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 Do Dreams Have Meaning? 

Richard Wilkerson

 Do dreams have meaning?  Yes, but the question is more difficult than it first appears. 

If you don't want to think about it too much, you can jump to the end of this text and read the section on Is the Dream a Message?

Let's try another question first. Is life itself meaningful? People debate this issue endlessly without full agreement. Some are quite sure the answer will always be an opinion rather than a fact. Others feel it is self-apparent that for those who continue to choose living, that life is, for a fact, meaningful. Others don't find the game of fact-finding the most useful way to answer the question.   In other words, everyone has his or her own way of addressing questions about the meaning of life, and of course, the many aspects and parts of life as well, including dreams and dreaming.

Now we could do this democratically and vote : 

Are dreams meaningful?



...and tally all the results.  

But this democratic consensus isn't what people are interested in when they ask if dreams are meaningful. So what do we mean when we ask if something has meaning or not?  Generally the answer depends on the context of the situation. 

In the context of science when we ask if dreams are meaningful, it often means whether or not  they function to help us thrive and survive in some way.  Different sciences will approach meaning differently as each operates under a different story/context. A psychologist may want to know how the dream works to show a person a better way to live and experience life, while an anthropologist may be more interested in how the dream impacts the way people in a tribe alter or confirm the way they live and interact with one another. A brain scientist may be more interested in how dreaming and sleeping contribute to the restoration of our health or consolidation of our memories and experience.  

Artists and writers are more interested in the inspirational aspects of dreaming and how they can carry the images, novelties and creative dreaming process over into their own waking processes and creations. 

Spiritual and tribal people are often aware of a different meaning of a dream, the dream as a message. The message may be from an ancestor, a spirit or god, or even from one's own soul or unconscious. 

The same dream may have different meanings to all of these people. Which one is correct, or are they all incorrect in looking for meaning in a dream that has no meaning?  

Many people in the Dream Movement, a loose coalition of individuals and groups that study and work with dreams, formed the Association for the Study of Dreams (ASD) in 1984 as a "non-profit, international, multidisciplinary organization dedicated to the pure and applied investigation of dreams and dreaming." 1 The purpose of the organization was many-fold, "to promote an awareness and appreciation of dreams in both professional and public arenas; to encourage research into the nature, function, and significance of dreaming; to advance the application of the study of dreams; and to provide a forum for the eclectic and interdisciplinary exchange of ideas and information." 1 The overall consensus was that dreams have many levels and layers of meaning, but that the final decision about just what these meanings would be had to be left up to the individual. That is, the individual was to be the final authority on the meaning and value of his or her own life, and this included one's dreams. 2

However, just because a bunch of people get together and decide whether or not something is true, doesn't necessarily make it so on all levels and for those outside of the group. If you doubt this, look at the disagreements between what things mean to different religions and the millions of people who die fighting over these meanings. 


This leads us  back to the question of what things we think are meaningful and how they get that way. One way of viewing this problem-of-meaning is through story-contexts. For some scientists, science is not about meaning and value at all, its about quantity and statistics. From this story or context, science can't give an answer to the question of whether or not dreams are meaningful. One can't start with a measure that has no meaning in itself and jump to any conclusions one way or the other about meaning from a statistic or measure. But science is guided by other stories and contexts besides statistics.

 In biological sciences, the story-context that gives things meaning is evolution. If something fits into this context, it is considered meaningful and if it doesn't involve evolution, its not considered meaningful. Are dreams advantageous to evolution, or are they an epiphenomena and functionless appendage like the appendix or tonsils? Are they essential to the well-being and continuation of the species and individual, or just something like poop that we excrete and don't need to attend to for survival and passing on of genes? 


Here are a few areas that science has investigated as to the functioning of dreams:

  • Memory consolidation - moving memories from short to long term memory.
  • Learning consolidation - organizing things we have learned during the day
  • Emotional contextualization - giving context to new emotions.
  • Clearing networks - cleaning up loaded neural networks.
  • Protecting Sleep - allowing imagination to spin stories instead of waking us up each disturbance.
  • Self Maintenance - to maintain our sense of self through sleep. 
  • Problem solving - to resolve conflicts during the day and find creative solutions.
  • Hard-wiring during fetal development, soft wiring of neurons after birth. 

There are scientists who point out that these are theories not proven facts which are clear as saying the heart pumps blood and the lungs process air and carbon dioxide. And so the debates and investigations and research continue. However, like the meaning of dream-content, the meaning of the dreaming process seems to be evolving in some ways to the same theoretical acceptance. That is, the dreaming process has many functions and meanings. Like most of our organs, dreaming seems to do more than one job. Sometimes the word "polyvocal" is used to express the notion of the dream having many voices, or "heterogeneous" to express the notion that dream come from many sources, are many things and have many parts and functions, many goals and desires.

But are we getting too far away from the original question of the meaning of a dream? Usually when this question is asked, it's about a specific dream, such as "I was waking down an empty hall and saw an open window," or "I married a woman who turned out to be my mother," or "I started flying across a vast ocean of alien creatures."   Do these dream images have any meaning?  Here the story-context is different than that of science. Here the question of meaning is more like "Is there a personal significance to me that is held in these dream images or story?" Or, "Is something or someone trying to tell me something through this dream?"

Hard science has yet to adequately address this issue as there is now a kind of brain-mind split in research. Hard science studies the brain and its observable effects. At this time we can't directly observe the imagination and other subtle forces. Thus the hard-core dream sciences are left studying only the effects, impacts and changes that can be observed at this time with our tools for measuring objectively. However, we also have the humanities, which can go beyond the brain and objective behavior to study the mind and its productions.

In Clara Hill's research for example 8, she uses statistics to compare different non-statistical feelings of meaning. In one experiment she had three conditions of therapy where people got to discuss their lives through different story-contexts. One used their own dream stories and another used their own life-event, and another used dreams, but they were someone else's dreams.  The clients were encouraged to use these various stories to explore the meaning and value of their lives, and then rate the satisfaction they felt in doing this. It was found that exploring one's life through the lens of one's own personal dreams was far more satisfying than using someone else's dreams or using a life-event (usually a problem in one's life).

Critics have noted that it's too big a jump here to say that the study proves that dreams are meaningful. We can only say that upon waking, people can make meaning and give them value, but this doesn't prove they are intrinsically meaningful.  Like a rock on the ground, they say, it doesn't become meaningful until it's used. 

 This seems like a rather strict use of the application of meaning that almost creates a tautology. That is, if something weren't meaningful unless a person uses it in a meaningful way, then by definition, that letter I got yesterday from my mom wouldn't be meaningful unless I opened it.  It is  "Conscious use or function" that seems to be the lurking story-context that is  in that kind of science. However, most scientists are willing to admit that life has many story-contexts that give life and its parts (like dreams) meaning and value.  One scientist in dream science, Milton Kramer, MD, has stated that "Anything with structure has meaning," and that "dreams clearly have structure." 9  Here the story-context is more inclusive, but perhaps too inclusive. In Kramer's definition of meaning, a loose rock in a rock pile is meaningful.  It doesn't necessarily get at the question most people want to know about when they ask if a dream is meaningful or not. 

For the greater part of our century, the problem was usually expressed in the mind/body problem.  The body was seen as material, the mind as non-material. Given this definition, science had little or nothing to say about how the mind and body might connect. If the mind was not material, how could it then act on material bodies? If the body was material, how could it influence and act on the mind? Therefore science decided to ignore the mind and study only the body. Some associationalism was admitted. That is, chains of actions and reactions were observed and assumed to somehow cross the body-mind barrier. The final result of this in psychology was Behaviorism, which attempts to look at all behavior without reference to the mind.  However, many 19th and 20th Century scientists and researchers were not happy with the neglect of the mind and simply side-stepped the philosophical problem and looked at ways the mind and brain were influenced by the world and in turn, influenced the material world. 

 Select for more information on Sigmund FreudThe great theorist Sigmund Freud10 attempted to bridge brain and mind by theorizing that dreams helped protect sleep by partially covering up disturbances, while letting them blow off a little steam. Thus we might feel the need to urinate during sleep, but not strong enough that it would cause damage, so instead of the mind receiving the message from the brain to wake up and pee, it instead got the signal that it was already awake and looking for a bathroom. The dreamer could imagine him/herself urinating and get some relief from this, thus allowing the body to continue sleeping until the need to urinate was truly urgent and not just a little impulse.  The same process was then applied to thoughts about topics and situations in the dreamer's past that might arise during sleep, especially the ones that the dreamer might keep repressed when awake. 

Select for more information about Carl Jung Swiss analyst Carl G. Jung11 also tried to bridge the brain-mind barrier with his theories of dreaming. One of his theories involved the theory of compensation. Jung felt that during the daytime, the human mind, especially in Western cultures, was very willful and often acted in ways that were not conducive to the maturation of the whole individual. That is, we often decide to ignore the messages of health and wholeness and  "damn the torpedoes" and "go our own way."  This leads to a psychological imbalance that Jung felt dreams tried to address. During sleep,  the unconscious attempted to address and compensate this daytime attitude symbolically by finding reconciling symbols that could hold the rational and irrational together in a way that would further the development  of the dreamer.

Select for more on Dream ScienceHowever, most psychological dream theories avoid dealing with the brain-mind connection. Most have story-contexts which don't necessitate bridging this gap.  In psychotherapy,  for instance, its not so important that the dreaming brain seems to be activated at regular cycles by the brain stem causing rapid eye movements (REM). But it can be important that the dream produced during this REM cycle includes a story about the patient finally asking a clown to smile. The story-context of brain-evolution is superceded by the story-context of emotional healing. The meaning and value of a dream then is found in the service of story-context in which it is told. 

But wait, is this saying that the meaning of all dreams is just relative to the person and his/her story-context? Don't dreams have a real and true meaning independent of the person that is trying to impose a meaning on them?

I feel they do, but not in the way we used to think about real and true meanings. 3

Select for a bibliography on dream anthropologyTribal Meaning and Value.   It used to be that we all lived in local zones, less globally distributed, and the true meaning and value of life and its dreams were determined very differently. I live in a very different world now, but pockets of these indigenous peoples still exist.  At one time, meaning and value was circulated through one's family and tribe, as well as one's affiliations. Dream stories were circulated and flowed through lines of filiations and alliance. That is, one got up during the night, went to the fire in the village and told whoever was there what their dream was. The people gathered there used the rules, the story-context of the their tradition, to extract various meanings and notice various impacts that the dream produced. Sometimes these needed to be further told to a specialist, a village shaman, and sometimes the shaman called in other shamans to discuss the meaning and value of the dream. The results could change the flow of goods and people, marriages and other events. It was if the dreams came up from the night of the bio-cosmic earth itself, were captured by the tribes, coded,  and circulated among them. 

 Despotic State  Meaning and Value. There was, and at too many places still exists, yet another form of society that imposes a particular style of meaning and value, the despotic state. Here there is a singular center that draws together all the meaning and value to a central point. The king is one and the earthly servant of the One. All the codes in the despotic state point to this singular accumulator and distributor. Everything flows to and from the Pharaoh, the King, the Despot. All money bears his image or the god he represents.  All primitive codes and laws that determine the flow of life are overcoded and redirected to flow through him. The meaning and value of life is rigidly set and any questioning of this is considered a sin and transgression of his law.  The first thing to know or find out  about a dream in this kind of system is its relationship to the emperor. Does the dream indicate favor or bad omens? Will there be more money and children, or illness and poverty?  Dreams can no longer be messages from the gods, as this might challenge the hierarchy and place the authority for revelation and the flow of goods and ideas and people beyond the court.  But elaborate systems of interpretation and representation in service of the Pharaoh will proliferate so that no flow of decoded dreams escapes the empire.

Capital Economy and the Free Market of Meaning and Value.  As Deleuze and Guattari (among others) 6  have pointed out 3  while capital economy frees us from being stuck with old systems of meaning and value, it does nothing to provide us with alternatives. And so we are left to our own devices to encounter forces that shred egos and personalities to pieces and crumble empires that have existed for a millennium.  Capitalism both produces this condition of the uncoded and unmediated real and at the same time constantly constructs artificial territories to ward it off.  We get caught in a system that on one hand removes all the mediation between things so that the markets are in fact free flowing, but then has to immediately step in and insert artificially created mediations, simulation and forces. We are swamped in a media culture that does its best to keep us from having to directly encounter anything but a shopping mall. We watch all our wars on T.V. and do all our trading online. We haven't a clue to what is real, it seems to us that this is something that is totally lost and un-recoverable. This is my society, anyway, here in the West.  Only those things which can be reproduced are considered real. And yet that is just exactly what is not real.  That is just a simulation of reality. Models take the place of the modeled. Copies take the place of the originals. As French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard pithily notes, we live in the time of the simulacrum, copies without originals. We get so lost, there is no way back to the original. The joke that is made about Disneyland is not that its a cover up of reality, but a cover up that covers up that there is nothing left to cover up. People leave Disneyland and go to their cars in the parking lot and think they have moved from the unreal back to the real. What a farce.

