Ryan Maher, MA, LCPC, CYT
What can dreams tell us? And how might they offer us insight in our fast-paced, technology saturated, and anxious world?
In an effort to address this expansive subject, I’ll begin by discussing the importance of image to our individual and collective psychology. We’re going to travel back in time so please stay with me for a moment. We’ll circle around to dreams and the present soon.
The importance of image to our species can be traced at least as far back as the prehistoric cave drawings, known as parietal art, of our ancestors. These drawings are located throughout the world and date back roughly 40,000 years, although archeologists continue to find older specimens. These relics provide a glimpse into a significant evolutionary shift in our species’ consciousness. For perhaps the first time, our ancestors began to symbolize and create abstractions of the world they lived in and their place in it.
Consider the world 40,000 years ago and the tremendous effort our ancestors had to exert in order to survive. Despite challenging circumstances (e.g. finding/securing food sources, abundant predators, vulnerability to the elements/weather) they dedicated time and found the resources needed to image-create and symbolize. This presumably helped perpetuate their survival, as it may have been a way of communicating and passing information. However, it seems unlikely that that is all parietal art was. Many of these images appear to reach for something beyond explicit survival: for some meaning, insight, and possibly self-awareness. These qualities are, arguably, necessary for survival. Nevertheless, regardless of the various explanations for why our ancestors began to create images on cave walls, what is extraordinary is that in different parts of the world our ancestors began to integrate and experiment with imagination to explore image, symbol, and story telling.
So what does this tell us in relation to dreams? Well, consider the role of image in both the phenomena of cave drawings and dreams. We are inherently image-creating beings; it is woven into our very evolution. Whether these images are produced on the wall of a prehistoric cave or in the neurological activity of a sleeping brain, they are an innate part of our biology and our psyche and serve important functions. One of the functions is to bridge the world “out there” with our interior world “in here”. The images, both in the prehistoric cave drawings and in the dreams of say a modern city dweller, are the embodied dialogue between subject (you) and object (everything else). They help to navigate, internalize, and make meaning from our experiences in the world and the interface between subject and object.
Current scientific inquiry into sleep supports the vital role of dreams (and by extension the images innately connected to dreams) in our functioning. Neurological research into the purpose of dreams has illuminated the role of dreams in processing and consolidating memory. Psychologist Leanne Domash, PhD, describes how dreaming, in reconstructing memory representations, facilitates insight. She cites research by Wagner et al. (2004), which concludes that sleep and dreaming “not only strengthens memory traces quantitatively, but can also ‘catalyze’ mental restructuring, thereby setting the stage for the emergence of insight”.
Simply put, on a physiological level, dreams strengthen memory, aid in mental restructuring, and initiate the emergence of insight. Therefore, through working with our dreams, we can consciously engage in this involuntary and implicit biological process. In working with the images of our dreams we can influence our memory and our brain’s internal representations of the world (and our experiences in it) in ways that expands our creativity, insight, and self-awareness.
Carl Jung saw the unconscious as more than a depository of repressed experiences and unacceptable sexual urges. He experienced the unconscious as a place teeming with insight and energy, if one made the effort to access it. To Jung, dreams were a valuable way to connect with both the personal unconscious and in some cases the collective/archetypal unconscious. Furthermore, he saw that dreams frequently compensated and balanced the rational attitude that typically dominates our waking life. Dreams, according to Jung, could assist us in contacting the non-rational, emotional, and unconscious (implicit) parts of ourselves, thus allowing us to become more conscious and to grow both individually and collectively.
So how exactly do we approach and work with dreams? Of course the necessary starting point is remembering. Simply setting the intention to remember your dreams before you go to sleep can go a long way in actually remembering them. Putting a notebook and pen next to your bed is helpful. When you wake up in the morning (or if you happen to wake in the middle of the night after a dream) write down some of the images and feelings/emotions in the dreams. If someone you know was in your dream write their name down. You can certainly write the whole dream, narrating it as it happened. However, upon first waking, it can be difficult to summon the mental faculties necessary to write the dream down in its entirety. Usually just getting a couple of words down will jog your memory. Another option is leaving a recording device next to your bed or using an app on your phone. Many people find this much easier than actually writing their dreams down.
As you continue this practice you will find improvement in your dream recall. And what might you do with your remembered dreams? There are numerous approaches to working with your remembered dreams. I suggest approaching your dreams with an open and curious attitude. Rather than trying to find “the meaning” of your dream, play with the images the dream contains. Allow yourself to revisit the images, sceneries, and characters that populate your dream. What feelings do they evoke? What sensations do they elicit in your body? What associations do you have with the images, settings, and people that make up your dream? What might it be like to re-create the images of your dream through drawing, painting, or finding other images that resemble those from your dream? What might it feel like to move the way you may have moved in your dream or to drop into the deep feelings of the dream?
Be courageous, open-minded, and have fun. After all, who knows what insights might be breathing underneath the images of your dreams.
Domash, Leanne (2016). Dreamwork and Transformation: Facilitating Therapeutic Change Using Embodied Imagination, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 52:3, 410-433.
Jung, C.G. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections.