“The Presentation of Self In Non-Waking Life”

Interested in dreaming and lucid dreaming?
I worked with 5 informants for Folklore of the Body over the course of this term on identity, postmodern identity, and how we appear in the dream world. I also get into creatively dreaming.

This is a web edited copy of the paper in full:

The Presentation of Self In Non-Waking Life

by: Matt Reynolds


Identity and the Modern Self
The Dream World as a Passive Medium of Analysis
The Informants
Nightmares and Identity Crisis
Dreaming as a Medium of Creativity
Munch, Edward. 1893. The Scream. Oil on Canvas. National Gallery in Oslo

Munch, Edward. 1893. The Scream. Oil on Canvas. National Gallery in Oslo


The title of this paper was carefully constructed and is a play on Erving Goffman’s work entitled “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”. This paper will outline the most basic principles of dreaming, but is not based primarily on these ideas. As a Folklorist, I am more particularly interested in researching how the body appears in ones dream, searching for identity in the dream world, and also interpreting this data. Near the end of this analysis, I will take a post-modern approach and explore the realm of lucid dreaming and the deconstruction of identity.

Identity and the Modern Self

In order to assess such disembodied ideas as dreaming and lucidly dreaming, a framework of embodied ideas about the modern self must first be introduced. Kempny and Jawlowska describe by a case study that the experience of being different “was not so much with their affiliation with any social category as with the specific answers given to the question, ‘What am I like’ ” (2002, 106-107). When we think of ourselves, we do so on two different levels: first how we feel about us to ourselves, and secondly how we view us to the rest of the world. The first refers to personal or individual identity, while the second is a sense of social identity or where we ‘fit’ into the world.

Embodied cognition takes the above ideas a little further; in this model, aspects of the body shape aspects of cognition. Essentially, the organization and presentation of self determines all roles of the body. This can include clothing, grooming, hairdo and any other obvious personal displays on or of the façade but are not limited to this. The way we sit, stand, walk, run, everything we can ever do also becomes part of who we are as well. Goffman likes to use the idea of ‘dramaturgy’; in this framework everyone takes to ‘roles’, which are that of their own life. In order to interact with the rest of the world, “dramaturgical roles therefore generate ‘actors’, game roles ‘players’, and ritual roles ‘idols’ and ‘worshippers’ ” (Smith 2006, 99). This is where a divergence in personal identity can occur: one may present themselves in the way the wish to, or differently from what they intend, either consciously or unconsciously. Unfortunately, the message we wish to convey about ourselves is not always interpreted the way we intend it to be. Besides the way we present ourselves, or ‘encode’ or identity, it then has to be decoded by an onlooker, which can lead to ambiguity. The problem with decoding is when we apply our own ideals, education, and perspective to a situation, which paradoxically are all parts of decoding in itself.  Due to the scope of this analysis, the discussion of encoding and decoding will not continue, just mere introduction of these ideas is necessary.

Social construction is one of the main factors in which prohibits disorderly dramaturgy and instead promotes orderly, predictable movements and reactions. As one grows up, there is a continual “education in composure” (Mauss 1973, 76). For example, in one culture sitting at the dinner table with the elbows on the table might be considered impolite, while in another it could mean something entirely different, or even nothing at all. In western world men sit one way, and women another as another example. Men are expected to act ‘manly’ and women ‘ladylike’. All of these social constructs hinder our identity, to put it rather bluntly.

The postmodern self is nearly the converse of the above ideals. In this new paradigm it is acceptable to break away from the standards, and most recently it is almost encouraged. One aspect that is unacceptable to break however is that of social etiquette, justice and moral. Outside of this, we are now free to become ‘unique’. This concept of uniqueness suggests that we must eradicate conventions and begin our own journey of self-discovery and analysis. Often the result is a fragmented identity, parts of which may be correlated, but not necessarily so. “[P]artial identities are possible in a situation where people are continually exposed to new information, knowledge and experiences. Partial identities imply the interpretation of roles which may not be integrally related… a basis for experimentation” (Lee 2002).

Experimentation in any manner is a very conscious process, but this is especially so when it is a manipulation of identity. It goes without saying that just about anything we say and do could be used against us. Often that is not the case, but we all understand the idea that what we do with ourselves during our waking everyday life will shape our identity and the people who surround us. There are consequences for what we do or do not do, and rewards for when we succeed. Everything works in a linear and orderly fashion and there is structure. We know that when we wake up in the morning we will get out of bed, get dressed, brush our teeth and so on because everyone else does this. These ‘walls’ or structure we experience in our waking life are so engrained into our mind that they even exist in our dream world.

However, in a dream even the most primal ideas do not have to apply. Something as simple as gravity does not have to exist in a dream, but we understand that our dream characters do not float off the ground because we do not expect them to. The structuralism of our everyday life is so extremely strong in our conscious mind that it even manifests itself into our unconscious sleeping mind. Therefore the embodied conventions we follow in waking life also apply in the unconscious, disembodied dream world. DeMartino explains, “A dream is a mirror that reflects the self-conceptions of the dreamer” (1959, 127). Unfortunately, this reflection is not quite as clear as a mirror. Instead, the surface of a body of water may be a more appropriate comparison, as it can ripple when disturbed.

The Dream World as a Passive Medium of Analysis

DeMartino states, “a dream is a succession of images, predominantly visual in quality, which are experienced during sleep. A dream commonly has one or more scenes, several characters in addition to the dreamer, and a sequence of actions and interactions usually involving the dreamer” (1959, 124). With the abstract nature of dreaming, it is often hard to describe into words. However, all of us have had dreams in one form or another so we all understand the word ‘dream’ or ‘dreaming’. When someone talks of their dreams, especially if they are particularly abstract and strange, they often distance themselves the situation. Because it is now in the past, we understand that we are safe and can laugh or joke about exceptional or ridiculous situations and ideas.

However, during the experience, the mind can play games with the ‘viewer’. When we experience fear, nostalgia, love, or any feeling at all, it manifests itself in the dream world the exact same way it would in the waking world. Once one awakes to find they are safe, relief ensues, but while the dream was occurring we actually felt threatened, or lost, or whatever emotions we are expressing as if it is real. In a normal dream, we are not aware that what were are experiencing is not real, we just except it for what it is no matter how little sense it may make or what may occur. Bloom explains these ideas succinctly, “dreams, if told, are always retold; we know about them only after we have lost them – and lost our original ‘reading’ of the hallucinatory experience, which we did not realize we had to interpret at all. We look back on our dreams, puzzled” (1987, 124-125).

Often dreams can be extremely tricky, but since the beginning of time people have attempted to try and interpret their dreams in some fashion. In modern psychology, we now turn to psychoanalysis to try and decipher this strange succession of images. Essentially there are two ways to break down a dream for analysis: the first is head on and directly like most ordinary people attempt to do, and the second is a more interpretive manor in which it is decoded piece by piece. It is this piece by piece decoding that we call psychoanalysis.

Perhaps the best example of a head on analysis is by the purchase of a dream interpretation book. By doing this, one attempts to take an essentially random symbol that appears in their dream and translates it via a pre-determined meaning someone else has already written for that object or symbol. By doing this, the answer is often rudimentary and barbaric. We now understand that dreams are “a bricolage, a patchwork made out of other images, or a Viennese geshnas trick picture, as Freud calls it. The image cannot be taken as a whole (if strangely regressive) thought but can only be decoded piece by piece” (Bloom 1987, 122).

Much like how we still turn to astrological signs, many still also turn to a dream book in order to try and gain insight on themselves after they passively dream. What is particularly interesting is why one does such a thing in the first place. Even though we are tied to our physical body and conscious three-quarters of the day, we still turn to our unconscious mind to try and discover more about ourselves.

What can manifest itself into the dream world is potentially unlimited. Once we enter unconscious, non-waking life we do not even have to take the same form as our waking self. Not only that, we do not even have to be in standardized first person. Quite shockingly, three out of five of the people I interviewed experienced a third person view of themselves. The scope of this paper limits research into why this occurs, but I would be willing to bet that video gaming and new technology most certainly has an influence on this. Next I attempt to explore the bending of self-perception by conducting interviews with five people who had varying levels of dreaming recollection.

The Informants

Once I started my initial research and began looking for informants, I began to face an interesting dilemma; most people seem to jump to the strange conclusion that they ‘do not dream’. Perhaps the best way to explain this is contained in Freud’s Interpreting Dreams. Freud states, “[p]roverbially, dreams ‘fade’ in the morning. They are of course capable of being remembered” (2006, 55). The actual remembering of a dream is a conscious process after the unconscious event has taken place. Given the busy nature of most of our daily lives, dreams often get pushed away as we awake and begin to think of our upcoming day. This provided a problem; I would have to find informants who were actually thinking about their dreams consciously throughout the day.

The solution for this project was five interviews all conducted electronically and with informants at all different ‘levels’ of dreaming. This classification means that a lower level dreamer may be able to recall only monumental dreams that they find important with little or no detail, while a top level dreamer would have vivid dreams every night which they can recall in great detail and possibly even control. One of the interviews I received back was actually so brief I actually could not even include it in this paper, but for the most part I found some extremely useful information. I was only actually able to find one informant at Memorial University I could use, so I instead found most of the informants on an Internet dreaming forum; this is the reason for electronic interviews rather than the traditional methods.

Analysis proved to be interesting. Passive dreamers seem to generalize their dreams, recalling more than one at a time and blending the two, or describing re-occurring dreams. Melissa Long, the only person I interviewed whom I personally know, described extensively on how she fights with her identity (and rather obviously talking about her identity). When asked about deformity, she described how she often appeared in her dreams in a skinnier body, not wearing her glasses, and having long beautiful hair. This is most likely what she feels is socially acceptable and what she wants to look like. When asked if she ever appears older in her dreams, again she described a more perfect version of herself and leading the future she wants to. In a general sense, the unconscious dreamer experiences the manifestation of their identity as they wish it to be.

As a dreamer becomes more aware of their dreams, it appears they become more complex, and once they become completely conscious in their dreams any and all barriers can be broken. The informants that I found from the Internet forum were obviously interested in dreaming (given they were found and post on the forum in the first place). Most of these people keep a dream journal for the purpose of remembering dreams, and described vivid situations in which they face in their dreams. From what I could gather, they often faced more complex situations, which may go hand-in-hand with more vivid dreams. When asked about deformity, all of the more interested dreamers spoke of physical changes like wings, damaged eyes, and extra fingers. This is interesting because of the abstract nature and fantasy (unrealistic goals). The idea that these fantasy creations could be linked to identity is much more complex than the simple manner of Melissa’s dreams.

Nightmares and Identity Crisis

In the most general sense, nightmares are often the product of a stressful time in our life. “For many people, the term is used in a generic way to describe a ‘bad’ dream or a dream associated with overwhelming anxiety and apprehension” (Van De Castle 1994, 347). They can be constructed by a sequence of disturbing images, unsettling feelings, or even a shock to the system (such as a falling sensation causing the dreamer to ‘jump’ and awaken). To work in the context of the body, lets break the causes into two groups: internalized conflict such as identity crisis, or externalized conflict such as flu, sickness, damaged or lost limbs, or any other threat to the physical body.

The second instance, which I describe as externalized conflict, is not as abstract and easier to address. These dreams have a more direct correlation to the physical changes of the body. For instance, it will well know that during sickness (and especially fever) one can experience random images and nightmares. This is simply the body’s response to fighting the virus, which is a troubling time. The same goes for pregnancy as the body changes; women experience nightmares as their worries manifest themselves into their unconscious mind. Also in this category we could include instances of ‘phantom limbs’. The phantom limb is an instance in which the experiencer has had a limb removed, and its phantom still ‘haunts’ them, causing pains and tingling sensations where the limb should be. All of the above are coping mechanisms the body uses when physical change is or has occurred.

Nightmares are not always straightforward methods of dealing with bodily change however. It becomes much more complex. Lets continue with the theme of change, but instead move away from physical manifestations and into what I have termed internalized conflict. The most common nightmare people report is being chased, sometimes by something visible, other times just simply running away out of fear. Here the decoding is simple, and we can easily notice that one is running away from a problem they may have in their life. As we begin to steer away from norms and speak with vivid dreams like my informants, it gets more and more complex. Each person often faces different types of dreams that are tightly tied with their identities (or the identity they think the fit or want to fit). On top of this, vivid dreamers also reported more than just fear. Van De Castle explains that “[i]n addition, tactile sensations were often present, and sensations which are usually absent in other people’s dreams, such as pain, taste, and smell” (1994, 349).

The feeling that a vivid dreamer experiences is ultra-real, and because of the fantastic imagery and sensations, the feelings may persist after the dreamer awakens for a period of time. One of my informants, Abou-Baker Kadmiry, even reported that his “fear no longer feels natural, and, in the extreme cases, feels like I’m being electrocuted in my head”.  This may be a sequel to his childhood nightmares, or possibly a new crisis; it is difficult to tell and more importantly psychoanalysis is not what this paper is concerned with.

One of images that accompanied many of the nightmare articles included The Scream by Edward Munch. The illustration features a disorientating background with a hairless human in the foreground; his mouth gaping open in a horrific fashion. Given that words are inert, the painting is a more understandable depiction of the term ‘nightmare’. The images we view in a nightmare, much like in the painting, appear frightening because they often go again social norms. Bakhtin, who studied the grotesque images of the body rather extensively says, “[t]hus the artistic logic of the grotesque image ignores the closed, smooth, and impenetrable surface of the body and retains only its excrescences (sprouts, buds) and orifices, only that which leads beyond the body’s limited space or into the body’s depths” (1984, 93). Much like how Mauss explains that the body is socially constructed, Bakhtin works in the same way but narrows the field of view to the grotesque. In his model he examines the uncomfortable aspects of the body. Since these are often ignored in waking life, they manifest in the dream world, and thus we have the nightmare.

Dreaming as a Medium of Creativity

The lucid dream has existed since the beginning of dreaming itself. At the most basic level, a lucid dream is considered to be any dream in which the viewer (or dreamer) becomes aware that they are in fact dreaming. We see examples all over the place where ideas or people ‘come’ to a person in a dream with vivid ideas or description: many critical thinkers, physicists, philosophers, and even in the bible. However, it is more recently that interest in experimentation and documentation has arisen. Freud was one of the first to actually put this to use in psychoanalysis by theorizing about lucidity and manipulation of the dream world. In his later work he described becoming conscious in his non-waking life.

Lucid dreaming runs much deeper than becoming aware or ‘awakening’ in the dream life however.  “In June 1981, LaBerge presented four papers on lucid dreaming at the annual Association for the Psychophysiological Study of Sleep meeting in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts” (Van De Castle 1994, 445). It was these papers that immortalized Stephen LaBerge forever as a household name. These papers proved the existence of lucid dreaming in controlled scientific laboratory studies. LaBerge now began his studies to try and harness the full power of dream control. Paradoxically, this new ‘scientific breakthrough’ had been around for so long, but had not been accepted in the academic community until his controlled experiments.

If the unconscious dream is a passive medium of analysis, the converse is the fully conscious and controlled lucid dream. In the latter, we have full opportunity to interrupt the events of non-waking life in whatever way we choose. Instead of ‘viewing’ the dream as a manifestation of what we want our identity to be, we can instead deconstruct our identity to create it in however we wish. LaBerge often pioneered these studies, later making them available to the public where they could be taken to another level.

Perhaps the most interesting component of the lucid dream is the “potential of dreamers to consciously transcend all fixed identities of waking life” (Lee 2002). The trickiest element of the lucid dream to overcome is the fact that consequences do not exist, because the world in our mind does not exist in the first place. Once the dreamer can get past these ideas, a whole new world is opened. Gravity, walls, weight, structure, and anything else you can image can be broken in a fury of self-discovery or entertainment.

Lastly, I want to close by relaying the potential in lucid dreaming. The childhood riddled with nightmares can be overcome in the lucid dream. The psychotherapist simply suggests that the viewer, once they realize they are having a nightmare, simply turn and face their problem(s). This often renders the troubling instance to ‘disappear’ or become satirical. Besides overcoming fears in non-waking life, LaBerge has even used the lucid dream world to help people overcome real waking life fears. Perhaps the best example of this is how he has used a non-waking life tightrope walk to overcome a waking life fear of heights. The same model could be used for fear of spiders, clowns, or anything at all.

The future holds many technological and scientific breakthroughs; it will be extremely interesting in how we choose to harness the dream world and waking life relationship.


Bloom, Harold, ed. 1987. Modern Critical Interpretations: The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Grotesque Images of the Body and its Sources. 1984. Ed. Mariam Fraser and Monica Greco. New York: Routledge.

DeMartino, Manfred F, ed. 1959. Dreams and Personality Dynamics. Illinois: Charles C Thomas Publisher.

Freud, Sigmund. 2006. Interpreting Dreams. London: Penguin Books.

Mauss, Marcel. Techniques of the Body. 1973. Ed. Mariam Fraser and Monica Greco. New York: Routledge.

Kempny, Marian and Jawlowska, Aldona ed. 2002. Identity in Transformation: Postmodernity, Postcommunism and Globalizaion. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.

Lee, Raymond L. M. 2002. “The Self, Lucid Dreaming and Postmodern Identity”. Electric Dreams 9(3). http://www.dreamgate.com/pomo/lucid_lee.htm [accessed March 2nd, 2010].

Munch, Edward. 1893. The Scream. Oil on Canvas. National Gallery in Oslo.

Ryan, Jane, ed. 2007. Tales of Psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books Ltd.

Smith, Greg. 2006. Erving Goffman. New York: Routledge.

Van De Castle, Robert L. 1994. Our Dreaming Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.


One thought on ““The Presentation of Self In Non-Waking Life”

  1. Hey Matt.

    I found your site via Hughie, who asked as few questions regarding the Surly LHT touring bike. He’s a cool cat and I hope to meet him on his way through AB next summer on his cross Canada cycling trip.

    Anyway, just wanted to say that I’ve been perusing your sites, and I totally dig em. Dude, you’ve got some great stuff going on here!

    I’m inspired by your forgotten newfoundland site. I shot a few frames once in an abandoned gas station in Rockyford and it was such an exhilarating experience. I’d wanted to start checking out stuff around Strathmore (where I live) but just haven’t done it. Now, after reading through your site, I’m incredibly inspired to do so.

    And your architecture. Fantastic. I love good design and it fascinates me. I’ve got all your sites in my google reader, and I’m stoked to follow along as your story unfolds.

    Keep up the great work man. It excellent. And if you run into Hughie by chance, say “hi” for me will ya?



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