Unauthorized Online Supplement to
A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind
Samuel Guttenplan (ed.)
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1995)
Unauthorized Online Supplement editor:  Larry Hauser 
February 19, 1878
At our boarding - place there was at the time a quartette of us grass widowers, as we called ourselves, and in order to pass away the time pleasantly we had organized a 'grass widowers' euchre club. We used to meet almost every evening after dinner in the dinning - room, and play until about eleven o'clock, when we would retire. On the above date I dreamed that after playing our usual evening games we took our departure for our rooms, and on the way up the second flight of stairs I heard a slight movement behind me; on looking around I found I was being followed by a tall figure robed in a long, loose white gown, which came down to the floor. The figure seemed to be that of a man - I would say, about seven feet tall - who followed me up the second flight and along the hallway, entering my room. After coming in the door he made a circle of the room and seemed to be looking for something, and when he approached the door to make his exit he stopped still, and with a gesture of his hand remarked, 'I have taken all you have.' On the following morning, about 9:30 o'clock, I received a telegram from my wife announcing the death of our only baby.
Signed "F."  (Miller p. 15)
Everyone dreams. Every night when people sleep, they slip into this mystical dream world filled with sequences of images that range from the very terrifying to the most pleasant. Many aspects of dreams can be difficult to research since much of the experience is accountable only by each respective person, and not open for others to view. Dreams have to be relayed to others because they can not be viewed by anyone but the dreamer. This paper will discuss scientific, mythological, and symbolic ideas concerning dreams. The more we understand about dreams, the closer we will be to understanding our inner selves.


Dreams were not studied extensively in the laboratory setting until the observation of REM. REM stands for rapid eye movements which happen four to six times every night when you sleep. The first series of these eye movements happens about an hour after falling asleep and lasts from five to ten minutes. Throughout the night REM periods happen in intervals of about 90 minutes and the episodes last progressively longer each time. It is during REM that you dream those dreams you are apt to remember. It is possible to dream while not in REM sleep, but the probability of remembering your dream is significantly lower. If you think about a dream that you have had in which you awoke suddenly, its images were probably still readily available in your head. Compare this to a morning in which you awoke after sleeping in and you knew that you had a dream, but remember only the feelings it evoked and can not recall the events that took place. These situations are common with most people.

The discovery of REM sleep allowed scientists to recognize when a person was dreaming and investigate the physiological part of REM sleep. Other patterns were noticed that went along with REM sleep. They include a characteristic brain wave pattern, and relaxation of muscles. Experiments were conducted on the deprivation of REM sleep. They found that the body has a definite need for REM sleep. Everyone needs REM sleep, possibly because everyone needs to dream. All that is known scientifically barely scratches the surface, but we do now know that we all do dream.


The use of dreams as a means of predicting to future can be traced back to the Bible. There are countless examples of people who have had dreams come true, such as the dream described at the beginning of this paper. Can there be that many coincidences between dreams and their events actually happening or is there validity in the argument that dreams can be used to predict the future? The following instances come from the book "The Unknown"

  1. A brother learns the death of his sister by a terrible nightmare.
  2. A young girl sees beforehand, in a dream, the man whom she will marry.
  3. A gentleman sees, in a dream, a lady whom he knows arriving at night in a railroad station, her journey having been undertaken suddenly.
  4. A magistrate sees three years in advance the commission of a crime, down to the smallest details.
  5. Several persons report that they have seen towns and landscapes before they ever visited them, and have seen themselves in situations in which they found themselves long after.
Déjà vu could be explained as a dream that has been forgotten until it comes true. When we sleep our mind could become so supersensitive that it picks up even the slightest indication, e.g., of an enemy, and converts this negative idea into images of warning. Not only could the sleeping mind pick up these "bad vibes," as well as external sounds and light, but it could even see hours or days ahead of the awake mind. Is this against the laws of nature? The ant that exists in the depths of the earth, away from atmospheric changes, knows the approach of harvest time, and comes up to get food. The squirrels are sometimes better weather forecasters than the local news channel. With some foresight they know of the approaching winter 24 hours ahead, and builds their houses accordingly. Every year people around the world tune into their radios to hear if the groundhog saw his shadow and went back into his hole, somehow knowing if winter will continue. If animals somehow have this perception isn't it possible we could too? Maybe the "myths" of dreams foretelling the future have some truth to them; and maybe nothing supernatural is involved.


Whenever there is a discussion of dreams and what they mean the name of Sigmund Freud is normally part of it. Freud theorized that dreams were a way of fulfilling irrational wishes when our conscious control is weakened, when we sleep. These desires have been repressed because of society's pressure and because of the morals instilled in us as we grew up. Freud felt that dream language is the process of clouding and distorting these irrational wishes, which allows us to keep on sleeping undisturbed. This idea was key to Freud's concept of symbolism. The symbol was used to disguise the wish. As Erich Fromm puts it "Symbolic language is conceived as a 'secret code'; dream interpretation as the work of deciphering it" (pg. 18). Just like we need an interpreter to understand an unknown language, an understanding of symbolism is needed to understand the language of dreams.

A symbol can be said to be something that represents something else. Guttenplan says "representation involves one thing's 'standing for', 'being about', 'referring to or denoting' something else" (pg. 536). The next step in understanding symbols then, is to find the connection between the symbol itself and that which it symbolizes. Here Fromm separates symbols into three categories of symbols: the conventional, the accidental and the universal.

Conventional symbols are closely related to language and are the symbols that we as people know best. When we hear or see the word "cat" the letters that spell out "cat" stand for the four legged animal that meow's and drinks milk. The word "cat" and the thing cat have no inherent connection and the only reason the word symbolizes the thing is the convention of us learning to use the word "cat" for the thing cat through repeated experience. Conventional symbols are not restricted to language. Other examples of conventional symbols are the cross, symbolizing the Christian church, the flag of the United States of America symbolizing the idea of our country, or the red ribbon that symbolizes the idea of Aids.

Accidental symbols are not shared amongst all people. The relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolizes is non inherent, just like conventional symbols. Let us say that you have an awful experience on your first date. Your date took you to a pizza place where the both of you were arrested for the use of counterfeit money. Pizza places may now symbolize a horrid feeling to you, because of this event. Maybe your Grandmother died in a plane crash. This would cause an association between planes and the death of your grandmother. A connection could be formed with any object, place, person, etc. with a specific mood. For it to be an accidental symbol the relationship of the thing with the mood is accidental and is not shared with every other person.

The universal symbol has an inherent (innate and humanly universal) connection with that which it symbolizes. A dark empty ally has a relationship to loneliness and abandonment just like a blooming meadow on a sunny day is related to feelings of joy and freedom. Universal symbols stem from the inner feeling that one gets from the very nature of something, sometimes one feeling that is more predominant than others. Fire is alive, quickly moving, excitable and energetic. Water is slower than fire, but still ever changing and flowing steadily forward. A room with no windows and soundproof is enclosing, surrounding, restraining. Fromm writes "The universal symbol is rooted in the properties of our body, our senses, and our mind, which are common to all men, and therefore, not restricted to individuals or to specific groups" (pg. 68).


While dreaming the individual actually experiences the feelings and emotions without actually doing the physical actions. This is key to Descartes' argument that the physical world could just be a dream. So in a dream if you are riding a horse, you aren't actually riding a horse. If you are afraid of a horse in a dream then you are actually afraid. Now the question comes up, are you afraid of a horse or is the horse symbolic of something else? If in waking life you are afraid of one particular horse, then in your dream, plausibly, you are afraid of that horse. If you are afraid of not one horse, but all horses in waking life, then the horse in your dream could symbolize your fear of all horses. If in waking life you do not fear horses, though, then, presumably, the horse in your dream symbolizes something else. Was the horse intimidating? What color was it? For example, would a black horse give rise to different feelings than a white horse? To find what the horse truly symbolizes would take an analysis by the person to determine whether the horse is an accidental or universal symbol and incorporate that with the rest of the images in the dream. (Just a note of warning. Not everything has to be symbolic. Freud did say "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.")

Our interpretative grasp of our dreams can vary from absolute confusion to crystal clarity that opens the window of insight so that we learn more about ourselves. Just as the musician needs patience and practice to master his area, so does a person who wants to be able to interpret dreams. You can not interpret a dream by reading this essay or any one book. It will take time and understanding of the individual, their life and their other dreams. This is why the best person to practice on is yourself, because no one knows you or the dreams you experience better than you. Freud would disagree with this because he felt the purpose of the symbolic nature of your dreams was to be sure you wouldn't see the true meaning. Freud would suggest that another person would have better insight and look at your dreams impartially.

Here are a few tips paraphrased from Patricia Garfield on keeping a journal of your dreams for better personal analysis (pg. 189-191):

  1. Accept and record all dreams, no matter how foolish they seem
  2. Before falling asleep remind yourself to remember your dream
  3. When you awaken, don't open your eyes. Lay there and let the images of the dream flow back.
  4. When dream recall is complete in one position, move slowly to another, because this may cause more recall.
  5. Record your dreams whenever they come to you (even days later).
  6. Try to record your dreams with your eyes closed. Opening them may cause disruptions in the recall.
  7. Record your dreams as you recall them except in the case of verbal expressions, record those first.
  8. Share your dreams with others. It helps in recall.
  9. Try to title your dreams.
  10. Attempt to translate your dreams; they can be very insightful.
  11. Don't worry, dream recall will get easier the more you do it.

Dreams can prove to be a very valuable tool for gaining insight concerning your mind. They could be prophetic in nature or they could symbolize unfilled desires. In all of the theories, ideas, myths, and mysteries that surround dreams there still lies the fact that everyone dreams. Like snow flakes, no two dreams are the same, so there is a new insight awaiting everyone when they wake up. Sweet dreams.


Dunlop, Charles E. M. (1977). Philosophical Essays on Dreaming, London: Corneal University Press
Flammarion, Camille (1900). The Unknown, Harper & Brothers
Fromm, Erich (1951). The Forgotten Language, Toronto: Rinehart & Co. Inc.
Garfield, Patricia (1974). Creative Dreams, New York: Ballantine Books
Gregory, Richard L (1987). The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press  Guttenplan, Samuel (1995). A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, Blackwell Publishers.
Miller, Gustavus Hindman (1931). Ten Thousand Dreams Interpreted or What's in a Dream, Chicago: M. A. Donohue & Co.


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