Dreams: Our personal and cultural myths
An exploration of what dreaming means in different cultures
I don’t know about you, but I get some crazy dreams around the full moon, when I’m due for my period, or I’m going through a big transition in life. I had nightmares all the time as a child, but I loved the dreams where I could fly (who doesn’t!). There are always a few dreams we seem to have in common with other people (losing teeth, running away from something, flying, falling). I’ve kept a dream diary on and off for a while, but I never did anything with them until I met an analyst and delved further. Here’s an exploration of my thoughts on dreaming.
What is a dream in Western culture? How do we regard the importance of dreams in comparison to other cultures?
Dreams can be thought of on different levels of importance, whether the attention is upon their latent content, manifested via universal symbols, or from the role of the personality and life situation of the dreamer, or upon the dreamer’s cultural context. Today they can be dismissed as unreal figments irrelevant to our conscious lives, or an unimportant collage of images from the day before.
The dictionary describes dreaming as; (noun) a series of thoughts, images and sensations that occur in a persons mind during sleep (verb) to experience visions during sleep, indulge in daydreams or fantasies about something greatly desired.
From a scientific viewpoint, we dream because of the REM state of sleep (which was discovered by Aserinsky and Kleitman in 1953). Early brain EEG’s (electroencephalogram) recordings show that the REM state is also a normal part of the brain activity while we are awake. The REM state is constantly running in the background of our mind because it is the mechanism that connects us with reality. The REM state is at the root of how we generate meaning and access the concepts we have created about the world. If we looked at an EEG, we would see brain activity shows spikes in something called the PONs, which is bursts of electric energy from neurons called Pons (in the brainstem), the Geniculate, and the Occipital cortex. During waking hours, the REM is toned down, so it doesn’t alter waking perception, by the neural cortex. If the REM wasn’t dimmed by the neural cortex, it becomes possible to understand multiple meanings to the same image, simultaneously, or feel the past present and future simultaneously or in an almost multi verse awareness (the sense of timelessness which we can experience in dreams).
The significance of dreams in primal cultures are often seen as acts that could be real, channels for communication between each other, spirits and supernatural beings, initiatory dreams for a particular role in the tribe, a medium for shamans to exercise power, to acquire and experience a soul as well as to provide insight into the future. Some cultures, like in Korea, believe it is part of the conception of a child.
It is interesting to note that there are ‘typical’ dreams experienced by cultures all over the world. Many cultures share the belief that dreams are an entry into another form of reality, and they are recognised as a kind of thought process. They are nearly universally interpreted as omens in elder traditions. However, the belief of an accessing an alternate reality is never confused with waking reality. There is agreed cross culturally that dreams are the day’s experiences that continue into the sleeping realm of dreams which links to Freud’s theory of “day residues”. Interestingly, primal cultures show that the incorporation of dreaming is linked to an observable cultural philosophy based on nonlinear thoughts about reality.
I read about Australian Aboriginal cultures and African cultures and found the best example of this is the Aboriginal Dreamtime. The Dreaming acknowledges four aspects of reality that exist simultaneously, the beginning of all things life, the life and the ancestor’s influence, the way of life and death, and the sources of power in life. Past, present and future overlap in everyday life, coexisting to form an awareness of interconnectedness beyond the conscious realm. The Dreaming sounds mystical to the Western mind, but the Aboriginal experience of it is based on observable mental and social lives (through ritual, art etc.) in waking life. They believed in reincarnation and that all present life arose out of ancestors lives and one was connected to, or part of the Eternal/Universe. Dreams themselves were a way of validating this experience. Aboriginal myth is full of symbolism and their dreams and artwork contain a lot of landscapes and animals, it is as though their art (which has common motifs all around Australia) is an externalisation of the dreaming collective, and individual.
Like in a dream, early cultures had what is called an “undifferentiated mind”, and had less tendency to see themselves as an individual from the tribe or separate from the world. In Western culture, the most relatable similar experience of this could be the experience of time in childhood. Children have a certain absence of awareness of the rate of passing time, which is similar to dreaming. This timelessness is a natural condition of the mind and could be what babies feel in the womb prior to separation at birth. Curiously, babies spend much of their time in the womb in REM sleep.
Carl Jung proposed that if one can believe in the hypothesis of the actuality of the unconsciousness as a valid part of the human psyche, that can contribute to neurosis, one cannot dispute the importance of dreams. They are more than a bunch of meaningless memory fragments. He states that “dreams are the direct expression of unconscious psychic activity” (Jung 1933), and it is possible for dreams to give scientific insight into psychological causality. Our scepticism to see dreams as a greater picture of self-knowledge Jung explains by saying “The dream gives a true picture of the subjective state, while the conscious mind denies that this state exists, or recognises it only grudgingly” (Jung 1933)
I found parallels between the seemingly real, yet unreal nature of both dreams and myths, and the minds capacity to understand them. Jung states everything can be understood, it is only our failing to understand that makes things seem unintelligible and unreal. Just as a text in hieroglyphs is not unintelligible simply because we have not learnt to understand the symbols.
In a study of dream culture of in African American women, a group of women were observed to have had dreams with a high content of family and female and dream imagery, as well as archetypal dreams. Interviewing the women showed the influence of the cultural collective on the dreams, and the African literature contains cultural dream symbols. The study also explored the relevance of dreams in making life decisions, and it was found that relatively high importance on dreams in life decisions is part of the original African American culture. The researcher herself had hoped that (being of African origin), her dreams and those of her subjects may ‘dialogue with each other’.
I wonder about the colonisation and the influences of Christianity in separating indigenous people from their culture of dreams, myth telling and divination. I’ve read plenty of blame on early depth psychologists like Freud, Jung (Jung actually did travel to Africa) and anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss as “men who built their careers writing about indigenous peoples” (Freud wrote Totem and Taboo in 1913) and it suggested these interpretations determined how Africa would be imagined in world consciousness. The definition of ‘primitive’, which I feel should no longer be used, denotes the view that our ancestor’s cultures were pre logical, uncivilised and less intellectual because of their practices of divination and spirit communication. However, well before Freud and Jung’s psychotherapy, there were cultures already using dreams for healing. The Senoi in the Malay tropical forests were using dreams for psychological and physical healing through practices like divination. “Dreams are very significant in the traditional healing practices of many Africans (F. Brewster 2004, Burhman, 1986) In a case study where a woman’s son had died, the use of the drug diazepam inhibited a natural mourning process. It meant grief found a way to be processed through dreams with disturbing imagery. When the medication was discontinued and dream work was used in psychotherapy, more rapid healing was reported. It is found that cultures that regard dreaming as part of everyday life have much lower rates of mental illness.
The Senoi dreamwork culture, using dreams to heal psychological disturbances as well as physical ailments was first introduced to European culture in the 1930’s. While Freud gets a lot of credit for the first introduction of dream theory into psychotherapy, Freud’s first ‘Interpretations of dreams’ was published in 1965. The very first dream interpreter is said to be Artemidorous of Ephesus, in Ancient Greek times. He studied 3000 dreams of Greek citizens before collating ‘The Oneiracritia’ (Interpretation of Dreams). The Oneiracritia was rediscovered by Muslims in the Middle Ages, leading to the Muslim cultures regarding dreams as important. Mohamed’s revelations came to him first in the form of dreams. Muslim culture separates dreams into categories like Aboriginal culture does, but their categories are; dreams reflecting our daily concerns, dreams sent by evil spirits and divinely inspired dreams.
The main difference between Freud and Jung’s idea of dreaming is that Freud used set guidelines to interpret dreams applicable to all dreamers with little variation but Jung said that dreams cannot be interpreted in the same manner each time and that a certain amount of uncertainty is an essential part of the work. He also took Freud idea of dreaming past simple wish self-fulfilment. He coined the term ‘collective unconscious’, to represent the seemingly universal content that dreams (and our minds) contain cross culturally.
In my own practice of dreams, I try and think about a mixture of symbols that have a universally shared meaning, and see if they win my conscious mind over. If they don’t, I don’t deem the message of my dreams true. I don’t use a dream dictionary, either. In my dream recording and analysis, I think the hardest step was to bridge the gap between feeling like my intuition was ‘just making something up’ and validating that ‘made up’ response as something real and of value, for where does the made up come from if not from within ourselves? Even if we are influenced by our waking lives, we cannot take in everything, we receive such limited information through our senses, that who I am, also is my filter, so what I dream about, my dream residues, are in fact still indicative of the person I am and what I notice in the world. I think dreams are one way to slow ourselves down, trust ourselves more because there is something that can work in our favour in our lives if only we give it space to. My remaining question is much like one I found I my reading, which I found particularly poignant. It addresses how to include dreaming into today’s culture, should we feel to incorporate it into our lives as a guide. It was; If we require liminal time and space to connect with our “spiritual” selves and guides, how can these be found in such a technologically fast-paced culture?
Jung. C (1933) Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. pg.2-27
Brewster. F. (2004) The dreams of African American women: A heuristic study of dream imagery, Pacifica Graduate Institute, pg.1-24