Monday, 13 October 2014

An introduction to dream characters

Dream characters (often abbreviated as 'DC') are the characters - human or animal - which appear in a dream. Some theories of dream interpretation suggest that dream characters always represent an aspect of the dreamer's self. Dream characters often take on the persona of someone known to the dreamer, such as family members, friends, pets or celebrities, although their characteristics, mannerisms, behaviour and actions may mirror those of the dreamer rather than the actual person on whom the dream character is based. Dream characters therefore, are visual manifestations of the dreamer's personality, although the characteristics of the dream character is likely to be influenced strongly by the dreamer's waking experiences of their real-life counterparts, although it is common for dream characters to exhibit odd behaviours or thwart the dreamer's attempts to engage meaningfully with them. Dream characters may therefore be seen as a form of 'dream sign'. One of the most interesting phenomenons I have experienced - and read about from the dream records of others - is the response of dream characters when confronted by lucid dreamers who question the existence of the dream character outside of the dream. When a dream character is informed that they are a fabrication, created in the dream and therefore under the control of the dreamer's mind, there is a tendency for the dream character to become hostile and defensive at the prospect. Dream characters may demonstrate extreme traits - high intelligence or immense ignorance - depending on the purpose they serve within the dream. Often, when in dialogue with dream characters, the dreamer finds the conversation to be nonsensical, incoherent or frustrating. 

Dream characters often represent a quest for identity or self-acceptance. When a familiar person appears in a dream, it can be interpreted as compensating for qualities the dreamer lacks, or as a reflection upon past experiences. The dream character may also reflect disparate parts of the dreamer's identity which are yet to be integrated as a whole.

Often in dreams, the dreamer experiences a dream character whose presence can be detected, but whom is invisible - usually positioned beside or close by the dreamer, but just outside their range of vision. Some interpretations suggest that these illusive, unseen dream characters represent the dreamer's intuition or a secret aspect of their personality or identity which is not usually revealed to the waking world. It is common that these types of dream characters act as a 'guide' for the dreamer and thus perform the role of 'spiritual guide'.

Family members are important dream characters as they are typically the persons with whom the dreamer is closest to in their waking lives. In many dreams, the dreamer is able to witness interactions with their family member dream characters which reflects attitudes, conflicts or feelings. Family member dream characters also reveal the values and emotions which influence the dreamer's notions of self-worth. Dreams involving family member dream characters are likely to reveal how patterns created by familial relationships still influence the feelings and choices of the dreamer. Dream character fathers tend to represent patriarchy, masculinity and the self within the wider world, whilst dream character mothers represent femininity, emotions and nurturing qualities. Siblings - with whom the dreamer shares common experiences typically represent how the dreamer has coped with domestic dysfunction, or childhood wounds which still have some foothold in the dreamer's psyche. A study by Paul & Schredl, 'Male-female Ratio in Waking Life Contacts and Dream Characters' (2012) International Journal of Dream Research 5(2) tested the hypothesis that there is discrepancy between gender ratios in the dreams of males and females, with males more likely to dream of other males and females showing no such difference. The authors found that other variables, such as relationship status, were likely to affect results.

Dream character enemies (or 'hostile dream characters') represent the fears of the dreamer. In Dream Theory,they are referred to as 'Shadows' - a repressed or denied aspect of the self which exists in the subconscious mind, threatening the dreamer's psychic well-being or balance. The dreamer is being forced to confront their 'Shadow' within the dream in order to achieve fulfilment or resolve some form of repressed internal conflict. Some dream characters appear as a 'Lover Archetype', which Dream Theory suggests is a composite of traits and qualities of a 'complement' - i.e. a reflection of the dreamer's other side - masculinity or femininity - and represents a unity of person. 

Minor dream characters may also be important in terms of the messages they convey to the dreamer, which may be through some form of action or enactment, accompanying object or dress. Many minor dream characters are actually archetypes which symbolise an inherent psychological trait or imprinted characteristic of the dreamer. 

Dream theorists often refer to integration - the process by which the dreamer (consciously within a lucid dream, or subconsciously in a normal dream state) 'integrates' or merges with another dream character (or object). Below is an example of integration during a lucid dream, recorded by Ralph Penderak of Badendorf, Germany:

I'm in the fields on the back of my house. I'm jumping backwards, and the jumps are getting longer and longer. How is that? I must be dreaming! Everything fades to grey, like so often in the moment that I become lucid. This time I won't give in to physical awaking so easily, but I start singing and dancing, with slowly rotating turns around my axis. After a few seconds I see my son and my dog (a Dalmatian) standing by a small tree. At first I don't want to go there, but then I realize that this is a good chance for interaction. I remember that mostly everybody just disappears from dream scene once I become lucid. So, I go there and start playing with my dog, at first orbiting each other slowly, then faster and faster, until we are one whirl with no more borders between us. We melt into each other in ecstasy. When we calm down, I see my skin is now white fur with black dots. I awake physically. Ecstasy lingers and makes my day.

Although dream characters typically represent an element of the dreamer's personality, some may be more ready and willing to integrate themselves or merge with the dreamer than others. This may be a sign to the dreamer that they are (or should be) incorporating the traits of the dream character into their waking lives. For example, integrating with an athlete may be a sign that the dreamer should be, or is, integrating physical fitness into their lives, while integrating with an artist may refer to the need to embrace creativity or imagination. Dreams may therefore be perceived as an opportunity to unite fragmented personality traits into a whole, or take on characteristics and qualities which are not presently incorporated. Paul Tholey (1937 - 1998), the German Gestalt psychologist, argued that his Conciliatory Method could be used to unify himself with his dream characters, thereby transforming them from 'lower order' to 'higher order' creatures and enabling him to make greater sense of the dream experience. Tholey described the experience as in the following way:

I became lucid, while being chased by a tiger, and wanted to flee. I then pulled myself back together, stood my ground, and asked, 'Who are you?' The tiger was taken aback but transformed into my father and answered, "I am your father and will now tell you what you are to do!"In contrast to my earlier dreams, I did not attempt to beat him but tried to get involved in a dialogue with him. I told him that he could not order me around. I rejected his threats and insults. On the other hand, I had to admit that some of my father's criticism was justified, and I decided to change my behavior accordingly. At that moment my father became friendly, and we shook hands. I asked him if he could help me, and he encouraged me to go my own way alone. My father then seemed to slip into my own body, and I remained alone in the dream.

The counterpoint to integration of dream characters is 'disintegration' which has negative, detrimental connotations, associated with fragmentation and weakening of the person. This may not be the case - maybe the trait linked with the dream character is less than positive or healthy, and therefore disintegration represents the shedding of adverse characteristics or behaviours, for the benefit of the dreamer. The splitting off of the negative trait might present itself to the dreamer as a separate dream character who emerges from nowhere - as if they divorced themselves from the dreamer's body, becoming an entity in their own right. 

Dream researchers concentrating on the topic of dream characters question whether dream characters have their own consciousness. In one study conducted by P Tholey, Consciousness and Abilities of Dream Characters Observed During Lucid Dreaming' (1989) Perceptual & Motor Skills 68(2), 567 - 578, nine male lucid dreamers were asked to set specific tasks (write/draw, identify unknown words, make rhymes or do arithmetic) for dream characters 'met' during a lucid dream. Performance of the tasks by lucid dream characters was successful, although their skill at solving arithmetic problems was found to be poor. Tholey's study did not contradict the assumption that dream characters have their own form of consciousness in a specific sense and the author was able to conclude that dreamers should attempt to communicate with their dream characters as if they were rational beings. The mathematical ability of dream characters was further explored in a study by Stumbrys, Erlacher & Schmidt, 'Lucid Dream Mathematics: An Explorative Online Study of Arithmetic Abilities of Dream Characters (2011) International Journal of Dream Research 4(1) in which it was found that dream characters tend to be extremely poor at mathematics with only a third of answers being correct and more chance of the dream character correctly performing multiplication and division sums as opposed to addition or subtraction. Male dream characters in male dreamers' experiences were found to possess better arithmetic skills, showing a significant gender difference. The consciousness of dream characters has been the subject of discrete areas of dream research, and forms a distinct and complex topic of study in itself. I will write a separate article exploring this concept at a later stage, in addition to further pieces on dream characters and lucid dreaming.

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