Language-Based Narrative Structure in Dreams
Monday, October 4, 2010 at 3:14PM
Z Elwood

I believe in Freud’s fundamental theory of dreams: that all dreams are a wish fulfillment in one form or another. I also believe his ideas about the large role language plays in dreams. While the jury is out (potentially forever) on the concept of dreams as wish fulfillments, I think most modern psychologists recognize the central role that language and words play in dreams (and in psychological disturbances, which have a lot in common with dreams).

My ideas in this short essay have to do with the major role that language plays in dreams. I think it’s entirely possible that words and our use of language are the root core of dreams. I think it’s possible that our visual memory of dreams is actually an illusion: a covering up of what are abstract concepts and words—things that have no visual form. (It’s entirely possible these thoughts have been voiced somewhere else, but I have not done extensive research on similar trains of thought.)

My dream centered around a group of women who were vacationing at a mountain resort house. They had committed a crime, likely killing a man or several men—it was unclear. A detective arrived in the story to investigate what was going on at the house. The women had all arranged their stories before hand to cover their guilt.

One of the women sat in the front room of the house with a large amount of some sort of candy on a table in front of her. The female shopkeeper, who was potentially in on the plot, said that she and the woman had never seen each other before.

The detective found this strange because the candy-dispensing machine where the woman got her candy was right beside the front desk where the shopkeeper would be located (or at least wouldn’t travel far from). Not only that, there was a bell on the candy-dispensing machine that rang every time it dispensed candy. If the woman had used the candy-dispensing machine to get as much candy as she had in front of her, she would have rung the bell several times, which would have surely alerted the shopkeeper at the front counter. All of this pointed to the fact that the women were lying in saying they had never met each other before.

This was the gist of the “scene”; that the women were lying. If you were to think of the dream as a narrative plot, then the elements of the candy-dispensing machine, the candy, and even the shopkeeper, were all just a narrative device to move the dream in the direction of them being found out. (I won’t go into the entire contents of the dream or the complete dream analysis, but these elements were of very minor importance.)

The dream was pretty standard and would have passed without notice except that I happened to wake up right at the moment the detective caught on that something wasn’t right. My impression on being awoken was that the whole plot point centering on the candy did not exist up until a few moments before I awoke. I could remember the previous part of the dream and knew that these elements were not part of the narrative flow of the dream.

At the moment when the narrative device (the detective realizing the women were lying) was needed, these elements were created. Not only were they created, they were weaved into the past narrative structure of the dream. In other words, information in the dream was effectively being moved backwards in time.

If I hadn’t awoken when I did and continued on with the dream to its conclusion, I doubtless wouldn’t have thought twice about it. The subplot about the woman with her candy and the detective making his deduction would have been just another narrative step in the dream, and it would all have seemed chronologically coherent.

Dream scholars will be aware of the nature of compression in time in dreams, and know that sometimes complex dreams that seem to take hours can occur within a very short span of real-time. Freud likened this process not to a dream-time that operated much faster than real-time (a theory demonstrated in the recent movie Inception), but to the idea of pre-existing scenes, clichés, and fantasies saved up in the dreamer’s mind that can sometimes be activated easily. An analogy from Freud would be to hearing the opening bars to a favorite song—you don’t have to hear the whole song for that whole song to effectively enter your mental space. You don’t have to hear the whole song at its complete running length to have the entire song flash in your mind.

So perhaps it’s not surprising to dream scholars that a dream, which is far from linear, would be capable of a similar compression when it comes to injecting a needed scene backwards into the dream narrative. (In my case, it was quite ready-made; the detective who spots something amiss and breaks the case—who hasn’t seen that scene many times in books, movies, and tv? The only elements needed were the weird specifics of the situation: the candy and the candy dispenser, which no doubt came from my previous day’s thoughts.) Perhaps other people have noticed this phenomenon—it was new to me and I hadn’t read about it in Freud’s work.

The second thing of interest that occurred to me was that the work that the dream did in putting that narrative information in the past was similar to the kind of work that different tenses of language do in a narrative text.

Let’s say you were forced to write a story without being able to stop or go back to edit (which is actually a good analogy for what dreaming is). But let’s say you reached a point where you knew you needed to have something happen in the past of the story to make what you’re writing now make sense. What would you write? You’d write something like: “A few minutes ago she had walked over and gotten some candy from the candy dispenser next to the shopkeeper’s counter. She had taken some candy and walked over to a table and sat down.” You would switch to a different tense (in this case, past perfect tense) to communicate something in the past and then you would return to a regular tense like past tense or present tense (present tense is a better analogy for dreams).

Okay, you might think it’s a good analogy, but my thought was what if it is not an analogy at all? What if our dreams actually used different tenses and language structures in this manner? What if our dreams are all language interpreted by another part of our brains as visions? Or else interpreted only in our memory as visions? Freud points out many instances of the role of words and word play in his books, but he doesn’t make the leap that it is solely language at the root of everything.

I would like to investigate this idea in more depth. It seems a very testable hypothesis. For one, I’d like to read about the dreams of blind people. They don’t have vision, so how would they describe their dreams? Then maybe you’d study people with various language deficiencies (maybe brain trauma to language centers) to see what their dreams are like. I’m sure there’s many other studies you could do and I’m just touching the surface.

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