Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Interpreting dreams

According to popular dream interpretation manuals, if you dream about a cat, that means you are thinking about female sexuality. Parrots in dreams, on the other hand, symbolize gossip, or that "a message is being conveyed to you," or that "someone is being repetitive or even mocking you." I mention all this because I had lots of cat dreams as a child, and plenty of parrot dreams as a teenager. Of course, the fact that I've been around cats since I was four, and acquired a cockatiel when I was older, has nothing to do with it.

Never do these manuals stop to consider that dreams might be based on memories of daytime experiences. They always start from the assumption that all concrete objects are metaphors for suppressed emotions and anxieties, often of a sexual nature. Where they get these explanations I have no idea. It all sounds to me like a rather clich├ęd attempt to apply literary analysis (with Freudian overtones) to dream narratives.

Still, it's curious that some dreams seem so widespread. For example, lots of people report dreaming about accidentally going outside without clothing. Other common dreams include flying, or falling, or having one's teeth fall out, or facing an exam after having forgotten to come to class the entire semester. If dreams are particular to individuals, why are some of the most absurd ones nearly universal?

My personal theory is that dreams depict events that we expect might happen based on our life experiences. Many dreams consist of little more than distorted memories mixed together. Whenever I dream about an experience I've never had, I get the sense that my dreaming mind believes it could happen. There are things I desire which I never dream about, because I don't expect them to happen. Thus, I'm inclined to reject Freud's theory of dreams as wish fulfillment, even though I know he would argue that my subconscious mind suppresses my true desires.

An important mechanism in dreams is exaggeration. I once dreamt I was visiting a friend who in real life has one cat, but in the dream had five. I've also had dreams in which my own pets spoke English--not just my parrot, but my cats as well. I believe this reflects the way I anthropomorphize animals, thinking of them in such human terms that I practically expect them to talk. Only common sense (which I lack during sleep) makes me know better.

What about nightmares? How do they fit my theory? The answer is that when we're anxious about something, some part of us expects it to happen. That explains the feeling of inevitability in nightmares, nicely captured in The Wizard of Oz when the lion appears as soon as Dorothy begins worrying about "lions and tigers and bears." Those dreams in which we triumph over scary things, as Dorothy ultimately does, reflect our confidence.

As for the dreams where we walk outside without clothes, I suspect that they stem from our anxiety over relying on habit to get through daily routines. Most of the time when we dress ourselves, we aren't thinking about the activity at all. Just as we're occasionally forgetful with other habitual activities, it is semi-plausible (and I believe it has happened) that someone might forget to put on a vital piece of clothing. In the embellished world of a dream, that fear translates into reality.

As it stands, scientists now believe that REM sleep (the period in which most of our dreams occur) serves a memory-related function. It almost appears as if we're not meant to remember any of our dreams. We experience a kind of amnesia upon awakening, in which we quickly forget what we were dreaming about, unless we make a special effort to remember.

There are people who claim never to dream, but scientists assert that everybody dreams. Some people just don't remember. How do scientists know? In the sleep experiments of the 1950s which revolutionized the field, all the subjects, even those who initially denied ever dreaming, ended up reporting dreams at the moment the researchers awoke them from REM sleep.

The study of dreams presents many scientific difficulties. If a person says, "I dreamt I was a dog last night," we have to take his word for it. It's like basing our testimony on an amnesia patient who was the only witness to an event. We know that dreams don't occur in physical reality, but how can we verify that they occur at all? How do we know, as scientists currently believe, that they are hallucinatory experiences that occur in real time during REM sleep?

The 1950s researchers would awake sleepers who had just gone through a REM cycle (detected with an electroencephalogram) and ask them to approximate how long their dream had lasted. The scientists found a positive correlation between the length of the dream reported and the length of the REM cycle observed. They also studied the effects of external stimuli on dreams. In one case, a scientist dripped water down a subject's back thirty seconds before waking him. The subject reported having dreamt about singing at an opera, when molten wax suddenly began dripping from the ceiling.

