Reading Into dreams

xhan's picture


During one of our class discussions on chatter, Shanya mentioned that dreams could be interpreted as chatter of the mind, an experiment in determining reality. Another aspect of our minds (that have very much to do with dreams) could be seen this way: the imagination […] Our imaginations are our tools for musing over the "what if". To me, the most striking feature of dreams(even more impressive, than their having potentially complex symbolic meanings)-is the simple fact that the dream as presented or experienced in the form of a coherent story or adventure. Oftentimes, stories are composed and presented to us without any contribution from "us". The dream is further from our 'will" than any other form of conscious thinking, further away than the intermediate and quasi-autonomous activities of creative thinking and day-dreaming. In both these situations, even though the thoughts clearly have a direction and life of their own, the thinker oversees the process and shapes and embellishes the ideas. In dreaming, however, the dreamer is merely a spectator who does not have control over thought; the dream seems to be composed apart from the will of the dreamer. 

William Dement, “dean of modern-day dream researchers", tries to preserve traditional views on dreams. He believes that dreams occur during periods of rapid eye movements(REM), and that the "subjective duration" of the dream experience correlates with the length of the relevant REM period. According to his theory, it would take as long to dream an adventure as it would to think through or daydream the same story. Sigmund Freud, renown psychoanalyst, believes that a dream "is like a firework, which takes hours to prepare but goes off in a minute." While Freud breaks free from traditional views: he believes that “unconscious thinking” can operate in way allows one to instantly recall events, he does not believe that this can extend to unconscious dream composition. Yet, this remains controversial. Some dreams may take time to compose in that the components of the dream may be taken from yesterday, or even years before, but this does not mean that the dream itself took years to construct(Mullane 157).

To this day, dreams are one of the most mysterious mental activities. If we could get in touch with the dream-composing apparatus we would not know what to do, no matter how much time we spent trying to conjure it up. Thus it is more practical to think of dreams composed in seconds or split seconds of "computer-like" sorting and mixing of ideas and images. First, they operate mechanically and, as the examination of dreams gives reason to believe, with "astonishing" speed. Furthermore, the "calculations and maneuvers of dreamwriters are not only unconscious, they are not even capable of becoming conscious. For example, something happens unconsciously when a "hysterical paralysis" \is produced, and what is produced has a sense; but the act of producing it is not a mental act in the unconscious that, like the repressed fear of father, can be brought to consciousness(Dement 237).

Scholar Harvey Mullane focuses on dream composition and how misleading it can be to think even metaphorically or anthropomorphically of unconscious thinking as a unconscious replica of conscious thinking. Mullane argues that this process is similar to Freud's definition of repression. Repression is a defensive reflex; it is an operation that is beyond the control of the conscious will, it is unexperienced and it functions automatically in an "attempt" to keep conscious anxiety and distress at a tolerable level .However, Bert States, rejects the notion of repression and censorship. According to States' unconscious refers to the thought that we do not know we are thinking as when one suddenly recalls a name that has temporarily eluded an individual. For example, someone blurts out "james! his name wast james!" Five minutes later, without having consciously thought about it in the process(Mullane 122).

According to Bert States, basic difference between dream and fiction is that “fiction is designed for objective understanding according to rules of communication shared by a community of readers; dreams, on the other hand, have no such aim; a dream develops by a kind of catalytic conversion, each image affecting the character and duration of the others with no thought of Aristotelian unity” (States 197). The dream may be "realistic" or not, but there is no reason to believe that dreams are different from any natural dynamic process that move from stability to near disorder. Dreams could be thought of as what the mind creates in response to what it has already created. For example, when dreamer is confronted by new events or persons they are "automatically" integrated into the dream by the dreamer who molds their relevance to the dream.

