Why should we bother with dreams?
Aren’t dreams just nonsense…just neurons randomly firing?
Evolution has selected for dreaming.
Sleep researchers tell us that all humans and many animals dream several times every night. Dream sleep is so important that experimental subjects prevented from experiencing REM sleep, the part the sleep in which dreams occur, begin to hallucinate after just a couple of nights of deprivation. They effectively begin to dream when they are awake. It is that important to dream. The ability to dream has been evolutionarily selected for because it serves a vital function in human life.
Human beings in all times and places have examined dreams with interest and attention. Mythical and religious characters are portrayed as valuing and being influenced or changed by dreams. The ancient Greeks dedicated temples and trained priests and priestesses to interpret dreams. Sigmund Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis, out of which developed most other modern therapies, called dreams “The royal road to the unconscious” and Moses Maimonides, the famous Jewish philosopher is famous for saying that “A dream unexamined is like a letter unopened”
Psychoanalyst Paul Lipmann (2008) offers us the following list of what he feels that dreams offer:
- They state and solve problems.
- They express emotion… subtle and loud.
- They can express in images and stories those feelings and experiences that are most difficult to think or talk about when awake.
- They can express hidden feelings about one’s relationship to powerful and less powerful others.
- They can both dissociate and bind together aspects of traumatic or any experience.
- They can help cover pain and shame or can rip apart a scab of defense.
- They portray our current problems, past dilemmas, and future possibilities.
- They gratify wishes.
- They can give expression to the life not lived.
Dreams are unconscious products.
Cognitive psychologists tell us that we can hold approximately seven (plus or minus two if your memory is exceptionally good or bad) “chunks” of information in our minds at once.
That is seven digits in a phone number, seven items of a grocery list. That is not very many and yet we have access to a vast reservoir of memories, concepts and emotional experiences which are called up effortlessly and seamlessly into that famous set of seven chunks. And just as seamlessly those concepts not in immediate use slip out and are put away. It’s a truly amazing system when you think about it… effortless and taken for granted. But what is the mechanism that reaches down and pulls up the information that is needed? Most of the time it is not “conscious intention.”
Unconscious processing is a natural and necessary part of thinking
Unconscious processing always underpins and facilitates conscious thinking. It is the system which receives, organizes and makes accessible all of the concepts and experiences that we own. It is simply impossible to be consciously aware of everything we know or to consciously make all the associations between facts that we must in order to make sense of our experience.
Importantly related facts, ideas and feelings may have been accumulated over a lifetime, arriving at different times and out of different life experiences. Consciousness, which is busy figuring out what to make for supper, rarely takes time to sniff around and explore all the potential associations… even to pressing life problems.
Fortunately we have an alternative system to do this work… psychoanalysts call this the personal unconscious . Cognitive researchers call it “automatic processing”,” implicit thought systems” or even “deep psychological processes”. No one tries to pretend that consciousness is big enough or strong to do all the work alone.
When we are concerned about some aspect of our lives or relationships, the unconscious continues to work on the problem while consciousness is busy doing other things. Anyone who has ever had an “Aha!” moment has had the experience of things being brought together unconsciously and presented as a now obvious fact or solution.
Sleep on it!!
The unconscious attempts to offer us larger access to what we know.
One of the main ways that the unconscious is positively integrated in our lives is through dreams. Dreams contain attempts by the unconscious to bring us information and make the arguments that elaborate or counterbalance the conscious attitude.
Typically, our feelings about situations and persons are more complicated and nuanced than what positive thinking, common sense or good manners will endorse.
We have mixed feeling about most experiences.
- The birth of a child brings joy but also a curtailment of freedom.
- We love and admire our best friend but her success makes us jealous.
- We think we want to study to be a lawyer but is it really our father’s dream for us?
Understanding our dreams helps us understand ourselves more fully.
- When the conscious attitude agrees pretty well with the unconscious one, dreams will underline, endorse or strengthen belief and resolve… they support a feeling of confidence or “rightness”.
- When consciousness overvalues a person or situation dreams may shrink it down to size by portraying it in an unpleasant or inferior way.
- When consciousness does not sufficiently value a person, situation or goal the unconscious may elevate the idea, by symbolically representing it as appropriately precious.
- Dreams can add new knowledge to consciousness, raise questions or suggest goals or things to be avoided.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
A huge amount of the information that we take in about the world is visual. Almost every important experience has a visual memory of people, places and things attached to it. Since most life knowledge and ideas are tied up in some way with visual images, it is not really surprising that images should be the material that the unconscious uses to represent its ideas.
Dream images may seem strange at first glance, but they are often proven on examination to be extremely accurate visual metaphors of a situation which concerns the dreamer.
A very personal point of view
- There is no “one size fits all” in dream interpretation. The images in dreams are often often mysterious and bizarre, they may make reference to other times and places or show the dreamer as someone entirely other that what they are in reality.
- Dream dictionaries should be used sparingly and treated mostly as sources of inspiration.
- The dreamer is the only person who can say whether an interpretation “works”.
Dreams in Psychotherapy
A psychologist who works with dreams in therapy draws on her knowledge of the client’s life situation and life history as well as her training in typical patterns of human response. She works with her clients to understand the dream images in relation to what the client is struggling with or has experienced in life. Together they try to understand what particular relevance and associations that these images have for this particular individual.
- Dream work in therapy contributes to the process of deepening self knowledge.
- Understanding of the full range of their desires and responses permits the client to invent new possibilities for action and decision… to change their life in ways that make their desires and their actions more congruent.
- Dream work deepens therapeutic intimacy and creates a collaborative atmosphere between therapist and client.
Brief therapy centered on dreams
Psychotherapeutic work with dreams may be part of an on-going therapy or may be helpful as a short term process which focuses on understanding a particular situation, for example:
- In periods of normal transition such as life passages,
- In periods of crisis,
- When difficult decisions are being considered
- When radically new life experiences must be assimilated.
- Sometimes a particularly striking dream or dream series will evoke a desire to question or understand a current or past situation or experience.
At these moments it may be helpful to consider working with a psychologist or therapist who will provide guidance and emotional support and help steady you as you explore the questions
that dream examination raises.
Dreams are part of our system of unconscious re-organization and creative problem solving. They pull the essence of a problematic situation out of the clutter of daily experience so we can see it more clearly. They remind us of what we have nearly forgotten, or of what we have tried to forget and bring together ideas that we knew separately but which click” and create new understanding when brought together. They help us see what we really desire and they point the way to future possibilities that grow out of past experiences.