Significant Dreams: Bizarre or Beautiful?

Roger M. Knudson1
The literature on highly significant dreams is filled with references to the bizarreness of their content. On the other hand, the concept of beauty is rarely if ever mentioned in relation to these dreams. Grounded in archetypal psychology's tenet that psychological life is aesthetic life, this article argues that the enduring, even life-long, influence some dreams have on the dreamer's life may be better approached through the idea of beauty than through the idea of bizarreness. The argument builds on Hunt's (1989, 1995) theoretical model of the nature of consciousness and dream multiplicity with its emphasis on cross-modal synesthesia as well as on insights provided by Scarry's (1999) recent essay on beauty. A detailed account of how one composer's work was profoundly influenced by his most significant dream is presented to illustrate this aesthetic approach to understanding the on-going significance of significant dreams.

Key Words: significant dreams; impactful dreams; highly memorable dreams; aesthetic understanding; archetypal psychology; cross-modal synesthesia; dream bizarreness; beauty.

Of all psychology's sins, the most mortal is its neglect of beauty.
James Hillman, The Soul's Code

The research upon which this article is based takes as it starting point Jung's assertion over half a century ago that significant dreams "are often remembered for a lifetime" and moreover that they may "prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychic experience" (1974, p. 76). How, we ask, does the dreamer experience this on-going significance and in what sense is it a treasure? Is it that the dreamer treasures the dream—or might we better ask how the dreamer is treasured by it?

In two previous papers (Knudson and Minier, 1999; Knudson, 1999), I have suggested that the study of individuals' truly significant, "big" dreams requires both different methods and different conceptual frames from the study of their ordinary, "little" dreams. In particular, we need to understand better the ways in which such dreams, as on-going living residents of the dreamer's psychological life (Aizenstat, 1994), continue to enrich, animate, inspire the dreamer. Such an inquiry of necessity moves beyond a focus on dream content to the qualitative study of the dreamer's on-going experience of and psychological relationship with the imagery of the dream. The works of four authors have been particularly influential in shaping my approach to these issues: Bulkeley's (1994) discussion of what he calls "root metaphor dreams," Hunt's (1985) conceptual model of multiple dream types and in particular his use of the distinction between representational versus presentational symbolism, Hillman's (1977, 1978, 1979a, 1979b, 1983, 1988, 1997) archetypal approach to dreaming, and Pillemer's (1998) study of "personal event memories." One crucial methodological point that emerges from the work of these authors is that, in spite of the long-standing scientific bias in favor of the replicable and against the non-replicable, it is important to study the unique, the exemplary, the exceptional.

The Hillman quote with which the paper opens suggests, however, that another equally powerful bias lurks in this territory, a bias in psychology specifically against Beauty. This bias seems to be especially problematic in light of Jung's references to big dreams in words such as "richest jewel" and "treasure-house." To find these jewels, to enter this treasure house, we may need eyes attuned to seeing rather than ignoring or discounting the beautiful. So our goal is to reveal the role played by Beauty in significant dream experience; but the path necessarily would seem to begin with the notion of the bizarre.


In the literature on dreams, one word that seems certain to enter the discussion sooner or later is "bizarre." Hall and van de Castle's (1966) now classic The Content Analysis of Dreams describes one of the earliest efforts to deal systematically with such so-called bizarre dream content, Domhoff's (1962) "Bizarre Elements in Dreams" scale. This scale included three broad classes of "bizarre" elements: "metamorphoses" (person to another person, animal to person and vice-versa, inanimate to animate and vice-versa, object to another object), "unusual acts" (using object in way seldom or never used, doing something seldom or never done), and "magical occurrences" (flying, animals doing things they can't, babies talking, distortions/disappearances). It is instructive that Hall and van de Castle group this scale with other scales for rating "unrealistic" elements in dreams, "primary process thinking" in dreams, and "types of distortion in dreams," with distortion "defined as something appearing in a dream which is not something that can and does typically occur in the real world" (p. 227). This cursory glance at early efforts to measure bizarreness reveals that the concept has been linked with—we might even say defined primarily in terms of—those things or events in dreams that are "unrealistic." Indeed in his recent Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach, Domhoff (1996) has replaced the "Bizarre Elements in Dreams" scale with the "Unrealistic Elements" scale. Domhoff states that his switch in terminology follows from the argument of Bonato, Moffitt, Hoffman, Cuddy, and Wimmer (1991) that "unrealistic" is a better designation for the kinds of dream content being studied than the term "bizarre."

Now to be sure the very words we use as we attempt to describe or measure dream content matter a great deal. What we look for may in no small degree guide, if not determine, what in the end we see. If our purpose is to count how often impossible/improbable things appear in dreams, then indeed "unrealistic" seems a perfectly suitable replacement for "bizarre." Nonetheless this defining of bizarre in terms of the unrealistic gives us pause.

In particular this definition departs significantly from the meanings given in the Oxford English Dictionary. There bizarre is defined as "at variance with recognized ideas of taste, departing from ordinary style or usage; eccentric, extravagant, whimsical, strange, odd, fantastic," and also especially "at variance with the standard of ideal beauty or regular form."

At least two things are suggested by the OED definition. First, the term loses some of the pejorative overtones that come by associating it with "unrealistic." Rather than being an index of impossibility, or of an inferior or primitive or undeveloped cognitive process, the word refers to matters of taste or style. Moreover, it brings in its tow words that, for some at least, could be positives: eccentric, extravagant, whimsical, fantastic.

Second and even more to the point of this essay, bizarre is specifically linked in the OED definition to beauty: "at variance with the standard of ideal beauty." Note immediately that this does not say that the bizarre is by definition "not beautiful," any more than it is defined in the OED as denoting "unrealistic." The OED definition leaves open the possibility that the bizarre may in fact be beautiful, though only in "non-standard" ways, beautiful in other than the "regular" ways. Eccentrically beautiful, extravagantly beautiful, whimsically beautiful, fantastically beautiful - all might be bizarre but beautiful nonetheless! What I argue here is that, for at least some dreams that are experienced by the dreamer as highly significant, this connection of bizarreness to beauty matters more than any quality of unreality or impossibility in the imagery of the dream. I begin with an account of a dream contributed to an on-going study of individuals' self-defined most significant dreams. A detailed description of the methodology and the methods of the overall study is presented in Knudson and Minier (1999) and not repeated here.


The dreamer, Roger Davis, was a 48 year-old male university professor of music at the time of the interview. This is the participant's real name. Mishler (1986, p. 124) has argued compellingly that research participants in the social sciences should be given a choice regarding confidentiality including the right to have their accounts presented as belonging to them. Professor Davis agreed that his name should appear in this essay. He had responded to a letter sent to faculty at his university inviting them to participate in a study of significant dreams. When he called to inquire about the study, he said that he had a long-standing interest in dreams. He added, provocatively, "dreams are how I compose." He later qualified that by saying that dreams are, in part, how he composes; but he made it clear that he frequently draws on his dreams for inspiration in the composition process.

Roger dated his dreams about music to mid-adolescence. The Beatles had served as a catalyst for his nascent interest in music; and self-taught, he began to play guitar. Even at the outset, he was conscious of dreams as contributing to his development as a musician. It had always been his personal style, he reported, to trust himself rather than what others told him; and dreams were among the sources of inner experience that he had come to trust.

By age 21 Roger had achieved a first level of professional success. He noted, by way of example, that the rock band that he played with had been on tour doing warm ups for such prominent bands as The Doors. The events that provided the specific context for his most significant dream occurred during one such tour.

In his free time, Roger had attended a performance of a Beethoven piano concerto. For days after, he heard tunes running through his mind without being able to place them; but then he remembered the Beethoven concerto. He rushed out to buy a recording of it. This was, he reported, "a life altering event." He reported having been both humbled and powerfully attracted by the music. "It was SO good!" he said. In the days and weeks that followed, he reported having listened to the recording "at least 1000 times." As one consequence, he took up piano and also began to compose. By 22, he had written an award-winning piano sonata of his own. During this period of creative ferment, fueled by the intensity Roger experienced in Beethoven, he dreamed this brief, but for him most significant, dream. I have titled it, for reasons that will be obvious, "How to Write a Musical Climax":

How to Write a Musical Climax

I was dreaming about trees. The trees were all blowing. The wind was blowing, and some were blowing that way and some were blowing this way. And it was a counterpoint of trees, and I was hearing it. There was music too. They were all sort of going different ways. [Here Roger was both talking and "sketching." With great energy, he drew crisscrossing lines on a sheet of paper and also waved his arms back and forth.] Then gradually they all started to line up toward this climax, and I realized then in that dream how to write a climax in music.

It was part musical, but it was also very visual. I could hear music, although I don't remember if it was Beethoven. I was watching the trees and the leaves in the trees. I could almost see the leaves in the trees. The leaves were notes if you will. The trees were made up of notes—almost like an LSD trip. I could see it and hear it. And there was counterpoint like the lines in a Bach fugue that will go different ways. But I realized that as the trees all started to line up [here Roger began again to sketch, this time with all the lines starting on the left and pushing hard and up to the right] and go in the same direction that it's pushing toward this climax. I realized that this was an alignment of forces. And then I woke up and understood that this is how to write a climax.

Roger stressed two things after finishing this account of his dream experience: First, he was emphatic that the lesson of the dream was given in the dream itself. It was already present as he woke up. Second, he was quick to point out that it was a lesson that would take him many years to apply fully. As he put it, "Of course, I didn't have the technique, but I got the principle." To bolster his point, Roger began excitedly to pull long sheets of paper with hand-scored lines of music from a large portfolio. At age 38, at The Ohio State University, Roger earned the DMA degree. His doctoral composition was titled "The Dancing Difference." These sheets, Roger explained, were the original sheets on which this composition had been created. With continuing excitement, he began to explain—and show—how the visual appearance of the notes on the page corresponded to the image of the trees with their musical note leaves. Early in the work, the notes literally appear on the page inclining this way and that (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Section of an early page from "The Dancing Difference" with notes inclining in various directions.

But as the work builds toward the climax, the notes visually begin to "line up," each inclining from lower left to upper right (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Section of the final page from "The Dancing Difference" with all notes inclining from lower left to upper right.

Here, Roger stated, was the idea of the dream, visually apparent on the page and "manifest in sound." Continuing, he explained, "And this is how one writes a climax, and it is a very effective climax. And it takes three minutes to get there. When it first starts, it's like the trees: all the parts are sort of going their separate ways. But eventually they all start to line up. And it's like having this wave. It goes ‘whoooom, whoooom’ as they all start to push in the same direction. Now I certainly used that dream in other ways, but this is where it is really manifest. In writing this piece, I thought about that dream."

"The Dancing Difference," was one of only four compositions selected that year worldwide for recording in the Vienna Modern Masters' "Music from Six Continents" series. So it must have been, indeed, "a very effective climax." But another of Roger's points deserves emphasis: the dream supplied the principle. Waking consciousness, and hard labor, would supply the technique. Roger began his formal education in music only after dreaming the dream. It would take years of effort to fully acquire a technique appropriate to the principle given by the dream. So, in the discussion to follow it is important to bear in mind that The Dancing Difference followed the dream by seventeen years!


The aim of this inquiry, to reiterate, is to find and develop explanatory frames that are adequate for encompassing this entire account, capable of providing some understanding of the dream's enduring contribution to the composer's work. We can immediately concede that content in this dream would score in major dream content scoring systems as "bizarre" (or its twin, "unrealistic"). Musical notes do not grow on trees any more than money does. But consider again the dream: trees swaying wildly in an intense, tumultuous wind flow into more and more synchronized, more harmonious swaying, now revealing the musical notes along their branches. Seventeen years later, the dreamer still labored for a full expression of this epiphany. Nor was the dream finished with the dreamer even then. As Roger put it after reading a draft of this article, "My most recent piano concerto, still welling up from the same 'dream fountain,' has a third movement titled, 'Dream Dance Dali.' The music twists and morphs like a dreamy Dali painting."

Here other things beyond the content of the dream require attention and explanation: First, there is the significant question raised by the dreamer's claim that the dream itself taught or revealed to him a principle. This assertion takes us directly to the heart of the debate over whether image can be originary versus being merely reproductive. Can image only express what the person already knows, or can imagery alone produce new knowledge (see Kugler, 1995; Hunt, 1989, 1995)? Moreover there is the issue of the long-term significance of this dream. How shall we understand a dream that years afterwards, even when this composer is capable of producing works that are recognized on an international scale, is still touched on in memory, is still treasured, is still conferring its gift?

We advocate an aesthetic approach to answering these questions. One starting point is Hillman's (1992b) discussion of the fundamental nature of the aesthetic response. As Hillman puts it, "The word for perception or sensation in Greek is aisthesis, which means at root a breathing in or taking in of the world, the gasp, 'aha,' the 'uh' of the breath in wonder, shock, amazement, an aesthetic response to the image (eidolon) presented" (p. 107). With this little gasp, we are stopped still. "The eye's roving perceptions, the body's habitual forward thrust, the mind's ceaseless associations" are all arrested (Hillman, 1998, p. 271). We will return to this point below, but here one note of caution should be added. The aesthetic response is not limited to the "pretty," the sentimentally "nice" or "pleasing," things that are "good for you," or even to the "museum quality piece." In the dream context, it may apply to the frankly bizarre as well as the beautiful. To clarify this point, we need to follow Hillman's (1992a, 1992b) discussion of beauty one step further. As Hillman (1992b) discusses at length, each thing of the world makes an imaginative claim on our attention; and he draws on Corbin in writing that beauty is "that great category which specifically refers to the Deus revelatus, the supreme theophany, divine self-revelation." He continues, "Aphrodite's beauty refers to the luster of each particular event—its clarity, its particular brightness: that particular things appear at all and in the form in which they appear" (1992b, p. 43). To acknowledge the world's claim, understood in this way, is thus to open oneself to the numinous; but the "gasp" of our response as easily may be one of horror, shock, or dread, as one of amazement or wonder.

A second powerful lens for an aesthetic view of dreaming is provided by the extraordinary scholarship of Hunt (1989, 1995). Synthesizing broadly across cognitive, phenomenological, and transpersonal approaches to consciousness, Hunt argues powerfully that self-referential consciousness originates in cross-modal synesthesia, that is, in the capacity to translate and transform among different perceptual modalities. Even more to the point, the recombinatory novelty and creativity that are basic to our specifically human symbolic capacity are based on such translations and transformations across not only vision and touch (present in the higher apes) but also audition-vocalization. Hunt's model of consciousness has many implications, but one of particular relevance for my argument here is the fundamental openness of human experience that Hunt sees as a direct consequence of these cross-modal synesthesias. As Hunt puts it, "Vision, audition-vocalization, and touch-movement are disparately structured sources of information, each with its own rate and ratio of simultaneity to sequentiality. There is no one way that a moment of vision will flow into and transform the very differently patterned moments of audition and touch. Cross-modal fusions will necessarily be multiple and creative. To cross-translate among the patterns of multiple modalities will be to set up cycles of reciprocal transformation that will reorganize the pattern of perception in an open-ended and emergent fashion. These spatial-temporal reorganizations or reciprocally translated sights, sounds, and movements . . . entail an openness in the human life-world . . ." (1995, p. 86).

With respect to dreams, this model of consciousness undergirds Hunt's argument for the multiplicity of dream imagery. Hunt steers a course that mediates between the representational perspective that sees imagery as secondary to propositional (linguistic or mathematical-logical) knowledge and the presentational perspective that views at least some imagery as autonomous, holistic reorganizations of perception. While acknowledging that the former perspective may account for much of ordinary dream content, Hunt argues forcefully that the latter presentational perspective may be more appropriate for the more striking dreams typically experienced as significant (and also typically referred to as bizarre). In contrast to the representational view, in which image is merely reproductive, capable of expressing only what the individual already knows, the presentational view asserts the open, generative potential of image, including the possibility that something new can indeed be learned from the image itself.

The applicability of Hunt's model as a frame for understanding Roger's dream is readily apparent. The imagery of the dream provides both a visual and kinesthetic experience for the dreamer. He not only sees the trees swaying in the wind and then the notes as leaves on the trees, but clearly he experiences the motion deeply in his body. To tell the dream he was required to move, swinging his arms to demonstrate the motion of the trees in the wind as well as energetically sketching the motion on paper. Hunt has emphasized how, in presentational symbolism, meaning flows directly from the felt qualities and rhythm of the expressive medium. Here the dreamer, to recount the dream experience, cannot rely on words alone. In the telling, it is as if he becomes a tree swaying in this wind. He enters into the experience of being such a tree, and on Hunt's account the significance of the dream is in this experience simultaneously felt and seen.

Furthermore, both vision and kinesthesis were in the service of sound, that is, of musical composition. To say it the other way around, musical pattern, its flow and intensity, is transformed cross-modally appearing as image that is both witnessed and potently felt in the body. Moreover, it is image per se that appears to be at work here. There is no narrative structure to the dream. No characters react to the opening events, set goals, and then seek to obtain those goals. There is, that is to say, no real plot. What the dream presents instead is a simultaneous witnessing of and felt experiencing of turbulent flow. To the extent that language appears to play any role at all, it enters only after the fact to report that in the experience a principle was learned.

We need to be clear just what is at stake here. As I have discussed earlier (Knudson and Minier, 1999, p. 243), the dominant view in Western thought concerning imagery has been that it is reproductive. This has lead to the argument (see Blagrove, 1992 for a recent example) that dreams neither solve problems nor even aid in the solving of waking problems. They only translate in automatized, ritualistic ways the structures of waking consciousness. In Roger's account of his dream experience, however, we have evidence that it is the dream per se that is creatively productive. Roger is quite explicit that the lesson—his abrupt insight into how to compose a climax—came directly with the dream experience, not because of a subsequent interpretation.

As much as Hunt's account of cross-modal synesthesias and the experiential openness they entail explains, however, something more seems to be required if we are to fully understand just how such a dream continues to be significant even seventeen years later. That something, we are now prepared to see, is precisely beauty. For beauty, Elaine Scarry (1999) has recently asserted, is "a starting point for education" (p. 31). The felt experience of being in the presence of something beautiful, as described above by Hillman, is immediately one of arrested motion. One simply stares, Scarry echoes Hillman on this point, trying to see the thing of beauty as long as it is there to be seen (Scarry, 1999, p. 5). This moment of arrest does not last, however. As Hillman puts it, "continuity seems stronger than eternity" (Hillman, 1998, p. 271), and the flow of time and motion resumes. But the experience of the perceiver is now changed. The experience of a beautiful thing is profoundly enlivening. "Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living" (Scarry, 1999, p. 24). From this follows a powerful motivation for replication - and this is crucial for understanding the enduring significance of Roger's dream. As Scarry puts it, the experience of the beautiful thing "seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication . . . . Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people" (Scarry, 1999, p. 3). Elaborating, Scarry writes, "It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude. It comes to us, with no work of our own; then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labor" (Scarry, 1999, p. 53).

A young musician on his way from the Beatles to Beethoven learns from a dream how a musical climax is written. Seventeen years later, his labor in the service of that lesson—in the service of beauty and the aspirations it creates—continued. Simone Weil, in Waiting for God, wrote, "The truly precious things are those forming ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world, openings onto it" (1951, p. 180). The composer's dream is one such precious thing.


Important as it may be to restore attention to Beauty in the study of dreams, some qualification is in order. While arguing against the equating of the bizarre with the unrealistic or the impossible, this essay is not intended to be an argument for replacing the idea of the bizarre with the idea of beauty. Neither is it intended as an argument against the importance of the idea of the bizarre per se. As Hunt reminds me (personal communication, September 4, 2000) "bizarre" remains the more inclusive category. Indeed, Hunt has argued convincingly that dream bizarreness, far from being an artifact of dream report length or verbal intelligence, is a defining feature of many dreams and is related to both waking imagination and creativity (Hunt, Ruzycki-Hunt, Pariak, and Belicki, 1993). In this vein, we need to remember that while it may be linked to beauty, bizarre also refers to the irregular, the grotesque, the deformed. From the perspective of archetypal psychology, we might recall that in myth and fairy tale, it is the eye of the beholder that is at first unable to see through surface-level strangeness to an underlying beauty. From the frog prince to the ugly duckling to the Beast that Beauty finds too repellant, it is the literal perspective of the perceiver that initially takes the bizarre at face value, failing to recognize the hidden royalty, divinity, numinosity, the prince in frog's clothing. What such stories teach is that it is the eye of the perceiver that must be educated, instructed in how to see in a new and deeper way. With respect to dreams, this education comes not from interpreting the image, standing apart at a distance from it and reading it conceptually. As Hillman (1977, 1978, 1979a) has argued, one instead must enter into the image and experience its embrace, in order to acquire the more differentiated perception capable of appreciating more deeply the animating power alive in the image.

Thus Roger's dream moves him, inspires him, we might even say compels him to enter the experience of the dream tree swaying in the wind. As he recalls the experience of the dream, his arms and body sway along with the branches of the tree, feeling and not just seeing, the image. It is as if he has become the tree. In turn the tree, Muse-like, asks not so much for a response as a mimesis, a remembering, a mirroring that will perpetuate its image down through the years of the dreamer's waking life and on-going creative work.


I have been fortunate indeed to receive comments and criticisms, along with considerable encouragement, on a draft of this article from a number of individuals. These include Kelly Bulkeley, Harry Hunt, and Jane White Lewis from ASD; Jenny Sudbrack, Scott Becker, Lara Honos Webb, and Andy Garrison from Miami University. Laura Neack has been invaluable as editor, sounding board and source of inspiration throughout the project from which this article was written. May they all be rewarded with beautiful dreams!


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1. Department of Psychology, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056; e-mail: