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.

Blog 14: Dream associations, the unconscious and modern dream science

30th September 2020

What is the evidence from modern science on unconscious dream associations? Here I refer to evidence on two questions. First, do dream associations come from the unconscious? And, second, do dream associations go to the unconscious.  But we should note that dreaming itself is an active, conscious state. If you are awakened from a dream you can report your conscious experience of what dream was about.  The phenomenon of dream consciousness blew away the notion that all of sleep is passive and unconscious. Also the dreamer (and others) can use dream reports to identify associations.  But, unfortunately, it is more or less impossible to discover what people are dreaming about while they are asleep and dreaming.

Although, science is making progress on “dream-reading machines”. A team of Japanese researchers devised a way to, broadly, tell, what images people were seeing in their dreams. For example,  the researchers could tell someone was dreaming of a building but couldn’t narrow this down to the structure being a house.  Broad categories, like building, animal and person were consistent with participants’ dream reports.

What is she dreaming of?

But, at the moment, for meaningful and detailed dream reports, we are reliant on waking people up from sleep in laboratories or collecting dreams written down at home. A recent study calculated that 96.4% of awakenings from REM sleep produced a dream report. We look at dream reports in the next blog but, first, we review experiments done in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreams occur.

First, what is the evidence on whether dream associations come from the unconscious? Recent research supports the Freudian idea of repressed, unconscious memories reappearing during REM sleep because REM sleep makes the recall of unwanted memories easier – where “unwanted” is defined as repressed during wakefulness.  Dreams are composed from memory fragments, which are integrated into a dream narrative. So it seems that at least some dream associations come from repressed memories in the unconscious.

But dream associations could be made unconsciously without being composed from repressed memories. We now know much more about the unconscious than in Freud’s time. As pointed out in an earlier blog, 95% brain activity is unconscious. The influence of repressed, unconscious memories is only likely to drive a small aspect of this brain activity. But, introspection indicates that dreams are unconscious in another sense- they are unconscious constructions. We don’t consciously search our memories for elements which are only remotely associated. Dream scenes appear in our consciousness, already formed and, unless we are having a lucid dream, out of our control.

So, in answer to the question of whether dream associations come from the unconscious, we can conclude that some dreams may feature associations to repressed memories but all dreams seem to be constructed unconsciously, although once formed we consciously experience them.

Second, what is the evidence on whether dream associations go to the unconscious? Modern science also indicates that associations made during REM sleep are retained unconsciously.

Dreams don’t die?

I don’t think dreams die, after we dream them they go to the unconscious.

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science demonstrated unconscious retention for associations made during REM sleep. While their participants were asleep, they played a number of tones,

Hearing tones while asleep

which they followed by odours.

Sniffing deeply 

They showed how, during REM sleep, their participants formed associations between each of the sounds and the odours that followed them.

If an odour is pleasant, like the lavender in the photo above, when we sniff, we sniff deeply.

But if the odour is unpleasant, like the garbage below, when we sniff, we sniff shallowly to protect ourselves from noxious smells.

Sniffing shallowly

In the Weizmann Institute of Science experiment, while their participants were in REM sleep, each of the tones was followed by a pleasant or unpleasant odours.  After these pairings, if only the tones were presented, the participants, again whilst still asleep, sniffed deeply if a pleasant odour was anticipated and shallowly if they expected a noxious smell.

The following day the participants did not consciously remember the tones or the odours or the associations they has made between them during REM sleep. But, the researchers showed that their participants had retained these associations unconsciously because the associations created in sleep impacted on their behaviour during wakefulness. Specifically, on the following day, the participants’ sniffing behaviour showed the same pattern as it had during sleep. When a tone was played which had been associated with a pleasant smell the participants sniffed deeply. Conversely, when a tone was played which had been associated with a unpleasant smell the participants sniffed shallowly.

Importantly, this showed their expectations and, consequent behaviour was influenced by new associations learned during REM sleep- despite their having no memory of these associations. In other words, the behaviour of the participants in wakefulness was driven by unconscious associations formed in REM sleep. This Weizmann Institute of Science experiment cannot prove that these unconscious associations were made during REM dreams but, because of the very high percentage of REM sleep (up to 96.4%) that features dreams, we can assume this to be the case- unless proven otherwise.

