Spring 2019–Winter 2020

On Dream Sharing and Its Purpose

The social contract of sensuous imagining

Matthew Spellberg

A Tlingit shaman’s dance apron from the Pacific Northwest. The garment—made some time before 1908—depicted, according to its original collector, a mosquito from the shaman’s dream. Courtesy Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Among certain philosophers it is a commonplace that dreams are radically private, that no one can follow you into them. A fragment from Heraclitus distills the problem: “The universe for those who are awake is single and common, while in sleep each person turns aside into a private universe.” Hegel, commenting on this same fragment, says that “the dream is a knowledge of something of which I alone know.”[1] Consider how you might teach a child to understand the meaning of the word “dream.” You cannot point anywhere and say, “That’s a dream.” Nor can you say at any moment to the child, “Look, I’m dreaming,” and be doing it. 


The science of dreams—first psychoanalysis, and then neuroscience—has inherited this frame of reference. In 1900, Freud writes that dreams are “completely asocial.” A hundred years later, Yuval Nir and Giulio Tononi, two leaders in contemporary brain research, write that “dreams … show that the human brain, disconnected from the environment, can generate an entire world of conscious experiences by itself.”[2] Here, dreams are, by definition, that whole nocturnal life you cannot share, that second life as Nerval wrote, with its unexpected villains and lovers, its indescribable moonscapes, its fantastical concatenations of memory, its unfathomable vehicles and dungeons, its transports of flight, and its corporeal crises when the limbs turn stiff and the monster is upon you. Dreams mean disconnection and disengagement from the framework of this our shared world, and immersion in them is so strange, so sorrowful, so disorienting, sometimes so very shameful, that we can barely coax them into the light even should we want to.


And yet, despite this vision of dreams as paradigmatically distant, many of the world’s cultures—especially outside of the modern West—have developed elaborate protocols by which dreams can be shared. The complexity of these protocols is confirmation, in one sense, of the claim that dreams are especially private, even more so than other forms of thinking. A society must work very hard indeed to make them sharable; they must be wrestled into this life from that nighttime one. But these protocols are also somehow a rebuke to the philosophers’ skepticism: people build their own universes in dreams, except, as we’ll see, they then go to great lengths to reconstruct and combine them into a shared one while awake. This seems to raise at least two questions. Why go to such great lengths to share dreams? And what happens to a culture, like our own, that doesn’t practice dream sharing, that (a few isolated realms aside, perhaps the most important being psychoanalysis) has largely given up on it? 


The task of this essay is to consider what dream sharing looks like across the globe, particularly in certain small-scale societies where it has been elevated to the level of an art form (or, perhaps, beyond it). In dream sharing, something from the depths of sleep is harnessed for use in the public world, in the community of the awoken. For many cultures, as we’ll see, dream sharing is a protocol for regular renegotiation of what might be termed the social contract of sensuous imagining, the set of images and emotions and unseen realities that govern, even more than abstract ideas, 
an individual’s relationship to society and to 
the cosmos. 


• • •

In the most familiar cases, dream-sharing protocols involve recounting the dream, and then asking someone to interpret it. I dreamt of gathering wheat under a full moon. Interpretation: you will be married within the year. It’s a process that people in our own culture still practice, both on the analyst’s couch and at the kitchen table—though in the wrong company telling a dream might get you dismissed as boring, and interpreting one might get you mocked for being superstitious.


Historically, traditions of great intellectual subtlety have developed to interpret dreams, and to consider what interpreting a dream actually means. In the Palestinian Talmud, for instance, it’s made quite clear that when it comes to prophetic dreams, what causes the fulfillment of a prophecy is not the dream itself (or its originator, God), but rather the interpretation of the dream. If a rabbi interprets a dream as foretelling the death of the dreamer and then the dreamer dies, then it’s the rabbi’s fault that he’s died.[3] Similarly, Cicero writes that the dream-obsessed people of Telmessos blamed the interpreters, and not the dreamer, if a dream prediction turned out to be false; it wasn’t the dream itself that was wrong—such a phrase would have made no sense to the dreamers of Telmessos—it was the interpretation that had failed.[4] Already in these instances some unexpected epistemological principles are being entertained. A dream and its interpretation do not follow one another directly in the way of a question and its answer. Each has its own life, its own path of causation, its own relationship to the truth. These overlap in places, and separate decisively in others. In some cases, the interpretation even overwhelms and redirects the dream.


But this is only the beginning, for there are many cultures where recounting and interpreting is not the paradigm for dream sharing at all. Instead, dreams are understood to be sites of action; not texts but places, not a coded language but a part of reality. Often they connect individuals to cosmologies that bend space and time in ways closer to Einstein than Newton. The experienced reality of the dream—not its purported meaning, but its spaces, timescales, transformations, felt experience—is what’s evoked, what’s brought into the public realm of waking life, and what’s made use of. It may be that a key task—hunting, for example—is accomplished in dreams before it can be accomplished in waking life. Or it may be, as among the Wayuu of Colombia and Venezuela, that the trajectory of a dream is altered by being retold in waking life, with the expectation that the next night, the dream itself will change, and, as a result, the person’s waking life will too.[5] (A similar technique has been pioneered by the therapist Barry Krakow to work with trauma victims: by writing down in a journal happier endings to their recurrent nightmares, the patients could tame them 
in sleep.)[6]

Among many Aboriginal peoples of Australia, dreams are understood to be important conduits into a metaphysical system often called in English the Dreamtime (though it is important to note that despite this nomenclature, the concept’s exact relation to sleep dreams varies considerably among different Aboriginal traditions, and is a matter of some scholarly debate).[7] The Dreamtime, or Dreaming, is the heroic myth-world, and also the realm of laws, traditions, ideals. Aboriginal philosophy is subtle and sophisticated, in all likelihood ungraspable to the uninitiated; furthermore, the generalizations of anthropologists inevitably fail to capture the reality of a community in which myths and songs and ideas are created, negotiated, and modified by individuals, each with a distinctive cast of mind, some of them especially prodigious and brilliant dreamers. But we can trace some lineaments of this intellectual world, keeping in mind that they (and other traditions described in this essay) relate to individual practice the way a broad history of the novel might relate to the specific complexity of Proust or Dickens. 


Piero della Francesca, Dream of Constantine, 1460s, located in Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy. The fresco depicts one of the last pan-Mediterranean legends of dream sharing. In 312, the Emperor Constantine, on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge with his rival Maxentius, is said to have dreamt of a cross emblazoned with the words, “By this sign you will conquer.” Victorious, he would convert himself, and the Roman Empire, to Christianity.

The Dreaming is both the primal world, the Creation, and also a world that continues to exist all around us, its separateness from everyday life a matter of temporary perspective rather than intractable fact. In many Australian cultures, dreams provide an essential point of connection. Conception occurs when a soul crosses over from one realm to the other in dreams; death doesn’t truly occur until a person is sighted one last time in a dream; dreams produce insights about where to hunt, or they answer a question about lineage; sometimes they give birth to new songs and new rituals; they often provide a stage on which dreamers can glimpse the eternal and world-creating movements of their individual ancestors, whose inner essence their own bodies contain. The anthropologist Sylvie Poirier reports that among the Pintupi of the Western Desert, the dream-world and the waking world have to be regularly realigned with one another. She writes that once she was riding with a family in a car that broke down in the desert. The car got fixed, but for it to really be fixed, it needed to be working again in the dream-world as well as the waking one. “As the engine started running again,” Poirier recalls, “a young woman pointed at her toddler and said, ‘Might be that boy had a dream about that car and saw it working properly.’”[8]

It would be a discredit to the Pintupi to say that for them, dreams are merely prophetic. For the thing the dream predicts has already happened. Rather, the events of dreams and the events of waking life are required to be somehow in accord. And, what’s more, if the boy did actually dream of the car working, then when it starts working, his family members have accomplished the very thing that Heraclitus and Hegel cannot accept: they’ve seen his dream, they can say “he is dreaming of a car working” and also see a car working, and can understand these two phenomena as one and the same.


In this society, where a boy must dream of a car working for the car to work, there is little that resembles what we might call dream interpretation. Sylvie Poirier, again: “What possibly might be seen, at first, as a lack of interest in dream interpretation reveals, on closer examination, another local reality—the paramount role of the action of dreaming itself in one’s life itinerary and in the unfolding of reality.”[9] Dream life and waking life do not exist in a hermeneutic relation to one another—instead, they are interpenetrable and complementary planes of existence. Acting in one has an effect in the other—which in turn has an effect again in the first, and on and on in a continuous cycle.


• • •

Robin Ridington has shown, in a series of magnificent books and essays, how a Dené people of the Canadian interior, the Dane-zaa (or Dunne-za), use dreaming to give shape to the substance and structure of their lives. Building on years of work with Dane-zaa Dreamer Charlie Yahey and other tradition-bearers, Ridington writes, “Camps among the Dunne-za were always set up so that there was bush unbroken by human trails in the direction of the rising sun. People slept with their heads in this direction and received images in their dreams. These dream images were believed to have come down to them along the path of the sun. In order to cross trails with an animal in the bush, the hunter had first to make contact with the sun’s path across the sky.”[10] Animals had to be taken (or give themselves up) in dreams before they could be killed in waking life; indeed, the real hunt took place in dreams, and the waking hunt was only its fulfillment or realization. The details constituting this system of dream-knowing were in every instance intimately tied to the practical skills required to survive on the ecological knife-edge that is the boreal forest. (“That’s hungry country up there,” an ethnobotanist once told me, “less food than the Kalahari.”) For example, just as hunters had to receive dreams along the path of the sun, so in waking life they relied on the sun for orientation amid the vast expanses of taiga. To improve his status, a hunter not only needed to give gifts and perform feats; he needed to defeat his rivals in dream battles.[11]

Dane-zaa Dreamer Charlie Yahey, carrying a drum emblazoned with a map of the Dane-zaa cosmos. Photo Robin Ridington.

For the Dane-zaa, as for many such dream-sharing cultures, the mixing of dreams and waking life occurred already at the very headwaters of history. In the mythtime, a boy is abandoned by his father on an island, and survives because he makes contact with his medicine animals in dreams. They teach him how to hunt in the remote place where he’s been left to die. He then defeats his father and returns from the island to subdue the giant animals who once roamed the earth eating humans. He acquires the name Tsááyaa and becomes a culture hero, sending the animals underground so that their subterranean bodies become the breathing, slumbering contours of the landscape. The remaining animals are smaller, and humans can hunt them, inaugurating a new era. In this new time, Tsááyaa’s actions have made it possible for humans to become the hunters rather than the hunted. In fact, his dreams become the template for making contact through visions with the sleeping animal giants, and enlisting their aid in the hunt of their smaller kin.


A nomadic culture cannot afford to express itself in huge numbers of material artifacts. But a system of dreams and visions, a network of images, a world-picture mapping and ordering the perceivable world, imparted through language, retained in the imagination—this can be carried easily, with no added burden to the back (though presumably the weight on mind and memory is prodigious and requires great training to bear). For a nomadic community, a cosmology and its dream manifestations are as a portable Chartres, a weightless Louvre, a repository of knowledge, history, and advice, of injunctions to change your life or keep it as it is, all expressed in sensuous, globalizing form. This vast place is entered every night and taken along every morning in the mind, and it is both an image of possibility and a theater of action. To dream of giant animals who help you hunt their shrunken descendants changes, profoundly, your relationship to the animals you see in waking life. So, too, failure to capture an animal might force a transformation in your relationship—your allegiances, your supplications—to the giant animals of your dreams. “The true art of these people,” Ridington writes, “was their relationship to the world itself”—though perhaps art is a pale analogy for a still more consequential form of representation, one that is simultaneously a world-picture and a decisive and causative component within the world itself.[12]

