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(April 1999) [Printed in "Reality Module No.9."]
IS THERE MEANING IN DREAMS?
Introduction (Food for Thought)
1.HOUSEKEEPING - These are the most common type of dream and the least memorable. These serve to keep the contents of the mind in order and to fit new contents into an appropriate space. They help to minimise emotional disorder by, eventually, putting things into perspective.
2.DIAGNOSTIC/ILLUSTRATIVE - These are rarer dreams...They are heavily coded messages from the deep subconscious. They show things as they are, and are often richly coloured and structurally complex....
3.PROPHETIC - These are rarer still. These are basically
time- displacement dreams in which I may relive a past event (e.g. my
emotions at the age of eight) or may experience something that happens
to me in the future (e.g. déjà-vu).
Have you ever looked at one of those floors covered with patterned tiles?
If you have - you might have realised something interesting: your eyes are constantly moving over the tiles, and you are mentally grouping them together in various ways, and always always looking for patterns.
The brain, while you are awake, never stops gathering and attempting to interpret sensory data - and it goes further than that.
Your brain interprets events - looks for cause and effect, works out consequences. When we interact with others - we comprehend language and gestures; receive and communicate information, opinions and feelings; and actively try and work out the psychology of others and their motivations.
This is a lot of data-processing! (And we are not born 'knowing' - we have to learn how to perceive, how to speak, how to interpret the actions of others.)
Human beings are reputed to have deep down rules-of-thumb, short-hand ways of interpreting the world. These are called heuristics.
In brief - we carry around in our heads a sort of 'working model of the world.' It is simpler than the real thing - and we have created it ourselves.
Why do we sleep? The psychologists have carried out experiments in sleep deprivation. When people are deprived of sleep they become irritable, they lose their powers of concentration and become confused. They begin to hallucinate - effectively to have waking dreams.
In animal experiments - long term sleep deprivation leads to death!
So sleep is very very important for mental health and correct brain function.
What happens when we sleep? (I won't talk about sleep-cycles, REM sleep and all that here.) When we sleep - we dream.
To put it simply - when we dream we are pulling apart and rebuilding that 'working model of the world' we have inside us.
We are pulling it apart so that we can put new things into it. We are sorting through the days accumulated impressions and letting some of them go (drifting into the unconscious), and putting other portions (which have been somehow marked as important) into our model.
But dreams can indicate far more than the sorting of memories - that is why they are can seem so strange.
As indicated in the introduction - I believe that the majority of dreams are these 'Housekeeping Dreams.' They are important for mental health, but there is no reason for us to remember them: this is why we generally don't.
(Of course how much of a dream we remember relates to when in the sleep cycle we are woken up. If we drift into dreamless sleep after a dream, the residues of the dream will be washed away like castles on the seashore).
A brief aside (before we can continue):
What sorts of things are contained in the 'working model of the world' we carry in our heads?
The important things to remember at the very beginning are:
1). The model originated in the womb (may even have had a basic template which was inherited - somehow encoded in our DNA), and has been worked on by us ever since.
2). The model is a lot simpler than the world around us - but, paradoxically, contains many things the world around us does not have.
3). The model is largely atemporal. (This is one of the ways it is simpler than the world). Grief, for example, touches our real lives at many points, but in the model grief is brought together in one nexus. In a sense all griefs are one grief. (This explains why we tend to follow the same routines in similar situations, and also why traumatic situations dredge up repressed memories of similar happenings.)
4). The model is elaborate, but very logically constructed. (It employs massive nets of associations. Each element in it is linked to very very many other items. It is, after all, a model to think with!)
5). The model contains lots of other littler models!
6). Using the model is as natural to us as breathing.
So - what does the model contain?
1. Memories stretching back to before we were born. (The amount of detail varies. Conscious and pre-conscious memories tend to be skeletonised - basic events remain. Colours and emotions are filed elsewhere - much drifts into the unconscious).
2. Sensory data - smells, shapes, colours, objects, sounds - a catalogue of sensations and objects from the real world.
3. Our 'working models' of people we know.
4. Vicarious details. Impressions gained from books, TV shows, movies, other people's conversations, etc.
5. Thoughts, fantasies and Dreams!
6. Things we have learnt, facts we know, heuristics we have worked out.
7. What I'd call 'mental metadata' - our largely subconscious knowledge of our own model - so that we can find our way about it and use it.
