Doing Some Dreamwork

giraffe dream

If you hear that someone is doing “dreamwork” it can mean they are working on interpreting their dreams. Today, this differs from the classical dream interpretation that we associate with people like Sigmund Freud.

Freud and others explored the images and emotions that a dream presents and also evokes in order to come up with a meaning for this kind of dream or dream symbols that could apply to other people too.

When I wrote earlier about a dream I had and the symbolism that is associated with it, I relied on some “classical” interpretations, but modern dreamwork is more individualized.

A book on dream interpretation may tell you that dream of a pregnancy (yours or someone else’s) usually has nothing to do with pregnancy and is a symbol of something new being “birthed” in your life. It certainly could be about a new project but it could be literally about someone being pregnant. Dreamwork now is more about discovering each person’s own dream language. That pregnancy could be about an inner transformation or connecting to your inner child.

A book of dream symbols might suggest some interpretations and they might seem relevant but you need to write your own dream dictionary. A child dreaming of feeding a giant giraffe is not the same dream if I dream about a child giving some food to a giant giraffe. Maybe the child is feeling different from everyone. Maybe I am dreaming about exaggerated, oversized desires.

I have been keeping dream journals for many years and I now know that certain things reappear. After decades of teaching, classrooms are often the setting for my dreams. If you read common interpretations of classrooms in dreams, you won’t find what they mean to me.

A friend once compared dreamwork to doing horoscopes. She said that you can read horoscope websites or books about your sign and sometimes what’s there will make sense for you. But to those who believe in astrology, only a horoscope done specifically for you will make sense.

I think interpreting a dream is like interpreting a poem.  If you read a poem about a child exploring a basement, the basement of the poet may be quite different from any basement associations you have in mind. I looked up “basement” in several dream books and they say that it represents a deep level of your subconscious mind – your deepest darkest thoughts, emotions, and memories. But maybe your basement was where your recreation or play room was as a child. I had my workshop for building models and my little chemistry lab in the basement. There was nothing deep, dark or secretive about it.

Many years ago, I gave a poetry reading and afterward a woman came to me and said that she enjoyed the reading and particularly my poem “Weekend with Dad.”I really identified with it because I am a divorced parent too.” I thanked her, but I am not a divorced parent and the poem is not about a custody weekend with my son. Or is it? For her, it was definitely about that kind of weekend, and looking back at the poem I realized she was right. That interpretation is valid. For her.

Any place, person, or object can differ in its meaning for different dreamers. The meaning can even change throughout your life. The classroom in my dreams when I was 11 is not the same one I saw when I was in college or is it the classroom I occupied as a teacher. Dreamworkers consider a dream to be alive after it ends and that it can have a variety of meanings and that those meanings may change.

Can’t a dream “just be a dream?” I have many dreams I have recorded that I cannot interpret. They seem to be just brief stories that are unconnected to my life – at least at the time I had dreamt them.

Freud’s theories are frequently dismissed today by modern science and psychology, but what he wrote about dreams is still influential. He didn’t know anything about REM and the NREM sleep cycles. His theory that dreams are wish-fulfillment partially came from his time spent analyzing children’s dreams. Freud also believed that dreams are very much about sexual or aggressive nature and that is why we repress them in our waking life.

When I started my first dream journal t age 13, I bought Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. It was way beyond my comprehension but it got me thinking about what my dreams might be telling me about myself.

Freud’s student, Carl Jung, became a successful and famous psychiatrist too. Building on Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, he took different views about the meanings of dreams. He believed dreams express aspects of our personality that we haven’t developed in our waking life. Jung believed dreams were the way to see into our unconscious mind and provide us with guidance for our conscious life.

There are those now that dreams are not encrypted and don’t require interpretation because they have no other meaning. But they’re not useless because they are the way the brain attempts to convey information to its conscious self.

Freud called the dreamwork “the essence of dreaming.” They are “a particular form of thinking.” Dreams are very much about images created from abstract thoughts. In dreamwork, you reverse the process and turn the images into language.  Freud compared dreams to picture puzzles like rebuses.

