It’s All A Metaphor: Dreams, Memory, Language and Stories (Part I)

Why care about dreams?

Dream interpretation has been a mystical art for thousands of years, and yet dreams, as they appear to us (when we remember them), look absurd. They do not follow logical, rational rules, conforming to laws of physics and social norms in the way that our more conscious mental activity does. For this reason we often dismiss them as meaningless or, if they are to have a meaning, we assume it to be something superficial and obvious: a dream about floating above a sandy beach must be something about that vacation and we give no thought to any further, “hidden” meanings latent as symbols or motifs within those thoughts. But there are very good reasons to look a bit deeper before dismissing their importance.

All of our waking thoughts have causes in our experience and in the external world, and we have no reason to assume that dreams, unlike all other psychic activity, are an exception to this rule, arising from the void and firing away with our synapses arbitrarily, creating sensations and emotions for reasons science has yet to discover. After all, no one dreams of things they have not already sensed; even “new” dreams, upon closer examination, are always composites of other thoughts, and while unusual combinations of sensations can give the dreamer the feeling of newness–for instance, a feeling of elation while cutting off one’s own hand–the independent parts always come from previous experience. What the underlying cause of the dream is may be discovered by exploring the context of the individual’s life. Here, the skeptic may reasonably point out that the origins of our dreams in prior experience gives us no real reason to take any special interest in them; after all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Flying over sandy beaches may be a vision induced by a family vacation from many summers ago, simply being re-lived by the rambling subconscious. But we have more discreet experiences throughout a given day than we can count, and vivid dreams will draw upon only a very select few of these. How are these selections made? It is eminently more reasonable to suppose there is some mechanism for selection, rather than random chance, and within this mysterious mechanism lies the latent possibility of usefulness in dream interpretation. This is a fairly standard psychoanalytic justification for taking an interest in dreams, and for guessing that we might learn things about ourselves by paying careful attention to them.

After examining thousands upon thousands of individual cases, the early psychoanalysts (namely Freud and his school) came to believe that dreams were the mind’s metaphors for subconscious desires, and that the dreamer would subconsciously enact its desires symbolically, rather than literally. While many dreams may confound successful interpretation, and the time-constraints of life will keep all but professionals from analyzing every single dream they have, there have been enough cases of dreams corresponding closely to the life and desires of the dreamer to believe confirmation bias is no longer a sufficient explanation for the dream, especially given the dream’s otherwise arbitrary (and therefore un-harmonious) nature. For myself, I can clearly recall one particularly illustrative dream that corresponded to suspicions and fears I had not wanted to face at the time:

I was swimming in the flooded streets of the suburbs, a close friend rowing a boat behind me. The streets were jungle-like, with tropical trees arching over blue currents where school buses and minivans once drove. I saw a beautiful leopard lying on a branch hanging low over the river-street, with a fur coat that seemed to shimmer stretched over its’ muscular body. I swam closer to it, and it suddenly snarled and leaped in the water and began swimming towards me; I had evidently forgotten that such creatures were dangerous. It could not swim fast enough to catch me, but I could not swim fast enough to put more than a few feet of distance between us.

This dream occurred about two weeks before my girlfriend, whom I had quit my job and moved across the country to be with, broke up with me, precipitating several months of depression. The underlying fear here, and its’ probable origins in body-language picked up beneath the threshold of consciousness, needs no further elaboration.

The psychoanalytic explanation for why metaphor is needed was because the described desire may be morally or emotionally impermissible for the conscious mind to acknowledge. The subconscious somehow recognizes this and artistically encodes the dream-simulated fulfillment of this desire into a language that does not outrage the conscious mind. Interpretation of these dreams by seeking out what is represented by the “manifest content” can then make the dreamer more aware of their own drives, motives, and problems, and then figure out how to overcome them or live according to them.