And here we are ushered into the central mystery of dream sharing, the key to its being at once an avenue into the numinous and a mechanism of the law: the world-picture that is also the world. We have been habituated to a tradition that considers dreams to be essentially texts awaiting decipherment.[13] But in the examples above, on the contrary, dreams are treated as fully four-dimensional, as complete sensual realities in which the dreamer lives just as she lives in a four-dimensional, sensual reality while awake. In this lived reality of dreams, however, two paradoxical qualities are foregrounded in a way that they are not in waking existence. On the one hand, dreams appear extraordinarily pliable when seen from the outside, as for example what is described in the Upanishads: “This is how he dreams. He takes materials from the entire world, and taking them apart on his own and then on his own putting them back together, he dreams with his own radiance, his own light.” On the other, seen from the inside, once the dreamer is in the dream, there is almost no escape, no agency, as in this description given by Isaac Tens, a Tsimshian shaman, who faints in the woods after seeing a giant owl fly down and grab hold of him: “I dreamed that I was now flying way up into the Sky, and here I saw a great many strange things. And I knew that it was the owl which was flying me up by grasping my head. Then I suddenly awoke … When I returned to the house of my father, I told him what had happened to me. So he said to me, ‘The reason this has happened to you, is that you will be a great Shaman Halait.’”[14]

These qualities seem to hold true across all human dreaming, though it is in the thinking of dream-sharing societies that they tend to achieve their fullest description. What is the purpose of such precise reflection on the nature and content of dreaming? To talk about dreams in waking life is to talk about the state of mind in which the world-picture we have internalized (and even in some sense authored) has absolute power over us. Make no mistake: such a state of mind is not limited to dreams. How often in our waking lives does our capacity for distanced reflection disappear, our self-consciousness vanish in the face of fear, reflex, desire, engrossment? But immersion in the world-picture is elusive in waking life, pitching in and out, furtive precisely because we cannot achieve any distance from it when we experience it. Dreams, on the other hand, are a discrete manifestation of the world the imagination generates, sealed off by the envelope of sleep, and (at least sometimes) available to the memory afterward. (And let it be clear that imagination is not meant here as a denigrating word, equivalent to fiction or superstition, but rather to describe those sensual forms—images, sounds, feelings—not perceived by the bodily senses). Dreams are instances where the imagination unfurls its full power over us, its capacity to situate us within an entire cosmos. Dreams show how the imagination mediates between perception and action, how it takes our experience of reality and directly transmutes it into a set of possible feelings, desires, and behaviors. And dreams are instances in which these powers of the imagination can be later contemplated, while waking, at a distance. To discuss dreams, tweak them, act them out, try to alter them and manipulate them in waking life—this is an attempt to achieve distance from the imagination’s world-picture so as to study and refine it.


What is essential to understand is that this is not merely a question of ideology. The culture of modern universities, in which I was trained, has many extremely sophisticated vocabularies for discussing abstractions and their relationship to experience. But we are, in contrast, poor in any praxis that might help negotiate the relationship between the patterns of sensual cognition (images, figures, sounds, memories) and the perceptual, material world in which, while awake, we all act. For these sensuous forms of thought often feed directly into action or reaction, affect and emotion, bypassing entirely the abstract vocabulary by which we might describe their substructures. (Someone can have written a dissertation on structural racism and still find himself afraid of a Black man walking behind him on the street.) Dreams have historically been one place where such praxes have been developed, where the world-picture can be contemplated discretely, and modified when needed. 


• • •

One of the most explicit—and most beautiful—examples that I know by which dreams are socialized into waking life belonged until recently to the Ongees of the Andaman Islands. Vishvajit Pandya worked in the 1980s among these members of one of the last hunter-gatherer cultures in the Bay of Bengal.[15] Pandya explains that before going to bed, the Ongees narrated to one another their dreams from the night before, and their experiences of the day that had just ended, especially their time spent in the forest hunting and gathering food. But in doing so, they would negotiate the content of their dreams, modifying it so that everyone’s dream accounts might be gradually aligned with one another. One person might report having dreamt of fishing on the south beach of the island, another picking nuts on the west beach, then the first might suggest a compromise: We both went fishing in our dreams, but on the west beach.


