Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gates of Horn and Ivory

Alas, the New York Times, it seems, is not a dream paper, at least when it comes to the coverage of dreams in its "Science" section. In a recent article ("What Do Dreams Mean? Whatever Your Bias Says", March 10) John Tierney pronounces that "for thousands of years, dreamers have little more to go on than the two-gate hypothesis proposed in the Odyssey", thus ignoring a vast and rich history of dreamwork and dream interpretation, which have been of high importance to most human cultures prior to the modern era.

Even in summarizing Homer's "two-gate hypothesis", he manages to distort ancient texts. Homer did not dismiss dreams that come through the Gate of Ivory as "fatuous", as Tierney states.

In the Odyssey, we learn, with Penelope, that dreams that come through the Gate of Ivory are “dangerous” and may not be manifested; dreams that come through the Gate of Horn are clearer, and may be embodied in events. The difference seems to be a matter of clarity rather than deception. Carved ivory is totally opaque; polished horn is translucent.

The gates reappear in the Aeneid but Virgil changes the characterization in his account of Aeneas' descent to the underworld to visit his dead father Anchises. Now dreams that come through the Gate of Ivory are designated “false”, while those that come through the Gate of Horn are "true". This becomes a standard distinction for centuries in the minds of Westerners raised on the classics.

But there is a mind-trap in Virgil's story. Anchises sends his son back from the Underworld through the Gate of Ivory. Is the poet hinting that our ordinary experience of reality is the false dream?

Synesius of Cyrene, an early bishop of the church who wrote a wonderful treatise "On Dreams" around 405, believed there was no question of truth or falsity involved. All dreams are true (though of varying degrees of importance or value); truth or falsity come in through what we make of them, and through our cloudy or confused recollection. I think he was right. The "gates" refer to the quality of our memory of the dreams - blurred or relatively clear.

Our dreams often shake our waking assumptions, serving as a vital corrective to our ego agendas. They hold up a magic mirror to our waking attitudes and behaviors, showing us the possible consequences of what we are doing or not doing. This is one reason why so many human societies have valued dreaming, as the voice of conscience and a means of restoring our inner compass. It may be comforting for those of us who are stuck in our ways to agree with Mr Tierney that dreams mean only what our "bias" says, but dreamers everywhere know better. Even the deeply flawed sociological study that is Tierney's source concedes that "laypeople" (i.e., everyone except paid researchers) "around the world appear to believe that dreams serve an important function and have meaning, revealing hidden truths," whatever researchers say.

Graphic: The illustration is from a medieval manuscript depicting Aeneas preparing to return to the daylight world from his visit to his father in the Underworld via the Gate of Ivory.


Barbara said...

I, for one, can only say 'thank you' for your vision and your tenacity in your work ... As I wrote that I remembered that this afternoon I've decided to hang a large (3 ft.) plaque with the word 'dream' in the stairwell down to my 'studio'(a dream world), or up to the main floor of the house (the everyday world) ... hmmm ...

Nancy said...

"What Do Dreams Mean? Whatever Your Bias Says" could be interpreted as "I'm seeing your dream as if it were my OWN dream (with my view colored by my biases), & saying what it would mean to ME". The "If it were my dream..." theme of your work continues go be a cornerstone for me, Robert. So maybe you & John Tierney aren't as far apart as you think.

Robert Moss said...

Hi Barbara - I love your banner!

Nancy, have you read the NYT piece? The title refers to the waking bias of the dreamer. Good luck to you in trying to build a bridge between this know-nothing approach and ours!

Margaret said...

Chugging along in the crowded subway, two lines into this pathetically unimaginative article and thinking "This is the best they could come up with?!!" I also felt reinvigorated and refreshed with you leading the dreamwork charge, military metaphor definitely inspired by the Joan of Arc chapter in your wonderful Secret History of Dreaming...on with active dreaming! Margaret

Caroline said...

The reporter would have had a much more interesting, accurate piece if he'd interviewed you, Robert. Thanks for writing about it.

Dorothy said...

The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

Bob W said...

Thanks for writing about this. Your comments should really appear in Times Letters section. The author of the piece in the Times could have saved lots of space by just saying: "What dreams mean to me--not much! Next topic!" It's too bad he cuts himself off to a rich and beautiful Source.

Louisa said...

Tierney's sloppiness with his sources that Robert had pointed out forced me to read the original paper by Morewedge and Norton. The real issue is not so much Tierney's personal bias as his inability or lack of desire to read, adequately understand and critically evaluate a simple study.

Various web publications about the study of Morewedge and Norton suggest that their work is considered a significant contribution to psychology of dreaming and hailed as a victory of "scientific approach". John Cloud in his article "Why Dreams Mean Less Than We Think" about the same study, published in Health & Science section of Time, Feb. 25, goes even further than Tierney: "...we all make dumb choices based on silly information. That's why we invest meaning in dreams." How about that? A survey of a few hundred Boston pedestrians bribed by candy tramples over millenia of experience, art, literature, spiritual traditions - and science?

My other concern is the conclusions that its authors make based on their results. This is a sociological study of BELIEFS and ATTITUDES towards dreams and their interpretation, so making any far-reaching conclusions about the true MEANING of dreams based on the results of such a survey is presumptuous. While the authors have the right to claim that what people THINK about dreams and how they INTERPRET them is irrational and biased, they cannot infer that dreams are meaningless from this information.

I also have troubles with their study design. The paper reports on six different studies. In two of them, participants were asked to endorse one of the four mutually non-exclusive theories of dreaming currently prevailing in psychology. The participants rated their agreement with the theory on a scale of 1 to 7, but were then forced to select one theory with which they agreed the most. "Laypeople", as the authors insist on calling non-psychologists, rarely adhere to "leading theories" or formulate their attitudes in their terms. Forcing participants to choose from four vaguely and rather artificially formulated statements, in my opinion, introduces a bias into the study. For example, I would have been disqualified by this design, since I cannot agree with any of the options that they offer. If this were my study, I would bin the participants into four categories: "Dreams DO have meaning", "Dreams MAY have some purpose", "Dreams are just neuronal noise", "Other" (a catch-all category for alternative thinkers). Note also that the questionnaire that Tierney offers on his site presents the reader with the "hard" choice among four theories, no 1-7 rating.

The results are actually quite interesting. Indeed, the majority of students in three countries believe that dreams are meaningful. (Robert can breathe freely because there is a vast young audience for his work out there.:)) The authors insist on calling this viewpoint "Freudian". Somehow the proportion of these faithful Freudians is a lot higher among Indians (74%) than among Americans (56%) or South Koreans (65%). Anybody with even a scrap of common sense would see the irony in these numbers of "Freudians". The results simply suggest that in more traditional cultures more people think that dreams are meaningful, not that there are more followers of Freud in those cultures! Also quite striking is how many people would give priority to dream information about a plane crash over a conscious thought and even - even! - a government warning. But I'm afraid that by now there is plenty of empirical evidence about reliability of this last source.

I can go on and on nitpicking the authors' experimental technique, but that is useless. I just want to point out something else that I find peculiar. The article begins as follows:

"Eeach morning, many people glance suspiciously across the bed at the person who broke their heart moments before with imagined infidelities,..."

- really, each morning, many people do that? The theme of dream infidelity reappears again several times throughout the paper. In Discussion, the authors suggest that all those irrational dreams of spousal infidelity may lead to "suspicious accusations, alientating one's spouse and potentially provoking actual infidelity". Really??? I've heard plenty of stories of how boredom, disenchantment and lack of emotional fulfillment leads to cheating, but dreams as pathways to adultery, - this is something new! - unless you've seen Belle de jour too many times. But I can only wonder why two men with PhDs from Ivy League schools would come up with such a gem.

Again, the main problem with these publications is their lack of intellectual culture, logic, scholarship and critical thinking. And this is why I admire Robert's work and writing: he never insults my intelligence and possesses erudition that is extremely rare these days both among scientists - and "laypeople".

To conclude, another verbatim quote from Morewedge and Norton:

"Although researchers still debate the function and dream content's meaning, laypeople around the world appear to believe that dreams serve an important function and have meaning, revealing hidden truths."

Let them debate.

Robert Moss said...

Dear Louisa - Thank you very much indeed for your wonderfully thorough and cogent critique of the study on which Tierney's piece in the New York Times was based. You bring it home to us that (as always) there is no conflict between dreamers and real scientists; the conflict and confusion arise from BAD science. It is quite surreal to find the term "Freudian" used as the sole descriptor for people who think that dreams have meaning, especially when those people belong to cultures where Freud is largely unknown.