Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 6b, Dream Analysis

Peterson gives us an account of his daughter’s dream. The real-life context is that she is the older sister of one-and-a-half-year-old brother, and still sees him as a baby, even though he can now walk around and use broken language. I can’t remember either of their names, and so I shall call them Matt and Tia.

Tia had a dream that Matt fell into a hole at the park (large woodland) near their house, and then Matt fell apart and then his bones fell out. The hole was full of water, and existed only because a tree that was standing there had burned. A large bug, that could swim, then pulled a whole Matt out of the hole, only he was bigger now.

There is certain imagery in this I can get behind being meaningful. Humans have been around things like the ground and water and the sky and trees for a long time, and I can imagine them being built into our psychology at a deep level and thus meaning something. I can imagine a tree meaning life, as trees existed in fertile soils. I can imagine the water being both scary, as it can become rough and dangerous, and hopeful, as it can be filled with fish.

On some level, I could even accept that idea of death and rebirth instead of growth and transition (although, I neither think nor feel the former is more meaningful or powerful than the latter). At this point, we’re at a push for what I find credible. There’s another implication I’m on the fence about: do dreams mean anything? For the purposes of this, I don’t know. But, I am open to the idea that a dream is a result of the brain processing something important while sleeping. That’s not to say it’s revealing a truth and certainly not that it’s communion with the supernatural. But, believably, Tia’s mind was trying to consolidate and make sense of the idea that Matt was no longer a baby. And it used the primal tools and water and bugs and death and rebirth.

But, I have to draw a line somewhere. And Peterson said that the tree represents the individual, because its structure resembles the nervous system or circulatory system. And there are some images that I just don’t accept have existed for long enough to be burned into deep psychology for it to be a tool of the dreaming mind.

A fellow blogger, tildeb, left a comment way back on Part 3a, drawing a line between myths and dreaming. Dreams are a personal story told with personal symbols, although some of those symbols may well be deeply ingrained on an evolutionary scale. Myths are an attempt to tell common stories with common symbols. Peterson’s language is that a dream is psychic (i.e. of the mind, not the mystical meaning) and that a myth is inter-psychic (i.e. exists in a shared mental space: culture and tradition). In a dream, you have (or are) the decoder of the symbols you create, and so you might know what it means. It’s interactive, but you are all the players. This isn’t the case for a myth.

Myths are interactive, and you have your own decoder to make sense of the symbols. But, it is just symbols and you have no idea if your decoder does the same thing as the author of the myth’s decoder. Which is to say, you have the tools to receive your own dreams, but you have to invent the meaning of myths for yourself. At which point, you may well be superimposing your values onto the myth ― and you never needed a myth for the values.

What tildeb suspects Peterson may have done ― and I find this credible ― is attempted to codify the meaning in particular myths as an objective fact, where the meaning is hugely personal and interpersonal and subjective. As a slightly comical analogy, consider this misheard lyrics video of O Zone’s Numa Numa. The (intentionally ironic) subtext is that the captioner assumed the song must be in English, and so this is what they made it say; it is not what it actually says.

2 thoughts on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 6b, Dream Analysis”

  1. Re “I am open to the idea that a dream is a result of the brain processing something important while sleeping.” I am in total agreement with this statement . . . but only if the word “important” is stricken.

    As with all things religious, the phenomena aren’t anywhere as questionable as the interpretations. We basically learn by making up stories. Each interpretation is a story, but it is fictional and may indeed be entirely personal. “To me, the tree represents a person . . . ” is one interpretation; another is “most times a tree is just a tree.” And, one may ask why it is that dreams need to be interpreted at all. Other than foreign languages what else needs interpretation to be understood? Since communication in dreams seems to be dominated by pictures, why interpret them at all?

  2. The dream is the private myth – full of symbols of private meaning, and a loose narrative that often makes no cohesive or rational sense but full to the brim with emotions, while our brains are busy paring and connecting and rewiring every night and our emotional overseer surges and recedes as the various meanings filter through our review and are stored or dropped in our borderless jigsaw puzzle mapping – while the public myth is the society’s dream. This is where it gets confusing because for the public myth to have power, to draw us in, to be both entertaining and informative, we have to be able to recognize the ‘costume’ of our own dream images authored by someone else within a story. We may not ‘know’ this costume has that particular meaning, but we feel the same emotional connection between them when we hear or see the story.

    So here’s the first thing (and where I think Peterson goes wrong, as do many, MANY religious/woo-believing people): he’s confusing allegory – the literal relationship between the object or event described in the story and a correlated second object or event (the tree represents a nervous system, or whatever). That’s allegory, not myth. This is a subtle but vital difference. (Plato includes both teaching tools in The Republic: the allegory of the cave, then the final chapter, the myth of Er. Two very different tools.)

    A myth is when we recognize a narrative story as the costumed images that we feel in our own dreams. And the signposts are as clear as clear can be: a signpost attributes superpowers or supernatural aspects or magical places to these costumed images: they represent something common to all of us, namely an archetype attribute common to al people. These supernatural elements are the necessary signposts, the symbols, of mythology. They are NOT allegorical.

    So here’s the second and vital thing: a myth has the power to be a personal revelation, a real experience (if we recognize and feel the costumes of our own dream images). This raises a really interesting psychological component and one I think JP misses entirely: what if we are not seeking meaning to our lives (this is a belief assumption) but actually seeking an experience of being alive? (This is the main conclusion and contribution made by Joseph Campbell in his lifelong study of mythology)

    Well, if this is the case, then myths offer us a personal experience of being alive (of seeing ourselves, some emotional kinship) in the main questing character facing the same archetypical challenges we must all face) if we understand and recognize the costumed clues that reside within the myth. Again, the supernatural is the main signpost.

    So this is the interaction between us and the myths we encounter: in effect, the myth is a teaching tool that helps reveal ourselves to ourselves and some guidance on how to adapt and adjust and become more than we were. It’s personal. And that’s why these stories remain identical over thousands and thousands of years but come to each generation costumed differently yet are immensely popular across all cultures, all languages, all religions, all ages! Don’t believe me? Test it.

    Go into a class of 20 or so rambunctious kids about 5 years old. Without raising your voice beyond having it carry to the back of the room, start saying something like: “Once upon a time, long long ago, there lived a little boy/girl named ____ who was visited by _____ (supernatural element).” In 30 years, I never had a class who didn’t immediately upon hearing something like this go quiet, go still, gather around, listen carefully, engage in vocalizing emotional aspects. It’s almost like we’re wired to hear such stories and intuitively know there’s something valuable just ahead.

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