Link to Wired (UK) article on dream memory and first names

Is it Legendary or just Urban Legend? Myth-checking and Dreamtime

We’ve heard these for a long time: “If you are falling in a dream and you don’t wake up before you hit the ground, you die.” Or, dreaming about something good is wish fulfillment, dreaming about something bad means it is going to happen. What about this one, encountered a lot recently: “You can only dream about people you’ve met at some point in your life.” And then there are people who dream of death and are certain it is so.ZeusPedimentOlympia

First, while we are mythbusting, let’s acknowledge “myth” suffers from bad press. It has gotten a bum rap. In modern times, to call something a myth is almost the same as saying it is an empty lie with no kernel of truth hidden within. At least in the arena of mythology, there are some truths represented that are so fundamental we see them in culture after culture. The God Hermes (Mercury) in Greece (Rome) embodies the same dynamics as “Coyote” in Southwest Native American tradition and “Loki” in Norse myth. Most Shamanic practitioners in varied indigenous cultures (e,g,, Siberian, Inuit and Yupic Eskimo, Korean, Chilean Yaghan people, and Shinto) also carry that trickster or shape-shifting quality. The I Ching or Chinese Book of Changes is actually a study in noticing the difference between masculine and feminine qualities, and applying it in such a disciplined way that it rings true in the 21st century AD as to qualities in politics, marriage, pride, family, and power.   If the Greek Pantheon and the I Ching had nothing in its core that was true, it would have marched to obsolescence faster than “Windows 95 for Dummies” or the 8 track tape player in your 1978 Pontiac Firebird.

With dreams, it has been a question at least since Homer’s time, which ones are true and which ones are hollow? Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, has a dream that he is about to return after a 20 year absence. She does not now whether to trust it, tell Odysseus in disguise,

For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them. But in my case it was not from thence, methinks, that my strange dream came.

So the ‘gates of horn and ivory’ have become a watchword for saying some portentous dreams ring true and others do not. So let’s take just a few myths about dreamtime and see if we can set the record straight:

Myth # 5: Everyone dreams every night, we just don’t always remember those dreams:

Fact or Fiction? Fact. Dream recall depends on a variety of factors, there are high recallers and low recallers. But REM sleep studies show nearly everyone has the brain activity each night associated with dreaming. This is actually one of those myths that has emerged from the last 60 years of sleep study into the popular consciousness.

Dream memory ~ Wired UK article link

Myth # 4: Every person or object in a dream is a part of the self of the dreamer

Yes, No, or Maybe so? As a therapist, this myth has lots of appeal and it is hard not to count the number of times using this as a theoretical framework allowed a dreamer to achieve some tremendous inner work. The working theory is that dreamtimeO'Neill National Puppetry Conference: 20 Years RemixedIn honor of the 20th Anniversary of the National Puppetry Conference at the O’Neill, a new celebratory ensemble project will be created.  It will be directed by Richard Termine; Marianne Kubick and is the stage, and every actor and  prop is a part of the dreamer’s personality. But to endorse this entirely is to limit dreams in a number of ways. First, it compacts dreams solely into the psychological realm. The problem here is that if you are dreaming of experiencing a pain in the neck and a character in the dream is your mother-in-law, it’s a short step to a psychological solution. But what if (and this happens a great deal) the physical symptom in the dream is related to the body, and not a psychological representation? It is also important to rule out or confirm the physical basis for dreams. And if you believe dreams can have spiritual dimensions larger than just the dreamer and their inner life, psychologizing the dream short changes the dreamer of larger meaning. If Robert Louis Stevenson had psychologized his “Mr. Hyde” character simply as part of his shadow that needed greater psychological light, we would have missed out on a great novella. Instead, he took the dream behind the Dr. Jekyll story, and followed his muse. So to pretend the model works sometimes is helpful, but there is no hard and fast rule here.

Myth # 3: A dream that feels real is true, and those that seem crazy are just hogwash.

