Taking Dreams More Seriously Than Scientists Do

Dreams are the symbolic process of your subconscious figuring out how it feels.

Whatever your subconscious mind believes, your conscious mind will accept.

Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

In the 1963 book The Power of Your Subconscious, the Irish minister Joseph Murphy wrote, “Whatever your conscious mind assumes and believes to be true, your subconscious mind will accept and bring to pass.”

This is not true. Mr. Murphy is only aware of a superficial aspect of the subconscious disconnected from memories and emotions. You are ruled by your deeper subconscious.

Our shallow subconscious justifies our conscious thought. It is the emotional apologist for our rationalizations. It provides feelings to substantiate our prejudice and ignorance. It provides the words that come out of your mouth when you’re asked why you have certain feelings. It is not very honest.

Murphy is correct that this level of our subconscious does not control our thoughts. But there is a much deeper level to our subconscious that does govern conscious thought. It has access to memories and associations that we do not. It’s this deeper level that plays out dramas in our dreams.

You Have No Business Making Sense of Dreams

There is a scientific study of dreams, but it is doomed by its shortsightedness. Objective standards destroy the subjective content of dreams. Science and logic aim to understand the meaning and purpose of dreams by focusing on their content.

This application of reason to what is fundamentally unreasonable is like a direct approach to climbing a greased pole. It would be difficult enough if the logic of dreams was slippery, but it’s not slippery, it’s nonexistent. During dreaming, the parts of our brain involved with reason, otherwise called “executive function,” are less active, while those parts connected with emotional processing are more active (Kahn & Hobson, 2003).

“It may be no coincidence that while our dreams are rich in social behavior, our reasoning about it is impaired.”
David Kahn and J. Allan Hobson (2003, p. 65)

We can accomplish more by examining the role of unreasonableness in ourselves. This is the job for which dreams are the tool. Chaos is the language of dreams, not reason. The difficulty lies in speaking a language that follows the chaos of dreams.

There are Tinkertoy and Lego thinkers who begin their thoughts with intact components. Their preconception is to build on something that’s consistent at the start. From this prejudice and need come questions like, “What does this symbol mean in a dream?” “How do we gain insight from dream recall?” “How might we become lucid in a dream?” and “What is this dream telling us?”

Dreams do not consist of symbols, they consist of implications. They are contextual. A dream image can imply anything, more than one thing, and usually a combination of contradictory things. While we cannot reduce dreams to symbols, we can reduce them to threads. And like threads, their “meaning” lies in the patterns they weave.

To reduce dreams to constructions of separate, symbolic pieces misses both the larger theme and the context. It also misses the dynamic, which is how the dream evolves. The most important information lies there, in what does or doesn’t develop.

Bad Dreams Confuse Us

We appreciate this with a recurring nightmare, but to approach a nightmare as something to be removed is the wrong goal. Dreams are the brief recollection of our process of making sense. A nightmare reveals the emotionally negative consequences we’re associating with a current situation. The puzzle lies not in deconstructing the nightmare’s negative elements, but in discerning how they correspond to one’s real life. This lies in the emotional patterns, not the meaning of the symbols.

A dream of violence reflects one’s attitudes toward violence, not the dream circumstance used to portray it. We are confused by our habit of thinking in words and confusing words with thoughts. If words are fruit, then thoughts are the trees that produced them. We need to manage our forests; instead we busy ourselves making fruit salad.

To resolve a recurring nightmare, don’t focus on the characters or the plot, focus on the ideas the author has in mind. This should be obvious. To understand a Shakespeare play, you need to understand the context. The plot is just a vehicle. This is why the dream feels real; the context is in the feeling, not the story.

Resolving the dream involves living the experience. If the dream recurs, it’s because the experience has not been fully lived. Rather than repressing the negative, stopping a bad dream requires living it, feeling it, and accepting the feelings it reveals. This might require rethinking, atoning, defending, vanquishing, or accepting certain forces in your life. Dreams have this effect whether or not you remember them, but the dreams you remember are shouting at you.

Intensive and Extensive Definitions of Things

An intensive definition builds on perceived meaning, while an extensive definition builds on experience. The intensive definition of an old house is one that’s sufficiently aged to show decay or an anachronistic style. This builds on the definition of a house and what age means for us and for houses.

An extensive definition builds on examples and context. An extensive definition can be personal, not only what an old house means to you, but why old house meanings are important to you. The appearance of an old house in a dream will have more to do with your associations on a stage set that involves an old house, and less on the idea of “an old house.”

Yet when we describe the dream, which we do as a part of remembering it, we visualize items rather than our associations of them. We can hardly avoid this, and we certainly can’t if we describe the dream to others. In dream-based cultures, dream analysis is discouraged.

Dreams are both extensive and chaotic. We can follow their extensive nature by exploring the associations they bring to mind. Following their chaotic natures requires more than just a change in topic or focus, it requires a change in thinking.

Finding Ways to Think Chaotically

Thinking and chaos feel like opposites. One requires structure and the other forbids it. Even though they seem perpendicular or even opposite, there are ways to coordinate the two.

Reduced to their basics, thinking proceeds step by step to a conclusion. Chaos proceeds by generating ever more possibilities without conclusion. You will never encompass the chaotic result with orderly thinking.

Chaos can be embraced by thinking holistically. I don’t mean one should find a holistic summary of some chaotic average, because that would be more reductive thinking. I mean one should see the whole by including all the parts, especially the parts that don’t fit. You’re looking for an anti-pattern, a wall-eyed view of many things happening at once.

I wonder why people think reductively. Why do they constantly create amputated narratives that are like vitamin pills compared to a whole diet? Most people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world amounts to a diet of vitamin pills, and it would be fatal if there was any life to lose. In most cases, there isn’t; there is no understanding to start with.

Take this idea seriously: from what does order emerge? If you make sense of things, what are the things that you start with? A fair answer is chaos. You start with what looks more or less like chaos.

The alternative is to start with order and either create more order, or exclude distractions in order to maintain order. This is what reasonable thinking does, it excludes. In doing this it cannot reach new understanding. It either enforces old understanding, or modifies it slightly. And “slightly” means change within the uncertainty of our normal understanding.

The amount of uncertainty your thoughts contain determines the amount of creativity you can accept. Throughout our normal waking hours, we apply our limited understanding of our environment to avoid risk and obtain reward. This works to the degree we understand the risks and rewards. But, over time, reality drifts away from our patterned understanding of how things should be.

Every night we consider the chaos of our day, consider our unresolved past, and reset our patterns. Pictures overlaid from the present and past resonate with emotional associations. This is not a logical process. We are not “making sense,” we are constructing emotional collages. These are dreams.

Where Did You Think Your Thoughts Came From?

There are thoughts you already had, or thoughts you didn’t yet have. The first is taken from a pattern that exists, the second is distilled from life’s chaos. Even the chaos must be conceived within some framework. Most thoughts lie somewhere in between.

Over the past week, my cat has brought in unharmed two cute baby field mice. My young son and I marvel at their docile, inquisitive behavior and tiny features. Over the past few weeks, there has been much buzz in the media and excitement in social circles over the power and uses of artificial intelligence software. There’s a gold-rush mentality.

I took a nap and had a dream, and in this dream I was walking through the property of my computer friend Oscar, whom I knew briefly and have not seen in a couple of decades. He said he’d profited from his investment in the A.I. chips, and I corrected to say his investment was in the company that produced them. I did a quick calculation of his disposable income, the size of his investment, the likely reward he obtained, and I congratulated him on his good fortune.

As we walked, some very large mouse-like rabbits crossed our path, behaving somewhat like inquisitive mice and anxious rabbits. Beyond the ditch, in the adjoining field, were some prehistoric looking cattle that shared the features of the elk I’d seen wandering through a rural town days before, and some toothy, stretched-out long-nosed predator. Hideously ugly, in fact.

