What Is a Dream?

There are many notions of what a dream is (traditional, New Age, Jungian, etc.) that portray the dream as a mystical message from God or the Self to the ego or that consider dreams to be direct communications to consciousness from some Other autonomous personality or intelligence.  I find it entirely understandable why people have so often thought this to be true.  It is based in subjective phenomenology.  I.e., it seems to be that way much of the time.  But I reject this kind of theory on a scientific or objective level.

I do not think dreams are communications with consciousness.  I do not think they are "meant" for consciousness at all.  There is no moral imperative to listen to our dreams, and if one doesn't want to do dream work, they are likely to function just as well as one who does.  Dreams are not "sacred".  They are not messages from God that we must prove our faith and divine worth by listening to.  A more scientific study of dreams (despite other limitations) makes this quite clear.

Many people simply don't remember their dreams, and although it is possible to teach oneself better dream recall by creating a standard routine, it is fairly obvious when looking at the data objectively that humans are not meant to consciously remember their dreams.  Dreams, therefore, cannot be communications from the Self or God or whathaveyou.  Why then does it often seem to some people that dreams are filled with such profound wisdom?

I have come to think of dreams as we recall them after waking as cross-sections of elaborate cognitive events.  We might see a few spots where something emerges above the surface of a large body of water.  We might see them in a certain order . . . first a blip over there, then a couple seconds later, another something pokes out over here, etc.  But we see the dream in this way because we can't see "under water".  If we could, I suspect we would see the dream as like a massive moving complex of things that only occasionally breaks the surface.  Those aspects of the dream that poke briefly above the surface may be observed by us, because that is the level of conscious, it is the level on which consciousness can understand and language the complex dynamic organizational movements of memory.

The evidence fore this comes primarily from dream associations.  As mentioned above, detailed dream association allows us to get a glimpse into the cognitive complexity underlying the dream.  And not only the cognitive complexity is revealed in the study of associations, but also some of the rules and mechanics of dynamic memory organization and consolidation.

We believe (as it appears to be so obvious) that a dream is what we remember after waking up.  Perhaps we realize that there are some details we forgot and now only vaguely remember that "something else happened" . . . but this portrait of "what happened", if it could be perfectly reconstructed as we viewed it while asleep, that would be the dream.  This, I propose, is radically incorrect and appears obvious to us merely because of our conscious cognitive bias that is designed to recognize and value only the kind of languaged, higher-order constructs that information can be reduced and condensed into for use by conscious thought.

The recalled story of the dream is merely a thin slice of dream like a sample on a slide viewed under the "magnification bias" of a microscope.  When this dream slide is subjected to associations, it regains some of its three dimensionality, as well as some of its dynamism.  The associations are the bulk of the dream, the recalled dream story is merely a flash portrait.  But even as the associations give the dream both robustness and some cognitive embodiment, they do not overtly and clearly tell us what the dream's function is.

Therefore, to determine this function, a good deal of speculation is required . . . necessitating a fairly large margin of error.  My speculation is that dreams (perhaps not all dreams, but at least the ones that resound with narrative structure) are glimpses into an autonomous cognitive process of dynamic memory organization, consolidation, association, and valuation.  In other words, an elaborate weaving together of new information with old memory organization.  But I also get the feeling that the memory organization events dreams peek into are something like experiments or propositions.  The cognitive process of memory organization is always ongoing.  Memory consolidation is not like a jigsaw puzzle that has one correct solution.  New information gathered into the mind does not have a specific "right" place to fit into.  Memory is a hugely complex dynamic system where many parts are dynamically affecting other parts that are affecting other parts . . . an enormous fluctuating conglomerate of moving inter-associations.  New information introduced into this system will also be affecting the already dynamic associative processes.

There will probably be numerous places the new information could fit, numerous older memory complexes it would more easily associate with.  But that can change over time as attempts at organization or association among memories ebb and flow.  What is especially important to point out is that dynamic memory isn't only receiving new information from outside (the so-called "day-residue" each new day brings with it).  Dynamic memory is also always creating new ideas and experimental organizations.  A new thought or experiential arrangement of memory quanta might lead to the privileging of an elaborate and highly charged new memory complex.  This phenomenon might be especially easy to imagine with artists who conjure up and invent new artistic ideas, but I suspect it happens all the time in all kinds of people, not merely the "creative".

It is therefore fairly possible that the kind of organizational dynamic we glimpse as dreams is going on in exactly the same way while we are awake and our consciousness is focused elsewhere.  I suspect this is at least somewhat true, but I also find it viable that dreams are, at least some of the time, especially successful at inventing novel and particularly efficient memory organizations.  It could be that the removal of the barrage of information we receive while awake allows for memory organization while asleep to be extra efficient.

If that is the case, I still think that sometimes the organizational experiments conducted by dreams work better than others.  And there are particular indications that this is so.  One of these, I suspect, is the possibility that those dreams we are more likely to remember or remember large portions of are the dreams that are most coherent or that express a memory organization that is especially efficient, and since more easily languagable, is more likely to be reinforced by consciousness.  I have personally noticed this phenomenon quite a bit, because I am a person (despite my high valuation of dreams) that often struggles to recall his dreams.  I always remember that I dreamed something, but the chaotic complexity, length, and inconsistency in my dreams (all of which I vaguely remember) often seems to be too much for me to hold in my consciousness once I awake.  Those dreams I do remember are almost always the ones in which at least some episodes are especially coherent and work like conventional story narratives.  Also, those dreams that use motifs of things I have come to understand and valuate more through dream work are likely to be better remembered.

Another phenomenological factor that suggests dreaming is a process of memory consolidation and organization is the common narrative structure of many (of course, not all) dreams that move from a problem or conflict of sorts to some form of resolution or revelation by the end.  That resolution may not be a "solution to a problem" as we would view it in waking life, but it may be a solution to a specific problem of memory consolidation.  It is this common phenomenon of resolution by dream end that invites us to project wisdom or teaching or "truth-telling" capacities onto our dreams.  These self-organizing solutions in memory organization may very well parallel waking solutions to problems of conflict or self-conflict that require a new attitude to synthesize.  Jung's theory of a transcendent function accords very closely with this natural dynamic of memory consolidation through dreams.

Where dream work can effectively grasp one of these organizational solutions invented in dreams and language and valuate it so it has special conscious significance, it has championed and reinforced a clever dream invention and helped memory organize more efficiently.  This is the conscious facilitation of a natural, autonomously organizational process.  Imagine if, by concentration of conscious thought on a physical wound or disease, we could help that wound heal more efficiently and quickly or more thoroughly.  Some people probably do think this is possible (i.e., "visualization"), and I really don't know.  But I do feel that effective dream work is quite capable of aiding the natural memory organizing process.

Another phenomenon supporting this theory of dreams I have recognized in my own dream work (where it has abundantly demonstrated itself) is the tendency of dreams to build onto and incorporate other dreams that have been functionally facilitated via dream work.  Sometimes this tendency of a dream to allude to an older dream can happen when an older dream is especially memorable or striking even if not exposed to dream work.  But the effect is the same . . . the most memorable dreams are likely to be reused in other organization contexts.  But I have noted that successful dream work greatly increases this dream recycling and allusion phenomenon.  I recently had a dream that was so allusive to previous dreams (successfully worked on) it almost seemed like an overture of my dream work.  I have even noticed this phenomenon with my poetry.  I have had numerous dreams that incorporate and re-contextualize aspects or lines of my poetry.  In doing this, the dream is taking something which is an especially highly charged memory complex and tying it to other related feelings and thoughts.  Subjectively, these events are filled with numinous "meaning making", but when viewed objectively, they also display some of the rules and dynamics of the complex system of memory organization.

There is a principle behind this organization.  The principle seems to favor efficiency and highly charged inter-association of memory complexes.  It moves toward fluidity and tends to break down stuck attitudes that don't accord.  Where those stuck attitudes define an individual's identity, the principle of organization (that I consider to be the objective substance of the Self) may seem to oppose or compensate it (as in Jung's theory).  Where one has, through dream work and other self-reflection, succeeded in facilitating this complex systemic process of organization, one is likely to see dreams that acknowledge this and connect it to feelings and memories of successful cooperation and/or creation.  I've had multiple dreams in which I helped repair some machine my father had built or treated some injury he had incurred (my father represents a particularly familiar aspect of the Self system in many of my dreams).


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