Meet the Press-or-A Reader Response Theory of Dream Vision: Part 1

Recently I was asked to do interviews for two different Canadian media outlets. The first interview consisted of questions and answers, which are provided below. This "Fieldnote of a Dream Researcher" provides a "reader-response" perspective of dream interpretation. From a dream research perspective such an oneiric theory of the reading process of the form and content of a text has never been formally published. It is one perspective that I have used in my clinical practice for over 20 years. It is a theory that is experimentally testable. If anyone decides to use any of the ideas found below, please just quote me, that's all I ask. Otherwise, it's called plagerism

Remembrance of Things Past -or- Cultural Literacy of the Language of Dreams 

"How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream." Gaston Bachelard 

Question: If someone has a hard time remembering their dreams, what are some
techniques they can use to better remember them? 

Answer: Remembering your dreams is much like remembering a film (1) that you have watched at a cinema theatre. The film much like the dream takes place in the dark where dramatic visual images and scenes of places and people flash across your personal dream screen. Only this film type dream is one that you have dramatically created. Forgetting your dreams begins in childhood when the awakening dreamer looses the immediate experience of the dream by opening their eyes, moving their limbs and going about the conscious stuff of everyday life. Dream amnesia then starts becoming habitual. One of the methods to remember the dream, is when waking, keep your eyes closed and ask yourself if you have had a dream? If the images of the dream flash onto your screen again, be ready to write them down. Get into the conscious habit of telling yourself when you go to bed that you want to remember your dreams in the morning. 

Keeing a journal (2,3), a diary, a notebook of our dreams provides a literary and theatrical "slice of life" of what the French psychiatrist Eugène Minkowski call "lived time". In this sense, such a journal constitutes what Marcel Proust called a "Remembrance of Things Past". In this personal life story we find character development, perspective taking, plot development, conflicts and the narrative art techniques that the character uses to tell and drive the dramatic story of a life remembered. From a literary perspective such a life story is called autobiography, bildungsroman and Künstlerroman. From a cinema perspective, the film "Wild Strawberries" provides such a dream like remembered montage of a narrative journey through life

The International Institute for Dream Research (IIDR) interpretations "Dream Diaries -or- The Book I Write" and "In Search of Lost Time -or- Proustian Memory in Wild Strawberries" provide more background to seeing the narrative reading connections between film, art, literature and dreams. 

Questions: Is there any way that keeping a dream journal and practicing
self-interpretation can have a therapeutic effect on ones life? What kind
of effects? 

Answers: Keeping a journal can be seen as a literary art form of creative life writing, and can enhance learning, growth and personal development. The French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard believed that better dreaming provided the literary, and phenomenological keys to better reading. In this sense, we could say that the creative dream interpretive process is a two way street, better reading provides the keys to better dreaming. Said again differently, better reading provides the phenomenological keys and reading tools for cultural literacy (4). 

Using the literary tools provided by reader-response criticism of literature, dream vision (dream journal) can be viewed from the perspective of the performing arts (10). The dream factory film "Stranger Than Fiction" dramatically fits the everyday reader response description of character development, plot development and writing a life. 

The IIDR interpretations "Creative Dreaming -or- Cognitive Maps of Postmodern Dreamtime", "Creative Writing in Dreams -or- A Story from Rags to Riches" and "Life Writing, Dreams and Personal Growth" provide further background for the ideas above.

Questions: Once you've written a dream down, how do you start to interpret it? Can you interpret your dreams without a dream journal? 

Answers: The language of dreams is a symbolic language, and like any language takes time to consciously learn. Learning to read the personal sign posts and symbolic language that creates phenomenological meaning out of one's experiences is initself an intuitive and creative symbolic process. Each person develops their own personal idiomatic symbolism, phenomenological forms of communicating, remembering and reading. 

An individual's symbolic language is rooted in the collective symbolic language and communication patterns found in the oral and visual culture they live in. Reading comprehension and understanding of the oral and visual symbolic culture one lives in, is imperative for any interpretive understanding of dream vision. The dream as a "reader-response" channel is like any other communication medium, the messages are shaped by the oral and visual culture one lives in. 

Of course it is possible to interpret a dream without a journal. However, without a journal how can one see and trace personal and interpersonal communication patterns and context that develops over a life time? 

The IIDR interpretations "The Forgotten Language of Dream Vision -or- The Tower of Babel", "English Cultural Idioms -or- Oral Culture and Satire" and "Visual Culture -or- Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" provides further insight. 

Question: How do you balance a generic interpretation of a dream you find on a
website, with your own interpretation that has personal context to relate
to the dream? 

Answer: Each person has their own ways of reading and interpreting themselves, others and the world. The interpersonal symbolic code key is to found in the rhetorical (5) concept of intertextuality which allows the reader to phenomenologically bridge from the generalization to the personal contextual reading domain.  

The IIDR interpretation "Web of Communication -or- Researching the Sociology of Dreams"  provides understanding about the dramatic connections of the "small dream world" we all live in. 