  Dreams are made to serve quick analysis that brings people back into alignment with the culture, to serve to bring the people who can no longer handle it, the decoded flows,  back into conformity with the capital economy and its needs. Good little job, nuclear family, and lots of time to watch advertisements for products to consume. 

So fine, if we are all conditioned to see only the meaning and values that our culture, or some past culture imposes, how can we get to the really real of the meaning of a dream?

Jungian theorist James Hillman 7 speaks to this issue of true meaning in dreamwork and creates a bridge to many postmodern theories in his writing about perspectivism and Archetypal Psychology. In perspectivism, one is always coming from at least one or more perspectives. This is the story-context. Even the belief that one can set aside all perspectives, [as in the phenomenological epoche of "bracketing-out"]  is itself a perspective. But Hillman is not a relativist, he is an archetypalist. This means that each perspective we put on to see and understand the world is not ours, it is just borrowed. And usually we can't even borrow them, they borrow us. It would be better to use the word 'possession' than 'borrowed'. Consider how young lovers see the world. They don't choose to be in love, they are possessed by this perspective of Eros and more likely than not, to play out the game of love very unconsciously and without much control. Depressed individuals also rarely choose their depression, but are seized by it and dragged down into the underworld and its perspectives.

So why not seize control of our own perspectives? This too, Hillman points out, is just another perspective and the world is full of stories and mythologies that speak to this. In Greece, we find the myth of Heracles, who could will his way through most situations. But note what happens when he goes down into the underworld. He doesn't get it. He starts swinging his club at phantoms with no effect. Hillman points out that each time we attempt an interpretation of a dream, we impose upon it a particular interpretive stance, a particular perspective. The way around this, he feels, is to stop imposing structures on the dream images and begin listening to them. Though this too is a perspective, it is one that includes the dream as valid autonomous image that is not *our* image but an existing essence in its own right. When we are asleep we are more aware that we are in the dream, it is not in us. It is only when we are awake and more willful that we take on the notion that the dream is in us. Hillman would rather we see the dream image as living in-between, in the mundus imaginalis, an imaginal world. This is not an imaginary world of an individual, but a world that exist somewhat independent of the individual. This used to be somewhat of a radical notion, but with the advent of the Internet and the growing abundance of virtual realities that exist outside of us, it becomes clearer that there are realms that we participate in, but do not fully control alone. However, the mundus imaginalis is not controlled like computer mediated virtual reality where groups of people contribute somewhat consciously. The mundus imaginalis is more like the world of Greek gods, inhabited by powers that can enlighten us, frighten us, and seize control of us through the parts of our personality that remain forever beyond our control. Its a realm that we continually live in, but of which we are not very aware.

The importance for us here is that this view breaks up the mind-body split into a neo-platonic three way split of 1. matter/empirics/concrete ---- 2. imaginal/soul/psyche ---- 3. ideal/abstract/spirit. Psyche in Greek means 'butterfly' and in this system psyche, like the butterfly,  hovers between the material world and the abstract sky of spirit. It also connects them. Our minds or imagination interpret the material world and its relationship with the ideal world. And in the other direction, we interpret the ideal world and attempt to create it in the material world though our imagination, our perspectives.

This is also how psyche gets a bad name. She operates by taking what is and bending it, twisting it, distorting and folding in, unfolding out. She can fool us and deceive us about the world and our relationship with it.  These same procedures can also create new perspectives.

But if everything we see and understand is a perspective from this middle zone, how can we ever escape this hall of mirrors? Hillman's suggestions to listen to the forces as they manifest to us can lead us to know more about the realm itself and its inhabitants, but it also sucks us deeper into the soul. For a dreamwork that is interested in exploring the soul, this may be enough. True, Hillman's soul is more a cultural thing, out there and surrounding us as much as in us. However, for a dreamwork that wants to connect with the material world, the political world, the social world, this relation building with images, in or out, though vital, will not be enough.

