Why Google+ works (UXtraordinary blog preview)

Excerpt from UXtraordinary:

I am thrilled to see Andy Herzfeld’s social circles concept implemented so beautifully in Google+. My semi-educated guess is that empowering users to define access to themselves according to their own purposes and needs—in context—will build engagement and strong loyalty. Why? Because it comes naturally.

Too many social media-based sites, including many social networks, provide only lip service to how users think about groups, let alone user privacy empowerment. A user is seen as one of their members, and the business creates a mental model in which the user is the center of a series of widening circles. “Empowerment” of user content privacy is typically limited to enabling permissions control within those circles.

Users don’t see themselves that way. People think of sharing information in terms of a constantly changing algorithm of need, purpose, and ability. We trust some friends more closely than others; we have acquaintances who know a great deal about us whom we barely know. It’s my belief that these clashing mental models are one of the primary reasons social media and social networks fail to engage.

Mental models of user grouping
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Science funding shouldn’t depend on ignorance

Physics World editor Hamish Johnston blogged about the difficulty of public perception, research funding, and scientists commenting on God and religion in the public square. Most recently, Stephen Hawking spoke out about M-theory making God unnecessary. From Johnston’s blog:

There is just one tiny problem with all this – there is currently little experimental evidence to back up M-theory. In other words, a leading scientist is making a sweeping public statement on the existence of God based on his faith in an unsubstantiated theory.

I could see why Johnston was concerned. A BBC video, linked in the Physics World post, had this in the descriptive text:

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said that he sees no necessity for God in the creation of the universe and that philosophy is dead.

Things like this just make me shake my head. Hawking is so, so brilliant, but perhaps not very wise.

Johnston’s concern was driven by the possible adverse effect such pronouncements could have on science:

Physicists need the backing of the British public to ensure that the funding cuts don’t hit them disproportionately. This could be very difficult if the public think that most physicists spend their time arguing about what unproven theories say about the existence of God.

I know he’s right. Personally, I find this situation both sad and frustrating. That science’s direction and funding can be at the whim of the public; that scientists and philosophers don’t speak of and to each other with respect; that willfully ignorant people end up pitting people of good will against each other (read the comments in any blog touching both science and religion)—this kind of particularly human screwball black comedy just seems, well, wrong. I know, I know—I’m not the only one.

I commented, of course. Here’s what I said, for what it’s worth (the comment was still in moderation as of this writing):

Personally, I wish science fell into the same category as infrastructure and education when it came to funding: a must-have, something without which a society cannot thrive.

I have no problem with Hawking or anyone else pronouncing on God or religion. They are scientists, so I take their opinions in this area to be that of lay people in the field, much as my opinion in it is. I’m not offended, but I do wish they would formulate such comments with more of a “it’s my opinion that [insert sweeping religious view here]” attitude.

The same goes for evangelicals and fundamentalists of any religion who proclaim their ignorance of science loudly and proudly. Please, take a moment to reflect. Surely a creative God would want his thinking creations to view his work accurately and clearly, and support an unflinching, honest appreciation and understanding of the universe? What artist doesn’t want their craft appreciated? Therefore, fund science! Promote it! Support it in the name of understanding the world God gave you clearly and without fear.


Am I there yet? How progress bar dynamics drive users

Gavin Davies wrote a nice piece, Are we nearly there yet? The role of the progress bar on the web, discussing the four requirements of a useful progress bar in tracking software task completion. Per Davies, a good progress bar should be:

  • Accurate – watching a bar fill up gradually only to chug to a halt at around 90% can infuriate all but the most Zen. Worse still on the hair ripping scale are bars that fill up, only to empty and begin anew!
  • Responsive and smooth – the bar should be updated regularly to show that things are still working. This means that, on the web, we should update progress bars via Ajax rather than hefty page reloads. Research shows that a linear, consistent progress increase is better than the bar jerking around like a malfunctioning robot dancer.
  • Precise – the bar should show an estimate of time remaining, and perhaps other data such as percent or file size remaining so the user knows if he or she should start any long books in the interim.
  • Appropriate – before using a progress bar, consider carefully whether it is appropriate, both in terms of User Experience and technical feasibility.

I’d expand on this, and add that the progress bar is useful beyond the completion of a software task, but for personal accomplishments; “Am I there yet?” moments, if you will. For example, the LinkedIn progress bar prompts profile completeness.

The progress bar is actually a game element, which triggers the twin desires to both complete and compete. It’s invaluable in educational, social media, and other contexts. Like Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR said, “Humans love progress bars. If you see a progress bar, you want to complete it.”

The same requirements apply that Davies suggests, but the nature of the progression dynamic changes. So, instead of time remaining, the user may have tasks remaining, or user-generated content, or a certain amount of time using the application or exploring the site. These progress bar milestones can themselves incorporate game elements, becoming a quest for users for which progress bar completion is only one of many rewards.

Apart from games themselves, game mechanics (or gamification) have been primarily used in the educational field, although it’s been spreading through interaction design since the nineties. Those interested in exploring the field, a good start is Clark Aldrich, a true guru at designing “serious games” and simulations.

Cross-posted from UXtraordinary, my professional blog. Related UXtraordinary post: Fun is Fundamental.


It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do with your belief

The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof put the fear of Islam into a historical context in his latest column, Is Islamophobia the new hysteria? He pointed out the many times U.S. citizens have rallied against various religious or national groups, using much of the same language used today when speaking about followers of Islam.

Sadly, many of the comments seem oblivious to his point, and actually repeat the very mistake he’s pointing out. So I had to comment myself:

Religions go in cycles. There was a time not too many centuries ago when Islam was a more tolerant religion than Christianity – when Jews sought refuge in places like Turkey to escape the Inquisition.

I keep reading comments that argue Islam is different from Christianity and Judaism because it is “political” and seeks to harm us. Clearly these people have forgotten that Christianity and Judaism have extremely active political elements in the U.S., and that there are many countries who presently have some flavor of Christianity as a state religion. Clearly they’ve forgotten the Christian element in Ireland’s decades of terrorism, or abortion clinic attacks, or the mostly Protestant KKK (mind, most Protestants do not support the KKK – but most KKK members believe a Christian God is on their side).

While the United States may pride itself on constitutional separation of church and state, the reality is very different, as we can see from the constant efforts by a vocal minority of U.S. Christians to inject their version of Christian concepts and language into law, government buildings, and schools.

I’m also a little disheartened by those claiming that religion as a whole is dangerous. People can be broken and dangerous with or without religion (e.g., Stalin was an atheist, KKK members are primarily Christian), and outstandingly good with or without religion (Desmond Tutu and Clarence Darrow). Danger occurs when people use any institution, be it church or state, to rationalize and cloak sloppy thinking and fear-driven bigotry.

It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do with your belief.

Kristof, N. Is Islamophobia the new hysteria? The New York Times, 7 Sep. 2010.


How to get the best idea

This was written in response to Ross Douthat’s call for Americans to stop enabling M. Night Shyamalan. We all love him, we all want him to create another wonderful movie, and his lukewarm box office response is not enough to push him to abandon his current approach and do that. A complete flop, Mr. Douthat reasons, will be the rock bottom necessary before Mr. Shyamalan can begin true change.

He may be right. This prompted me to share my personal theory on Mr. Shyamalan. It’s also my personal theory on how to get the best idea, whether you’re writing a story, designing a test, or figuring out the best user-centered taxonomy for a site.

I love Shyamalan’s writing, I love his directing, I love his characters. What I don’t love is how he makes all of the above subservient to an idea that forces them into unnatural, un-storylike forms.

My theory on Mr. Shyamalan: he’s been letting themes take too much control of the story. It’s like the recently-evangelized musician who thinks removing a bad lyric about Jesus is somehow betraying Jesus—instead of thinking that writing the best song possible is a better form of praise. Or the recently-transformed-by-therapy writer whose characters all act in the best interests of each other’s mental health. I believe Shyamalan becomes enthralled by an idea, and the idea drives the story, the writing, and the directing.

I heard that the killer surprise in Sixth Sense was an afterthought. This is how good ideas show up—you follow the story/research/whatever faithfully, and have faith the best idea, or juxtaposition of ideas, will present itself as a result. Clinging to *an* idea throughout the process reduces the chance that the *best* idea—the one rooted in your fullest understanding of story, characters, data, concept—will emerge.

The best way to explore a theme in a story is to establish the situation, and let it play itself out in a means true to the characters. Your concept or theme will emerge much more naturally, and people will be much more engaged.


Saving face for the other guy works

Off site comment capture:

Schott’s Vocab , The New York Times, requested face-saving excuses readers regularly turned to. Mine actually got marked as an Editor’s Highlight (rare for me), and received a whopping (again, for me) 15 “recommended” clicks ;–)

In a reverse approach, but still aimed at smoothing out the occasional awkwardness:

As someone with a lot of diabetes in the family history (though thankfully I’ve escaped it so far!), I avoid sugar in colas, etc. Sometimes I go through a drive-through and I’m uncertain the person gave me a diet soda (they didn’t mark the top of the cup, or didn’t repeat it back to me). But people typically don’t like their ability to perform simple tasks questioned, so I put the onus on me: “Did I remember to ask for diet soda?” They happily tell me yes, and I am reassured.

This “it’s my fault” approach works in a variety of situations.


We evolved to be…depressed?

Scientific American explains the idea that depression evolved as an adaptive tool, to enhance analytic focus.

First thoughts:

  • This reminds me of a study I read in the ’90s that claimed that on reality inventories, depressed people scored as having a more realistic, fact-based view of the world.
  • The surprise attached to this study showcases a “common sense” belief that feeling sad can’t be a good thing. This is yet another case of common sense being the last refuge of a scoundrel, at least as far as psychology is concerned. (An example of poor, common-sensical thought is the idea that if an emergency occurs, more bystanders make it more likely someone will call the police/ fire dept/ etc. In reality, people are more likely to call when there are fewer people, since they feel more personally accountable. The more bystanders present, the more likely it is that any given bystander will assume someone else called.)
  • This strongly supports my working hypothesis that the dichotomy between feeling and thought is completely bogus. There are no thoughts without feelings, and no feelings not attached to thoughts.

For those of you who haven’t seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian, here’s that classic song, “Always look on the bright side of life .” (Warning: NSFW!)

Related article: Blue is the new black . Maureen Dowd on the increasing depression of women.


Thomas Huxley’s letter, on the death of his son

The below is from Leonard Huxley’s The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Quoted by Stephen Jay Gould.

A letter written in response to well-meant advice from Cambridge professor and priest Charles Kingsley.

14, Waverley Place, September 23, 1860.

My dear Kingsley,

I cannot sufficiently thank you, both on my wife’s account and my own, for your long and frank letter, and for all the hearty sympathy which it exhibits–and Mrs. Kingsley will, I hope, believe that we are no less sensible of her kind thought of us. To myself your letter was especially valuable, as it touched upon what I thought even more than upon what I said in my letter to you. My convictions, positive and negative, on all the matters of which you speak, are of long and slow growth and are firmly rooted. But the great blow which fell upon me seemed to stir them to their foundation, and had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me and them–and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is–Oh devil! truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

And now I feel that it is due to you to speak as frankly as you have done to me. An old and worthy friend of mine tried some three or four years ago to bring us together–because, as he said, you were the only man who would do me any good. Your letter leads me to think he was right, though not perhaps in the sense he attached to his own words.

To begin with the great doctrine you discuss. I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and to feel, “I believe such and such to be true.” All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?

You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know–may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, about noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

It must be twenty years since, a boy, I read Hamilton’s essay on the unconditioned, and from that time to this, ontological speculation has been a folly to me. When Mansel took up Hamilton’s argument on the side of orthodoxy (!) I said he reminded me of nothing so much as the man who is sawing off the sign on which he is sitting, in Hogarth’s picture. But this by the way.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Nor does the infinite difference between myself and the animals alter the case. I do not know whether the animals persist after they disappear or not. I do not even know whether the infinite difference between us and them may not be compensated by THEIR persistence and MY cessation after apparent death, just as the humble bulb of an annual lives, while the glorious flowers it has put forth die away.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind–that my own highest aspirations even–lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

There are, however, other arguments commonly brought forward in favour of the immortality of man, which are to my mind not only delusive but mischievous. The one is the notion that the moral government of the world is imperfect without a system of future rewards and punishments. The other is: that such a system is indispensable to practical morality. I believe that both these dogmas are very mischievous lies.

With respect to the first, I am no optimist, but I have the firmest belief that the Divine Government (if we may use such a phrase to express the sum of the “customs of matter”) is wholly just. The more I know intimately of the lives of other men (to say nothing of my own), the more obvious it is to me that the wicked does NOT flourish nor is the righteous punished. But for this to be clear we must bear in mind what almost all forget, that the rewards of life are contingent upon obedience to the WHOLE law–physical as well as moral–and that moral obedience will not atone for physical sin, or vice versa.

The ledger of the Almighty is strictly kept, and every one of us has the balance of his operations paid over to him at the end of every minute of his existence.

Life cannot exist without a certain conformity to the surrounding universe–that conformity involves a certain amount of happiness in excess of pain. In short, as we live we are paid for living.

And it is to be recollected in view of the apparent discrepancy between men’s acts and their rewards that Nature is juster than we. She takes into account what a man brings with him into the world, which human justice cannot do. If I, born a bloodthirsty and savage brute, inheriting these qualities from others, kill you, my fellow-men will very justly hang me, but I shall not be visited with the horrible remorse which would be my real punishment if, my nature being higher, I had done the same thing.

The absolute justice of the system of things is as clear to me as any scientific fact. The gravitation of sin to sorrow is as certain as that of the earth to the sun, and more so–for experimental proof of the fact is within reach of us all–nay, is before us all in our own lives, if we had but the eyes to see it.

Not only, then, do I disbelieve in the need for compensation, but I believe that the seeking for rewards and punishments out of this life leads men to a ruinous ignorance of the fact that their inevitable rewards and punishments are here.

If the expectation of hell hereafter can keep me from evil-doing, surely a fortiori the certainty of hell now will do so? If a man could be firmly impressed with the belief that stealing damaged him as much as swallowing arsenic would do (and it does), would not the dissuasive force of that belief be greater than that of any based on mere future expectations?

And this leads me to my other point.

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time–before I had earned absolute destruction–and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. “Sartor Resartus” led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him. [The law with respect to oaths was reformed in 1869.]

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is–a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

I have spoken more openly and distinctly to you than I ever have to any human being except my wife.

If you can show me that I err in premises or conclusion, I am ready to give up these as I would any other theories. But at any rate you will do me the justice to believe that I have not reached my conclusions without the care befitting the momentous nature of the problems involved.

And I write this the more readily to you, because it is clear to me that if that great and powerful instrument for good or evil, the Church of England, is to be saved from being shivered into fragments by the advancing tide of science–an event I should be very sorry to witness, but which will infallibly occur if men like Samuel of Oxford are to have the guidance of her destinies–it must be by the efforts of men who, like yourself, see your way to the combination of the practice of the Church with the spirit of science. Understand that all the younger men of science whom I know intimately are ESSENTIALLY of my way of thinking. (I know not a scoffer or an irreligious or an immoral man among them, but they all regard orthodoxy as you do Brahmanism.) Understand that this new school of the prophets is the only one that can work miracles, the only one that can constantly appeal to nature for evidence that it is right, and you will comprehend that it is of no use to try to barricade us with shovel hats and aprons, or to talk about our doctrines being “shocking.”

I don’t profess to understand the logic of yourself, Maurice, and the rest of your school, but I have always said I would swear by your truthfulness and sincerity, and that good must come of your efforts. The more plain this was to me, however, the more obvious the necessity to let you see where the men of science are driving, and it has often been in my mind to write to you before.

If I have spoken too plainly anywhere, or too abruptly, pardon me, and do the like to me.

My wife thanks you very much for your volume of sermons.

Ever yours very faithfully,

T.H. Huxley.


The tyranny of dichotomy

An informational cascade is a perception—or misperception—spread among people because we tend to let others think for us when we don’t know ourselves. For example, recently John Tierney ( discussed the widely held belief but little-supported belief that too much fat is nutritionally bad. Peter Duesberg contends that the HIV hypothesis for AIDS is such an error.

Sometimes cultural assumptions can lead to such errors. Stephen Gould described countless such mistakes, spread by culture or simple lack of data, in The Mismeasure of Man. Gould points out errors such as reifying abstract concepts into entities that exist apart from our abstraction (as has been done with IQ), and forcing measurements into artificial scales, both assumptions that spread readily within and without the scientific community without any backing.

Mind, informational cascades do not have to be errors—one could argue that the state of being “cool” comes from an informational cascade. Possibly many accurate understandings come via informational cascades as well, but it’s harder to demonstrate those because of the nature of the creatures.

It works like this: people tend to think it binary, all-or-nothing terms. Shades of gray do not occur. In fact, it seems the closest we come to a non-binary understanding of a concept is to have many differing binary decisions about related concepts, which balance each other out.

So, in the face of no or incomplete information, we take our cues from the next human. When Alice makes a decision, she decides yes-or-no; then Bob, who knows nothing of the subject, takes his cue from Alice in a similarly binary fashion, and Carol takes her cue from Bob, and so it spreads, in a cascade effect.

Economists and others rely on this binary herd behavior in their calculations.


The problem is that people don’t always think this way; therefore people don’t have to think this way. Some people seem to have the habit of critical thought at an early age. As well, the very concept of binary thinking seems to fit too neatly into our need to measure. It’s much easier to measure all-or-nothing than shades of gray, so a model that assumes we behave in an all-or-nothing manner can easily be measured, and is therefore more easily accepted within the community of discourse.

Things tend to be more complex than we like to acknowledge. As Stephan Wolfram observed in A New Kind of Science,

One might have thought that with all their successes over the past few centuries the existing sciences would long ago have managed to address the issue of complexity. But in fact they have not. And indeed for the most part they have specifically defined their scope in order to avoid direct contact with it.

Which makes me wonder if binary classification isn’t its own informational cascade. In nearly every situation, there are more than two factors and more than two options.

The tradition of imposing a binary taxonomy our world goes back a long way. Itkonen (2005) speaks about the binary classifications that permeate all mythological reasoning. By presenting different quantities as two aspects of the same concept, they are made more accessible to the listener. By placing them in the concept the storyteller shows their similarities, and uses analogical reasoning to reach the audience.

Philosophy speaks of the law of the excluded middle—something is either this or that, and not an in between—but this is a trick of language. A question that asks for only a yes or no answer does not allow for responses such as both or maybe.

Neurology tells us that neurons either fire or they don’t. But neurons are much more complex than that. From O’Reilly and Munakata’s Computational Explorations in Cognitive Neuroscience (italics from the authors):

In contrast with the discrete boolean logic and binary memory representations of standard computers, the brain is more graded and analog in nature… Neurons integrate information from a large number of different input sources, producing essentially a continuous, real valued number that represents something like the relative strength of these inputs… The neuron then communicates another graded signal (its rate of firing, or activation) to other neurons as a function of this relative strength value. These graded signals can convey something like the extent or degree to which something is true….

Gradedness is critical for all kinds of perceptual and motor phenomena, which deal with continuous underlying values….

Another important aspect of gradedness has to do with the fact that each neuron in the brain receives inputs from many thousands of other neurons. Thus, each individual neuron is not critical to the functioning of any other—instead, neurons contribute as part of a graded overall signal that reflects the number of other neurons contributing (as well as the strength of their individual contribution). This fact gives rise to the phenomenon of graceful degradation, where function degrades “gracefully” with increasing amounts of damage to neural tissue.

So, now we have a clue that binary thinking may be an informational cascade all its own, what do we do about it? That’s a subject for another post.


  • Itkonen, E. (2005). Analogy as structure and process: Approaches in linguistics, cognitive psychology and philosophy of science. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
  • O’Reilly, R.C., and Y. Munakata. (2000). Computational Explorations in Cognitive Neuroscience: Understanding the Mind by Simulating the Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

How not to ask questions

From the NY Times, Yes, Running Can Make You High, 27 March 2008:

Yes, some people reported that they felt so good when they exercised that it was as if they had taken mood-altering drugs. But was that feeling real or just a delusion? And even if it was real, what was the feeling supposed to be, and what caused it?

The bit that bothers me is the middle sentence. Unless the NY Times is seriously proposing that all runners reporting a high are either lying or confabulating, a feeling is a feeling is a feeling. It is real, and originates and is reflected in your physical being, just as every aspect of your experience is. The only relevant definition of real in the context of feelings is “real to the individual experiencing them,” and that cannot be questioned. Of course it’s real, they experienced it.

The question What [is] the feeling supposed to be? has the opposite problem. Instead of a universal affirmative (Of course it’s real), this question can have a variety of answers, some or all of which may be correct. It’s a useful question to ask, since it helps us parse the situation from different angles, but it cannot be answered definitively.

The question most able to be answered here, at least on a biological level, is not Is it real?, but What caused it?, asked in the last sentence.

Psychology will not have come into its own until there is a general understanding that there is no difference between mind and body. This is why the talking cure, journaling, and other cognitive therapy works, because they subtly affect—in essence, reprogram—the brain. Our experience occurs in the interaction of our selves with our environment. The challenge in psychology is in defining the parameters of the environment, and the capabilities of the self in reacting to and understanding it.


Zombie ideas

In 1974 Robert Kirk wrote about the “zombie idea,” describing the concept that the universe, the circle of life, humanity, and our moment-to-moment existence could all have developed, identically with “particle-for-particle counterparts,” and yet lack feeling and consciousness. The idea is that evolutionally speaking, it is not essential that creatures evolved consciousness or raw feels in order to evolve rules promoting survival and adaptation. Such a world would be a zombie world, acting and reasoning but just not getting it (whatever it is).

I am not writing about Kirk’s idea. (At least, not yet.)

Rather, I’m describing the term in the way it was used in 1998, by four University of Texas Health Science Center doctors, in a paper titled, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Health Care Zombies: Discredited Ideas That Will not Die” (pdf). Here the relevant aspect of the term “zombie” is refusal to die, despite being killed in a reasonable manner. Zombie ideas are discredited concepts that nonetheless continue to be propagated in the culture.

While they (and just today, Paul Krugman) use the term, they don’t explicate in great detail. I thought it might be fun to explore the extent to which a persistent false concept is similar to a zombie.

