On a beach on the Adriatic coast of Italy in 1970, I was about to wade into the sea when I stopped to answer a question about the language of my dreams. Two young employees of the hotel where I was staying with my mother and sisters were setting up the striped beach umbrellas and folding chairs, as they did every morning, when one of them asked me if I dreamt in English or Italian. Students at the local university, these two young men were curious about what goes on inside the head of an eleven-year-old Canadian boy of Italian descent. Maybe they were studying psychology.
I can’t remember if I gave a definite answer. I doubt it. Like most children — in fact, like most adults — I took no interest in my dreams even though by the age of eleven, as the research confirms, I had been starring as the lead character in my dreams for several years already. My dreams were by then as self-absorbed as those of any adult. Before shaking up the sleepy business of dream interpretation, Sigmund Freud accepted the “undisputed fact” that the content of dreams, no matter how fragmented or bizarre, springs from personal experience. As he put it, “Dreams are completely egotistical.”
My Italian dream researchers of half a century ago also accepted as fact that dreams are autobiographical. Their question about the language of my dreams was obviously intended to find out about me. Was I, in spite of growing up in anglophone Canada, as innately Italian as they were? Language and ethnicity often go hand in hand.
However, their question didn’t fit in with another of the undisputed facts about dreams: they’re overwhelmingly visual. (Freud again: “Dreams think essentially in images.”) Their question wasn’t the more typical one about what I “saw” in my dreams. They weren’t interested in whether I dreamt about skating on the ice rink in my Toronto neighbourhood, or getting up the courage to jump off the hotel pier into the Adriatic. Contrary to typical discussions about dreams, they wanted to know what I “heard” while dreaming.
When I first explored the topic of dream interpretation decades ago, I was surprised to read that some people reported “hearing” not just fragments of speech in their dreams but entire conversations. Most notable among them is Sigmund Freud who in The Interpretation of Dreams describes in detail a dream he had in 1895. In this dream, the very first for which Freud attempted a complete interpretation, no fewer than four different people — Freud himself, one of his patients, and two of his colleagues — speak in complete sentences. Freud may have been one of those rare super-dreamers who remember every last dream detail as if captured with the latest digital voice recorder and megapixel camera.
Freud’s wish-fulfillment theory of dreams was an attempt to draw coherent meaning out of unintelligibility. Even so, he accepted that every dream has at least one inscrutable moment that defies explanation. His own ingenuity would be no match for the challenge posed by the dream’s “point of contact with the unknown,” as he called it. More significantly perhaps is Freud’s recognition that our recollection of dreams may be inaccurate. This wasn’t a new idea even in Freud’s day, of course. Psychiatrists before him had made the same point. Inadvertently, as we try to remember our dreams, we fill in the gaps between dream images with new details, turning the broken fragments into an intelligible, if brief, story. With the possible exception of those who believe that God speaks through dreams or that dreams foretell the future, no one disputes that remembering dreams is a mug’s game most of the time.
Might the inventor of psychoanalysis himself have been tempted to embellish a little when he reported in astonishing detail what he and three others said in his dream of 1895? Today’s ever-diminishing coterie of Freudians may already have settled that question among themselves. At a minimum, it’s important to note that Freud also thought that the direct speech we “hear” in dreams, although borrowed from waking life, is “raw material” that may be “cut up” into small pieces and scattered willy-nilly throughout a dream.
If it’s indeed possible to remember entire sentences spoken in dreams, then, unlike Freud, I’m a deficient dreamer. Any words spoken in my dreams — whether in English or Italian — are usually garbled. On the rare occasion that I do remember clearly what I or someone else said in my dream, it’s usually just a word or a phrase that seems to have only just prevailed over the dream’s dominant, eery silence. Out of a lingering sense of duty to my beach psychologists of fifty years ago, I can answer definitively that those words in my dreams are most often in English — but sometimes in Italian too. I am most certainly not one of those fantastical dreamers who have alleged that they can speak a foreign language more fluently and correctly while asleep.
Ordinary dreamers like me will admit that the few vivid images and strong emotions of our dreams will never yield to more than a basic interpretation. Fragments of dreams are all we have because that’s the way our brains work while asleep. There is no mystery to unravel. Dreams don’t conceal a deeper meaning beyond that of our most obvious fears and desires. They tell us that we’re all afraid of something, that we all sometimes feel alone and helpless, and that we want to be reassured and loved. Embellishing our dreams post hoc as if drafting the plot of a detective story is a temptation to resist. Dreams don’t need detectives.
But the belief persists that interpreting dreams holds the key to understanding our innermost selves. Sly questions like the one my beach psychologists asked me decades ago tantalize us with the promise of unravelling an otherwise unplumbable mystery. If you haven’t been asked about the language of your dreams, maybe you’re familiar with another such question: Do you dream in colour or in black and white? The answer is supposed to startle you into discovering something you didn’t already know about yourself. We may all be susceptible to some extent to these suggestive questions. We’re not satisfied with the eery fragments of our dreams. The thinking goes that if we could figure out the right method, we could finally, accurately interpret our dreams. We want to believe that every dream has a hidden, personal meaning.
But my beach psychologists should have asked me a few direct questions instead of asking me about my dreams. What language — Italian or English — did I speak at home? With whom did I speak mostly in English, and with whom mostly in Italian? With my mother I spoke in Italian, as she encouraged my sisters and I to do — at least while we travelled through Italy. With my sisters, I spoke mostly in English, rarely in Italian.
While the specific content of dreams may not be worth the effort of analyzing in detail, the question of why we dream at all remains a mystery worth investigating. For decades, neuroscientists have been mapping out the complex activity of our sleeping and dreaming brains. Their research may some day uncover the reason why humans have evolved the capacity to dream. Some neuroscientists theorize that dreams are part of a process of consolidating memories. But discovering more about how our sleeping brains work isn’t the same as finding the key to the secret meaning of dreams.
On decoding the content of dreams, we’re no further ahead than we were back in second-century Greece when Artemidorus of Daldis wrote his treatise on how to interpret dreams. For Artemidorus, dreams encrypt information about the future. Like dreaming itself, the stubborn belief that dreams contain hidden messages — in whatever language — is ancient.
Ben D’Andrea is a North Vancouver writer and editor who has taught English literature, professional writing, and procedural law in BC colleges and universities. He is the author of Rhymes Biggle and Wee, a book of limericks for children.