These large animals, Oscar told me, were the adult form of the mouse-rabbits that scuttled across the road. This disturbed me and I didn’t like it. In fact, I didn’t like the whole situation: Oscar, artificial intelligence, and predatory cattle. Even the over-sized mice-rabbits made me uncomfortable. I woke up.

This dream was not about old friends, mice, rabbits, cattle, computers, investments, or country fields, but it was about something beneath all of them. It was about my state of mind in the context of current and past events and future plans. It was my hodgepodge of feelings, attitudes, anxieties, and dissatisfactions about things left unfinished and not yet come to pass.

In another dream I was landing with my father at a New York airport and a friend of his was to take him to a house near my childhood home while I returned to my childhood neighborhood. I found myself in a shabby Five-and-Dime grocery collecting a few goods. Then I felt sleepy, set my bag aside, and went into a bedroom for a nap.

Upon waking in the dream, I took the goods I’d collected to the inattentive homeowner-cum-shopkeeper when I noticed I didn’t have the right currency. I explained I would later return with payment. I checked the bags to find various items I didn’t want and had not selected. I returned them and continued down the street of my childhood neighborhood. Then realized I did not know which house my father had gone to. I had the bright idea of calling him on my cell phone, but realized I’d left my phone by the bed in the store when I’d taken a nap.

I was turning around to retrieve my phone when I realized I had no pants on. I was annoyed.

A real alarm clock returned me to waking life for a real, scheduled phone call. I then got a text message from the person I was to speak with telling me they were in a different time zone from what I had twice confirmed, and that I had missed their call.

I suspected this person thought more of themselves than was justified, and I was fed up with their inattention to my repeated clarification of our time zones. I wrote back that they could reschedule if they wanted, with the implication that if they didn’t, I wouldn’t.

You might say that each dream element meant something, but that would mistake the forest for the trees, or the path for the context. Most people are looking for a path and consider the dream to be directive. They are indifferent to the changing landscape as long as they feel they are continuing on a path.

But dreams are all about the context. The path is almost irrelevant; it’s the changing landscape that holds the meaning. My dreams are the formation of my attitudes and emotions. They are collages of emotions, not statement written in symbols. Even nightmares are less about the threats that appear, and more about your central spiritual power.

Resolving Dreams

You don’t resolve dreams any more than you resolve life. Dreams are more lifelike than your personality. Your personality is the vehicle you’ve constructed to travel in life, but your dreams are the life you travel through.

I now live on the West Coast. I see first hand people’s obsession with cars, which is much greater in the West than it was on the East Coast. I don’t know why this is so, why it’s so obvious, or why people are so clueless in their obsessions, but then my social circle does not include any car nuts.

People’s obsession with cars feels similar to their obsession with their personalities, and everyone I know is obsessed with their personalities. It’s fair to say that as a therapist, most of my clients are neurotically obsessed with their personalities. They spend their time polishing their image and freak out at the thought of a scratch.

For the clinical counselor, most people are obsessive personalities. These people need to calm down, grow up, and develop some skin. Boundaries are a big issue, and a balance between calm and vigilance is missing. They drive their personalities over life’s dirt road like a car with failed shock absorbers, bouncing between the extremes of their suspension.

For most people, Mindful Meditation would be a helpful practice if they could stick to it. Most people don’t know their personalities have either a neutral gear or a state of being parked. Look to our culture for an explanation: rush, rush, bye, bye, consume. Fast food, fast money, fast relationships. Cute mice that grow into predatory cattle, and artificial intelligence that is not intelligent at all, it just attaches other people’s old ideas to your desire for new ones.

The science of dreams is not about what’s in dreams, it’s what is missing from them. Dreams symbolize what’s missing more than what’s present. To study them is to look at what their symbols cannot describe, not what they contain. And how are you going to build a science on that?


Kahn, D., & Hobson, J. A. (2003). Dreaming and hypnosis as altered states of the brain-mind, Sleep and Hypnosis, 5(2): 58-71. Retrieved from: https://www.sleepandhypnosis.org/ing/Pdf/8365c49769944e359320fab7a052d933.pdf

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