Sunday, 11 May 2014

Reading in dreams

There is a lot of debate as to whether it is possible to read text in dreams. I know I am able to 'read' in dreams, if 'read' means to comprehend a message or information from text which is communicating something in written form. However, if I try to look at the letters and characters which make up this text, my experience has been that it does not resemble normal writing - in either my own English language, or any other language I am familiar with. Usually, the letters are in the Roman alphabet, but do not form comprehensible words - often the 'words' are only made up of two letters, or appear as one long string of characters. But I can always decipher the meaning without problem, as if I am reading everyday words, spelled correctly and following the standard rules of grammar and syntax. Why is this? 

The main difference between reading in real-life and reading in dreams is that in real-life, we are using an external source which contains text, such as a book, a mobile phone or laptop screen or a sign - or perhaps our environment. We are able to recognise 'words' even where they appear unintentionally, the same way we can recognise the human face in objects such as burnt toast or cloud formations. However, in dreams, words are a projection of our subconscious minds, and can appear distorted and changed in ways which actual real-life text cannot. Dream text is characteristically fluid and proteus - able to take on an infinite variety of visual forms and therefore, it is an excellent 'reality check' device when learning to lucid dream. If you look closely at text or numbers in a dream, spotting how different they appear from real-life can often trigger lucidity. 

Some dreamers report that text is gibberish, upside down, or in a foreign language. It may appear fuzzy or unstable. I have experienced upside down text before in my own dreams. Sometimes, the first line of text may appear as you would expect, but the rest is unintelligible on closer inspection. The dreamer may experience the dream text transforming or moving before their eyes. 

A common occurrence is reading something in a dream and then finding that you only recall the general gist of what was communicated, rather than the precise words. This is also typical of conversations between dream characters - you get the content, but not the specific way in which it was communicated. It may be that our dreaming mind creates a meaning which we understand in an intuitive pre-verbal way, so that we are only able to summarise the content upon waking. It is apparently quite rare to encounter long text in a dream, and usually, where the dreamer is able to recall specifically what text they read in a dream, it tends to be short - like names, road signs, movie/book titles or newspaper headlines etc. It is possible that the brain is unequipped to deal with verbal/visual language during REM sleep - it may be that the part of the brain which deals with linguistics is shut off during sleep. The language centres of the brain exist in the left hemisphere - which is known to be inactive during the dream state.

However, the brain is linguistically creative during dreaming - it is able to manipulate complex symbolism and wordplay to communicate subconscious meaning in very profound ways. Puns and wordplay have been a recurrent theme of reported dreams throughout human history - dreams recorded from the Ancient Greek, Romoan and Egyptian epochs show these characteristics, demonstrating that it is a universal trait for our brain to use language to encode and reveal meaning when we are in REM sleep, which can be recalled on waking. The dreaming brain may use verbal or visual puns to encode/reveal meaning. It uses the same linguistic framework as that employed by the waking brain, so we are able to categorise dream wordplay according to four recognisable forms:
  1. Homonyms: words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings - i.e plane (airplane) or plain ('plain of consciousness')
  2. Idioms: colloquial/slang words which are common to a particular group (usually defined by language, location or membership of a community) - i.e. 'curiosity killed the cat'
  3. Anagrams: words which have a different meaning when rearranged - i.e. 'axl rose' = 'oral sex'
  4. Syllabification: forming new words by dividing the original word into separate syllables - i.e. a non-perfect example would be 'together' = to-get-her
Thus, wordplay may show up as written text, dialogue, or submerged into the scene, action or objects of the dream. Another rich source of meaning in dreams is the names of people or things. When encountering an unknown dream character, paying careful attention to their name may reveal implicit clues as to their subconscious significance. In dreams there it is impossible to distinguish between images and the dream language used to describe them. When recording dreams you are likely to find wordplay, puns and visual metaphors arising from the combination of elements or sequences of the dream and your interaction with them. This is why free association (stream of consciousness exercises) may be a fruitful method of interpreting dreams, as often meditating on the dream imagery and content and then allowing your mind to free associate unlocks hidden meanings, enabling you to decipher the symbolism within the dream. Faraday describes wordplay in 'dream language' as 'making puns in the stream of thought that goes on in the back [of one's mind] and comes out in pictures'.

Dreams also create new objects which do not exist in the real world, hence why sometimes dream objects are impossible to visually recall or describe when awake. These are known as 'interobjects'. Visual metaphors and dream-created objects are components of a conceptual world of symbolism which goes beyond linguistic meaning and we are able to confront the limits of our linguistic ability and verbal language to find meaning from what is incommunicable. 

Because the dreaming brain communicates via non-verbal language, it is possible to identify a dream object by looking at its relational, functional or emotional context. For example, the right hemisphere of the brain (when awake) identifies objects by context or purpose, whereas the left hemisphere identifies objects by title or name. Creation of a dream object is largely done by the right hemisphere, so by considering the function/purpose of this object within the dream it may be possible to ascertain its meaning for the dreamer. As noted above, the left hemisphere, which processes language in the waking brain is inactive during dreaming, so the right hemisphere is responsible for processing dream language. This means that emphasis is placed on memory, association, emotion, context and visualisation rather than logic, and does not follow a set of rational rules which may explain why language is able to morph and transform during a dream, but retain a deep symbolic meaning - even if it presents as little more than random combinations of characters, words or sounds.

Freud describes a process known as 'Condensation' whereby complex concepts, memories, ideas, emotions etc are condensed into one single object, element, character or word. For example, American psychologist and parapsychologist, Thelma Moss (aka Constance A Newland reported of dreaming of a pea pod. She associated this with being a symbol of her father's penis - pea meaning 'pee' or 'urine' and pod meaning 'seed carrier' thus representing the testicles. One of Freud's patients reported dreaming of kissing his uncle in an 'auto' - he free associated on this visual symbol and realised it meant 'autoeroticism'.

In the animated series of Batman, 'Perchance to Dream' (1992), Bruce Wayne attempts to read a newspaper and books in a library, to find that the words are jumbled and distorted, alerting him to the fact that something is not quite right (despite the fact he is no longer Batman and his parents are still alive). He witnesses another 'Batman' character stop a heist on a jewellery store named 'AXLJYZIV'. The episode climaxes when Bruce Wayne confronts the new 'Batman' character (actually The Mad Hatter in disguise) and attacks him, telling him this is all just a dream - of which he became aware when he was unable to read. His explanation is that reading is a function of the right side of the brain and dreaming is regulated  by the left. In order to escape his dream, Bruce Wayne jumps from a tower, but because his brain is unable to create a dream scenario in which he dies, he awakens, realising he has been under mind control at the hands of The Mad Hatter.

For interesting discourse which covers the subject of dream language see: 
MJ Bletchner, The Dream Frontier (2001)
RE Guiley, Dreamspeak (2001)
PA Kilroe, 'The Dream Pun: What is a Play on Words Without Words?' (2000) 10(4) Dreaming 193
A Faraday, The Dream Game (1974) & Dream Power (1972)

Bruce Wayne in Batman: Perchance to Dream (1992)

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