There’s a common misconception out there that it’s impossible to read anything in dreams. Actually, most people who record and share their dreams have reported having reading dreams in which they read signs, newspapers and other sources of text in a dream. The difference between reading in real life and in a dream is that the text you see in a dream is not words on paper: it is a product of your subconscious and can change in ways that real text cannot. Because dream text is so changeable and fluid, reading dreams offer a built-in reality check that you can use to realize you are dreaming. If the words change or don’t make sense while you’re looking at them or upon a second reading, you’ll know you’re dreaming.
Text in dreams can appear as gibberish, be upside down or seem to be written in a foreign language, even when it seemed to be intelligible the first time you read it. Sometimes, only the first line of a dream document will make sense; look down, and the page will be filled with gibberish. Other times, you can be reading a document which seems to make perfect sense, only to have the text transform before your eyes. This happened to me once, and it resulted in one of my first lucid dreams: I was reading a Word document on a computer screen, the first draft of some kind of fantasy narrative. As I read, the letters morphed into a foreign language that resembled Italian. I jumped back from the screen and realized in that moment that I was dreaming.
Sometimes you might remember a reading dream where you only remember the gist of what you read; you may have no clear memory of the exact words. This can sometimes happen with dialogue between characters in your dreams as well. It’s possible that in these examples, our brains create a meaning which we understand in a pre-verbal, intuitive way. We can only summarize the meaning upon waking. Likewise, if people do remember actual bits of text from their dreams, these tend to be short: road signs, advertisements, newspaper headlines, etc. Encountering long texts like books or articles is rare. It seems that the parts of the brain active during REM sleep just can’t create verbally very well; the linguistic part of the brain remains asleep while we dream. This makes really reading in dreams quite difficult. Some lucid dreamers have even deliberately conjured up a newspaper or other text to read after they became lucid, and reported that the words still do not make sense.
However, the flipside to the weirdness of dream text is that the brain can also become quite linguistically creative in dreams. Puns and wordplays have been a feature of dreams ever since humans started recording them: there are recorded dreams in ancient Greek, Latin and Egyptian that feature wordplays and puns. Dream puns and wordplays can show us how our brains use language to encode and reveal meaning even when we are in REM sleep.
Dreams can encode hidden meanings in either verbal or visual puns. To an extent, the brain uses the same linguistic framework when we’re asleep as when we’re awake, so dream wordplay falls into a few recognizable categories:
-Homonyms: words that are spelled the same but have different meanings.
-Idioms: colloquial/slang words not easily translated into another language.
-Anagrams: words that form a new meaning when their letters are rearranged.
-Syllabification: forming new words by dividing the original word(s) into syllables.
For instance, if you have a dream about flying, you can use these categories to guess at any underlying meaning behind the action and visuals of the dream. Were you in a plane or on a different “plane” of consciousness? Did you become aloft in “a loft” ? When you returned to the ground did you “land on your feet”? The three terms in quotation marks are examples of a homonym, syllabification, and an idiom respectively. Word plays can show up as dialogue or written text, or may be submerged in the setting, action or objects of a dream.
Names can also be a rich source of hidden meanings in dreams. Especially if you dream about someone whom you don’t know in real life, pay close attention to what their name might mean to your subconscious: in a therapy session, one woman reported her dream about a character named Frank, although she didn’t know anyone named Frank in her waking life. Based on her life context, the therapist suggested her dream might be hinting that she needed to be more “frank” and assertive in her work life. Place names can also have underlying meanings. If your dream is set in a specific state or town, it might hint that you are in a certain state of being: a dream of being in Seattle might mean you want to “settle”; a dream of “Rome” might mean you have a subconscious urge to travel, etc.
In dreams, there is no distinction between images and the dream language used to describe them. You will likely find that in the process of recording your dream, you will discover puns, word plays and visual metaphors arising from the combination of elements in your dream and how you interacted with them. Dreams also create new objects that don’t exist in the real world (which researcher Mark J. Blechner has called “interobjects”). Visual metaphors and creations in dreams add up to a visual conceptual play that goes beyond wordplay and linguistic meaning. In dreams, we confront the limits of our verbal language: in Blechner’s words, “they are meaningful without being communicable”. However, by recording and reporting our dreams to others, we can use language to discover and expand some of the meanings that dreams encode in verbal and visual metaphors.