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On Dreams and Dreaming

Symbolic Dreams

Are all dreams symbolic, metaphysical? How much of dream symbolism is universal, and how much is personal?

Dr. Garfield: Dreams are kind of picture thinking, if you will. It's initiated in an older part of the brain, and the images seem to speak to that part of the brain. Like reading a wonderful poet, we're all poets in our brain, we're creating images out of emotions. If you feel like a relationship is really in trouble, instead of dreaming you're having trouble with that person in the relationship, you're more likely to dream about an earthquake, things are breaking up. We express ourselves in dreams in these metaphors that are expressions of our feelings literal expressions. It's poetry really.

We are expressing ourselves in these images that say more than we could say by just repeating pictures of what happens in day-to-day life. So much of dreaming is symbolic, and metaphoric, but of course not all. There can be quite literal messages that come in our dreams, like wanting to slow down or be careful or to just not do something. They can be very direct but they do tend to come in this symbolic package, and so it's important for us to understand our own inner language, which is what it is.

To a certain extent I think there are certain universal symbols that all human beings share, because our bodies are basically the same, and experiences that we share with all humans are very similar. So that much of it is fairly common and yet, there are these variations that are fairly cultural. We have to look at these as levels of dreaming: there's the part that is universal, there's the part that is the cultural, then there's the part that's truly personal something that gives the image in the dream a specific personal meaning. This is why when you're working with someone you have to question the dreamer about the images and not just make assumptions. You can know what that usually means, or people in the past have found that this is such-and-such, but need to know what it means to that dreamer, and then you can say something more or less intelligent.