The best book on dreaming I've read is J. Allan Hobson's 1988 The Dreaming Brain, which includes a remarkable amount of scientific information (much of which went over my head) as well as a theory that ties these observations together with stunning simplicity. The book is one of a kind: most books on dreaming focus either on the subjective aspects (and usually wind up sounding hokey and unscientific) or purely on the scientific observations (which are too limited to tell us much about the subjective state of dreaming). Hobson finds a middle ground where he is able to quantify the characteristics of dreaming and correlate them with the findings of neurobiology and sleep research.

I learned from this book that the portions of our brain governing movement and sight are activated during REM sleep. Hobson proposes that the ultimate source of dream sensation--which seems to be predominantly visual and motor--is physical rather than psychological. It is no wonder that dream sensations feel largely involuntary. As Hobson puts it, "we seldom have the experience of willing the movements that occur in dreams, but instead experience a sense of compelled or involuntary motor activity over which we have little or sometimes no control. This contrast is particularly and strikingly sharp in those dreams in which motor activity becomes a central part of the plot: for example, when one attempts to escape from a pursuer" (p. 171). This also helps explain the sensation of rapid movement we frequently experience during dreams. If we're anxious, we perceive that we're falling; otherwise, we may perceive that we're flying.

Since the sensations are physiological in origin, Freud was wrong: dreams are not messages from our subconscious (or from anywhere else, for that matter). But here's the catch: our thought reflections, which help organize the sensations into a narrative, infuse the dream with meaning. This meaning, according to Hobson, is usually transparent rather than oblique:
The activated brain-mind does its best to attribute meaning to the internally generated signals. It is this synthetic effort that gives our dreams their impressive thematic coherence: dream plots remain remarkably intact despite their orientational disorganization. And it may be that their symbolic, prophetic character arises from the integrative strain of this synthetic effort. The brain-mind may need to call upon its deepest myths to find a narrative frame that can contain the data. Hence, one can continue to interpret dreams metaphorically, and even in terms of the dynamically repressed unconscious, if one so chooses. But such a practice is no longer either necessary or sufficient as an explanation of either the origin or the nature of dreaming. (p. 214)
A recent dream of mine exemplifies this discrepancy. I dreamt that people's faces kept turning into non-digital clocks. Interpreting this dream reveals the different possible ways of answering the question "Why did I have this dream?" It could have been that I had been walking around in the early morning and glanced at a non-digital clock on the wall; the image stayed in my mind so that when I conjured up images of people's faces, my memory of the clock came back to me. Dreams are good at finding analogies. But the dream may also have reflected my feelings over my grandfather's recent death, an event that has made me think lately about how life is finite. In the dream, I expressed this feeling by seeing people as ticking clocks.

Symbolic dreams of this kind are probably a function of the individual dreamer, rather than an expression of universal mythic archetypes. People who have symbolic dreams are probably symbolic thinkers; concrete individuals will tend to dream in concrete terms. Still, human dreams might have a lot to do with why we exhibit more creativity than other species. The biochemist Otto Loewi claimed that the experiment which led him to the postulations of chemical neutrotransmission--and earned him a Nobel Prize--occurred to him in a dream, and Robert Louis Stevenson based his story "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" on a dream.

The important point is that our reactions to dream sensations prove just as important as the sensations themselves in establishing the dream "plot." This is not to suggest that dreams have no meaning. They certainly do, but according to Hobson, the meaning is usually more transparent than both Freudians and mystics would believe. Don't waste your money on a pseudoscientific dream manual; most likely, you are your own best dream manual.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Jewish rainbow

