Spatial experiences in dreams

24 May
Elephants Dream

From the movie Elephants Dream.© copyright 2006, Netherlands Media Art Institute /

In the better late than never department (I’ve been preoccupied away from the blog for a while)…

In the book Black Elk Speaks, the Sioux holy man recounts a dream he had at a young age, in which the Powers of the World—of the West, the North, the East, and the South—appear to him.

New Yorker Susan Tyburczy holds that story dear to her heart. She enjoys standing at the ocean’s edge and imagining what transpires in the vast space beneath the surface. Being a young sleepwalker and sleeptalker were also precursors to her choice of dissertation topic. In earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Saybrook University, she studied the spatial experiences reported by dreamers.

Susan Tyburczy

Susan Tyburczy, Ph.D.

Dr. Tyburczy, a Staten Island psychotherapist who’s a member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, described her research on Sunday, April 3, for IASD’s New York Metro Area group. In the audience were a number of the dreamers from among the 28 she had interviewed for her study. Even the settings of the interviews had had spatial variety—places that ranged from her home to theirs to parks to restaurants (she and I sat in a corner of a diner for hours when I told her my dream). Using the method Susan devised of arranging items to represent the characters, objects, and movement in their dream, one dreamer even laid his out in the trunk of his car.

To focus her topic, Susan had started by looking at how other researchers had approached the issue. They’d been rather interpretive, she felt, retelling the dreams from their own theoretical perspectives. Susan decided to convey the dreams as the dreamers told them, and she accumulated an amazing collection of little plastic figurines and toys for dreamers to choose from in making their arrangements. (In typical New York fashion, our waitress didn’t even raise an eyebrow at the plastic-army–like scene arrayed next to our pushed-aside plates, or at Susan aiming her video camera at me as I discussed the dream I’d staged.)

Here are images from how three of Susan’s other research subjects arranged their dreams during her interview with them:

Dolls -- a dream arrangement from one of Susan Tyburczy's research interviews

Dolls -- a dream arrangement from one of Susan Tyburczy's research interviews

Bowl -- a dream arrangement from one of Susan Tyburczy's research interviews

Bowl -- a dream arrangement from one of Susan Tyburczy's research interviews

Lizard and lunchbox -- a dream arrangement from one of Susan Tyburczy's research interviews

Lizard and lunchbox -- a dream arrangement from one of Susan Tyburczy's research interviews

Susan found intriguing differences between how space was experienced when the dreamer was alone in the dream compared and when the dream involved other people and other living things. Alone, dreams were primarily reported in terms of density, position, and motion in space; accompanied, they were most often described in terms of distance, control, and containment in space.

More than half the dreamers reported observing themselves in the dream, and from a total of 33 positions, including from the side, above, and to the left—the sort of out-of-dream-body experiences that typify dreams’ ability to give us experiences we’re unable to have when awake. The spatial distancing from oneself, Susan suggested, might be a form of self-protection.

Susan advises all of us to pay attention to the spatial experiences in our dreams—because some of them might represent a portal to another reality beyond the four dimensions of space and time familiar to us. For years, Susan has been a member of a dream-sharing group hosted by Montague Ullman, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, at his home in Ardsley, Westchester County. (Dr. Ullman died in 2008, but the group continues to meet.)

In addition to his groundbreaking research in dream telepathy and his pioneering effort to bring dreamwork “out of the consulting room and into the community” with his Ullman Method of group dreamwork, Monte spent time with physicist David Bohm. Bohm theorized an “implicate” order—a holographic sort of enfoldment in which everything is connected with everything else. In the implicate order, space and time lose their importance. From the implicate, Bohm said, might arise the “things” we observe as distinct and separate in the space-time of the “explicate” order.

Monte, in turn, theorized that dreaming consciousness is a “relay station” between the implicate and explicate orders. He presented this theory in “The Dream: In Search of a New Abode,” a keynote address at IASD’s 2006 conference in Bridgewater, Mass.

Susan’s goal for her April 3 talk, she had said, was to generate in us “a feeling of intrigue” about dreaming and waking experiences of space. She succeeded in that for me, even in anticipation of her talk. The morning before, I had a dream that left me with a feeling of not being about to get my head around what the odd spatial relationships in it signified. I’ll be writing about that in a subsequent post.

Susan’s work should hold particular interest for those for whom space is a specific element of their work or creative expression—such as dancers, theater designers and directors, interior decorators, architects, and even construction workers. I’d love to see her write or present for such groups.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: