Because our nightly phantasmagorias decouple our thoughts from both causality and consequence, they’ve tempted clever interpreters across time and place. Babylonian myth-makers, Greek oracles, Inuit shamans, and modern psychoanalysts all analyzed dreams for their bright meanings and dark portents.

I learned how to play with dreams from one of my mentors, a historian named John O’Donnell, whose history of the rise of behaviorism is still read today. O’Donnell’s schooling in literature and psychology, along with a well developed sense of mischief, had prepared him to concoct witty and incisive interpretations of dreams, a psychology at the opposite pole from behaviorist formulations. John made a practice of making a game of the psychoanalytic method. When people shared their dreams with him, he showed them how extracting the meaning of dreams usually depended on playing with extended and recondite puns.

Here for example is the meaning he extracted from a nerve-racking dream I shared with him:

I told him that I dreamt that I’d awakened to find my front yard occupied by three contentious tow-truck drivers who were trying to hook a single hatchback (mine, alas) to three different rigs. A truck on each end seemed to want to pull the car apart. A third driver held to a thoroughly bonkers strategy to loop a steel cable around the car and haul it sideways. I had no success adjudicating their dispute. They kept at their territorial argument until I awoke feeling cranky and un-rested. “What could this wearying dream mean?” I asked my quick friend.

“How’s the dissertation going?” he wanted to know, smiling knowingly. “Not bad” I lied. (At the time I was wrestling with an organizational strategy for Chapter three, and badly losing the match.) “Except for chapter three,” I admitted, which seemed to begin in the middle. What was worse, the other sections of that chapter seemed to better belong in Chapters two and four. So maybe the problem was that I didn’t have a chapter at all. Forgetting we were talking about the dream and worried at impending slacker-hood, I thought I probably needed to get down to work and get the text headed in the right direction. “Aha!” he said with a stagey German accent, “Perhaps you have dreamed of a three-towed sloth!”

And so there it was—my besieged graduate student mind had played a joke on me in the form of a tormented pun.

Not long after, while planning to teach a unit on the rise of psychoanalysis to my own undergraduate class in European intellectual history at a college in upstate New York, I decided to assign classic texts on dreams written by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the founders of psychoanalysis. I asked the students to keep a notebook by their beds and capture the fleeting substance and imagery of their dreams. As for the classroom plan, I hoped that as we experimented playfully trying to extract meanings we would learn as much about the method of psychoanalysis as we could from the texts themselves.

The assignment yielded an interesting haul. One student said that he’d dreamed of a giant container of mint ice cream because he’d left the window of his dorm room open. (But this didn’t tell us much about hidden meaning that a psychoanalyst might make of the dream.) Several more reported the usual unremarkable and pointless jumble: the stuff that nearly all dreams are made of. When I called on one of my favorite students, he said he dreamt that he had forgotten to do the reading for this class. (A funny fellow, this was his way of confessing that he hadn’t done the reading for the class). “OK,” I said to the snickering students, “I was born at night, but in fact not last night.”

Just as I began to despair that the experiment would fail, one student, a bright biology major, recounted a striking, menacing, and vivid dream of an encounter with a very large, persistent, pursuing wasp. She woke up, she told us, just as the insect cornered her. With the manifest content of the dream intact and the memory of it still fresh, she immediately wrote down the particulars.

I asked the students if, in the spirit of the exercise, they would speculate on the meaning of her dream. One asked if the dream meant that the dreamer was afraid of flying. Our funny classmate got the laugh he was looking for when he asked if she knew somebody annoying at a nearby rival school, the one that had a yellow jacket for its mascot. This is also where the game got interesting. Yes in fact, she said, she actually had a special friend who was a student at that school.

And at this point I thought, “I’ve got it.”

I told her she didn’t need to answer the next two questions that I meant to ask, and that we’d just move on to another dream if discussing the content made her at all uncomfortable. No problem, she said. As a curious biology major she guaranteed that there was very little that she was squeamish about.

So I asked her if she had a boyfriend. Well yes, this special friend she’d mentioned, she said, but not a boyfriend—not exactly. And then I asked if she was having any disagreement with him. Yes, she said. Then I posed the key follow-up question: would she be able to tell us the nature of the dispute? And here again she didn’t mind answering; she explained that they were arguing about whether they would “take their relationship in a more serious direction.”

Like my mentor had done to me a few years before, I lowered my eyeglasses, put on a sage smile, leaned forward, and affected an Austrian accent: “Ah so! Could you, a student of biology, tell us the name of the genus for bees and wasps… bitte?” And then, amazed and bemused, she said, “Oh… My…God!” The class wanted to know what. And with a triumphant look, she nodded to me and turned to them and said with emphasis, “hymenoptera!”

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