The Science of Dreams
by Chris Hibbard
The Science of Dreams
I had a dream last week in which I was attacked by a deer. More specifically, I was stalked and then charged by a huge buck of a deer, a stag. It’s not terribly often that I recall my dreams, at least with any detail, and this case is no exception. But the memory of the deer dream remains, popping up at odd times. It has carried over into my waking life.
This dream got me thinking, so I pulled out my handy (if rarely used) Little Giant Encyclopedia of Dream Symbols. According to this guidebook, a deer is a symbol of feminity, and the deer itself is said to represent a woman or a girl. This information did little to help me understand my dream, except to make me think that I had actually been attacked by a woman. Not much there. So I continued on my quest for illumination, logging on to the ‘Net and checking other interpretations of same.
According to the first site visited, a deer represents grace, gentleness, and natural beauty. As a symbol, it has feminine qualities and may point to the feminine aspect within yourself. So the deer is not the girl, it is the girly part of me. Check.
The next site claimed that a deer is symbolic of independence and virility, implying perhaps that I am attacking myself, or that my intrinsic masculine character is talking to me. So already, using only four sources, I have come full circle, with a deer representing both male and female attributes, depending on which source I believe.
Changing my focus slightly, I looked into dreams in which one is attacked by an animal. One site told me that the deer dream was a warning, that I should be careful with those around you. It recommended that I take notice of who I know in my real life that shares and exhibits the same qualities of the animal that attacked me in my dream. I thought about this one for awhile, but I could come up with no friend who has cloven hooves and four legs, though I do know some who could be considered horny. But have I dreamt that one of my horny male friends is attacking me? Somehow I don’t think so.
The next site I checked informed me that being pursued by an animal represents some repressed aspect of myself that once just made me anxious but now threatens to overcome me. As I do get naturally anxious from time to time, and this one is vague enough to to be referring to absolutely anything, this one rings a little more true.
Still another site warns me to be very careful of walking dark streets or putting myself in places where I could possibly be attacked by a mugger. This must be a literal dream interpretation. Being attacked by a stag in my dream means that I will be attacked by a mugger in an alley. Hmm. Not being a particularly fearful person by nature, I can’t see myself taking this omen too seriously. I have no intention of avoiding walking at night because I was attacked by a ruminant mammal in my sleep.
One New-Agey site, complete with canned music and flashy relaxing images informed me that deer are important dream messengers; that I should pay attention to where they lead me in dreams; and that to see a deer in its natural habitat foretells a new and pleasant friendship. Unfortunately, to the best of my recall, the deer did not lead me anywhere. It reared up on its hind legs and snorted at me with wide nostrils before charging me, causing me to wake with a start. Strangely enough though, the dream occurred in a forest, which fits as a deer’s natural habitat, and I have actually made a new friend recently. Who knows?
I know though that the Internet is not a premium research tool. Since I’d started this quest for meaning, it seemed only fair that I ask the experts. But who are they?
I started with good old Siggy, Mr. Freud himself. Freud wrote: “All dreams are in a sense, dreams of convenience. They help to prolong sleep instead of waking up. Dreams are the guardians of sleep and not its disturbers.” Freudian thought would say that in order to live in a civilized society, we tend to hold back or repress our urges and impulses. However, these urges and impulses must be released in some way and have a way of coming to the surface in disguised forms such as dreams.
Freud understood the symbolic nature of dreams and believed they were a direct connection to our unconscious, what Freud refers to as the id. During our waking hours, the desires of the id are suppressed by the superego, which acts as a censor for the id. The superego enforces the moral codes for the ego and blocks unacceptable impulses of the id. Because your guard is down during the dream state, your unconscious has the opportunity to act out and express the hidden desires of the id.
Freud believed that dreams worked on two levels. A straightforward level showed events in dreams as remembered, and on a latent level objects and actions in dreams are symbolic of sexual and aggressive feelings, and of course, more of those repressed notions. In general terms, Freud treated dream images as signs that point to something else. The dreams themselves have little or no intrinsic meaning, they are just images which are assigned meaning, relative to the dreamer. Freud believed that the unconscious was purposely hiding the meaning of the images from our conscious minds. He believed that dreams contained a secret, hidden key, and that the lock had to be broken into by force. Of course, for Freud, almost everything ultimately had a connection with sex, death, taboo and incest.
Furthermore, Freud didn’t seem to much like or trust the unconscious, viewing it as being a dark, forbidden wasteland or trash dump. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t find out what Freud made of deer dreams, but I garner that it probably had something to do with my love for my mother. Thanks but no thanks Siggy.
Next I had a chat with Carl Jung. A great thinker, I figured he could point me in the right direction. Carl Jung proposed that a dream expresses collective racial unconscious memories and instincts shared by all people. These basic instincts present themselves through archetypical symbols including the hero, monster, mother, father, sacrifice and mask. Jung treated dream images as symbols intent on bringing healing to the psyche. Jung’s images, when treated as symbols, have meaning in and of themselves. He believed the unconscious was purposely trying to speak to us, in order to bring forth a sense of wholeness and add meaning to our lives.
For Jung, our nightly dreams aren’t trying to hide anything from us, they are just the opposite – communications from our own unconscious minds. Jung believed that the language of images and symbols, as used in our dreams, is actually the very best possible method our unconscious has of imparting true meaning to our conscious, waking minds. In this regard, the dream state is a channel for our unconscious to speak to our conscious. Jung also admits a problem however, in that the right-brained ‘symbol’ mode of communication which our dreams utilize is archaic, primitive, and generally unfamiliar territory to our modern, left-brained ‘concious’ mode of thinking. This is all well and good, and I thanked Jung for his time, though I found myself no closer to either the ‘true’ meaning of my deer dream, or the ‘attributed’ meaning.
A couple of other wise old men offered their views. Famed Western Philosopher René Descartes pointed out that since dream experiences are indistinguishable from “real” events from the viewpoint of the dreamer, there is no objective basis on which to determine whether one is dreaming or awake at any given instant. One must, Descartes would say, accept the reality of the waking world on the basis. OK Rene, I was attacked by a deer while I was awake, and am dreaming my way through this article. Next.
Fritz Pearls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, believed that characters and objects in our dreams are in fact projections of ourselves; parts of our personality that we do not accept or acknowledge. Pearls proposed that since we are the creators of our dreams then everything in our dreams must be aspects of our inner selves, i.e. I am the deer, the deer is me.
Dutch psychiatrist Alfred Adler promotes a theory that the desire for power is what drives each person. From a childlike sense of inferiority adults tend to move forward towards goals of success and superiority. According to Adler, dreams are reflections of these innate ambitions, i.e. I aspire to be the victim of a deer attack.
By this point, I was beginning to think that dream interpretation is something of a “soft science”, one in which there is no absolute truth, no concensus of opinion, and any dream can mean anything, depending on who is making up the answers. Yet through the history of mankind, dreams have been explored, examined, interpreted and translated.
It was interesting to read some of the history of said ‘soft science’. The earliest recorded dreams are derived from materials dating back to the time of The Sumerians, around 3100 BC, in Mesopotamia. Since then, the Greeks and Romans have used dream interpreters to assist with military operations, healing and architechture.
The Australian Aborigines have “dream-time”, a realm in which everything begins and ends, in which time is measured in eons and centuries rather than in hours or years. Many Native American tribes actively seek dreams, sometimes involving fasting and a lengthy vision quest. Even the West Indian religion of voodoo relies on dreams, seeing them as a form of portal between worlds. No matter where one looks, from Assyrians to Buddhists, Vikings to Zunis, there is belief in the significance of dreams. All religions involve some use of dreams in their scriptures.
The Bible is full of references to dreams, dreaming and visions. There are almost a hundred such references in the Old Testament alone. Ancient Judeo-Christians placed great stock in Oneiromancy, or predicting the future through the interpretation of dreams. In Islam, and in Ancient Hebrew times, good dreams are sometime seen as direct connections with God, with bad dreams being the work of demons. The list goes on.
In Judaism’s Talmud, there are 217 references to dreams. Joseph Smith received the Book of Mormon in a vision. The Eastern religions – Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, all rely heavily on dreams and dream symbolism. Muhammad received his divine messages in dreams. Dreams are a big part of New Age spirituality where seeing auras, being visited by animal spirits and studying the chakras rely, at least in part, on the person’s ability to know and understand his or her dreams.
So after searching my own conciousness for meaning, looking into the history of dream interpretation, and consulting with the experts, I have come to three conclusions:
First and foremost, I have no idea what it means to be attacked by a deer in a dream. I am no closer to figuring it out, though I now know that no one else is either.
Second, dreams may be something purely neurological, akin to an emptying of the mental ‘recycle bin’, that part of our brain which records all sensory input, no matter how trivial, like the license plate numbers you’ve unintentionally memorized and the smell of your morning toast. Fall asleep, and your hard drive is reformatted.
Third and finally, while dreaming does not seem to be solely a human activity (ever seen a dog dream?), the interpretation and analysis of our dreams truly is. Why we put such stock in the workings of our unconscious mind I do not know, but I guess if one silly dream could inspire such a vast amount of interest in my mind, then millions of more serious dreams could possibly (and very well might have) change the world as we know it.
Don’t forget that one third of our lives is spent sleeping, and one third of our time sleeping is spent dreaming. This means that if you live to be 75 years old, you’ve spent approximately six years dreaming – that’s 2,100 days spent in a different world. I choose to think that that’s time spent wisely.