Imagery Change Analysis: Working with Imagery from the Standpoint of
Co-creative Dream Theory

Gregory Scott Sparrow, Ed.D., Professor
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Faculty, Atlantic University

I have previously contrasted traditional content-oriented dream analysis with co-creative dream work (CDT) in numerous presentations and articles (see From the standpoint of traditional dream analysis, the dream is its visual content. Whether one believes the dream imagery is a clever disguise for an unacceptable truth (Freud,1965), the message itself in symbolic language (Jung, 1984, 1986), or a part of ourselves from which we are alienated (Perls, 1968, 1973), there is an assumption embedded in the Western view of dreaming (Sontag, 1966)––that the dream is representational of waking life, and that its value lies in the consideration of its visual content.

In contrast, the co-creative paradigm is based on the idea that the dream experience is co-determined through the interplay of two interacting structures--the dreamer and the dream content--rather than derived from a single source (e.g. the unconscious). While CDT represents a significant departure from the fixed, content-oriented view of the manifest dream, I believe that there is adequate theoretical and empirical evidence to support it, including:

  • The seminal work of Ernest Rossi (1972, 2000) who first used the term co-creative dream theory
  • The anecdotal and research findings pertaining to lucid dreaming, which has established that dreamers possess reflective awareness and exercise volition in at least some dreams (Gackbach and La Berge, 1988; La Berge, 1985; La Berge & Reingold, 1990)
  • The development of a process-oriented, interactive approach to dream analysis (Sparrow, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a, 2007b; Sparrow & Thurston, 2010)
  • The metacognitive dream research of Tracey Kahan (1996, 2001, 2010)
  • The novel approach to sleep paralysis of Ryan Hurd (2011)

All of these sources demonstrate the emergence of the co-creative paradigm, which turns our attention to the previously overlooked reflectiveness and volition of the dreamer and its impact on the dream’s imagery and outcome. Since CDT represents no less than a paradigm shift in dream theory and analysis--a virtual overturning of 2000 years of embedded assumptions about dreams and art that has greatly determined and constrained our inquiry (Sontag, 1966), it is not surprising that CDT has not caught on more quickly.

Co-creative theory is not such a radical view from the standpoint of contemporary brain science. Indeed, it seems to be the direction in which scientific dream theory may be headed. While teh activation-syntesis theorists have asserted that dreams originate in subcortical structures and thus can have no psychological meaning (Hobson & McCarley, 1977; Hobson et al., 2000), this position has been challenged by researchers who have established that dreaming disappears when certain higher cortical structures (Solms, 2000) have been damaged, and by other researchers who have posited a “two-generator” view of dreaming (Nielsen, 2000) based on labroatory data. And further, the work of Kahan (1996, 2001, 2010) has established that the dreamer is a reflective and choosing participant in the ordinary dream. Even Hobson says intriguingly that we have to treat the dreaming brain as “a unified system whose complex components dynamically interact so as to produce a continuously changing state” (Hobson, et. al, 2000). Such a dynamic model offers the possibility that dreams represent a concurrent activation of, and interaction between higher and lower brain centers, thus raising the question of how these centers interface and produce the experience of dreaming. Such a model may eventually lend more support for CDT and further justify dream work practices that reflect a co-creative view of the dreaming mind.

In contrast to traditional content-oriented dream work, CDT parallels exactly the way that we process and analyze an account of a waking experience. That is, upon receiving a report of a significant waking event--such as, for example, an argument between lovers--we do not interpret it, nor do we focus exclusively on the other person and objects (i.e. waking imagery) in the environment. Instead we look at everyone involved. Most importantly, we assume that the person relating the experience is an autonomous, participating agent involved in an exchange with the other person and the surrounding environment in the construction of the shared experience. Thus we treat the account as a relational event that developed from the input of several “feeds,” including the narrator’s own contributions. We listen for feelings, thoughts, assumptions, and behaviors that may have influenced the direction or quality of theh
experience. This sensitivity to the constructed nature of a person’s narrative not only allows us to enter into the beliefs and values of the subject, but also to communicate an empathic understanding of how these subjective influences interact with the environment to codetermine one’s experience of the world. CDT does nothing more than treat the dream in the same way--as an event that is produced in real time through the interaction between perceiver and perceived.

Approaching the dream as an interactive process requires that we treat the dreamer and the dream as separate aspects of the experience. Instead of asking strictly content-oriented questions such as, “What does this image mean,” or “What is this dream saying to you?”--which leaves the dreamer out of the dream except as a passive witness--we track the dreamer’s interaction with the imagery through the course of the dream. We ask open-ended questions such as, “What did you feel and what did you assume when you saw your father crying?” “How did the image of your ex-wife change in response to what the you did?” and “What do think would have happened if you had approached the policeman instead of fleeing?” This are called “process questions” in family systems therapy (Bowen, 1978) and are used to help the client get in touch with his or her contributions to a reciprocal dynamic in which two or more parties are constantly responding to each other based on ongoing feedback.
Given the necessary limitations in the length of this paper, I have listed some of the differences between traditional dream work and co-creative dream analysis before I introduce and demonstrate a dream work intervention unique to co-creative dream theory--a way of working with dream imagery that I call Imagery Change Analysis (ICA).
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I wish to avoid the perception that I am creating a false dichotomy between “traditional” and “co-creative” dream theory by acknowledging some features of contemporary dream analysis that overlap with co-creative dream work. It is true, for instance, that Jung initially viewed the dream image as a co-created event, by saying that the dream image:

…is the result of the spontaneous activity of the unconscious on one hand and of momentary conscious situation on the other. The interpretation of its meaning...can start neither from the conscious alone nor from the unconscious alone, but only from their reciprocal relationship (Jung, 1966; p. 386).

But this sophisticated view of the image’s creation was lost in Jung’s principal emphasis on archetypal nature of much dream imagery. While espousing a co-created view of imagery by acknowledging the importance of the dreamer’s contribution in the “amplification” of dream symbols, Jung himself rarely considered the dreamer’s contributions when deconstructing dream imagery in his major writings (Delaney, 1993).
Other theorists have noted the dreamer’s active participation in the construction of the dream. For instance, Perls treated the dream as something wholly created by the dreamer (but without being aware of it) when he said, "You prevent yourself from achieving what you want to achieve. But you don’t experience this as your doing it. You experience this as some other power that is preventing you" (1973, p. 178). Similarly, Boss believed that dreamers often exhibited volition in the dream (Boss, 1977). But neither theorist analyzed the co-created nature of the original dream imagery, and helped the dreamer sort out his or her contributions to a real-time, interactive process.

CDT is congruent with the idea espoused by Jenkins (2012), who regards the dream principally as a narrative that should be treated as a whole with its own structure, direction, and climax (or lack thereof ); but CDT takes it a step further. It views the dream narrative not as a single story, but as a
relational event co-created in real time. So the resulting dream narrative is one of many possible narratives that could have resulted. Accepting the finished product as the only possible story overlooks the impact of the dreamer’s feelings, beliefs, values, and reactions through the course of the real-time encounter, and other possible outcomes that could have resulted. From the standpoint of CDT, the dream worker has to introduce the idea that the dreamer is constantly influencing the dream’s development, and is, in turn, being influenced by it. By shifting to a co-created view of the dream, the dreamer is able to perceive and measure aspects of the dream that make little sense within a traditional content-oriented approach. Specifically, CDT predicts that dreams reveals measurable dreamer awarenesses and responses that precipitate shifts in imagery which, in turn, impact the dreamer's subsequent awarenesses and responses. This circular causal process establishes a reciprocal relationship between the dreamer and the imagery, from which one may discern a directional thrust or purpose of the encounter.

Circular causality, or reciprocity, is a familiar concept to marriage and family therapists (Nichols and Schwartz, 2004), who customarily track the interactive process between family members in order to assist them in acknowledging their respective contributions to a relational event that cannot be reduced conveniently to any one person’s doing. Similarly, from the standpoint of CDT-oriented dream work, the unfoldment of the dream narrative has to be “tracked” in order to discern pivotal moments in the course of its development--moments where the dreamer responded in such a way as to effect a particular shift in the dream narrative, and needs to take responsibility for the impact that he or she had on the dream. CDT views the dream as a “branching” experience, the end of which may be a single narrative, but whose process entails a number of responses and commensurate imagery changes that could have produced altogether different outcomes. These “branching” moments are characterized by choices or reactions on the part of the dreamer that might, in traditional dream analysis, go unnoticed, but within CDT comprise the centerpiece of the dream work. A dream worker aligned with CDT will listen for these choice moments, and observe any commensurate changes in dream imagery. So, Instead of asking what a dream means, or what a particular symbol means, the central question regarding imagery in CDT is, “How does the imagery reflect the dreamer’s mindset and response?” “How does the imagery
change in relation to the dreamer’s own changes in response?” This brings us to the topic of Imagery Change Analysis (ICA).

To bring our discussion of ICA down to earth, let’s look at a dream of a 48-year-old woman. Below you will find her written dream--which varies slightly from the dream she recounts verbally in the video.

I am traveling in a car w/ two of my closest friends. I am driving, not sure where we are or where we are going, but I feel like I am on a mission and feel a great sense of urgency. My friends are happy and talking and laughing and don’t seem to feel the way I do. I feel that I have to be somewhere and there is no time to spare.
We come to a small town along the highway and are sidetracked. There is some sort of carnival going on, and before I know it the car is driving itself toward the carnival. That is, I am still driving, but feel the steering wheel pull to the side, and take us through a field and towards the woods where there is a parking lot. We get out and my friends want to stay and see the carnival and a play that is about to start. I am not happy about this and express it to them and anyone else around. I say that we need to go, and very soon!!
Then I am standing beside the highway near this place and waiting for my friends to come. I say, “Let's go!” I then say, "I am leaving now and anyone that wants to come with me better get in the car, now!!!
As I am saying this and standing along side the road, I see several tractor-trailers coming towards me at a high rate of speed. I watch them with caution, but I don't move or run. I stand my ground and watch them barreling towards me and at the last minute they shoot off the road to my right and go on their way.
Then we are at someone’s house, not sure who, and stopping for a visit. Again everyone else is laughing and talking and at ease, in no hurry. I am still anxious and state that I want and need to get going right away! I am stern in expressing this, but no one gets upset with me.
Then it switches to just me and I am meeting the man I love and we are boarding a huge ship together, like a cruise ship, and we are very happy and excited. Then I wake up.

