This article represents my attempt to understand the experience of dreaming.

I have observed that in my dreams I seem to have the same personality and reactions as I do in waking life. I may do some strange things and shed some inhibitions, but I don't go against the grain of my character and my waking attitudes. I recently had a dream in which I behaved in a particularly immature way. I would not act like this when awake, yet my feelings and motivations are the same as they were in the dream.

Conscious or not?

We normally speak of the dream state as being unconscious but this is simply not so. Though it is true that we are unconscious of our physical surroundings, we nevertheless have a notion of our identity, we exercise our will, and we make choices. We even think logically, up to a point. Above all, we are aware, if only fuzzily, of the dream landscape that unfolds before us. So undeniably we are still conscious, however diffuse that consciousness may appear, compared with that of the waking state. The state of dreaming is to the state of waking what being a character in a novel is to writing one.

While I am dreaming, the unconscious part of my mind generates the dream circumstances and events. My ego (conscious mind) finds itself in this reality created by another part of my mind, taking it for the real thing. The ego in the dream is a dopey version of my waking one. For example, insights that seem brilliant during a dream usually (but not always) appear banal, if not silly, after I wake. My dream ego does not think clearly, does not remember well - in particular it forgets I am asleep! - nor is it able to question the often weird reality it finds itself subject to (lucid dreaming excepted). It is as though the inner critic is switched off, or at least turned down.

So the act of dreaming is the activity of the conscious mind as it groggily makes its way through the phenomena thrown at it by the unconscious. In other words, when I dream there is direct interplay between my conscious and my unconscious.

Beyond dualism

Yet I'm not satisfied with such a dualistic interpretation. The conscious and unconscious are merely constructs used by the mind as it tries to grapple with the baffling phenomenon that is itself. In reality there is a mobile boundary (analogous to a geographic meridian, though not static) which divides the mind into two parts, these being the area directly accessible to my consciousness at any given moment, and the rest.

What is a dream in the light of this? It is an experience analogous to conscious fantasizing, in which the mind examines its own products. Even during waking life the unconscious part of me is continually throwing up thoughts, desires, memories, intuitions and feelings. So it is a normal condition for psychic material to be continually crossing the imaginary boundary from the unconscious to consciousness. This transfer is in both directions, as whenever I forget something, repress a painful feeling or lose my train of thought, the psychic datum in question crosses to my unconscious. The difference with dreaming is that sensory input to that part of me inside the boundary (the ego) is replaced by input coming from the other side of the boundary, i.e. from the unconscious. To put it in another way, the boundary between conscious and unconscious moves in such a way that some of what is normally unconscious becomes conscious and vice versa (hence dopeyness, loss of memory etc).

However, a loud noise or some other strong stimulus in the outside world can impinge on the dream. In such cases the disturbance tends to be incorporated into the dream.

Yet dreaming is also an active and creative process, rather than a random walk through the unconscious. There is a story-building process at work.

An analogy for mind

The mind is analogous to a building having many rooms. I can only sit in one room at a time. I call this my 'momentary-ego'. It is simply all that I am conscious of at any given moment. Yet there are many other rooms that I can enter at will. Here are a few ways of doing so: by moving my eyes so that I perceive something else, by thinking about a different subject (such as what I plan to do tomorrow), by recalling a particular memory from the vast store of consciously available memories, or by mentally focusing on feelings in a specific part of my body. All these rooms taken together represent my ego i.e. all that I can be aware of at this time by exercising my will. Now there are other rooms which are locked. These represent my unconscious i.e. psychic material I have no access to. Of course I am continually losing and finding keys, so that the collection of rooms available to me is changing. If overall my knowledge and awareness are growing then more and more rooms open to me. If instead my memory is failing, then my movements become restricted to fewer rooms with time. Of course, the boundary between what is available to consciousness and what isn't is a fuzzy one. There are things we are vaguely aware of, memories half recalled, dreams of which only vague glimmers remain. In the architectural analogy these would be dimly lit rooms or ones I cannot fully enter.


