Dreams shaping the moral landscape (and keeping us woke)

“Jacob’s Dream” Jusepe de Ribera

If psychology were alchemy, then dreams might have the secrets people are looking for. At the back of everyone’s mind, it might be true dreams should be ignored. But the subconscious is ever-awake, and, as psychologists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud would have suggested, dreams offer ways of interpretation and understanding one’s own subconscious. And when the mind shares these secrets, they could become ways we should view the world. They can lead to guilt, remorse, and other changes to responsibility that humans can probe. They can be a form of moral intuition for what we should do in life. How do dreams help us stay woke?

I’ve deliberated on the contents of my dreams on and off for maybe ten years now. Pondering symbols, colors, and sounds of the experience, I’ve felt an almost-psychic connection to them. Underwater volcanos, broken bridges, and still lakes provide settings, while images from previous experiences and ignored emotions flood them. While I slept, I would have dreams about film characters and close friends, seemingly random and chaotic. Most of the time, I couldn’t have thought more of what these visions meant. They were probably just the images that my subconscious could easily stir up while I slept. They didn’t proceed or behave the same way things in the waking world did. If I saw a man with three legs in my dream, I would have thought “Ah, this man is obviously from the three-legged race of people.” My own thoughts within my dreams seemed to at least have some tendency to make things make sense – even if everything would fall apart when I would all wake up. And I didn’t say nay clear way to prove to others the contents of my dreams – let alone what they meant.

In some versions of the the Greek mythology of the Death of Orion, Artemis might have killed the hunter Orion while in others, a scorpion directly stung it.

Another scene from a dream stung with intensity. Imagine that, in this dream, a scorpion twists its tail and plunges into the body of another one. As it does, the victim falls into shock with its body still. Though the dream involves two scorpions while the Greek myth of the Death of Orion did not, I reasoned that the dream must have used the images from this scene. I could probe the dream for the meaning behind its symbols. The scorpion could have represented themes of jealousy, obsessiveness, power, and passion that my mind had associated with its image. Artemis shooting Orion could have meant some sort of mixing of sexual energy a strategic aim towards a goal. Jung might have described a collective unconscious of these psychological symbols while Freud might have suggested something more secretive about these images. As I thought through these possibilities, the images of the dream itself would fade away. With such sharp, insightful messages about behavior, I had to listen to these symbols to figure out the ethical implications of such an existential issue. And I wondered how accurate my analysis was. I turned to science for more information.

Dreams have been studied with science and theory, like the one from psychologist Calvin Hall. Through a quantitative coding system that would lead to concepts of the self, others, and other experiences, Hall spent decades of work, from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, analyzing dream symbols from reports of individuals. Beginning with university students and processing to people from other walks of life, Hall collected over 50,000 dream reports that codified dreams by categories. Environments, objects, feelings, people, and other types of symbols were compared and contrasted with one another. With as many differences separating human beings, Hall found similarities in the ways dream symbols coincided with experiences in the waking world. These corresponded with conceptions of the the dreamer and other features of the dreamer’s life. The dreamer’s self, environment, and other people could be described in various situations and conceptions from the dreams. An employee being manipulated by his boss in waking life might have dream images depicted himself as ‘weak’ in the presence of his boss. Reactions such as fear or pain may be simple enough to show how an individual perceives the world, but more nuanced reactions, such as guilt or blame, involve concepts which give rise to moral decisions. An individual’s autonomy, responsibility, and other features of decision-making can be at stake with these seemingly random images.

But putting dreams in the perspective of ethics prompted another question. If dreams were only messages to be decoded and understood, how could they have any autonomy or ethical dimension of their own? In some ways of thinking, a dream can’t be held responsible for my behavior any more than my body would be responsible for heating up when it’s hot outside. Dream interpretation itself can give many possibilities of various images. A dream image an employee might see as a description of himself as ‘weak’ in a could also have sufficient reason to be observed as an internal weakness – completely irrelevant of the employee’s boss. It could even be a random image from the subconscious. Despite my own worries in these interpretations, other philosophers and writers might have their own answers.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that Greek artists found messages from their gods and goddesses through dreams. The deities came from these visions gave them the realistic pictures of these deities. René Descartes pondered how people could prove they weren’t dreaming. Plato believed all men lived in a dream while the philosopher tries to wake up. Blaise Pascal wrote that a pauper dreaming as a king for twelve hours a day is just as happy as a king dreaming as a pauper for twelve hours a day. While these philosophical problems present entertaining theoretical concepts and dilemmas, the real world (which, at this point, is also becoming more difficult to comprehend) is complicated. As we observe the world, in all its good and evil, the subconscious responds in a way that represents the way we would in our everyday autonomous self. Similarities between the objects we see in our waking lives and sensations we experience are evidence for German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to believe that the world we observe world is the world of our own reflection. We associate fire with heat because the evident heat emitted by a fire, and, with that association, the fire could be energy, emotion, or some vitalizing symbol. When someone looks into him/herself with reflection, just as someone analyzes his/her dreams, that person understands the nature of the universe. And, with the difficulty with discerning the point at which dreams ended and the waking state began, Schopenhauer conceded that life metaphorically might as well be all a dream. Understanding the limits on these patterns and forms of reasoning, the dreamer’s true nature comes about through dreams.

“Joseph Reveals His Dreams to His Brothers” Raphael

Through history and literature, we see dreams becoming a moral voice for others. Roman emperor Dionysius sentenced his servant Marsyas to death after a dream that Marsyas cut the emperor’s throat. One might think the interpretation of this dream might have been justified, though, because Marsyas was planning to assassinate Dionysius. The dream might have sent a message of the reaction that Dionysius would have around Marsyas through Dionysius’ waking thoughts. Yet, if Dionysius’ subconscious was picking up signals about Marsyas in the waking life, they could have easily taken the form of fading thoughts – easily dismissed, forgotten, or ignored consciously. These observations we make in our lives – maybe part of a Jungian collective unconscious – take forms in our dreams. While dreams themselves may seem uncontrollable and irrelevant to the moral basis of our character, Dionysius’ dream might have indicated some culpable aspect of Marsyas’ character.

It’s an uncomfortable idea – that dreams can be treated in such a similar way to reality. No one would ever dream of such an idea. The ambiguous boundaries of the unconscious and conscious blend into the absurdity and complicated nature of right and wrong. Schopenhauer said that the dreams are part of a continuing life experience. Much like going flipping rapidly through the pages of a book and finding parts you have read and parts you haven’t, dreams give this method of recreation. Waking up reminds us which parts are dreams.

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