Hillman's attack on using dreams as representations of something other than themselves seems to lead to a kind of theatre of the unconscious which parades itself through all aspects of life, dispensing thoughts, feelings and actions to individuals who no longer can do much but act out the individuation of these powers.

At times, this is exactly what is needed. In dreamwork that connect image and body, for example, like Gendlin's Focusing or Arnold Mindell's process psychology, the is an increase in the fluxion or flow of mind/body/emotions. The dreamworker listens to his/her images with the ear of the body, and gives voice and movement to processes that are often blocked. I feel that one of the keys to this work is the shift from representational work to a process of making connections. Not singular connection, not conscious connections, but swarms of connections, multiplicities of connections, connections that break into the normally rigid channels and create disjunctive synthesis, connections that are themselves in-process of making more connections rather than consolidating territorialized representations. 

I feel that many dreamwork programs can get at this real level of the dream, though their theories cannot, or more accurately, have not. Freud gave us the technique of free association, for example, which allows for the images and emotions remembered about the dream to begin to speak again with polyvocity. And yet, at just the moment he released the dream image, he again theorized its meaning back into a pre-assigned object. Free association is seen as leading backwards up a chain of associations to a singular cause of the dream. Carl Jung was deeply aware of the many voices and trajectories of the soul and knew one didn't have to follow up the chain of associations to get at a profound level. And yet his techniques to bring people in contact with the polyvocity of life get overcoded by the project of the integration or alignment of the Self, a teleological being that guides all the multiple becomings and thus tends to wreck their true freedom. For these voices need a complete indetermination, from the future or the past, to establish legitimate connective syntheses that will provide novel trajectories.

However, I don't want to fully develop a postmodern dreamwork here, but rather to investigate the problem with answering the simple question, "Do dreams have meaning?"

Is the dream a message?

We have learned now that the question is not so simple. When we ask "What do you mean, when you ask if a dream has meaning?", several options unfold that make this question difficult to answer.   However, we don't have to be fooled by the legal terms. When Bill Clinton replied "It depends on what is, is", we all knew what "is" was, it was sex with Monica Lewinski.  And when someone asks what a dream means, they usually are asking if the dream has an important message for them. This message usually takes one of these forms:

  • Is the dream a message?
    • A message from the unconscious or psyche or myself-to-myself?
    • A message from God or a spiritual entity?
    • A message sent telepathically from a friend or entity?
    • A message from the future itself?
      • Does this dream indicate that I will have something occur like the dream in real life? It may be an accident, a marriage, or some good or bad fortune. 

Again, in terms of science, there are no clear answers. Science is not capable of addressing these questions directly.  We can say through survey research  that when we look at dreams as-if they are messages, that this is often a more satisfying way of approaching dreams than as-if they are without a message. But new, non-representational dreamwork that works with dreams as a process of production, and creative expression, and presentation instead of a message are also valuable ways to work with dreams.

We can ask how often dreams actually do predict the future, but this answer will vary widely on how literal one is being and how fixed one feels the future really is after a vision of the future. For example, a wild, ungrounded guy once told Jung that he had a dream of falling off a mountain. Jung told him to avoid mountain climbing. He didn't follow this advice and fell to his death.  But most Jungians feel that Jung was not so much looking at the dream as a prediction about the future as indicating the trend of this person to do things which would cause the dreams to show him as falling, or as an careless type. If the person persists in being careless, then these are the kinds of things that will occur. 

If we take the view that dreams are metaphorically showing us psychological trends, like being careless, being unkind, being generous, being skilled, and so on, then we can say that dreams often predict the future or are a message from the future. However, if a person is not involved in doing their own psychological work, then they may become superstitious about dreams and always worrying about dreams that predict deaths, accidents and bad luck.  They can also be used by people who feel the need for power. How many of us have had grandmothers or uncles that claim to see all sorts of bad omens in dreams?  
Many contemporary dreamworkers feel that one can benefit best by taking these dreams as projections, as views we hold unconsciously about others and don't usually admit, even to ourselves. By "re-owning" these projections (e.g. "O.K., maybe I do that sometimes too.") we create a personal space for ourselves that is larger, more flexible and self-aware. 

