Dream Analysis 1: The Math Test

Patient A. dreams she is taking a math test, a test that she is very worried about. She also has a biology test later, but she is not so worried about that. A fat black woman, presumably an administrator of the test, tells her that she cannot use her math book to help her. The test is difficult, and as she looks at one of the problems she sees that the numbers and letters are gibberish. However, this gibberish of symbols is assembled in such a way that it resembles a diagram of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. The testing ends, and Dr. Nowzaradan from the show “My 600 lb Life,” now her math professor, says “I hope you all used your math books.” Patient A. worries that she won’t do as well on the test since she was told she couldn’t use her book.

Patient A. dreams she is taking a math test, a test that she is very worried about. Patient A. has recently been studying for the GRE test, particularly the math part, so it is logical that the idea of taking a math test would appear in a dream. Examination dreams are a common form of anxiety dreams that Freud talks about in The Interpretation of Dreams: “having done something wrong or failed to do something properly, we expect to be punished by the event—whenever, in short, we feel the burden of responsibility.” Often, these dreams occur in patients that have long since passed all the tests they need to take. So, the source of the anxiety is not so much the test itself, but rather something deeper that takes the form of the test in a dream. However, that this test likely relates to an actual future event for Patient A., one that she is somewhat justified in worrying about, is an exception. Although Patient A. is very smart and will likely do well on this test, she has always had an excessive anxiety about tests throughout her life, even on tests that she found herself with perfect scores on. She also reports that she has had such dreams long before she decided to start studying for the GRE test. It is probably safe to say that there is more to this than just that she had a math test on her mind in the days prior to the dream.

She also has a biology test later, but she is not so worried about that. Patient A. is good at science, especially biology. I am not quite sure what to make of this detail, other than that it suggests the anxiety is not fundamentally about “taking tests” in general, but something specific to the “math test.”

A fat black woman, presumably an administrator of the test, tells her that she cannot use her math book to help her. In her job, Patient A. (who is white) regularly has to deal with people in bureaucratic roles that fit this racially-coded description. This is a form of the racist “DMV worker” caricature—black women as lazy and incompetent, occupying government jobs from which they cannot be fired, seemingly deriving some kind of satisfaction in just how unpleasant they can be. Incidentally, Patient A. has had to deal with endless bureaucratic complications in getting a correction/update to her driver’s license in the past year, which often leaves her at the mercy of particular DMV workers who often do not seem to understand the actual state laws/bureaucratic processes they are supposed to implement. In other words, this represents a sort of arbitrary or possibly illegitimate authority.

The test is difficult, and as she looks at one of the problems she sees that the numbers and letters are gibberish. However, this gibberish of symbols is assembled in such a way that it resembles a diagram of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. I have attached an image of this triangle. In the dream, the math test is not a math test at all, but rather a puzzle of love. Patient A. reports not being able to trust her boyfriend, who in the past had lied to her about his previous relationships. Not being able to trust her boyfriend undermines the “Intimacy” aspect of the triangle of love, which throws a wrench into the schematic of the whole desiring machine. In the dream, the test essentially asks her to mathematically solve the issues of her relationship. Of course, she lacks access to “the book,” which would help her decode the meaning of the gibberish on the page. Thus, she is powerless to figure it out. Since Patient A. loves her boyfriend and tends to want to avoid confrontation with most people, especially him, it makes sense that her dream would resist and censor the latent content message of her relationship anxiety by presenting it in the manifest form of her math test.

what-is-sternbergs-triangular-theory-of-love-1.jpg
Sternberg’s Triangle

The testing ends, and Dr. Nowzaradan from the show “My 600 lb Life,” now her math professor, says “I hope you all used your math books.” Patient A. worries that she won’t do as well on the test since she was told she couldn’t use her book. In the previous days before the dream, Patient A. had been watching the reality show “My 600lb Life”, which, incidentally, my wife and I are also familiar with. For those that aren’t familiar, Dr. Nowzaradan has a very important role in the show. He performs the gastric bypass surgery for the patients, but perhaps more importantly, he is the one that reviews the patients’ monthly weight-loss targets and whether or not they are met. In doing this, he often scolds the patients who are unable to control their own eating habits. This part of the show is a recurring “moment of truth”—the patients often pathologically lie to themselves about their eating addictions, but they are unable to trick the doctor (who to them is seemingly all-powerful) when it is revealed on the blind scale of Justice just how little weight they have been losing. The Doctor then asserts that the responsibility for the weight loss is entirely on the patients’ own choices. For the (presumably-not-600lb) viewer of the show, Dr. Nowzaradan scolding his patients induces a feeling of “perverse” satisfaction.

(It’s also important to note the obvious truth that weight-loss and body image issues have a different meaning for women than they do for men. Women, even at a healthy weight, tend to insist that they are “fat” and need to lose weight. This is not at all the same for men that aren’t overweight, who would perhaps tend toward the opposite, and insist that they need to “bulk up.” We do not need to dwell on this point much more, other than pointing out that Patient A. is not an exception to this general tendency of women to pay attention to their body image in such a way.)

Rather than scolding the Patient A., the Doctor assumes a more friendly role. In the dream, the Doctor tells the patient what his patients on the TV show would always like to hear themselves: that their failure to achieve their goal was not their fault, but rather the fault of the test itself. That she did not use her book in taking the test, when in fact she was allowed to all along, means that she is not responsible for whatever her score is. Her worry about not doing as well on the test conceals her wish that she be held not responsible for it.

When we put these pieces together it makes sense to interpret this dream as a fulfillment of Patient A.’s wish that she not be held responsible for the problems in her relationship with her boyfriend.

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