[up] [home]

Dreaming as Metaphor in Motion

Montague Ullman

Arch Gen Psychiat - Vol 21, Dec 1969

Submitted for publication July 18, 1969. From the Community Mental Health Center, Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY and the Department of Psychiatry, State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center, New York. Reprint requests to Maimonides Hospital, 4802 Tenth Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11219.

The Dream is a law to itself; and as well quarrel with a rainbow for showing, or for not showing, a secondary arch. The Dream knows best, and the Dream, I say again, is the responsible party.-De Quincey

There is a timely need for the revision of dream theory along the following lines: (1) away from metapsychological speculation about dream origins, functions, form, and structure; (2) toward seeing the dream as an aspect of a total behavioral response; (3) toward examining the formal characteristics of dream thought in their intimate association with the altered level of brain function occurring at the time; (4) toward an examination of content as derivative of a social existence that in turn has unknown as well as known dimensions; and (5) toward the development and application of techniques for translating the dream metaphor that are not derived from or limited by specific theoretical systems.

The first four points have been considered in earlier communications.l-4 This presentation will address itself, in the main, to the last point.

Since the properties of metaphor as revealed in the dream will be our concern, let us begin with a dictionary definition of the term:

Metaphor. - "A figure of speech in which one object is likened to another by asserting it to be that other or speaking of it as if it were the other (Funk and Wagnall's New Standard Dictionary of the English Language, 1928). The roots are from the Greek meta meaning over and phero, meaning bear. Brown5 refers to metaphor as "the name for the utterance that suggests its referent through a transfer of meaning."

Langer writes of metaphor as an instrument of abstraction. It comes into play in situations where an idea is genuinely new. It has no name and there is no word to express it. "When new unexploited possibilities of thought crowd in upon the human mind the poverty of everyday language becomes acute."6 A process of abstraction is necessary before meaning can be grasped as a thing apart from its concrete presentational aspects. Where the gap exists in situations of this sort it is through the use of metaphor that we can take a conceptual leap forward and establish an initial abstract position in relation to a new element in experience.

Langer7 also notes the paradoxical features of this kind of abstract thought and this is a point of crucial significance in connection with dreaming. She points out that the use of metaphor implies that abstract thinking is going on in a paradoxical sense. Metaphor is essentially a conceptualizing process but one that uses concrete imagery as the instrument for arriving at the abstraction.

If we extend the concept of metaphor to include the visual mode, we may restate its essential characteristics as follows as a first step in exploring its applicability to dream phenomena:

1. Metaphor involves the use of word or image in an improbable context.

2. This is done in order to capture and express a level of meaning that is freshly arrived at and in that sense new. (We are concerned with "live" metaphors rather than '"faded" or "dead" ones referred to by linguists.)

3. The use of metaphor creates a greater impact and is more revealing of essential features than a literal statement.

Our main thesis is that dreaming involves rapidly changing presentational sequences which in their unity amount to a metaphorical statement (major metaphor). Each element (minor metaphor) in the sequence has metaphorical attributes organized toward the end of establishing in a unified way an over-all metaphorical description of the new ideas and relations and their implications as these rise to the surface during periods of activated sleep. In contrast to the braindamaged patient in whom the power of abstraction is lost, the dreamer retains his abstracting ability. The physiologically altered brain milieu, however, does exert a limiting influence. The dreamer's abstracting powers are limited to the manipulation of concrete images.

Let us now consider dreaming in the light of the three properties of metaphor described above.

Context. - In the dream images do appear in improbable contexts. In fact, this is one of the features distinguishing cognitive content during activated sleep from content during activated sleep from content recoverable during other phases of sleep. Incongruity of elements, inappropriate relations, displacement, are all well known attributes of dreams.

Newness. - The value of dreams in therapy lies in the fact that they do say something new or at least new in the sense of its unfamiliarity to waking consciousness. Unless this were so, dreams would hardly be worth pursuing. It is the nature of the newness that has to be defined. It is precisely around this question that classical psychoanalytic notions about dreaming have been challenged by a host of critical comment converging from such disparate sours as experimentalists on the one hand8 and phenomenologists on the other,9 as well as from within the ranks of psychoanalysts themselves.10-12

Freud regarded the newness as emerging in the form of a compromise arising out of the clash of two intrapsychic systems, namely, unconscious and conscious. The model is that of energy transfer within a closed system with the dreamer limited in his expression of novelty to his own particular repertoire of artful camouflage. True novelty is drained out in the insistence on the role of unchanging instinctual energies linked to infantile wishes in accounting for the fact of dreaming. Followed to its logical conclusion what emerges is an image of man as an impotent reactor - "a complicatedly constructed and programmed robot, perhaps, but a robot nevertheless."13,p3

Transformation and change and, with them, the element of novelty, are just as much features of dream consciousness as they are of waking consciousness. To arrive at an understanding of how they come about during the dream state we have to replace metaphysical speculation with a more rigorous analysis of the psychological needs of the sleeping human organism and how the symbolic expression of these needs is influenced by the changes in brain milieu that occur during sleep. The former relate to the content of dreams, the latter to their form.

While asleep our brain is functioning differently and our psychological system is responsive to a different input and organized toward a different behavioral goal than in the waking state. When there are sufficient quantitative changes in brain milieu a qualitative change comes about that exerts a tremendously significant limiting influence on the articulating psychological system. Thought processes become bound to concrete presentations. The intact individual in the waking state is capable of thought processes reflecting events extended in time through a discursive mode of symbolic organization but he is at the same time capable of borrowing concrete expressions for intended metaphorical use. The brain-damaged patient cannot abstract and cannot employ metaphor. The closest he comes to it is in the use of unintended metaphor or quasi-metaphor. The dreamer is somewhere in between. He has not lost the power of abstraction, but a sufficient alteration in brain milieu has occurred to influence the way in which the abstraction is arrived at and the way in which it gains expression. He is forced into a concrete sensory mode and, hence, the need to manipulate visual presentations toward the goal of a metaphorical explication of an inner state. I suggest that this necessity arises from physiological rather than psychological considerations. Under the conditions of sleep, behavior is not and cannot be directed toward the outside world. Input channels close down and normal motor effector pathways are inhibited. Consciousness, whether while dreaming or awake, cannot be divorced from the activity of the organism. The existence of a sensory mode of conscious expression does appear to be appropriate to the only effector system available to the sleeping organism, namely, the arousal mechanism or the reticular activating system (referred to as the vigilance system by Hernandez-P�on14). The behavioral response in this instance would be an internal one in the form of an influence upon the level of arousal.

To develop this point further requires emphasis on the intimate relationship of conscious experience at a given moment to the activity the individual is engaged in. Activity has a different complexion in the waking state than it has during activated sleep. In the former, the term refers to that segment of the individual's social practice, i.e., his ongoing behavior in a social context, which happens to be in focus at a particular time. In the case of the dreamer, activity has to do with internal change or, more exactly, the potential for internal change, namely the possibility of a change from a state of activated sleep to one of full arousal. In the waking state all new afferent stimuli carry a double message to the central nervous system, one mediated through the reticular system and exerting an arousal effect and the other, which has an informational effect, through the direct sensory pathways to the cortex. While the dreamer is awake the factor of arousal makes possible a more effective orientation to the informational aspects of the stimulus. The dual significance of afferent stimuli is preserved in the dreaming state but with two important differences. An internal source of afferent stimuli is mobilized out of experiential data and the relative importance of the informational and arousal aspects of the stimuli is reversed. In the dreaming state the informational aspects serve the need to sustain and modulate the arousal level and, if necessary, bring about a full arousal effect. The metaphor, through the properties of vividness, emphasis, incongruity, and dramatic presentation, is suited to do just that. The obscurity of the metaphor may be related to the complexity and degree of strangeness of the situation being represented. The movement of the metaphor is the result of attention-directing processes brought into operation once initial activation occurs. The feelings rising to the surface at this time are new in the sense of not having come clearly into focus during the waking state. They act as motivational processes,15,16 exerting a further energizing or arousal effect serving to organize or direct further behavioral change. The task before the dreamer is to express relations he has never before experienced. The sensory effects streaming down to the arousal center employ the visual mode predominantly and as these generate further arousal new and relevant motivational systems or feelings are tapped.

When we are awake we can tune out our feelings, but when we are asleep we have no choice but to express them should our nervous system become sufficiently aroused to allow us to do so. Feelings are, as Leeper emphasizes, processes capable of being touched off by very slight stimuli. In the case of the dreamer, such stimuli generally take the form of the day residue.

Other characteristics of feelings as a subclass of motives are also relevant to dreaming. These include:

1. Motives modify perceptual processes so that they become organized in a way that makes relevant items stand out forcefully. Elements appearing in dreams are selected on the basis of relevance. Beginning with an affective residue reexperienced at the onset of activated sleep, there is a heightened focal attention to the significant recent event responsible for this affective residue.

2. Motives initiate exploratory activity. The dreamer embarks upon a longitudinal exploration of relevant past data.

3. Motives act as regulatory mechanisms in the service of psychological homeostasis. As a consequence of the feelings initially evoked at the onset of dreaming and as further developed by the exposure of relevant past experiential data, the dreamer moves toward the resolution of any resulting psychological dysequilibrium, either by summoning up defenses or by the creative utilization of positive resources and growth potential.

The use of Metaphor. - Under the conditions of activated sleep the concrete metaphorical mode is characteristic of this translation of felt reactions into conscious experience. It is in this sense that the dream is essentially a metaphor in motion. As indicated above, the dreamer has to concern himself with understanding new data. The reason a day residue serves as the precipitating mechanism for the subject matter of a dream is precisely because it is experienced as a faint beam of light playing upon shadowy, unknown, and sometimes rather frightening territory. The exploration of this territory - that is, the capacity to engage with the new - requires the power of abstraction. The dreamer, forced to employ a sensory mode, has to build the abstraction out of concrete blocks in the form of visual sequences. The resulting metaphor can be viewed as an interface phenomenon where the biological system establishes the sensory medium as the vehicle for this expression and the psychological system furnishes the specific content.

To appreciate more fully the need for metaphorical expression during periods of activated sleep we have to introduce the concept of social vigilance. This concept involves an orientation to and exploration of events that impinge on the human organism in a novel way and which are, therefore, capable of influencing or changing the current level of social homeostasis. For the human organism, events of this kind tend to assume a mediated and symbolic form rather than the immediate and physically intrusive form characterizing vigilance operations in lower animals. The individual's equilibrium is upset in one of two ways by such an event. An area of ignorance may be uncovered which then serves as a stimulus to growth and mastery or an area of psychological vulnerability may be exposed in which case efforts at mastery may be handicapped by defensive operations with the result that false or mythic explanations may either color the picture or even predominate in shaping the response.

Vigilance theory can be linked to dreaming by conceiving of the activated sleep state as instigated by a built-in physiologically governed mechanism providing the organism with periodic opportunities throughout the night to process internal or external data in such a way that awakening can occur if necessary by bypassing the main cyclical and gradual variations in levels of sleep. In doing this the organism may be borrowing a mechanism that may or may not have been related to vigilance operations originally.

The essence of a workable vigilance mechanism, as the survival of any lower animal attests, lies in its enforced truthfulness. If information conveyed is false or its interpretation is inappropriate, the danger is enhanced. So it is with the dreamer. He is not at the mercy of deeper instinctual forces seeking to gain expression on the basis of fulfilling an infantile wish, but rather is dreaming of truer and more inclusive aspects of his own existence as partially exposed by a recent event in his life. He is concerned with such fundamental questions as: Who am I? What is happening to me? What can I do about it? The dreamer is making a very active attempt to reflect in consciousness the immediate aspect of his own existence. The dream in its totality is a metaphorical explication of a circumstance of living explored in its fullest implications for the current scene. To see the dream as an elaborate strategy to achieve gratification of a wish is to limit salience to one particular motive at the expense of the surging, forward-looking, exploring, chance-taking operations that also occur. The day residue, reappearing in the dream, confronts the individual either with new and personally significant data or forces a confrontation with heretofore unrecognized unintended consequences of one's own behavior. There follows an exploration in depth with the immediate issue polarizing relevant data from all levels of one's own past in an effort to both explore the implications of the intrusive event and to arrive at a resolution. What is unconscious in the presentations appearing in the dream are those aspects of his felt responses which cannot be accurately conceptualized, either because they have not heretofore been personally conceptualized, or because they are derivative of social relations that are not understood and hence cannot be conceptualized. When the personal or social unknown gains expression in the dream, it does so in a personal idiom and by as apt a metaphor as the individual can construct to describe what it feels like.

