15 The Stuff of Dreams

CHAPTER 15

The Stuff of Dreams

In Chapter 14, the theoretical findings described in the earlier pages were extended to establish the general nature of the dream process. Our principal concern is with the dream content rather than with the mechanism, which is purely physical and has none of the metaphysical implications that are so freely attributed to dreams in current thinking, the implications that have made it necessary to include a study of dreams in the present work. But an understanding of the dream process, including an identification of the origins of the dream stimuli, is necessary in order to lay the groundwork for arriving at some firm conclusions as to the content of dreams. The purpose of the discussion in Chapter 14 was to provide this information.

As brought out in that discussion, dreams consist of themes, which originate from several sources, and are elaborated into synthetic experiences by means of settings, casts of characters, and other details drawn from memories in storage. Some of these themes, including those of many of the most vivid dreams, are merely reflections of physiological conditions such as hunger or thirst. These are usually easy to identify. The dream action may be erratic or bizarre, but the theme generally stands out conspicuously. The hungry person dreams of food, or of trying to find food.

Dreams stimulated by incoming intuitive information are also theoretically possible. If this is telepathic information—that is, a message which someone is trying to communicate to the dreamer—the situation during sleep should be more favorable than in the waking state because of the elimination of interference from the stream of messages that comes in through the senses while the individual is awake. On the other hand, if the incoming intuitive information is something that this person has been trying to get from metaphysical sources (whether or not he recognizes that this is the true nature of his endeavors), the more related information he can have under active consideration in his mind, the more likely he is to recognize the intuition and fit it into the picture. Here, the uncontrolled association in the dream is a much less effective process than the directed thinking while awake, and the conclusion which we draw from theory therefore is that relatively little of this kind of information will be received in dreams.

There is not much reliable evidence against which we can check these theoretical conclusions as to the likelihood of reception of intuitive information during dreams. Many cases of what is claimed to be telepathic communication have been reported, and a substantial percentage of these involve reception in dreams, but the circumstances surrounding these incidents are such that no verification is possible. It is worth noting, however, that if telepathic communication is possible (as the theory indicates that it is), then it will theoretically take place most readily under the conditions specified in most of the reports, where the originator is highly motivated and the recipient is asleep or otherwise inactive.

A number of instances have also been reported in which problems that have been given intensive study during waking hours have finally been solved in dreams. These episodes are more definitely authenticated than the telepathic incidents, and they have been given a great deal of attention. In considering their significance, however, it should be realized that the number of known cases of this kind is insignificant compared to the multitude of problems that are continually being solved during the waking state by insight or other intuitive means. Indeed, almost all discussions of the subject rely heavily on the same two events: Kekule’s discovery of the ring structure of benzene, and Coleridge’s creation of the poem Kubla Khan (which may not have been accomplished in a dream, as Coleridge was a drug user and an inveterate daydreamer. His ability to distinguish clearly between sleep and the waking state is questionable).

Dement states that “It is likely that artistic creation and problem solving occur in dreams more often than the documentation suggests.”241 This may be true, but the theoretical findings indicate otherwise. They agree that problems can be solved in dreams, but show that the conditions during sleep are unfavorable for so doing. My own experience agrees with this pessimistic assessment of the situation. My principal work is largely concerned with finding new answers to old problems, and since this activity is usually on my mind while I am awake, I frequently continue it in my dreams. Often I arrive at an answer, usually with noticeable feelings of satisfaction at the accomplishment. It is possible that at some time or other one of these answers may have been correct, but I cannot recall any specific example. Certainly the great majority of them failed to stand up under daytime examination. In fact, what I remember most clearly is how quickly the answers with which I was so pleased in the dreams collapsed when I awoke. I suspect that this is the general situation, and that suspicion is reinforced by the reply which Dement reports having received from Niels Bohr (a distinguished problem solver) in response to an inquiry about a reported dream incident. Bohr’s reply was that, as far as he knew, he had never had a useful dream.241

The third, and most common, source of dream themes is experience, either experiences of the dreamer himself or other experiences of which he becomes aware. In this case, the selection of subjects should theoretically be governed by the same factors that determine which experiences are incorporated into the memory storage. The dream themes should originate from among the experiences that are most recent, most vivid, most significant, and of most concern to the individual dreamer. When we undertake to compare the available empirical information with these theoretical conclusions with respect to the content of dreams originating from experience, it will be necessary to have a clear understanding as to just what kind of experiences are incorporated into dreams in actual practice, and how these experiences are represented. Unfortunately, many of the results obtained by previous investigators are contradictory, and all of them are strongly influenced by theories which, according to our theoretical findings, are incorrect, in whole or in part. Under these circumstances, it has seemed advisable to undertake a new investigation aimed specifically at obtaining the answers that we need in order to make a valid comparison between theory and observation.

One of the principal problems in the investigation of dreaming is the high degree of uncertainty as to the reliability of the basic information. This comes mainly from reports by the individual dreamers, and it is susceptible not only to the inaccuracies and omissions that characterize any subjective type of observation, but also to an undisclosed amount of censorship by the participants that may be serious enough to invalidate the entire study. Attempts have been made to diminish these uncertainties by correlating certain aspects of the dreaming process with physiological states, and some useful results have been obtained, but the question as to just what these physiological observations mean in terms of the dreams is still far from having a conclusive answer. Consequently, most investigators rely to a considerable degree on information derived from a study of their own dreams. This forfeits the benefits of having information from a diversity of sources, but it does eliminate most of the uncertainty as to the reliability of the basic data. These considerations apply with equal force to the investigation that is being reported in this present work, and I have therefore followed what has become standard practice, and have made a systematic study of my own dream patterns. The discussion in this chapter will be based on the results of that study.

Inasmuch as the primary purpose was to determine the nature and origin of the dream contents, the only requirement was to record enough dreams to constitute a representative sample. Consequently, no special arrangements were necessary, and I merely kept a notebook at the side of the bed. Whenever I roused enough to remember that I was making a dream study, I made some brief notes as to the subject matter of the dreams from which I had wakened, if any. As soon as possible after rising in the morning, I used these notes, together with whatever memory I had of additional details, to prepare a description of the dreams. During the recording of this information, I tried to avoid speculating as to the origin of the dreams, so that the possibility of influencing the recollection of the details would be minimized, but later in the day, I reviewed the record of each of the night’s dreams to see if I could identify the source of the stimulus that initiated the dream. The records of these reviews, together with the original records of the dreams, are the primary bases of the conclusions that will be reported herein. No means of distinguishing between REM and NREM sleep were available.

Preliminary consideration of the plan of procedure indicated that there would be some advantage in limiting the study to those dreams that involve the entire dream process, including the role of the circulating memory system, and the dreams that were obviously initiated by physiological stimuli were therefore excluded. As noted earlier, these dreams were easily identified. For example, my standard reaction to incipient hunger is a dream in which I am trying to find a restaurant at which I can get a meal, but for one reason or another, I am unable to do so. Similarly, my standard reaction to getting too cold during the night is a dream in which I am lacking some item of clothing (without the feeling of embarrassment that might be expected). Such dreams were not recorded. There is a possibility, of course, that the effect of a physiological stimulus might also appear in a less easily recognizable form, in which case it should show up in the analysis of the written record, but no indications of such effects were found.

The study was carried on for a period of one month, during which fifty separate dreams were recorded. This was a rather quiet month which I spent at home, and in which I engaged in no unusual activities, and was not subject to any emotional complications. Nor was I troubled by any physical ailments, aside from hay fever, which I have in a mild form every spring. The hay fever was, in a way, an asset to the study, as it caused more waking during the night than would ordinarily take place, and thus increased the number of remembered dreams. The conclusions reached from the dream study will have to be interpreted in the light of these conditions; that is, they apply to a specific individual, presumably in normal physical and mental condition, and in a relatively calm and uneventful situation. It is reasonable to conclude that they will also apply to any other normal individual under similar circumstances, but to what extent any specific conclusion is applicable to an individual whose physical or mental condition is abnormal, who is under emotional tension, or whose situation differs in any other significant respect from that prevailing during the study is a question that will have to be left for further investigation.

While the restriction on the scope of the inquiry by reason of the special conditions under which it took place limits the applicability of the results to a corresponding degree, it also eliminates much of the confusion that surrounds the investigation of complicated and highly emotional dreams. Inasmuch as the primary objective of the study was an understanding of the initial phase of the basic dream process, which should be the same in all cases, this simplification of the raw material with which the study is concerned makes the interpretation of the results considerably easier and more conclusive.

The study indicates that each dream, even if it appears to be continuous, actually consists of a succession of different themes. These are taken from experience, but in most instances a theme, as it exists in the circulating memory and is passed on to the dream, is only an idea, a general subject abstracted from the actual experience rather than the experience itself. Thus, a discussion that took place during the day is not contained in the circulating memory as a discussion, but in the form of some aspect of the subject matter of the discussion, perhaps accompanied by a few of the significant details, as subsidiary themes. In about half of the recorded dreams, only one theme was identified, but these were short dream sequences, some of them not much more than fragments, and the remembered dreams were undoubtedly preceded by themes that could not be recalled. For instance, one of the dream reports written immediately after rising in the morning begins, “After some dream sequences which I cannot remember, other than that they existed…” There are other similar items in the record, and unquestionably many more that did not make enough of an impression to get into the record. The longer and more vivid dreams invariably contain more than one theme. In two cases, six separate themes were identified.

The existence of a succession of themes in the dreams explains some of the disorderly and erratic character of the dream action. The sudden changes in the action that are so characteristic of the longer dreams are mainly the results of shifts to new themes. Dreams would seem less bizarre if there were definite discontinuities between the themes so that their true character as components of a series of distinct episodes would be evident, but the discontinuity is masked by the fact that the setting and some or all of the characters are commonly carried forward from one theme to the next. Furthermore, the theme changes are not always distinct, and in some cases, the dream action is reflecting two themes coincidentally or alternately.

Recognition of the theme as the common denominator of the originating source and the synthetic dream experience is the key to the identification of the dream sources. It means that we must look not for the origins of the dreams as such, but for the separate sources of the different themes of each dream; not necessarily for sources in our own experience, but sources in any experience of which we have knowledge; not for experiences involving the dream incidents themselves, but for experiences related to the themes of the dreams. An understanding of the peculiarities of the association process is likewise essential. Some of those applicable to memory in general were discussed in the preceding chapter. These and others of like nature are particularly evident in the dreams that are not subject to control by the thinking process. For instance, taking a particular action and not taking that action are very closely associated in memory, and the dream does not distinguish between the two. Similarly, the distinction between before and after is ignored. Actions which are merely contemplated appear in dreams as if they had already occurred, and vice versa. Individuals who are connected in some way, business associates, for example, are freely substituted for each other. More familiar things, situations, or places are substituted for those that are less familiar, and so on.

The effect of these associative substitutions, as we may call them, toward complicating the identification of the dream sources is to some extent offset by the fact that there is apparently some kind of a memory trace of the movement of the themes from the original source through the memory process to the dream. The identity of the sources for most of the dreams included in my study, if not obvious from the dream record, was evident almost immediately when a review of the experience of the preceding day was undertaken.

There is no need to pay any special attention to the details that are drawn from memory to complete the synthetic experiences. They are simply items which are associated in the memory storage with the subject matter of the dream themes. They are not usually drawn from storage as complete experiences, although they may be. Several of the dream experiences recorded in the study were apparently “drawn from stock,” so to speak, to fit the incoming themes. Most dreams, however, are “made to order”; that is, they are combinations of many separate items from the available supply. These amplifying items that enter into the synthetic experiences are not necessarily memories of experiences of the dreamer himself. They may come from memories of what he has seen, or heard, or read about, or if his imagination is vivid enough, they may be merely memories of his daydreams. But unless there is a “flash of insight,” nothing can appear in the dream unless it was already present in the memory system.

“Perhaps the best established, out of all of the factors that influence our dreams, is the role of events in the preceding day,”242 report Luce and Segal. This connection between dreams and the events of the day is something that I recognized many years ago. This was long before I had any reason for making an actual study of dreams, and I took note of the phenomenon only as a matter of general interest, and because I was somewhat fascinated by the curious, yet in a way logical, nature of the connection between the dream and its origin. For example, one incident that made quite an impression on me involved a dream in which I was driving a car and arrived at the upper end of a steep street with which I was familiar. Just as I was about to begin descending the steep slope, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten how to drive. The problem with which I was confronted was easily solved by one of those sudden changes in theme for which the REM dreams are noted, and I probably would not have given the dream any particular consideration except for the fact that its origin was so very obvious. During the day, I had been giving my daughter a driving lesson, and at one point where she was to make a short turn, she misjudged it and drove over the curb. This was clearly the experience from which the dream originated, and the interesting point was that what was transferred from reality to dream was not the experience itself but the general concept of “inability to drive well enough to meet a difficult situation.”

After the first few clear correlations of this kind that I noticed, I developed a habit of looking for similar connections between the happenings of the day and any dreams that were noteworthy enough to be remembered more than transiently. Eventually I reached the point where I was able not only to identify the origin of almost all of the relatively few dreams that I remembered more than momentarily, but also a large percentage of those reported by my wife. This previous experience in dream identification, even though not pursued in any systematic way, was a good preparation for the identification aspect of the dream study, and together with the information developed in the investigation itself, as described in the preceding paragraphs, it enabled me to identify the sources of all but three of the recorded dreams (excluding two that were too vague and confused to be intelligible).

All of the identified sources, without exception, were found to be events of the preceding day. This is in full agreement with Freud, who says,

I must in the first place express the opinion that in every dream we may find some reference to the experiences of the preceding day. Whatever dream I turn to, whether my own or someone else’s, this experience is always confirmed.243

Freud describes some dreams which were clearly initiated by physiological stimuli such as thirst or hunger, and he evidently includes these contemporaneous sources in the classification “experiences of the preceding day,” as he makes no exception on their account. As stated earlier, dreams of this nature were excluded from my study.

The relatively short time frame in which the origins of the dream themes are located is a consequence of the transient nature of the circulating memory. It is conceivable that an experience may be vivid enough to carry over to a second day, or even longer, if it is mentally reviewed in detail, so that it is, in effect, a repeated experience, but there was no indication of anything of this kind in my study, nor, we may conclude from the statement quoted, in Freud’s experience. I would suspect, however, that if an individual had been involved in some kind of a catastrophic event, the memory would persist in the circulating system for a longer time. The items drawn from the memory storage to expand the dream themes to synthetic experiences were independent of time, except to the extent that any recall from memory is subject to the time factor.

A recapitulation of the identifications shows that direct memory of objective experience is the most prolific source of the dream themes, accounting for 33 of the 79 identified themes, 42 percent of the total. An additional seven themes were derived from subjective experience such as thinking. Personal experience thus accounts for half of the total number of identified dream themes.

Two of the themes in the subjective category were concerned with the dream investigation itself. Dreams of this kind should no doubt be expected, in view of the amount of attention being given to the project during the day. The largest contribution from outside sources came from the subject matter of discussions and conversations, which supplied 18 themes, closely followed by books, from which 14 were derived. Television (other than news) was the source of only one theme. This predominance of books over television is a reflection of personal preference for reading over television viewing, and would no doubt be completely reversed by many, if not most, persons.

The remaining six of the 79 identified themes were derived from news items, either in the newspapers or on television. Hall tells us that “Dreams… have little or nothing to say about current events in the world of affairs.”244 My findings do not support this statement. In view of the dominant role that our own personal affairs play in our thought processes during waking hours, the fact that almost eight percent of my dream themes are derived from the news of the day shows that current events get their full share of attention. Those who do not dream about the developments in the news probably are not much concerned about them during their waking hours either.

Hall also states that “Businessmen ordinarily do not dream about their business affairs.”244 I find this statement wholly incredible. It is incompatible with the basic theory of the dreaming process that has been developed in this present work, and it is in direct conflict with my empirical findings. My current occupation supplied 12 of the 79 identified themes, and five came from my previous work. In addition, some or all of the details drawn from the memory storage to create the synthetic experiences from the dream themes were taken from my earlier work experience in 11 of the other cases and from my present occupation in one. Thus my “business affairs” were involved in more than a third of my dreams.

My findings are likewise in conflict with Freud’s assertion that “The dream never concerns itself with trifles; we do not allow sleep to be disturbed by trivialities.”245 The definition of a “triviality” is somewhat elastic, but the context shows that his distinction was between trivialities and items of evident or disguised “psychic significance.” On this basis, almost all of my recorded dreams were trivial. A large percentage of them were trivial by any definition.

“The content of dreams is notoriously bizarre and illogical,”246 says one psychology textbook. As brought out in the foregoing discussion, this assertion does not apply to the dream themes. They are simply the themes of waking life carried into the sleep period by the memory mechanism. Although 14 of the identified dream themes were drawn from books, none of these was of a far-out nature. All were ordinary matter-of-fact items. While I read a fair amount of science fiction and other highly imaginative works, I do not incorporate the imaginative material into my dreams. I do not travel in space ships or converse with intelligent plants. I may jump a great deal farther than I can in real life, or move heavy objects around in a manner that surpasses anything that I can accomplish when I am awake, but these are merely ordinary activities carried somewhat beyond the normal limits. Apparently a certain amount of discrimination is exercised by the reasoning process on the way from what is seen or heard to the memory storage, so that the plausible items are retained, if they are of any continuing interest, but implausible items are discarded or classified as fictional. This may account for some of the differences between the dreams of different individuals, as some persons are likely to dream of events that others would dismiss as unbelievable.

My experience in this respect is not out of line with the current trend of research results. “Some investigators,” reports W. B. Webb, “have been surprised by reported findings that suggest dreams may be less fantastic or bizarre than generally supposed.”247 The bizarre situations that do occur are the result of the lack of any supervision of the kind normally exercised by the reasoning process. The individual items by means of which the dream themes are expanded into synthetic experiences are actual memories of personal experience, or plausible accounts of experiences of others which can be represented as my own experiences in the dreams, without going beyond what I would consider the bounds of credibility. But since the thinking mechanism is inactive during REM sleep, and the memory process operates only by association, if one of these individual items is inconsistent with another, or with the setting in which it is placed, there is no mechanism in operation that can identify and reject the incongruous item.

In real life, if I am in a forest, and I consult my memory for an identification of an animal I see in the distance, my memory may tell me that it looks like a kangaroo. If so, I send the identification back, and tell my memory to try again, because there are no kangaroos in our Oregon forests. But if a kangaroo appears in a dream forest among the firs, he stays there. Similarly, I have memories of travel on trains and memories of travel on highways. While I am conscious I keep the two separated, but in one of the dreams during the current study, the train on which I was traveling left the tracks and proceeded along the highway. The dream process has no censorship mechanism whereby this can be ruled out.

The sudden changes in theme, which seemingly cause one object to change into another without warning, individuals to appear or disappear equally suddenly, the action to jump from one setting to another, and so on, likewise contribute to the unreal appearance of the dream when it is compared with conscious experience. The non-specific character of the association process is another source of odd features in the dreams. This is illustrated by one dream during the study in which I was engaged in conversation with an unidentified man. I was having some difficulty with my voice, and was unable to speak clearly enough to enable him to understand, so what I said had to be repeated by another person who was sitting between us. This dream very clearly originated from a discussion during the preceding evening in which I had occasion to mention some of the problems that I encountered in working through an interpreter in Brazil, and on that basis, it is a simple memory recall. But without an understanding of the kind of substitutions that occur in the uncontrolled retrieval of stored experiences, this dream would be very difficult to interpret.