One thing I have not found to be true in my dreams – though I wanted it to be true at times – is that they predict the future. They are all about the past. Oneiromancy (Greek oneiros = dream, manteia = prophecy) is the practice of using dreams to predict the future. I think it is a superstition, but it might only take one or a few coincidental dreams that accurately seem to predict the future to make you a believer. Dreams foretelling the future appear in the Bible, Homer’s Odyssey, and in Shakespeare’s plays.

journalBefore you go to sleep tonight, consider keeping a dream journal near your bedside and immediately recording any dream you recall upon awakening. Dreams dissolve quickly.

There are plenty of websites and books about interpreting dreams and even dream journals with suggestions about what you should try to record. But all you really need is a pen and notebook and to develop the practice of recording dreams and then considering the people, places, and objects that appear in them in the context of your own life experiences.

A Ghost in the House


I had a dream this past week where a ghost was in my house. I don’t think it had anything to do with Halloween approaching. I was fascinated by the meanings and interpretations of dreams starting in my teens. I’ve been keeping dream journals since my teen years and still look at dreams as a way to understand my waking life.

I happened upon an article on ghost dreams the day after my own ghost dream. Synchronicity?

According to the article, this is what a dream where a ghost is in your home means:

This dream about ghosts signifies internal conflict. You do not feel happy in yourself. Our homes are where we are supposed to feel safe and secure. So to dream about a ghost in our private space is unsettling. Something is out of whack. This dream is asking you to go deep into your psyche and work out what is troubling you. This indicates low self-esteem and a lack of confidence in your abilities.

I don’t think anything is really bothering me lately. I also don’t currently suffer from low self-esteem or confidence.  But in my dream, the ghost spoke to me and that has its own interpretation.

Ghosts represent the past and regret. They are symbolic of unresolved issues. If the ghost spoke to you in your dream, it means you have regrets about someone in your past. It indicates sorrow for a failed relationship, or a longing to reconnect with an old friend.

This comes closer to my own interpretation. I was thinking about a good friend who died last year and I regret that I did not visit him at the end of his life.  His wife didn’t seem to want me to see him, perhaps so that my final memories of him would be the person I knew years ago. The ghost was a man, not particularly clear or looking like my friend, but he spoke to me like a living person – as if all was well.

The other dream scenarios mentioned in the article are:
A ghost haunting you
A ghost chasing you
A ghost tried to kill you, or you tried to kill a ghost
You befriended a ghost
You were a ghost
Your mother or father were ghosts in the dream

Why do ghosts appear in our dreams?  It might be because you are grieving the loss of a loved one (fairly obvious), have regrets about the past (ghosts representing the past), fear death (the most obvious interpretation), or have unfinished business (ghosts are sometimes thought to be people who won’t leave this realm because they have unfinished business here).


To Sleep, Perchance, To Sleep

woman sleeping
Image by Claudio_Scott

“To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream –
ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death
what dreams may come…”

– Hamlet

There’s a lot going on in those lines spoken by Hamlet.  Sleep and death are often connected – which was something that scared me as a child. The nuns taught us a prayer with the line “If I should die before I wake..” which terrified me for years.

Maybe some of that fear still remains on my insomnia nights. But I prefer this idea that sleep may bring dreams. Not dreams of death, of course, but the pleasant and mysterious kind.

Followers of this blog know that I have written often about sleep and about dreams. I have read a lot about both topics and still find myself attracted to research on both topics.

I have done a number of my own experiments around sleep. Recently I tracked the Moon’s possible influence on my sleep. (I found no correlation.) I have kept track for a month of how exercising might affect my sleep. (No correlation.) And I have recorded (via my Fitbit) my sleep hours, deep sleep, and REM and how it changes when I take something before bedtime. That ranges from prescription sleeping pills to antihistamines, melatonin, magnesium, kava, valerian and other supposed aids, and also the negative effects of things like caffeine or alcohol. (Results vary widely by substance and person.)

