Blog 24: Media news

14th April 2021

I’m chuffed that I now have several media items about me and my book “What do dreams do?” to put on this website- so will get a media page up and running soon, including a YouTube video, a podcast, a couple of reviews and a discussion piece.

With, hopefully, more to come!


Blog 23: Pandemic dream (2)

12th April 2021

In Blog 22 I introduced one of my pandemic dreams, I’ve repeated the dream narrative below, with more detail.  In this Blog, I include visual illustrations of the dream.

The woman whose arm has red lumps with wings

Scene 1

I am in the spare bedroom of my house or, maybe, it’s the house where I lived as a child. In the left hand corner, as you enter the room, there’s a bed with a woman on it. The woman is quite vague in the sense that I’m not aware of what she looks like or is wearing. But I am very aware that she is holding out her arm, which has raised red lumps all the way down. The lumps, like insect bodies, have silver wings attached, but only on one side.

This woman is very agitated, scratching the silver off the wings, it’s coming off in flakes and going all over the bedclothes. Then it seems as though the woman might be me. Also, the lumps and wings are raised, they are very discrete and horribly artistic, like a 3D tattoo all down the arm.

Below is a zoomed-in version of the woman’s arm.


Suddenly a blue bird/small dragon takes off from the bed the woman is lying on or, maybe, it is coming from her arm. This bird/dragon is toy-like, it goes straight up in the air, rather like a helicopter, then, flies over to the other side of the room where two children are in bed. The bird  has one wing which also forms a tail, which propels its flying very well. This bird isn’t horrible like the tattooed/ diseased arm, it’s attractive but strangely unreal in appearance- flat and 2-dimensional.  Maybe, it’s a Phoenix rising from the silver flakes/ashes on the bed?

In Blog 22 I mentioned two recent memories that seemed to drive this dream: First, on the day before the dream I discussed with my sister R whether we shared a room or slept alone as children, when I thought about this afterwards I decided that, over the many years we lived in this house, I had my own room when I was older but, when I was younger, we shared. The dream seems to reflect this because at the beginning, the woman (who may be me) seems to be alone in the room but later in the dream, after the bird appears there are two children sharing the room. But what about the blue bird?

The night before the dream I saw a man on the TV with a bird tattoo across his neck. I thought it horrible. The memory of this bird tattoo may be why the blue bird is flat. The blue bird only has one wing/tail. This may be because the bird seems to rise from the 3D tattoos of bodies and wings on the woman’s arm – where there are only wings on one side of the bodies. But why is the bird blue? In the dream the room is ambiguous- it seems like the guest room in my present house but at the same time it may be the room where I lived as a child. The guest bedroom is painted blue. This may be why the bird is blue.

In Blog 22 I presented a diagram demonstrating how the different dream elements are associated in the winged arm dream- before the blue bird appears. Making associations between experiences makes them more much memorable. Associations work like “hooks” in our memories. These associational “hooks” connect up people, places and events- making it much easier to remember them.

An illustration or image is much more memorable than a diagram or verbal description. Also a bizarre or striking image, like this woman with the winged arm or the blue bird/dragon, is much more easily remembered than a mundane, everyday one.

Back in 1973, research predicted that if you saw 1 million striking images you would retain 731, 400 of them.  More recent work confirms the impressive capacity of visual memory. In a 2008 research study, participants  viewed 2500 pictures of objects, then they were shown two images and asked which of the two they had seen before; the participants successfully discriminated between an object they has seen before and a new one with 87% accuracy. This seems remarkable until you realise how dependent we humans are on our visual sense and, therefore, how good our visual memories have to be.

In following Blogs I will discuss more about how dreams work in our memories, even though we forget almost all of our dreams!

Brady, T. F., Konkle, T., Alvarez, G. A., and Oliva, A. (2008). Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 105, 14325–14329. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0803390105

Standing, L. (1973) Learning 10,000 pictures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 25:207–22.


Blog 22: Pandemic dream (1)

7th March 2021

In my last Blog I looked at the associative patterns in pandemic dreams, in this one I identify the associative pattern in one of my own pandemic dreams.

I’ve called the dream:

The woman whose arm has red lumps with wings

I am in the spare bedroom of my house or, maybe, it’s the house where I lived as a child. In the left hand corner, as you enter the room, there’s a bed with a woman on it, she is holding out her arm, which has raised red lumps all the way down. The lumps, like insect bodies, have silver wings attached, but only on one side.

Sketch of the red lumps/bodies with wings

This woman is very agitated, scratching the silver off the wings, it’s coming off in flakes and going all over the bedclothes. Then it seems as though the woman might be me. Also, although the lumps and wings are raised, they are very discrete and horribly artistic, like a 3D tattoo all down the arm.

Elements of my experiences/memories that are merged in the dream

Two recent memories: the day before the dream I discussed with my sister R whether we shared a room or slept alone as children; the night before the dream I saw a man on the TV with a bird tattoo across his neck. I thought it horrible.

Four remote memories: First, as a child, I suffered a badly infected vaccination site, leaving me with a disturbing, large, raised round scar on my left arm, which remained red for a long time after the infection. I often wished I could rid myself of this scar but I never scratched it. Second, I read a distressing story about boys pulling the wings off flies. Third, one of my in-laws had a son with eczema. She scratched his arms so hard the skin came off in flakes. Finally, I saw a woman in a restaurant. I thought her arm diseased until I realized what I had taken for a scarring of her arm was actually the result of the silver-grey tattoos all over it.

A woman with scarring or silver-grey tattooing?  

The woman above is not the one I saw in the restaurant but this photo captures the impression I formed of her, before I realised that what I thought was scarring was actually silver-grey tattooing.

Associations between the red, lumpy, winged arm dream and Covid-19

How does this dream relate to Covid-19? Most clearly in the vaccination element. Vaccination is intended to protect against infection by the virus but, as a child, a vaccination actually resulted in an infection for me .  Other associations to the virus lie with the wings and insect-like bodies/lumps. The virus is invisible. To feature in a dream it has to take a visual form. One survey of pandemic dreams identified flying bugs as the most frequent occurrence[i]. The virus spreads through droplets that fly out when people cough or sneeze, pulling the wings off bugs would prevent them flying but we cannot control droplets in this way. In the dream, skin flakes fly out rather than droplets. Tattoos, like vaccination, can result in scarring .

Diagram showing the patterned dream associations

The diagram below portrays the nexus of associations that underlie the woman whose arm has red, lumps with wings dream. I have added colour to those elements which were most striking in the dream image.  The lumps with silver wings are red. This is the most distinctive, bizarre and prominent aspect. Ernest Hartmann, a notable dream researcher called this the “central image”. But the agitation of the woman in scratching off the silver from the wings is also very remarkable.

The double ended arrows conveys the dual nature of the associations. For example, for me, my childhood vaccination both protected me from infection but caused an infection.

In my next Blog I will compare this diagrammatic nexus of associations with  visual dream illustrations of  “The woman whose arm has red lumps with wings”.




Blog 21: Patterns in pandemic dreams

7th February 2021

The pandemic has seen a global upsurge in vivid, bizarre, more negatively toned dreaming.  As discussed in Blogs 16 and 20, I propose the origins of dreaming lie in our evolutionary past when we needed to avoid threats and take advantage of opportunities to survive and reproduce. Dream associations identified the non-obvious activity patterns of competitors and predators so that we could avoid them, and those of potential mates so that we could meet them. We retained these associative patterns in vivid, bizarre dream images. Just like the predators of long ago, Covid-19 is a threat to our survival so the emergence of more vivid, bizarre, negatively-toned dreaming is no surprise.

Some  dreams incorporate pandemic features, such as masks and social distancing but, like our usual dreams, Covid- 19 dreams don’t replay memories of pandemic experiences in their entirety. Instead they seem to mix up elements of the Covid-19 threat with other anxieties. I propose this is because negatively-toned dreams portray associative patterns in our threat-related experiences. If they are related in meaningful ways, threats encountered in the past may help us deal with those in the present. So threat-related dreams often associate different threats across time. Pandemic dreams are no exception.

For example, Tore Nielsen,  a dream researcher writing in Scientific American on pandemic dreams, included the following brief dream extract: “My phone had a virus and was posting so many random pictures from my camera roll to Instagram and my anxiety was at an all time high.”  This person seems to have associated the pandemic virus with a phone virus. Although rare, phones can get viruses. The anxiety in this dream is about random Instagram posting but the association to Covid-19 may be because the dreamer fears both the phone virus and Covid-19 are out of control. Unfortunately, we can only speculate over this dream because the extract is very short and we can’t ask this dreamer to decode their dream through associating it with their memories.

The image below is from Unsplash, after searching for “pandemic dream”. One of the techniques used decode dreams in dream groups is to  invite someone to relate a dream and then ask the other dream group participants what the dream would mean- if it were theirs. I follow this technique here, but rather than using a reported dream narrative, I invite readers to associate to this pandemic dream image.

Trying to escape from the blackboard cellar

My dream associations are as follows: I see my friend, C, she is wearing a mask and  striking animal print coat. C is in a dark place – it could be a cellar. I think she wants to escape but the windows are too small. Behind her is a wall entirely covered with an enormous blackboard with lots of squiggly chalk drawings, words and noughts and crosses, which I can’t see properly. So maybe she is in a school.

In the dream C is masked, but apart from this, the dream doesn’t have any other Covid- related features. But the dream does have associations to some of my other threatening experiences. First, the dream may be situated in a cellar with small windows and C can’t get out. As a small child, I was left in a cellar which I couldn’t escape from.  Second, again as a child, newly arrived at school, I couldn’t see the blackboard. My parents hadn’t realised I was severely short-sighted. I was distressed and disorientated outside of my familiar home environment. So I found school threatening. Third,  recently, a person with an animal  print coat asked me directions. She came up very close and wasn’t wearing a mask, so I felt a bit scared about infection.

I propose that in pandemic dreams, the Covid-19 threat is often associated with other threats which are similar in ways that are meaningful for the dreamer. The Covid-19 virus is threatening: we can’t escape from it, we can’t see it and other people may infect us with it. My associations to the Unsplash pandemic dream image echo these three threats.

Blog 20: The bizarre sandhouse and its evolutionary origins?

12th January 2021

In my last Blog 19, I decoded my Sandhouse dream. By “decoding” I mean I identified the nexus of associations from which my dreaming mind/brain constructed the sandhouse. These associations connect elements of my recent and remote memories.

Across evolutionary time,  in our pre-linguistic past, when we lived in a much more dangerous world than we do now, I propose we used retained dream images, unconsciously, on approach to a place we wanted to go, for food, water or shelter, which was also sometimes frequented by potential mates, predators and competitors.  Dreams associations identified activity patterns in the behaviour of potential mates, competitors and predators. We retained these patterns in dream images enabling us to visit places when potential mates were more likely to be there or, in the case of predators and competitors, less likely to be there. Who would want to visit the waterhole when this fearsome, “sit and wait”, dragon watched, from a rock nearby, ready to pounce?

Sit and wait dragon at the waterhole

Even this close up, look how well camouflaged the dragon is, blending into the rock. Supposing an early human is approaching the waterhole and, from a distance, senses movement on top of one of the rocks near the water. An unconscious dream image depicting associations which predicted the danger of a dragon would help to decide whether to withdraw, freeze or continue to advance.

If another waterhole was discovered in a similar location, and if, for example, it also had rocks on which dragons could lurk, then an early human would be likely to merge the retained dream associations from the first waterhole with the second because, without much experience  of this newly discovered waterhole, the best prediction of the presence of fearsome dragons was the associative dream image from the first. But how would these two different waterholes be depicted in the new dream image?

In my sandhouse dream, I seem to have merged my associations from the first “house on the edge of town”, where I experienced fear under the bridge, with the second  “house on the edge of town” which I feared unlucky because someone had died in it. The common positioning of both houses, along with the fear associations of both, seems to have engendered a hybrid house. I propose this is the evolutionary explanation for the dream experience of a place/person/object taking on the characteristics of other places/persons/objects- creating hybrids.

But the house I approach in my dream is not only hybrid but also bizarre because I don’t just feel afraid I see something that, to me, is fear-inducing: a sandhouse.  A bizarre house, which is constructed from elements of four different memories. A dictionary definition of bizarre is: markedly unusual in appearance, style or general character and often involving incongruous or unexpected elements. I propose that the evolutionary explanation for bizarreness in dreams is the use of prior experiences to prepare us for newly encountered ones- where those experiences are similar in ways that are meaningful to us. Paradoxically, I suggest the bizarre and surprising nature of dreams ( as in “I had a really funny dream last night“) means we are prepared for new experiences and, therefore, less likely to be surprised in our waking lives.



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.

Blog 18 My site went live!

23rd December 2020

It’s a month since my last Blog- because when I contacted Ionos to publish my site some of the content didn’t transfer properly. So I asked a friend who has an attractive site and she put me in touch with her web developer. So now I have a professional – Chris Webb- great name for website design! He has definitely improved the look and functionality of my site. Also I’m pleased with the sales of my book “What do dreams do?” and I have two 5* reviews- so not a bad start….. I care about this book in a way I’ve not done before with any of my other books and journal articles- I really want people to read it and tell me what they think.

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.

Blog 16: The evolutionary origins of dreams?

2nd November 2020

Can we explain the differences between waking and dreaming through my proposal on the evolutionary origins of dreams? I summarised this in Blog 13 when I compared my theory to Freud’s. Across evolutionary time, we lived in a much more dangerous world. When we were threatened by predators or competed with others for food and water, we needed to use our past experience to make fast, unconscious decisions to fight, freeze or flee. Or ignore the threat and carry on. Dreams associations drove these actions through identifying patterns in the behaviour of predators and competitors.  For example, lions generally sleep during the day.

Daytime is sleep time

They tend to hunt and visit the waterhole at night. But, during the dry season, lions can get so thirsty that they drink at the waterhole during the day. In our early, pre-linguistic days, visualising such behavioural patterns in dreams and, retaining the images unconsciously, enabled us to evaluate the likelihood of sensory input during the day, for example, a flash of yellow (lion or harmless yellow butterfly?) in the undergrowth on approach to a waterhole. We dreamed to avoid dangers and stay alive. We dreamed to survive!

We saw in the last blog that dreams almost always happen somewhere- at a place- and tend to portray movement, particularly approaches, going somewhere or towards something. Early humans would have walked to a waterhole or dependable food site and the approach would have been the most dangerous time because of the danger of “sit and wait” predators, like a lion, being hidden in the undergrowth.

I can see this phenomenon in our garden. We have several fruit trees, we fight a losing battle with squirrels who compete with us for the fruit. Next door’s cat (a sit and wait predator) sometimes hides in the cover of our hydrangea bush,

Pussy the predator

in the hope of capturing one of the squirrels. But I haven’t seen any evidence of a squirrel kill so far. Do the squirrels dream of the associations which predict the likelihood of the cat being present? I think they do! Hence they have managed to avoid it.

The common dream themes of being chased, engaging in sex and of falling (and, thus, becoming vulnerable to predation) would clearly have been of immense  significance in our evolutionary context. Early death was a constant possibility for our ancient ancestors so reproduction had to happen in early adulthood. Life expectancy only began to increase about 30,000 years ago, up until then it was unusual to live past the age of 30. Consequently, the dream theme of a person alive as dead was unsurprising because death wouldn’t have been an unusual event.

Dreams take elements of past experience, sometimes from years ago and associate them in a dream narrative. Consequently, the theme of a person now dead as alive makes sense in that context because they were alive when the association took place. Early humans would have experienced the deaths of significant others more often than we do now, consequently it’s likely that dead people would have made frequent appearances in their dreams- whenever the dead person was associated with the dream theme.

In contrast, our ancestors didn’t read, calculate, write or watch TV.

What early humans didn’t do

This may explain why these activities still don’t usually feature in our dreams. But another explanation, probably more telling,  is that we do these activities everyday- making them mundane. As we saw in Blog 15 everyday, routine activities don’t tend to feature in dreams.

Although early humans faced many perils, they would have had humdrum routines too. Most days, there wouldn’t have been a flash of yellow or other possible indication of a predator on approach to the waterhole, a few birds in the air, maybe a couple of zebra already drinking, along with a few warthogs. No elements that were worth remembering as indicative of the presence of a predator or an aggressive human competitor. In other words, mundane things which happened at a typical, uneventful waterhole visit weren’t likely to feature. We constructed dreams to avoid possible threats and take advantage of new opportunities, like a glimpse of an attractive potential mate just leaving the waterhole. Threats and opportunities didn’t arise on a daily basis. Everyday events which weren’t associated with threats and opportunities didn’t tend to appear in dreams.

On the other hand, Blog 15 pointed out that our emotional concerns, activities and interests in waking life also appear in dreams. Contemporarily, these concepts may better capture the nature of dream content than threats and opportunities.  Across evolutionary time, a key emotional concern was not getting eaten by a predator.  This would have been a more or less constant, albeit underlying, concern but may only have featured in a dream when an event triggered relevant associations. Nowadays our emotional concerns are more likely to be around work and intimate relationships but, as in our evolutionary past, concerns may only appear in dreams when a relevant associated event offers new insight into them.

This evolutionary context of threats, opportunities for rewards and emotional concerns may also explain the intense emotionality of dreams, with the prevalence of primary emotions, like fear, anxiety, anger and elation. In dreams our fear is sometimes provoked by bizarre, threatening images of the type we wouldn’t encounter everyday.

What the hell?

Social emotions, like embarrassment, shame, guilt, sympathy, jealousy, envy and pride would have developed later in our evolutionary history. Such emotions don’t feature as often in our dreams.

Dreams are always visual, we sometimes hear sound, contemporarily, usually speech, but this is sporadic rather than an extended conversation. Our other senses, taste, smell and touch, are overwhelmingly absent from dreams. Again this may reflect the archetypical predator-associated dream in our evolutionary past. If you had got near enough to a fearsome predator to touch, smell or taste it- you would have been eaten. Hence you wouldn’t have dreamed that night of predator-associated touch, smell or taste experiences.

Finally, I’m a different person in my dreams because if our dreams still bear the imprint of those of our early ancestors, many facets of the dreaming me would differ.  If I’d lived, as an early human, I certainly wouldn’t have been an academic. I may have formed a pair bond but I wouldn’t have had marital status. And, given that I would, in all probability, have died before reaching the age of 30, my dreaming age wouldn’t have matured past young adult.

Scientists have discovered an early human habitat in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, despite access to water, food and shelter, living 1.8 million years ago  exposed early humans to the risk of meat-eating predators. In such an environment, to meet my needs for food , water and shelter, I would have had to be much more active than I am now.  Also, in such conditions, I’d probably be less restrained, less compassionate, more conflictual, more sexually transactional and my encounters with others would be more aggressive.

But what about other dream characteristics: sparsity; single-mindedness; bizarreness; lack of insight; absence of a past and a future; bizarreness and hyper-associativity? To explain these I, first, return to my proposal of dreams as patterns in experience.

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.