  • A zombie idea is dead. For the vast majority of the world, the “world is flat” is a dead idea. For a few, though, the “world is flat” virus has caught hold, and this idea persists even in technologically advanced cultures.
  • A zombie idea is contagious. Some economists are fond of the concept of “binary herd behavior.” The idea is that when most people don’t know about a subject, they tend to accept the view of the person who tells them about it; and they tend to do that in an all-or-nothing manner. Then they pass that ignorant acceptance on to the next person, who accepts it just as strongly. (More about the tyranny of the dichotomy later.)So, when we’re children and our parents belong to Political Party X, we may be for Political Party X all the way, even though we may barely know what a political party actually is.
  • A zombie idea is hard to kill. Some zombie viruses are very persistent. For example, most people still believe that height and weight is a good calculator to determine your appropriate calorie intake. Studies, however, repeatedly show that height and weight being equal, other factors can change the body’s response. Poor gut flora, certain bacteria, and even having been slightly overweight in the past can mean that of two people of the same height and weight, one will eat the daily recommended calories and keep their weight steady, and one will need to consume 15% less in order to maintain the status quo. Yet doctors and nutritionists continue to counsel people to use the national guidelines to determine how much to eat.
  • A zombie idea eats your brain. Zombie ideas, being contagious and false, are probably spreading through binary thinking. A part of the brain takes in the data, marks it as correct, and because it works in that all-or-nothing manner, contradictory or different data has a harder time getting the brain’s attention. It eats up a part of brain’s memory, and by requiring more processing power to correct it, eats up your mental processing time as well. It also steals all the useful information you missed because your brain just routed the data right past your awareness, thinking it knew the answer.
  • Zombies are sometimes controlled by a sorcerer, or voodoo bokor. Being prey to zombie ideas leaves you vulnerable. If you have the wrong information, you are more easily manipulated by the more knowledgeable. Knowledge, says Mr. Bacon, is power.
  • Zombies have no higher purpose than to make other zombies. Closely related to the previous point. Even if you are not being manipulated, your decision-making suffers greatly when you are wrongly informed. You are also passing on your wrong information to everyone you talk to about it. Not being able to fulfill your own purposes, you are simply spreading poor data.

So we see that the tendency to irony is not just useful in and of itself, but useful in helping prevent zombie brain infections. As lunchtime is nearly over, and I can’t think of more similarities, I’m stopping here to get something to eat.

[Exit Alex stage right, slouching, mumbling, “Must…eat…brains.”]

Cross-posted in UXtraordinary.


The Oliviers, the anchor riders, and the pier people

Years ago I heard an anecdote about Laurence Olivier: A journalist came to interview Olivier in his home, and was met at the door by Olivier’s friend. The friend gave the journalist a warning: to be sure he held the image he had of Olivier clearly in mind. “Whomever you expect to find,” he said. “that is who he will be.”

This story struck me as sad, and the problem as peculiarly apt to a great actor. (Of course, Meryl Streep—that other great actor of the twentieth century, and possibly the twenty-first—is the exact opposite, balanced and deeply self-aware, so obviously this loss of self is not required to act well.) Another theater soul, Nobel prize winner Luigi Pirandello, used his plays to demonstrate the interactive nature of human existence. Olivier probably related. For Pirandello, there was no “I” at the center of existence, only a series of masks worn in response to the behavior and opinions of others.

I’ve written before about the self being at the intersection of how others treat us and the choices we make, but now I’m thinking about how some people tend to fall more to one side or the other. Bart and I were talking about this, and I wanted to share his thoughts on the matter:

Some people (the Oliviers) only recognize their existence in others’ eyes and get washed out to sea and lost. Some people cling to the pier of the “I” and when the waves come, they are swamped. But the people who realize this interaction is going on face the storm. They know that the center moves, but remains the center. “They know you have to ride it out, at anchor.”

Note: credit for the title goes to Bart as well :–)


Rationalizing inequity and harassment

Comment to Salon’s Military rape a result of “feminist pressures”?:

Yes, it’s fascinating how people rationalize their prejudice. My father served in WWII, Korea, and VietNam; he saw the pre- and post-Executive Order 9981 U.S. Army learn to deal with integrating African Americans into the armed forces. (EO 9981 was Truman’s desegregation of the U.S. military, eliminating all black units and boot camps and requiring equality of opportunity, etc., without regard to “race, color, religion or national origin.”) LtC. O’Neal brought me up to believe what he said he saw time and time again—that bigotry was not only wrong but stupid, that much more was gained through mutual respect and giving everyone the opportunity to contribute.

Nonetheless, people argued back then that it was wrong to expect whites to put up with blacks, and wrong to ask blacks to try to do what supposedly only whites were capable of doing.

Parker’s column is the same kind of self-blind rationalization as that. Women and men both share and differ in our strengths; there are different kinds of adaptation going on than that between white and black. But to say we should deny half the population the chance to contribute, and deny ourselves the benefit of that contribution, is not only wrong, but stupid.

African Americans & Women in the U.S. Army:

Article about female reservists in Desert Storm:

P.S. Funny quote from the third URL. Maj. Gena Bonini talking about supply raids:

“We were able to get every soldier in the battalion brand new hunting-type knives. I personally didn’t understand the popularity of the item, but all the guys thought they were the end-all and be-all of being a tough guy. They just had to have these big — we’re talking 12-inch-long — knives that strapped to their legs.”

Methinks Freud might have had a comment or two on that ;–)


Missing the message of the fisherman and the jinny

Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment is a classic psychoanalytic examination of fairy tales and fables. The problem is that Bettelheim is perhaps too focused on Freudian interpretation, to the exclusion of alternative possibilities. Bettelheim was never formally trained in psychology. He was a philosopher, whose psychological training originated in his own psychoanalysis and self-education. His limited perspective resulted in one of the most spectacular pieces of popular misinformation in psychology, the idea that autism was caused by cold, uncaring mothers. This misconception inflicted unnecessary pain on perhaps thousands of families.

But here I want to talk about both a smaller and a larger issue: hidden messages in children’s stories. My husband’s psychologist gave him a copy of Bettelheim’s explication of The Fisherman and the Jinny to read, and I’d like to offer an alternative to Bettelheim’s view. Not that a psychoanalytic interpretation is wrong per se, but it’s far from the only perspective.

Bettelheim’s psychoanalysis: pleasure principle vs. reality principle

First, let’s review the story itself. From Bettelheim:

A poor fisherman casts his net into the sea four times. First he catches a dead jackass, the second time a pitcher full of sand and mud. The third effort gains him less than the preceding ones: potsherds and broken glass. The fourth time around, the fisherman brings up a copper jar. As he opens it, a huge cloud emerges, which materializes into a giant Jinny (genie) that threatens to kill him, despite all the fisherman’s entreaties. The fisherman saves himself by his wits: he taunts the Jinny by doubting aloud that the huge Jinny could ever have fitted into such a small vessel; thus he induces the Jinny to return into the jar to prove it. Then the fisherman quickly caps and seals the jar and throws it back into the ocean.

The Jinny’s unreasonable anger against the fisherman springs from the length of its imprisonment.

As [the Jinny] sat confined in the bottle during the first hundred years, he “said in my heart, ‘Whoso shall release me, him will I enrich for ever and ever.’ But the full century went by, and when no one set me free, I entered upon the second five score saying: ‘Whoso shall release me, for him will I open the hoards of the earth.’ Still no one set me free, and thus four hundred years passed away. Then quoth I, ‘Whoso shall release me, for him will I fulfill three wishes.’ Yet no one set me free. Thereupon I waxed wroth with exceeding wrath and said to myself, ‘Whoso shall release me from this time forth, him will I slay….'”

For Bettelheim, this reasoning is the reasoning of the abandoned child, dealing with separation anxiety. The irrational aspect demonstrates that this is not “adult morality” but childish, for according to Bettelheim, to an adult “the longer an imprisonment lasts, the more grateful the prisoner should be to the person who liberates him.” The point of the fairy tale is for the child to be able to put himself into the place of the Jinny and be safely angry at his parents for his separation anxiety, or to put himself into the place of the fisherman and deal with his anger.

Bettelheim’s Jinny represents immaturity, uncomfortable emotions, and the pleasure principle; the fisherman represents maturity, rationality, and the reality principle. The pleasure principle “drives us to gain immediate satisfaction of our wants or to seek violent revenge for our frustrations,” while the reality principle states “we must be willing to accept many frustrations in order to gain lasting rewards.” According to Bettelheim, choosing the reality principle gains the fisherman success.

Bettelheim also points out that by identifying with the fisherman, who is small in comparison with the Jinny, the small child sees him- or herself as outwitting the larger Jinny/adult figure. As Bettelheim observes, “children know that, short of doing adults’ bidding, they have only one way to be safe from adult wrath: through outwitting them.”

This level of interpretation is not a bad or wrong one, but it’s not the whole story; it’s what happens when you cast your net once. Let’s cast it a second time and see what comes up.

The fairy tale as an introduction to reality

I clearly remember the first encounter I had with this story, and my response was strongly negative toward the fisherman. While his life was threatened by the Jinny, his solution was poor: tricking the Jinny back into the jar and throwing him into the sea. This did nothing to address the horribly unfair situation of the Jinny, and seemed likewise thoughtless of future fishermen. In the Arabian Nights, the fisherman promises to build a home by the shore and warn other fisherman of the perils of copper jars they may pull up in their nets. But this is a short-term solution for a seemingly immortal creature. My childish solution, in the parameters of the fairy tale, was that the fisherman should take the jar to the nearest king or wizard for their help.

While the madness of the Jinny may safely allow a child to feel unacceptable anger, it’s not solely childish, irrational anger standing in opposition to the fisherman’s adult morality. If adult morality followed rational behavior most psychologists (and lawyers) would be out of work. And if the fisherman’s life were magically extended and he were trapped in a small, sensory-depriving container that barely held him, it’s unlikely his sanity would be preserved for long.

For me as a child, the primary message of The Fisherman and the Jinny is not that we must “accept many frustrations in order to gain lasting rewards,” but precisely the opposite. I found it very upsetting. Looking back as an adult, I can understand why, and I still don’t see the fairy-tale justice and reward-for-hard-work message Bettelheim finds in it. Here’s what I see:

  • A poor fisherman’s efforts to feed himself and his family are frustrated as he tries four times to earn his living, and gets nothing for his pains but a chance to die.
  • A Jinny is trapped for centuries in a copper jar, and driven mad by his frustration. Trapped back in the jar, he is thrown back in the sea, to look forward to more centuries of madness. The evolution of his anger for the next fisherman is not a pleasant thing to consider.
  • Once he’s saved himself, the fisherman is not good about considering other people. Even if you take the version where he lives on the shore to warn other fisherman, he’s only there for his lifetime, and he knows the Jinny will be in his jar for centuries. Throwing the jar back is selfish, lacking concern for both future fishermen and the Jinny.

In other words, when one analyses behavior and its consequences for the characters, the primary message of The Fisherman and the Jinny seems to be that sometimes nobody is happy, and the world is not fair. This is an important message, and one that is often overlooked by parents who want to (a) make their children happy and (b) entice them to good behavior by promises of rewards. As a child, when I read the Arabian Nights and was upset by this story, I was safely being introduced to difficult situations that I would encounter in real life. It was an opportunity to express the outrage in advance and learn how to deal with it.

The Jinny as daimon

Reading with adult eyes, I was struck by another interpretation. Finding myself identifying with the Jinny, and probably reminded because of the association of jinny/genie with genius, I saw the Jinny as what existential psychologist Rollo May called a creative daimon. Let’s cast our interpretive net a third time and see if this works.

May describes the daimonic as that which overwhelms us. Eros, anger, the desire for power, the desire to leave your mark on the world: all these things are the daimonic in us. When it is repressed and not integrated into an authentic person, it comes out violently and angrily. For May, the daimonic must be applied constructively or it will erupt destructively. Demonic possession is a culturally specific expression of violent eruption. Fear of the daimonic arises from the anxiety inherent in the creative process.

Every time a person creates—and this includes loving, taking a moral stance, and so forth—that person is undergoing an interactive process with the world. The world and the person are both changed. Anxiety is produced by the changes required by the process. There is also anxiety in the trust needed for the leap of faith before the act of creation, because the creator may be wrong in his choice or understanding or perspective; in other words, the creation may be a mistake.

So if we view the Jinny as the creative daimon, we see him as the repressed urge to leave our mark. The urge to love, to write, to paint, to change the world. The death threat to the fisherman is the anxiety posed by this urge. It’s no accident or mere plot point that the Jinny can change shape; the mutability of the genie is a metaphor for the change the creator undergoes in every work. Likewise, the immortality of the Jinny can be interpreted as the wish for the changes we effect in the world to persist beyond our lifetime, or beyond our immediate sphere of influence. The fisherman is the person in May’s third stage of development, the “ordinary” adult ego. He has passed through the stages of innocence and rebellion and learned responsibility but not courage; he conforms to the conventional and does not express his daimonic side. He has an opportunity to deal with his daimon, but chooses instead to bottle it up and throw it into the sea. And the daimon agrees to this, in effect, by going back into the bottle, in much the same way that many people bottle up their own creative urges.

The creative adult, in the fourth stage of development, has accepted her daimon and integrated it into her life. She understands both the thrownness of reality (the things we cannot change) and her control over it (her will and creative principle). She would find another way to grapple with the Jinny: perhaps giving it a different, safer target for its anger, or again, taking the closed jar to a wise person to seek help. Courage and responsibility not just for herself but for the next person are inherent in this state.

From this perspective, the message of the fairy tale is one I don’t like. It promotes the mediocre, non-threatening, non-integrated road which leads to the life of a selfish, poor fisherman. It tells the child to fear the mutable Jinny and his power. But the truth is that those who release the Jinny and pass through the fear of death and change, those will learn self-actualization and authenticity. Those, the Jinny will enrich for ever and ever.


Freudian dream interpretation

Much of the text below comes from a group project done with fellow graduate students Sherri Reaume and Nicole Christy at Walden University. While most of the writing is mine, we all collaborated on the content. Sherri wrote the introduction and Nicole contributed dreams for sample interpretations.

This is not intended as a guide to understanding your dreams, but as a guide to understanding what Freud thought about dreams. Any personal understanding you glean from it may or may not be accurate.

dream symbolism examples
the Oedipal complex
sample dream interpretations
guide to self-interpretation

Freudian Dream Interpretation: the basics

Sigmund Freud is known for developing many psychological constructs: the id, ego, superego personality theory, the unconscious, dream interpretation, thanatos and libido (the death and life instincts), and more. Few people know, however, that of all these theories his proudest moment was one of his earliest: his insights on dream interpretation, which he called a once-in-a-lifetime insight (Roth, 2000). Today opinions vary on Freud’s work, but this theory is still valuable, both to the psychology student seeking to better understand the roots of her discipline, and to the self-reflective soul seeking to examine his own mind.

This write-up will give the reader the tools necessary to understand and try to interpret dreams from a Freudian perspective. A self-help guide will be added at the end for convenience. This is not intended to provide therapy or advice in any way! It’s intended to provide insight into an important piece of psychological history. Personally, having read The Interpretation of Dreams over twenty years ago, I can say that much of my love of psychology and self-awareness has sprung from this book.

Prior to Freud, dream theories tended to fall into two categories: the mystical (psychic) and the biological. Some felt that dreams might hold clues to mental states, but because the content of dreams can be very confusing, exactly what this might mean was uncertain. Freud put the ability to make sense of a dream into the hands of the dreamer.

