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Paper presented at the 18th International Focusing Conference, The Netherlands, May 3-7, 2006.



When is the dream-time?                      


Campbell Purton, Ph.D.

Centre for Counselling Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK



In this paper I want to explore what dreams might be.  Freud called dreams ‘the royal road to the unconscious’, and how we understand the unconscious can have an impact on how we understand dreams.  I will begin with a few words on Gendlin’s view of ‘the unconscious’, and then raise the question of  how dreams fit into this view.  In my view the traditional account of dreams as experiences, images or stories occurring during sleep does not fit at all well with Gendlin’s view of the unconscious.


The problem is partly one of how dreams can be both conscious experiences involving imagery and stories, and unconscious (since they occur during sleep).  But there are other odd things about dreams, which together suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we think about dreaming.  This leads me to the philosopher Norman Malcolm’s radical suggestion (Malcolm, 1959) that dreams are not experiences taking place during sleep.  I largely agree with Malcolm, and I think that once his position is understood it can help us to modify Gendlin’s account of dreams in a way which brings it into line with the rest of his thinking about the unconscious.


Let me begin then with Gendlin’s account of ‘the unconscious’.  The traditional view of  unconscious processes is that they are similar to conscious processes except that we are unaware of them.  For example, unconscious anger or jealousy is something well-defined with an explicit structure similar to conscious anger or jealousy.  The only difference is that we are not aware of  the structure and don’t consciously feel what is there.  There are serious difficulties in this account which tend to be covered up by the picture we have of  the unconscious as like a room in the dark, where all sorts of things are present which we can’t see.  The central difficulty is that feelings are something we experience, something of which we are conscious.  The criterion for someone having a particular feeling is that in normal circumstances they are able to say what the feeling is.   If someone honestly reflects on their experience and says that they are not feeling angry, then that is usually good enough reason for saying that they are not angry.   The person who has the feelings is normally the final authority on what they feel. 


All this gets distorted by the Freudian picture of the unconscious, and the consequences are pernicious for therapy.  It was to Carl Rogers’ great credit that he held to the client’s experiencing as the truth of things, and denied that a therapist can know better than the client what the client is experiencing.  Following in the tradition of Rogers, Gendlin argues that although we may often not be explicitly aware of what we are experiencing, the implicit awareness that we have is not  to be understood as an unconscious version of what becomes explicit.   Someone who later comes to acknowledge their anger or jealousy was not then (in the past) angry or jealous; they may indeed honestly have reported the absence of these feelings.  The state in which they were in, in the past, was nevertheless related to the later anger or jealousy.  It was a state in which these emotions were implicit, and the disturbance associated with the incipient emotions may well have been visible to others, as well as puzzling to the person themself.  Implicit jealousy is just that -  it is a state which will emerge into jealousy as the person’s process is carried forward by circumstances.  But implicit jealousy is not yet jealousy, nor is it right to call it unconscious jealousy.


In sum, according to Gendlin, there are no unconscious processes going on in the sense of processes which are just like conscious ones, but hidden from view.  What is called the unconscious is really the realm of  the bodily implicit – it is the realm of what has not yet been formed.   Much goes on in the body of which we are unaware, but this is a matter of  implicit inter-affecting processes, and not of anything explicit.  In short, there are no explicit unconscious processes.


Now dreams seem to be an exception to this statement.  A dream is an explicit story, or sequence of images, and this story or sequence of images is supposed to take place while the dreamer is unconscious.  This is certainly the received view of dreams, which can be found in thinkers from Aristotle to Freud, as well as in common sense.

But it seems to me to be incompatible with Gendlin’s view of the unconscious.  If Gendlin is right there can’t be explicit unconscious processes – processes which are just like conscious processes, but hidden.  Yet dreams, in the traditional view, are exactly that: they are just like conscious experiences, but happen in the unconscious.


Now the notion of dreams as explicit, though unconscious, experiences is not only incompatible with Gendlin’s view of the unconscious. It also leads to more general and well-known philosophical difficulties.  Since the time of Descartes the traditional  view of dreams has led to a troubling argument for scepticism about human knowledge.  For if a dream can be explicit and just like a waking experience then there can be no way of distinguishing dreams from waking experiences.  Anything that can happen in waking experience could happen in a dream.  But then we cannot ever know whether we are dreaming or not.  All that you are experiencing now could be a dream – there is absolutely nothing about your present experiencing which could not happen in a dream.  Yet we can’t quite take this seriously – we don’t seriously suppose that we might now be dreaming.  But we should take the idea seriously if  dreams are explicit unconscious experiences.


Let me just mention two more puzzling things about dreams before coming to Gendlin’s own account of dreaming.


