On Dream Logic in the Theater
by Kato McNickle
I woke myself up laughing. Laughing out loud at a play that I was watching.
It was a dream, of course. In the dream I was watching a short play in a ten-minute festival written by a playwright friend of mine (he had asked me to perform it for him). During the dream I was both the actor and an audience member—simultaneously. While in the dream, it did not seem out of place to be both the performer and the observer of the event, and it proved to be great fun. It was the audience member part of me that started laughing, and my laughter—really laughing—caused me to awaken, still laughing. The dream was so vivid, and so recent, that I got out of bed and to my computer a few feet away. I typed the play, called Humalong (yes, the title was part of the dream too) about which I had dreamed. My playwright friend Mike still claims I owe him residuals, because in a weird way, he wrote the play, right?
Is this play conjured in a dream representative of dream-logic? Maybe. It depends who you ask.
Throughout the last century the tension between illusion and reality has been a focal point of most Western theatrical productions. The audience knows that what they are seeing is not real—a fiction—and yet something compels them to believe. The actors know that they are not the characters they portray, and yet throughout the entire process they refer to “in character” and “out of character” as distinct states of being. Across American stages the debate about ‘realism’ in the theater persists. What is ‘real’ in the theater; What is like ‘dream’?
Nietzsche, in his essay The Birth of Tragedy (1872), was an early and influential thinker regarding attributing aspects of dramaturgy and theatrical experience to that of the dream (would that be dreamaturgy?):
Though it is certain that of the two halves of our existence, the waking and dreaming states, the former appeals to us as being infinitely preferable, more important, excellent, and worthy of being lived, indeed, as that which alone is lived—yet in relation to that mysterious ground of our being of which we are a phenomena, I should, paradoxical as it may seem, maintain the very opposite estimate of the value of dreams. For the more clearly I perceive in nature those omnipotent art impulses, and in them an ardent longing for illusion, for redemption through illusion, the more I feel myself impelled to the metaphysical assumption that the truly existence primal unity, eternally suffering and contradictory, also needs the rapturous vision, the pleasurable illusion, for its continuous redemption. And we, completely wrapped up in this illusion and composed of it, are compelled to consider the illusion as the truly nonexistent—i.e., as a perpetual becoming in time, space, and casualty—in other words, as empirical reality.
This question: is it preferable to be awake or to dream, will prove to be an essential component of twentieth century thought, both in artistic realms, and for the social sciences. Is one superior to the other? Is dream an escape, or simply a bi-product of sleep? Are wakefulness and dreaming actually opposites? Is one state exclusive of the other?
In Anatomy of the Drama (1977), Martin Esslin describes the morphing of early twentieth naturalism into other forms:
By concentrating on the concrete detail rather than on abstract sentiments, naturalism tended transform itself into a style in which objects increasingly became symbols, embodiments of ideas. So naturalism merged into symbolism. And as the writers concerned concentrated more and more on these symbols, which after all are in the nature of poetic metaphors, lyrical images, so symbolism came full circle and turned into a type of neo-romanticism. […] [August] Strindburg […] [who started out a naturalist], took a slightly different path. In [his] determination to represent experience exactly as it really was [he] soon discovered that depicting the external world tells only half the story; you also have to include the way the world was experienced by an individual, and that meant his internal world. Hence Strindburg wrote a number of such plays—The Ghost Sonata, To Damascus and the Dream Play itself which, quite in the spirit of naturalism, tried to depict a dream.
This movement with its emphasis on individual impressions was termed ‘expressionism’.
Strindburg himself eloquently describes his intent with his Dream Play (1901) in the following excerpt from the author’s note regarding the play:
Anything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Space and time do not exist. Based on a slight foundation of reality, imagination wanders afield and weaves patterns comprised of mixtures and recollections, experiences and unconstrained fantasies, absurdities and improvisations. Characters split, double, and multiply; they evaporate, crystallize, dissolve, and reconverge. But one single consciousness governs them all, that of the dreamer. […] And since there is generally more pain than pleasure in the dream, a tone of melancholy and sympathy for all things runs through the swaying narrative. Sleep, the liberator, is often tortuous; and yet pain is at worst, the sufferer is wakened and reconciled with reality. For, however agonizing reality may be, it is, at this moment, when compared with the torments of the dream, a joy.
The experience of the internal and intimate dream state was being enacted by actors and presented for an audience. Many modern playwrights were influenced by the expressionists’ experiments, including Bertolt Brecht who expanded the idea into his concept of ‘epic theatre’ , a form that attempted an ‘un-dramatic’ style of expression. Brecht called the audience witnessing a typical theatrical production a “hypnotized mass” , and that this state was out of place for people living in a scientific-age. He describes his observation of the spectators in his essay A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948):
Looking about us, we see motionless figures in a peculiar condition: they seem strenuously to be tensing all their muscles, except where these seem flabby and exhausted. They scarcely communicate with each other; their relations are those of a lot of sleepers, though of such as restlessly […] This detached state, where they seem given over to vague but profound sensations, grows deeper the better the work of the actors, and so we, a we do not approve of this situation, should like them to be as bad as possible.
And so Brecht sought to rouse the hypnotized masses through his innovative techniques of alienation, like epic and other methods based on various sources, as in his study of Noh drama.
At about the same time as many of these artists were examining dreams and dreaming through their work in the theater and artistic life, scientists were also considering the relevance of dreams.
Sigmund Freud began analyzing dream content as part of his psycho-analytical process. The second element of his technique was dream interpretation. The foundation of his theory regarding dreams was published in his treatise Interpretation of Dreams (1900) which hypothesized that dreams were organized around wish fulfillment; sometimes as simple as bodily needs, like dreaming of drinking quantities of water when thirsty during sleep; or fulfillment of repressed desires not available to the conscious mind.
Another psychologist, Carl Jung, published his first work on dreams, The Analysis if Dreams (1909) in less than a decade following Freud. Jung’s approach to dreams was different than Freud’s. He believed that dreams were an integral function of the working human mind, and that that the figurative language of dreams was attributed to the “survival [of] an archaic mode of thought.” Because dreams were contained in the unconscious, dreams were expressions of the unconscious and not necessarily simply expressions of repressed conscious ‘thoughts.’ In his essay General Aspects of Dream Psychology (1948) he confronts the assumptions made by Freud regarding wish fulfillment as the basis of interpretation:
The interpretation of dreams as infantile wish-fulfillments as finalistic “arrangements” subserving an infantile striving for power is too narrow and fails to do justice to the essential nature of dreams. A dream, like every element in the psychic structure, is a product of the total psyche. Hence we may expect to find in dreams everything that has ever been of significance in the life of humanity. Just as human life is not limited to this or that fundamental instinct, but builds itself up from multiplicity of instincts, needs, desires, and physical and psychic conditions, etc., so the dream cannot be explained by this or that element in it, however beguilingly simple such an explanation may appear to be.
Michael Adams in his book Mythical Unconscious takes the Jungian view of dreams as the launching pad for his observations regarding archetypes based in mythic imagery that are woven throughout our unconscious life, combining these theories with the work of other explorers of myth like Joseph Campbell. Through this synthesis, he defines the difference between archetype and image, a principle he calls “archetype constancy” and “image variability” :
Archetypes are not images. An image becomes ‘archetypical’ only when it functions as the specific content of an archetype, but the image that serves this purpose on any occasion is not the archetype. Archetypes are general, abstract, constant forms; images are particular, concrete, variable contents of the forms. While the forms (archetypes) remain constant, the specific contents (or images) vary from time to time and place to place.
Archetypes are made personal, and appear to us as specific images, tailored by our individual subconscious to have meaning. Therefore, in Strindburg’s Dream Play, the images conjured are personal, and we as observers learn to tie into his specific imagery, perhaps by relating it to our own concept of archetype.
So what does recent science have to say about aspects of the dreaming mind?
