ⓘ Verbal language in dreams


ⓘ Verbal language in dreams

Verbal language in dreams is the speech - most commonly in the form of a dialogue between the dreamer him/herself and other dream characters - which forms part of the overall dream scenario. Historically, there have been abundant references to verbal language in dreams going back millennia. Early in the twentieth century German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin presented a large corpus of dream speech, almost all from his own dreams and virtually all deviant, without any pretense that this was representative of dream speech in general. The first systematic elicitation of verbal language in dreams from a large subject pool under methodological protocols was presented beginning in the early 1980s, along with detailed analyses as well as theoretical consideration of the implications for various dream models, from the psychoanalytic approach to more recent theories.


1. Dream language in history

Traditionally, dreams have been defined predominantly in imagistic terms. Prominent dream theories of the modern era from Sigmund Freuds psychoanalytic model 1900 to the present have similarly placed emphasis of the visual aspects of dreams. Yet, even the earliest of written sources, such as the Hebrew Bible and The Odyssey make clear that dreams need not be "silent movies"; they may be "talkies" incorporating a "sound track" abounding in verbal dialogues or monologues.

A survey by Heynick of several books containing over 300 dreams, both genuine reports and dreams incorporated into works of fiction, showed that some three-quarters contained verbal dialogue or explicit reference to speech in the dream. As a specimen of a dream with dialogue as part of a famous work of fiction, Heynick cites the dream of Charles Swann, the main character in Prousts Swanns Way 1913; italics added:

The painter remarked to Swann that Napoleon III had eclipsed himself immediately after Odette. "They had obviously arranged it between them," he added; "they must have agreed to meet at the foot of the cliff, but they wouldnt say good-bye together, it might have looked odd. She his mistress." The strange young man burst into tears. Swann endeavored to console him. "After all, she is quite right," he said to the young man, drying his eyes for him and taking off his fez to make him feel more at ease. "Ive advised her to do that myself a dozen times. Why be so distressed? He was obviously the man to understand her."

In 1906 Kraepelin, a pioneer of the somatic approach to psychiatry and of the methodical classification of psychiatric disorders, published a 105-page monograph Uber Sprachstorungen im Traume On Speech Disorders in Dreams. As the title suggests, Kraepelins declared aim was to analyze only deviant specimens of speech from dreams. Specimens reflecting correct speech processes were excluded from his study. To this end, Kraepelin assembled in the course of twenty years 286 specimens, the vast majority drawn from his own dreams, with no pretense to nonselectivity. He apparently drew in large measure from hypnagogic and occasionally hypnopompic dreamlets experienced when falling asleep and waking up, which differ phenomologically from full-fledged dreams and are characterized by different neurological indices as well.

Kraepelin meticulously classified his collection of dreams according to the nature of the deviances from correct normal speech in wakefulness. Three-fifths of his specimens were grouped as disorders of word selection, including large numbers of neologisms non-existing words, typically formed by combinations of existing words or their components; just over one-fifth as disorders of discourse ; and just under one fifth as disorders of thought. Although it was well known at the time that the speech of normal people in wakefulness is often fraught with errors, Kraepelin prized his corpus of deviant dream speech for the profound nature of many of the errors they contained, different from the common slips of the tongue made by mentally healthy people in everyday life. He likened various specimens of his dream speech corpus to the speech in waking life of patients with dementia praecox schizophrenia, speech confusion, and aphasia. Kraeplin saw his dream experiences as affording him a normal person first-hand insight into these pathological processes. He further speculated on neurological concomitants involving the activities and interaction of areas of the brain - the cerebral cortex, Wernickes coil, Brocas coil - which are different from in normal wakefulness. Although several of Kraepelins dream speech specimens are amenable to interpretation for their latent sexual significance, he had no interest in the psychoanalytic approach and made no reference to his contemporary Freud in any of his writings.

Prior to the 1980s, therefore, no indices or standards existed that were representative of the verbal language component of the dreams of a large general population. But beginning in 1983, Heynick reported in a series of publications the results of two experiments designed to evaluate, first, the linguistic competence and, subsequently, the pragmatic competence of the dreamer in the dreaming state, using large subject pools drawn from the general population in this case in the Netherlands and following careful protocols designed to avoid selectivity and maximize accuracy of recall.


