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By Charmaine Li
“From the private confines of the mind sealed by sleep, dreams coalesce as the wondrous display of the inner worlds… Only the dreamer knows what his or her dream really feels like.”
– Fariba Bogzaran and Daniel Deslauriers, Integral Dreaming (2012)
There’s a palette of colors I’m innately drawn to in waking life. Pale purples. Deep blues. Peachy pinks. Medium blue-greens. Or the intense yet subtle gradient on the cover of Dream I Tell You by French writer and philosopher Hélène Cixous (the one published by Columbia). Or the luminous hues in Wolfgangsee mit tiefem Horizont (1913) by Austrian painter Koloman Moser. Or the soft shades of a sunset reflected on billowy clouds. It’s when these colors are nebulous and bleeding into one another that I feel they’re flowing into my veins. In my waking mind’s eye, these color combinations are dream-like, and yet, curiously, I couldn’t remember seeing them in my dreams until I started writing this.
A study published in 2008 by Eva Murzyn from the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom, which was widely covered by the press, found that a small percentage of the population dream in black and white. It suggested that people who grew up being exposed to black-and-white film and television were more likely to dream in monochrome throughout their lives. However, differences between studies have prevented any firm conclusions about this and, instead, have led researchers to believe that recalling color in dreams is connected to when a subject is asked to report the dream (i.e., whether it’s immediately upon waking or a period of time thereafter), as well as how questions about color are asked. Although opinions about the relationship between color and dreams have been divided for nearly a century, many dream researchers agree that most dreams appear to contain color, and that color reporting is related to memory. What each color represents, however, is still up for debate.
In 1911, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a book that meditates on art as a matter of the human spirit, and on the necessity for artists to express their inner lives through their work. Kandinsky goes on to discuss the psychology of colors and the language of color and form: “Shades of color, like those of sound, are of a much finer texture and awake in the soul emotions too fine to be expressed in words.” I wonder if the pastel palette I often associate with dreams is actually dulled memories of colors from nightly visions I had long ago – and whether I feel a pull to them because they embody emotions that remain unacknowledged or unresolved.
Red lights, red signs, red lips. In public spaces, red commands our attention. In private spaces, any red that’s larger than a sheet of letter-sized paper is too shrill for my comfort. In my nocturnal world, however, red takes on a life of its own. In one nightmare from childhood, there’s a chunk of bright red flesh hanging from a black thread that’s sewn into my elbow. Seven years ago, in a dream that was one of the catalysts for my move from Toronto to Berlin, I see my limp, dead body floating in a bathtub filled with burgundy blood from a bird’s eye view.
In 1994, American psychologist Robert Van de Castle speculated that we tend to recall color imagery that is charged with more intense emotional content. In a journal entry dated June 28, 2018, there is a chicken scratch about a dream where “I was in someone’s yard with Jessie but need to use the washroom”. [In waking life – which, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll abbreviate to IWL – my frequent urges to pee make me incredibly self-conscious about using the bathroom in social situations.] From what I can gather, my dream-self encountered a number of obstacles while trying to find a functioning toilet, the last of which was a scarlet red creature that I understood to be a spider. Even though I was alone with it in a narrow hallway, I remember feeling oddly calm – even amused – perhaps because of its un-spiderly shape. [IWL, I’m the kind of person who overreacts at the sight of a spider entering my personal space without warning.] That morning, I woke up giggling with the dream image of a four-armed, scarlet red starfish-like creature with no eyes and a horizontal oval-shaped mouth gently pressed into my mind. In the liminal state between sleep and waking, I made a sketch of the creature in my journal. Some time later, I painted a version of it with watercolors.
In June this year, I traveled to a medieval abbey on the Dutch-German border to attend the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD). At the ‘Transformative Dreamwork’ course led by Robert Hoss – an independent researcher and former president of IASD – we were handed worksheets with a five-step approach designed to help us better understand a dream’s narrative, the underlying emotional issues that it may be confronting and “the natural way the dream was trying to resolve the problem”. Hoss’ approach is informed by the works of Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, German psychotherapist Fritz Perls as well as research that shows different colors evoke different neural and emotional responses in the waking state.
Essentially, Hoss suggests that our individual emotional associations in waking state might continue into our dream state. The final step of his approach involved a color questionnaire that was derived from color psychology studies and the Lüscher color test, a tool developed by Swiss psychoanalyst Max Lüscher, who posited that a person’s response to color could hint at their emotional state. “If a color stands out in the dream, try this tabular listing of emotional associations as a questionnaire,” stated the last page of the worksheet, “Do NOT use this as a symbol dictionary; the statements are not the ‘meaning’ of color but are only indeed to trigger your own dream-to-life emotional associations.” Red was the first color on the table alongside twelve corresponding statements.
After examining the journal entries around this time, I believe my summer 2018 waking-self would “connect” most to these red statements: 1) I feel intense, vital or animated [IWL, I was seeing many ideas connect and feeling a strong urge to create something with/out of/relating to dreams] and 9) I feel anxious [IWL, it seems I had fallen into a kind of trance where I accepted my passing negative thoughts at face value].
When discussing how elements interacted with one another to create harmony in an artistic composition, Kandinsky wrote, “Color provides a wealth of possibilities of her own, and when combined with form, yet a further series of possibilities. And all these will be expressions of the inner need.” At first, the red creature simply captivated and confused me. But as I continued to engage with it through journaling, painting and writing, it seems to me now that the dream may have transformed the anxieties I was experiencing into a ludicrous form with a hostile color to help dampen my distress and alter my response to it. Seen in this way, the creature’s color feels like a means of alerting me to the anxieties I was half-conscious of, while its form was a reminder that I could always create new narratives for them.
Of course, I’ll never know whether my interpretation is completely true and, currently, there isn’t any conclusive research about the meaning of color in dreams that can guide me to personal insights. Regardless, I’ve decided that colors from dreams that are salient enough to seep into my waking life – or the other way around; like the soft, nebulous colors that occupied my mind so much while writing this that I began seeing them in my dreams – are worth engaging with and exploring further. After all, since individual responses to color are usually subjective and the act of dreaming is such a singular experience, it seems, for now, only the dreamer can know why certain colors stand out and what they might mean. Bogzaran and Deslauriers write that “dreaming is the art of the mind.” If this is the case, perhaps we’re all artists playing with our own distinct palette of colors at night.
Charmaine Li is a writer and editor with a focus on art, design and technology, from Canada, based in Berlin, Germany.
Ariel Ting Wei Lu is a 3D artist from Taiwan whose curiosity-driven work focuses on motion graphics.
1. Fariba Bogzaran and Daniel Deslauriers, Integral Dreaming (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 73.2. Helene Cixous, Dream I Tell You (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) 3. “File:Kolo Moser - Wolfgangsee mit tiefem Horizont - ca1913.jpeg,” Wikimedia Commons, accessed on September 12, 2019, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kolo_Moser_-_Wolfgangsee_mit_tiefem_Horizont_-_ca1913.jpeg.4. Eva Murzyn, “Do we only cream in colour? A comparison of reported dream colour in younger and older adults with different experiences of black and white media,” Consciousness and Cognition 17, no. 4 (December 2008): 1228-1237.5. Robert J. Hoss, Katja Valli, and Robert P. Gongloff, Dreams: Understanding Biology, Psychology, and Culture, Volume 1 (California: ABC-CLIO, 2019), 407.6. Deirdre Barrett and Patrick McNamara, Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreams: The Evolution, Function, Nature, and Mysteries of Slumber, Volume 1 (California: ABC-CLIO, 2012), 144.7. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M.T. H. Sadler (New York: Dover Publications, 1977), 41.8. Robert Van de Castle, Our Dreaming Mind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994).9. Hoss, Valli, Gongloff, Dreams: Understanding Biology, Psychology, and Culture, Volume 1, 412.