New Book Explores David Lynch's 'Dream Logic'

10/02/2013 01:38 pm ET

The following is an excerpt from "Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks" [University of Chicago Press, $20.00], a collection of essays edited by Marisa C. Hayes and Franck Boulegue.

David Lynch’s film and television works have often been described as expressions of "dream logic." To me, as a dream researcher, that phrase opens up an intriguing line of inquiry. I take it as an invitation to consider Lynch’s works in light of current knowledge about the phenomenology of dreaming. Many questions about the nature and functions of dreaming remain unanswered, but best available evidence suggests that dreaming is not merely random neural nonsense from the brain, but is rather a creative and meaningful product of the imagination during sleep.

This is why the phrase "dream logic" is not an oxymoron. There is indeed a logic to dreaming, a logic that differs from ordinary waking thought but is neither inferior nor subservient to it—quite the opposite, perhaps. Dream logic embraces embodied instinct and cosmic self-awareness, our lowest animal desires and our highest spiritual aspirations, our darkest fears and our brightest joys. It governs a much wider range of experiences and realities than is normally recognized by waking consciousness.

Dreaming is clearly an integral aspect of human existence and a hardwired feature of healthy brain/mind functioning. But the autonomous otherness of dreaming makes it a disturbing phenomenon for many people. Dreaming is both me and not-me, and it’s the latter element that makes people uncomfortable. They don’t like the sense of an alien intelligence dwelling within their own minds. It’s an insult to the sovereignty of the waking ego, an unwanted intrusion of strange memories and unsettling emotions into their awareness. This wary, ego-protecting attitude is then confirmed when people hear prominent scientists dismissing dreams as neural garbage.

This attitude persists despite growing evidence against it, which is problematic be- cause it discourages people from exploring a powerful source of creative imagination that each human is born with – the capacity to dream, to imagine, to envision alternative possibilities, to discern realities beyond the boundaries of conventional waking reality. Dreaming is a human birthright, and people deserve more knowledge about their own innate potentials, not less.

David Lynch’s works prove that some of the best and most compelling insights about dreaming come from artists who have the ability to connect with the alien otherness of dreaming, and channel its energies into creative expressions. The television series “Twin Peaks” (1990–91) offers an especially illuminating example of Lynch’s dream logic in action. The serial format allows him to develop an extended network of dream influences and interactions unfolding back and forth through time and across different domains of reality. The remote wilderness town of “Twin Peaks” becomes a kind of oneiric playground in which a whole community is consumed and enthralled by the logic of dreaming.


As the Log Lady tells us in her introduction to the pilot episode (Season 1, Episode 1), the many stories of “Twin Peaks” begin with ‘the one’: Laura Palmer. Her shocking death has given birth to strange and frightening new realities for everyone who knew her. In these new realities, the boundaries between waking and dreaming have shifted in mysterious ways. Prior to Laura’s death, dreaming is treated as a light-hearted, easy-going realm of shared fantasy. In the morning before they heard about Laura, Bobby leaves the Double R Diner with a flirtatious, ‘Norma, I’ll see you in my dreams,’ and Norma smiles in response, ‘Not if I see you first.’ Another example comes later in the pilot with the ‘policeman’s dream’ at the “Twin Peaks” Sheriff’s Department – an elaborate array of colorfully glazed donuts that Lucy creates each night to greet the Sheriff and his men in the morning. These references allude to the happy, playful dimensions of dreaming.

Then Laura’s battered corpse washes ashore, and a much darker and claustrophobic tone takes over the references to dreaming. Ronette barely survived the attack that killed Laura, and now she is trapped within her own neurologically damaged mind, unresponsive to the outside world, her eyes darting under her bruised eyelids as if she were in rapid eye movement sleep, unable to escape the nightmare reality of what happened to her and Laura.

Donna, meanwhile, is struggling with ambivalent feelings about her newfound love with James. She learns at the beginning of Episode 3 that she had awakened her parents with her crying during the night, even though she doesn’t remember it now. She tells her mother, ‘It’s so strange, like I’m having the most beautiful dream and most terrible nightmare all at once.’ Donna’s paradoxical sensation resonates with the integral polarity of “Twin Peaks” itself. From a rational waking viewpoint, a feeling like Donna’s makes no sense. But it does make sense within the more expansive logic of dreams.

The worst victim of disturbed dreaming is Laura’s mother, Sarah Palmer. At the same time of night when Laura was killed 24 hours earlier, Sarah lies on the living room couch and closes her eyes. She immediately slips into a clairvoyant dream of a gloved hand unearthing the broken heart necklace that James and Donna had just secretly buried. The pilot ends with Sarah’s echoing scream as she bolts awake in a panic. In Episode 3, Sarah’s fragile grasp on waking reality breaks entirely as she holds Donna’s hand and hallucinates the face of Laura, crying ‘My baby! My baby!’ This psychotic rupture of consciousness leads Sarah to a sudden vision of killer BOB, the ultimate nightmare villain of “Twin Peaks”, crouched at the foot of Laura’s bed. The intensity of Sarah’s traumatization has exposed her to collective nightmare forces that are loose in “Twin Peaks” and threaten everyone in the community. In the midst of her anguish and loss of sanity, she has become an unwilling prophetess.

In the pilot and Episode 3 we already see the kaleidoscopic themes of dream and nightmare that will pervade the series as a whole. Dreams as expressions of sexual de- sire, as prophecies, as warnings, as doorways to other realities, as traumatic symptoms, as shared fantasies – all of these themes are already in place at the beginning of the next episode, the ‘dreamiest’ of the series.

Agent Cooper’s deductive technique

Episode 4 is the oneiric epicentre of “Twin Peaks”. It establishes FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, the hero of the series, as a virtuoso dreamer and master interpreter of hidden signs and occult symbols. We already know from the pilot and Episode 3 that Agent Cooper embodies the paradox of polarity. Authoritative, competent and supremely well-groomed, Agent Cooper is also surprisingly passionate, naïve and childlike in his appetites. He is sent to “Twin Peaks” to solve a crime that involves a crossing of borders, spanning multiple jurisdictions; his job is to catch those who transgress boundaries. In Episode 4 we discover that Agent Cooper is in fact a kind of shaman detective, who moves comfortably through many realities and receives guidance in his investigations from intuitive, extra-rational sources of information.

This episode begins on Sunday morning, two days after Laura’s body was found. Agent Cooper assembles the Sheriff, Deputies Hawk and Andy, and Lucy for a lesson in dream-inspired divination. After everyone has enthusiastically amplified their senses with doughnuts and coffee, Agent Cooper extends his wand-like pointer and flips the blackboard to reveal a map of Tibet. He briefly recounts the history of the Tibetan people and their spiritual plight in order to provide a context for a dream he had three years ago, which left him ‘filled with a desire to help them’. Agent Cooper goes on to say: I also awoke from the same dream realizing I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body coordination operating hand-in-hand with the deepest level of intuition.

Agent Cooper goes on to demonstrate this method, which consists of standing sixty feet, six inches away from a glass bottle (the distance between a baseball pitcher’s mound and home plate), taking a rock in his hand, speaking the name of a possible suspect to the rock, then throwing it at the bottle.

Most discussions about dreaming in “Twin Peaks” focus on Cooper’s dream at the end of Episode 3, but I believe this scene presents a much more radical challenge to the waking world status quo of the show’s audience. Agent Cooper employs a method of crime- solving that utterly defies rational analysis – or, more precisely, it extends the mind beyond rational analysis to access other modes of knowing. His deductive technique has several components that must be carefully prepared, monitored and recorded, requiring a high degree of focused, rational attention. Yet the connection between the results (breaking the bottle) and the interpretation (being involved in Laura’s death) cannot be rationally explained. Nevertheless, as the investigation unfolds over the next several episodes, it becomes clear that each of Agent Cooper’s throws at the bottle is indeed an accurate indication of that characters’ proximity to the circumstances of Laura’s death.

In the middle of the scene, the Sheriff takes Agent Cooper aside and asks, with obvious incredulity, ‘The idea for all this really came from a dream?’ Agent Cooper smiles broadly and replies, with serene confidence, ‘Yes.’ The power of his dream was such that he has no doubts about the trustworthiness of the technique. The Sheriff goes along with him, perhaps because he knows that something more than normal police methods will be needed to track down and capture the person who killed Laura.