This experiment demonstrates a significant distinction, which we often overlook, between forgetting and retention. Even if we recall a dream upon waking we usually forget it later in the day, unless it’s particularly emotionally resonant, in which case the dream can last for years. But, as the above experiment shows, although we forget them, we can retain associations, formed during sleep.  These associations persist and continue to act unconsciously on our behaviour in wake.

So, in answer to the question of whether dream associations go to the unconscious, we can conclude, from the above experiment, that associations formed in REM sleep do go to the unconscious.

When considering the distinction between conscious and unconscious it’s important to recognise that some aspects of the unconscious can become conscious.  Consider that at any point in time we are unconscious of almost all of our long term memories, yet a trigger event or the need to recall can easily bring a relevant memory into consciousness. For example, being at a wedding may trigger memories of previous weddings I have attended or seeing a person I know approaching will, hopefully, bring their name to mind.

On the other hand, some memories or knowledge can only be brought into consciousness with difficulty. For example, memories of how to start a car are clearly present in consciousness while learning to drive but, after a time, become largely unconscious as the process becomes automatic. If you attempt to teach someone to drive, you access the processes of starting the car with some difficulty. You have to think: first turn on the ignition, then check the gear stick is in neutral, next press down the clutch, then engage first gear and so on. For a practised driver these processes are mostly unconscious because they have entered what memory researchers call “procedural memory”, in other words unconscious memories of “how to do things”. Unconscious retention makes our actions and responses faster and more efficient.

Some aspects of the unconscious can never enter consciousness. For example, the processes that run your body- your breathing, heart rate and immune system- can’t be conscious.

An interesting question is whether dreams which have never been consciously recalled could enter consciousness. The phrase “breaking a dream” implies that they can- if a trigger brings into mind a fragment of a dream which previously occurred. Unfortunately, at the present state of dream science, I can’t see how evidence could be brought to bear on this “breaking a dream” question…

Blog 13: Dreaming and the unconscious

16th September 2020

Famously, Freud said, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to the unconscious activities of the mind“. He thought what he called “free” association is the best way (the “royal road”) to  interpret dreams because dream associations come from the unconscious. In other words, our conscious minds aren’t aware of the associations which our dreaming minds creates. We can only interpret dreams while we’re awake but, in this state, we interpret them with difficulty because the associations are sometimes unconscious and, therefore have to be brought into consciousness, also they are often remote- the sense of non-obvious. Hence we need free associations because these “first things that come to mind without thinking about it” are the best way to uncover our dream associations. If we think about them too much,  we have time to defend ourselves against the sometimes, fear-invoking, emotionally unwelcome or unpalatable associations on which dreams rely.

The dream examples on this website reveal many non-obvious and emotionally challenging associations. In “The Lottery Tickets” dream, the ring from the Lord of the Rings may be associated, in an non-obvious way, with the lottery tickets because it brought power but was also a burden. In “The Crossing” the dreamer makes an emotionally difficult association between tied wrists and a threatened strangulation. Freud thought such associations come from the unconscious but my proposal is that dream associations also go to the unconscious.

As I explain in Chapter 4 of my book, I think dreams originally evolved to prepare early humans for dangerous situations, such as avoiding predators. Dreams could do this because they identified non-obvious patterns in the dreamer’s past experience of predator behaviour. In particular, associations which helped to predict when predators would be present at places which early humans needed to visit, like the waterhole and dependable food sites. For example, lions usually visit a waterhole at night – this associational pattern is: lion-waterhole-night. But in the dry season when they get very thirsty lions sometimes visit during the day. So the  lion-waterhole-night pattern has to be extended to incorporate the dry-season- lion-waterhole-day association. These associations are non-obvious because they aren’t determined, like day follows night. They have to be identified from many instances of glimpsing, from a safe distance, a lion at a waterhole. They are also emotionally difficult because who wants to contemplate being eaten by a predator!

My proposal is that across evolutionary time these non-obvious, emotionally challenging associations were portrayed in dream images and used unconsciously on approach to a dangerous place, like a waterhole. Thus, we used past experience to help evaluate the significance of any warning signals of danger- like a flash of yellow in the undergrowth around the waterhole. This flash of yellow may be a glimpse of a lion’s fur but could just be a yellow butterfly.  If it’s night time this flash is more likely to be a lion than if it’s the day time. If it’s the dry season during the day it’s more likely to be a lion than if it’s the wet season during the day. Should the early human continue to approach the waterhole or retreat? The information in the unconscious dream image will help but can’t definitively provide an answer. But whatever the decision it needs to be  quick- there’s no time to think in dangerous situations. Unconscious decisions are efficient and fast!

We can think of the unconscious as a hot, red zone across the brain. Across evolutionary time, dream images “stored” in the unconscious may have made our decisions speedy.

The unconscious is hot and fast

As I mentioned earlier, Freud thought dream associations come from the unconscious. In his mind, the unconscious was a reservoir of repression. We repress our primitive, sexual and aggressive instincts to live a civilised society.  But we also repress thoughts, desires and memories which are threatening, painful, distressing or shameful to our conscious minds.  In particular many of these thoughts, desires and memories relate to childhood when we were  vulnerable, relatively powerless and dependent upon parents but also less civilised and more beset by our instinctive impulses.

I don’t disagree with this aspect of Freud but I think his account is seriously incomplete – in terms of understanding the role of the unconscious. I don’t think the unconscious is only a seething reservoir of repression. Across evolutionary time, when we lived in a much more dangerous world, we would have been very reliant on using the visual images held in the unconscious to make fast decisions and act quickly. Dream associations drove these actions through identifying patterns in the behaviour of predators, competitors but also mates- so we could meet them. We dreamed to avoid dangers, stay alive and reproduce. We dreamed to survive!

Blog 12: But not all creative people are mentally ill and not all crazy people are creative 

2nd August 2020

If de-differentiation of waking and dreaming explains the link between creativity and craziness, how come there are creative people who aren’t the least bit crazy and crazy people who don’t show any signs of creativity?

Well, first, creativity is a fuzzy idea. Broadly speaking, what we call creativity can come about in two different ways.  The first way is through sudden insight – an “Aha!”, “Eureka” or “lightbulb” moment.

Sudden insight: It just came to me…

The second way is through step by step linear-logic over a period of time. Two cognitive psychologists, John Kounios and Mark Beeman use the example of Scrabble to illustrate.

Say your Scrabble letters are “A-E-H-I-P-N-Y-P”. If you look at them and suddenly realise these letters make the word EPIPHANY- this is the first type of creativity: sudden insight. But if you rearrange the letters using linear logic, thinking, for example, that the word probably starts with a vowel (there are three vowels in the letters) and then, systematically, trying different combinations of letters after a vowel then you are using the second type of creativity: step-by-step linear logic.

You might also use a combination of the two types of creativity.  Say you first identified some shorter, less high scoring words: HIP,  PIP, HEN or YEN.  You then thought of putting a vowel in front of one of them, “EPIP” isn’t a word but it may trigger a sudden insight:  Eureka!  “EPIPHANY”.

If you use purely step by step, linear logic to arrive at your creative idea then this type of creativity won’t be linked to de-differentiation because this produces a hybrid wake-dream state. In such a hybrid state, the remote associations that prevail in the dream state will weaken the step-by-step linear-logical associative reasoning that is required during focussed tasks in the wake state.  Step by step linear logic tends to produce the sort of creativity that leads to innovation in science, engineering, technology and design. Such creativity/innovation is not likely to be linked to craziness because it doesn’t need input from the dream state.

So if your creativity depends on step-by step logical reasoning, this sort of creativity is unlikely to be associated with mental illness. In contrast if your creativity depends on remote or loose associations,  a clear example is poetry, then the probability of you having some sort of mental disorder increases.

But evidence shows an inverted U-shaped relationship between creativity and mental illness. The relationship only holds until normal functioning in wake becomes severely compromised – after this point creativity decreases. In other words only mild to moderate mental illness is linked to creativity.  Yet in a previous blog I mentioned how Blake, Byron, Schumann, Van Gogh, and Woolf are all thought to have had manic depression, now called bipolar disorder.  This is a severe disorder but maybe it can accommodate artistic work. Manic periods of intense energy may drive writing, composing and painting,

There’s a time for art

while editing and reworking take place in depressive periods.

But, there’s more to creativity than a bit of craziness. There is a positive relationship between creativity and intelligence- up to IQs of about 120 (100 is average) after which creativity and intelligence begin to diverge.  Creativity is also linked to personality- being open to new ideas and experiences is significant, so is confidence and autonomy.