At the other extreme, we can test for the literal truth of dreams predicting the future. That is, science has begun investigating dream psi and the ability of dreams to see the future, to see distant events at all times, to send and receive messages from other humans and beings. For several years, the Maimodides Medical Center in Brooklyn investigated the dream-psi connection.  The 50+ published articles are summarized both in a technical monograph (Ullman and Krippner, 1970) as well as two editions of the popular book DREAM TELEPATHY with Ullman, Krippners and Vaughn, (1973, 1989). Although it was very hard to replicate these experiments, the researches found a lot of evidence suggesting that we are more aware and connected during dreaming to events that have no direct physical connection to us. Still, the number of "hits" a person has is either small and few between, or  depends on a "wide" interpretation ("Well, ok, I wasn't dreaming about the target which was a blue beach ball, but I did dream about the earth as a globe...").  

For those interested in finding out how accurate their own dreaming might be, the key is to time stamp the dream. The best way to do this is to post it to a public forum online such as the ASD Bulletin Board or a Usenet Newsgroup like alt.dreams or alt.dreams.prophecy

At this time, looking at dreams as messages from God or other spiritual or divine entities is not something that science has anything to say about. However, many people find great comfort, inspiration and value in doing so.  Each religion has had its own struggle with the meaning and value of dreams. They have all had dream sharing at the beginning of the religion, which is later suppressed, and then usually recovered at a later time when hierarchical practice and thinking give way to more liberal inclusiveness. Modern dreamwork in spiritual traditions usually combine psychology with spiritual techniques and belief to explore the divinity of the dream as well as the day to day spiritual inspiration it may provide. For example, books written by Morton Kelsey or John Sanford use basic Jungian principles to elaborate a path for spiritual development Christians.  The meaning and value of the dream is then aligned with the spiritual tradition itself.  And so the answer here as to whether the dream is a divine message will depend on one's individual or group beliefs and experiences. The "truth" (that a particular kind of dreamwork is valuable) is passed by showing, by example, by demonstration, inspiration, revelation. 

This leaves the final category, the view that dreams are a message from the unconscious, or the psyche, or from oneself to oneself.  Again, it's quite similar to the spiritual path. That is, psychotherapy for the most part is dependent upon how well the therapist helps his/her patient or client. Notions of the unconscious, the self, the ego, the super-ego, the Shadow, and so on, are useful notions and theories that can't really be tested.  You probably feel that the psychological self that you have is quite real, but you would have a hard time proving its existence.  This comes from a long philosophical tradition as well, where psyche is located in time, but not in space.  I am going on about this because I want to show that locating the meaning of a dream by locating it's author is no easy feat. 

The location of the meaning of the dream by locating the author has a parallel in the history of literary interpretation. In the beginning, one found the truth of the bible or religious text through divining the will or intent of its author, the god who wrote the text. What did God mean by that phrase or this chapter? With the advent of secularization, there was a shift to the human author. Find out what the author meant and you will know what the book means. But over time, people found that there was a surplus of meaning in texts. That is, people could read books in ways the author never intended and derive useful meanings. One could read about Capitalism and Adam Smith from the viewpoint of Marx and derive from the book much about class struggles that Smith never intended.  Others found that they could read a book in the context of its times and get meaning from the book the author never intended, but included as part of the historical context from which he/she was writing. 
Somewhat later more subjective approaches appeared. Here a person could read and book and derive from it any meaning they wanted, regardless of what the author intended.  By the late 20th Century, the authority of the author over the meaning and value of his/her book had radically changed. Some even said the author's intentions could never be clearly located, even if the author demanded one meaning for a book. 

We are in a somewhat similar situation with the dream. The author, the ego, the I, the thing that tells me its me when I wake up in the morning, is more of an imaginal creature than anything else, and much more multiple than I usually sense myself to be. Ask me the meaning of my life at one moment, and the answer will be different than another moment.  We say these are just moods and perspectives of the same-self, but saying this is just a conventional way to keep the single image of the self together. 

