The Interpretation of Dreams (“In the Aftermath of Tucson V”)

“And certainly we should take care not to make the intellect our god…” [1]

Readers familiar with the phenomenon of dreams and dreaming may be forgiven if they immediately assume that this post’s title was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s trailblazing turn-of-the-twentieth-century’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Actually, one of the first and best known compilations of dreams and dream analysis predates Freud by almost two thousand years, and it, too, bears the title The Interpretation of Dreams (Greek: Oneirocritica). Clearly,dreaming and the study of dreams has a long and rich history – a fact also evident in the prominent place given dreams in humankind’s epic imagination from the first creative writings to the present day. (Perhaps From Gilgamesh to Inception would be an appropriate title for a book on dreams and our endless fascination with them.)

But how are dreams experienced and understood today?  It can be quite frustrating and disconcerting, to put it mildly, to read the often one-sided and facile dismissal of dreams by so-called present day dream researchers whose numbers include psychologists as well as neurobiologists. Here is a sampling of relatively recent articles on the subject:

  • A February 2006 Reader’s Digest cover story entitled “What Dreams Really Mean” uses technologically flavored lingo (“decoding the biology of how we manufacturedreams”; “upgrade your dreams”; “learning these techniques to control their dreams,” etc.) to reduce dreams’ significance to fears and desires which if recognized might help us become better attuned to (and able to “control”) our emotional lives. The distrust of emotions and the unknown which pervades this article can also be found in the following (mis-) statements: “Each person understands his or her dreams better than anyone else – including traditional psychoanalysts” and “There’s just no evidence of universal dream symbols. . . My advice is to throw away your dream dictionary if you really want to interpret your dreams.” (In fact, one of the general rules of thumb for dream analysis is that we are not the best interpreters of our own dreams because of our own predilection to read into them what we [read: “our intellects or egos”] want. For this reason we are generally advised to consult with someone else such as a therapist and/or a symbol dictionary as well as any personal associations we have regarding the images or symbols in our dreams.) [2]
  • Time magazine’s “While You Were Sleeping” from 2007 likens dreams and dream research to “bad odor,” “neural waste,” childish “delusions,” a “sideshow” and “side effect” of a highly evolved imagination. We are to learn to “manipulate dream content” and to “figure out what the rules are that the brain uses in selecting material for our dreams.”  This article makes clear that the only way to redeem dreams so that they are something more than odors, waste, delusions, etc., is to reduce them to the neurophysiology of the brain, the presumed originator of dreams.  Dreams, in other words, are nothing but biology and again little more than fight or flight responses. One Harvard researcher states that both dreams and sleep also serve to strengthen the brain’s powers of memory; even so, dreaming is not too essential an activity: “The brain is tuning your memory circuits as you sleep, and remembering [via dreams] the imagery created during this process may be fun, may be instructive, but is almost undoubtedly a freebie.” Needless to say, the appearance of presumptive “may be’s,” “probably’s”, and “undoubtedly’s” in this article is not exactly in keeping with the rigor normally required of science. [3]
  • The most recent article surveyed by Mythfire comes from the New York Times (2009) and, in contrast with the Reader’s Digest article, argues that not only are dreamers wrong to interpret their own dreams because they tend to be biased, selective, and “self-serving” in their dream interpretations but somehow dreams themselves by default must be mistrusted as little more than “indicators of people’s emotional state.” Perhaps this article’s most disconcerting aspect – in addition to its reductiveness and dismissiveness – is the underlying cynicism toward dreams evident throughout the article beginning with its title: “What Do Dreams Mean? Whatever Your Bias Says.” [4]

As with articles and scholarly papers, books which make dreams their subject matter generally focus either on their psychological or on their neurological aspects. British analytical psychologist Anthony Stevens argues that researchers relying exclusively on the latter, for example on electroencephalograms (EEGs) or other devices to study brain waves during REM sleep, “are like engineers who concern themselves with the technology of a television set while taking no interest in the programmes being transmitted.” [5] Instead, he insists that both psychological and neurological points of view must be integrated in any serious discussion of dreams and dreaming.

In fact, Stevens’ Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming is to be highly recommended as just such an accessible, thorough, and integrated overview of the subject. He has numerous chapters dedicated to the history and science of dreams and dreaming from ancient times to the present. Stevens weaves in actual dreams from famous historical figures as well as not-so-famous ones including himself – all of which serves to give the subject matter a certain organic richness and credibility. Toward this end, it may be advisable for readers to begin with Chapter 9 on remembering and working with their own dreams. Only if scientific or intellectual curiosity and rigor are joined with the psychological awareness, humility, and wonder that accompanies one’s own dreaming experience will a more balanced approach to working with dreams be possible. [6]

Mythfire confesses that this post was inspired in no small part over frustration at how one-sided and unpsychological today’s treatment of dreams so often is in both scientific studies and media reports. Similarly, the prior two posts in this “In the Aftermath of Tucson” series resulted from the fear that after the shootings in Tucson – and the importance dreams held for alleged shooter Jared Loughner – dreams might (once again) be viewed primarily as an indicator or premonition of madness/psychosis. There are undeniable parallels between dreams and mental illness, a fact which Stevens notes in Private Myths in a section devoted to this theme. However, what is so often overlooked or misunderstood is that dreams, neuroses, and even psychoses attempt to help individuals creatively and meaningfully adapt to life’s demands. One downside and potential danger with neuroses and psychoses is that they are an “inferior” form of adaptation which if untreated may harm not only the individual but others – as may have unfortunately and tragically been the case in Tucson. [7]

In short, the way to move from relative insanity to relative sanity is not to dismiss dreams as inconsequential “freebies,” to reduce them to only “fight or flight” mechanisms, or view them as mere indicators of mental illness. That present researchers so often seem to be (over-)reaching for explanations in their study of the phenomenon to the extent that they are uncharacteristically satisfied not only with ignoring the findings of their colleagues but furthermore with concluding with “may be’s” and “undoubtedly’s” suggests that there is an elephant in the room which no one wants to acknowledge.

That elephant, of course, is a psychological approach to dreams and dreaming that is worthy of the word’s etymological meaning: “the study of the soul.”  It is not only or merely the dreaming brain which seeks a meaningful creative adaptation to life’s circumstances but rather the dreaming soul. In Private Myths Stevens for one has acknowledged this elephant quite admirably at the same time that he has provided a thorough overview to what is a fascinating but admittedly complex topic.

——

Next Monday: “The Interpretation of a Dream”


[1] Einstein, Albert. Albert Einstein: Out of My Later Years through His Own Words. New York: Citadel Press, 1956: 260.

[2] The article is on pages 93-99 of the issue which can be found here: http://fliiby.com/file/24912/n68clhsa0c.html. Click on “close to play” to access the issue.

[3] http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1606872,00.html. An article published more recently in Time (“Why Dreams Mean Less Than We Think”) is even less rigorous and more dismissive in its view of dreams, as evident in statements such as this: “Human beings are irrational about dreams the same way they are irrational about a lot of things.” While possibly true, this statement tells us more about the shortcomings of people, i.e. dreamers, and almost nothing about the inherent meaning, value, or purpose of dreams themselves. See: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1881498,00.html.

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/10/science/10tier.html?_r=1.

[5] Stevens, Anthony. Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995.

[6] Other recommended books for working with one’s dreams are Robert Bosnak’s A Little Course in Dreams, Robert Johnson’s Inner Work, and Stephen Aizenstat’s Dream Tending.

[7] See Private Myths, 167-170.

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One Response to The Interpretation of Dreams (“In the Aftermath of Tucson V”)

  1. Mike says:

    I find it hard to believe, after all these years, dreamy debate continues even though no legitimate brain science can prove perception of dream activity has known causal factors.

    Although I can’t site an old article, I agree Freud’s dream analysis was simply a convention he had to proffer to do psychoanalysis. Simply, affluent, turn of the last century Austrian men and mostly women, were not likely to share their true thoughts and feelings, their trauma, without the guise of dreams. Certainly the stoical husbands would not have thought it proper for their wives to tell such things to anybody especially a man. Hence, he had to create a new culture of “dream analysis” to give his subjects “plausible deniability” and allow them to go to memories and experiences they would never have shared otherwise. Dream vs. Trauma–essentially the same in German but very different in English.

    It’s one of those conventions that the medical industry has to abide as a fundamental underpinning of practice. For instance, the convention that says: Addictive pharmaceuticals aren’t addictive if taken as prescribed. Certainly we know addictive substances are plainly addictive no matter what is written on the prescription pad. Nonetheless, if medicine could not have this given, though flawed assumption, psychopharmaceuticals, could not be prescribed without crippling liability.

    The other big unknown is that any type of psychoanalysis, and indeed many psychopharmaceutical adjunct therapies, have any significant edge over the placebo effect including such things as talk therapy, empathy or the ubiquitous sugar pill. Sure, we all have our preferences in treating emotional distress yet there is very little direct science that says one form of “treatment” is markedly more productive than the rest. We all know that most care is tautological–it works until it doesn’t. Or, perhaps more accurately–it is perceived to work until it is no longer perceived to work.

    And, if Freud had ever admitted this convention to anybody, he would have been accused of false pretenses. I wonder, though, if he discussed this so much he came to believe that dreams had identifiable content or if he just used it as a perception test for other Doctors and researchers. In other words, I don’t even believe Freud believed in dreams. In his sequel book on dream analysis he differentiated between authentic and non-authentic dreams. I suspect this was a nod to his fellows who got “it”–the esoterica. So, I’m not saying we should call him Dr. Fraud–just recognize his pioneering work could not have been done on more than a handful of patients without this clever ruse.

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