You have probably noticed that one day of travel to other time zones, jet-lag and also daylight saving times can throw off your internal clock and sleep for several days.

Still, I read the suggestions about how to improve my sleep. Over the years, I have found certain basic good health suggestions repeated.  Here is a list of things that are not only good for your health in general but may help you have a better night’s sleep.

Go to bed at the same time every night.
Early to bed generally helps. When I go to bed at 1 am, I still tend to wake up at the same time which means my actual amount and quality of sleep is less.
Have your bedroom as quiet, cool and dark as possible.
Stay away from screens.
Exercise during the day and be active (but not in the hours before sleep).

Don’t engage in heavy mental activity before going to bed. Most reading seems to be okay, in fact, many people fall asleep while reading. People also fall asleep watching TV and I read that our brain waves watching “mindless” TV (comedies, some dramas) are similar to the waves during sleep. That lighter mental activity is different than reading serious non-fiction, academic texts or more engaging programs. Some game shows (Jeopardy?) and news or documentaries have a heavier cognitive load.

It is clear that many Americans lack sleep (less than 7 hours) and research on sleep deprivation is pretty clear. Research beginning in the 1940s, (sometimes done on prisoners of war) found that sleep deprivation would lead to hallucinations and even a kind of insanity. Depriving people of their REM dream time is even worse.

We seem to be clear now that your brain clears out toxins during the night. Sleep is the mind-body’s primary biorhythm, regulating every other biorhythm. Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are linked to low-grade inflammation that occurred years before symptoms appear, and the markers for inflammation increase in people who suffer from insomnia or who don’t get a full night’s sleep.

Poor sleepers often report a lack of energy, headaches, irritability and lack of focus.

One piece of research that I have seen validated in my own little experiments is that dreams (REM sleep) can occur even during a brief nap. It had been believed that REM sleep occurs only in longer nightly sleep.

You can’t fully compensate for lost sleep by sleeping longer the next night but there are some benefits to catching up on lost sleep.

I was pleased to read that waking up with an alarm clock is a bad idea. I never liked alarms. Our sleep progresses in waves and in a good night’s sleep we move from deep sleep to waking through transitions. In a full sleep night, your brain secretes chemicals needed to be awake bit by bit through those waves or cycles. If you interrupt at the wrong time, you may be awake but it won’t feel that way to you.

Polls show that the average U.S. adult feels tired during the day at least three out of seven days each week. 25% of us feel tired five to seven days a week. Some of this can be attributed to not getting enough sleep, but some is from poor sleep quality. I suffer from moderate sleep apnea. I can sleep for 8 hours and still wake up feeling tired.

For adults (18 to 64) it is still recommended that you get 7-9 hours per night. After age 65, 7-8 hours seem to suffice.

Hamlet’s “what dreams may come” has been used in novels and films, and despite my not-so-unusual fear of death in sleep, many people talking about death will say “I just hope I die quietly in my sleep.”  In ancient Greek mythology, Sleep was the twin brother of Death. They were the children of the personified gods of Darkness and Night.

I’m sorry Hamlet but I am not ready to “shuffle off this mortal coil” but it does “give us pause.”

Yes, Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

neural brain

Our imperfect brains sometimes link events that have little or no causal connection. Superstitions work that way. Every time I wash the car, it rains. You might think that artificial brains don’t have that little flaw – but they do. Computer folks call it overfitting. That means that these non-human “brains” also sometimes use an irrelevant detail in constructing a model.

All those scary stories about artificial intelligence, smart machines, robots, androids and neural networks tell us that they are much smarter than humans.

The title of this essay comes from Philip K. Dick‘s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was the inspiration for the films Blade Runner and the sequel Blade Runner 2049.

Those neural network machines and creatures are definitely very good at learning relevant details and making connections but they also learn irrelevances.

How do humans deal with overfitting? How do we generalize from our many daily experiences to other similar situations? We dream.

That conclusion comes from research by Erik Hoel who says dreaming evolved specifically to deal with this problem. If he is correct, then it might solve a longtime problem in neuroscience of trying to figure out why we dream at all.