Yea or Nay?  This one may seem intuitive, but in fact it may be the opposite that is true. Real-life, specific events that unfold in dreamtime with realistic detail generally do not come true, and often actually point to larger and more general patterns. Unless you are Edgar Cayce, the specific dream situations or outcomes fail more often than not. Those dreams that seem to last all night and involve half of the planet, when unpacked, sometimes seem to have some simple and concrete take-home messages for the dreamer. The bizarre just needs some translation to the mundane.

Myth # 2: If you dream your own death, you actually die in your sleep:

Yes or No?  What I always (and I do not use that word lightly,) always think when I hear that is: How would we know? “Yep,” says our pal Lazarus, “I am one of those guys who had that dream, that-s how I died!” The reverse is true: We hear many dreams of people who were falling and hit the ground and, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, woke up still alive the next day. Andgroundhogday people who dreamed they contracted cancer and did not, or the dream I had about age 20 that I was crop dusting and got caught in a pesticide updraft, and had three weeks to live. I am not a pilot, but I woke up being grateful for my family and the little things in life! Nearly every family has someone within it who is known for having prophetic dreams of death of relatives or loved ones; those often seem to be family matriarchs and somewhat spiritual people – at least in the reports I have had – and there is a noetic quality about those dreams that is more peaceful than the panicked or upset and urgent dreams based in fear. For a good study of dreams of people at end of life care, consult Marie Louise von Franz On Dreams and Death, or Patricia Bulkley’s essay in Among All These Dreamers on pre-death spiritual experiences.

Myth # 1:

Eating spicy foods ensures you will have a nightmare:
John Henry Fuseli ~ The Nightmare
Fuseli’s 18th Century Depiction of a Nightmare. Notice the middle-ages belief of the imp or devil on the chest trying to catch the breath of the dreamer; this is explained well in modern times through study and treatment for sleep apnea. The horse or “mare” is a depiction of the other (erroneous) impression of “Mara.” The root of -mara in “nightmare” has nothing to do with the horse. The -mara root is fromt he Old English Old English mare “incubus, nightmare, monster,” from mera, mære, from Proto-Germanic *maron “goblin” (cf. Middle Low German mar, Middle Dutch mare, Old High German mara, German Mahr “incubus,” Old Norse mara “nightmare, incubus”), from proto-ondo- European *mer- “to rub away, harm” in many clultures developed into “incubus” (cf. Bulgarian, Serbian mora, Czech mura, Polish zmora “incubus;” also connected to root attached to modern English ‘murder’ and ‘morbid.’

Truth or Consequence? In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge is first visited by the Ghost of Jacob Marley. He goes straight to explaining away Marley’s presence. “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” There was also a Gomer Pyle Episode in which Gomer’s consumption of Welsh Rarebit caused him to sleepwalk and level his true feelings to people.

So part of the answer here may be that indigestion may arouse people in the night, which can help with dream recall, but your combination pizza (to paraphrase Kelly Bulkeley) has no more to do with your dream content than the mailman has to do with the content of the mail he brought you today. So it may be a mixed bag; spicy foods may get you up in the night, and whether your dream had negative or positive  content, you are more likely to recall it because you were in and out of sleep. There is no proven substance to the belief it will induce nightmares.




Cropped Waterhouse-sleep_and_his_half-brother_death-1874

Taking Notes in Night School: How to Remember your Dreams

Taking Notes in Night School: How to Remember your Dreams

“I don’t dream,” or “I never remember my dreams” are things I hear often. This is not resistance to sharing dreams as much as it is frustration from people who want to remember more of their dreams. Most people are aware that we dream nightly, and the National Institute of Health estimates we dream more than two hours each night.  But for many, unless they are awakened during a REM cycle, they may not recall dreams at all, or may remember the more mundane dreams than if they were awakened during the night while dreaming. In fact, a HuffPo review of a recent study reported that “high recallers” generally were awake in the night twice as much as the average people who have difficulty recalling more than one or two dreams a month.  There is some evidence that we do not need to remember the dream content in order to be helped by the dream. Nonetheless, we’ll get to some hints about remembering dreams, but first, a little science review is in order.

The Science of Sleep and Dreams

The kickoff to modern dream research started with the work of Dr. Eugene Aserinsky and his mentor, Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman, who co-published a paper in 1953 on rapid eye movement. It is doubtful that either at the time understood the impact of their findings on sleep and dream research. Since funding streams did not recognize the potential, it was many years later before this research took off and Dr. Aserinsky actually left the field for a number of years. His colleague, W. C. Dement, continued to work and publish in the area of dreams, and eventually coaxed Dr. Aserinsky back into the field. In perhaps the ultimate irony, Dr. Aserinsky died by falling asleep at the wheel, and was killed in a car crash in Carlsbad, CA at the age of 77 – a little less than 50 years after his seminal research. So let that be a reminder to us all – do NOT deny the god Hypnos when he strikes us at the wheel, or we might meet his brother, Thanatos.

Cropped Waterhouse-sleep_and_his_half-brother_death-1874
John William Waterhouse, Hypnos and Thanatos (1874)

 Quick tips on Dream Memory

William Sharp, Professor of Psychology at Wheelock College, developed a useful list while at Rider University years ago:

Dr. William Sharp of Wheelock College, Boston
Dr. William Sharp
  • Relax – keep telling yourself you will remember dreams
  • On awakening write down the first word that pops into mind
  • If stuck, start your journal with an old dream you remember

Dr. Stephen Aizenstat, author of Dreamtending and leader of workshops nationally and internationally, breaks down the steps a bit further on this video link, or, recorded slightly differently in a workshop he gave some 15 years ago:

Stephen Aizenstat2
Stephen Aizenstat
Chancellor and Founding President
Pacifica Graduate Institute


  • Invocation:  Invite the dream to come; bring an open attitude to dealing with the parts of yourself expressed in the dream
  • Preparation, keep pen & paper handy – you’re going to “night school”
  • Work with last dream you remember as a means of meeting the dreaming psyche where it lives
  • Converse with your psyche about dream recall: (e.g.,”I wasn’t there then… but I’m here now. . .”)
  • LAST RESORT:  Order a combination pizza at bedtime – you will dream vividly!



Additional Comments: Most people who journal dreams regularly take a notepad or iPad to bed with them and journal, if inspired, in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning. We may forget up to 95% of our dreams if not tended to upon awakening, and the earlier we start writing, the clearer the images remain with us and the more detail will emerge. It is often in the detail, and even in the “little people of dreams” that the most helpful information or medicine breaks forth. Many people use a special journal, colors for writing, and may copy the dreams over to closer align with the actual order of the dream. One final hint, “don’t knock it ’til you try it.” This really s as easy as starting the process and letting the process take it from there. Relax!

Modern Sleep Research and Dreams

The more that dream research gets out of the hands of practitioners who work daily with people and their dreams, the more brittle the writing gets. The following snippet of a dream paper by J. Allan Hobson, one of the more respected names in positivist dream research, gives a strong hint at why this writer prefers books and monographs of clinical experience over current reductionist sleep research:

It is thus clear that enhanced dopaminergic transmission can reduce as well as enhance dreaming. If dopamine were running the dream show via its stimulation of the mesolimbic reward system, wouldn’t we expect a predominance of elation and other positive emotions in dreams? In contrast, it is often negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, which predominate in normal dreaming (e.g., Merritt et al., 1994) while L-Dopa increases negative emotional content or enhances affectively neutral imagery (Hartmann et al., 1980; Nausieda et al., 1982). Fear and anxiety are mediated by the amygdala (LeDoux, 1996), a structure also active in REM (Braun et al., 1997; Maquet et al., 1996), which again points away from the mesolimbic reward system and toward other limbic circuits in the mediation of dreaming. We suspect that a wide variety of drug-induced disruptions of normal neuromodulatory balance may lead to alterations in dreaming and that normal dreaming cannot be attributed to any single neuromodulatory system. For example, there are decreases in both serotonergic and noradrenergic functioning in Parkinson’s disease (Valldeorriola et al., 1997; Narabayashi, 1999) which may, in turn, enhance dreaming during REM by further decreasing the attenuated serotonergic and noradrenergic inhibition of cholinergic activation already occurring at this stage of sleep (Hobson, Stickgold, and Pace-Schott, 1998). (Nausieda et al., 1982, also suggested a role for serotonin in L-Dopa-enhanced dreaming.) In addition, induction of nightmares very commonly accompanies treatment with beta-blockers which postsynaptically attenuate noradrenergic neurotransmission (Thompson and Pierce, 1999) further supporting our proposed mediation of dream effects by aminergic-cholinergic interaction. Additional suggestion of cholinergic mediation in some drug-induced dream abnormalities are reports of nightmares associated with cholinesterase inhibitors such as donezipil and tacrine (PDR, 1999), enhanced dreaming by physostigmine (Sitaram, Moore, and Gillin, 1978), and the nightmares accompanying REM rebound during sedative withdrawal (Manfridi and Kales, 1987). In addition, sedating drugs (Gaillard and Phillippeau, 1976) as well as drugs with no known CNS effects (Thompson and Pierce, 1999) have been shown to induce nightmares.

Sorry to subject you to that; but for some folks, dreams are more about firing neurons and residual emotion than about meaning particular to an individual. This post shamelessly asserts that we all have neurons, they all fire with more or less the same frequency or effect, but that the images vary significantly from person to person because of their experience. When I read my own dream journals from the 1990s, I have a much more exact diary than if I had kept a memory book of events that occurred to me. My hope for those of you who start or renew dream journaling is that you will develop a body of work that  tells you what is “up” for you to pay attention to in your life, and that the journal itself will keep fresh for you the images that can help you move forward in your life.

Dry Drunks and Wet Dreams

Dry Drunks and Wet Dreams

This headline is admittedly a “Bait and Switch” routine. This post is really an exploration of whether drinking dreams (hence, wet in that sense) have anything to do with the absence of a viable recovery program, or, as it is sometimes referred to in the recovery rooms, a dry drunk. I was once in a 12 step meeting, listening to a woman with about 6 years sober describe a drinking dream. The next speaker, whom I have not seen since, flatly declared to the woman, “there’s something wrong with your program.” Apparently, the drinking dream seemed to be a bigger threat to the critic than to the dreamer. I spoke with the dreamer after the meeting to say how common these dreams appeared to be in my practice and in my life, although she was (gratefully) not fazed by the verbal assault from the critic.

The online recovery chat room archives host this question a lot: where do they come from, these drinking or using dreams? An unfailing and correct answer on that would have this writer on the banquet speaker and talk show circuits for years to come! However, a few themes seem to bear out among those who report using dreams: They are more frequent in early recovery, although they may not set in until 2-4 weeks in; They diminish in frequency over time, but not necessarily in realism; they are not prophetic, as most people in long term recovery experience them at some point without the relapse dream coming true. And finally, it seems like most of these drinking dream have “a way out” or at least some kind of medicine in the dream. These can be helpful hints which, if paid attention to, can strengthen the recovery efforts of the dream relapser. First, we’ll take a little medicine from Rumi on the question of where these things come from:

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and What am I supposed to be doing? 
My soul is from elsewhere, 
I'm sure of that, and I intend to end up there. 
This drunkenness began in some other tavern. When I get back around to that place, 
I will be completely sober. 

I'm like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary. 
The day is coming when I fly off, but who is it now in my ear, who hears my voice? 
Who says words with my mouth? Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul? 
I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out 
of this prison for drunks. 

I didn't come here of my own accord, and I can't leave that way. 
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.  

Now that certainly stands this question on its head! And in the end, it matters less where the dreams come from, and more about what we do with the information – and feelings – left in their wake.

Bench by Water

Frequency of Using Dreams in Early Recovery

First, the return of dreams (or even the flight of dreams) may depend largely on what someone was using and how long, as well as whether they have been placed on some detox or maintenance drug or mood stabilizers. It also depends mostly on recall ability, as we all have dream activity most of every night’s sleep. The bottom line is for a chemically dependent person, a change in sleep duration and quality logically follows a change in the chemistry of consumption. Sleep talking and sleep walking are sometimes early recovery occurrences even in persons with no documented history of either. Someone who used a lot of depressants, like alcohol or benzodiazepines, may not experience a lot of dreams in the first month of recovery. Someone detoxing from Heroin or other Opiates may report dreams soon and vividly, as their withdrawal symptoms seem to get them up more frequently in the night. Whether there is a delay or an instant onset, many people report a prevalence of using dreams in their early months of recovery which seems to diminish after a few months.

Dream Themes out of the Gates

Many of the first few dreams may involve scheming about how to get alcohol or drugs. A woman I’ll call Nora, aged fifty-seven and three weeks clean and sober, dreamed of wanting to drink from a bottle that was just across from her in her bedroom. One time Nora’s husband swept through between her and the whiskey. Next it was her pastor. It seems important that Nora came to treatment due to the “strong suggestion” of her husband, and that her religion and faith were a big part of her value system in turning away from liquor while in treatment. I have heard countless other dreams of people in a treatment setting or shortly following treatment complain of crazy dreams when they were trying to score drugs and frustrated at every turn – cannot get to their dealer; actually getting the substance and not being able to fashion a pipe or have a lighter, someone unexpectedly pulls them off of the task of getting high. There is so common a theme in this I have come to call them “powerlessness dreams” taken from a concept in the first of the twelve steps, as if to emphasized to the dreamer how much will, energy, and resources they put into their using careers.

What distinguishes these dreams from later ones is that the dominant feeling in early dreams is frustration. The body is in treatment, cannot access the drugs it is used to, and seems to makes up a story about that in dreamtime. Later in recovery, relapse is more associated with guilt and remorse, or even with grief as someone feels they have blown their whole investment in staying clean. As someone in my 28th uninterrupted year of recovery, my using dreams are fewer and farther between but also have now more complexity of feeling; in some it is as though I have been using this whole time and just faking recovery. That is a good time to examine if things have gotten stale for me, or if I am being dishonest with myself about even small things.

Helpers in the Night

Earlier, I mentioned the notion of “medicine” or alternate paths within most using dreams that could point to a relapse avoided. “Clarissa” had a dream in which a friend of hin the halfway house she resided in injected her – against her will – with a shot of some Opiate. She was angry at first, then went about the relapse within her dream. What I failed to catch in this was the

YANA Artwork restricted Voice
Prophetic Dream and Art; Restricted Voice

desire that Clarissa had even in dreamtime to stay sober, and her felt resentment toward Joanna, who gave her the “muscle pop” of Roxys. Clarissa’s artwork about this dream appears at right. She has what she processed as a laurel wreath (or halo) in one hand and her other arm is damaged. The throat is blacked out, indicating her inability to speak her truth fully, and perhaps to set boundaries. The dream seems now in retrospect a chance to clarify boundaries and choices, and to push further into the dream that maybe Clarissa gave Joanna too much of her personal power. Five weeks after this dream, these two left the house, relapsed, picked up some men, and Clarissa wound up in handcuffs headed back to jail within 48 hours.

At the same time, there was a woman who passed away recently clean and sober with 6 years of recovery (and over 72 years old). In one dream, she was flirting with a young man, who smelled alcohol on her breath, and turned into a demon. “I felt like I was staring at my disease,” she told me. In another dream, she was in a sinking boat, afraid she was going to drown. Her sponsor said, “No problem, just open the door and walk out!” The first dream taught her a respect of minimizing her alcohol use and its potential consequences; the second reinforced the simple but workable messages her sponsor shared with her. In working with both of these dreams, she didn’t need much help with the interpretation – the wisdom was embodied in the images themselves.


Honoring Tradition ~ Exploring Frontiers