Dream Theories: Dr. C Wades in on Imagery!

Everyone, welcome “Dr. C” back to the Dream Theories club house! You’re gonna like her “real world” take on dream inages, to go along with my more metaphysical ramblings ;o)


Dream Imagery: “Where did that come from?”

Dream imagery has both straightforward and random aspects to it. I know Anna has covered some of this in earlier posts from a layperson perspective, so I’m here to give you the skinny from a psychological professional who deals with it on a weekly basis. First, I’m going to review some major theories of dream imagery and interpretation using a case study familiar to us all:

Client Name: Ebenezer Scrooge
Age: 70-ish (adjusted for modern life expectancy, etc.)
Occupation: Banker and Curmudgeon
Presenting Problem: Very vivid nightmares, particularly around the holidays.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t,” said Scrooge.
“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. 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!”

- “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, 1843


When clients tell me about their dreams, a common statement is, “I have no idea where that image came from!” Like Scrooge, they struggle to figure out why their minds are inflicting ghosts, snakes, mothers-in-law, apple carts, or other images ranging from the horrible to the mundane on them. Perhaps Charles Dickens’ mind did the same to him after heavy meals, hence Scrooge’s accusation that the ghost as “more of gravy than of grave.” It would, at least, have been something his readers could identify with, subjected as they were to British food that likely sat heavy in their stomachs at night.

Let’s start old school with Carl Jung, a student of Sigmund Freud and, some would say, father of dream psychology. He must have read “A Christmas Carol,” for he writes:

Naturally, if we ask someone why he had such and such a dream, what are the secret thoughts in it, he cannot tell us. He will say that he had eaten too much in the evening, that he was lying on his back; that he had seen or heard this or that the day before – in short, all the things we can read in the numerous scientific books about dreams.- C.G. Jung, Dreams, p. 6 – full reference below

He goes on to say that, per Freud, the dreams are a reflection of psychic “constellations,” or images that have the most connections to other images because they have the strongest emotions associated with them. Even better, they’re a reflection of “repressed wishes.” You know there had to be repression in there somewhere. So, the dreams are going to be expressions of things you want, but don’t want to admit you want because it’s too painful to think about not getting them, and your brain is going to use images that are emotionally meaningful to get your attention.

want cookies

Did you get all that? I can hear the die-hard psychoanalysts howling in the background, so please bear with me and realize this an oversimplification on many levels. The funny thing is that some of this is still held to be true today.

Getting back to our case study, what was Ebenezer Scrooge’s repressed wish? Let’s pretend we have him on our fainting couch and do some associations with him. He probably wouldn’t have come to therapy to begin with, but let’s just pretend Mr. Scrooge is a generally compliant client who did present for help.

Analyst: “Well, Mr. Scrooge, what do you associate with ghosts?”
Him: “Death. Dying. Coldness and aloneness.”
Analyst: “Hmmm, and what about the chains?”

Him: “Chains are, well, chains. They tie you to things and weigh you down.”
Analyst: “Have you had any experience with dying or chains before?”
Him: “My sister died in childbirth, and she was the only person who cared about me. Jacob Marley was also a friend who died. I saw some prisoners chained together digging a ditch the other day. It looked like drudgery, and I was glad I wasn’t them.”

Okay, I’ll stop making the analysts cringe, but a simplistic interpretation of the dream would be that Scrooge had a secret wish for more connection with other people, but his fears of being taken advantage of monetarily stood in the way of him acting on or acknowledging this desire. This, my friends, is the internal conflict from which great literature is made.

Now let’s skip ahead to 1971 and Aaron Beck’s article “Cognitive Patterns in Dreams and Daydreams,”which helped to bridge dream theory from the psychoanalytic perspective to the more modern cognitive-behavioral one. You may have heard of Dr. Beck, the father of cognitive therapy. I was trained in and use the approach he came up with daily in my work with insomnia and psychological problems. While I was in school, I somehow assumed that cognitive therapy sprung fully formed from Dr. Beck’s brain like Athena from Zeus’ skull. According to psychotherapy historian (yes, we have those now) Rachel Rosner, Ph.D., the research methods Beck applied to trying to study dreams in the psychoanalytic perspective, which he had been trained in, led to the development of cognitive therapy, in which clinicians have clients look at their thoughts and processes empirically. He also used his work on dreams to bring cognitive therapy to a wider audience.

Beck stripped away all the stuff about dreams that couldn’t be tested objectively and came up with the following: at its most basic, “a dream is a visual phenomenon occurring during sleep” (Beck, 1971, p. 28). T

visual phenomenon

his phenomenon, instead of demonstrating repressed wishes, reveals “themes” in peoples’ thinking that can be used therapeutically. What he calls the pathognomonic dream “dramatizes how the individual sees himself, his world, and his future” (p. 31), what aspects of experiences he or she will focus on to confirm that view, how that confirmation plays out, and the actions a person will take as a result. Another way to look at it is that during the day, reality and logic keep these things hidden. Once the influence of reality is stripped away, cognitive distortions can come to the surface, but due to their irrational nature, they don’t make rational sense. Beck refers it to a “biopsy of the patient’s psychological processes” (p. 31).

Returning to Mr. Scrooge, let’s say he’s filled out a thought record using a daytime experience and come up with the following:

Situation: Two men approached me in the office for donations to a charity.
Thoughts: “I shouldn’t have to be responsible for fixing other people’s problems.”
“People only come to me when they want something.”
“I’m going to die lonely and alone, but at least I’ll have succeeded financially.”
Feelings: Irritation – 90/100
Sadness – 60/100
Labels: Should statements, mind reading, all or nothing thinking, mental filter

You see how the themes connect with Scrooge’s “dreams,” or the visits from the spirits we’re so familiar with. He assumes he knows what others’ motivations are, and they’re usually selfish. He doesn’t want to be bothered with other people’s demands. It’s too hard with him to part with even a little concrete security even though the reward may be great. This approach to dreams acknowledges that there are things people don’t want to look at, but also adds why. Sound familiar?

I skipped the last part of the cognitive therapy process, which is generating a rational response using certain questions. From the end of the story, one of Scrooge’s may be something like, “Connection with other people is worth being taken advantage of occasionally.”

I’ll continue with dream imagery and how our minds come up with it in my next post. Until then, happy dreaming! I’d love to know what themes emerge in your nightly “visual phenomena.”

Foot notes/References

The original reference for the Beck article:

Beck, A.T. (1971). Cognitive Patterns in Dreams and Daydreams.In J. H. Masserman (Ed.), Dream dynamics: Science and psychoanalysis(Vol 19, pp. 2-7). New York: Grune & Stratton.

Page numbers refer to the article as used as a chapter in:

Rosner, R.I., Lyddon, W.J., & Freeman, A. (Eds.). (2004). Cognitive therapy and dreams. New York: Springer.

The Jung quote comes from a translation of a compilation of a bunch of his works. Or maybe it’s a compilation of a translation of his works. Either way, here’s the reference:

Jung, C.G. (1974). Dreams.(R.F.C. Hull, Trans.). New Jersey: Princeton/Bollingen. (Original works published 1916-1945).

The “Christmas Carol” quote is courtesy of Project Gutenberg, which makes classics available as free ebooks. (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/46)


By day, “Doctor C.” is a licensed clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist.  That’s a long title, so she answers to any variations, including “Sleep Psychologist.” 

By night, she writes fantasy and science fiction, blogs about wine and life, and interacts with other wine lovers and writers on twitter as @RandomOenophile.  She’s a featured first-place winner in this year’s Mystery Times Ten, a Young Adult mystery anthology, for her fantasy story “The Coral Temple.” 

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