During the 19th century, a French doctor by the name of Alfred Maury speculated, through the use of self-experimentation, that external stimuli are the catalyst to all dreams (Schulze, 1997). Modern dream interpretation can trace itself directly back to Maury’s development of the concept of the unconscious. Another profound influence from the 19th century was Joseph Breuer, whose work, though not directly dream-related, inspired Freud:

For several years I have been occupied with the solution of certain psychopathological structures in hysterical phobias, compulsive ideas, and the like, for therapeutic purposes. I have been so occupied since becoming familiar with an important report of Joseph Breuer to the effect that in those structures, regarded as morbid symptoms, solution and treatment go hand in hand. Where it has been possible to trace such a pathological idea back to the elements in the psychic life of the patient to which it owes this origin, this idea has crumbled away, and the patient has been relieved of it…. In the course of these psychoanalytical studies, I happened upon dream interpretation. My patients, after I had obliged them to inform me of all the ideas and thoughts which came to them in connection with the given theme, related their dreams, and thus taught me that a dream may be linked into the psychic concatenation which must be followed backwards into the memory from the pathological idea as a starting-point. (Freud, pp. 83-84)

Also prior to Freud, there was no differentiation between the manifest content of a dream and its latent meaning (Freud). Freud’s insight was that the dream allowed access to the unconscious; he called it the via regia, or king’s road, to the unconscious desires and memories of people. This was a breakthrough in understanding dreams. From Freud:

All previous attempts to solve the problems of the dream have been based directly upon the manifest dream content as it is retained in the memory, and have undertaken to obtain an interpretation of the dream from this content…. We alone are in possession of new data; for us a new psychic material intervenes between the dream content and the results of our investigations: and this is the latent emphasis Freud’s dream content or the dream thoughts which are obtained by our method. We develop a solution of the dream from the latter, and not from the manifest dream content. We are also confronted for the first time with a problem which has before existed, that of examining and tracing the relations between the latent dream thoughts and the manifest dream content, and the processes through which the former have grown into the latter. (p. 260)

Freud’s work also freed people from the need for dream interpreters or dictionaries of dream symbols. In Freudian dream interpretation, the manifest content of a dream does not contain generic symbols that have identical meanings for all dreamers. Instead, while there may be overlap between dreamers in symbolic meaning, the final interpretation must made in context of the dreamer’s personal experience (Freud). Freud also believed that, so long as a dreamer was willing to see himself as clearly as possible, self-interpretation was probably better than the observation of others. As Freud put it, "One has a readily understood aversion to exposing so many intimate things from one’s own psychic life, and one does not feel safe from the misinterpretation of strangers" (p. 87). Freud also pointed out that using interpretations taken from patients could skew the interpreter’s understanding of a healthy person’s dreams, unless they were careful to avoid this.

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Sample symbols

Please be aware, when applying these definitions, that Freud did not believe in direct symbolic meanings which applied to everyone; in fact, his comments on so-called cipher and symbolic dream interpretation prior to his work was rather scathing (Freud). Rather, he saw some commonalities of theme in typical dreams, which might point an interpreter (preferably the dreamer herself or a skilled psychoanalyst) in a useful line of questioning. The specifics of any given manifest dream symbol, however, should be seen in context of the dreamer’s recent life, together with references to the dreamer’s past (Freud).

The manifest symbols below are those used by Freud in sample dream interpretations. As you read them, please remember they are drawn from nineteenth-century Europeans, and so their application today may not be as appropriate as they were for Freud.

  • Alarm clock: Freud used the sound of an alarm clock as an example of an external neural stimulus affecting a dream. Examples include a dream of preparation for a sleigh ride contained unusually loud sleigh bells, or a dream in which a maid drops china, and the sound of breaking china goes on too long, until the dreamer realizes it is the alarm clock.
  • Egotism in dreams: Freud found that many dreams had an underlying latent theme of egotism, in their self-absorption or reference to early childhood memories of being cared for, fed, etc…. He offered the following anecdote regarding self-delusion:

    While Dr. Jones was delivering a lecture before an American scientific society, and speaking of egotism in dreams, a learned lady took exception to this unscientific generalisation. She thought that the lecturer could only pronounce such judgment on the dreams of Austrians, and had no right to include the dreams of Americans. As for herself she was sure that all her dreams were altruistic. (Freud, p. 229)

  • Falling: Falling can have an interpretation of "falling" by giving in to sexual desire, or can have reference to a childhood fall, which led to being picked up and comforted by a parent (Freud).
  • Flying: Flight is generally associated with a pleasant feeling in Freud’s experience, though for a variety of reasons. Among the examples he offers are the extremely short woman who frequently dreamed of floating a few feet above the ground; the sexually-inspired dreams of German-speakers familiar with a particular German vulgarity, which provided association between birds and sex, and in which "we shall also not be surprised to hear that this or that dreamer is always very proud of his ability to fly" (p. 239); and a suggestion by a Dr. Paul Federn that erections inspired flight dreams (Freud).
  • Hats: Freud had several sample dreams in which hats represented genitalia.
  • Infantile experiences: As in nudity and flight, Freud found the manifest content of many dreams drew on early childhood and infantile experience, when care, feeding, lack of responsibility, lack of moral compass, and pampering provide fodder for wish fulfillment.
  • Nudity: While Freud did mention exhibitionists as having dreams of nakedness, the primary source in most people was memories from early childhood, when nakedness was not frowned upon and there was no sense of shame. Even in dreams when the dreamer feels embarrassment, the other people of the dream generally seem oblivious, lending support to the wish fulfillment interpretation of wanting to leave behind shame and restriction (Freud).
  • Recent experiences: Much of the manifest content in dreams derives from very recent experience, particularly from the past day. Dreams will many times combine elements from different moments and create stories to make connections in the manifest dream (Freud).
  • Somatic source: Prior to Freud, some dream analysts separated somatically-driven dreams from association dreams. While Freud agreed that "nerve stimulus" and "bodily stimulus" could be somatic sources for dreams, he felt that this only influenced the manifest content of dreams, and not the latent themes (Freud, pp. 184-186).
  • Structures: Stairwells, mine shafts, a small building located in a narrow recess, locked doors, and so forth frequently have repressed sexual undertones, particularly in dreams which are "conspicuously innocent" (Freud, p. 241).

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The Oedipal complex

Freud encountered many instances of young men dreaming of the death of their fathers, with and without sorrow, in a variety of manners. Since this concept is often less understood than it is discussed, I think Freud should speak for himself, although the quote is lengthy:

Let us dwell at first upon the relation between father and son. I believe that the sanctity which we have ascribed to the injunction of the decalogue dulls our perception of reality. Perhaps we hardly dare to notice that the greater part of humanity neglects to obey the fifth commandment… The obscure reports which have come to us in mythology and legend from the primeval ages of human society give us an unpleasant idea of the power of the father and the ruthlessness with which it was used. Kronos devours his children…Zeus emasculates his father and takes his place as a ruler… The more despotically the father ruled in the ancient family, the more must the son have taken the position of an enemy….

And there must be a factor corresponding to this inner voice in the story of King Oedipus. His fate moves us only for the reason that it might have been ours, for the oracle has put the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. Perhaps we are all destined to direct our first sexual impulses towards our mothers, and our first hatred and violent wishes towards our fathers; our dreams convince us of it. King Oedipus, who has struck his father Laius dead and has married his mother Jocasta, is nothing more than the realised wish of our childhood. But more fortunate than he, we have since succeeded, unless we have become psychoneurotics, in withdrawing our sexual impulses from our mothers and in forgetting our jealousy of our fathers. (pp. 217, 223)

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Sample dreams

Credit goes to Nicole Christy for provdiing her dream journal and personal interpretations. I provided the "Freud might say" sections.