“During sleep,” says Hall, “one’s thoughts are represented by vivid pictures and images rather than by words or imageless thoughts.”229 My findings do not confirm this statement. As nearly as I can determine, every kind of a memory that I have in storage in cognizable form can be called forth by association to take part in a dream. Visual images seem to outnumber other forms of expression, but words are plentiful. I argue, I lecture, I compose letters and statements, all of which are done in words. The results of my study indicate that whenever the words are the essence of the experience, as in arguing, the memory of the experience, and consequently the dream, are in words. Memory of an ordinary discussion, in which the topic is the significant item, is usually non-verbal. Imageless thoughts were definitely present in a few of the recorded dreams, probably in many more. The dream themes are generally mere ideas, and where they are not given image form by association they are nothing more than thoughts. For example, the idea of “good fortune” was the theme of one of the sequences of a dream that will be discussed in the next chapter, and it was not elaborated in any way by dream imagery.

One result reported by some of the dream investigators that has always puzzled me is the finding that unpleasant dreams are more numerous than pleasant ones. It did not seem to me that this was consistent with my own experience, as I have never had the impression that there was much of an unpleasant nature in my dreams. I was therefore quite surprised when I examined the recorded dreams in which some kind of a feeling was noted, and classified them, to find that those in which I felt displeasure, apprehension, frustration, etc., outnumbered those in which I felt such sensations as satisfaction or amusement by a ratio of 4 to 1.

On further consideration of the subject matter of these dreams, however, a plausible explanation of the apparent contradiction has emerged, one which probably deserves some extended investigation by those who are engaged in dream study. It appears that the memories of which the dream is constructed distinguish between genuine sensations of my own and those which are merely part of the dream action, even though the latter have to be attributed to me in the dream because of the “personal experience” character of dreaming. In one long and complicated dream, for example, I went through an extended series of annoying and frustrating experiences, including a search of my car by the police, a sudden discovery that the car had no brakes, and so on. However, the dream record, written immediately after waking in the morning, concludes this long recital of troubles with this statement: “The whole dream was free from any anxiety or other emotion. Every experience seemed to be taken in a purely matter-of-fact way.” Evidently the unpleasant features in the dream were not unpleasant to me; they were merely part of the performance I was witnessing, even though I was dreaming “in the first person,” so to speak. This conclusion is substantiated by the identification of the source of the dream. It was not an experience of my own. It came from a book that I had been reading just before retiring.

In another case in which I encountered some definite antagonism in the dream, the record says, “I was not disturbed by the antagonism; in fact, I seemed to be mildly amused throughout the entire dream.” Here, again, the emotional atmosphere held no unpleasant implication for me. Only a few of the dream records contain specific statements of this kind, but the theatrical performance setting is apparently a very common feature of my dreams, and it probably accounts for my general impression that there is little or no unpleasantness in my dream experience. No doubt many people have genuinely unpleasant experiences in dreams, but it would be interesting to find out how prevalent these actually are.

It is possible that this theatrical atmosphere may account for much of the rather uninhibited nature of the dreamer’s behavior during some of the dreams. From the description of the sleep states in Chapter 14, it can be seen that the thinking mechanism is not in a position to exercise any direct control over the REM dream experiences, inasmuch as it is disconnected from the memory process of which the dream is a part. Whatever censorship is accomplished must be exercised by memory of previous decisions with respect to the same or similar issues. Where a firm position on a subject has been taken, and has been impressed on the memory, this is sufficient to bar any action that would be in conflict. A law-abiding citizen will not commit a crime of violence in his dreams even where the dream is merely a reenactment of an episode from a book or performance, and the dreamer is only playing a role.

In general, however, there is much more latitude for unconventional conduct in dreams than in the waking state. There are plenty of memories of unorthodox, intemperate, or reprehensible conduct in every memory storehouse. Even if the individual has no personal memories that fall into these categories, he has been exposed to innumerable accounts of such experiences in the news, in books, and in the broadcast media, all of which are attributed to him if they are called up by association in dreams. Unlike reasoning, memory is unable to relate the permissibility of an action to the existing circumstances. In the absence of a memory of a definite prohibition, an action which will be taken in real life only under very exceptional circumstances is allowed in a dream under any conditions.

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