When I walk into a room and say to people I meet "I'm Jewish" often I will get the response "But you're Black." I often want to say "no kidding," but the usual response I give is "Yes, my family has been practicing Judaism for at least three generations, now." The point that I aim to make is that it would make it easier to just "BE" as a Jewish person of color if "black" and "Jewish" identity were not so commonly assumed to be mutually exclusive. Historically, Jews have been multiple skin colors and it's unfortunate that the passive internalization of color consciousness that happens so easily in American society, helped us to forget the freedom from identifying around color that is a part of our Jewish history. (p. 27)
The above quote comes from Yavilah McCoy, as recorded in a fascinating book I just read, Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz's The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism. Designed to raise awareness about Jews of color, the book presents numerous anecdotes about the experiences of nonwhite Jews, followed by stimulating discussions on the implications of this research. The book is marred for me by its anti-Zionist standpoint, which culminates in a final chapter that has very little to do with the rest of the book. The back cover sports endorsements by Tony Kushner, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Adrienne Rich, all left-wing thinkers squarely in Kantrowitz's ideological camp. I get the sense that Kantrowitz underestimates her audience, thinking that her discussions about racial diversity in the Jewish community either will appeal only to those with her positions or will inevitably move readers toward those positions. Instead, her dogmatic advocacy of ideas that most Jews find offensive will likely turn away many readers who would otherwise find much value in the information she presents.

What types of nonwhite Jews are there? The question is not as easy to answer as one might expect, because it depends on how one defines "white" and "Jewish," both highly contested categories. Most Americans today assume that the prototypical Jew (which usually means Ashkenazic Jew) is white, but that was not always the common perception in this country. The very act of designating Jews as white or nonwhite can be a political statement, because it is taken to suggest something about their status and position in society. (I have known Jews who mark themselves as "other" in forms asking for their race.)

With these precautions in mind, Kantrowitz considers several types of people: (1) African American and Asian American converts to Judaism (2) nonwhite children adopted by Jewish families (3) children of mixed marriages (4) Ethiopian Jews and other black African communities that have practiced Judaism for centuries or more (5) the most ambiguous category, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, some of them quite dark-skinned, others scarcely distinguishable from their Ashkenazic brethren.

One reason this information has value is that Jews, despite a long history of crucial involvement in the civil rights movement, also have a history of racism that persists today in some religious communities. The historical tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim can take on racial overtones. More pertinently, many Jews have trouble accepting the very concept of a black Jew--it seems an impossibility, a contradiction in terms.

One anecdote really struck home for me, reflecting the type of compartmentalized behavior I've witnessed. McCoy, the woman I quoted before, attended a Hasidic school as a child. On one occasion when she complained to classmates who were denigrating non-Jewish blacks, they assured her they weren't talking about her. The inconsistent thinking required to sustain this kind of attitude demonstrates why Jews of color may help stem the tides of bigotry coming from both Jews and non-Jews.

Kantrowitz wishes to uproot the perception that "black" and "Jewish" are mutually exclusive categories, and to reveal the Jewish people as a racially diverse group. She feels that recognizing this reality will ease the tension between Jews and blacks. Her point is that if the two categories can overlap, people will be less inclined to view the two groups as enemies of each other.

She weakens her argument, however, by trying to downplay the well-documented fact that a disproportionate level of anti-Semitism exists among African Americans. She fails to discuss any of the official studies, such as Harris Polls taken over the last several decades. As Charles Silberman noted in his book A Certain People, black anti-Semitism is not a mirror image of Jewish racism. The latter is far more marginalized in the Jewish community than the former is in the African American community. The problem is not that most blacks agree with Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitic pronouncements, but that leaders like him exhibit far greater influence than any comparably racist figure in the Jewish community.

She also wishes to blur the line between "Jew" and "Arab" by emphasizing the strong Arab element of Jews who are the product of Arabic land, culture, and language as surely as American Jews are Americans. She eagerly embraces the term "Arab Jew" to highlight this dual identity.

She correctly observes that Islamic countries in the Middle Ages generally treated Jews far better than Christian countries from the same era did. The height of this relatively peaceful coexistence occurred in the Golden Age of Spain from the eighth to twelfth centuries. But the picture is more complicated than she would like to believe. This period, when Jews enjoyed more rights and privileges than any time until the modern age, ended not because of the fifteenth-century Christian rulers who instigated the Inquisition, but because of violent Muslim invaders from two centuries earlier.

In addressing this fact, Kantrowitz performs a remarkable sleight of hand. She quotes Victor Perera saying, "[u]ntil the arrival of bloody-minded Almohade Berbers in 1146, bent on implanting Islam in all of Europe, Spain's Jews generally lived at peace with Muslim rulers and their Christian subjects; and they thrived culturally and commercially as never before or since" (p. 81). She immediately comments, "This peace persisted until the Christian conquest of Iberia and the Inquisition," which is not only false, but directly contradicts what she just quoted!

The final chapter of the book is little more than an essay on forging a Jewish identity apart from Zionism. Too bad. There is considerable merit to her thesis that recognizing racial diversity among Jews will help improve relations with other people. She doesn't seem to accept, or even consider, that Jews can support Israel and still be fully committed to peaceful relations with non-Jews. I hope that intelligent readers will be able to overlook the book's flaws, because beneath the rhetoric lies some valuable material about forgotten portions of world Jewry.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ethnic time

One night when I worried I would show up late for a Talmud class, I joked to a friend, "I wouldn't want them to think I'm Jewish."

That quip was just a variation on a common Jewish theme. If a meeting will take place at "8:00, Jewish time," what this means is that it's scheduled for eight but will likely begin at least fifteen minutes later. Only a Yekke (an affectionately derogatory term for a German Jew) would arrive on the dot.

I assumed that this concept was uniquely Jewish. It seemed to fit my image of the absentminded Jewish thinker, best exemplified in a novelty item I once saw in a catalog, the "relative time watch," featuring a picture of Einstein surrounded by the numbers "1ish, 2ish, 3ish...." (Wait, wasn't Einstein a Yekke?!)

But then one day I was talking to a black friend and learned about a similar concept called C.P. time. "What does C.P. stand for?" I asked stupidly. Uh...colored people. I was a little taken aback. I later saw Dave Barry talk about a Cuban sense of time (because his wife and in-laws are Cuban). According to Barry:
If a WASP wedding is scheduled to start at 2 p.m. Saturday, the wedding march will start at 2 p.m. sharp, and the bride will come down the aisle at 2:03 p.m., no matter what, even if the originally scheduled groom has bailed out and the bride has to use an emergency backup groom taken right off the street.

Whereas in a typical Cuban wedding, the phrase "2 p.m." is translated as "possibly this weekend." (True fact: I once went to a wedding at a Cuban home; I arrived 20 minutes before the scheduled start, and was greeted at the door by the bride, who was still in curlers.) I believe that the Cuban community will not be affected by the Millennium Bug until the year 2004 at the earliest.
I was a little surprised by this column, since Barry usually avoids edgy, politically incorrect humor. It turns out that his wife is actually a Cuban Jew. Put together, that means she won't be experiencing the Millennium Bug until 2008.

You'd think that ethnic stereotypes would have no place in modern discourse, but many people seem more than eager to embrace stereotypes of their own group (or their spouse's). And not just positive stereotypes, like "Jews are smart," but seemingly negative ones, like having a loose sense of time. It gives minorities a warm, intimate feeling that sets them apart from their more fastidious WASP neighbors.

Of course, whether a stereotype is positive or negative depends on perspective. Republican presidential candidate Tommy Thompson got himself in a little trouble a few months ago when he characterized great business acumen as one of the "accomplishments of the Jewish religion." Jews didn't take to that remark very well, but he meant it as a compliment.

Thompson was confusing the religious tradition with the sociological reality. The Jewish religion has much to say about philanthropy and ethics, but very little about financial know-how. The stereotype of the financially astute Jew goes back to the Middle Ages, when Jews became moneylenders after the Church barred them from most other occupations.

