The Dialogue of Dreams Essay
Sam Vaknin’s Psychology, Philosophy, Economics and Foreign Affairs Web Sites
Are dreams a source of reliable divination? Generations upon generations seem to have thought so. They incubated dreams by travelling afar, by fasting and by engaging in all other manners of self deprivation or intoxication. With the exception of this highly dubious role, dreams do seem to have three important functions:
a. To process repressed emotions (wishes, in Freud’s speech) and other mental content which was suppressed and stored in the unconscious.
b. To order, classify and, generally, to pigeonhole conscious experiences of the day or days preceding the dreaming (“day residues”). A partial overlap with the former function is inevitable: some sensory input is immediately relegated to the darker and dimmer kingdoms of the subconscious and unconscious without being consciously processed at all.
c. To “stay in touch” with the outside world. External sensory input is interpreted by the dream and represented in its unique language of symbols and disjunction. Research has shown this to be a rare event, independent of the timing of the stimuli: during sleep or immediately prior to it. Still, when it does happen, it seems that even when the interpretation is dead wrong the substantial information is preserved. A collapsing bedpost (as in Maury’s famous dream) will become a French guillotine, for instance. The message conserved: there is physical danger to the neck and head.
All three functions are part of a much larger one:
The continuous adjustment of the model one has of one’s self and of one’s place in the world to the incessant stream of sensory (external) input and of mental (internal) input. This “model modification” is carried out through an intricate, symbol laden, dialogue between the dreamer and himself. It probably also has therapeutic side benefits. It would be an over-simplification to say that the dream carries messages (even if we were to limit it to correspondence with one’s self). The dream does not seem to be in a position of privileged knowledge. The dream functions more like a good friend would: listening, advising, sharing experiences, providing access to remote territories of the mind, putting events in perspective and in proportion and provoking. It, thus, induces relaxation and acceptance and a better functioning of the “client”. It does so, mostly, by analysing discrepancies and incompatibilities. No wonder that it is mostly associated with bad emotions (anger, hurt, fear). This also happens in the course of successful psychotherapy. Defences are gradually dismantled and a new, more functional, view of the world is established. This is a painful and frightening process. This function of the dream is more in line with Jung’s view of dreams as “compensatory”. The previous three functions are “complementary” and, therefore, Freudian.
It would seem that we are all constantly engaged in maintenance, in preserving that which exists and inventing new strategies for coping. We are all in constant psychotherapy, administered by ourselves, day and night. Dreaming is just the awareness of this on-going process and its symbolic content. We are more susceptible, vulnerable, and open to dialogue while we sleep. The dissonance between how we regard ourselves, and what we really are and between our model of the world and reality this dissonance is so enormous that it calls for a (continuous) routine of evaluation, mending and re-invention. Otherwise, the whole edifice might crumble. The delicate balance between we, the dreamers, and the world might be shattered, leaving us defenceless and dysfunctional.
To be effective, dreams must come equipped with the key to their interpretation. We all seem to possess an intuitive copy of just such a key, uniquely tailored to our needs, to our data and to our circumstances. This Areiocritica helps us to decipher the true and motivating meaning of the dialogue. This is one reason why dreaming is discontinuous: time must be given to interpret and to assimilate the new model. Four to six sessions take place every night. A session missed will be held the night after. If a person is prevented from dreaming on a permanent basis, he will become irritated, then neurotic and then psychotic. In other words: his model of himself and of the world will no longer be usable. It will be out of synch. It will represent both reality and the non-dreamer wrongly. Put more succinctly: it seems that the famous “reality test” (used in psychology to set apart the “functioning, normal” individuals from those who are not) is maintained by dreaming. It fast deteriorates when dreaming is impossible. This link between the correct apprehension of reality (reality model), psychosis and dreaming has yet to be explored in depth. A few predictions can be made, though:
1. The dream mechanisms and/or dream contents of psychotics must be substantially different and distinguished from ours. Their dreams must be “dysfunctional”, unable to tackle the unpleasant, bad emotional residue of coping with reality. Their dialogue must be disturbed. They must be represented rigidly in their dreams. Reality must not be present in them not at all.
2. Most of the dreams, most of the time must deal with mundane matters. Their content must not be exotic, surrealist, extraordinary. They must be chained to the dreamer’s realities, his (daily) problems, people that he knows, situations that he encountered or is likely to encounter, dilemmas that he is facing and conflicts that he would have liked resolved. This, indeed, is the case. Unfortunately, this is heavily disguised by the symbol language of the dream and by the disjointed, disjunctive, dissociative manner in which it proceeds. But a clear separation must be made between subject matter (mostly mundane and “dull”, relevant to the dreamer’s life) and the script or mechanism (colourful symbols, discontinuity of space, time and purposeful action).
3. The dreamer must be the main protagonist of his dreams, the hero of his dreamy narratives. This, overwhelmingly, is the case: dreams are egocentric. They are concerned mostly with the “patient” and use other figures, settings, locales, situations to cater to his needs, to reconstruct his reality test and to adapt it to the new input from outside and from within.
4. If dreams are mechanisms, which adapt the model of the world and the reality test to daily inputs we should find a difference between dreamers and dreams in different societies and cultures. The more “information heavy” the culture, the more the dreamer is bombarded with messages and data the fiercer should the dream activity be. Every external datum likely generates a shower of internal data. Dreamers in the West should engage in a qualitatively different type of dreaming. We will elaborate on this as we continue. Suffice it to say, at this stage, that dreams in information-cluttered societies will employ more symbols, will weave them more intricately and the dreams will be much more erratic and discontinuous. As a result, dreamers in information-rich societies will never mistake a dream for reality. They will never confuse the two. In information poor cultures (where most of the daily inputs are internal) such confusion will arise very often and even be enshrined in religion or in the prevailing theories regarding the world. Anthropology confirms that this, indeed, is the case. In information poor societies dreams are less symbolic, less erratic, more continuous, more “real” and the dreamers often tend to fuse the two (dream and reality) into a whole and act upon it.
5. To complete their mission successfully (adaptation to the world using the model of reality modified by them) dreams must make themselves felt. They must interact with the dreamer’s real world, with his behaviour in it, with his moods that bring his behaviour about, in short: with his whole mental apparatus. Dreams seem to do just this: they are remembered in half the cases. Results are, probably, achieved without need for cognitive, conscious processing, in the other, unremembered, or disremembered cases. They greatly influence the immediate mood after awakening. They are discussed, interpreted, force people to think and re-think. They are dynamos of (internal and external) dialogue long after they have faded into the recesses of the mind. Sometimes they directly influence actions and many people firmly believe in the quality of the advice provided by them. In this sense, dreams are an inseparable part of reality. In many celebrated cases they even induced works of art or inventions or scientific discoveries (all adaptations of old, defunct, reality models of the dreamers). In numerous documented cases, dreams tackled, head on, issues that bothered the dreamers during their waking hours.
How does this theory fit with the hard facts?
Dreaming (D-state or D-activity) is associated with a special movement of the eyes, under the closed eyelids, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM). It is also associated with changes in the pattern of electrical activity of the brain (EEG). A dreaming person has the pattern of someone who is wide awake and alert. This seems to sit well with a theory of dreams as active therapists, engaged in the arduous task of incorporating new (often contradictory and incompatible) information into an elaborate personal model of the self and the reality that it occupies.
There are two types of dreams: visual and “thought-like” (which leave an impression of being awake on the dreamer). The latter happens without any REM cum EEG fanfare. It seems that the “model-adjustment” activities require abstract thinking (classification, theorizing, predicting, testing, etc.). The relationship is very much like the one that exists between intuition and formalism, aesthetics and scientific discipline, feeling and thinking, mentally creating and committing one’s creation to a medium.
All mammals exhibit the same REM/EEG patterns and may, therefore, be dreaming as well. Some birds do it, and some reptiles as well. Dreaming seems to be associated with the brain stem (Pontine tegmentum) and with the secretion of Norepinephrine and Serotonin in the brain. The rhythm of breathing and the pulse rate change and the skeletal muscles are relaxed to the point of paralysis (presumably, to prevent injury if the dreamer should decide to engage in enacting his dream). Blood flows to the genitals (and induces penile erections in male dreamers). The uterus contracts and the muscles at the base of the tongue enjoy a relaxation in electrical activity.
These facts would indicate that dreaming is a very primordial activity. It is essential to survival. It is not necessarily connected to higher functions like speech but it is connected to reproduction and to the biochemistry of the brain. The construction of a “world-view”, a model of reality is as critical to the survival of an ape as it is to ours. And the mentally disturbed and the mentally retarded dream as much as the normal do. Such a model can be innate and genetic in very simple forms of life because the amount of information that needs to be incorporated is limited. Beyond a certain amount of information that the individual is likely to be exposed to daily, two needs arise. The first is to maintain the model of the world by eliminating “noise” and by realistically incorporating negating data and the second is to pass on the function of modelling and remodelling to a much more flexible structure, to the brain. In a way, dreams are about the constant generation, construction and testing of theories regarding the dreamer and his ever-changing internal and external environments. Dreams are the scientific community of the Self. That Man carried it further and invented Scientific Activity on a larger, external, scale is small wonder.
Physiology also tells us the differences between dreaming and other hallucinatory states (nightmares, psychoses, sleepwalking, daydreaming, hallucinations, illusions and mere imagination): the REM/EEG patterns are absent and the latter states are much less “real”. Dreams are mostly set in familiar places and obey the laws of nature or some logic. Their hallucinatory nature is a hermeneutic imposition. It derives mainly from their erratic, abrupt behaviour (space, time and goal discontinuities) which is ONE of the elements in hallucinations as well.
Why is dreaming conducted while we sleep? Probably, there is something in it which requires what sleep has to offer: limitation of external, sensory, inputs (especially visual ones hence the compensatory strong visual element in dreams). An artificial environment is sought in order to maintain this periodical, self-imposed deprivation, static state and reduction in bodily functions. In the last 6-7 hours of every sleep session, 40% of the people wake up. About 40% – possibly the same dreamers report that they had a dream in the relevant night. As we descend into sleep (the hypnagogic state) and as we emerge from it (the hypnopompic state) we have visual dreams. But they are different. It is as though we are “thinking” these dreams. They have no emotional correlate, they are transient, undeveloped, abstract and expressly deal with the day residues. They are the “garbage collectors”, the “sanitation department” of the brain. Day residues, which clearly do not need to be processed by dreams are swept under the carpet of consciousness (maybe even erased).
Suggestible people dream what they have been instructed to dream in hypnosis but not what they have been so instructed while (partly) awake and under direct suggestion. This further demonstrates the independence of the Dream Mechanism. It almost does not react to external sensory stimuli while in operation. It takes an almost complete suspension of judgement in order to influence the contents of dreams.
It would all seem to point at another important feature of dreams: their economy. Dreams are subject to four “articles of faith” (which govern all the phenomena of life):
Homeostasis – The preservation of the internal environment, an equilibrium between (different but interdependent) elements which make up the whole.
Equilibrium – The maintenance of an internal environment in balance with an external one.
Optimization (also known as efficiency) – The securing of maximum results with minimum invested resources and minimum damage to other resources, not directly used in the process.
Parsimony (Occam’s razor) – The utilization of a minimal set of (mostly known) assumptions, constraints, boundary conditions and initial conditions in order to achieve maximum explanatory or modelling power.
In compliance with the above four principles dreams HAD to resort to visual symbols. The visual is the most condensed (and efficient) form of packaging information. “A picture is worth a thousand words” the saying goes and computer users know that to store images requires more memory than any other type of data. But dreams have an unlimited capacity of information processing at their disposal (the brain at night). In dealing with gigantic amounts of information, the natural preference (when processing power is not constrained) would be to use visuals. Moreover, non-isomorphic, polyvalent forms will be preferred. In other words: symbols that can be “mapped” to more than one meaning and those that carry a host of other associated symbols and meanings with them will be preferred. Symbols are a form of shorthand. They haul a great amount of information most of it stored in the recipient’s brain and provoked by the symbol. This is a little like the Java applets in modern programming: the application is divided to small modules, which are stored in a central computer. The symbols generated by the user’s computer (using the Java programming language) “provoke” them to surface. The result is a major simplification of the processing terminal (the net-PC) and an increase in its cost efficiency.
Both collective symbols and private symbols are used. The collective symbols (Jung’s archetypes?) prevent the need to re-invent the wheel. They are assumed to constitute a universal language usable by dreamers everywhere. The dreaming brain has, therefore, to attend to and to process only the “semi-private language” elements. This is less time consuming and the conventions of a universal language apply to the communication between the dream and the dreamer.
Even the discontinuities have their reason. A lot of the information that we absorb and process is either “noise” or repetitive. This fact is known to the authors of all the file compression applications in the world. Computer files can be compressed to one tenth their size without appreciably losing information. The same principle is applied in speed reading skimming the unnecessary bits, getting straight to the point. The dream employs the same principles: it skims, it gets straight to the point and from it to yet another point. This creates the sensation of being erratic, of abruptness, of the absence of spatial or temporal logic, of purposelessness. But this all serves the same purpose: to succeed to finish the Herculean task of refitting the model of the Self and of the World in one night.
Thus, the selection of visuals, symbols, and collective symbols and of the discontinuous mode of presentation, their preference over alternative methods of representation is not accidental. This is the most economic and unambiguous way of representation and, therefore, the most efficient and the most in compliance with the four principles. In cultures and societies, where the mass of information to be processed is less mountainous these features are less likely to occur and indeed, they don’t.