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Confusion and Memory Cues in Dreams

In waking life, memory cues are objects, words, sounds, or sensory experiences that trigger memory. Essentially, they are conscious and subconscious associations we have made between the object and an event that spark a memory. An example of a conscious association you may be familiar with is, for instance, the scent of a particular pastry baking that takes you back to your trip to Paris. Some cues and associations are a little more obscure and difficult to recognize until they occur. For instance, the way someone playfully tugs your arm may trigger a memory of physical abuse. 

While some memory cues may be painful, most are rather mundane, and cues can be very useful in our daily lives. They help us make sense of data, aid in long-term memory recall, and in a practical sense, they can support us in remembering all sorts of necessary information: from to-do lists to directions to names of people and places.

But what about in dreams?

We already know that dreams can confuse our sense of time and place. A simple example is when you dream of being in your childhood home, sold decades ago, with your current spouse and children. Your dead grandfather is there tossing a ball with your teenage son.

This confusing experience of time and place makes it difficult for the dreamer, both in the dream and upon waking, to make sense of where and when they were in the dream; and sometimes even who they were! You might notice in such a dream that you are not even sure whether you’re “the adult” or “the kid”.

In our dreams, more often than we realize, we remember events and encounters first experienced in the past that we have completely forgotten in waking life. We then confuse those remembered encounters with imagined encounters. Or we mix up a remembered place with an imagined relationship. The combinations are endless.

Some studies indicate this may be due to the fact that dreams tend to be hyperassociative; that our dream selves go a little overboard in associating.

Whether or not that is the case, the fact is that due to the non-linear and often fragmented content of our dreams, we may simply miss the fact that a memory is even in play.

I would like to suggest that in some of these confusing time/place dreams we are being provided with images (as cues) meant to make us feel. That perhaps, there is a purpose to the combining of “the old” with the new.

Let’s say, for example, we are moving through something stressful or worrying in waking life. We are aware of the stressful situation, but maybe not of the deep emotional pain this situation is causing us. Perhaps something like this has happened before. Perhaps we have acquired the belief that it’s not acceptable to be hurt by what is happening. We’ve “learned” it’s better to manage our feelings and our behavior with the intention  of being or looking strong for those we are responsible for.

Well, that approach may work for some time … until one day it doesn’t anymore.  Suddenly, you are experiencing increased anxiety or chronic pain. You’re not as “tough” as you used to be. You don’t know why you’re having so much anxiety and you can’t seem to get rid of your chronic pain with any treatment.

Our dreams know what to do. The dreams — and the feelings they arouse — can be the medicine.

Our dreams, however, also know how skilled we have become at not feeling, at simply pushing through or managing.

Dream images that are instant replays of our daily life likely won’t spark deep feeling. More anxiety, yes, but not real feeling. Not pain. Not fear. Not what we need to feel and process in order to heal emotional wounds, both past and present.

So the dreams sometimes present us with images that surprise us or shock us into feeling.

To do so, they may mix and match incidents from now with memories of the past. They may introduce characters you once knew or who are long gone. Someone or some scenario to cue you into remembering a feeling — in the hopes that you will feel the feeling in the dream.

So, as an example, you may find yourself in a dream in your childhood home with both your teenage kids and your grandfather because there is an emotional association between what you are experiencing now, and how you used to feel as a child in relationship to your grandfather. Examples: Helplessness,  abandonment, humiliation. Or, alternatively, you may be overwhelmed by love, joy, or playful curiosity. (It’s not only the “bad” feelings we learn how to repress, hide, or downplay.)

When we work a dream like this in a dreamwork session, we will purposefully first dive deep into feeling the most potent events in the dream. Then we may seek to identify a possible link or association between the feeling in the dream and a feeling in waking life. We may also discuss ways in which the dream encounter is familiar to waking life encounters.

Essentially, through dreamwork, there are ways to place ourselves in a time or in multiple times, across time, even in a dream space that feels timeless or time-confused.

One way to do this is through feeling. Once we feel into the encounters of the dream, we cue memories of older, similar feelings.

However, it’s important for me to note here that while discovering the association can be interesting and useful, ultimately, it’s not the knowledge of the link that will lead to healing.

Feeling is what leads to healing. 

There’s no way around this, even though some of us (me included, sometimes!) wish that knowing and awareness would be enough. The mental activity is instructive, yes, but if thinking our way through our pain worked, we probably would have already reaped the rewards of nights spent with insomnia or early morning panic attacks obsessively ruminating about our stress.

Nope. It is feeling that leads the way to healing. And our dreams offer us memory cues — lovingly, I believe — to help us along the way.

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