For the remainder of this article I will use the term 'momentary-ego' to mean all that I am aware of in the moment. I use the word 'I' to mean my awareness, the inner witness of my life. It is also the locus of my will. The momentary-ego includes all the sensations, thoughts, memories and feelings that are currently in awareness. This mix of psychic data is in constant flux and is partially under my control, as mentioned above. At any given moment only a little bit of the potentially accessible spectrum of the conscious mind is actually in consciousness (just one room out of many, in the analogy). Perhaps this constitutes one or two thoughts, a feeling or a memory. As far as I can tell, for me it is usually just one thought or memory, plus awareness of the centre of my visual field (tunnel vision). So my consciousness is like a narrow slit that moves around disclosing only a minute fragment of my experience at any one time - what I call the momentary-ego. Yet I am not aware of any discontinuity, since the slit eventually discloses all that is accessible to my consciousness. The human eye works in a similar way, being in constant movement and seeing clearly only at the dead centre of the visual field.

Minds and computers

I now expound an analogy between minds and computers. If you find this too technical, please skip the next two pages, up until "A theory of dreams".

It occurred to me that the analogy between a human being and a computer might be useful in understanding what dreams are. The paucity of my consciousness at any given moment (the momentary-ego) is reminiscent of the simple functioning of an old-fashioned computer (before controllers). The part of a computer that 'thinks' is the Central Processing Unit or CPU. In my analogy the momentary-ego is represented by the CPU registers (small storage buffers available to the CPU) plus the current program instruction. The rest of the ego is represented by the remainder of the program plus all the computer memory assigned to the program. The unconscious is represented by the operating system (software needed to run a program on the hardware) and the rest of the computer memory. According to this analogy, only the instructions of the application program (ego) are ever in awareness, and just one at a time. By contrast, operating system instructions (the chemical, physical and electrical processes occurring in the body) are not brought to consciousness. The CPU registers represent all the memory of the system (= me) that is currently in awareness.

The boundary between the ego and the unconscious is the line beyond which the ' I ' (= the CPU) has no direct access, marking off unavailable contents of the mind. The boundary between the mind (i.e. ego + unconscious) and the world (which includes the body) is the boundary between mind and matter.

Psychic material is constantly moving across the boundary between the momentary-ego and the rest of the mind. Whenever I lose awareness of something, it moves outside the momentary-ego. Of course, nothing actually moves, except for the boundary, as in an electoral redistribution. That is, the boundary moves so that the something lost to awareness is now on the outside. I could also, as a result of my conscious actions (e.g watching a passing landscape) be undergoing a change in my psyche that I am not conscious of. This would be input to the unconscious.

At first I thought that the momentary-ego and the physical world interact directly, but looking more closely I realised that there is no direct interaction between the momentary-ego and the world. Similarly, with a computer, the (application) program does not speak directly to the hardware responsible for input and output. This task is performed for it by the operating system.


CPU registers = short-term memory
current instruction of application program = current thought/feeling



application program = the ego
operating system = the unconscious
input = the senses
computer memory = memory



input devices = sense organs
output devices = muscles

Figure 1.0.0: the analogy between a person and a computer

The human in the waking state

When we decide to do something, such as hitting a key on the keyboard, this decision of the ' I ' is passed to the unconscious, where it is in some mysterious way - literally a case of mind moving matter! - translated into a physical impulse.1 This impulse travels through electro-chemical pathways until it reaches the muscles that carry it out in the world. Note that the unconscious modifies and expands the original message. This is particularly evident in complex physical actions, such as running down stairs, which requires little conscious attention. Except in the simplest and most deliberate actions, we do not tell a specific muscle or joint to move.

So much for output. Much the same thing happens with input. A sensory perception arises in the sense organ, is passed electro-chemically to the appropriate centre in the brain. The unconscious filters and modifies incoming impulses to the brain, so that not all reach conscious awareness. Nor do they reach the momentary-ego as raw input, but are modified in various ways. For example, a sensation that arouses fear reaches consciousness having a much greater charge than an innocuous one does. The vast majority of other stimuli are filtered out.

The human in the dream state

The situation is as described above, except that impulses originating in the momentary-ego do not reach the physical world (we can't move our muscles). They are passed instead to a sub-system in the unconscious called the dream. Likewise, perceptions reaching awareness do not come from the world (i.e. from the senses) but from the dream.

The computer operating normally

Output data in the CPU registers is passed to the main memory and the operating system, which performs various operations on it before passing it to the appropriate hardware, such as a screen. Input data from a hardware device, such as a keyboard, is placed in memory by the operating system and is then passed to the CPU registers so that the program that is waiting for the data can access it.

The computer operating as a simulator

This is the analogue of a dreaming human. Instead of hardware that would normally carry out input and output operations, the simulator, a software program, simulates the behaviour of these devices in such a way that the application program thinks it is running normally, with the hardware present. Output from the application program is passed to the operating system as usual. The difference is that the operating system passes this output to another program, the one that simulates the absent hardware. Likewise, input to the application program arises in the simulator program, not in a hardware device.

It is tempting to push the analogy and enquire why simulators are used in computing. There are a number of reasons. The hardware may be unavailable due to a variety of causes (e.g. broken). The simulator may be better adapted for running diagnostic tests on the software (debugging). The simulator may be cheaper and easier to use than the actual hardware and hence it may be useful for purposes of training, demonstration and software development. In some cases the simulator may be able to simulate events that are difficult to make happen on the actual hardware e.g. for errors to occur in predetermined ways or with specific timing.

A theory of dreams

Perhaps some of the above uses of a software simulator (= dream) suggest the purposes of dreams in humans. In particular, the conscious mind is able to undergo experiences that are unavailable in reality. Seen in this way, a dream provides us with a kind of mental training by giving us a broader range of experience. For example I have dreamt that I enjoyed smoking (I hate cigarettes when awake), that I was a woman, or that I changed my identity during the course of a dream. Another way to look at it is that dreams allow us to access parts of our personality that are denied expression when we are awake.

Lucid dreaming

Lucid dreaming is the experience of being aware you are dreaming while in a dream. In other words you realise that your senses are hooked up to a dream, not to the physical world. It is a wonderful experience because you know you can do anything you want and that there is nothing you need to fear in the dream. Unfortunately, it is so exciting that one often wakes soon after achieving lucidity. Lucid dreaming offers a laboratory for the study of the interaction between the conscious and unconscious. Such research is being pursued by Stephen LaBerge and others, who have succeeded in communicating with dreaming subjects.

Since 1987, when I first read about lucid dreaming, I have had four lucid dreams. The first three were brief, as the excitement quickly woke me. While they lasted I did things like breaking masonry with my hands, revelling in my power. After the third of these, I resolved not to get excited and to engage a dream figure in a dialogue while in a lucid dream.

Five months later I got my wish. I knew I was dreaming and told myself so. I tried to observe the people in the room with me, but they remained vague. The only person I saw fairly clearly was a red-headed, bearded man. I asked him to tell me something. He said, "You will remarry soon." Knowing I was dreaming, and hence that everything was symbolic, I interpreted this (during the dream) to mean that I would change my relationship to my anima. There were two women in the room and I assumed he meant I would change from one to the other, both representing my inner feminine. I answered, "Good". He replied, "You won't like it." Then the people disappeared and I relapsed into ordinary dreaming. Next I thought I was awake and wanted to write up the dream. Then I again realised I was still dreaming, and woke up in reality.

Unlike most people, I find that my lucid dreams are no more vivid or memorable than ordinary ones. I was quite dopey in this dream, certainly not as conscious as when awake (God knows, that's dopey enough). This time I lost lucidity by losing charge, rather than through over-excitement, as before.

Reverie and spontaneous fantasy

There are two waking states that are much like dreaming and hence may be illuminating. These are reverie and spontaneous fantasy. Reverie is the half-awake state we may enter just before sinking into sleep or just after waking. It is a drowsy, unfocused state of mind, in which thoughts and images flow freely though our consciousness. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish reverie from a dream that immediately preceded it. One may merge into the other, so that we continue the dream as a waking fantasy. The absence of a clear division between dreams and waking reverie indicates that dreams are not as different from ordinary experience as some people think. Reverie is similar to lucid dreaming in that one can force things to go the way one wants.

Spontaneous fantasy is similar to reverie except that it is a purely passive state. To experience spontaneous fantasy, I close my eyes and simply pay attention to the images that eventually appear. I do not attempt to influence what I 'see' in any way, acting as a passive witness only. Often, the images are diffuse and almost formless. However, since they are in no sense caused by my conscious mind or the outside world, they must come from the unconscious. Thus this state resembles dreaming in that I witness the products of my unconscious mind. Unlike in a dream, there appears to be no story-line or continuity. Dreams exhibit a higher level of organisation. I have found that dreams sometimes move from one image to another by a process of association, eg from a pot plant to a vine garden.

Describing dreams

When we describe dreams or re-run them in our waking minds, we inevitably falsify them. The dream is much vaguer than its description. Much is lost in transcribing a dream into words. This is also true of waking experience, but not to the same degree. Thus the identity and sex of me, the dreamer can be fluid. Logical contradictions are possible - a thing can be and not be at the same time, something that language does not cope with well at all. The dream world is diffuse, neither this nor that, e.g. the breed of a dog may not be any existing one, yet it is a definite breed in the dream. Dream phenomena cannot be reduced to waking categories or objects, which is what we do when we write down a dream. It is a bit like translating poetry into another language, only more so. When I write up a dream I unwittingly order it into what appears to be its sequence, yet I have no way of knowing whether I am doing so correctly. Another problem is that there is no way of telling whether two dream-fragments are part of the same dream or not.


Up till this point in the article, I have tried to forget all I have read about dreams, attempting to write from my own experience and ruminations. Now I feel the itch to mention some of the theories about dreams that I have come across.

(1) Freudian. The founder of modern psychology believed that dreams were simply the veiled (hence symbolic) expressions of repressed desires in the unconscious.

(2) Jungian. His appointed (and later disinherited) heir held that dreams are laden with profound meaning. That in dreams the unconscious is attempting to balance the one-sidedness of the conscious mind with its own deeper wisdom.

(3) Meaningless. Some psychologists think that dreams are devoid of any meaning, that they are merely random thoughts and impulses somehow strung together. A sort of Brownian motion of the mind.

(4) Integration. According to this theory, a dream is a kind of processing or working through of one's waking experience.

(5) Garbage disposal. This theory holds that dreams are the toxic waste of the psyche. Accordingly, it may be harmful to recall one's dreams.

(6) Simulated training. The idea I presented in this article (of my own devising, I think).

(7) The midway view. This one is half-way between the Jungian and the meaningless conceptions. Some dreams are meaningful, others are not.

The Freudian view is seen as being narrow these days. Jung's idea is more widely accepted by psychologists.

The meaningless theory is not to be easily dismissed. Although some people think they derive great insights from dream interpretations, one could argue that the wisdom and insights so gained come from their efforts of interpretation, not from the dream itself. This is reminiscent of literary analysis, where critics sometimes find profound hidden meanings in the text, ones that the author is oblivious of. Another point in favour of the meaningless theory (apart from saving money on dream workshops!) is that even in ordinary waking experience, say when I sit idly in the train, apparently random thoughts, some of them perfectly absurd or silly, flit through my mind. A similar process may be at work during sleep.

Studies have shown that subjects deprived of REM sleep (i.e. dreaming) become unbalanced and that their mental functioning is impaired. This supports some of the theories mentioned above. Certainly dreams seem to be important to our psychological well-being. There is general consensus that dreams serve a useful purpose, but little consensus on the nature of that purpose.

I incline to the midway theory, since even if dreams do represent the unconscious talking to us, surely a lot of what it has to say will not be meaningful. Don't forget that the unconscious is not rational, ordered and purposive, as is most of our waking thinking. I believe there are many childish, neurotic and destructive impulses and beliefs in our unconscious minds. Even if we speak about the archetypal or the collective unconscious level, the Child and the Fool are as much archetypes as are the Wise Old Man and the Leader. To stand in awe before every product of the unconscious is to act like the adoring parents of a wayward child, who delight in and admire everything their child says or does.

It's worth noting that no-one seems to think that dreams can be understood literally, as opposed to symbolically. If dreams do represent the unconscious talking to the conscious, then their language is that of symbols. The only alternative view is that - from the conscious standpoint - the unconscious is full of chaotic, meaningless junk.

Dream interpretation is much like the analysis of difficult literary symbolism. It looks as though one part of my mind sets hard riddles for another part to struggle with and unravel. Presumably the unconscious speaks in symbols because it is simply unable to express itself directly and rationally, that being a conscious function.

Ultimately, it seems to me that dreams are like life itself, essentially unfathomable to the human mind.

1I have mischieviously confused two levels of description - the mind and the brain. The body-mind paradox only arises when we confuse levels of description in this way.

Tad Boniecki

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