Questions: If one continually has bad dreams, is there a method of using a dream
journal and/or dream interpretation as treatment for bad dreams? Are there any things in waking life that can act like more of a trigger for dreams than other things? (Emotions, stress, family, friends, etc.) 

Answers: There is a great deal of good literature about the nature of nightmares and nightmare help. Ernst Hartmann's (8) research and work in this field has been on the forefront in understanding the nature of nightmares. The dream factory film Groundhog Day presents a humorous problem solving perspective on being released from one's recurring dreams and nightmares. 

There is no question that many things in waking life can "trigger" dreams. Interpersonal relationships like family and friends are much of the stuff everyday waking life and nighttime dreams are all about. The triggers of stress and anxiety are pervasive in our collective dream patterns. The psychosomatic effects of stress (7) and anxiety on dreams can become widespread like was witnessed after 9/11, where reportedly in the United States 90% of the population had nightmares within a few days of the terrorist attacks. 

Read the IIDR interpretation "Symptom Reading of Nightmares -or- Stress and Everyday Life" for more understanding. 

Question: What do people stand to gain from having a better understanding of their

Answer: From a philosophical perspective the ancient Greek answer to this question was "Know Thyself". In this sense of reading dreams, nothing much has changed. 

"E-Mail to a Young Dream Researcher" provides further insight for those beginning to search for the understanding in their dreams. 

Here are also some thoughts about a pragmatic method of dream interpretation; 

Pragmatic Method of Dream Interpretation -or- A Storytelling Perspective 

From a more pragmatic "know how" of the reader response perspective of interpreting dreams, let's look at 10 dreams, the first five of which are found in a former professor of mine Inge Strauch's (et al) book "In Search of Dreams: Results of Experimental Dream Research". The dreams have been abbreviated, reporting the first three sentences found in each. The relevance of the first sentences of the dreams will be discussed at the end of both sets of dreams. Here are the dreams; 

  • 1. "I was talking to a woman, and was a grammar school pupil. It was a classroom, where the female teacher sat in the center, and the pupils formed a circle around her. And then the test results were handed out, which turned out to be horribly bad." (p50-51)
  • 2. "I just talked to my father on the telephone and discussed a television show he had seen. And he also told me he had been in Zürich and insisted on meeting me at a particular bar. And I said: ‘I'll go and see where it is.'" (p85)
  • 3. "I noticed someplace that ‘La Dentellière' (The Lacemaker) is coming to a movie house and I wondered whether the film had been dubbed into German, but discovered it hadn't. I talked to somebody about whether or not I should go and see it. While thinking about that, I traveled in a bus full of Americans." (p85)
  • 4. "I was sitting in a WC, a public WC, where there were books. Next to the WC, actually inside it, there was a rack for pocketbooks. It was a mixture of all different kinds of pocketbooks." (p100)
  • 5. I traveled from Lugano, where I stayed with my parents, to Zürich, because of festivities. And together with my girlfriend, I drove through the city for a spell, and there was quite atraffic jam, because of the festivity. And I ran into a lot of people, and my mother was there, too." (p125) 

The next five dreams were sent to the International Institute for Dream Research. 

  • 1. "I often have flying dreams."
  • 2. "I had a dream where I was sitting on the toilet. I got up and looked down and there were maggots all around the toilet, on the floor.It concerned me, so I looked in the toilet and the water had huge, fat maggots swimming in it."
  • 3. "I dreamt that I was looking for a new apartment. I met with an old man (grandpa age) to look at an apartment he had for rent. We looked around the house and I began to notice that a few of the items in this furnished apartment looked like items that I owned."
  • 4. "I dreamt that evil people wanted to take my soul away and when I woke up."
  • 5. "I dreamt that my cousin and aunt were driving and that a tree fell on the car and killed them." 

What is the common dramatic denominator of this storytelling data set of the dreams? They are all reported from the "first person" point of view. The next step in acquiring a reading "skill" set for the understanding dreams is to be able to read the plot (11). The basic plot patterns of dream vision will be the topic of part 2 of "A Reader-Response Theory of Dream Vision". 

Further Reading: 

  1. Robert T. Eberwein, "Film & the dream screen : a sleep and a forgetting."
  2. Ira Progoff, "At a Journal Workshop: The Basic Text and Guide for Using the Intensive Journal Process" 1975
  3. Ira Progroff, "At a Journal Workshop: Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke Creative Ability 1992
  4. E. D. Hirsch Jr., "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know
  5. Bert States, "The Rhetoric of the Dreams"
  6. E. D. Hirsch Jr., "Validity in Interpretation" 
  7. Louis Breger (et al), "The Effects of Stress on Dreams"
  8. Ernst Hartmann, "Dreams and Nightmares"
  9. Marshall McLuhan, "Understanding Media"
  10. Erving Goffman, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life"
  11. Peter Brooks, "Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative".
All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.