  1. I had a dream in which I was back in high school. I didn’t know my schedule, or the classrooms I was supposed to be in and just wandered around. I had washed my hair the night before but forgot to rinse the conditioner out, so it looked greasy. I went into the girl’s restroom to rinse it, but I couldn’t brush through it. I finally did get it styled. I then started applying makeup that was really heavy and dark. Instead of wiping it off, I applied more to try to cover it up and looked like a clown. I had to follow another girl into a classroom I thought I was supposed to be in and sat down. I kept applying powder to my face to try to cover up the makeup, but it just made it worse. One of my friends was sitting next to me and was embarrassing me by making loud noises and playing with a toy truck. When it turned 9:00am, she wanted to leave, but I told her class wasn’t over til 9:10am. At lunch time, I couldn’t find any friends to sit with and ended up sitting next to my sister. A girl came up and stabbed another girl who was eating near me. She stabbed her three times while everyone sat in shock. The girl who was stabbed just calmly removed the knives and walked away.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am overwhelmed starting school again, and this dream of high school is actually about college. I feel inadequate and unprepared. I feel that I am not ready and keep covering up this feeling by trying harder (applying more makeup). I feel alone and scared. I feel that I may be endangering myself by taking on too much (seeing others getting hurt).

    Freud might say: While the manifest content of this dream is threatening, the dreamer is returned to a time in youth, when despite the emotional demands of modern high school society, less is demanded of her. Like a new student in high school, the dreamer is entering a similarly uncertain online educational environment in her present life. She may be dually anxious her friends do not understand her desire to extend school (childishness with toy truck), and concerned her friends will hold her back. The old rules of high school–appearance, schedule, basic social rules even in the face of hostility–are no longer valid. Wish fulfillment can be seen in the fact that appearance is unimportant; even though the dreamer works to improve her appearance, she is unable to, but this does not cause her difficulty in the school. She has other students to show her the way, but is concerned about the need to rely on other students. Nonetheless, aggressive behavior is acted out against others, not the dreamer.

    Questions for the dreamer: What is her relationship with her sister? Is she supportive or not, and are they close? Also, what are her associations with appearance issues such as makeup, hair, and so forth. Does she like clowns, or does she fear them (in either case, to associate herself with them is to make herself "safer" behind a mask). What are her associations with toy trucks, the specific times, and other pieces of manifest content? Confronting these questions will lead the dreamer to a deeper understanding of her dream.

  2. I had a dream in which I had a party at my house but I couldn’t attend it because I was in the kitchen the whole time cleaning. Every time I thought I was done, something else needed to be cleaned. I then had to start cooking food that people had requested. People came in to the kitchen expecting a buffet laid out, saying they had purchased tickets for it, and wanted it to be ready.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am feeling overwhelmed about starting school again after a long break. Every time I finish one project, there is always something else to do such as another reply to post or more research to do. Perhaps I feel I will never catch up and will not have time to enjoy life.

    Freud might say: The dreamer has many responsibilities unrelated to school, making constant demands on her time. Eventually these escalate to responsibilities that extend to other people’s requirements, so that where the dreamer spends her time matters to more people than just herself. The wish fulfillment lies in the fact that this makes school, which also makes frequent, constant demands of the dreamer, less important. In the dream, the ongoing interests of others outweigh the academic interests of the dreamer. The dreamer might consider that the demands of school do eventually end, bringing with that end a degree and more career options; and with that, more ways the dreamer can do well for others as well as herself.

  3. A coworker had a dream in which she was 36 years old, was married to her now fiancé whom she lives with, but in the dream he looked like Johnny Depp. They lived on a ranch with ranch hands and the setting was in the early 1900’s. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other and were totally in love. She was doing laundry and he would come up behind her and caress her. She was admired and envied by all. She had a miniature show horse who was 13 years old and had never won before, but was supposed to win some kind of contest this time.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps she is stressed about her upcoming wedding and pictures her fiancé as a hunky movie star being totally in love with her to reassure herself she is making the right decision about him and getting married. She probably wants to feel that everyone will admire her choice and wish they were as happy as she will be.

    Freud might say: The interpretation seems pretty on target; this is appropriate wish fulfillment for someone in the dreamer’s situation. The 13-year-old horse who has never won is either the dreamer, recalling herself at that age and placing herself in a strong, beautiful form (the horse), or someone else she hopes will have a happy turning point in their life; possibly both.

  4. I had a dream in which I was on a cruise ship in a foreign country and we landed and embarked. There was a scavenger hunt which everyone had to participate in. We all went in to town and I bought some pretty shoes. There was only one restaurant in town and everyone went there to drink and eat. Everyone ate dinner and got really drunk from beer and shots of tequilla.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps being on a ship signifies that I feel scared and trapped in the middle of an ocean or a big decision, and that landing signifies making a decision. Shoes may signify being grounded with the decision. Eating and being merry may signify being content with the decision.

    Freud might say:
    There are a lot of questions a modern-day Freud might ask the dreamer. Do the cruise ship/ foreign location/ scavenger hunt have personal associations, or are they associated with any current "reality" shows or other indirect context? Knowing this could deeply affect the meaning of these pieces of manifest content. If the shoes and the merry-making mean what the dreamer thinks, interpretation may be that straightforward, except that wish fulfillment requirements would make it a dream about wishing the dreamer is content and grounded with a decision.

    Freud might also be tempted to apply sexual undertones to the sea, the pretty shows, and the making merry, although again a great deal depends on the personal associations and meaning of these things for the dreamer.

  5. I had a dream in which I went down a riverbed of rocks on a mountain with some other people following. We ended up at a hotel which was really scary looking. There were barbie dolls and barbie clothes strewn all over on the ground. The "host" came out to greet us and picked three of us to play a game. I was one of them. I was supposed to walk around and select a mate for myself. I couldn’t do it because everyone was too weird. We all slept in the hotel lobby in bunkbeds.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am at a place in my life in which I am going down a path which is scary and looking for a mate is always scary. I am not ready for this new step in my life and choose to stay solo.

    Freud might say: The rocky riverbed is probably symbolic of the same kind of fear (the scary "looking for a mate") being transferred to whatever root fear the dreamer is confronting. Some questions might be: are there any personal associations with childhood (bunk beds, barbie dolls) that could be associated with a past scary decision? Wish fulfillment is here distorted; it might be the desire to have less personal responsibility and someone else to take that job over (the host), but the wish for independence wins out (refusal to choose).

  6. I had a dream in which I was at the mall but I couldn’t find my car in the parking lot to leave.

    Personal interpretation: I have had this dream several times in different variations, but feel that it may represent feeling anxious about making the right decision, and not being able to find my way towards the answer. Maybe I start things easily, but find it hard to finalize them.

    Freud might say: A repeated place in a dream might have larger implications for the dreamer than in this one dream. For example, a woman dreamed frequently of intertwining highways and exits, with some ramps completed and some under construction. Over the years, as self-understanding increased, knowledge of the way and completion of parts of the road increased. Finding the way around the mall parking lot may have similar latent associations for this dreamer. The dreamer might track these dreams, and their relation to current events in the dreamer’s life, to better understand the wish fulfillment behind them.

  7. I had a dream in which an ex-boyfriend of mine was reunited with about 8 different ex-girlfriends of his, including me. He had to kiss each one of us and tell us what he liked about us. He told me I was "the most honest, believable, loving one" and picked me to reunite with.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am still in love with someone from my past and feel that we should be together. Maybe I honestly believe that we are soulmates and have regrets over the break up.

    Freud might say: From a wish fulfillment perspective, the dreamer wishes for someone to understand and appreciate her completely; this takes the form of a former boyfriend. The appropriateness of the boyfriend for the role depends on past experience and knowledge, which would help determine the depth of the wish.

  8. I had a dream in which two women had babies. One of the women came to me when her baby was two days old and brought her baby to me to watch so she could pack her stuff to move. Her baby was only about 2 inches long. She kept wrapping it up so it could barely breathe. The other baby, who was also 2 days old, was about the size of a shoebox, but it was already talking and was trying to climb out of the shopping cart she was sitting in.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am judging others in their ability to parent properly and feel that I or someone else can do a better job. Maybe I feel that some mothers do not know how to sufficiently care for their children and need supervision and assistance. Maybe I have doubts about my own parenting skills.

    Freud might say: This seems likes straightforward wish fulfillment in the form of being given a maternal role. The dreamer is aware of the differences of different children, able to perceive their individual needs, and receives support (being given responsibility at one point) that she is or would be a good parent. The wish fulfillment may spring from insecurity, but the dream seems positive overall.

  9. I had a dream in which I was at a party with my sister and a friend. My sister had sex with a guy right next to me while I was passed out asleep because I was drunk. I slept for a few hours and then woke up and went back to the party. There was a guy there who had two visor hats over his face and everybody was afraid of him. We then started driving and racing. Everybody pulled over for him to pass them, except for me. He was really mad that I wouldn’t pull over and was getting violent. He tried to crash into me, but I pulled ahead and got away. Then there was an accident behind me with two other cars.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am feeling resentment for a family member or friend and view them as having more than me, as I am currently not in a relationship and not having sexual relations. Maybe the scary man represents men in general and me being intimidated by them and not being able to trust in order to date. If I did date someone at this time, it might be a mistake, causing an "accident."

    Freud might say: The dreamer is asserting strength and independence against problems known (sister issues, which may be in a completely different form than in the dream) and unknown (the visored male driver). The latent associations for the visor and threatening drivers should be explored. This may be the desire of the female to have control over the masculine influence in her life, or a generally threatening influence.

  10. I had a dream in which people were trying to kill me. They were breaking into my apartment in groups and ambushing me and my friends. I was hiding in a closet under some blankets with my baby wrapped up and hidden. People found me and were trying to get me, so I started throwing tv sets at them as they each entered the room.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am afraid that others are out to get me because I don’t feel that I have done an adequate job at work, or in my personal life. Maybe I feel that I must defend myself to their criticism by fighting back.

    Freud might say: It’s possible this is the same wish fulfillment theme seen in dreams #8 and #9, in which the dreamer finds herself capable in confronting threats and protecting her child. Less direct threats from the dreamer’s life are transformed into killers; less tangible strengths are transformed into directly useful ones for the dreamer. The dreamer is capable (and may be in the process) of translating these strengths into useful form in real life.

  11. A coworker had a dream when she was fifteen years old. She was wearing a negligee walking down a dark alley in a European town, with rain gutters on the sides of the streets and loud noises coming from it which scared her. Hands were grabbing at her from the gutter and then pulled her down into the sewer to a dark tunnel. She came into a room with brick walls and a chandelier and a bed in the center which was high. There was a creature who had a hairless male body. His body was beautiful, but his face and hands were that of a troll. He picked her up, carried her up the ladder, and put her on the bed. She’s very scared, but very excited. He then left. When she looked up, her name and number were written all over the wall.

    Personal interpretation:
    She and her sister both interpreted this dream as the loss of virginity dream. At this time in her life, she was just embarking on having sex for the first time. She was afraid, but excited about this new venture in her life. Wearing a neglige represented her being ready for this endeavor. Walking down a dark alley represented the scary path she was taking, with gutters representing the way people viewed sex as being dirty and she probably felt guilty about having her "head in the gutter". Being pulled down into this dark sewer represents feeling she was being drawn into something that maybe she felt was evil. The tunnel could represent a woman’s genitals. The chandelier may represent the light at the end of the tunnel, justifying her desires. The bed being placed so high probable represents her journey to another level, that she then viewed as not evil, but righteous. The creature having a beautiful body probably represented her desire for the male body, but his head being that of a monster probably represents her feeling guilty about her desire for the flesh. The creature leaving her on the bed probably represents her questioning whether she was actually ready for this venture. Seeing her name on the wall probably represented her feeling that others would view her as a slut.

    Freud might say: The dreamer probably interpreted this dream correctly. The wish fulfillment is, obviously, the desire for sexual fulfillment despite society’s negative reaction and fear of the unknown. It would be interesting to know of any latent associations with specific manifest content, such as the chandelier, or the high bed.

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You will need:

  • something to write on
  • something to write with
  • brutal self-honesty

While you, the dreamer, are the best potential interpreter of your own dreams, you can also hold yourself back (Freud). To properly understand your dreams in terms of Freudian latent content and wish fulfillment, you must begin by abandoning self-censorship and critique. When you begin to analyze the manifest content of your dream, be completely open and honest. Write your associations without reflection, as much as that is possible, and your eventual understanding of the latent theme of your dreams will be more authentic.

Step one

Describe your dream. Write quickly, including feelings or events that happened within the dream, but not interpreting or censoring your memory.

Step two
List specific items from the manifest content of your dream. Try to break up the "story" in the dream and look at the individual items and events.

Step three
Write down any associations with the manifest content, such as recent events, old memories, and personal interests.

Now look at the latent associations. Freud points out three "peculiarities of recollection" in dreams, which prior to him were never explained:

  • That the dream distinctly prefers impressions of the few days preceding.
  • That it makes its selection according to principles other than those of our waking memory, in that it recalls not what is essential and important, but what is subordinate and disregarded.
  • That it has at its disposal the earliest impression of our childhood, and brings to light details from this period of life which again seem trivial to us, and which in waking life were long ago forgotten. (pp. 138-139)

As you study your own dream’s content, see if the associations you’ve written down fit into either recent events or possible childhood memories. Try to ignore the "logic" of the manifest content, which can frequently contradict or distort the latent theme.

Step four
Find the wish fulfillment in your dream. If Freud is right, the ultimate latent theme of every dream, no matter the source of the content, is wish fulfillment. Occasionally our wishes are unpleasant to our conscious mind, and in these cases the wish is hidden or distorted. "Wherever a wish-fulfilment is unrecognisable sic and concealed, there must be present a feeling of repulsion towards this wish, and in consequence of this repulsion the wish is unable to gain expression except in a disfigured state" (Freud, p. 120).

While you study your dream, keep in mind these aspects of dream analysis that Freud brings to our attention:

  • Condensation. Dreams can put layers of complex meaning within very simple manifest content.

    The dream is reserved, paltry, and laconic when compared with the range and copiousness of the dream thoughts…. One is really never sure of having interpreted a dream completely; even if the solution seems satisfying and flawless, it still always remains possible that there is a further meaning which is manifested by the same dream. Thus the amount of condensation is—strictly speaking—indeterminable. (Freud, pp. 261-262)

  • Displacement. Dream content is not used in dream thoughts in the same way it manifests in the dream. "That which is clearly the essential thing in the dream thoughts need not be represented in the dream at all. The dream, as it were, is eccentric; its contents are grouped about other elements than the dream thoughts as a central point" (Freud, p. 283).
  • Representation in dreams. Manifest dream content ignores the "if, because, as though, although, either-or and all the other conjunctions, without which we cannot understand a phrase or a sentence" (Freud, p. 288). It makes only the most cursory attempt at logic in tying together the manifest elements into a story. It is up to the interpreter to see the latent logic beneath this.

Keep your interpretation, and refer to it later to see if you still agree with your thoughts, or have found deeper interpretations to apply. Remember, there’s no limit to exploration of self-knowledge, and your dreams are the via regia to your inner self.

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Christy, N. (2004, April 11). Dream Journal (File Exchange document). Document posted to Walden University Blackboard, History and Systems of Psychology, Group 2 File Exchange; login required for access.

Freud, S. (1994). The Interpretation of Dreams (A. A. Brill, Trans., 3rd ed.). New York: Barnes & Noble. (Original work published 1899)

Interpreting Dreams within the Freudian System. Nicole Christy, Alex O’Neal, and Sherri Reaume, Walden University, April, 2004.

Roth, M. S. (Ed.). (2000). Freud: Conflict and Culture (companion volume to the Library of Congress exhibit). New York, NY: Knopf Publishing.

Schulze, B. (1997). Dreams & Dreaming. Retrieved April 8, 2004, from ThinkQuest Library Web site: