TAMPA — On the night following a root canal procedure, Joan Ridgway saw a lioness named Elsa dash across a green field. Previously, Ridgway fell out of a tree — according to the daughter she never had.
From that bizarre montage of imagery, dream maven Lauri Quinn Loewenberg concluded that Elsa was the lioness in the 1966 movie Born Free, which is how Ridgway felt now that she was free of pain. The fall from the tree represented the pain that was disrupting her life. And the daughter, a grown woman in the dream, symbolized a rejuvenated version of herself.
Ridgway and dozens of other students recently wrapped up an "Understanding Your Dreams'' class, where not only the dreams but also the interpretations seemed right out of Alice in Wonderland. It was one of the offerings during the summer curriculum of the University of South Florida's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Loewenberg, 41, an Apollo Beach resident, is author of three books on dreams, a regular on morning radio programs around the country, and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Today, The View and Good Morning America.
"Remember, everything in your dream is a part of you,'' said Loewenberg, pacing slowly before her audience at University Village retirement community, where many of the students live.
That's why the unknown man in Ann Cook's bed didn't really represent an unknown man in Ann Cook's bed. Loewenberg, considering the other symbols in Cook's dream, concluded that the man was really the assertive side of Cook, telling the 87-year-old woman to work harder on her physical therapy so she can improve her walking.
"I find it very interesting,'' Cook said, talking before the class, but "I'm not sure that I buy all the symbols she gives us.''
For example, a cat may classically represent independence in dreams, Cook said.
"I had a cat that I was very fond of, so in my dream my cat would probably be my cat.''
Ridgway has bought all of Loewenberg's books. She and her husband, Don, both attended the classes.
"It's just fun,'' she said.
Students paid $40 for the class, held in two-hour sessions over four Tuesday afternoons. Loewenberg has taught the four-week course and shorter seminars for lifelong learning students in the past and said she would be interested in teaching it again. Her website notes that she is a member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams and studied under parapsychologist Katia Romanoff. An animated speaker with cascading red locks, Loewenberg gives two reasons for her national exposure as a dream expert: "Number one, there are not a lot of us out there. And number two, I happen to be a big ham — I like to get myself out there.''
Having always been fascinated by dreams, Loewenberg kept a journal of her slumbering sojourns as a child. She advises her students to write about their dreams so they can compare the images to occurrences in their waking lives.
"The purpose of dreaming is to problem solve,'' she said. Dreams are the continuation of our thought processes during the day, but in a language of images. That happens, she explained, because a different part of our brain takes over when we sleep. The prefrontal cortex, where our rational, linear thought is centered, goes dormant during sleep and the amygdala, a part of the brain that controls emotions, becomes active, she said.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who worked for a time with Sigmund Freud, identified a number of symbols that have become archetypes in dream imagery. The unknown man in a dream, for example, represents the assertive side of yourself, or maybe a threat in a woman's dream. An unknown woman stands for your nurturing side. A shadow is an aspect of yourself you don't want to acknowledge. A child symbolizes a carefree spirit, or it could mean immature behavior.
A baby in one of Loewenberg's dreams meant something else entirely, as she related to the class.
"I walked into bedroom and found my mother holding a baby. This was my baby and I hadn't seen her in months. I was afraid she wouldn't remember that I was her mommy. When I picked her up, she smiled and cooed at me. I could tell she recognized me.''
"After 15 years I finally started painting again — that's my baby. I was afraid I would be very rusty and have a hard time, but so far my painting has been coming along beautifully.''
No image in a dream is random, she said. Every image is a message.
"There's a method to the madness of the dreaming mind.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.