Agent Cooper’s big dream

At the end of Episode 3, Agent Cooper settles into his bed in the Great Northern. What follows for the next six-and-a-half minutes is a phantasmagoric, multi-layered dream sequence that reveals in condensed symbolic form the final truth about Laura’s murder. After this, the whole story unfolds backwards: Agent Cooper’s investigation from this point forward is a re-discovery of what he has already seen in the dream, a process of rationally validating the intuitive knowledge of his dreaming insight.

The dream stretches and bends reality in several ways. It projects Agent Cooper 25 years into his future, when his skin has become lined and weathered. Some of the staccato images that flash into view relate to ‘day residue’ – things he saw the previous day (Laura’s dead body, the bloody cloth in the train car, the flickering light in the morgue) – while other images in the dream somehow tune into Sarah Palmer’s recent actions (going upstairs to look for Laura) and visions (BOB crouching at the foot of Laura’s bed). Agent Cooper then hears the verses of a foreboding poem, recited by a one-armed man:

‘Through the darkness of future’s past, the magician longs to see/One chants out be- tween two worlds: “Fire walk with me.”’ Earlier, Cooper had seen MIKE, the One-Armed Man, at the hospital, and he and the Sheriff had found a piece of paper at the crime scene with those same haunting words, ‘Fire walk with me’, written in blood. In all these ways the dream gathers snippets of evidence from the first two days of the investigation and weaves them into a bigger tapestry of meaning and motivation, a tapestry Cooper’s rational waking mind is only just beginning to grasp.

But the dream goes far beyond merely repeating memories and scenes from the previous days – it becomes a headlong journey into the roiling depths of the collective un- conscious. Cooper finds himself cast as the magician of the poem, opening his soul to the fire and the spaces between worlds, drawn into a supernatural ritual that invokes and temporarily binds the evil spirit of Laura’s killer. Cooper gets a good look at killer BOB, who acts as if he were surprised at being summoned thus. But BOB’s violent energy cannot be contained for long, and he glares menacingly at Cooper (and the audience) and promises he will kill again.

Many nightmares end at moments like this, when the feelings of danger and vulnerability reach an unbearable peak of intensity. But Agent Cooper does not flee from the dream world into waking. A circle of twelve candles around a small mound of dirt blows out, calming the fiery emotions, and Cooper returns to where the dream started, in a room with red curtains.

Having survived the threatening ordeal of a direct encounter with BOB, Agent Cooper is ready to enter an even more mysterious realm of dream reality where he encounters two strange yet benevolent beings. One is a dwarf in a red suit, referred to in the credits as the ‘The Man from Another Place’. The other appears to be a more mature and sophisticated version of Laura Palmer, wearing an elegant black dress. In addition to their distortions of size and identity, both characters speak to Cooper with a bizarrely unnatural cadence, as if they were talking backwards, and their physical gestures also seem strangely out of sync with ordinary human motions. At this point, Cooper is very, very far from the waking world and even from regular dreaming – and the farther he goes, the more he learns. Later in his investigation, he finds the waking world analogues for several of the details from this part of the dream (e.g. the red curtains, Laura’s cocaine use, her arms being tied back, the presence of a bird at the crime). More importantly, Agent Cooper discovers that he has allies in the spirit world who will help him catch the murderer. He is not alone when he pursues BOB into these otherworldly realities.

He awakens abruptly from the dream, just at the moment when the Laura-like woman intimately whispers into his ear the name of killer. In the sudden shift from deep dreaming to waking awareness, so radical a transformation that it musses his usually impeccable hair, Agent Cooper forgets the name. Though we in the audience might feel a stab of frustration at getting so close to the killer’s identity, Cooper takes it in stride. He accepts that he does not rationally know who killed Laura. What matters more is that intuitively he does know who killed her, thanks to this profoundly revelatory dream. Now he just has to follow the clues to solve the crime.

