The Anatomy of the Dream

by | Aug 8, 2017 | 0 comments

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Dobo’s work in progress, Transformational EMDR: A Death Rebirth Sequence in Six Stages.  It continues the discussion begun in the post DREAM AMPLIFICATION AND INTERPRETATION

The Anatomy of the Dream 9
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The Anatomy of the Dream (The Components)

  1. Symbols
  2. Signs
  3. Images
  4. Metaphors
  5. Emotions
  6. Thoughts
  7. Themes
  8. Motifs
  9. Fantasies


Not all dreams will have all these components, but these are the parts that your unconscious has available to deliver its message to you, the dreamer. You can read several different books about dreams where this list might look different. I am not saying this list is an end-all way to work with a dream, but it has worked for me for decades. The first step in understanding the anatomy of the dream is to understand each component. To do this, it is important to understand what each component means and what the overall anatomy looks like when examining each element of the dream.

The Nine Dream Components Briefly Defined

A symbol is an expression for something that is unknown, represented by something that is known. It represents something other than itself. It is more than itself. It is familiar but has a meaning more than the obvious. For example, we are all familiar with a cow. We know what a cow is and does. For most of us, we do not think of it as anything but an animal that gives milk, is butchered as a source of food, or an animal we notice in pastures as we drive along on a road trip. Nothing symbolic here.

In India, the practice of Hinduism teaches that the cow is sacred. It represents one of the primary tenants of Hinduism, which is, to do no harm to an animal. If someone of the Hindu faith dreams about a cow, it will have a much deeper meaning for them than if a non-Hindu dreamed of a cow. For Americans, the bald eagle is a proud symbol of patriotism, but for other countries, it is just a bird.

Archetypal symbols are common to all people and are powerful like a serpent, cross, sword, blood, etc. We will talk about these types of symbols in later chapters.

A sign is often related to a symbol. The difference between a sign and a symbol depends on the perspective of the dreamer. A person might dream of a STOP sign as they drive along in a dream. The meaning of the sign can simply be to stop as the dreamer moves along in this dream. It can, however, be perceived as a symbol if there is something in the dreamer’s life that they are doing or about to do that is dangerous. Then this sign is much more important. In this case, the STOP sign is something more significant. It is a symbol.

Fantasies occur while awake. Fantasies are like daydreaming. Jung developed a strategy employing an active fantasy; he called this exploration “active imagination.” In this activity, the dreamer would reenter the dream or fantasy while awake. The person is to be calm and quiet with their eyes closed. The person is actively engaged in the fantasy to understand it. In this situation, the dreamer can ask characters in the dream anything they want to ask. If a dream feels unfinished, this strategy provides an incredible way to get answers. A passive fantasy is something that might happen as you drive along on a long road trip. Passive fantasies can be valuable, especially if they contain dreamlike material. One must know that these experiences are valuable and should be examined or at least considered as something to examine.

Sometimes the fantasy can be the inner singer. If a song pops into your head for no apparent reason and you’re not sure why, it is a good idea to pay close attention to the words, because they are almost always relevant to something going on in your life.

The image is the scene. It is what the various pictures conjure up in your head as you read the dream. It is the picture your mind conjures up in your mind’s eye. Images are snapshots of scenes. Images are pictures. The image from our first dream might be seeing the scene of a lake with two boys fishing and a man watching them. That is an image. The picture you see in your mind as I describe that scene is the image—your image. Symbols can create images. For example, the sea is a body of water, and water is a symbol. Sometimes symbols create the image.

The theme consists of a few words that describe the dream in a nutshell. The theme captures its cognitive essence. There can be more than one theme. Some themes are like a genre of a movie. (For example, a scary dream might be a “thriller.” Are you being chased by something scary? The theme might be, “I can’t get away.” The dead sea dream we are working on might have a theme of being stuck—unable to go. The dead sea dream also has another theme, that is, the idea of the tension of opposites, a hallmark Jungian idea. The boys were free, yet captive. They were fishing but not really, because there are no fish—fishing without fishing. My sense of a dream’s theme and yours might be different, but it doesn’t matter. They are both right but always concede to the person who had the dream. The dreamer knows.

Other common themes: People often have dreams of being in school for an important test, but they did not know about it, and they did not study. The theme might be “I’m in trouble.”

An “Oh, no” dream. Falling dreams are common. Falling dreams are like a genre. It is simply a falling dream. Something is trying to get your attention with a bam! Wake up before it’s too late!

Dreams of being killed. The theme can be more about the method and where the fatal wound occurs in the body. Beheaded, shot in the heart, shot in the back, throat cut. These methods of dying in dreams are metaphors for what is going on in the person’s life. So, the theme is often simply those few words. It was a beheading dream. It is a shot-in-the-back dream. This all might be pointing out the obvious, but slowing down and thinking about the dream and its theme can start to make immediate connections to your life.

Emotions are usually self-explanatory, but it is helpful to identify the feeling. The emotion is not overt; it is experienced internally by the dreamer. The dead sea dream might conjure up feelings of helplessness or confusion. No emotion is mentioned. In fact, this dream is lifeless just like the characters in it. The scary dreams are easy; that would be fear. The dream of being unprepared for a test in school causes feelings of anxiety and fear. The emotions can sometimes guide you to a thought. If you are afraid in a dream, you might think, “I’m weak.” The emotion that emerges for being unprepared for an important test at school is anxiety or disappointment. These emotions might create the thoughts: I’m stupid, or I’m a loser, or I’m in trouble, etc.

The motif is less robust but important enough to note and consider for interpretation. For example, in the dead sea dream, the motif might be the boys are free and not free. OR the statement, “They won’t go. They prefer to stay.” Not sure what that means, but often statements like that resonate with the dreamer, and they know exactly what these motifs in the dream mean in the context of their life.

This list is the basic anatomy of the dreamwork that I have used over the years, in addition to the three-part structure that provides the settings and characters along with the story, the conflict and finally the resolution of the story or lack of resolution. You are now armed with the anatomy and new understanding of these components of the dream.

Different Types of Dreams

Jung would call certain dreams “Big Dreams These dreams use archetypal images and usually are remembered throughout the life span. These dreams are often remembered without writing them down. As the person ages, the “big” dream has a different meaning. The archetypal dream has many meanings, often simultaneously. They often leave the dreamer with a numinous experience, as if they have been touched by God or the universe. They have encountered something greater than themselves.

Archetypal dreams and symbols

If you look at any dictionary of symbols, most of the objects you find there are archetypal.

For example, a serpent or snake, a sword, water, blood, certain numbers — 4, 3, 8. Geometric figures, circle and square. The hero, the villain, the trickster, colors, planets, etc.

Common archetypal themes could be war, lust or sex, death and destruction, greed, spring, Christmas. A holy quest is an archetypal journey. The list is almost endless.

The Anatomy of the Dream 10
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The other dreams are personal dreams that deal with events of the day. The car is often symbolic for our ego; it is what we use to get around in the world. However, if you are an auto mechanic and dream about a car, it may be a symbol for the ego, or it may be more personal, processing something from a day at work.

Finally, there are, on rare occasions, pre-cognitive dreams. These are dreams that tell the future. The dreamer might have a dream that someone they love died in a car crash. Usually, this does not mean the loved one will be in a car crash. More often, the dream is about you “crashing” somewhere in your life, and the characteristics you might possess that are like this loved one in a dream is a hint at where your crash is occurring. But sometimes the loved one does have a crash, and the dream did predict it. Again, this is rare. If it does happen, first it might be a coincidence. Second, one can have an inflated sense of self if they believe they can foretell the future.

The chronological age of the dreamer is important to consider. Younger people have a focus directed toward making a place in the world. They have a strong link to material things and the outer world. Older people begin to withdraw, as they have already made their place in it. It is a more sublime look inward and coming to terms with what is next. Reconciling with God.

We already have already established the three-part structure.

  1. We broke down the dream verbatim into three parts.
  2. Now take each part and make a commentary—a thought or thoughts that come to you from reading the dream a second time.
  3. This commentary can be questions you might have.
  • What is the exposition trying to tell you?
  • A man has two boys at a lake fishing. Why two boys?
  • They are not fishing, and they do not seem to be related to each other.
  • Why a lake? Why fishing? What does fishing mean?
  • Why are there no girls or women in the dream?
  1. What is the problem/tension/conflict?

There are no fish. They seem to be prisoners who are free to go but choose to stay in this empty existence. The tension of opposites: The boys are in prison and not in prison simultaneously. They are fishing but not fishing at the same time.

5. What is the resolution?

  • They remain in this situation of fishing in a dead sea with no fish.
  • There is no resolution; it is a dream of waiting. How does this story end? We do not know.


What are the symbols in this dream?

  • Fishing
  • Dead sea water (with no fish)
  • Cages
  • All men in the dream — Animus is present in the dream.
  • Old man
  • Two boys
  • Two
  • Boys, a pair, duality — fishing and not fishing. Prisoners but not prisoners; they are free to go.


What are the emotions? Helpless, stuck, confused

What is the theme? Stuck, unable to go; the opposites. Fruitful on the surface. Desolate under the surface.

What is the image? The sea and shore. Seeing the cages. Seeing little boys fishing. The image might seem like the man is a caring father, but he is a captor. He is not a father, but is a father in the image. He is not a prisoner but lives in a cage. Opposites.

What is the motif?   Free but not free. They choose to stay. They don’t mind not catching anything. A worthless vocation.

Dream amplification

With this new understanding, let’s look at the mechanics of dream amplification.

Dream amplification is exactly that: You expand the dream by exploring its symbols.

To begin, it is best to sit quietly and let your mind contemplate the symbol. You can do this with pen and notebook in your lap. It is ok to write while you contemplate. Sit quietly. This is not meditation, it is just an attempt to stop the distractions of the day. Just a few minutes to quiet the noise in your head and try to recall the dream. You are the one who has the answer to the mystery locked.

The first example below demonstrates the correct way to amplify a symbol and a good place to start. This technique is followed by the second diagram, the incorrect way to amplify and work with a symbol. You do not have to make a diagram; you can just make a list of ideas. You can write the ideas in a journal in paragraph form. This is your journey, so document it any way you prefer. I would encourage you not to use any electronics in this process. It is best to touch a pen and paper to create this document in your own hand, not though a keyboard-to-screen approach. It is sacred work. There is nothing sacred about digital storage and plastic.

You may have many more associations with a symbol than the five in the example. The diagrams below are just to demonstrate the right and the wrong way to begin the amplification process. The more associations the better. You must always return to the symbol for an association. Each of the five associations is generated by the stimulus “fishing.” Fish-water/fish-productive/fish-apostle/fish-food/fish-fulfilling.

The Proper Way to Amplify a Symbol

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The example below describes how not to amplify a symbol. In this example, the symbol creates an association, food, which is correct. Then, however, the next association is not from fishing. In this example, food is the stimulus word, which is associated to pizza. Do not generate an association from an association. Always return to the original dream symbol for the next association. Do not do this: Fishing-food-pizza-Italy-spaghetti-Grandma Marie (makes the best spaghetti)

The Improper Way to Expand on a Symbol

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You can see how ridiculous it can get by chaining association of an association to an association. Next thing they’ll be at Grandma Marie’s, who makes the best spaghetti. Never generate your association from an association. This incorrect way to work with dreams will take you into the abyss and completely in the wrong direction. Always go back to the symbol as the stimulus for the association. Of course, there may be genuine associations related to relevant associations, but these links appear in the interpretation phase, not in this “looking for something to click with the symbol” phase.

You are now armed with the basic skills needed to start unlocking the meaning of your dreams. Next we will be able to deliver our initial comprehensive interpretation.



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