So, although there’s evidence that creativity and craziness are linked, not all creative people are mentally ill and not all crazy people are creative. The reasons are:

First, there are, broadly speaking, two thought processes that enable creativity: sudden insight and step-by-step logical reasoning. Only creativity through sudden insight is linked to mental health disorders.

Second, only mild to moderate mental illness is associated with creativity- severe mental health disorders aren’t.

Third, other factors, aside from a bit of craziness, enable creativity. Intelligence, up to a certain point, is one. Personality is another.

And so why is dreaming important in this debate? First, because dreaming is driven by remote associations and such associations are key to the sudden insight type of creativity.  Second, because, for a long time, psychiatrists and philosophers,  including Aristotle, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud, Jung and Bleuler, have suggested that if remote associations which characterise dreaming invade the awake state madness may result.

At this point we need to consider dreaming and the unconscious, my next blog (after my annual leave) will cover this

Blog 11: Being trapped in-between waking and dreaming:  the bad news

15th July 2020

Many creative people suffer from what we call mental illnesses or disorders. For example, Kay Redfield Jamison, an American psychiatrist, thinks it likely that Blake, Byron, Schumann, Van Gogh, and Woolf all had manic depression, now called bipolar disorder.  This condition has both manic, when the person is high, elated, full of energy, confidence and enthusiasm but, sometimes to the extent, that they pace around and can’t sleep, and depressive phases, when the person is low, apathetic, lack-lustre, can take no pleasure in life, sometimes to the extent that they only want to sleep and may become suicidal.  Redfield Jamison’s book “Touched by Fire”  starts with a quote from Byron, ‘We of the craft are all crazy’ he said of himself and his fellow poets ‘Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy but all are more or less touched.’

Scientific evidence on the links between creativity and mental illness comes from several sources: brain imaging, genetics, epidemiological studies, and experimental research. Brain imaging shows that creative people think more broadly, known as divergent thinking, and so do people with schizotypy, a mild form of schizophrenia. Genetic risk scoring demonstrates that creatives are 25% more likely to possess genes that raise the risk for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Epidemiological research, which uses large samples over many years, reveals links between creativity and mental disorders. For example, in a study of 300,000 people over 30 years  people with bipolar disorder (and the siblings of those with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) were disproportionally present in the creative professions. Experimental research shows increased creativity in people with bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions.

I’ve emphasised that creativity depends on making non-obvious associations. Maybe Byron was right when he said all poets are crazy because, arguably, more than any other creative form, poetry plays out through non-obvious associations. Those with what we call “mental illness” also make non-obvious, creative or loose associations. Eugen Bleuler, the psychiatrist who  coined the terms schizophrenia, schizoid and autism, noted that a core characteristic of mental disorders was what he termed a “loosening” of associations. It’s not hard to see that the creativity of the poet Raymond Carver, who saw the loose association between death and dry cleaning, is so not far away from the delusional thinking that associates death with a MI5 conspiracy plot to kill or believes there is a clandestine MI7 which mops up extraterrestrial attacks. Such thinking builds fear.

Are they out to get me?

In contrast, normally, personally meaningful associations create a secure sense of self – including the experience of being the same person across time.  For example, I associate my love of books and writing with a memory of being about 10 years old. I was walking alone to the library on a dark, wet, cold, blustery autumnal evening, thinking of growing up: what would I be like, what would I be doing at 15? 25? 35? 45? Now I know, but back then I had no idea. In many ways I am a very different person than I was at 10 years old- I couldn’t be that 10 year old child, I couldn’t even inhabit the mind I had at 45. But these personally meaningful associations across time give me a sense of continuity – I’m still that person, that self, who gets excited when I open a new book.

In mental health disorders, at the same time as loose, sometimes paranoid associations begin to dominate thinking, the loss of personally meaningful associations results in what Bleuler termed a fragmented self- to the extent that a coherent sense of being oneself is lost.

Fragmented self-  Losing oneself

As I write this, the year is 2020, the person whose diary appears above seems to have lost themselves five years ago. Was this loss to mental illness?

This blog has explored the possible upsides, creativity, and downsides, mental health disorders, of de-differentiation, arguing that the link between them is a  hybrid state of waking and dreaming. But this neglects those creative people who don’t show an ounce of craziness and those crazy people who aren’t at all creative.

Blog 10: Being trapped in-between waking and dreaming:  the good news

1st July 2020

Whilst falling asleep and immediately after waking up we are all in this hybrid wake/dream state.  The good news about this is that we can make a dream a reality- in the sense that, for example, Mary Shelley dreamt of a monster made of body parts ignited into life.  She then made this come true through writing Frankenstein.

Creative writing makes your dreams come true

Normally, we can’t access our dreams while awake, so we can’t make them come true.  Also, although we are conscious when we dream, we lack the rationality and judgement of waking consciousness. Consequently, while we dream, we can’t evaluate our dreams for creative insights.  In other words, we can’t have  “Aha!” moments during dreaming. Sadly, many potential scientific inventions and artistic masterpieces may be lost forever, after our dreams enter our unconscious, to form what we may term our “dreamscapes”.

However much you feel like it, you can’t make a dream come true unless you can recall it, evaluate it and work with it.  To do these things you need waking consciousness. But Keats wasn’t either falling asleep or waking up  when he wrote Ode to a Nightingale yet it’s suffused with creative associations- so is all poetry. Take this contemporary poem, “Another Mystery” by Raymond Carver, he associates death with dry-cleaning.

That time that I tagged along with my dad to the dry cleaners-
What’d I know then about Death? Dad comes out carrying
a black suit in a plastic bag. Hangs it up behind the back seat
of the old coupe and says, “This is the suit your grandpa
is going to leave the world in.” What on earth
could he be talking about? I wondered
I touched the plastic, the slippery lapel of that coat
that was going away, along with my grandpa. Those days it was
just another mystery.

Then there was long interval, a time in which relatives departed
this way and that, left and right. Then it was my Dad’s turn.
I sat and watched him rise up in his own smoke. He didn’t own
a suit. So they dressed him gruesomely
in cheap sports coat and tie,
for a occasion. Wired his lips
into a smile as if he wanted to reassure us, Don’t worry, it’s
not as bad as it looks. But we knew better. He was dead,
wasn’t he? What else could go wrong? (His eyelids
were sewn closed, too, so he wouldn’t have to witness
the frightful exhibit.) I touched
his hand. Cold. The cheek where a stubble had
broken through along the jaw. Cold.

 Today I reeled up this clutter from the depths.
Just an hour or so ago when I picked up my own suit
from the dry cleaners and hung it carefully behind the back seat.
I drove home, opened the car door and
lifted it out into the sunlight. I stood there for a minute
in the road, my fingers crimped on the wire hanger. Then
I tore a hole through the plastic to the other side. Took one of
the empty sleeves between my fingers and held it-
the rough palpable fabric.
I reached through to the other side.

Many believe creative people can reach and use their unconscious minds. I think this is because creative people are in a de-differentiated state- in-between dreaming and waking. This makes their dreaming state of mind more accessible while they are awake.

Becoming more creative, through de-differentiation, seems like good news but there is a downside.

Blog 9: De-differentiation…..

22nd June 2020

… a big word for a waking dream. But the concept is simple: a few of us, including, in the past, Keats, may, more or less permanently, be in a hybrid wake-dream state.  How could this happen? If the boundary between waking and dreaming became porous or leaky this would tip you into a de-differentiated state. Not an actual dream. Not completely awake. An in-between zone.

In the last post I compared this to the area between the conscious tip of an iceberg and the great mass of unconscious brain activity below. In this in-between zone you would have hybrid waking/dreaming consciousness. Or, in other words,  you would have more access to your unconscious mind.

We know this can happen because we all daydream- our default state when we aren’t engaged in tasks requiring concentration. Such as when we gaze out of a window.

Window gazing: A default state

As its name suggests daydreaming is a  hybrid wake/dream state where the mind wanders and makes non-obvious associations.  Daydreaming is not identical to dreaming proper but it bears a close resemblance. We also know we’re more creative during daydreaming- in the sense of having the “Aha!’ moments that come with creative insights. Creative people often speak of waiting for ideas to “come up” from their unconscious.

A de-differentiated state, where the boundary between wakefulness and dreaming is leaky, would allow a dream-like state to permeate waking consciousness.  Aristotle, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud and Jung have all suggested this possibility. Unlike daydreaming, this de-differentiated state would be more enduring, in some cases permanent. During normal day-dreaming, say I was gazing out of a plane window, as in the above photo, if a task requiring attention presents itself, say, my dinner arrives with those fiddly packets of plastic cutlery, I can immediately focus and attend to opening the packets. But, in a de-differentiated state, I may struggle to focus, have trouble with the awkward plastic cutlery and lose patience or drift back to staring out the window, while the dinner goes cold.   So although, de-differentiation may make us more creative, it may also lead to impatience and absent-mindedness.

Also de-differentiation has two sides: dreaming would permeate waking but the awake state of mind would also suffuse into dreaming.  We know this can happen because a more wake-like state of mind during dreams produces lucid dreaming.  The main marker for lucid dreaming is that the dreamer realises they are dreaming. In other words, they have insight into their state of mind.

The dreamer will think something like, “I’m driving up a bare vertical rock face, this can’t be happening- I must be dreaming.” Also, sometimes, in lucid dreaming, the top-down control required for task concentration in wakefulness is restored. This means that the dreamer can control the dream plot, which some find enjoyable. Sex and flying are the most popular choices.

We can fly when we’re lucid

Sadly, the sex or flying doesn’t usually last long – the dreamer either wakes up or falls back into a normal non-lucid dream.

Although both a more dream-like state during waking hours, what we call daydreaming, and a more wake-like state during dreaming, producing lucid dreaming are possible, both are transient. Especially lucid dreaming, which is hard to maintain- even with the training some people undertake because they enjoy being lucid.  Daydreaming is much more  common than lucid dreaming, it’s thought to be our natural “default” state- what we do when we aren’t doing anything else. One survey revealed people daydream for half of their waking hours, but if they need to- there is loud knock at the front door- they can snap back into alert wakefulness.  If you remember, I started this blog saying that a few of us may be more or less permanently in a hybrid wake-dream state- meaning that you can’t get out of it- in effect you are trapped in this in-between state. Would this be good or bad?

Blog 8: Waking dreams

4th June 2020

Most of our dreams never reach consciousness. We don’t remember them. But there is a difference between remembering and retention. I argue we retain dreams, to work as part of the 95% brain activity, which is unconscious. These retained dreams may influence our decisions and action during waking hours. In the iceberg analogy, dreams lie below our conscious mind in wakefulness.

Dreams retained in the unconscious?

But if you look closely at the photo above there’s a boundary or zone which lies between the conscious tip of the iceberg and the great mass of unconscious brain activity below. We can think of this as the in-between “waking-dream” in Keats’ poem. In this zone, dreams can get access to consciousness either because, as in Mary Shelley’s case, they are dreamt at the threshold of falling asleep- when dreams are usually called hypnagogic hallucinations. Or because the dream is recalled upon wakening – as Elias Howe’s was reputed to be.

Dreams are creative because they associate things which we wouldn’t, in wakefulness, think of as linked- like Bagpuss and glaucoma. But making that particular connection isn’t likely to result in a scientific discovery or creative  art. As in most dreams, the association is a personal one – it’s meaningful to the dreamer but unlikely to be significant to anyone else. Luckily for us, as a society, some dreams associations do have wider meaning and resonance- like Mary Shelley’s  associations between manufacturing a creature and bringing it alive in Frankenstein. Or broad scientific or technical significance, like Elias Howe’s association between spears and needles, which gave him the idea of an automatic sewing machine.

But do we have to be on the boundary between sleep and wake to access this waking-dream state, to produce great creative work? Seemingly not, because, reputedly, Keats wrote his notes for Ode to a Nightingale in 2-3 hours one morning, after breakfast, in the spring of 1819, while sitting in his Hampstead garden under a plum tree, where a nightingale had built a nest.

He was clearly alert for the presence of nightingales. The portrait below depicts him listening to one on Hampstead Heath.

Keats and that nightingale

Severn, Joseph; Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath; City of London Corporation;

The Ode links things which most of us wouldn’t think of as associated: the nightingale with death; music with immortality; and the timeless nature of birdsong with human mortality.

These are all creative, non-obvious associations.  Keats didn’t pen the Ode while falling asleep or immediately after waking , but was he in a waking-dream when he wrote it mid-morning?