Henry Bergson explains how this happens. We hear the tick-tock of a clock and spatialize the event. Each tic-tock sequence is seen as the same, ticking out even beats of time. tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock,tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock. But in fact, each tic and tock are NOT exactly the same, and form a kind of unique melody that is often beyond our perception. Still, we hear and expect them as the same and create a grid that spreads out across the universe. This grid is useful, but an abstraction of the discreet events. That is, it is produced as only a part of the event, the abstract part, which is then taken back into us as a whole. Like a pearl necklace, we see each bead of time being the same and assume that all of time occurs as regularly as our abstraction of it. But even further, to string all these beads together, we assume a being that is OUTSIDE of this time viewing it all. This second self is quite illusory, formless, indifferent, unchanging, but holds all the (abstracted)  experiences together and sees them as one. This ego is a symbolic marker "...intended to recall unceasingly to our consciousness the artificial character of the process by which the attention places clean-cut states side-by-side, where actually there is a continuity which unfolds." 12 

Whatever your view of the self and its contributions to the dream, the problem of locating its influence remains. Again, it seems more prudent to use the story-context approach and say that from the viewpoint of self-influence, the dream may (or may not) contain a host of meanings that I have somehow given directly or indirectly.  In this way, it doesn't matter so much whether the self is an imaginal being, a fiction or a real entity. What matters are what meanings and values unfold when we talk about the dream as-if it were a message I am relaying to myself.  This as-if perspective can also be applied to other notions of dreams-as-messages.  What happens when we look at dreams as-if they were messages from the unconscious, from a distant relative, from the body?  

What many dreamworkers find is that they like to know all these perspective (and continually add more) but that one will be their main perspective, one will be the most profound for them, one will move them the most.  In this way, the meaning of the meaning of a dream will be aligned with an individual's values, and yet admit other voices. 

A summary of the ways we might see dreams as meaningful...

Levels of why the recalled dream has meaning:

  • Existential Level - The dream has meaning because I give it meaning.
  • Affective Level - The dream has meaning because it feels meaningful.
  • Functional Level - The dream has meaning because it is useful.
  • Ephiphonic Level - I am overwhelmed by the meaning(s) of the dream.
  • Pragmatic Level - The dream is meaningful as the impact it happens to have.
  • Autonomous Level - I listen to the dream for the answer about its meaning.
  • Spiritual Level -  All things have some alignment with the infinite, including dreams.
  • Relative Level - Dreams give people more satisfaction  than some other approaches.
  • Testimonial Level - Dreams are meaningful and valued by many people. 

Note that it is useful at times reverse these hypothesis.  One can do this may ways. Obviously one can use contradiction, such as applying the existential level to a dream and saying that its is meaningless because I refuse to give it any meaning. But we can also maintain that dreams are meaningful and still use reversal.  A dream is meaningful because I am personally incapable of giving it meaning, it always alludes and overflows my ability to force meaning on it.   Or a dream is meaningful because it doesn't feel meaningful, its different than other things in my life and this it part of its unique quality. The dream is meaningful because it is useless and can't be commodified and used by the ego like other objects in its power and control.   And so on. Productive reversal allows for new voices surrounding the dream image to emerge.

It is almost as though we should say that dreams are overloaded with meaning rather than lacking in meaning. Or more accurately, that dreams, by not being perfectly clear in their meaning to us upon first inspection, offer us the opportunity to explore a wide range of meanings and value not offered by instant clarity and understanding.  It is as though dreams are the process of meaning itself. In their state of being not-yet complete as objects, they are complete as moving processes.  Metaphors in motion, as Montague Ullman has said.13 Fluidic processes before the closure of full representation has territorialized and coded the meaning and value of the event. Just slightly ahead of being represented and turned into a slave as a representative, before being spatialized and abstracted across a grid of equal portions and statistical curves. Tickity-tocklolog, tilocity, ocity, ibility-nock, trumble, tic-tockity, smock. 

- Richard Wilkerson

Footnotes,  Bibliography and Citations

1. The Association for the Study of Dreams Mission Statement. Available online

2. The ASD Dreamwork Ethics Guideline. Available online

3. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix (  ). Anti-Oedipus.

4. Baudrillard, Jean (1984). Simulacra and Simulations. trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser. The University of Michigan Press

5. Wittgenstein, Ludwig, (1963) Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

6. Jameson, Fredric (1991). Postmodemism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

7. Hillman, James ( ). Dreams and the Underworld.

8. Hill, Clara E. et. al. (1993).  Are the Effects of Dream Interpretation on Session Quality, Insight, and Emotions Due to the Dream Itself, to Projection, or to the Interpretation Process?      Dreaming, (3)4, 1993 {Clara E. Hill, [1] Roberta Diemer, Shirley Hess, Ann Hillyer, and Robyn Seeman}

9. Kramer, Milton (1993). Private Conversation at the 1993 Santa Fe conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams. 