The following brief examples illustrate some of the points under discussion.

EXAMPLE 1. - An architect, with schizoid tendencies, was under pressure to complete a set of drawings on time to meet a deadline. He was forced to devote four successive Sundays to the completion of this work. He had to isolate himself from the rest of his family which includes his wife and four children. His wife managed well for the first three weeks but on this fourth Sunday was in a fretful and irritable mood. He remained closeted in his room for the entire day. He was vaguely aware of his wife's feelings and from time to time would hear her lose her temper at the children. He fell asleep for a short time and had the following dream:

"I was calling the weather bureau to ask if the hurricane was expected to hit the city that afternoon. As I was asking the question I began to feel embarrassed and guilty. I awoke as I was trying to terminate the call."

He awoke with the dream in mind. The associations to the dream were as follows:

He had a growing feeling of uneasiness with regard to the burden he was placing upon his wife, but felt that it was necessary and unavoidable. He associated the metaphor of the hurricane to the recurrent blasts of his wife's temper, particularly in view of the fact that if another hurricane were in reality to occur its name would have begun with the same initial as that of his wife's name. The incidental event precipitating the dream was the occasional sounds of his wife's quarrels with the children which reached his ears while he was intensely preoccupied with the work he was doing. The contradiction which was deepened and brought closer to full awareness was one arising from the discrepancy between the actual nature of his activity on the one hand - the arbitrary and absolute way in which he cut himself off from his family when under pressure - and the way in which this activity was reflected in consciousness - that this was simply a necessary but transitory interlude in his family life which the others owed it to him to countenance. The reactions of his wife, related to his actual activity rather than to his conceptualized version of it, induced uneasy feelings. These feelings were the first expression in consciousness of the growing recognition of his own responsibility. They arose in connection with the real although indirect protests by his wife. His rationalizations were being forced to give way before a more accurate reflection of the entire situation - namely, that whatever pressure the work subjected him to, it did not justify the absolute kind of severance that he had effected with his family in total disregard of their needs.

EXAMPLE 2.-A dapper 63-year-old man, depressed over a period of several months, related a dream occurring several nights following his first visit:

"I was the last guy in the world. There was nobody left. I found myself isolated. It woke me. I was very happy that I could get up and go to work."

The patient had come for help at a point where all of his activities had become sharply curtailed and where be had become phobic about even leaving the house. He did, however, verbalize the hope that he could return to work. He appeared to need the active intervention and support of an outside authority to risk rejoining the world of other men and the world of business. The dream occurred in the context of feeling better following the first visit and a successful effort to mobilize himself to return to work. At the point where he began to move out of his depression he was able to create an image describing both the ultimate in hopeless alienation from all other men and at the same time one that lent itself to sudden termination by the simple process of awakening. The minor metaphor expresses an inexorable and utterly hopeless feeling of separation from all other men. To understand the major metaphor one has to take into account the behavioral effect of the dream, namely awakening, and with it the transformation of the feeling of hopelessness into its opposite. He is saying, in effect, "I can now relate to my illness as if it were a bad dream from which one awakens with relief."

We have offered very little thus far concerning the laws governing the movement and development of the global or major metaphor of the dream. It is likely that the full exposition of the developmental aspects of the dream process will have to await further investigative effort using the new monitoring techniques at hand. Descriptively the dream evolves from the setting or presenting metaphor by extending its range horizontally through the elaboration of motivational process implied or alluded to in the setting and extending its scope longitudinally by introducing related motivational processes derived from earlier experience. The development is organized rather than haphazard and reintegrative efforts are made, resulting in a resolution which in terms of its affective intensity either is or is not compatible with the normal temporal parameters of the activated sleep period in which it is occurring. These ideas could be tested experimentally by systematically examining the relationship of hypnagogic imagery to dream sequences of the same night. Is the hypnagogic image simply the first step in dreaming, namely, the translation of the last remembered bit of cognitive data into a visual image? Does it lack subsequent development and enrichment and remain as a "forme fruste" of the dream because the period of cortical activation needed to produce a dream is too fleeting in nature during the initial descent into deep sleep? A comparison of the two phenomena highlights the lack in hypnagogic image of the developmental features that characterizes the dream. The latter by comparison tends to be more complex, more dynamic, more evocative of the past and more apt to go beyond the immediate antecedent content of consciousness. In the dream the initial translation is the starting point of an active exploratory process extending throughout the period of activated sleep. A further difference involves the behavioral effect. Full arousal is rarely the result of hypnagogic imagery but it not infrequently occurs during the dream. Perhaps the hypnagogic image can be likened to a word which, no matter how unique or colorful, cannot compare in richness and expressive potential to the fully developed sentence.

The Dream Mystique. - The failure to perceive the full significance of the expository role of metaphor in dream consciousness has had a number of unfortunate consequences for the theory and practice of psychotherapy. Once the puzzling nature and apparent mystery of the dream was equated with unconscious but purposeful efforts at self-deception powerful supports for an instinctivist psychology came into being. The sum of man's complicated relations to his social milieu is reduced to intrapsychic conflicts directed toward the subjugation and control over his own biology. Chein,13,p20 referring to this distorted view of man, writes: "Contemporary psychologists, it seems to me, tend to be rather obsessed with the corporeality of man and to be constantly diverted from the human being to the human body." He further notes:

"The emphasis on corporeality as the essential quality of man is, of course, evident in the naive - if persistent - effort to reduce psychological to bodily process. This is again a matter of philosophy dictating psychological theory."

This point of view concerning man and the dream reflecting the struggle between instinctual wish and social prohibition has had a very limiting effect on the potential therapeutic application of dream interpretation. A relationship between dreaming and dream interpretation arose that was rather inappropriately and incongruously forced into a fixed medical model. The end-product more closely resembled the relationship between a patient, his heartbeat reflected in the electrocardiogram, and the physician who has the specialized knowledge needed to interpret the record. In the case of the dream, a universal phenomenon is dealt with as if it, too, were a special record decipherable only by an expert. While granting that naturalistic, intuitive, or common-sense approaches may be somewhat wide of the mark, the art of dream interpretation has become overly encrusted with a technological armoring more geared to maintaining the gap between apparent and effective meaning than to closing it. Crucial and demarcating issues take shape around the question of how one regards the metaphorical quality. In the dream the visual image and the referent are linked by the element of similarity, hence the metaphorical quality. The view that has been expressed here is that this translation serves the same expressive purpose that figurative speech serves in the waking state. The other and traditional point of view deemphasizes the metaphorical relation between referent and image and treats the image almost exclusively in terms of its associational connection with sex or aggression. As Bertalanffy17 points out, dream elements in a freudian sense are not true symbols, but rather what he terms free playing associations. Each element, by virtue of certain formal characteristics, stands for something else. Here the term "stands for" conveys a meaning opposite to metaphor, namely, one of obscuring, hiding, concealing. The endpoint of the latter development has been the evolution of a dream mystique whereby dream interpretation becomes a special tool in the hands of a few, safeguarded by caveats of all sorts, most of which point to the dangers of inexpert dream interpretation and of deep interpretation. As a consequence, all but psychoanalysts and analytically trained physicians and psychologists carefully eschew any pretense at utilizing dreams. The dream as a potential instrument for self-learning hardly comes into its own under these circumstances. An aspect of ourselves that, in subtle and dramatic ways, highlights movement change and the creative interplay of old patterns and newly evoked responses remains a refined tool in the hands of the few rather than a widely developed and broadly applied medium for self-understanding.