Moreover, dreams are notorious for avoiding what you think you should be dreaming about. Most dreams involving a potential problem will replicate the structure or frustration of the problem and substitute something "ridiculous" as the objective.  A possible explanation for this is that what is being processed isn't to be found in the content of the dream but in the process of dreaming itself; regardless of the content. This raises an alarming question, such as what if the biological work of the dream-isn't to be found in the narrative itself but in the very making of narratives?


            So perhaps, fictional narrative and dreams are more similar than one might think. It is not so much that one "composes" a story as one stumbles upon it by trial and error. Moreover, it is difficult to make sense out of something that does not make sense, because sense in itself is something that depends on the sub-assumptions that one would use to determine sense. We are constantly writing new stories about the same models, and never seem to run out of variations. Perhaps dreams are similar to novels, in that we are constantly updating our memories in which each new dream verifies and confirms what we already know to be "true". Dreaming and fiction may allow us to enjoy thrilling experiences in a safe rather than dangerous environment. In dreams you can drive off a cliff into the sea, a dozen times and more whereas you can do it only once in the waking world. Perhaps, it is this air of "invincibility" that captivates, sustains, and intrigues readers and dreamers.






















Works Cited


Dement W: “An Essay on Dreams: The Role of Physiology in Understanding Their Nature’, Holt,

            Rinehart and Winston, Inc., New York 135-237.

Freud S: “Project for a Scientific Psychology(1985) in The Origins of Psychoanalysis, Imago

            Publishing co., Ltd., London, 347-445.

Mullane, Harvey: “Dreams and Rationality. Syntheses, Vol. 57, No. 2, Rationality and Objectivity: Philosophical and Psychological Conceptions, Part 1(Nov, 19830 pp.187-204.





Anne Dalke's picture



A reminder, as on your first paper, that you need to set up these essays for readers on the web. To begin "during one one of our class discussions..." doesn't give your internet viewer any sense of the context of what you are saying. Start instead (say), more this-a-way:

One of our guest visitors to our class on Literary Genres, Paul Grobstein, shared with us  the idea that new ideas result from "chatting," rather than being born as isolated insights of particular brains. One of my classmates, ShaynaS, picked up on this idea; she described dreams as a "chatter of the mind, an experiment in determining reality....." That's the idea I want to play with now (another webpaper necessity: to say "I," making it clear what xhan thinks about the topic she's reviewing...)

Your essay goes on to make a number of striking claims, but I'm having some trouble figuring out the relation among them. On the one hand, you say that dreams and fictions both "move from stability to near disorder"; on the other, you say that a dreamer "molds the relevance" of new events into his dream (wouldn't that be moving in the opposite direction: from disorder into stability and sense-making?). On the third hand (?) you say that "perhaps dreams are similar to novels, in that we are constantly updating our memories in which each new dream verifies and confirms what we already know to be "true"; on the fourth hand (?), you say that "it is not so much that one 'composes' a story as one stumbles upon it by trial and error," which suggests something not @ all under our conscious control, to update or mold @ all.

As you say quite clearly, to begin, "The dream is further from our 'will' than any other form of conscious thinking .... the dreamer is merely a spectator who does not have control over thought; the dream seems to be composed apart from the will of the dreamer." What difference does it make, that fictions have intents, and dreams do not? How relevant is authorial intention, in readers' interpreting a text, or a dreamer's interpreting her dream?

States' reflections--particularly those that “fiction is designed for objective understanding," while dreams are not--seem the most useful for our purposes in this class (and yours in this paper): thinking about the ways in which dreams are like fictions (but you don't give any citation for States's work: who is he? in what domain does he operate? when and where does he write?) Your account of the thinking of States, Dement and Mullane focuses largely on a debate about the amount of time it takes to construct a dream; how might that be useful in our class thinking about the function of time in various generic forms?

You end by offering a few more striking reflections: for example, that both dreaming and fiction are safe ways to explore that which frightens us. And you offer what you characterize as "an alarming question": "what if the biological work of the dream isn't to be found in the narrative itself but in the very making of narratives?" Can you explain what you mean by that question? (I don't know why it is alarming.)

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