 (1) The first puzzle is that sometimes we have a long and complex dream which leads up to an event such as a shooting. We awake and realise that a car has just backfired in the road.  An example documented in a laboratory investigation of dreams is given by Daniel Dennett (Dunlop, 1977, p. 235):


Different stimuli were being used to waken dreamers, and one subject was wakened by cold water dripping on his back.  He related a dream in which he was singing in an opera.  Suddenly he heard and saw that the soprano had been struck by water falling from above; he ran to her and as he bent over her, felt water dripping on his back.


Such dreams are puzzling because it is hard to doubt that the external event was involved in generating the dream, yet most of the dream seems to occur well before the clock rings. It is as if the dream is carefully constructed so as to reach its conclusion just as the external event occurs.  But for this to be so, the dreamer must know in advance that the event will take place, and when it will take place.


One suggestion is that such dreams must depend on precognition of the relevant events.  Another is that we have millions of dream stories stored in our brains and that the dream we remember on awakening is selected so as to fit the external event. Neither of these explanations seems very plausible to me, but the second one touches on an important point.   It may seem surprising, but it is surely possible that the dream that comes to us as we awaken did not take place earlier in the night.  That is, processes may have gone on in our brain which, on awakening, create the impression that certain events occurred.  The fact that a story comes to us as we awaken does not entail that we lived through that story in the time period before we woke up.  Certainly the dream time need not correspond with real time.  We might have a dream in which the events are spread over a whole day, or a whole year; in such a case it is clear that the dream events can’t be experienced in real time.  It may rather be that on awakening the dream story comes to us in the way the outline of a novel could come to an author in a flash.  All we know is that on awakening the story is there; we know nothing about what went on in the period before awakening.   This may make it less puzzling that dreams can lead up to an external event which at the same time seems to have triggered the dream.  It may be that the external event triggers the dream as a whole; indeed, this seems quite plausible once we get away from the idea that the dream goes on in real time while we are asleep.



(2) A second puzzling thing about dreaming arises from scientific work on dreams over the last fifty years or so. As is well known, there are periods during sleep when the sleeper’s eyes move rapidly as if they were following some inner events.  There is also an association with changed brain states during these REM (rapid eye movement states). It is claimed that if a person is woken up during a REM phase, they will recall a dream, whereas if they are woken up during non-REM sleep they will not recall a dream. The correlation between REM phases and dream reports is not really as neat as this (Foulkes, 1962; Dunlop, 1977, p. 49), but that is the popular view. Given these facts it is natural to suppose that everyone spends several hours every night dreaming. Hence we are said to have very many more dreams than we remember.  The only ones that we remember are those in which we are engaged at the time of awakening.


It needs to be emphasised that if all this is true, it is a remarkable discovery.  If it is true, then we have a huge number of experiences that we don’t remember.  This could just be how it is, but it does not fit very well with the idea that dreams have a function in our lives.  A therapeutic view of dreams would hold that remembered dreams give us a novel perspective on our lives.  According to this view dreams help us to understand and move forward in our lives.  But dreams can have that function only if they are remembered. What then is the function of all the thousands of dreams which we do not remember?  And again, what is the point of taking seriously the dreams we do remember, since they form such a tiny fragment of our entire dream experience? Giving detailed attention to remembered dreams would seem  analogous to giving detailed attention to a few fragments of a book or film. Occasionally this might be helpful in some way, but it is quite different from reading the whole book.  If the scientific theory of dreams is correct none of us ever comes anywhere near knowing the contents of our ‘dream book’. We just get tiny fragments taken from here and there.


These difficulties suggest that there may be something wrong about the way in which we think about dreams.  We need to go back and reflect on what we really do know about dreaming.  How for example do we know that someone is dreaming?  Note that the answer is quite different from when we ask ‘How do we know that someone is vividly imagining a tiger?’  The answer to the second question is straightforward – we know if they tell us.  But if someone told us they were dreaming of a tiger, this would not show that they were dreaming of a tiger – it would show that they were not dreaming at all.  For someone to be dreaming they have to be asleep, and if they are asleep they can’t tell us anything.


The language in which we talk about dreams works differently from the language in which we talk about visual imagery.  The sentence ‘I am now visualising a tiger’ makes perfectly good sense, but ‘I am now dreaming of a tiger’ makes no sense at all.

Dreams are always reported in the past – ‘I dreamt of a tiger’ makes good sense, as does ‘I was being chased by a tiger – but it was just  a dream’.