But there is a kind of contradiction here: the notion of dreams having their meaning repressed and manifested indirectly in order to protect the conscious, moral mind from unconscious, amoral desires, is very often at odds with actual dream content. People sometimes have horrifying dreams, involving rape, mutilation, and murder, often of themselves or loved ones. The absolute worst, of course, are when it is the dreamer who is the rapist, torturer, or killer, perhaps also of a loved one. Where is the subconscious’s recognition of the moral sensitivities of the conscious brain here? These dreams may very well be symbolic themselves, but if the brain cannot directly face uncomfortable underlying desires, than we would have even less reason to believe that the brain could handle uncomfortable experiences expressing those desires, and the Freudian explanation for why the “censor” shrouds the latent desire of the dreamer in symbols is clearly insufficient.

Before talking more about dreams though, it’s first necessary to understand the nature of language.

Metaphor as Language

Human experience is always happening now, in the present moment. There is no sensation we can feel in the past or in the future; in order to anticipate experiences to come, we must remember experiences from the past, and in order to remember experiences, we must somehow code sensory experience into information that we can either store or communicate to others. The information itself is not the experience, just as–to borrow an old metaphor–the map is not the territory. Linguists will sometimes talk of thought as originating in a kind of mental language, “mentalese,” before being translated into English, Chinese, a mathematical equation, or maybe a painting to be communicated to others. It should be stressed here that this translation is a conscious process, one that requires awareness and thought. In this way, language serves as an intermediary–a metaphor–for the substance of original sensation.

Speaking of all language as metaphorical is less hyperbolic than you may think. The first words were onomatopoeic in nature, sounds standing in as models–metaphors–for what they were representing. It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture how some ancestor might have said “howl-woof ack moo trot;” The wolf (howling dog) killed our cow. Confusion and repetition combined to create a system of mutually understood sounds that represented objects, and it was only natural that once these early “words” had been established, more complex ideas were expressed by metaphorical association. The old Sanskrit word “asmi” literally meant “to breath,” but in common use meant “is.” One can see not only the etymological origins of words like “asthma” and its’ plausible onomatopoeic origins, but also the fundamental nature of human expression through comparison. (Another Sanskrit example: “bhu,” originally “to grow,” translates as “to be”). All the rest of language can be built up like metaphorical onion-layers around these first verbal references.

The incredible speed with which infants can pick up very complex languages gives us reason to believe humans have a “language instinct,” and studies by Noam Chomsky show that we are equipped from birth with an innate grasp of grammar that, before being taught, allows children armed with rudimentary nouns and/or verbs to give negations (“toy” to “no toy”), ask questions (“toy” to “toy?”) differentiate between singulars and plurals (“toy” to “toys”), etc. Without this genetic priming, acquiring languages would be extraordinarily difficult, as attempting to learn second and third languages after the early stages of life shows.

So if we have a pre-installed grasp of grammar, might we also have a natural instinct for metaphor? Somewhere between Wernicke’s Area, the Amygdala, and the Hippocampus lies what we might call the “Bardic Area,” the part of the brain, or perhaps the collection of pathways between the aforementioned three regions, responsible for the inclination and the ability to describe things in terms of other things. The fact that others will often understand us when we do describe things in models, metaphors, allegories, and parables is itself evidence that such a region may exist, and that it is vital in our command not only of communication, but of memory.

A Digression on the Nature of Memory

Memory does not function as a sort of camera, snapping photographs of our experiences as we live them and then filing them away in a drawer somewhere near the back of our pre-frontal cortex. In fact, there are techniques for developing what one might call a “photographic” memory, and these techniques are worth exploring in order to better understand the nature of memory, language, and dreams.

In his book Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer describes learning an ancient technique called the “memory palace” for rapidly and accurately storing information. The learner imagines a building, preferably one that is complex with unique rooms, and as he is perceiving the new information, he places it in rooms in his mental palace, converting abstract information, which we are not naturally very good at utilizing, into spatial information, which we are very good at utilizing. But in order to really make use of this technique, the information is not stored directly into the rooms: first, it is converted into something that will bring the information to mind. The title of his book, for instance, is drawn from a system of visually encoding playing card combinations (very abstract) into visual images like moonwalking with Albert Einstein in his parents’ bedroom (very concrete). In other words, the technique for achieving superhuman feats of memory is a technique of metaphor translation.

Memory for the rest of us mere mortals actually follows a similar path, although it is less structured. In the process of perceiving the world around us, our attention is drawn to things that are abnormal. If all of our walls are white, and if there is no particular reason for us to pay attention to the walls, than we cease perceiving them at all. We still see them–we don’t run into them, after all–but they do not take up any more of our conscious attention than does the mental effort to breathe. Navigating our hallway without flattening our nose on the drywall is no different than putting forward conscious effort in exerting motor control to your nose with your finger. You don’t have to think about it, it just happens. And without the prerequisite attention, there is no memory created.

Except that it seems as though memory is created, because we remember that the walls were white when we passed by them this morning. This is because memory is retrospectively reconstructive. If we find ourselves in need of remembering what color the walls were, we refer to other memories that did capture our attention–perhaps the first time you saw the wall, or maybe the rush you felt worrying you might be late to work as you quickly walked down the white(?) hallway. With these in mind, we quickly construct a model of what color the wall should be based upon our other memories, and to our conscious brain, it is as though we actually noticed it on the way out. This system of memory has its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to small, gradual changes to things the perceiver has grown accustomed to. If you smoke, your white wall might gradually turn more and more yellow, and you might not notice the difference at all until you go away for a vacation and come back three weeks later (staying in a hotel with immaculately white walls) and discover that strangely, the walls are not the color you remember them being. Did they always look so yellow? But in spite of these drawbacks, it’s generally a wonderful thing that our brain filters these things mundane details out so that we can get the relevant and important information from our surroundings (for example, an attacker coming at you with a knife) quickly without having to wade through an impenetrable wall of sensation overload.

The Problem of Dream Liquidity

With a basic understanding of language, memory, and the function of memory, we can now return to the mysterious function of Freud’s “censor,” which was presumed to symbolically encode suppressed desires in allusions and metaphor to protect our poor, moral conscious from the dark, amoral unconscious. If the dream’s purpose is to alert us to this, than it appears to do a very poor job, given how incredibly difficult it is to remember them. Dreams are usually very much out of the ordinary bounds of everyday experience–one does not usually go off to save kittens from Hellfire on a rope-swing on the morning commute. Such an experience, however fantastical, should be the very essence of “memorable.” So why do we rarely ever remember our dreams?

But why should we assume, as Freud does, that all dreams are expressions of subconscious desires? There are other valuable purposes our sleeping brain can serve in fashioning us with these hallucinations other than merely informing us for a brief few seconds of what our subconscious desires are. As we coin new words to more accurately describe new objects, the “censor” may very well be identical to this “bardic region” I have described, taking our unconscious emotions, which might or might not be desires, and giving us metaphorical ways to capture and describe this emotion.

I will illustrate this with another dream I had several years ago, in a context which I no longer remember, but with an accompanying sensation that, oddly, approached that of a nightmare:

There is a digitally-rendered wire-frame man. He is jogging on a treadmill, going slowly. There is no sound. But gradually, in a strobe-like progression, the man begins to run faster. Then he is running faster, faster. As the images flash across the screen of my mind, his legs show him running exponentially faster, and he appears to be running past the speed of sound, past the speed of light. At some point, the wire-frame man is running so fast that my brain cannot keep up, and I jolt awake with my head spinning.

Perhaps there is some hidden desire in this dream, which returned on multiple occasions, but the more plausible-sounding and simple explanation is that it was a metaphorical expression of an emotion I was feeling for which I, like the first humans trying to express what it meant for something to “exist,” lacked the precise language to describe.

The problem of dream liquidity then–why dreams are so difficult to remember–is that dreams are an original expression of “mentalese,” experienced without the benefit of that real-time coder and translator, consciousness. In that short window of hypnotic time between being sleep and being fully awake, our consciousness is engaging enough to allow us to translate dreams from our metaphor-generating bardic region into something that we can remember and communicate with others, but does so without filling in the gaps of memory with retroactive assumptions of its contents, the normal pattern of “logical,” deductive memory which functions in full-consciousness and which destroy the feeling of the dream itself.

To be continued in Part II

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