Elliot R. Wolfson


On his book A Dream Interpreted within a Dream: Oneiropoiesis and the Prism of Imagination

Cover Interview of December 18, 2011


It is my hope that A Dream Interpreted within a Dream will be read by a wider audience than just specialists in Jewish mysticism, since I engage so many disciplines and so many thinkers in this book.

I also hope that there may be neuroscientists who take an interest in the book.  One of my goals was to provide a bridge between the humanities and the sciences.  I do not ignore the findings about dreams in neuroanatomy; on the contrary, I argue that my main insight that the dream exemplifies the paradox of the oxymoron fictional truth, a truth whose authenticity can be gauged only from the standpoint of its artificiality, is in accord with the scientific perspective. In particular, I argue that this quality of the oneiropoetic is related to a manner of behavior that some primatologists have even explained as the factor that accounts for the ascendancy of human beings in the evolutionary chain: while other species exhibit activities that we classify as play or sport, and even as tactical deception—indeed trickery and cunning have been flagged as key aspects in the development of social cognition amongst primates—the hominid with the largest neocortex has the greatest facility to deceive. What likely began as a congenital propensity to lie in order to maximize reproductive opportunities and the potential for survival mutates at the top of the biopyschosocial tree into the fanciful art of combining the credible and incredible, the willful effort to deceive the other by concealing truth in the shroud of lie, without any discernible utilitarian benefit or pragmatic advantage.

I do side with those who detect in the dream a mythopoeic propensity that cannot be subsumed under the stamp of scientific explanation, no matter how broadly the criterion of empirical data is conceived. This is not to say that I deny that the contents of the dream can be explained as neural correlates of consciousness. On the contrary, in my way of thinking, the cerebral activity of dreaming should be considered exemplary of the increased aptitude for abstraction and ratiocination that developed in the hominid brain as a consequence of the multimodal sensory integration.  Through a process of evolutionary selection this augmented apperception, enhanced intelligence, and the ensuing refinement of the nervous system formed what has legitimately been called the numinous mind, a degree of mentation typified above all by the symbolic cognition that has endowed us with a myriad of incomparable traits, including the proclivity to imagine the unimaginable.

The emblematic language of dreaming, likely to have originated as a mechanism of social organization aimed at the preservation of the species, becomes a pivotal feature that distinguishes ape-like mentality from human-like consciousness. The hominization of primates eventuated in increasingly complex biopsychological adaptations that bestowed on humans the mental capacity to have eidetic dreams. Hence, the challenge in this book to the reduction of mindfulness to biochemical structures and electromagnetic fields emerges from the findings of neuroscience itself. The penchant to think the unthinkable should be granted as much integrity as other acts of human imagination conventionally judged to be nonpathological.