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Blog 19: Dreams as patterns in memories: the sandhouse

29th December 2020

One of the things we find most surprising about dreams is that although they clearly often feature familiar people, places we recognise and experiences we remember, dreams mix them up so that bits (or elements) of some memories become integrated into others – where they didn’t “belong” in real life.

For example, I dream about a walking down a street towards a house on the edge of a housing estate which borders a beach and a river. I think this is definitely an element from an old memory of visiting upstate New York with M my (former) partner. We got out of our car to walk along a street because he wanted to photograph an old bridge at the end of this street- you can see the old bridge petering out in the dream illustration below. The house at the edge of the estate was significant because we knocked on the door of this (very ordinary) house to ask the lady who owned it if M could take a photo of the bridge from her garden. She agreed. While M was snapping away I wandered off and stood under the bridge, which was quite low and under construction. While standing there I began to feel afraid. The bridge was low. Underneath was dark and oppressive. Irrationally, I felt trapped- although there was nothing to stop me walking away.  Hoping that M had finished his photography and we could escape, I hurried back towards the house at the edge of town.

The Sandhouse Dream

But, in the dream, the house at the end of the road is not all ordinary, it’s very strange- it’s made out of sand and, as I approach it, I become very afraid . In reality the bridge was under construction. In the dream, I think the house must be under construction (bricks are about 50% made of sand) and would be too noisy to buy. This idea of buying the house comes from another very recent memory.

The evening before the dream, J, my eldest son, rang to say that he and G, his girlfriend, were thinking of buying a house on the edge of town, a house that an old lady had died in. I immediately felt the house may be unlucky but I didn’t voice this opinion for fear of being thought irrational. I decided that if they asked my advice I would stress its less than convenient position- on the edge of town.

But why do I think that the house on the edge of town is under construction and may be noisy to consider buying? This relates to a long standing problem that my middle son T has with his hearing- he cannot bear and fears continuous noise. This is a concern to me, held as a memory.

But why is the house made of sand? And why do I become afraid in the dream? In the dream the sandhouse borders a beach. When I was a child my mother warned me against straying out along the beach – if they do this, children can die, they can sink into quicksand and cannot be rescued. This ancient memory, from my childhood fear of quicksand seems to be the basis of the sandhouse.

This sandhouse dream takes elements from four different memories:

One recent, the phone call from my eldest son about buying a house on the edge of town, that a lady had died in;

One remote, the most dominant, the house on the edge of the housing estate in Upstate New York;

One very remote, my old fear of dying, as a child, through being engulfed in quicksand;

One on-going memory/concern, my middle son’s fear of noise which may damage his hearing.

Elements of these four memories are associated in the dream to make a new experience: I have never walked along a street, approached a house made of sand and become afraid. Dreams don’t replay our experiences. They  create new experiences through associating elements from our memories. In the case of the sandhouse, this creativity comes from identifying an associative pattern which looks something like this:

The Sandhouse: Nexus of associations 

The “house on the edge of town” associates two houses which have the same positioning- the one on the edge of the housing estate in upstate New York and the one my eldest son was thinking of buying on the edge of town. In the dream, the sandhouse is the central dominant image. A nexus of associations spreads out from this central house. If you compare the visual dream image with this diagram, I think you will agree the dream image is so much more powerful and emotional. In a later Blog, I will explore why taking elements of different memories and displaying  them as a patterned associative image is much more powerful than words for memory but in the next Blog I will discuss how my proposal on the evolutionary origins dreams explains the Sandhouse dream.

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