In an interesting twist on thinking about the question, “Why do we dream?”, Mauro Mancia puts the cart before the horse and proposes that perhaps the function of sleep is to allow us to dream in his report One possible function of sleep: to produce dreams (1995), instead of the traditional view that sleep is the by-product of the need for sleep. He elaborates on the function of human dreaming enabling metaphor, “[D]uring sleep we produce metaphors on which we can build our dreams.” He continues by describing REM as a possible ‘hyperattentive’ state:
Unlike neurobiology, cognitive investigation considers dreams as a symbolic process of elaborating, interpreting and reorganizing in a narrative sequence all the material accumulated in memory during waking hours. The mental structures, whose task is to arrange this symbolic representation, are organized in ontogenesis. […] The cognitive model is backed by the theory put forward by Llinas and Pare, that REM sleep can be considered as a modified attentive state in which attention is turned away from sensory input, toward memories. These authors sustain that dreaming can be considered basically a hyperattentive state in many ways similar to full wakefulness.
He goes on to present current observations regarding the basis of sleep in emotional states:
Melanie Klein’s theory of internal objects has changed our views about dreams. They are no longer simply the fulfillment of suppressed wishes, but become the representation of internal objects and their relationship to the immediate present. Dreams are thus considered representations of feelings, emotions, anxieties and defenses viewed within the analytic relation. Dreams thus become a fundamental part of that rational modality know as ‘transference’. In dreams an individual’s internal objects—as representations and meaningful figures from infancy—are on stage in a private theatre where relations between them with objects of reality are acted out.
By using the private stage as a metaphor for the experience of the dreamer to the ‘witnessing’ of the dream event, Mancia notes a potential psychic phenomenon; could seeing a play in the theater be referencing (even mildly) a dream state? But in the case of the theater, it would be a collective dream state.
In her report Dreams, emotions, and the social sharing of dreams (2008), Antoniette Curci performs a study that addresses “whether the intensity of the emotion experienced in a dream predicts the extent to which this dream is socially is shared.” Her results confirm that emotional intensity of a dream is a valid predictor for the sharing of the content of the dream:
Social sharing behavior generally starts very soon after the emotion—usually the day the episode happened. It is a repetitive phenomenon , as emotions are often or very often shared, and with a variety of target persons, essentially selected among intimates. […] In both correlation and experimental studies, emotion intensity was demonstrated to play a crucial role in eliciting social sharing. [,,,] Neither valence (positive or negative) nor type of discrete emotion seems to play a significant role in eliciting social sharing. Dreams are intrinsically emotional experiences. […] Wax (2004) posits that the universality of dreaming and the high regard traditionally manifested towards dreams are testimony that dreaming is essential as a stabilizing element of group life. The author stressed that humanity has lived and evolved in small groups. The stability and endurance of a group, ad the intricate cooperation between its members, are founded on social activities such as music, dance, the seeking of visions and trance states, the sharing of dreams, and enacting of mythic drama. Similarly, Wagner-Pacifici and Benshady (1993) claim that dreams are a shared strategy that simultaneously tests and forges solidarity. […] [I]t can be predicted that the more a dream elicits emotion, the more the dream will be socially shared.
Another study that connects the intensity of emotion in the dream to the central image by co-authors Ernest Hartman and Tyler Brezler compares participants pre-9/11 central imagery and emotional intensity with post 9/11 responses (2008). The assumption was that the events of 9/11 would cause higher levels of stress, or slight trauma :
Dreams after 9/11 showed a highly significant increase in central image intensity, as central image proportion (number of dreams with scorable central image) but no change in dream length, dream like-ness, overall vividness, or context involving airplanes or tall buildings. There were no ‘exact replay’ dreams picturing the actual events of 9/11 seen repeatedly on TV. These results are consistent with the Contemporary Theory of Dreaming, which emphasizes the role of underlying emotion in producing central dream imagery and suggests that the intensity of the central dream imagery is related to the power of the underlying emotion.
It is interesting to note that it was the prominence of the central image that was enhanced, but not the image itself that changed.