The indigenous explanation for this extraordinary process, Pandya reports, is as follows. During dreaming, the inner self leaves the outer self (the body) and travels the island in order to recuperate the bits of being that a person has lost during the day. These bits of being are most commonly manifest as stray smells, marooned on bushes and trees by the body during its daytime passage around the island. As the inner self collects these smells in the dream, it retraces the path of the body, collecting and consolidating important memories and making observations. The harvest of this inner being is then woven, over the sleeping “body external,” into a spider web that holds in place all the smells, dreams, and memories of previous nights and days, and so allows them to be used in the coming day. When the entire community talks through their dreams before sleeping, then the individual webs are woven together into a single web over the whole community. Pandya quotes a respected elder, Teemai: “To talk about the dreams and sing about the past makes a good spider web that connects all the open space to catch its food—it is a weave with all the lines woven well to let the spider know what is caught where. We, in remembering and dreaming, make a web for all individuals to gain.”[16]

The Ongees have produced a protocol by which dreams can come to be shared. It permits the negotiation and analysis of the unseen world, its transmission into the public sphere. In doing so, it allows a negotiation of what the society holds in common: not, again, its ideas or customs, per se, but rather the images, scenarios, and pathways by which the days and hours might be divided up and made meaningful. Here is a dream-world that seems to bypass the philosophers’ anxieties. How can they be certain that what they describe and hear is really what they dreamt? the philosophers might ask. To this the Ongees respond by flouting the distinction between representation and reality so flagrantly it seems, at least to this distant outsider, that they do so with self-awareness. The dream exists not as some sealed-off thing that language tries and fails to reach; on the contrary, the transformations that language and discourse effect upon the dream come to be a part of its essence. This helps explain why this dream reporting has to take place in the evening, and not in the mornings. The process is intended for future dreams and future waking: to harmonize previous experiences is not to rewrite history; it’s to build a more coherent future. For one can imagine that a process like this carried out over generations would in fact make the participants’ dreams ever more aligned with one another.


This amounts to no less than a protocol for building a consensual, democratic dream-world, for negotiating the (again, for lack of a better adjective) imaginative world that governs so many behaviors and decisions in the physical one. Among the Ongees, dream sharing is a verbal ballet: these narratives are chanted, with special ways of indicating how something is accepted, intensified, modified, or dropped out of the collective memory.


This dream-sharing process, according to Pandya, is now in the past. It declined when the Indian government began moving Ongees onto a coconut plantation, preventing them from sleeping in circles and instead setting their daily schedules to an industrial rhythm of work and sleep. “In 1993 when I asked the Ongees living in the settlement, but known to me since the days of forest camps, why they could not succeed in hunting anymore I was expecting to hear an explanation in terms of loss of forest cover due to the growing number of outsiders. However, the Ongees explained that the decline in the hunting practice was due to the lack of a proper sleeping place, which would generate dreams about hunting space.” Pandya’s friends tell him:


To do good forest work like hunt, we need to discuss dreams of the forest. We do not dream forests anymore! We are forgetting to work in the forest because we are reminded to get up and work in the plantation! We now dream only of the coconut plantation. We do not have any tonki ti megegatebeh [a session of dream discussions and singing] just a few small “meeting-ey.”[17]

As with the Dunne-za, the dream-work makes the waking work possible. The dream-world sets the template for behavior in the waking world, defines the parameters within which humans can act. But this does not involve a loss of agency in the waking world. It does not involve a surrender of waking life to the vagaries of the dream, precisely because that dream-world is being self-consciously and deliberately negotiated.


• • •

Such dream-sharing societies seem to possess a great deal more self-consciousness about the nature of dreaming—a much greater ability to make use of it, manipulate it, interrogate its function and purpose—than we do. We have been blinded to the splendor of their achievement by the dismissive judgment, so long promulgated in the West against other societies, that to assign dreams a cosmological and spiritual significance is to be enslaved to superstition. Nietzsche’s ungenerous remarks on what we might call indigenous dreaming typify this position: “The man of the ages of barbarous primordial culture believed that in the dream he was getting to know a second real world: here is the origin of all metaphysics. Without the dream one would have had no occasion to divide the world into two.”[18] From the dream comes metaphysics, and from metaphysics comes, in Nietzsche’s account, the denial of life, nihilism, fear, magical thinking of every kind, hindrances to the expansion of the self. But as we have seen, cultures that take the dream seriously see it not as a snow-globe world of ideals or predictions to be looked at through a sphere of glass, but a place of action and behavior just like the waking world, inextricably enmeshed in it, open to compromise and contest. The quarantining of dreams within metaphysics is in fact peculiar to Nietzsche’s milieu, to the worldview of Western philosophy in the phase when it began to call itself modern. Nietzsche understood that for human beings, the perceptual world is not enough; we need another world alongside it to explore the full range of our possible actions and reactions. But Nietzsche’s mistake was to imagine that these worlds had never been interpenetrating. He had to invent, in the deep past, an unnatural split between the physical world and the dream-world in order to explain the rupture between the two he witnessed all around him.


There is no clearer description of this rupture than the extraordinary episode in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in which Anna and her lover Vronsky both dream almost exactly the same dream—and fail to share it. There is a small, dirty peasant, rummaging through a bag and shaking it, and he’s muttering to himself in French; the whole thing is suffused with a mysterious dread. But perhaps more frightening is the dream’s reappearance in waking life. Anna is sick, looking like she may soon die (though as a matter of fact she will not for another four hundred pages). She recounts her dream to Vronsky in every detail: that she was in a bedroom, the muzhik with his disheveled beard, the rummaging in the sack, the mutterings in French. And Vronsky can only reply, “What nonsense! How can you believe…”[19] But in his heart he knows the dream, of course, recognizes it step-by-step, and is filled with horror. Anna refuses to be interrupted; that the dream be there, be present to both of them, is of the utmost importance to her. She even begins, in the sickbed, to mime the muzhik’s actions with her hands, as if to indicate that speaking the dream is not enough, it must be acted out, every sensation and sensuous element made present and intelligible. Everything is primed: two lovers, each suffering from the same nightmare; all they need to do now is share it and then, perhaps (who knows?) change it, denounce it together, extinguish its fearful emotions in each other’s arms. But Vronsky slips into a commonsensical and rationalist prudishness and refuses to admit that he has had the same vision. Anna’s old nurse, meanwhile, gives the dream a pat folk interpretation. Anna will die in childbirth, she says—a prediction that turns out to be false. By placing the nurse and Vronsky on either side of Anna the desperate dream-sharer, Tolstoy makes a point on two fronts. You cannot just say a dream means this, or a dream predicts that; you cannot reduce the dream to stereotyped text or message. This is dream sharing debased into superstition. But to say that therefore dreams are nonsense or indecent, too private or too trivial to be shared—this is a still more catastrophic mistake.


To have abandoned dream sharing, or to restrict it only to the most private settings, as in the therapist’s office, or to think that sharing imaginary perceptions is solely the province of fiction, or the purview of half-mad poets—these are not the signs of a culture that has overthrown the tyranny of the superstitious imagination. They are rather markers of a society that has sunk into stupefaction before the immense power of its own world-dream, by which I mean that human picture of reality that is inextricable from the parameters of human action. These are the signs of a society unable to change or guide that dream with any precision or accuracy.[20]

In the case of the present, I suspect that the sharing of actual sleep-dreams may no longer be the method by which agency over our imaginations can be reattained. If so, then we are such dunces in these matters that even naming the proper conduit of access to our sensuous world-dream, let alone harnessing it, is beyond us. The consequences of this ignorance, though descried darkly, are nevertheless dire. For we are talking about the pendulum swing between self-aware distance and unreflecting response to the world around us, a movement whose arc describes the possibilities and impossibilities of human freedom.


  1. For Heraclitus, see The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 38. For the commentary, see Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “Heraclitus,” Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 1, trans. E. S. Haldane (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 1892), p. 297.

  2. Yuval Nir and Giulio Tononi, “Dreaming and the Brain: From Phenomenology to Neurophysiology,” in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 14, no. 2 (2010), 
p. 88.

  3. In the Palestinian Talmud, Rabbi Yishmael blames his students for the death of a man when they foretell it by interpreting his wife’s dream. “You have killed a man. The dream follows its interpretation, as has been said: ‘And it came to pass as he interpreted to us.’” See Galit Hasan-Rokem, “Communication with the Dead in Jewish Dream Culture,” in Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming, ed. David Shulman and Guy S. Stroumsa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 220.
  4. Jacques Le Goff, “Christianity and Dreams (Second to Seventh Century),” The Medieval Imagination, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 208.
  5. Michel Perrin, “Quelques relations entre rêve et chamanisme,” Anthropologie et Sociétés, vol. 18, no. 2 (1994), p. 33.

  6. Barry Krakow et al., “A Controlled Study of Imagery Rehearsal for Chronic Nightmares in Sexual Assault Survivors with PTSD: A Preliminary Report,” Journal of Traumatic Stress, vol. 13, no. 4 (October 2000).
  7. In the Arrernte language, for example, the word for the Dreamtime, Alcheringa, shares a stem with the word for dream, altjira, and a similar vocabulary is used for both. In Pintupi, on the other hand, Tjukurrpa (Dreamtime) is distinguished from kapukurri (dream experience). For this and scholarly debates on the appropriateness of the term, see Sylvie Poirier, A World of Relationships: Itineraries, Dreams, and Events in the Australian Western Desert (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pp. 53–54.
  8. Sylvie Poirier, “‘This Is Good Country. We Are Good Dreamers’: Dreams and Dreaming in the Australian Western Desert,” in Dream Travelers: Sleep Experiences and Culture in the Western Pacific, ed. Roger Ivar Lohmann (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 117.
  9. Sylvie Poirier, A World of Relationships, p. 196.
  10. Robin Ridington, “Trails of Meaning,” in The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff, ed. Donald N. Abbott (Victoria, Canada: The British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1981), p. 241.
  11. Robin Ridington, “The Medicine Fight: An Instrument of Political Process among the Beaver Indians,” American Anthropologist, vol. 70, no. 6 (December 1968).
  12. Robin Ridington, “Trails of Meaning,” p. 239.
  13. Freud is perhaps the most famous figure in this tradition of seeing the dream as text, though in some of his more embodied and epistemologically flexible concepts—like transference and Nachträglichkeit—he may actually come quite close to some of the techniques for dream-living and dream-being traced in this essay.
  14. Isaac Tens, “How a Medicine Man (Shaman) Was Created (Willa Dzapsa Su wanksam Halait),” collected in William Beynon, Tsimshian Stories, vol. 2 (Metlakatla, AK: Metlakatla Indian Community and Columbia University Press, 1981), pp. 23–24.
  15. The following account is taken from Vishvajit Pandya, “Forest Smells and Spider Webs: Ritualized Dream Interpretation Among Andaman Islanders,” Dreaming, vol. 14, no. 2–3 (2004). See also Pandya’s Above the Forest: A Study of Andamanese Ethnoanemology, Cosmology, and the Power of Ritual (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s foundational The Andaman Islanders: A Study in Social Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922).
  16. Vishvajit Pandya, “Forest Smells and Spider Webs,” p. 142.
  17. Ibid., p. 148.
  18. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 14.
  19. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 361.
  20. This is not to say there are no dream sharers in the West or in modernity, but rather that they have had to do their work either on the margins, or in a highly disguised and circuitous manner.


Matthew Spellberg is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He is the creator of the Dream Parliament, a protocol for dream sharing that has been performed throughout the United States and Canada.