10. Freud, Sigmund. (1965; first published 1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. James Strachey (Trans.). New York: Avon Books.

11. Jung, C. G. (1971). The Collected Works, R. F. C. Hull (trans) Princeton: Princeton University Press.

12. Bergson, Henry (1998/1911). Creative Evolution. (trans. Arthur Mitchell, Ph.D.). Mineola, NE: Dover Publications, Inc.  Quote from page 3.

13. Ullman, M. Dreaming as metaphor in motion. Archives of General  Psychiatry,  1969, Vol. 21, 696-703.  

MORE Bibliography of generally referernced materials

Aserinsky, E., & Kleitman, N. (1953). Regularly occurring periods of eye motility, and concomitant phenomena, during sleep. Science, 118(3026), 273?274.

Aserinsky, E., & Kleitman, N. (1955). Two types of ocular motility occurring in sleep. Journal of Applied Physiology, 8(1), 1?10.

Cohen, David B. (1979). Sleep and Dreaming: Origins, Nature and Functions. New York: Pergamon Press.

Crick, Francis & Mitchinson, Graeme (1983). The function of dream sleep. Nature, 304(14), July, 111?114.

Crick, Francis & Mitchinson, Graeme. (1986). REM sleep and neural nets. Journal of Mind and Behaviour, 7(2&3), 229-50.

Dement, William C. (1976). Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep. San Francisco: San Francisco Book Co.

Ellman, Steven J. & Antrobus, John S. (Eds). (1991). The Mind in Sleep: Psychology and Psychophysiology. 2nd edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Fishbein, W. (Ed). (1981). Sleep, Dreams and Memory.(Chapters 7,8,9,11,12,13). New York: Spectrum.

Freud, Sigmund. (1965; first published 1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. James Strachey (Trans.). New York: Avon Books.

Gackenbach, Jayne (Ed.), (1987). Sleep and Dreams: A Sourcebook. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc (original Pub 1986).

Globus, Gordon G. (1993). Connectionism and sleep. In A. Moffitt, M. Kramer, R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Functions of Dreaming. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

--------. (1991). Dream content: Random or meaningful? Dreaming, 1(1), 27?40.

--------. (1989). Connectionism and the dreaming mind. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 10(2). 179?196.

Greenberg. R and Pearlman, Chester, Wynn, R Schwarts H Youkilis Grossman (1983). Memory, emotion and REM sleep. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 92: 378-81

Hartmann, Ernest (1998). Dreams and Nightmares: The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams. New York, NY: Plenum.

Hill, Clara E. et. al. (1993).  Are the Effects of Dream Interpretation on Session Quality, Insight, and Emotions Due to the Dream Itself, to Projection, or to the Interpretation Process?      Dreaming, (3)4, 1993 {Clara E. Hill, [1] Roberta Diemer, Shirley Hess, Ann Hillyer, and Robyn Seeman}

Hunt, Harry T. (1989). The Multiplicity of Dreams: Memory, Imagination and Consciousness. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1971). The Collected Works, R. F. C. Hull (trans) Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kelsey, Morton T. (1974). God, Dreams and Revelation. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.

Karcan. I, Williams, R. Salis P. (1970). The effect of sexual intercourse on Sleep Patterns and Nocturnal Penile Erections. Psychophysiology 7 338.

Sanford, John A.  (1984). The use of dreams in psychotherapy with deaf patients. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 12(1), 75‑88.

Sanford, John A. (1989). Dreams: Gods Forgotten Language. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Ullman, M. Dreaming as metaphor in motion. Archives of General  Psychiatry,  1969, Vol. 21, 696‑703.  

Ullman, M., Krippner, S. & Vaughan, A. (1989 2nd Ed.) Dream Telepathy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Pub.

Ullman, M., Krippner, S. & Vaughan, A. Dream Telepathy. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Van De Castle, R. L. (1994). Our Dreaming Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1996). The Science of Dreaming. San Francisco, CA : DreamGate Publications.

Williams, R.L.; Karacan, I,; and Hursch, C.J. (1974). Electroencephalography (EEG) of Human Sleep. New York: Wiley.


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