Dreams and Narrative

What the story-like nature of dreams tells us about dreams

Posted Mar 06, 2015

Most of us experience dreams as stories. In a dream we (the dreamers) are typically doing something with somebody in order to attain some desired but elusive goal. There is effort to attain the goal, there is a cast of characters interacting with respect to the goal, there are events that transpire, there are obstacles preventing goal attainment and there is often a climax when obstacles are overcome and then the story reaches resolution or an end. Dreams are very much like stories—or at least dream reports are very much like stories.

Skeptics concerning dream content appear to argue that the story structure we see associated with dreams comes from the memory the dream report is based upon and not the dream experience itself (e.g. Dennett, 1981). But the empirical data concerning recurring patterns of dream content suggests that this cannot be the case. For example empirical study of thousands of dream reports show that when male strangers appear in the report then physical aggression is much more likely to appear in the report. Can such a pattern come from the reporting of dreams? Should we postulate that memory itself has this sort of imagistic pattern in it? Why does this pattern only occur when memory is reporting a dream? If the pattern is intrinsic to memory then why does it not occur when memory reports on yesterday’s waking events? The most reasonable explanation for the appearance of recurring content patterns in dreams is that the report relatively faithfully reflects the dream and that dreams are indeed real experiences. Neuroimaging studies of the dreaming brain also support this conclusion. It would be surprising indeed if the individual experienced nothing in association with the widespread brain activation patterns we see associated with REM. We conclude that dreams are experiences that very often appear in the form of stories. Therefore we can learn something about dreams by examining the nature of stories.

Many thousands of empirical investigations of the content of dreams generally support the story structure of dream reports-though the story structure is not always linear or pristine or progressive. Metalepses (where we get an interruption of one story in order to begin another story—a story within a story) abound; character transformations are also common and so forth. But interestingly all of these borderline bizarre occurrences in dreams are well known phenomena in literature and narrative genres (e.g. film, comics, novels etc) as well.

Many dream theorists and many narrative theorists have pointed out that both dreams and narratives display the peculiar logic wherein the listener to the dream or to a narrative takes up an interpretive stance toward the "text." There is the paradoxical anticipation of a feeling of retrospection /remembrance after listening to the story. There is both prolepsis in the form of anticipation of later reflecting on the story and an analepsis in the form of retrospective review of the story...in fact the interpreter anticipates that retrospective review or interpretive stance toward the dream.

This interpretive stance towards dreams is not just due to Freud. Cultures all over the world have engaged in dream interpretation. It is a very common phenomenon. When people hear dreams they hear narratives that “want” or need to be interpreted.  

The story structure of dreams may also confer on dreams many of the common characteristics of dreams. Stories require temporal unfolding of action, a hero in an ‘agent” slot, interacting characters that undergo transformation into other characters and all have asymmetrical relations to the hero. There is a beginning, climax, and resolution. Given all these story-derived characteristics of dreams perhaps scientists interested in dreams should study narrative phenomena first before attempting to understand dreams!

But even if we grant that many dreams display narrative structure and that because of that structure dreams cry out for interpretation...what does it tell us about the nature and function of dreams? I think that a minimum it suggests that dreams must carry within them a drive to be interpreted by either the dreamer himself or by others. Thus, dreams are often shared with others in pre-modern tribal cultures. By virtue of their narrative structure dreams must be communicative devices or signals whose targets are the waking self and other members of the social group. This social nature of dreams has often been noted but rarely studied. It’s time to put the social nature of dreams on the research agenda.

Dennett, Daniel (1981). “Are Dreams Experiences?” Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology. Brighton: Harvester P, 129–48.

Kilroe, Patricia (2000). “The Dream as Text, the Dream as Narrative.” Dreaming 10.3, 125–37.

Montangero, Jacques, Dreams are narrative simulations of autobiographical episodes, not stories or scripts: A review. Dreaming, Vol 22(3), Sep 2012, 157-172.

States, Bert O. (1993). Dreaming and Storytelling. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP.

Walsh, Richard (2010). “Dreaming and Narrative Theory.” F. L. Aldama et al. (eds). Toward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts. Austin: U of Texas P, 141–57.