Introducing The Cipher Method, Dreams And PTSD


I would like to introduce you to Ken Arenson who is a retired Lawyer with an extensive knowledge around dreams and nightmares and the Cipher Method which he will explain to you in detail. His work is fascinating and his understanding of the effects of PTSD is extensive. Thank you for your time Ken.

Erin asked me for a series of guest-posts based on my blog on WordPress that discusses the ancient Cipher Method of dream interpretation. I rediscovered it by accident in 1973 while practicing law in Toronto. This guest-post is written as a roadmap of my blog for a reader of Erin’s blog with its focus on abuse and trauma to children. It is constructed assuming you will choose to read at least to the end of my first blog post before following any link, and my blog’s first post is linked by clicking here:

Cipher Method, introduced: Dreams have a linguistic meaning if narrative arc is ignored & true context is found (1st post; 10 July 2017)

At the bottom of that first post is a clickable list of all my posts under a red headline, LINKS TO POSTS. Be warned that I update my posts as new findings or insights or refinements of old ones, occur to me. To be sure you are reading the latest version, even a few days from now (180115), you could read it on my blog.

Your special roadmap is in this guest-post, but following your own reading order when pursuing intellectual interests has always worked for me… so “lay on Macduff”!

I uncovered a hidden feature of how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) nightmares may sometimes dissipate. In my law practice for traumatized clients, I found that the cipher method used on dreams gave me a unique window to examine their PTSD nightmares as they resolved. From there it was possible to take a fresh look at the treatments for PTSD, including by Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). A discovery then emerged that the eye movements, REMs, while awake and sleeping, may be the therapeutic trigger in EMDR that allows the PTSD nightmares to decohere and loosen their hold on sleep and dreaming.

A series of posts (30, 34, 36, 37 and 39) gives background to this discovery, and post 42 gives the culmination of the argument. Here you will find the 42nd post:

The eye movements of EMDR may do their therapeutic work by stimulating metaphors that integrate the episodic memory of the trauma into the semantic system (42nd Post, part 2. 9 Nov. 2017)

Erin lingered on post 30, and I will quote that one in my second guest-post on Erin’s blog, She found the discussion there of the origin of PTSD interesting and she believed her readers would as well. My sense is that this led to her request for this guest post, which I am happy to provide.

You may be interested in the question of the age at which nightmares, REM related, likely will first occur, (age 5+) in most children – but night terrors, NON-REM related, can happen earlier, but with no content recalled from them. See posts 31, 32 & 33.

Erin said you will want a little bio of how I came to study dreams. As soon as I became aware that words were made up, inventions, about age 2, I became fascinated with them. In addition, I have a built in BS meter that goes clang-clang when I hear or read something that makes no sense to me in light of my own understanding. When I was little, the bigger people in my life, especially teachers, would sometimes try to bully me into accepting nonsense, but I soon learned to go with my idea of what was sensible even if I had to pretend to submit for a while. 

I was always a good dream recaller. They made little sense to me and that was frustrating. I tried reading what I could as a little kid and as a youth and adult, but none of the explanations made any satisfying sense. At age 7 or 8 I learned to became lucid in dreams in order to wake myself up to go the bathroom to pee instead of peeing in my bed during a recurring dream where I was convinced, each time, I was standing at the toilet. That experience heightened my interest in dreams.

In my blog, I recount the incident where I first heard a cipher method dream. Here is an extract rewritten from post 5, dated July 7, 2017:

Catachresis in the ‘shrinking box’ dream: the first cipher method dream I heard in English. (5th post) 

The cipher method shouted out of a dream report in 1973, although it would be some 45 years before I knew enough to give it that name. I was a lawyer by 1970 and in private practice by 1973. It was a dream reported by a secretary in my office. Noticeably more women than men recall their dreams but “Vera” was exceptional among women. She recalled 3 or more detailed dreams from each night. At that time, we enjoyed a habit of dream sharing and a morning coffee before beginning work. One day, she reported this dream,

“I am in a wooden box. The walls press in. I shrink until I’m small.”

I knew she was seeing a psychiatrist for depression, and my thoughts leaped to that treater.

“shrink” = undergo treatment by a psychiatrist (verb), also the psychiatrist (noun)

I could not persuade myself it was a coincidence. I began to listen for the play on words in all her dreams. In post 5, I give more details, but the essence is that I eventually saw that certain rules of grammar allow the speech sounds in the words

“… walls press in”

to take on alternative meanings that were easily associated with what she was dealing with in her life at the time – the true context of her dream — if we listen slant

= “wall, ‘s ‘press’in”

Or, to fill out the slurred words where now we can identify implied gaps in speech sounds run together, (concatenation) or close mispronunciations (catachresis), we see how she explained it to herself that she was in the grip of a “shrink”:

… well, is depression.

Often, the cipher method interpretation is obvious once the true context is known – the whole word in a dream report frequently changes meanings with the context change –one common way is when the verb (shrink) becomes the noun (shrink) and vice versa. In posts 2 to 14 you will see just how obvious they can be in 7 different languages. By 1986 I had enough examples from various dreamers to get myself invited to deliver a lecture to the Association for the Study of Dreams [ASD] at its annual scientific meeting held that year at Carlton University in Ottawa. My lecture was published under its first name, “Metaliteral dreams”. Later I called it “Inner Speech”, then, I added “Metaphorizations” so the initials became ISM, and in 2015, I adopted Freud’s name for this method, translated into English, “Cipher Method”.

Freud himself believed dreams were ravings of madness, as did all 19th century dream scientists. If dream are reported and treated as stories, as narratives, they often are bizarre and nearly always hallucinatory – meaning, they feel real to the dreamer while they are dreaming, much like hallucinations of psychosis. (I think I know why. Tell you later.) Bizarreness is optional, however. It depends on context. If dreams are not treated as narratives, the cipher method will give terse statements about what was of concern to the dreamer at the time –the true context, and in that context dreams are not at all bizarre, as you will see. Freud, by the way, eventually used dreams only as the stepping off point to free association for his Psycho-analysis. He gave up on relying on dream meaning itself in his therapy. An early UK analyst, Ella Freeman Sharpe, did discover and use cipher method, however. You can read about her in my blog. (See post 13).

At present, to my understanding, there are three generally recognized treatments for PTSD. EMDR, is the most efficient — in many cases one treatment is enough; Freud’s, today called Psychodynamic Psychoanalysis, is an effective if lengthy treatment course for PTSD; and thirdly, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Trauma Focused (CBT-TF) the therapy with the most practitioners –who fiercely defend what they consider their turf — and with the highest drop-out rate (some 50% of patients cannot take the flooding experience required by CBT-TF) and the large number of treatments required, plus the painful homework. 


© Kenneth M. Arenson, Toronto, ON. Canada

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