The final nightmare

The dream references keep coming throughout the series, far more than can be mentioned in this essay, but all extending the themes originating in the pilot and Episodes 3 and 4. To note just a few examples, Agent Cooper has a brief conversation with Deputy Hawk about the ‘dream soul’ that can travel to the realm of the dead, expanding Cooper’s shamanic links beyond Tibetan Buddhism to connect with Native American spirituality; Hank tells Norma that he dreamed of her while in prison, a romantically ominous wish-fulfilment about their comfortable bed at home; Shakespeare-spouting Ben says, ‘This is such stuff as dreams are made of’, to the new girl at One-Eyed Jacks, not realizing the girl is his daughter, Audrey, thus rendering his comment an unwitting reference to a nightmare of incest; and in perhaps the most intriguing dream experienced by someone other than Agent Cooper, Major Briggs has a ‘vision of the night’, distinct from an ordinary dream, in which he finds a way to reconcile with his rebellious son, Bobby. Major Briggs is a kind of warrior-shaman himself, more Biblical than Tibetan or Native American, who receives a reassuring dream of future family prosperity, much like the patriarchs Abraham or Jacob in the Book of Genesis.

By all accounts, the “Twin Peaks” series did not conclude in the way David Lynch would have liked. Outside pressures forced him to a premature disclosure of Laura’s killer, and the timing of the final episode was dictated by the network’s cancellation of the series, not by the intrinsic narrative development of the story. Nevertheless, Lynch directed the last episode and crafted it to end on a decidedly nightmarish note. After Agent Cooper has gone back into the red-curtained space of his dream and surrendered his soul in an attempt to save Annie, he wakes up in his room at the Great Northern, goes into the bathroom, and cracks the mirror above the sink with his forehead. As Cooper bleeds and cackles maniacally, killer BOB does the same on the other side of the mirror.

This is the final scene of the whole series, and it leaves the audience with a dark and distressing uncertainty. Has Agent Cooper finally lost to killer BOB? Is Cooper now possessed by his evil spirit? Has he gone insane? If a virtuoso of the dream realm like Cooper can’t resist BOB, what hope do the rest of us have?

I prefer to trust Agent Cooper’s dream in Episode 3 that he will still be alive 25 years hence. BOB isn’t just possessing Cooper, Cooper is containing BOB, too. Agent Cooper has proven himself a man capable of the most remarkable integrations of polar opposi- tions, and it seems possible, at least, that he will find a way to balance the ferocious ag- gression of BOB with the mystical equipoise he has learned from the Tibetans.

Dream logic, reconsidered

Every dream-related phenomenon in the “Twin Peaks” series has some grounding in current dream research. In that sense, David Lynch has presented a ‘realistic’ vision of dreaming in all its wildly numinous diversity. Certainly if we consider “Twin Peaks” in the context of cross-cultural history and comparative religions, the dream references appear entirely recognizable. In virtually every culture around the world and through history, dreams have been regarded as a primary means of connecting with sacred, transcendent realms, and certain people have the blessing, or curse, of a special ability to travel through dreams to learn esoteric knowledge about those realms, and bring back helpful guidance for their waking communities. Agent Cooper would be a familiar and welcome figure among any indigenous community, from Australia to Africa, from Siberia to the Americas, where shamans have served as cultural dream experts.

Even if our context of evaluation is contemporary western brain-mind science, Lynch’s portrayal of dreaming in “Twin Peaks” strongly resonates with current research. According to multiple studies using a variety of methods, dreaming is fundamentally hyper-associational, perpetually veering between order and chaos, beauty and bizarre- ness, memories of the past and anticipations of the future. Dreaming involves a wide- ranging network of neural systems that are not bound by the strictures of waking consciousness, allowing for the emergence of novel ideas and solutions to problems that have eluded the waking mind. As many researchers from Freud onwards have shown, dreaming is deeply rooted in the instinctual nature of our species and the primal emotions that unconsciously drive our thoughts and actions. Jung and many other clinicians have highlighted conflicts of binary oppositions in dreams as symptomatic of failed psychological integration, while dreams of union and coincidentia oppositorum symbolize growth, healing and the emergence of wholeness.

Every night we go to sleep, we enter into a truly surrealistic realm of paradox, magic and ambiguity, where we learn, as Agent Cooper has so well, that our waking reality is only made possible by a beautiful yet precarious balance of mysterious, amoral cosmic forces. The dream logic of “Twin Peaks” is the logic of all our dreams.

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