Because this stereotype has been the source of so many slanderous beliefs, such as the claim that Jews are greedy, most Jews feel uncomfortable at any reference to a connection between Jewishness and money. But they seem not to mind other stereotypes. The expression "For every two Jews, there are three opinions" was almost certainly invented by a Jew. Then there are all the traits associated with Jewish mothers.

People say that stereotypes usually have basis in truth, but that's a dangerous observation, easy to misunderstand. Lacking a strong inside knowledge of a group's history, one can have a hard time telling truth apart from myth. A good synonym for stereotype is "caricature." Maybe that's why people are more comfortable poking fun at their own group than someone else's: the closer you are to the target, the more you understand how to attack it sensitively.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The cage of language

One of the labels I frequently attach to my posts is "power of words." I believe that words do have power. Our whole life, after all, is shaped by language. Few if any of us remember before we learned to speak, and we probably cannot even conceive of the experience. If language is a vessel for thoughts, it is one that transforms what is inside of it.

One person who truly understood this point was George Orwell, who explained his views most forcefully in "Politics and the English Language." Many people have read this wonderful essay, and many more are at least passingly familiar with Orwell's ideas. But not everyone fully grasps what he was talking about. Ironically, people today who throw around the word Orwellian are usually falling into the very trap Orwell warned against: the use of hackneyed but politically charged terms to mask lazy thinking.

Bemoaning the decline of the English language, the beginning of Orwell's essay almost sounds like it's going to be a tired old trope about the misuse of grammar. But those who read further will discover a far more distinctive argument. Indeed, one of the examples that Orwell cites of bad writing is itself a critique of grammar-related sins, an issue to which Orwell seems indifferent. The writing issues that concern Orwell are wordiness, triteness, and vagueness.

I have observed that people have three levels for understanding Orwell's critique. Level One readers interpret it simply as a call to communicate more effectively. Strunk & White's popular style manual, for example, eagerly seizes upon Orwell's humorous "translation" of Ecclesiastes 9:11 into dry academic prose: "Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

Level Two readers understand that the bad communication cited by Orwell serves a definite purpose, as the people in power try to confuse the masses. This is the most popular conception of Orwell's ideas, the kind that shows up whenever someone rallies against "doublespeak," a term that Orwell did not actually invent.

Level Three readers correctly identify the core of Orwell's message: if we don't exercise control over the language, then the language will exercise control over us. Bad communication is not merely a conscious process designed to keep the masses in line. It is something that we blind ourselves with.

What would Orwell say about the current political climate if he were alive today? Conservatives speculate that he would attack political correctness. There is definitely an element of doublespeak in PC terminology, not just because of oversensitivity but also because of the way it implicitly excludes some views from discussion.

But what many conservatives fail to acknowledge is that overuse of the phrase politically correct has itself become an Orwellian tactic. In the culture at large, the phrase has practically lost its political implications. It is simply a synonym for "polite," but with negative connotations.

I once was reading a blog discussion where a guy referred to the author of some book as an idiot. Another guy said he agreed with the criticism but added that there was no need to launch ad hominem attacks against the author. The first guy came back and retorted, "Oh, don't be so PC." This discussion, I should note, had nothing to do with politics.

What PC means, to most people, is "avoiding saying what you mean for fear of offending someone." People use the expression so that they don't have to take responsibility for their words. It gives people the license to be as offensive as they want and then make it sound as if anyone who disagrees is being namby-pamby. The elder Bush once described political correctness as something that began as "a crusade for civility" and turned into "Orwellian...crusades that demand correct behavior." I would describe the backlash against political correctness as something that began as a crusade against censorship and turned into an all-purpose excuse for poor decorum.

Orwell did not direct his criticisms against any one party or philosophy. He realized that the problem was almost universal: "Political language--and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists--is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Properly, Orwell's critique should be used for reflection, not just condemnation. We need to consider how we communicate, not just how others do. No one escapes the cage of language; the best we can do is be conscious of how it surrounds us.