Dreams, Time, and Human Primates

Jacob's Dream by Adam ElsheimerLike other animals, we humans dream when we’re asleep.  Unlike every other animal in the world (as far as we know), humans can think about the future, and things that are far away. Unlike other animals, we can think abstractly. That makes our dreams into something more.

Through language, we are capable of thinking about times that are not now, and places that are not here. These features of language are described as “displacement.”*

Linguistic displacement refers to our ability to use language to talk about things that happen in other times and places. It is by using this feature that we can talk about last Tuesday (not now), or the moon (not here). Without language, we’re limited to referring to things that are in our sphere of sensation using the good old “grunt and point” method.

Words from the Subconscious

Sleeping Dog (French) by Théodule Devéria
It’s Better to Let Sleeping Dogs Dream

We’ve all seen or heard about our best friend, Fido the dog, dreaming. In his dream, he runs (we think), and we watch the cuteness as his legs go back and forth–all while he sleeps on his bed.

Does Fido dream in words? No. Dogs can develop a significant catalog of  words they understand. But they don’t think in words. Even when they understand them, there’s no sign that they are using language in the complex ways that humans are. A dog might understand “walk” or “car” but doesn’t understand “Sunday night poker game.”

But because humans are the animals that talk and think in language, our dreams become more complicated. Our subconscious doesn’t just provide us with scenarios, like Fido chasing a rabbit in his dreams.  Instead, it speaks to us. Of course, this is our subconscious, so the dreams don’t always make sense…but if we think about social interactions, sometimes even our friends don’t always make perfect sense.

Nonetheless, dreams can give us a path of communication with the subconscious. Here, I’m referring to the parts of the mind that aren’t part of our usual consciousness. In my experience, we remember everything that we sense–but often can’t recall all of that information. It’s not a matter of memory, but of knowing how to recall the information.

Arguably, what we experience as intuition–or the prompting of the subconscious–is actually the mind processing information that doesn’t fit into our usual schemas or at least processing information in the absence of those schemas. Dreams can be one of the ways that we open the bridge between the conscious and subconscious minds.

BUT, if the intuition is the mind working with information that doesn’t fit into schemas, then it is necessarily much more difficult to think about these experiences in organized ways.

Language and Dreams

Dreams might give us a bit of a window into what being a human without language would be like. The links that we make are not entirely bound by the rational mind. In a dream, maybe we fly, and our father is also our sixth-grade math teacher. Dream interpretation revolves around finding the links that the mind is trying to make.

Subconscious by Goyamaduer
The subconscious is just another part of the self–and is just as capable of self-deception as the rest of us.

The subconscious mind isn’t any more focused than the conscious mind, so we shouldn’t take it too seriously. Sometimes the subconscious, like the conscious, just wants to be entertained. Have you ever had dreams that amounted to nothing more than what we’d see in a movie? Sure, we could say that the subconscious is “highlighting our need for adventure” but it would be just as valid to say that the “subconscious was watching TV.”

In Western culture, when we talk about the subconscious at all, we are heavily influenced by the early Freudians, who took the subconscious very, very seriously. But stepping back from how important it seemed to the people who discovered it, we can see it as just another part of the self. We can accept it as part of ourselves without reifying or denying it.

We shouldn’t ignore our dreams. But that doesn’t mean we should always believe them! If we can take them in context, and with a grain of salt, then they can open us up to communication with other parts of the self.

* The linguistic principal of displacement  shouldn’t be confused with the more commonly known “displacement” from psychology–distancing ourselves from something we’re feeling ourselves.


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