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1999) [Printed in "Reality Module No.11."]
[Follows on from: Is There Meaning in Dreams?
(April 1999) and Is There Meaning in Dreams? -
An Interlude (June 1999)]
IS THERE MEANING IN DREAMS? (2)
- SHARDS IN THE WEB, or DIG AND DELVE! -
Introduction (What Has Gone Before)
The Magic Ball Revisited
What Dreams May Contain
The Validity (or Otherwise) of Symbols
The Analysis of Symbols
Cigars - and Symbolic Overlays (!)
Approaching Your Own Dreams
Feedback and Discussions
In Part 1 of this essay I looked at what the
brain does when we dream. How it deconstructs the day's experiences and
incorporates the material from them into a 'working model of the world.'
I looked at some of the features of this model & its role in helping
us to make sense of the world and in helping us to solve the problems
I described stress situations where our dreams become complex and strange
because "Large chunks of the model are pulled apart, and hidden recesses
are exposed and ruthlessly explored. Heaps of stuff is brought up from
the unconscious, in the hope that something previously discarded can be
fitted into the model. Can be fitted inside to make the model work properly
- to make a model which provides us with a route to a harmonious outcome."
Finally I tackled the question of whether dreams were meaningful.
I presented this chain of logic:
Dreams work with our 'working model of the world.'
Objects in this 'working model' are all linked by associations.
There is a 'natural path' that can be followed from object to object
in the 'working model.' This path displays an inbuilt logic.
Dreams follow 'natural paths' through the 'working model.' Therefore
dreams possess an inner logic.
Since the whole purpose of the 'working model' was to act as a tool to
make sense of the world around us - we can work within it to attain our
These goals (in a limited sense) are what gives our life purpose and
I finished with the statement that "interpreting the meaning [of dreams]
was quite a different exercise."
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Last time I gave the analogy of the magic
ball & the porous world.
We are wanderers in our own mindspace.
Like the 'working model' this is a network of associations. Everything
is linked to other things in a many-to-many association (usually). The
porous world is a glimpse of the types of journeys we can make in our
search for associations - through familiar spaces or into deep alien tunnels.
The magic ball (consciousness) is the key to solving the puzzle of what
dreams mean. It can explore at will - and we can consciously map linkages.
[Don't worry. There is nothing arbitrary about any of this. The
brain is innately logical despite its organic nature. In the exercises
described we will see how logic and intuition can work together.]
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The contents of dreams may be slotted into four classes.
1. LITERALS. Representations of objects, places and people from the real
world - which represent just themselves.
"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" - Sigmund Freud.
These are the easiest dream images to work with. They mean exactly what
they seem to!
(The more 'mundane' your dream seems - the more likely it is stuffed
2. SYMBOLS. Carl Jung wrote:
"..a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more
than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider 'unconscious"
aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one
hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is
led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason."
[Carl Jung (ed.) Man and His Symbols. p.20-21]
Thus a symbol is a dream object which means more than is immediately
A literal is a precise locus in the net off associations - a shard
in the net. A Symbol extends further and is, in effect, a mini-net
of its own.
Later on I will explain how to recognise symbols, and how to work out
something of what they mean. (Symbols also overlap items 3. & 4. below).
3. METAPHORS. My dictionary defines a metaphor as:
"a figure of speech in which a word denoting one subject or idea
is used in place of another to suggest a likeness between them (as in
'the ship plows the sea')"
In dream space a metaphor serves as a sort of bridge between associated
ideas, or sometimes as a visual representation of an abstract idea.
A common example given in dream books are a flood or inundation representing
(allegedly) being overcome by emotions ('awash in grief'); or dreams of
being lost or confused representing a feeling that we have lost control
over some aspect of our lives.
(Metaphors should be tackled like symbols - except that we may have to
map the associations out further until we get a clear linkage between
two ideas. Alternately metaphors can be a lot like puns except that they're
4. PUNS. Dreams may contain the abstract or the idiomatic made concrete.
What seems irrational or stupid might suddenly make perfect sense as a
pun when you describe it in words! I've read that puns are not
uncommon in dreams. The only example I can recall is from an unsettling
dream I had several years ago - where I was appalled / fascinated by a
teenage girl (naked but for a thick coating of mud) making sexual advances
towards me! I realised upon waking that my mind had taken the concept
of 'dirty girl' literally.
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There are two sorts of dream books you can buy. There are those that
attempt a one-to-one correspondence between dream symbol and meaning which
is usually based on tradition ('Dream Dictionaries'), and those books
which explore the psychology of dreaming and show how the shift from symbol
to meaning happens. (The former are pretty much useless [for reasons which
will soon be given], the latter can be helpful but can frustrate the puzzled
dreamer because of their lack of precision.)
Here is what can be known:
1. The structure of the brain is inherited - i.e. its gross anatomy,
but not 'cloned.' [We could thus expect some similarities with-respect-to
the meanings of dream symbols across space and time. Jung believes in
a common collective unconscious shared by all humans through our genetic
heritage, which contains some very powerful innate symbols (which arise
spontaneously in dreams) which he calls archetypes.]
I'm not entirely convinced 1 - but believe
that it is highly credible that the basic structures and features of the
mind are common to all of us. But if this theory is true - when you have
decoded these deep symbols - you've got an interpretation which is valid
1 The concept is most fully explored in "Man
and his Symbols."
2. The great majority of our dream symbols are created by us as part of
our processing of life's experiences.
Many of us have had similar journeys through life, with common 'signposts'.
These may imbued many of our personally-generated symbols with similar
meanings - but not identical ones! (This is where the dream dictionaries
fail, because even in the rare instances where they are based on valid
psychological principles, they assume too much similarity in people's
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Here are two examples to show the principles:
What would we associate with the word mother? Possibilities might be
NURTURER, FEMALE, PARENT, PREGNANT, LOVE, COMFORT, CHILDHOOD. (Could go
on and on.)
We could draw a diagram like this:
Armed with this collection of linkages, we might attempt to explain the
significance of the appearance of 'Mother' in someone's dream.
We might associate this word with concepts like SECURITY, HOME, BELONGING,
CASTLE and SHELTER.
Seems okay initially - but because we are all different and have brains
that are wired differently, we do not share a common set of associations
for each word. (Otherwise Freud's word-association test would be pointless
in psychoanalysis - like reflexes, you'd get the same responses every
You could imagine people for whom the word 'Mother' conjures the memory
of growing up with a loveless control freak or an alcoholic. (No 'nurturing'
association there.) Likewise a house may be felt as oppressive - a confinement
* The only person who can interpret your dreams properly is yourself
(you can freely interrogate your network of associations). When you try
and interpret someone else's dreams you have to ask them lots of questions
and make many assumptions. (The greatest assumption you make is 'normality'
- i.e. "this person is a lot like me!")
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Your mother's appearance in a dream doesn't necessarily symbolise "comfort",
"a nurturing spirit", "the symbolic return to childhood" or whatever.
You could simply be thinking about mum!
How do we cope with the difficulty of deciding whether something should
be considered literally - or seen as symbolic?
There is no solid rule - but I tend to think that if something in a dream
seems perfectly normal and feels perfectly normal - it probably is perfectly
Mood communicates a lot in dreams. If something looks alright but feels
somehow wrong - it probably has a 'symbolic resonance.' [See below.] Likewise
if something feels normal during the dream experience - but when thinking
back on it after waking up it is realised to be quite alien in some way
- it likewise has symbolic resonances. (The strangeness was hidden from
us in the dream experience. There are many reasons why this can happen
- a mental 'quirk' (an eccentric association between ideas we have), or,
a deliberate disguising of the image by a deeper level of consciousness
as an instinctive protective response!)
The symbolic and the literal can overlap in dreams. Literal events and
objects can have 'symbolic resonances' overlaying them - and need to be
explored in two or more dimensions simultaneously.
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By recording dreams and trying to work out what they mean you can find
out the issues your unconscious mind is struggling to resolve, and gain
an awareness of the processing tasks the brain is undertaking - glimpse
the machine in operation.
(Despite opinions to the contrary the main function of dreams is to fine
tune our strategies for dealing with serious situations in the real world.
What seems like irrationality in dreams is in fact this powerful logic
experimenting with alternatives, and attempting to solve complex problems
by utilising whole networks of associations simultaneously.)
Now - if you awake from a dream which seems particularly interesting
or significant you should record the details of the dream as quickly as
you can before they are forgotten. Concentrate on the sequence of events,
any words that are spoken , and any special objects, people or places.
(Scribbling notes on a piece of scrap paper are fine - as long as you
can read them afterwards.)
Later the information can be expanded. (Concentrating on the dream will
pull a few more details out of the darkness.)
I use a variation of a model I grabbed from Nerys Dee's "Your Dreams
and What They Mean." (The only popular book on dream interpretation I've
encountered which isn't a load of biological wastematter!)
Entries in a Dream Diary can be set out like this:
I'll give example contents in italics.
DREAM NUMBER: 42
DATE: June 5th, 1999
TIME: 6AM, 9:30 AM, 11 PM.
ATMOSPHERE: bright sunny day; gathering storm; night
MOOD: This is how you feel. elated; anxious; fearful, etc.
THE DREAM ITSELF: In as much detail as you can muster. Expand it from
your scribbled notes. The act of writing (as long as it isn't done too
long after the event) will sharpen your recall.
SYMBOLS AND OTHER MOTIFS: Probably any significant object or situation
in the dream which may have a symbolic interpretation - bicycle; being
lost; falling; treasure; the ocean, etc. May want to think about them
and try and determine which are literals, symbols, metaphors, etc.
WORDS: What characters, seen or unseen, say to you. Words that you say
to others or to yourself.
NAMES: Both of characters you have dreamt of, and of real people who
have appeared in your dream. The Big Scary Monster, Uncle Trevor.
PREVIOUS ASSOCIATIONS: Either draw attention to similarities between
this dream and other dreams (shared symbols, etc.); and/or point out how
what you have read, watched on TV or experienced has been altered by/incorporated
into the dream. This activity draws out the LITERALS and can give you
clues about what aspect of the REAL WORLD the dream is dealing with.
DISCUSSION: This is where you try and bring everything together to try
and "nut" out what the dream may be saying to you.
It is also the hardest part of the process.
My casual advice?
1. Concentrate on the most striking or strange part of the dream, or
on the aspect which gives you the strongest emotional response. (This
will bring you to the heart of the dream). Ask yourself a question along
the lines of "Why is this so?" eg. "Why am I so convinced there is
a monster outside?" "What's that corpse doing in my living room?" "Why
am I so worried about my lost luggage?"
2. Take each of the main symbols and write down what you associate with
each of them - eg. as above. (This will map part of your neural net -
but don't carry on the process for too long - the earliest and strongest
associations are the most important.) This will help you figure out what
you are dealing with.
3. Replace your variables! You can actually replace a symbol with an
association in a question from process 1. This can bring you nearer to
(or take you further away from) an explanation.
4. Become familiar with the language of symbols and the idea of associations.
(It is a form of 'stepwise' reasoning, quite different from what we normally
employ - but it is equally valid.) This is especially valuable in 'holistic
reasoning' - aka 'intuition' - when we are dealing with large chunks of
data simultaneously. Intuition is the single most valuable skill in dream
How do you do this? Read Nerys' book, read stuff by Carl Jung, map out
word associations, read and write poetry, read psychology books about
dreams, read fairy tales, grab some of those occult-magic books for their
'tables of correspondences' and their alien philosophy of a whole worldview
based on meaningful coincidences, acausal connections and self-similarities.
5. Trust your instincts - you are using the same neural network to analyse
a dream as was used to generate it. It is quite natural to find the path.
6. If you fail to find the meaning in a dream do not worry too much.
Any important issues which remain unresolved will be processed by other
You can have two different dreams tackling the same issue but employing
different symbols. Recognising that this is happening, is like being given
two simultaneous equations in mathematics. It makes it easier to solve
for both of them.
7. Like anything else - the skill of dream interpretation gets better
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The topic grows as I tackle it!
I'm aware that the last section is not entirely satisfactory. I plan
to add a third part to this essay where I will provide practical examples
You are welcome to email me any dreams you'd like looked at! (Just provide
some associations for the symbols, and any necessary background information
so I don't look like a complete fool.)
*NB - Nobody sent me any dreams!
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Jung, Carl G. (Editor). Man and his symbols. London : Aldus Books,
1964. [ISBN 0-904-04124-7]
The New Merriam-Webster dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts
: Merrium-Webster Inc., 1989. [ISBN 0-87779-900-8]
Dee, Nerys. Your dreams and what they mean. London : Thorsons,
1995. (First published by the Aquarian Press in 1984). [ISBN 0-7225-3218-0]
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- In This Series -
Previously: Is There Meaning in Dreams? (April 1999)
This Essay: Is There Meaning in Dreams? - An Interlude
Then: Is There Meaning in Dreams (2) - Shards in
the Web, or Dig and Delve (August 1999)
See also: Invaginated Shadow Mind
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Copyright © 1999 by Michael F. Green.
All rights reserved.
Last Updated: 16 March 2003