The dream has been described as an internal communication built up by the rapid juxtaposition of changing images for the purpose of expressing and assaying the vigilance needs of the sleeping human organism. The visual images are blended to produce a metaphorical effect with the specific features of metaphor facilitating the process of self-confrontation that is taking place. Thought processes under these conditions where the behavioral effect involves the alteration of an internal state have the unique formal qualities that we associate with dreaming. It is thinking in a sensory mode because it is precisely a sensory effect which is needed. We have further suggested that cognitive operations are taking place in the service of vigilance, using this term to denote possible threats or interferences with the symbolic and value systems linking the organism to his social milieu. Feelings evoked at the onset of activated sleep have the properties of motivational processes and in that capacity have an arousal, energizing, and organizing effect. The dreamer is forced to examine these intrusive elements in their historical connections and in their future implications. The device of metaphor as well as the absence of background noise highlights the newness as well as the dimensionality of the problem. Each element in the dream experience has a metaphorical quality as does the dream as a whole. We may, perhaps, speak of metaphors within metaphors.

When psychoanalytic theory linked the difficulty in comprehending dreams to the purposeful act of concealment a great step was taken in the direction of building impotence into the symbolic system. Self-deception becomes the most expedient technique for meeting one's needs. Derivative impulses are in some way juggled about to escape detection and at the same time gain expression. Evoked needs and moves, as well as novelty, do not exist, leaving the dreamer with no alternative but to fight the same old battles in endlessly varied ways. Theory provides him with built-in blinders, preventing him from correctly identifying the relationship of his difficulty to disarray in a social milieu where human needs are often subservient to power relations. It is the new, the implication of the new, the resolution of the new, that concern the dreamer and it is this concern that makes metaphor the natural vehicle for allowing the new to gain expression. In fact, the metaphorical mode forces the dreamer to take the risk of saying something new about himself. To the extent that a metaphor dies a metaphor, unread and unappreciated, its power to enhance self-awareness is dissipated.


1. Ullman, M.: Dreams and Arousal, Amer J Psychother 12:222-242 (April) 1958.

2. Ullman, M.: Dreams and the Therapeutic Process, Psychiatry 21:123-131 (May) 1958.

3. Ullman, M.: The Adaptive Significance of the Dream, J Nerv Ment Dis 129:2 (Aug) 1959.

4. Ullman, M.: The Social Roots of the Dream, Amer J Psychoanal 20:2,1960.

5. Brown, R.: Words and Things, New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, Inc., 1958, p 211.

6. Langer, S.K.: Philosophy in a New Key, New York: Penguin Books, Inc., 1948, p 121.

7. Langer, S.K.: Problems of Art, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957, p 104.

8. Dement, W.C.: "Experimental Dream Studies," in Masserman, J. (ed.): Science and Psychoanalysis, New York: Grune & Stratton, Inc., 1964, vol 3.

9. Boss, M.: The Analysis of Dreams, New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1957.

10. Tauber, E.S., and Green, M.R.: Prelogical Experience, New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1959.

11. Fromm, E.: The Forgotten Language, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., 1951.

12. Altshuler, K.Z.: Comments on Recent Sleep Research Related to Psychoanalytic Theory, Arch Gen Psychiat 15:235-269 (Sept) 1966.

13. Chein, I.: The Image of Man, J Soc Issues 31:3-20 (Oct) 1962.

14. Hernandez-P�on, R.: A Neurophysiologic Model of Dreams and Hallucinations, J Nerv Ment Dis 141:6, 1966.

15. Leeper, R.W., and Madison, P.: Toward Understanding Human Personalities, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959.

16. Leeper, R.W.: "Some Needed Developments in the Motivational Theory of Emotions," in Levine, D. (ed.): Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1965, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

17. Bertalanffy, L.: "On the Definition of the Symbol," in Royce, J.R. (ed.): Psychology and the Symbol, New York: Random House, Inc., 1965.