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Blog 17: Dreams as patterns

20th November 2020 

A pattern is something that repeats in time or space or both. For example, the tiles in the photo taken in Lisbon, Portuga (below), are called azulejos, they repeat in space across the walls. These azulejos also repeated across time because they date back to the 13th century when the Moors invaded the land which is now Spain and Portugal. Their use on buildings of all types exploded over the last couple of centuries. So whenever visiting monasteries, churches, cathedrals, museums, and even houses and beaches in Portugal you expect to see these lovely tiles which are patterned by design.

The Girl at the Gallery

The motifs on the girl’s dress are also a designed pattern.

Patterns and the girl

But what about the girl herself? She is human, a living creature. Can her behaviour, as she moves about, form an activity pattern? Her behaviour’s not designed, like a robot.  Neither does it follow a pre-determined, natural pattern, like day follows night, but her behaviour isn’t random either, it’s a probabilistic pattern. That means she has a tendency to do things and be at particular places at certain times.  Probabilistic activity patterns were very relevant across our pre-linguistic, evolutionary past. When we visited waterholes, dependable food sites and shelters, we wanted to avoid predators and aggressive competitors, but we wanted to meet potential mates. My proposal is that across evolutionary time, dreams identified activity patterns which helped us predict when other living creatures would be at the places we regularly visited. See my book chapter “Dream to see patterns” on this website.

Can we transfer this “dream to see activity patterns” scenario to the present day? Suppose, Chris, who runs a grocery store near the galley in the photo above, glances up and recognises the girl on the balcony, she works on the gallery’s reception desk. He also saw her, a day ago, having coffee in the café just around the corner. He felt attracted to her then. Can he engineer a meeting to engage her in conversation?  Maybe she goes to the café on her breaks?

Already, a possible associative activity pattern is apparent: girl-work-gallery-break-café.  The following day Chris hears the girl’s name: Emily.  He also observes that she only goes to the café when, another employee, Julie, can take over on reception. But how to know when Julie is there? Her working hours aren’t regular.

Three relevant associations Chris doesn’t know: First, Julie has a child, Joe, with a disability. Joe goes to nursery but only when he is well enough and a volunteer driver, David, is available. Second, actually, this depends, in part, on Chris because David is his partner in the grocery store business. When David has to open up the store in the morning he can’t drive Joe to nursery. Third, David’s car is very old,  it sometimes breaks down and has to be fixed before he can take Joe.

Kids and cars at the nursery 

Chris knows David volunteers for a nursery but, as pointed out above, he doesn’t know David sometimes drives Julie’s son, Joe.  But one day Chris overhears David, on the phone, saying “Bye, Jules, I’m sorry I can’t do Clowns tomorrow“. The following night Chris has this dream:

Emily and the circus

Scene 1

I’m looking up at the balcony in the gallery, Emily isn’t there.

Scene 2 

I’m lying in bed, it feels like I’m a child. I’m playing with a toy car but it’s broken. I can’t go to the circus because I’m not well. I’m sad and angry. My friends are going to the circus but I can’t.

 Scene 3 

I’m walking past the café. I’m wondering will Emily be there?

Does this dream reveal the activity pattern which will help Chris know if Emily will be at the café?  Well, not entirely, but it helps. How can we understand the dream pattern?

Freud noticed that what he called “day residues” often appear in dreams, modern dream research confirms this. These day residues seem to trigger the  dreams associations which identify the pattern. In this case, the day residue is the remark made by David on the phone, the evening before the dream, when he says “Bye, Jules, I’m sorry I can’t do Clowns tomorrow“. In Scene 2 of his dream Chris seems to have associated the word “clowns” with a distant (or remote) childhood memory of when he couldn’t go to the circus because he wasn’t well. We know that, in dreams, as compared to our minds in wakefulness, access to such remote memories is enhanced. Indeed this may also be the reason that Chris dreams of playing with a broken toy car. Although he had no conscious memory of this event from his childhood, when he recalled the dream on waking he remembered that once, years before, he helped David tow his car when it had broken down.

Is the childhood memory of a missed visit to the circus remotely associated with Chris’s desire to approach Emily in the café?  Prima facie,  it appears not. But, actually, yes, it is because “Clowns” is the name of Joe’s nursery. Chris passes “Clowns” nursery everyday on his way to work, but the name hadn’t entered his consciousness, probably because he doesn’t have children. Unconsciously, however, he may have registered the name. The trigger for the recall of the circus memory seems to have been the word “clowns”.

To reiterate, my proposal is that the evolutionary origins of dreaming lie in activity pattern identification. Specifically, the associative patterns which predict the likelihood of the presence or absence of other living creatures at a particular place. But, clearly, contemporarily, such visual pattern identification is no longer necessary.  Take the example I constructed of “Emily and the circus”, rather than waiting for a dream to provide an answer to the likelihood of Emily’s presence at the café, Chris would have asked others who may know Emily, including, of course, David, who is aware of the complex, associated contingencies which predict her presence at the café. Interestingly, we now term tracking someone to observe their whereabouts, “stalking” and this practice is illegal. Yet across evolutionary time, our covert visual observation of other living creatures would have ensured our survival. Also, contemporarily, researchers use covert visual means (i.e. remote camera traps which record and retain images) to identify the activity patterns of animals.

So, given the original purpose of dreaming is now somewhat obsolete, why does dreaming persist?  The associational structure of dreams has been preserved. In the above example, Emily-work-gallery-break-café-Julie at work- Joe well- David available to take Joe to Clowns nursery-David’s car functioning is the associational nexus which would predict Emily’s presence at the café. Conversely,  Emily-work-gallery-break- not at café-Julie not at work- Joe not well or David not available to take Joe to Clowns nursery or David’s car not functioning indicates Emily would not visit the café.

The associational pattern of my example hints at Emily’s absence from the café but the associational nexus is  Emily not on balcony- Chris, ill as a child-Chris not at the circus- toy car broken. 

This example may begin to reveal the way dream associations have shifted from being, primarily, directed towards predicting the presence or absence of significant others at places, to personally, meaningful patterns which serve memory and creativity.

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