Oneiroscopic Vision: Re-evaluating the Creative Force of Dreaming

If ever there was a time in which the function of dreaming needed to be more fully examined, it is the present, defined as it is by the forced flattening of experience and the compulsory destruction of intimate relationships with our external environment and with other individuals. Exploring the reservoirs of the subconscious is a necessary corrective to a waking consciousness increasingly colonized by monotony, predictability and discouragement of experimentation. Speaking as someone whose life was a struggle against these qualities even before the Plague Year, I have spent much of my artistic non-career using art as an “oneiroscopic” tool to bring that portion of human experience into focus. Acknowledging the moss-covered old Nietzschean dictum that we “have art in order not to perish of the truth,” it makes sense to use the implausible situations, emotional incongruity, and non-causality of dreams as the very starting point for creative works rather than as a colorful garnish. It is worth taking thinkers like Gaston Bachelard at their word when they claim that “the dream is stronger than [waking] experience” or alternately that “science is formed on a reverie rather than an experiment”[1] (and in at least one case, the dreamed discovery of the benzene molecule, this is literally true). To be sure, the past century or so of organized creativity has seen “dream logic” and imagery used very effectively to combat many of the straitjacketing effects of modernity — see the collective efforts of the Surrealists in particular. I want to argue here, though, that too much of that activity has been bound up in analysis of dreams when the real gems are to be found within the dreaming process itself.

The shortcomings of that particularly Freudian analysis have been endless fun to dismantle since the heyday of its acceptance: from Wittgenstein’s complaint that no reports of highly commonplace “straightforward sexual dreams” existed among his studies in spite of the sexualization of dreamt objects like trees and vases, to Harvard researcher J. Allan Hobson’s dismissal of the “piecemeal, axe-grinding, controversial technique”[2] that Freud used to discuss his dream reports. Researchers such as Hobson have already stressed that dreaming needs to be seen as part of a continuum with waking consciousness, and have been instrumental in rejecting the question “what does the dream mean?” in favor of asking “what [are] the mental characteristics of dreaming are that distinguish it from waking mental activity.”[3] Hobson and collaborator Robert McCarley, progenitors of the Activation-Synthesis model of dream activity, did not aim to deny dreams their value as conveyors of meaning, yet did explicitly shift the focus of dream research away from the Freudian “unacceptable thoughts and desires” and towards dreams’ neurophysiological properties (to give one example, they noted dreams of flying as “ensu[ing] from the internal activation of the vestibular system during REM sleep.”)[4] This has led distinguished Hobson students like Robert Stickgold to celebrate the declining influence of Freudian theory within clinical environments, with the caveat that it still very much holds sway as an “essential motif in popular culture and the arts.”[5]

Before turning the discussion to those arts, neither Stickgold nor I doubt the general idea that dreams can have a sort of therapeutic quality. I do feel, however, that therapeutic process has more to do with emphasizing and welcoming dreams’ aforementioned differences from waking consciousness; with being immersed in their vivid un-reality rather than with outright domesticating them and seeking to reconcile their alien features and sensory cross-wiring with customary experience. This domesticating habit appears to be firmly embedded within numerous linguistic traditions in which “dream” acts as a stand-in for “ambition” or “goal,” erroneously conflating spontaneous / chaotic dreams with consciously directed and often highly structured kinds of long-term planning. That aside, I have no issue with Stickgold’s interest in the more regulatory functions of dreams (e.g. “consolidat[ing] and enhanc[ing] memories,” “select[ing] which memories to bolster”)[6] and am inspired that dreams’ valuable creative potential is paired with their ability to provide neurological maintenance.

Nevertheless, to the degree that dreams do influence and determine the coordinates of human creativity, it is because they short-circuit the kind of organized thought in which concepts are sequentially presented, and replace it with a more chaotic presentation of networked associations. In the process we are provided with perhaps one of the few safe fora in which we can see what happens to information when conscious control and self-critique are totally absent. While there is nothing morally wrong with considered analysis of dream states, there should also not be any fear or apprehension about just enjoying dreamed material “as is,” in the same way that expert commentary on fine dining might lend some additional stamp of validation to the experience but would hardly be necessary to enjoy it. In fact, the idea of dreams as being on par with a kind of aesthetic sustenance is hinted at when Fernando Pessoa haughtily claims that “a cup of coffee, a cigarette, and my dreams can substitute quite well for the universe and his stars” (especially interesting that he is identifying dreams with other classes of stimulants here).