In her report, Dreaming mind-brain: a Jungian perspective (2006), Margaret Wilkinson explores the Jungian-based position that dreams are an essential part of the process for encoding and affective organization of memory:
Dreaming is essentially a cortical activity in that it is the cortex with its billions of connecting neurons that allows us to experience the richness of thoughts and imagery that emerge from the dreaming process. In working with dreams in general, not just those dreams arising from trauma, the individual develops creative capacity to make conceptual and affective links across different realms of knowing; material may begin to move unconscious implicit memory towards the explicit realm of knowledge and memory where it may be thought about.
In this view, sleep is an essential part of memory function, and is essential in linking conscious and unconscious activities in the brain.
In The Scientific Study of Dreams (2003), G. William Domhoff describes an interesting effect produced when subjects are in a relaxed but waking state in darkened rooms:
[F]indings from three laboratory studies suggest that waking thought can have dreamlike qualities when participants are relaxing in a darkened room. In the first two of these studies, awake participants monitored by EEG gave dreamlike responses to 15% to 20% of requests for reports of what was going through their minds. In another laboratory study, judges who compared REM reports with thought reports from awake participants reclining in a darkened room rated the waling reports as more dreamlike. Furthermore, a field study of waking consciousness—which used pagers to contact participants—discovered that 9% of 1,425 had “more than a trace” of dreamlike thought and another 16% had a “trace” of such thought. Taken together, these studies lead to the idea that dreaming may not always be a function of sleep, thereby providing another possible link between waking cognition and dreaming.
Darkened rooms can help induce a dream-like state. Perhaps Brecht was not too far off the mark with his observation regarding a hypnotic state induced by theatre on the spectator? Domhoff continues:
Even though dreams seem to be based to a large extent on experimental-level categories, the emphasis in neurocognitive models on the close parallels between waking thought and dreaming raises the possibility that of the unusual and not immediately understandable features of dreams may be the product of figurative thinking—conceptual metaphors, metonymies, ironies, and conceptual blends. […] [T[he few attempts to undertake systematic studies of metaphor in dreams suggest that most dreams do not seem to relate to obviously primary metaphors. Rather, most dreams are like dramas or plays in which the dreamer acts out various scenarios that revolve around a few basic personal themes. Dreams seem to be instances of the “thematic” point on the repetition dimension, that is, specific episodes or examples relating to general emotional preoccupations, usually negative in nature. They appear to take the form of proverbs or parables, which can be understood only by extracting “generic” information from specific stories. These complex dreams may rely on “resemblance” metaphors, which depend on perception of common aspects of two representational schemata, or on conceptual blends, which often start with basic conceptual metaphors and then elaborated into highly novel thoughts.
Likening the experience of the dream to the watching of a drama or play seems to be a common metaphor in and of itself used to express the dreaming experience by scientists.
In a study conducted by David Kahn and J. Allan Hobson on State-dependant thinking (2005), the co-authors investigated how thinking in dreams differs from thinking while awake. Their hypothesis states that thinking in dreams has “two distinct components, one that is similar to wake-state cognition, and another hat is fundamentally different.” They found that while cognition within the dream scenario was similar to that of the waking state, the ability to think critically about the scenario was hindered and therefore unlike the waking state.
For example, a participant who stated that in the dream he was angry that the woman in front of him was taking to long to climb up a ladder and through a hatch to get into a restaurant. When asked if he would respond the same way in the real world, he said that he would have the same emotional response, but in the real world he would also know that it was absurd the gain access to a restaurant through a hatch in a ceiling, while in the dream scenario that action did not register as bizarre. Participants were asked to track dreams for a two-week period and were asked about their thinking within the dream-state and how they would think about the same situation in the real world. The inquiry uncovered the two types of thinking noted above, context logic and state logic, with state logic termed metacognition :
Metacognition has often been related to self-awareness, that is, being aware that it is the self who is doing the thinking. But in the dream state there is a difference between self-awareness and metacognition. While it is true that during the dreaming state our self-awareness severely impoverished in that we do not know that we are in our beds, we believe, instead, that we are participating in an adventure. In that limited sense there is awareness of the self in the dream. And as we have shown, the dreamer is able to think rationally (compared to waking standards) when participating in his hallucinatory adventures. But the dreamer loses his wake-state ability to distinguish “fact from fantasy,” he is unaware that he is hallucinating. He loses his wake-state gift of metacognition.
