These strange images, says Jung, are "the essential message carriers from the instinctive to the rational parts of the human mind, and their interpretation enriches the poverty of consciousness so that it learns to understand once again the forgotten language of the instincts" (Jung p.52). For this reason some dreams may tell us of important coming events. By putting us in touch with our instincts, they show us a pattern of our actions which our conscious mind misses and thus they may indicate where our actions may be leading (Jung p.51)

Jung's account of what dreams do for us is suggestive but vague, for it seems to presuppose that we know that we know how to interpret our dreams, how to understand the messages and predictions they bring us from the unconscious. But without mysterious messages, some dreams can help the dreamer solve a particular problem. Fromm sights the example of Fredrich Kekule, who had been seeking the chemical formula for benzene and discovered it one night in a dream (Fromm p.45) Dement cites other examples; dreams led Herman Hilprecht to the translation of the stone of Nebuchadnezzar, and Otto Loewi's dream of an experiment with a frog heart led to research rewarded with a Nobel Prize (Dement p. 98). Dreams of this kind serve a clear and definite purpose. Unlike the mysterious messages that Jung speaks of, they provide the dreamer with a specific solution to a specific problem.

Yet very few dreams serve so specific a purpose, dreams often leave the dreamer with a particular sense of liberation and power. Dreams, says E. R Dodds, allow us to "escape the offensive and incomprehensible bondage of space and time." Such escape invigorates the dreamer. Erik H. Erikson writes that in dreams, a mass of unfulfilled infantile wishes and present dangers can turn into something manageable. Instead of feeling helpless before the evidence of weakness and limitation, the dreamer's ego experiences a sense of power, an ability to produce and progress. Like wise, Rosalind Cartwright says that dreaming 'seems to provide the energy space for working out problems set aside during days filled with busy activity, and in general it offers a kind of workshop for the repair of self-esteem and competence.

Even dreams we regard as "bad" may help us to come to terms with threatening situations in the outside world. In a study cited by Cartwright, subjects who had dreamed after viewing a stress-producing film showed less stress than subjects who had not. According to Cartwright, such a study suggests that "dreaming helps to 'defuse' anxiety provoking material so that it can be experienced i the waking state with less disruptive effect. This might be expected to lead to more rational and perhaps efficient handling of previously upsetting experiences." Cartwright's experience is tentative and limited. She does not say that all bad dreams have good effects, or that frightening dreams will necessarily prepare us to face frightening experiences. She merely opens our eyes to one of the ways in which dreams may help us to cope with the waking world.

What then is the overall relation between dreams and waking life? I believe that each is needed to help us understand the other. We cannot adequately explain dreams by saying that they come from God or some mysterious source beyond the dreamer-- such as Jung's "breath of nature" But neither can we explain them by saying simply that they come from the body, like the dreamer's heartbeat and rapid eye movements. Researchers can measure those dreams while the dreamer sleeps, but the only way they can get to the dream itself is to wake the dreamer up, and in order to understand the dream, they must know something about the dreamer's waking life and waking mind. I don't think anyone can make sense out of a dream without some reference to the waking, walking, observable personality of the dreamer.

Yet just as we need our lives to interpret our dreams, we need dreams to make sense out of our lives. Though dreams seem to turn things torpsy-turvy, they tell us things about ourselves that we may be able to learn in no other way. They may remind us of things long forgotten, they expose us to things we repress; above all they may reveal to us the naturally creative powers of our own minds. Perhaps, after all, that is the most important thing dreams do for us. More than fulfilling our wishes, predicting the future, or solving a specific problem, dreams show us what the mind can do with all that we experience in the waking world.



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