It is also interesting to note that, even as representative art has continually ceded ground to abstraction and then to forms of creativity that seem semiotically blank (near-silent “infra music,” some structural film, sensory limiting experiments like the light environments of James Turrell), there has remained a well-documented need for us to determine what exactly certain dreams “mean.” That is to say, the obsession with decoding the entirety of any given dream recall and then slotting it into a codified symbology (Freudian or otherwise) often diverts mental energy away from the more immediately beneficial act of extracting isolated scenes from the dream and using them as purely aesthetic elements. From the standpoint of crafting narratives, those fragments of dreams that we can recall are unrivalled for their being able to convey tragedy and uplifting feelings simultaneously: tragedy in their exaggerated ephemeral nature, which more than hints at the fleeting and illusory nature of existence “proper,” and an optimism that existence “proper” may occasionally attain the wonderment of dreams. Dreams can also be appreciated as vehicles for novel information rather than as translations of some previously known, yet deliberately obscured, information. R.J. Hallman’s assessment of the role of creativity — a force which “produces qualities which never existed before, and which could never have been predicted on the basis of prior configurations of events”[7] — is certainly worth considering in this context, and it does lend some credence to the idea that dreams are tools to be utilized in just about any recognized medium.

A personal favorite residue of dreaming is the speech reported as being heard during hypnagogic states, i.e. hallucinatory bridge states between dream and wakefulness. This provides a compelling enough example of material that can be re-routed towards creative ends despite its prima facie meaninglessness. Just a few of the more intriguing published samples include alluring fictional entities like “Lacertina Wein,” and laughable moments of what compiler Andreas Mavromantis called “unintellectual wit”: would-be sagacious items like “buy stocks in the fixed stars…it is remarkably stable” or “a leading clerk is a great thing in my profession, as well as a Sabine footertootro”[8] (fascinatingly, some reports indicate that these twisted phrases are “leading” sentences which precede a dream visualization of the neologistic oddities). In any case, while researchers are more than welcome to theorize how a “footertootro” is a concatenation of distinct mental concepts, this kind of analysis remains unnecessary to integrate such a vibrant neologism into some sort of larger poetic construction. Its nagging assonance and general musicality is the type of thing that I presume the leading lights of Futurist, Dada or concrete poetry all spent considerable time trying to consciously manifest, so what a great gift indeed to receive something like this “for free.” This is to say nothing of the even richer cornucopia of visual information stemming from dream recall (we do, after all, remain creatures heavily skewed towards the visual, both biologically and culturally).

A small handful of recording artists have made good on similar material and either released recordings of themselves talking in their sleep or have based performances / installations on the same, showing the potential for this material to be siphoned into the common culture without any additional analysis or qualification (at least one artist, the songwriter Dion McGregor, used somniloquy recordings of a highly dubious authenticity as a possible means or releasing otherwise risqué narratives). Elsewhere, even completely indecipherable dream speech has its ways of influencing aesthetic approaches towards shared reality: over the past couple decades, I found myself enthusiastically embracing the atomized sonic landscapes of granular synthesis after recurring dreams in which spoken language manifested as half-or double-speed tape playback broken into countless distinct fragments.

In this case, I derived a great deal of excitement from finding something seemingly modeled after recall of my dream states, which I was able to manipulate in real time. I think that excitement also derived from a deeper and more universal sense of fulfillment that comes when completely unexpected motifs or “figures” would emerge from the random / noisy “ground” of indistinct aesthetic information (the “figure” / “ground” distinction here comes from Rudolf Arnheim’s neuroaesthetic terminology[9], which my collaborator Barbara Ellison and I have discussed at length elsewhere). Concurrent developments in video synthesis hold out a similar aesthetic promise, in which viewers wade through a morass of uniformly chaotic elements to individually or collectively discover personally relevant “figures,” in the process becoming co-creators along with the primary artist and simulating that which is most beneficial about dreaming. Again, I submit that the real “Eureka” moment of dreaming has much more to do with the realization that pathways towards novelty and unexpectedness are more numerous and more highly individualized than anything we had previously imagined, and much less to do with having chanced upon “the distorted readout of a sick body [Greek Onirodiagnosis]”.[10] Dreaming that I am riding a giant flying carp above the skyscrapers of Chicago, or that there are certain situations where I can get away with wearing white pants, could indeed point to psychic disturbances, but could these visions’ use as diagnostic tools really be seen as more rewarding than their use as dispellers of monotony?

