The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
by Stephanie Whittaker

Once the lights go out and you drift off, your brain gets busy and you can find yourself in some very odd predicaments. One night you might find yourself in your childhood home, except that it’s not really your childhood home. You’re with your cat, except that it’s not really your cat. Suddenly, your evil Grade 3 teacher is standing over you. You want to run, but there are snarling dogs outside.

You wake up in a cold sweat and ponder the eternal question: What does it mean? A lot of people would like to know.

Some of them even spend their professional lives studying dreaming, trying to learn about the mysterious nocturnal activities of the unconscious brain.

Many of them will converge on Montreal in several weeks – July 8-12 – to take part in Dreams Without Borders, the 25th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. They will be here to attend and to lead lectures and workshops, which will be open to the public, on the latest dream research.

The Berkeley, Calif.-based organization counts members from a broad spectrum of fields: psychiatry, psychology, medicine, education and alternative healing among them.

The topics they will explore will be varied. Workshops will include: Dreamwork, Illness, Trauma and Healing; Using Hypnosis to Work With Your Dreams; Dream Imagery and the Arts; Honouring the Themes in Your Dreams; Dreams as We Age; and Spiritual Insights in Dreams.

Among the speakers will be Harvard University professors Deirdre Barrett and David Kahn.

“I think people are fascinated by their dreams because it’s the unknown,” said conference organizer Layne Dalfen, a Montreal dream analyst.

“Every researcher will give you a different twist on why people should study their dreams. The members of the International Association for the Study of Dreams are diverse. They’re from the arts, humanities, faith communities, medical field and academe, and everyone has a different reason for investigating dreams.

“For me, decoding dreams is a way of looking for solutions that appear in the unconscious before they get to the conscious mind. Dreams occur for the purpose of propelling us to solve our problems.”

Cracking the code, however, can be anything but easy. The key, said Dalfen, who counsels her clients on the process, is to seek out metaphors. She recalls an obvious metaphor in one of her own dreams.

“Around 1997, I dreamed that I was on my knees on the lower part of a college campus in North Carolina. I was frustrated because I couldn’t stand up and I couldn’t get to the upper part of the campus. When I woke up, my husband, who is very skeptical about this but understands the theories, asked me who I was having trouble standing up to. It was my brother, actually.”

In helping her clients crack the code, she begins by looking for the emotions that their dreams inspire.

“Emotions give you a clue about why you’re dreaming what you’re dreaming,” she said.

And when a dream gets ratcheted up to nightmare status? “Whatever you’re underreacting to in your waking life, you’ll overreact to in your dream-life,” she said. “That’s the unconscious getting your attention and it’s why nightmares are good things.”

Dalfen said our dreams usually reflect events that have happened in the previous day. “When you get up in the morning, you prioritize your day with all the things you have to do,” she said.

“When you go to bed at night, your unconscious mind prioritizes what’s bugging you the most, and the dreams you have will be your mind testing possible solutions to those things.”

If the translation of dreams is a challenge, she said, it’s because the unconscious speaks only in symbols, archetypes, metaphors and coded language. “People ask why dreams are so symbolic,” she said. “If the unconscious mind could answer that question, it would ask: ‘Why are you so literal?’ It’s just that symbols are the language of the unconscious mind.”

The Dreams Without Borders conference takes place July 8-12 at Hotel Auberge Universel, 5000 Sherbrooke St. E., across from the former Olympic Village. More than 100 presentations and workshops are scheduled.Cost for members of the IASD: $530; students: $455. A one-day pass costs $200 for non-members and $170 for members. Cost includes lunch. For information, email or visit

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