I have prepared a video in which I work with Julie and her dream according to CDT and the FiveStar Method (FSM). To assist you in understanding the various steps in the process, and the interventions that I make, please download the one-page summary of the FSM, and use it to follow along. Because my interest was principally in demonstrating Imagery Change Analysis, however, I did not, for instance, employ Gestalt dialoguing as I often like to do, or spend as much time delving more deeply into the dreamer’s conscious associations.

---------Please view the
video now on the DreamStar Institute website.---------

Now that you’ve reviewed the video, let’s look at how ICA involves three principal assumptions about imagery derived from co-creative dream theory:

  1. The dream image is reciprocally related on a moment-to-moment basis to the dreamer’s mindset. That is, the image reflects the dreamer’s momentary relationship with the underlying issue brought forth by the dreaming mind. Linked by a reciprocal or circular causal process, the dreamer and the dream image mirror the dream’s movement toward, or away from, integration of the dreamer’s consciousness and the dream’s underlying content. Just as Jung explained in many places, the archetype is a pattern, not an image, the dream image is not the underlying content itself, but rather the interface between the dreamer and the dream’s content, which is felt but formless until perceived by the dreamer. If, as the dreamer in the video seems to feel, the underlying agenda involves an urgency for her to move from where she is now to a new, indeterminate place in life, then the car initially expresses the way that she sees herself proceeding toward that goal--that is, on her own. However, the later images reflect a different orientation to the goal which connotes larger, more powerful, less “self-managed” sources of conveyance and authority.

  1. 2) The imagery changes through the course of the dream in response the dreamer’s changes. In Julie’s dream, the images of transportation change from car, to tractor trailer, and finally to ocean liner. When the dreamer reflected on the changes of imagery, she was able to see that the car, the tractor trailer and ocean liner were all ways to get somewhere--all means of transportation--and that they were moving from smaller to larger, and from lesser to greater capacity. She also reflected on how the movement reflected an eventual letting go and relying on others. Her willingness to shift from an individualistic to a relational agenda was reflected in the shift of imagery from car to ocean liner. Significantly, while she was largely alone at the beginning of the dream, or with people who did not seem to have any direction or agenda, she was with her boyfriend at the end, waiting for their ship to come in. In addition, the tractor trailer seems to represent outwardly her increasing fierce insistence on prosecuting her own goals.Toward the end, she shifts toward a much larger and less personal vessel that will bear her on a new stage in her journey. Meanwhile, another set of images represent diversions on the journey, and these images change from “carnival” to “friend’s house,” and present different challenges to her desire to remain true to her journey. So while she is saying “no” to her familiar friends, and acceptable diversions, she is saying “yes,” to a new relationship, perhaps signifying a shift in her relational priorities and life goals.

  1. 3) The changing images usually are related to a class of images that point to an underlying life domain. Throughout my work with Julie’s dream, I draw connections between two groups of images--those pertaining to transportation, and those pertaining to diversions from the journey. Asking Julie such questions as “What’s similar and what’s different about a car, a tractor trailer, and an ocean liner?” helps the dreamer establish that these images fall into a general class of images that pertain to a general life domain and fulfill a similar function, but which convey a difference in meaning based on their unique properties.
Focusing on how images change will naturally guide the conversation toward classes of images and away from specific and discrete images. This helps the dreamer understand that a series of outwardly disparate images can actually refer to a general life issue rather than to a diverse array of life themes. Those of you familiar with various hierarchical systems of life domains, such as the Eastern concept of chakras,  or Maslow's hierarchy of needs, will find that this shift in focus from specific to general imagery will help the dreamer understand that a dream may reflect a struggle /and or a resolution of a basic problem related to survival, affiliation, power, service, or any of the other main dimensions of life that have been defined in such comprehensive systems.

In summary, I hope that this written and video exposition of Imagery Change Analysis (ICA) demonstrates how the co-creative dream work model opens up possibilities for imagery analysis that simply do not make much sense when the dream is considered fixed from the outset. By seeing the image as
in flux and responsive to the dreamer’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs and reactions, we can explore how changes in imagery reflect the dreamer’s own evolving or regressing mindset. Moreover, we can more easily discern a direction in the dream’s unfoldment by examining whether the changes in imagery and dreamer response represent movement toward some culminating, or integrating event, or away from such resolution. On the basis of such analyses, we can assist the dreamer in celebrating significant inner shifts of attitude that may bring about positive changes in life circumstance, much as they may bring about reciprocal changes transformations in the dream imagery. Or we can help the dreamer discern how recoiling from the intrusive novelty of the dream on the basis of old fears or unexamined assumptions can thwart an evolving process and create turmoil in the dreamer’s waking life. In both cases, ICA amplifies and accelerates a dreamer’s understanding of the role that they play in the co-creation of dreams and waking life experiences, as well.


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