8. It has links reaching deep down into the unconscious (and probably the Invaginated Shadow Mind) - and we can, if necessary, haul up stuff from there.
9. Undoubtedly it contains other stuff which I've forgotten about (!).
Now we can move forward!
I want to discuss trauma. I want to discuss when things aren't going
well - when we are confused and unhappy and worried, and we don't know what to
In short - when we have a problem.
As hinted at before the brain is constantly working to solve problems.
What do we do when we use all the knowledge we have of the world and of our situation, and our 'working model of the world' still fails us?
In conscious life we will seek out new information, we will talk to people (seek counselling), and ponder and ponder and ponder.
In unconscious life - well:
When we go 'offline' something truly remarkable occurs.
I mentioned before how during sleep we are tinkering with our 'working model of the world' making adjustments and adding new material.
In a stress situation this activity is far more frantic and far more extensive. 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.
That is what the inner us wants - harmony, happiness, "wings of brightness."
During this turmoil the dreams are very strange indeed.
Let's look at them more deeply in order to answer our final question:
The key word is 'associations.'
The elements in our 'working model of the world' are related to each other in very complex ways.
During the process of reasoning we leap from idea to idea - but each new idea is linked to its precursor: though the relationships may be pretty abstract.
It is the same with the 'working model' - all its elements are related to other elements. (I suspect it's a many-to-many association.)
Here is the rub - Does irrationality exist in the brain? Does nonsense? Or are we dealing with strange deeply-convoluted sets of associations?
In short - is the brain chaotic? If it were chaotic - could it still work?
Yes - and no. There are (apparently) random misfirings of neurons in the brain. [Some scientists speculate that these somehow assist creativity - i.e. new random thoughts. I suspect that since the brain exists in the "real world" it must be able to deal with some electrical "noise."]
The key to this mystery is consciousness. We can choose which paths to follow through the nest of associations - though we are often lead. [I might tackle conscious and 'automatic/habitual' thought another time.]
Now - dreams are not usually under conscious control. They will follow natural paths only. ('Natural' does not mean easy or familiar - they can be difficult and unsettling paths.)
The paths - as previously hinted - are links of associations. (The associations are previously mapped either by reason (conscious thought) or by experience (unconscious perception).) This implies that there is an 'inner logic' to dreams - there is a progression and the contents have relationships.
Have you got all that? To recap:
1. Dreams work with our 'working model of the world.'
2. Objects in this 'working model' are all linked by associations.
3. There is a 'natural path' that can be followed from object to object in the 'working model.' This path displays an inbuilt logic.
4. Dreams follow 'natural paths' through the 'working model.' Therefore dreams possess an inner logic.
Do dreams have "meaning?"
The whole purpose of our 'working model of the world' is to make sense of the world around us, so that we can work in it to attain our goals.
It doesn't take an enormous intuitive leap to realise that this model is what gives meaning to our life and our universe? (Since meaning is something we impose on inanimate matter by an act of consciousness). 
The 'working model' deals with "meaning" in the old-fashioned existentialist meaning of the word. Since dreams work upon this model, it can be surmised that they do in fact 'have' meaning.
Interpreting that meaning is quite a different exercise. I feel quite happy in leaving that to another essay.
I'm aware that a lot of what's in here has been simplified. I have been ignoring asides and complications because I have been trying to keep my argument running in a straight line.
(It is like a walk through the mind itself. I keep coming across interesting looking paths which I have to reluctantly turn aside from if I am to keep the essay from growing too long and complicated.)
. Invaginated Shadow Mind. I'm still convinced that this thing exists - and is quite a different thing from the simple conscious and unconscious, and left and right hemispheres.
. That article from The Australian again. Has
many thought-provoking quotations. Here's another:
Of course the existence of God would change the nature of the argument - but I'm not confident of tackling that issue. (I'd have to probe exceedingly deep into the nature of reality and see whether God pops up!)
- In This Series -
See also: Invaginated Shadow Mind
Copyright © 1999 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.
Last Updated: 16 March 2003