With all the foregoing in mind, there have been a few cultural flashpoints who — given their own views on the pointlessness of a life without the type of creative process that Hallman outlines — helpfully keep me from being alone in my evangelizing here. Some have, in fact, looked beyond my more modest suggestions to propose dreams as being essential to survival itself. William Burroughs, never shy about his belief in the necessity of space travel to humanity, saw dreaming as a means of preparing for whatever unorthodox methods might eventually allow us to transport ourselves beyond the solar system. In doing so, he alighted upon the idea that dreaming was not merely useful for this purpose, but was a full stop “biological necessity”, a conclusion derived partially from the following information:

Deprived of REM sleep, experimental subjects show all the symptoms of sleeplessness, no matter how much dreamless sleep they are allowed. They become irritable and restless and experience hallucinations. No doubt prolonged deprivation would result in death.[11]

This grim prognosis, should you choose to believe it, would be all the encouragement needed to ensure a regular diet of dream sleep.

I want to close this out with a strong disclaimer that, while I feel Bachelard’s opening statement on dreams to be valid, we must remember the scientific reality is that dreams encountered in REM sleep are neurologically similar to waking thought, with the key difference that they are shaped much more by memory more than by “live” sensory input. This leads to a situation whereby dreams will not in fact outstrip waking reality, but will most likely decrease in their creative utility concurrent with a decrease in the diversity of waking experience. See, for one example, Paul Martin’s assertion that “adults are found to have dreams that are on average more bizarre than children’s dreams; the adult’s richer stock of experience and memories provides the dreaming brain with more raw ingredients from which to concoct its surreal nightly dishes.”[12] Some might argue the contrary by noting, as Albert Camus does when writing on the infamously bloody-minded writings of the Marquis de Sade, that “in prison, dreams have no limits and reality is no curb”[13]: yet this applies more properly to consciously crafted waking fantasies than to anything occurring in an actual dream state. For all that has already been said here, dreams’ existing on the continuum of consciousness means that they can only in the short term act as a stand-in for personal growth occurring during waking life. In an ideal situation, spontaneous dreams and waking consciousness co-exist in a looping, mutually influential, give-and-take sort of relationship.

That we are not in an ideal situation is not a controversial opinion. The steady proliferation of single-minded obsessives in our anxiety-drenched era do not likely make great dreamers, nor do those locked for extended periods in their homes by the kinds of authorities who seem chiefly interested in consolidation and expansion of that authority. In the long term, the increasing poverty of dream life may be another of the great tragedies to add to the already swelling list of mental disorders that have been seeded or inflamed by the pandemic regime of denuded reality. For the time being, there is still hope that answers may come via the irrational confabulation of dream life where other plans and strategies have failed. Maybe, in the end, a Sabine footertootro may arise from the depths when we least expect it.

[1] Bachelard, G. (1964). The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Trans. Alan C.M. Ross. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[2] Hobson, J.A. (2002). Dreaming: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford / New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stickgold, R. (2013). “The Function of Dreaming.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum, (93)2, p. 11–13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mavromantis, A. (2010). Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Wakefulness Between Wakefulness and Sleep. London: Thyrsos Press.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See Arnheim, R. (1974). Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[10] Hobson (2002).

[11] Burroughs, W. (2013). The Adding Machine: Selected Essays. New York: Grove Press.

[12] Martin, P. (2002). Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams. New York: St. Martin’s.

[13] Camus, A. (1992). The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Vintage.

Sound artist, psychopathologist, author of “To Hear The World With New Eyes,” “MicroBionic, ”“Unofficial Release” and “Sonic Phantoms” (with Barbara Ellison).