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Blog 15: Dreaming and waking

16th October 2020

In my last blog, I looked at evidence for the unconscious retention of dream associations. Conscious dream reports are useful for identifying dream associations but also for research into dream characteristics. In this blog I concentrate on Rapid Eye Movement (REM) dreams because the REM sleep stage is when most dreams happen. What can we tell about dream characteristics from dream reports? Do dreams reflect our waking lives? Are you the same person in your dreams as you are when awake?

I’ll tackle these questions in turn- starting with the last. You never question your own identity in a dream- your dreaming self is definitely you. But, in many ways, dreaming diminishes your sense of self, your identity. Many basic facts about me are missing or indeterminate in my dreams. What age I am? What is my occupation? Am I married or single? I don’t know the answers in my dreams but I do know I’m female. So that anchors me.

Dreamers don’t tend to do mundane stuff. I rarely shower, choose what to wear, “do” my hair or put on make-up .

Do you dream of doing your eye make-up?

This unlike me because I’m definitely into personal care tasks whilst awake. Like my occupation, being an academic, they’re important to my sense of identity. In my waking life, I’m not an adventurous person.  I’m not a sporty person. I don’t take physical risks- I don’t do rock face climbing or drive fast cars. I spend most of my time writing on my computer. But, in my dreams, I’m much more daring. In a dream I mentioned in a previous blog, I’m hanging on to the top of a red double-decker bus (what am I hanging onto?) as it careers haphazardly around Edinburgh.

This bus is out of control


In real life I’d be terrified.  In my dream, this dare-devil feat feels fine, I’m exhilarated.

Also I’m an introvert and an individualist. I’m alone in some dreams but, frequently, many people are around. Sometimes they’re familiar, my partner, my sons, my mother, my sisters but often they’re strangers. My interactions with others tend to be driven by anxiety and fear, but sometimes, as in the bus dream, by elation.  I’m very agential in dreams, meaning, I’m nearly always doing things. In contrast, during the day I’m often staring out of the window, hoping for inspiration. If I encounter others in my dreams , I’m less restrained, less compassionate, more conflictual, more sexually transactional and the encounters are more aggressive – almost always because others are violent towards me rather than me attacking them.

So, in some ways, I’m a different person in my dreams but these differences don’t strike me as peculiar. Why not? Part of the answer lies in the differences between waking and dreaming- as states of minds. We look at this question next.

During waking I have insight into my own state of mind. I know I’m awake and I’m also aware of another possible state of mind: dreaming. I also have insight into my past and future.  For example, if I think about it, I know I attended a girls’ grammar school, that I used to live in Bristol after my second son was born, we moved there when he was only 3 weeks old. I know my niece is planning a second, larger, wedding celebration next May and we are hoping that the Covid- 19 measures won’t prevent this. During dreaming I don’t think about my past or my future- it’s as though they don’t exist. I’m always in the present.

Dreams are “single-minded”. This is partly because I’m always focused on the unfolding drama that is my dream. But I’m also single-minded  because my subjective, inner “evaluating, sense-making and advising” mind is lost. So whilst dreaming I don’t think things like “What’s going on here?” or “I think this encounter is getting a bit fraught” or “I’d be better to bow out of this”. I also don’t consider my everyday life, I never think, “Did I leave that pan on the cooker this morning?” or “I’d better get home early tonight.” In Blog 12, I’ve already stated that linear logical reasoning, generally, dominates our thoughts during waking, whereas, remote, non-obvious associations, which are out of our voluntary control, drive our minds during dreaming. This means that in a dream I can’t direct my own thoughts- they take off to create a highly associative and, often, emotionally charged narrative.

On the other hand, some things are the same in waking and dreaming. Dreams feel real in the same way that the world feels real when we are awake. Despite the impossible things that happen in dreams, like I’m hanging on to the top of a double decker bus as it careers around Edinburgh, I never question the reality of the dream- unless I become lucid and aware I am dreaming. Both the waking and dreaming worlds feel real and meaningful. Indeed, dreaming feels more meaningful- we never feel bored, depressed or fed-up in a dream. Also similar to the world we see during waking, dreams aren’t like abstract art and they don’t present spatially incoherent images- like the one below, which purports to be a dream! Presumably, a wish-fulfilment one…

But dreams aren’t like this 

In both waking and dreams we see realistic, in the sense of spatially, organized scenes. Cars aren’t mixed in the air with wrapped gifts and candies. Also dreamers almost always appear in their own dreams, just like we are present in the world during waking, we are embodied, generally moving through a unified and integrated space- not floating in the air along with a jumble of items. Things that attract our attention in our waking lives (movement, people, animals, faces, places and landscapes) also do so in dreams. Most dreams feature people (and sometimes animals) with visible faces moving about in a particular place or landscape. But this place or landscape is usually more sparse than in waking life. For example as I type this at my computer I am surrounded by literally hundreds of items- books, pencils and pens, papers, photos, files, desk lamps, my dream diaries, souvenirs from places I’ve visited like my “lucky witch”, gifts from PhD students, like my “wise owl” and “executive toys” from conferences, like my “stress balls”. My dreams aren’t crowded with such paraphernalia to anything like the same degree.

Another similarity between waking life and dreams is that our emotional concerns, activities and interests in waking life also enter into our dreams. So students dream about exams. Lecturers dream about being late for a lecture. Those who play sports dream about their performances.

If I play ball, I dream of playing ball

Relationship difficulties feature in dreams. But these emotional concerns, activities and interests do not play out in dreams in the same way as they do in waking life. Rather elements of the concern, activity or interest are associated with other memory elements. So the dream does not replicate or replay the emotional concern, activity or interest in the same way as if it was being contemplated in waking consciousness. So if I was the 14 shirt in the volleyball game above I may dream about high-fiving the 17 shirt but this element of the game would be associated with something else, say meeting number 17’s mother.

Finally, for this blog, what can we say, more generally, about dream characteristics? Dreams are continuously and consistently visual, we sometimes hear sound, usually speech, but this is sporadic rather than an extended conversation. Our other senses, taste, smell and touch are mostly absent from dreams.  Dreams are usually more emotionally charged than our experiences during our waking lives. Dreams almost always happen somewhere- at a place- and tend to portray approach behaviours i.e. we are usually going somewhere or coming near to something. Most dreams involve leg movements, we are walking,

In dreams we are almost always moving, going somewhere

running, cycling or climbing.  Among the most common dream themes include “being chased or pursued”, “falling”, “sexual interactions” and “a person now alive as dead” or ” a person now dead as alive”. Perhaps surprisingly, many activities which are highly significant to our contemporary lives are missing from our dreams: reading, calculating, writing and watching the TV. Although elements from what we read and from what we watch on the TV do enter into our dreams.

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