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a brief history of dream interpretation - landon wittmer


A serpent ringed the mind of a nineteenth century chemist. His name was August Kekulé, and the snake has been translated through thousands of years: an image in the Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, a funerary text in the tomb of Tutankhamun; a symbol of entropy and the world’s cyclical renewal, according to Egyptian belief; a painted circle on a shard of pottery in China’s Yellow River basin; descriptions in Gnostic and Norse texts of a serpent circumscribing the world; and here, in the daydream of a scholar. This snake which has gathered through history such mysticism, definition, and contours of the supernatural as a ball of dust or snow rolling, collecting into itself more dust, more snow, new size and habit to accommodate its growing notoriety in the world of the occult—this snake was the Ouroboros, forever glutting on its end, forever spinning day into night into day again. August Kekulé recognized that this snake which appeared to him as it had to countless augurs and artists in countless years before did not come now with news of religion or mythology but of science, specifically of the hexagonal structure of the chemical compound benzene.

Another man dreamed of chemistry one hundred years later, though no snakes bred in his brain. Otto Loewi dreamed of frogs and the effects of salt water on their exposed and beating hearts, and when he woke, frantic hands grabbed a pen and scribbled all he could remember of the experiment formulated in his dream. Then (as morning had not yet followed night) he returned to sleep. When he woke as usual, Loewi groped in morning’s fog for his journal only to find the transcription illegible. Here were jotted the instructions for a surgery Loewi was confident would further the study of the body’s chemistry, and here too was the handwriting of a doctor grown lax around the vowels and tight at the consonants. He would later call this day of attempted and failed deciphering the longest of his life.

But the wheel would turn, night would come again, and as fortune took, fortune gave, and the same dream of frogs and salt struck the chemist the following night. He woke again with a start while his wife and frogs slept, rushing to the laboratory, slicing the chests of slumber-numbed toads and setting their hearts in saline baths. Volleying electrical shocks at these hearts, Loewi discovered that the transmission of nerve impulses was not a matter of electricity, as previous doctrine declared, but of chemicals, notably acetylcholine, a parasympathetic substance dosed to nerve impulses to regulate communication between neurons. Otto Loewi later claimed the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his dream and its clarification of the brain, its demarcation in the history of what hides inside the human form.

Acetylcholine and norepinephrine weigh on opposing sides of the scales inhabiting the brain. When norepinephrine populates its neural paths, the body housing the brain remains awake. As the day progresses and norepinephrine caves molecule by molecule to acetylcholine, the body tires, and when the scales balance and fall to the usurping chemical, when the wheel again finds purchase in sunsets and latent stars, the body sleeps.

Oneirology is the study of dreams, which can be analyzed only through the perspective of the dreamer. Psychology does not yet know how to read that part of the brain we call the subconscious, and it may never be literate in those texts, as the mind is perhaps the largest uncharted region on our planet. We may only learn about the brain, the vessel supposedly carrying the mind, which is colored a vile and medicinal pink and shaped like a bowl of dead coral, and is not partial to electric stimuli. Because we cannot touch the mind, all dreams must be filtered through the careful observation of neurotransmitters, how frequently they fire, and the language of the dreamer. The study of dreams becomes also the study of pattern recognition and the interpretation of each mind’s inherent mutability. Oneirology is the study of secondhand accounts from unreliable narrators, and all that is certain is relegated to biochemistry:

1) We dream during all stages of sleep, though vivid dreams occur when our eyes move rapidly beneath their lids (REM sleep), and

2) Humans dream for around two hours every night, with each dream lasting five to twenty minutes.

This is the sum of our knowledge on dreams, though scientists and philosophers have studied them for thousands of years.