We might say we only have memories of dreams, never the dreams themselves.  But isn’t it still the case that the dream experiences did occur? – Isn’t it those experiences that we are remembering?  Unfortunately, talk about remembering dreams doesn’t work quite like talk about remembering other things.   In talking about memory of other things we distinguish between true and false memories.  If I seem remember seeing the Egyptian pyramids as a child, then I have to admit that this was not a genuine memory if it becomes clear that I was never in Egypt as a child.  Sometimes it is hard to settle whether a memory is of an actual experience, but the distinction is one we can always make in principle.   With dreams it is different -  if  I remember that I saw the pyramids in my dream last night, then there is no room for the question of whether I might be misremembering.  That I honestly say that I dreamed of the pyramids settles the question of what I dreamed.   There is no dream experience which we can get at which is independent of what I remember.


So we come again to the suggestion that the dream is there in the waking telling of the dream, rather than in the time when we were asleep.  This suggestion was made by the philosopher Norman Malcolm – following some remarks of Wittgenstein - just fifty years ago, in a paper titled ‘Dreaming and skepticism’ (1956) , and elaborated in his book Dreaming (1959).  Malcolm’s arguments caused something of a stir in the philosophical world, and a collection of responses to them was published  in 1977 under the title Philosophical Essays on Dreaming (edited by Charles Dunlop).  Malcolm’s arguments rest partly on a particular view of the nature of meaning, and I will not try to assess them  here.  There has been no general consensus as to their validity, but Malcolm’s position has continued to be of interest to philosophers.   His work has ensured that there is, arguably, an alternative to the received opinion that dreams are experiences taking place while we are asleep.  At the heart of Malcolm’s argument is the view that it makes no sense to speak of  having experiences when one is unconscious.   There may be borderline cases, as when someone groans in their sleep, and we say that they are suffering, but broadly speaking the evidence that would lead us to say that someone is having experiences requires that they should speak or behave in ways which are incompatible with them being asleep.


It may be objected that according to Malcolm’s view it should be incorrect to say that we remember our dreams.  For according to Malcolm there were no experiences during the night to be remembered.  But the answer to this is that remembering is not always a matter  of having had an explicit experience and then recalling that experience.  Often it is like that, as when I remember having felt upset about someone’s remark last week.  Then I had the experience of being upset, and now I recall it.  That kind of memory is like a replay of the experience.   But it is different if, having been interrupted, I hesitate, and then say ‘Oh, yes, I remember what I was going to say…’   In that case I had not previously formulated what I was going to say.   It is formulated for the first time now, and yet there was something I remembered.  This something was the unformulated, implicit meaning which I only now make explicit.   I suggest that remembering a dream is similar to this second kind of remembering.  Sometimes this is fairly clearly true:  I awake and have a sense of having had a dream.  I stay with the felt sense of the dream and then the felt sense opens and the dream becomes explicit.   I suggest that this may be the whole story of what happens: there is no need to assume that I had explicit dream images while asleep, then forgot them, and then recalled them.   The dream is remembered in becoming explicit, just as what wanted to say is remembered in becoming explicit.


Another possible objection to Malcolm’s account would be that it does not account for what are called ‘lucid dreams’.  These are dreams in which the dreamer knows that they are dreaming.  I have on a couple of occasions had experiences which could be regarded as lucid dreaming, and can testify that they are remarkable experiences.  In one case I was asleep in India, and dreaming of being in the kitchen of my house in England.  I realised in the dream that I should not be England, because I knew that I was supposed to be giving a class on Focusing in India the following day.  As I thought about this, the kitchen began to disintegrate and I realised that it and my presence in England was a dream.  I felt that I was awake in a dream reality, and wondered where I could go and what I could do in this alternative reality.  Before I could do anything however, I woke up.    Some people, I understand, can remain in the dream reality, while appreciating that it is a dream.  They can then do all sorts of extraordinary things which would be impossible in waking reality.


This idea of an alternative dream reality in which one could be fully conscious has a certain appeal to it.  But I don’t really think it makes any sense.  At the moment at which the dreamer becomes aware that they are dreaming, they are presumably aware that in reality they are lying in bed.  But if that is so then all that is happening is that while lying in bed, awake, they are experiencing intense imagery.  This is little different from an hallucinatory experience.  The person is not dreaming; they are awake but having unusual experiences.  The alternative is that in the dream the person wakes up and thinks that they are dreaming.  I think that this is quite a common experience.  But to dream that one is having a lucid dream is not to have a lucid dream, any more than to dream that one has squared the circle is actually to have squared the circle.  This person is still in the dream.  Their experience is not lucid.  I conclude that strictly speaking there are no lucid dreams: the experiences which are called ‘lucid dreaming’ are either genuinely lucid, but not really dreams, or they are genuinely dreams but not really lucid.


