Dreaming – Symbolism

Friday, June 12th, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

People have been having dreams since before they were people. Any dog, cat or even hamster owner will tell you that their animals dream. Brain scanners and modern science has confirmed it too, essentially all mammals dream.

Since the dawn of civilisation, there are records of people dreaming. Of them striving to understand what those dreams mean, often attributing them to divine portents, messages from the gods, prophecy or mystical omen. Even today dream interpreters abound, offering advice and help on what the specific events of your dreams mean, or foretell. As with all prophecy, understanding the symbolism inherent in the dream could explain how it can be true even when it turns out false. Many careers have been built in so interpreting dreams over the aeons.

Modern science would reject most of these understandings of dream process almost out of hand of course.


Sigmund Freud attempted probably the first, certainly the most famous, modern scientific systematisation of the understanding of dreams. His book ‘the interpretation of dreams’ had a very powerful influence on modern popular ideas about dreaming.

He essentially proposed that each human had certain drives, biological impulses, and that these drives must find expression, they must be acted out in some way to reduce their potency for the mind. Modern man, with his culture and his civilisation and his capacity for taking the long view, had built various mechanisms to act out these drives without damaging society. To Freud, dreams were basically wish fulfilment, encoded and obfuscated by the ego so as not to offend.

This encoding of the dream, to disguise the drives which were being safely tapped, explained symbolism in dreams. Why a dream might not be entirely literal.


Contemporary with Freud, Carl Jung expanded upon Freud’s work (and had bitter arguments with him over it).

Jung agreed that unconscious individual drives influenced dreams, but he also believed that evolution had blessed us with archetypal symbols. A universal subconscious filled with the kinds of symbols and myths found in tarot cards and the like. While Freud would suggest that the symbols used in dreams are individual, based on associations built up during a person’s life, Jung maintained that at least some of these symbols are directly genetically controlled, or perhaps carried in the subtext of our language and culture. He thought these symbols are universal, they apply to everybody.

The psychological explanations for dreams were widely appreciated for many years, influencing modern culture a great deal.

However, even with Jung’s additions, these theories never found empirical foundations. While some of the language he invented (or at least popularised) still remains in the lexicon today, terms like “ID” and “Super Ego” never found an experimental basis. Though many of Jung’s archtypal symbols no doubt do fill popular culture, and can account for the universal symbolism in dreams, he could not account for how this happens.

Activation Synthesis model,

In 1977, Drs. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley from Harvard proposed a radically different systematisation of the dreaming systems. Rather than psychological causes for dreaming, they suggested physiological causes.

Their Activation Synthesis Model hypothesised that each night circuits in your brain would activate during REM sleep. These circuits cut off the senses and muscles from the higher functions of the brain, leading to sleep paralysis (so that the dreamer wouldn’t hurt themselves) and essentially random noise in the input to those higher functions.

Dreaming then, is the higher brain’s attempts to interpret this random noise, creatively building a story to link all the random information coming in to the neural locations which usually would receive sense data.Their theory is primarily constructive, having the brain build a story based on noise, rather than a distorting and censoring process as Freud suggested.

Under the Activation Synthesis model, symbols come to mind based on this constructive interpretation of random information.

Does this mean that dreams are meaningless? No. While analyzing them is not likely to predict the future, seeing what kinds of interpretations it comes up with from the noise can still tell you a lot about how a your mind functions. What your fears, provocatives and interests are. How you think.

Stephen LaBerge, who is a well respected current dream researcher, set up the Lucidty Institute and suggested some fusion of these ideas.

What Do We Know About Dreaming

A theory to explain dreaming should take into consideration all the evidence we have about dream and dream function.

  • Dreams are affected by your actions in the day
  • It seems obvious that the ‘noise’ from your lower functions, or at least the feedback systems around your higher level brain functions, are not in fact ‘random’ at all. If you spend all day playing tetris, it’s not coincidence if you then dream of those terrible falling blocks. If you wear rose tinted spectacles all day it’s not random chance if you happen to dream rose tinted dreams that evening. We know that the daily activities which we work through do in fact effect our dreams, both from experience and experiment.

  • All mammals dream! Not just the smartest or most sapient ones
  • Mammals from Gerbils through to University Professors all dream. Whatever functions dreams have must make as much sense to a Gerbil in it’s environment as a university professor in his. It’s no use proposing that a dream has a function unique to human beings. If dreams are psychological, then rodents have psychology.

  • Dreaming evolved by natural selection
  • The costs to an organism of dreaming five or six times each night are not negligible. Having to paralyse the limbs makes responding to sudden attack slower. Metabolism increases during dreams, meaning animals who dream must eat more to survive. Whatever functions dreams have, they increased the survival rates of the animals which had those functions.

  • They are involved in consolidation and integration of memory
  • When deprived of REM sleep, people and animals perform less well in memory tests. Not just all memory tests though, but a certain kinds of memory. When testing if rats can learn which door contains cheese, depriving them of REM sleep makes little difference. When testing if rats can learn the pattern behind which door will have the cheese (eg, alternate times it’s in door 1), depriving the animals of REM sleep significantly degrades their progress.

    It’s as though REM sleep allows animals to test hypothesis, and let their brain learn what the world would be like if they were true, and thus to strengthen the neural circuits in advance, ready for testing.

  • Dreams are mostly forgotten.
  • Dreams are notoriously difficult to remember, often special techniques must be used in order to make dream recall practical. Notebooks or dictaphones by the bedside. Deliberate early alarm calls. Being woken by researchers and asked when you are mid-dream. Whatever their function, it seems that being able to remember them is a disadvantage, at least for most species.

What Dreams Are

Taking all this evidence, LaBerge suggests that dreaming allows us to practice, to experiment safely in the confines of our own model of the world, to try and encourage neural pathways which would otherwise be tricky: learning how to spot high level patterns, to learn skills we won’t otherwise get chance to learn.

While the pathways which are built using this method are, by necessity, continued into waking life, the autobiographical memory of them happening should, ideally, be wiped. LaBerge’s example is of a cat which dreams the dog next door is replaced by a family of mice. A cat which remembered this, would be more likely dog-dinner than one who forgot his night time fantasy.

LaBerge also points out that humans, because they can be told every morning to learn to notice the difference between dream and reality, do not necessarily suffer so much from this effect. So long as you can keep reality and dream separate, you won’t wonder into the dog’s garden expecting to find mice. Indeed Piaget’s child development work seems to show that kids do mistake this difference until they are linguistically programmed to recognise it.

Since the higher brain functions operate pretty much entirely in symbols, in abstract representations of the world rather than concrete association or perception, dreams will indeed contain many symbolic elements. They will in fact be built entirely from symbols. Though it must be considered that these symbols are usually simply what they refer to. A cigar, as they say, will usually just be a cigar not an encoded reference to anything else.

How Dreams Can Help

Given all this, how can studying your dreams help you, personally, improve your self understanding and concious skills? Should we not deliberately forget our dreams in order to be free of the confusion?

Firstly, as we have mentioned, your dreams are likely to help you understand the archetypes which your brain uses. If whenever you dream of a dog, it’s a particular dog, you’ll know that this particular dog should be the one you imagine if you’re doing any conscious, waking, self-hypnosis or visualisation to try and change your response to dogs. Learning which symbols you use in your own brain can have invaluable results when trying to learn which images to use while reprogramming your brain through NLP etc.

Secondly, if you are able to learn to influence the content of your dreams, you can direct them. We did a lot of this during the first lap, trying to influence the content of dreams by thinking of things before sleep.

This is particularly useful. If you are trying, for example, to learn how to play Tennis, then dreaming about Tennis a lot is likely to help you learn to do that faster and better. Being able to consciously chose to do so, or even just chose to be more likely to do so should thus speed up that learning process.

Next week, sure enough, we’ll discuss some systems for trying to influence the content of dreams, and even learn to become conscious during your dreams, and thus take control at the time, pushing your dreams in your previously chosen direction.

Thirdly: that distinction between reality and fantasy is an essential thing for a linguistic creature to have. No dog can tell lies to another dog, so no dog has to spot those lies. No cat has to understand that the story about Dick Whittington may contain moral lessons, truth in it’s inferences, but that Dick’s cat himself didn’t exist. Dreaming, and learning the difference between that and reality, may well enable us to learn from simple fiction too. To learn our culture, our ways of thinking, our very consciousness from the lessons implied in the stories in fairy tales and in our dreams, while not having to believe in literal fire-breathing dragons.

Practice at the task is likely a good thing.