Dream researcher John Allen Hobson wrote in 1977 that a dream is “a mental experience, occuring in sleep, which is characterized by bizarre elements and by a delusional acceptance of these phenomena as ‘real’ at the time that they occur.”
A recent dream: Our family is getting ready to go to a theme party. My husband and teenage children know what the theme is, but I don’t. A few hours before the party they tell me: it’s a costume event. You pick a theme that’s true of your life and personality. Then you dress up as that version of you. But I can’t come up with a theme. All I can picture is me looking tall and slender in a generic black cocktail dress, my hair ironed long and straight behind me.
My dream was a bit delusional, I suppose. Really there was no party, no dress, no long straight hair. Just me, lying in bed, my curly mop of hair on the pillow, my brain shuffling through visual images of my home and family.
But there is nothing bizarre about the dream’s story line. Every day I’m called to attend at least one theme party: the rabbi party, mother party, spouse party, sister party, daughter party. I have to dress and act the part. Of course, I don’t have the daily burden of choosing a theme, because my existing commitments and relationships cue me. But three weeks ago, the daughter party was permanently canceled. Major cues were lost. It will take months to find my new themes, costumes and scripts. In my confusion, it’s best to remain inconspicuous, generic, and innocuously pleasant. This dream is simply the big storyline of my life, writ small.
My dream supports the view of psychologist David Foulkes. Most dreams reported by his test subjects in the 1980s were, like this one, simple stories featuring familiar characters and objects. Human consciousness, he says, always weaves narratives; we try to make sense of everything we perceive and conceive. As we sleep, we continue to string ideas and images into coherent narratives.
The form of my dream illustrates this continuous narrative process. But the dream’s story explores its rupture. In the dream, I can’t find a coherent personal narrative. This distresses me, of course, and I pick a temporary story. After all, in the dream, I have to wear something. And in waking life, I have to move in some direction, however tentative and provisional.
A more recent dream: I find myself at a buffet luncheon honouring an elderly person, someone I don’t know personally. Mom is beside me, looking well and attractive, with white hair and a nice dress. I turn my head to the other direction for a moment. Then I turn it back and explain to Mom that she isn’t physically alive anymore. Despite my explanation, she is still there, smiling and talking to me. I turn my head away again. I turn it back again and explain again. She is still there. This continues indefinitely.
Foulkes also preferred to define dreaming as a constantly present mental process. That definition is consistent with phenomenology as I learned it from the master, Edmund Husserl. We live at many levels of consciousness simultaneously. But different situations call us to pay attention to different levels. Dreams are present when we are awake, too, though they are eclipsed by near-constant demands for practical thinking. We need only turn our attention towards our dreams to be aware of their constant flow.
I’m really at peace with this definition of dreaming. I love the idea of always finding Mom at my shoulder. All I have to do is turn my head.