Having dealt with those objections, I think that there is a strong case for saying that dreams are not images or other experiences taking place during sleep.  The dream is formed, or becomes explicit, at the time of awakening.  This is not to say that nothing happens during sleep: clearly much is going on, as evidenced by changes in brain waves and the occurrence of REMs.  There may also be some low level awareness of pain or excitement, which could be noticed by an attentive observer, but there is no explicit consciousness.  Much is going on in the inter-affecting body processes during sleep, but it is going on without consciousness.  After all, the sleeping person is unconscious!   Then, as the sleeper begins to interact more with the external world - as they wake up -  all that inter-affecting process arising in sleep crosses with the incoming stimulation from the external world, and stories or images are created.


This part of the story has been developed by Gendlin (1986) in an appendix to his book Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams.  I will try to explain it briefly, though I think that a full understanding of it requires some knowledge of Gendlin’s general theory as found in A Process Model (1997).


As I understand it, Gendlin’s view is as follows:  The body retains much of the past while engaging with the present.  We bring a multitude of  thoughts and expectations to our present experiencing.  We see far more than is registered on our sense organs.  Thus we see a house, and not just a pattern of colours.  Seeing a house involves being aware of it as having an interior, a back and sides which are not registered on our retina.  What we see comes from our knowledge, experience and expectations of houses.   All this is crossed with the sensations that we have to produce our experience of a house.    Our past experiences very largely determine what we see, and these past experiences are held in our bodies.  Our bodies are geared up to respond to things in the way we usually do, and hence to see things as we usually see them.   It is through having a bodily awareness of how things are that we are able to act in terms of the normal everyday world.


In sleep, or when under the influence of some drugs, we lose touch to some extent with our bodily awareness.  Then what we experience is not so tightly controlled by our past experiences or the structures which are laud down in our bodies.   Experiences can then take place which are not part of the normal scheme of things.  Without the normal controlling forms that are rooted in our body awareness, we can experience a house as not having an interior at all – we walk through the door and the front of the house turns out to be a mere façade.  Or as we walk down the street, one the houses might simply disappear in a puff of smoke.   These are the kinds of things which can happen in dreams.   In waking life, we might well wonder if we are dreaming -  in walking life houses can’t just disappear:  instead of experiencing it in that way we would probably see that some smoke had temporarily obscured the house.


In waking life we experience what Gendlin calls ‘finished events’ -  all our past experiences have crossed with our present situation and the result is our awareness of a solid house.  But in dreams the crossing is not completed – the lack of full bodily awareness allows for possibilities that cannot occur in waking life.  In waking life the patterns laid down in our bodies prevent us from seeing a house disappear in a puff of smoke, but these patterns are weakened in dreaming, so that in a dream anything is possible.


The way Gendlin puts it suggests that he sees dream experiences as taking place during sleep, while our awareness of our bodies is reduced.  (For example, he remarks in connection with dreams that ‘the human organism makes up stories two hours out of ever twenty-four!’  (Gendlin 1986, p. 144)).  But I think that this isn’t compatible with his general view of the unconscious as the realm of the bodily implicit.  Stories are explicit, and as such cannot be made up in the unconscious.  The modification I want to make is that instead of thinking of the dream images and stories as being formed during  sleep, we should think of them as forming on awakening, as we return to an awareness of our bodies.  In the waking-up period  all that was implicit and possible for us during sleep crosses with a still-reduced awareness of our normal bodily patterns.   Stories, images and possibilities form at this point, though as we return to full consciousness they tend to fade, since they are not compatible with our waking perceptions.  Yet we can to some extent fix them in our mind as dreams.  To say that such an experience is a dream is to say that it is a possibility that doesn’t belong in full waking consciousness – it belongs as it were to another world.   And in a sense there is another world, but it is not an explicit world like the waking world; it is the world of the implicit, the world prior to the emergence of forms.  The ‘other world’ is the world that becomes explicit in our world.


In sum: it seems to me that Malcolm’s account of dreaming has several advantages to it:


It provides a simple explanation for how a dream can be triggered by an event to which the dream leads up.


It rids us of the dubious idea that we have thousands of dreams which we do not remember.


It puts an end to the sceptical suggestion that we might, for all we know, be dreaming now.


It allows us to modify Gendlin’s account of dreams in a way that makes it compatible with the rest of his thinking about the unconscious.







Dennett, D (1976)  Are dreams experiences?  Philosophical Review, 85, 151-171

            Reprinted in Dunlop (1977).

Dunlop, C. (ed.) (1977)  Philosophical Essays on Dreaming.  London: Cornell           University Press

Foules, W.D. (1962) Dream reports from different stages of sleep.  Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 65, 14-25.

Gendlin, E.T. (1986)  Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams.  Wilmette: Chiron

Gendlin, E.T. (1997)  A Process Model.  New York: Focusing Institute.

Malcolm, N. (1956) Dreaming and scepticism.  Philosophical Review, 64, 14-37.       Reprinted in Dunlop (1977).

Malcolm, N. (1959)  Dreaming. London: Routledge.







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