DREAM ADVICE COLUMN: WORDPLAY IN DREAMS
I have a recent dream to share, and I wonder what your thoughts might be. I can’t remember too much of the narrative (my dreams tend to have the “sense” of a narrative, but no discernible plot to follow after the fact), but I do remember the feeling of running away from something, and in doing so encountering a series of jars/urns. As I touched each one (don’t know if I fell into them and broke them, or simply opened them up in the dream) it opened up and a big puff of smoke spurted out — almost like the smoke from smudging rather than from candles or a campfire. Not sure how to interpret this imagery; maybe you can help?
Hello! I’m happy you not only shared with us the content of your dream, but also the process of how you dream. You’ve provided me with a nice segue to give a little psycho-education to our readers on the dreaming brain. What you described — “my dreams have the sense of a narrative but no discernible plot”— can be directly linked to what brain mechanisms are on and offline during a dream state.
Whenever I teach dream workshops, I try to dispel attitudes that regard dreams as meaningless or weird. This attitude is a result of our waking mind not understanding the dream language, which I regard as a limitation of waking consciousness rather than an issue with the dream. When dreaming, the frontal cortex goes offline, responsible for judgment, sequencing events, logic, and critical thinking. This absence of rational thought is what gives dreams their bizarre and disjointed quality, thus when we wake up we evaluate and say, “Whoa, that was a weird dream.”
Our bodies are for the most part paralyzed when dreaming, yet we perceive movement, just as there’s little to no sensory input, yet we perceive sensation in the dream. The most active brain function especially during REM sleep is the amygdala, or the lizard brain. This area is like the storehouse of our emotional memory, likely driving the sense of narrative in a dream (feeling of running away from something).
Keeping these brain mechanisms in mind, we are more prepared to read the dream language. For example, while our waking mind can look at an urn, point to it and say, “That’s an urn,” our dreaming mind is a little more convoluted. The language center on the left side of the brain is offline, responsible for knowing the names of things (“that’s an urn”), yet the same center on the right side of the brain, responsible for emotional associations to things, is online. This is where dreams are ripe with word play and puns. “That’s an urn” has the potential to become something about what you “earn.” In fact, in your dream you “encountered urns,” so now we’re counting and earning! As you touched each one, a puff of smoke spurted out. Is everything you touch turning to dust? Your earnings disappearing in a cloud of smoke? Or is this more of an Aladdin situation where your earnings are bottled up ready to spurt out?
We can also imagine into the urn symbol itself, as the emotional current in the dream, a sense of running away, led you to a series of urns. Urns as objects reference antiquity and are often used to hold the ashes of the dead. The smoke as if from a smudging may also indicate we’re on sacred ground. This is where your input would be important, to help fill out the interpretation with your own day residues and personal associations. Ultimately in dream work we’re confronted with this great task of bridge building, between the evaluative nature of the waking mind and the ever evasive picture language of dreams. I hold there is great possibility for growth in learning to postpone the judgments of waking consciousness to learn to speak the more animal language of dreams.
*DISCLAIMER: Dreamwork is a collaborative process that relies entirely on the associations of the dreamer to create a dream meaning. Without the dreamer’s input, I can only describe my personal associations and amplify the dream images as they exist symbolically on a cultural level.