Marcus West

Jungian analyst and psychotherapist

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Understanding Dreams in Clinical PracticeThis is the first chapter of my book Understanding Dreams in Clinical Practice, published by Karnac Books in October 2011.

An overview of dreaming

‘Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious’

(Freud The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 607)

Dreams have been considered an important source of wisdom and knowledge by all the great civilisations and religious traditions of which we have a written record, whether their meaning has been taken to be a message from God, a prophetic foretelling of future events, or a revelation of hidden knowledge. At other times, notably in some quarters of the scientific community in the last century, the wisdom of dreams has been doubted and dismissed as incomprehensible nonsense or ‘froth’ – a debate which continues to this day to some extent, although most of the arch-sceptics now acknowledge that dreams have personal meaning and reflect the individual’s personality and waking concerns.

In this book I will be exploring these claims and counter-claims and will be focusing specifically on how the counsellor, therapist or analyst might consider, address and work with the dreams that our clients bring. I will be introducing a simple, effective and, I would also suggest, profound method of understanding and working with dreams, based upon the network of associations related to the symbolic nature of dream images and dream narratives. I will draw particularly on the work of the two great depth psychologists of the 20th Century, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as well as many other psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, neuroscientists and dream researchers who have contributed to our understanding of dreams and dreaming.

In the modern era Freud was the first to really take up the subject of dreams in his monumental book, published in 1900, The Interpretation of Dreams, which not only set out a comprehensive theory for understanding and interpreting dreams, but also laid down some of the foundation stones of psychoanalytic theory. Freud saw dreams as ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ which, I think, is one of the great quotes relating to dreams.

In his attempt to understand the sometimes bizarre imagery and style of dreams, Freud proposed that the dream has a surface ‘manifest’ content which disguises a hidden ‘latent’ content; he saw this latent content, which is uncovered in the process of working on the dream, as the real meaning of the dream. For example, he interpreted the following recurring dream that a woman had had as a young girl (she was the youngest in the family):

All her brothers, sisters and cousins, who had been romping in a field, suddenly grew wings, flew away and disappeared.

Freud saw the manifest content of the dream – the children growing wings and flying away – as disguising the latent content - the hostile wishes of the young girl toward her siblings. His interpretation of the dream was, therefore, that the girl wished that her siblings would ‘become angels’, i.e., die, and no longer be in competition with her (Freud 1900a, p. 252). He suggested that this dream represented the fulfilment of a wish (to kill off her brothers, sisters and cousins) that the child had been unable to accept consciously, so that she had had to repress this terrible thought.

If Freud first took on the subject of dreams, it was Jung who made it his own, with his enthusiasm for dreams and his belief that they were uniquely able to tell us about what is most important within ourselves. His view echoed that of the ancients, that dreams hold a pre-eminent wisdom that can offer us invaluable guidance if only we are able to understand them and heed them.

Jung disagreed with Freud’s view of dreams. He did not think that dreams attempted to disguise hidden wishes, he thought rather that they show us ‘the unvarnished, natural truth’, and that one of their prime functions is to correct the limited, narrow view of ourselves which we regularly come to hold. This is his view of ‘compensation’, which I will outline in more detail later on.

Jung understood the sometimes bizarre and incomprehensible nature of dream images to be due to the fact that they are symbols. Jung said that when we can understand and interpret the image symbolically we can then understand its meaning; although he would have added that as a symbol an image’s meaning can carry on unfolding; in other words, that we can find many, rich layers of meaning in a symbolic image - one can still be working on the same dream or dream image for years, indeed, for one’s whole life! [or as Jung puts it more poetically: ‘A symbol does not define or explain; it points beyond itself to a meaning that is darkly divined yet still beyond our grasp, and cannot be adequately expressed in the familiar words of our language’ (Jung 1926, para 644)]. Chapter 10 deals with initial dreams and explores a dream that went on unfolding throughout the course of a therapy.

So in regard to the child’s dream of her siblings growing wings, flying off and disappearing, Jung would have agreed with Freud that this was a symbolic image that could relate to them becoming angels. He might have interpreted however, that as well as a potential death wish, the dream also expresses a possible envy of her siblings’ power and abilities (symbolised by their ability to fly in the dream), as well as a feeling of abandonment and loneliness as they fly off and disappear. She might have experienced this abandonment and loneliness when they went off to play their older-children games, leaving her, the youngest, feeling stranded and alone, or perhaps the dream was also ‘working through’ the consequences of her death wish – perhaps she already felt abandoned and lonely through having killed them off in her mind.

Jung was very much attracted to Freud’s new psychoanalytic theories and it was, in fact, Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams, that led Jung to contact him, so that Jung became Freud’s ardent follower and staunchest ally for a number of years, whilst the two worked, with others, to establish psychoanalysis as a new science. As I have said, Jung did not think that dreams were always and essentially wish-fulfilments, although he would allow that they could be on occasion if that represented a compensation for the dreamer’s conscious attitude (take, for example, the dual interpretation of the ‘flying off’ dream above). Jung’s later view, that dreams are ‘a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious’ (Jung 1948, para 505), emphasises the ability of dreams to show us ourselves and our situation as it really is.