Sigmund Freud thought we dream to deal with taboos, but that isn’t accepted as correct these days.  Another theory is that dreams are the way the brain sifts through memories of the recent past selectively discarding unwanted or unneeded ones. But the dreams we recall aren’t very realistic and they don’t really seem to deal with the day’s memories.

Computer science is not my field but from what I’ve read one of the ways of dealing with overfitting in computer networks includes adding “noise” to the learning process so that it’s difficult for the network to focus on irrelevant detail. They call this dropout. It seems counterintuitive. Noise to improve focus?

But perhaps that’s what dreams do – insert “noise.” An example that is given is that we can trigger dreams by playing simple repetitive games such as Tetris for an extended time so that the brain becomes overfitted.

The theory also suggests that there can be dream substitutes. Books, plays, films, and the arts, in general, might perform a similar role to dreams since they are also an injection of false information.

I’ve read in numerous places that you can deprive people of sleep (in experiments and in torture) and they can survive longer than if you deprive them of dreaming. Experiments found that waking people up whenever they began REM sleep but allowing them to go back to sleep didn’t make them tired but it did make them a bit crazy. Studies have connected poor quality of sleep to a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, and even Alzheimer’s Disease, so there is that connection to dreaming. If you don’t sleep, you won’t dream. And though people often say “I never dream,” they do dream – but they don’t remember them when they wake up.

Ironically, most antidepressant medications significantly suppress REM/dreaming. (SSRIs suppress REM sleep by about a third, tricyclics reduce it by half, and older monoamine oxidase inhibitors cut out nearly all REM sleep.) Also, sleep deprivation can lead to more intense dreaming.

Returning to Philip K. Dick’s book, I was curious about the inspiration for his story. It actually began when he was doing research for another book, The Man in the High Castle. (That novel has also been adapted for a continuing TV series on Amazon Prime.) He was reading seized WWII Nazi diaries. It led him to believe that those beings were monsters who pretended to be human.

In one of the journals, a Nazi officer complains about not being able to sleep because he was “kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Instead of empathizing with their suffering, the officer only saw them as a nuisance that disturbed his sleep. That one line had a deep impact on Dick who thought, “It is not human to complain in your diary that starving children are keeping you awake.”

And so it started him thinking about a new book with “androids” who lacked any empathy.  Empathy is the main theme of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  The protagonist in that book, Deckard, is human but realizes that some of the machine androids seem capable of empathy while some humans appear to be devoid of it.

It seems that he may be correct. Androids do dream. Whether they dream of electric sheep is questionable. I have never dreamed of any kind of sheep at all.


The Snow on Kilamanjaro

Tonight on Mount Kilamanjaro, Tanzania, it is mostly cloudy and about 22 degrees F. (-6 C). Though there is less of it now, but there is still ice and snow year-round on the mountain’s upper reaches. There are massive glaciers, ice fields, and towering walls of ice that blaze in the equatorial sun and beckon.

This past week I reread Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilamanjaro.” It’s a long story about Harry, a writer, who is dying of gangrene from a wound, and Helen, who is with him on safari in Africa.

You can read it online at the Esquire magazine site where it was originally published in 1936.

The story begins with the epigraph: “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Masai “Ngàje Ngài,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

Hemingway used symbols but didn’t like people interpreting symbolism in his writing. The leopard is sometimes seen as just foreshadowing of the ending.  At the end of the story, Harry falls asleep and dreams he is on the plane that was supposed to come and fly him out for medical treatment.

“…looking down he saw a pink sifting cloud, moving over the ground, and in the air, like the first snow in a blizzard, that comes from nowhere, and he knew the locusts were coming up from the South. Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”

Kilamanjaroo from a plane
Kilimanjaro from a plane   – by MAS pilotOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The western summit of the mountain is called by the Masai people “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God and that is where Harry knows he is going.

The leopard also seems to have been on a quest to reach the top. I doubt that the leopard was seeking God. Perhaps, as with human mountain climbers, it climbed because it was there and is a challenge. One idea is that Harry is like the leopard. In college, I wrote a paper on this story and argued that Harry is not the leopard, but the hyena. The hyena is not noble or a true hunter. It is a scavenger.  He didn’t climb the mountain to the top. There’s no mention that of him ever seeking God. If he thinks that he is headed for Heaven, he’s dreaming.

Harry talks about how he has wasted much of his life and his talent by taking the easy path and marrying and being with rich women.

“The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Scott, Yes they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.”

They made a film adaptation of the story in 1952 starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. But that’s Hollywood, so they threw in Ava Gardner as a character not in the story at all and changed the story almost completely. It’s not a spoiler 84 years later to say that in Hemingway’s story Harry dies in that tent in Africa with the hyenas sniffing outside. The film added a lot of “back story” about Harry’s life before the safari. For the film’s conclusion, Helen is able to clear the infection by following instructions in a first aid manual and the calvary medical party arrives by airplane in time. The vultures and hyena who have been awaiting Harry’s death leave. Ah, Hollywood. Of course, the film version was a critical and commercial success and was nominated for two Oscars. Maybe more people have seen it than have read the story. The film is in the public domain, so if you want to give it a viewing go to  I recommend you read the story,

Déjá Rêvè

What Dreams May Come
What Dreams May Come 

We’ve all heard of déjá vu and I have already written here about that strange feeling of having “already seen” something or experienced it before without really having a memory of it. It is a fairly common experience.

And the less often heard jamais vu (from French, meaning “never seen”) is a real term in psychology which is used to describe any familiar situation which is not recognized by the observer. Sometimes it is seen as the opposite of déjà vu.

Jamais vu can evoke a strange and perhaps frightening feeling.  I imagine if you are older this experience might make you think you are suffering from memory loss. It’s more than just not recognizing a word, or a person, or place that you should know. An example given is not having a memory of a place you lived in for several years and also have the feeling that you should know this place.

Although this can be associated with serious pathological reasons (aphasia, amnesia, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease), it can also occur because of stress and fatigue.

Since I last wrote about those two phenomena, I also discovered other related terms for odd feelings.

Presque vu (“almost seen”) is supposed to describe that moment when you are on the edge of almost remembering a word, name or memory. It’s on the “tip of your tongue.”

Déjà entendu (“already heard”) is the auditory version of feeling that you have already heard something, even though the exact details are uncertain or were perhaps imagined.

The Dream of Saint Joseph, by Philippe de Champaigne.
The Dream of Saint Joseph, by Philippe de Champaigne.

But the one that interested me much more is déjá rêvè. It means “already dreamed.” This is when you believe that you have already dreamed about a real-life situation or via a dream you knew that you were going to be in that situation.

The dream may have been last night or years ago, but if it is  déjá rêvè you think you have somehow prophesized an event.

Déjá rêvè is similar to déjá vu in that in both cases you seem to know something before you really encounter it, but in déjá rêvè it is linked to dreams. With déjá vu you feel like you have already lived that experience and are now reliving it again.

Déjá rêvè is like a dream-based premonition. I have read that there appear to be three variations of déjá rêvè.

The episodic version is when you can pinpoint the exact moment you had the dream and so it feels like you could “see into the future.”

The second version is when it is a more hazy dream memory that echoes a current circumstance. This would seem very close to déjá vu.

The third kind is quite odd. This is when the experience itself seems dream-like, sort of like lucid dreaming except the subject knows they are awake.

Déjá vu is said to occur in 60-80% of all people. It has been well-researched and it seems to be a memory-based experience where what we experience at the moment echoes what we have experienced in the past. Some researchers believe there is a split-second delay between the transfer of information from one side of the brain to the other and so that is processed twice causing the feeling that it was experienced twice.

The random nature of all these experiences makes it hard to study since it relies on individual testimony. You can’t induce the experiences for experimental purposes.

Although dreams have certainly been studied for many years and quite seriously, déjá rêvè has not been studied as deeply.