Symbolism of Dreams

Symbolism of Dreams


While the meaning of some dreams seems fairly straightforward, as in the case of dreams that recount our daily activities and experiences, other dreams are confusing and appear meaningless. If we hypothesize that all—or even many—are ultimately meaningful, then it is clear that we need some method of translating or interpreting them.

Dreams seem illogical and bizarre because they do not follow what, in waking life, is rational language. One characteristic of dreams is that they frequently seem to speak in a language of symbols and images. This appears to arise from the brain’s subdivision into linear-linguistic (left) and associative-imagistic (right) hemispheres. While most of the daylight thinking and communication takes place in terms of the left hemisphere modes, during sleep both hemispheres are active, resulting in dreams that are a mixture of these two thinking styles. When the right hemisphere is active, it will express itself in terms of symbols and images. Thus, if we are passing through a period of time when we feel that we are “damming up” our feelings, we might have a dream about a dam overflowing and breaking open—a concrete symbol of what we are experiencing.

Psychotherapists have approached dreams as communications that reveal something about the contents of the unconscious mind. Sigmund Freud described a linking device in dreams called similarity, wherein a person, place, or thing resembles or invokes something in the dreamer’s waking life. Often these associations are ambiguous. Frequently, they are repressed, buried, or forgotten, making it all the more confusing to decipher upon waking. Freud also viewed dreams as the arena in which we act out socially unacceptable urges, particularly sexual and aggressive urges. Thus, a dream in which a crane is lowered into a well might be interpreted as a sexual act, with the crane symbolizing the male and the well representing the female.

Other depth psychologists, such as Carl Jung, broke out of Freud’s seeming obsession with sex to view dreams as containing symbols, which are representations of a larger complex of motivations. For example, circles were symbols of the deep self and symbolized, particularly in dreams, the quest for growth and self-integration.

Contemporary dream researchers have found that individuals develop specific dream patterns; that dreamers consistently use and reuse the same symbols within their individual dream landscapes. This manifestation is called internal consistency. Dream researchers Calvin Hall and Vernon Nordby have identified the most common form of this pattern as relative consistency. Each individual will dream of the same objects—dogs, windows, horses—more or less frequently, depending upon her individual landscape. Whether one dreamer often dreams of dogs, while another will frequently dream of, say, riding a horse, these patterns will remain consistent over time.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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Warren's interest in the symbolism of dreams was steady throughout his career, but in his later poetry, especially in the collection Now and Then (1978), his interest becomes nearly obsessive.