Thinking within the dream was similar to wake-state cognition, but thinking about what was happening in the dream, the event itself, was different than in a waking-state. They state their general conclusion about the data:
Within the dream event cognition is often not qualitatively different from waking cognition no matter how outlandish the hallucinatory dream event may be. On the other hand, we are unable to detect how outlandish or bizarre the dream event may really be because our ability to access knowledge about how the world works is impaired. When this kind of thinking is impaired one finds it very difficult to perceive bizarreness.
This is similar to experience a ‘play-world’. If you are seeing a musical then you immediately accept the premise that everyone is going to sing their big emotional expressions, everyone will know the same words in the chorus, and everyone will know the dances. You don’t even have to think about, you just go with it. Perhaps it is our dreaming-selves that allows us to easily slip into the world of a play. This is not unlike the experience of the dreamers in this study. But, it is possible to slip out of the world of the play—and it is usually stated that way—“It took me out” or “I fell out of the world.” So, it seems that the ability to think outside the logic of the play is available, if a stimulus is provided. This seems to tie in with Brecht’s experiments in alienating the audience, to never allow them the opportunity to slip into the play-world—“hypnotized”.
In their collection of results of experimental dream research In Search of Dreams (1996), co-authors Inge Strauch and Barbara Meier devote a section of their book to the comparison of waking fantasies and dreams. While dreams events differ from our waking experience by blending details, persons, and events detached from the continuity of everyday reality, when compared with the waking cognitive act of fantasy some striking differences occur. All participants in this study were evaluated in the sleep lab, using the same criteria used to evaluate REM sleep. Most striking is that fantasies tended to span a greater variety than dreams, and while fantasies took place more often in familiar locations, with every second environment being familiar, they did change location more often than dreams. In dreams only every fourth environment tends to be familiar. Fantasies also feature more people, animals and other creatures than do dreams. Fantasies feature animals more often than do dreams, as well as ‘fabulous creatures’ that in this study only appeared in fantasies and not in dreams. The authors note two marked differences between the reports of waking-fantasy and dreams:
While the fantasy created an idyllic setting, albeit a rather fragile one, the dream offers a dramatic event. Both reports contain bizarre elements, but these differ in impact. During the fantasy, the bizarre seems imposed and not harmoniously integrated into events; within the dream, the bizarre is interwoven with the events an dictates their strtling progress. Fantasy and dream differ further because of two opposite pairs. The loose association of images stands in contrast to a dramatic succession of events; the Fantasy-Self ‘s passive-contemplative attitude differs from the heavily involved position of the Dream-Self. These polarities contribute to the impression that the dream is somehow more serious, more immediate and unaffected, while the fantasy appears more restrained, controlled and non-committal.
Plays are constructed (in general) to operate more like dreams than waking fantasies. While dreaming, the Dream-Self is active in a number of ways, primarily through social engagement:
It is notable how few dreams deal in purely superficial chatter and conventional ritual. When dream persons meet, they do not usually ask, “How are you?” and they do not spend time with talk about the weather. They do not bore each other, but quickly get down to cases. Dreams are characterized particularly by linear and event-oriented scenarios. Dreamers do not constantly wonder who they are, how they impress others and what results their actions might have. Still, they rarely act out of character, but usually participate, quite unsophisticated and involved, in dream events. […] It may seem surprising how rarely dreams expan into the fantastic. Such dreams re not characteristic of the dream experience. In fact, they are exceptions that leave strong impressions and thus encourage hasty generalizations. The limited number of reality-remote dreams may have a special reason: if dreams were to abduct us, night after night, into a totally fantastic and alien world, we would have to reestablish our identity each morning and make sure of the daily world’s solidity. The moderately bizarre nature of dreams permits us to be neither frightened by our nightly fantasies, nor to turn away from them in boredom.
Dreams get right to the action. They do not engage in “chit-chat”, and neither should effective stage drama, as made plain by playwright Doug Wright in an interview with The Dramatist (2004), “If you want diverting conversation, then host a dinner party. If you want to divine something worthwhile about our quest in the world, then write a play.”
From these dream studies a pattern can be deduced that dreaming involves emotional responses on the part of the dreamer; that dreams are usually about scenarios that are personal in nature; dreams are event driven rather than leisurely excursions; that dreaming involves the use of metaphor; that cognition in the dream is similar to waking cognition, but that the ability to discern the plausibility of the content is inhibited; that a dream-like state can be obtained while awake; dreams are not representations of reality, but are pared-down to essential details, interactions, and characters; dreams may be an essential cognitive tool in human learning, sleep may be a function to facilitate dreaming.
Dreams seem to have many of the makings of a really good stage play. For example, stage plays are generally event driven; they are economic in form in that they only feature essential characters, locations, props, sets, etc.; plays rely on metaphor. It seems that our brains may be primed for understanding plays because we dream in logic similar to the type of logic employed in play-worlds. Perhaps it is this logic that drives playwrights to write them.
This is not only at work in the expressionist theater like that of Strindburg, or the epic theater of Brecht. The dynamics of dream logic may be at work on the observer from the moment the lights go down on any stage production. Dream-logic is at work when the play stops to change scene, or doesn’t stop but changes scene anyway, or when Chekhov can serve an entire three course dinner in about ten minutes of actual time. We suspend our disbelief not because we think about doing so—like we have installed a giant crane that hauls disbelief out of the way for a little while— we suspend it because every night, when we dream, there is a built-in mechanism that knows how to inhibit our content-o-meter by recognizing context right away. Every night we practice how to watch a play.
Anne Bogart expresses our experience of Time in the theater, comparing it to the effortlessness of a dream-state from her book And Then You Act (2007):
The theater can uniquely and eloquently express subjective time. Alice falls down a rabbit hole. The logic of time and space alters. The D.N.A. of the art form is akin to dreaming. An entire play can happen inside of one instant of one person’s lifetime. The theater is able to compress time in a way that trauma and dreams do. Dreams are largely non-linear, condensed, and associative. A few moments of sleep time can contain complicated episodes and wild flights of storytelling. If done with rigor and without abandoning dramaturgical logic, theater can do the same, and audiences will follow the logic of a dream. And, like dream time, there is freedom of movement and mind. Time in this case, the personal or subjective time, has nothing to do with clock time.
The “wild flights of storytelling” are something our minds gift to us every night.
It seems that that theater—when it places us in the dark, presents to us a world other than reality, stages a drama built around an event—taps into the mechanism in our brain that knows how to dream. It doesn’t need the formal exploration of the dream-scape, as Strindburg postulated, to achieve this. We are hard-wired to accept rapid movements in time and space—even though these exist only in the mind’s eye—simply by suggesting or implying that great leaps of time and space have been traversed either through a word, a change of light, the movement of a chair, what have you. It does not need to be real, or even pretend to be real. The part of our minds that knows how to dream clicks on (or maybe is always on—just we can’t tell) and fills the void for us. The dream-state of the theater is always present, all while the logic portion of our brains is kept occupied with language, or costumes, or sets, there is another active part that keys up for emotion and event and will ease the mode of transitions in the wink of an eye.
So, is my short play Humalong—the play that I dreamed I was simultaneously performing and viewing—a play that utilizes ‘dream-logic?’ For the expressionists the answer would be ‘no.’ But is going to the theater and seeing this (or any other) play capable of tripping into the dream-logic-state that your brain has been exercising everynight of your sleeping life? That answer may very well be ‘yes.’
Dream on—dream big—dream logic.
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