The Sumerians interpreted their dreams, though few written records of their practices exist, so discussions on the history of dreams typically start with the Babylonians in the third millennium BCE. These dreams were usually visitation dreams, where a prominent member of society—an ancestor, politician, or religious figure—suggested or commanded the dreamer with specific actions he or she was to take on waking. Regents have risen and fallen from dreams, and sudden changes to the courses of kingdoms have spawned from nighttime imaginings. Visitation dreams were religious experiences treated with utmost authority, and it is in this oneiric tradition that the Abrahamic God visited his entourage of Biblical characters. But visitation dreams today, and dreams in general, have largely shuffled away from religious importance, and the once-common belief that dreams are synonymous with portents is today shoved in the fringes of superstition, so that when I admit the Man Who Breathes Shadows recurs in the field behind my house, we do not search for him, and he returns biannually.

Perhaps the most recognizable pre-Christian dream is Zhuang Zhou’s in the philosophic text Zhuanzhi. In the dream, Zhuang Zhou imagined himself a butterfly with no memory of his time as a scholar, and on waking was unsure whether he was himself dreaming of metamorphosing into a bug, or if he was a bug dreaming of the life and authority of Zhuang Zhou. This brief anecdote in the Zhuangzhi is often analyzed as an early example of “reality monitoring”: the recognition of a lucid and non-lucid state of the mind, and the ability to shift between them.

Reality monitoring is one small gear in the factory of psychoanalysis, a factory which has come under contemporary critique for overstepping its patents on the subconscious, for strictly imposing ideas of the general, societal mind on the individual. Freud is the obvious flagbearer of psychoanalysis, which in the context of dreams seeks to analyze the content of a dream to discern how its themes reflect on the psyche of the dreamer. Freud’s seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams claims that all dreams are driven by wish-fulfillment, which is to say that in every dream, something happens which the dreamer expressly desires or abhors, which is to say that in every dream, something happens to the dreamer. While psychoanalysis is often brushed over for astute observations like these, some tread a bit more water. Carl Jung built our popular perceptions of dream analysis, directing any serious study strictly to the images presented in dreams. This specific niche in psychology, partnered with Rorschach’s stains, inspires therapists in throwaway scenes of half-baked films—is the Man Who Breathes Shadows and lives behind my house a symbol of dread, and does this jot of ink force remembrance of the woman who left you?

But Jung did not study intending to form leagues of insipid doctors. He aimed to delineate patterns of the unconscious, where all images are filtered through similar images formed by other dreamers, all forming different archetypes of experience. Those with the most prominence, Jung found, were the animus, the anima, and the shadow: respectively, the unconscious, masculine side of a woman; the unconscious, feminine side of a man; and the entire subconscious side of the human. Infrequent archetypes abound below these three in the hierarchy, including primal figures of mother goddesses and old wise men, and every object in the dreamer’s head, every token observed in the film reels of dream, must be observed and labeled into the subconscious through an archetype. These are the forces, according to Jung, that play beneath our surfaces.

Still, Jung cautioned against clarifying the purposes and definitions of dreams without clearly understanding the life of the dreamer. Despite creating a potential theology of the subconscious, he was acutely aware of the mind’s roil, of the enigmatic language and mechanics of dreams. Even as we may never understand the mechanics of its game or the grammar of its language, Jung stressed the importance of our latent selves, stating that we experience the subconscious just as we experience the conscious, in roughly the same cycles as the sun and moon. If so much value is ascribed to the conscious, how much have we missed in neglecting our midnight wanderings?

The Man Who Breathes Shadows is not the only man, woman, or ghost who follows my sleep. He is one character from the dark author of the author of this essay, one defunct product of the subconscious maladapted to the waking world. He is only another pseudonym for something cohesive inside this mind, something recurring, something that feels this body is a hunted thing. Another popular archetype is the Ouroboros, where Jung defines it as an integration into the whole person of the shadow, the archetype for the total unconscious mind of the individual. The Ouroboros, Jung writes, is the mind devouring itself, turning itself into a circulatory process.

As I concede again to the chemicals in my brain, as the wheel laps again on its circuit and dusk yields to waves of dark water, in the mind, a theater troupe of friends and cryptids, settings and scenarios, take stage and play. The snake coils deeper in itself, and we do not know why.


Landon Wittmer is an emerging writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who spends too much time on JSTOR and uses creative writing as his outlet. He can be found in the small nooks of your local library.

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