Jung’s main disagreement with Freud was that he thought Freud interpreted dreams in a formulaic manner, interpreting their rich symbolic content in terms of a limited number of meanings related usually to Freud’s predominant interest in sexuality. Jung thus accused Freud of being reductionist, treating a richly symbolic image as simply a sign with a sexual or aggressive meaning. This difference of view in regard to the role of sexuality was one of the main reasons that the two split from each other, irrevocably, in 1913. Jung had other criticisms that I will outline below.

I will be exploring both Jung’s and Freud’s views in this book, and I will hope to show how both can contribute to a fuller understanding of dreams. In Chapter Eleven I will also, as an illustration, be giving a detailed reading of a dream of one of Freud’s patients, who became known as the Wolf Man, in both a Freudian and a Jungian idiom.

Following the work of these pioneers of dream exploration, there was a backlash against what became, for a while, the dominant understanding that dreams had meaning, and particularly against Freud’s view that dreams were disguised wish-fulfilments (Freud also held that the purpose of dreams was to allow the dreamer to sleep undisturbed by the motivational ‘id’ urges such as sex or hunger). I will detail the fascinating arguments and counter-arguments in Chapter Twelve and will particularly draw out what the dream researchers and neuroscientists have contributed to our understanding of dreams; here, however, I will confine myself to a brief outline of the arguments in so far as they help us locate the positions at this time.

In 1953 two dream researchers, Aserinsky and Kleitman, found that the brain was particularly activated during what they described as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, and they suggested that dreaming was associated with this period of sleep. It has turned out subsequently that although most dreams occur during this period, dreaming also occurs in what is called non-REM sleep. However, these and other discoveries began a shift away from an analysis of, and interest in, the content of dreams and more toward an analysis of the form and function of dreams.

One popular theory put forward by Hobson and McCarley in 1977, which was much taken up by the press at the time, suggested that dreams were triggered by a very primitive part of the brain, known as the pons, which is common to all mammals (it is believed that certain animals also dream, as well as having periods of REM sleep). Hobson and McCarley proposed an ‘activation-synthesis’ theory of dreams, that held that dreams were simply activated by the random firing of this primitive part of the brain, which triggers images that the higher brain tries to synthesise into some kind or story, hence many dreams seem like strange fragments cobbled together. The dream is, they suggest, simply the higher brain trying to make sense of what is essentially nonsense. For these theorists this accounted for the frequently bizarre nature of dreams, dream images and dream narratives.

Once again, however, the early hypothesis turned out to be incorrect and it has subsequently been shown that the more developed, ‘higher’ functioning of the brain is essential to dreaming and, in fact, it is when these parts of the brain are damaged due to trauma or brain disease that dreaming ceases altogether (Solms & Turnbull 2002).

Regarding the content of dreams, of which probably hundreds of thousands have been collected over the years in and out of dream laboratories, there were a significant number of dream researchers who did not follow Hobson and McCarley’s activation-synthesis theory, yet who also became critical of the dominant Freudian view of dreams. These researchers felt there was no evidence for the suggestion that there is an attempt to disguise the meaning of dreams and that, furthermore, the evidence from neuroscientists suggested there was no mechanism in the brain that is involved in dreaming which could perform the censorship that would have been required for such disguise (see Domhoff 2004 for a discussion of both these points).

These dream researchers argue that the content of dreams is usually understandable, although often ‘novel constructions’ (Domhoff 2004 p. 12); Domhoff concludes that dreams ‘reflect or express more than they disguise’ and suggests that the bizarreness in dreams may be due to the same kind of figurative thinking that produces metaphor, conceptual blending and irony in waking life (Lakoff 1977, p. 90, quoted in Domhoff 2004). Hobson, an arch anti-Freudian, similarly explains the potentially bizarre nature of dreams as due to the sleeping mind making ‘too many associations’, and he describes dreaming as a ‘hyperassociative state’.

Freud’s views also came in for criticism and revision from within the psychoanalytic tradition with Donald Meltzer suggesting that, in trying to prove that dreams were not nonsense Freud was led into ‘a type of logical error, namely of confusing obscurity of meaning with cryptic or hidden meaning’ (Meltzer 1983, p.12).

I will be suggesting that Jung’s understanding of dreams holds up particularly well in regard to these discoveries of dream researchers, and that in suggesting that dreams are not disguised, and in pointing to the hyperassociative, figurative thinking that goes on in dreaming, these theorists are in fact describing the abstracting, symbol-making function of the mind. I will argue that this is precisely the essence of Jung’s theory of dreaming: the difficulty in understanding a dream is in the difficulty in understanding the symbolic nature of the image that the dream has created. It is this process that I will be concentrating on in this book.

[For full references feel free to buy the book!]