2. Linguistic performance

The term "linguistic performance," central to this experiment, derives from the transformational-generative TG revolution in linguistics in the second half of the twentieth century and the concomitant emergence of the field of formal psycholinguistics. The TG model of language generation assumes an ideal "linguistic competence" on the part of the speaker, theoretically enabling him or her to generate all the infinite number of well-formed sentences in the native language while generating none of the ill-formed sentences. That in actual use, i.e., linguistic performance, the speaker is limited in, among other things, the complexity or elaboration of the sentences he or she can generate, and often produces utterances which are ill-formed, is due to the limitations of the various auxiliary psychological mechanisms at the speakers disposal, such as limited short-term memory, perceptual limitations, and defective feedback, as well as to factors such as deliberate changes in structure in mid-sentence, and unconscious interference of the Freudian type.

All the above has traditionally applied to the native speaker in the waking state. The experiment explored the linguistic performance of the native speaker in the dreaming state.

78 Dutch subjects sleeping at home recorded on special forms following precise protocol instructions a total of 566 Dutch utterances directly recalled and transcribed from 566 dreams which had been in progress prior to alarm clock awakening in the morning. For just over 80 percent of all awakenings, there was either no dream in progress at the time of awakening or no verbal material to be reported from the dream. The subjects reported as part of the questionnaire form that 60 percent of the utterances were said by him or herself in the dream scenario; 40 percent by someone else, usually addressed to the dreamer.

Word-count analysis showed the utterances in the corpus to have a wide range of length, with a mean utterance length of 7.5 words and a mean sentence length of 6.5 words. The declarative sentences in the corpus were analyzed for complexity sentential elaboration using in particular the number of subordinate clauses per unit as an index. The corpus when classed into three groups according to the education level of the subject-dreamers showed that those with most education had the highest sentential elaboration; those with the least, the lowest; with those with intermediate education scoring in between.

72 of the 566 utterances were marked by their respective subjects in response to one of the questions on the form as deviating from wakeful usage, although analysis of the same specimens by two academic linguists deemed the large majority of those marked utterances to be fully acceptable Dutch. Fewer than 5 percent of all utterances clearly deviated from correct wakeful speech. These included semantic anomalies, faulty lexical substitutions, neologisms word-blends, non-existent proper names, language mixing, and in two instances syntactic errors.


3. Pragmatic competence

The subjects in the above experiment were not asked to report the full dream scenario during which the utterances were made. Excluded, therefore, from the analysis was any consideration of "pragmatic competence," the "knowledge of condition and manner or appropriate use Then that girl came out again, and my son had already told her mother that I had tried to help her get rid of her cold with the lotah. I simply knew that he had said that, but I didnt hear him say that literally. Then I said to that girl "In the future, when you catch a cold, you should go to the doctor and have him write out a prescription for medicine."

In general, the dreamer as to continue the film metaphor "script-writer" appears to have at his or her command not just a "story grammar" capable of generating a reasonably, though not always, coherent overall scenario, but also the linguistic pragmatic competence to generate verbal dialogue which is usually, though again not always, appropriate to that scenario.


4. Theoretical implications for dream models

The abundance of verbal language in dreams - typically in the form of dialogue between the dreamer and other characters in the dream scenario - which generally shows a syntactic and lexical well-formedness comparable to speech in the waking state, and which in addition is, far more often than not, appropriate to the dream context, has, in Heynicks theoretical analysis, profound consequences for overall dream theories, past and present.


4.1. Theoretical implications for dream models Psychoanalytic model

Freuds psychoanalytic model of the mind and, in particular, his theory of dream generation and its function posit the existence of two global modes of mental functioning. The primary process, characterized by such mechanisms as condensations, displacements, and reversals and the absence of any sense of negation is theoretically characteristic of the infantile mode of thinking. It is superseded in the course of ontogeny by the development of the conscious part of the mind, which in the older child and adult is governed by the secondary process, adhering to the rules of grammar and logic. The verbal language which the developing child acquires is for Freud by definition a secondary process. The primary process in psychoanalytic theory is however not banished from the mind, but is contained in the unconscious, where it continues to characterize the mode of functioning of that part of the psyche.

The unconscious with its primary process mode - along with its repressed ideational content from early childhood, such as the Oedipus complex - provides, in Freuds theory, the driving force and initial input to dreams. Freud attributed the generation of a more or less coherent dream narrative to the process of "secondary revision," which might he vacillated on this issue be "a contribution on the part of waking thought to the construction of dreams" rather than part of the "dream work" proper. The dream-like features which one experiences in dreams, such as condensations, displacements symbolism, and reversals, are the manifestations of the primary-process input to the dream generation process.

Yet the dreams of Freuds own and those of his patients, which he provides in The Interpretation of Dreams and elsewhere, typically abound in verbal dialogue, which is always syntactically well-formed, often complex containing subordinate clauses and usually, though not always, semantically well-formed and appropriate to the context of the dream.

As an example, Heynick cites, among others, the "dream of Irmas injection, which Freud himself considered to be of central importance to the development of his dream theory:

I said to Irma: "If you still get pains, its really your own fault." She replied: "If you only knew what pains Ive got in my throat and stomach and abdomen - its choking me." We go out a door which is on the corner of the building to behold the beautiful Williams campus. A red-brick wall extends down a green lawn to the classic white Puritan buildings.

Van says, "They chose Mary" or seems to say that "reflecting their priorities to attract a speaker who might help them with their fund-raising efforts." "Thats why you have such beautiful buildings," I note, "and why there is nothing in them."

Hobson presents this specimen as an example of how dreams can sometimes reflect personal concerns - in this case relating to his academic squabbles with his colleagues due to his anti-psychoanalytic stance within the psychiatric profession. As Heynick points out, the personal significance in this dream is in fact derived almost exclusively from the verbal dialogue, without which the dream would lose all its meaning.


4.2. Theoretical implications for dream models Psychoneirics model

The psychoneirics from Greek; psycho = mind + oneiros = dream model of dream generation, formulated by Foulkes from the late 1970s onwards, is cited as an exemplary model though not necessarily the only possible type of model of how the generation of verbal language can be incorporated into the generation of the overall dream scenario. Patterned on the psycholinguistic model of speech production in wakefulness, the psychoneirics model is basically non-neurological. It views dream generation in humans as, like speech in humans, a skillful cognitive act, in fact possibly drawing upon the selfsame cognitive abilities.

The input to the dreaming process involves not unlike the activation-synthesis hypothesis of dreaming the diffuse activation of memory elements. Psychoneirics focuses on the midrange dream generation processes regardless of whether or not the dream happens to include verbal dialogue as involving "schematic selection" and "element activation," analogous to the syntactic frame sentence structure selection and word selection of psycholinguistic models. The dream-like features of dreams, such as condensations composite images and anomalous narrative shifts, are seen as residual flux of the dream production mechanism, which is otherwise doing a reasonably good job of developing the initial input into a coherent narrative) Under this theoretical assumption that the human dream-generation ability and speech-generation ability in wakefulness derive from similar cognitive capacities, the psychoneirics model can claim to seamlessly account for the generation of verbal dialogue within dreams.


5. Implications for psycholinguistics and language psychology

The data presented in the above experiments is considered as having implications not just for the evaluation of the various existing models of dream generation, but also for models of speech generation in general, that is in everyday life.

Dreaming is a state of consciousness different from the normal wakeful state. With regard to actions within the dream, dreaming consciousness is presumably characterized by a diminished capacity for deliberate intention on the part of the dreamer and a diminished attention to, or diminished ability to receive and monitor feedback from, the actions including speech acts as they are being carried out in the dream. The characteristics of dialogue in dreams indicate that despite the presumed diminished intention, attention and feedback on the part of the dreamer as speaker-listener and scriptwriter, the utterances generated, far more often than not, are semantically and syntactically well-formed and appropriate to the overall scenario. The implication is that the human capacity for language in general that is, in everyday wakefulness can largely rely on processes which, once they are triggered when the conditions match those required for their operation, can generate verbal utterances automatically, outside of awareness and without the need for intervention by the speaker except at points where some critical choice is made.

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