What Dreams May Come

“What all of this does occasion, if grasped, is change in prevalent attitudes towards meaning, ideas and propositions” (Quine: Reply to Chomsky)

Dreams have perplexed people as long as people have existed. They have been viewed as messages from the Gods, as visitations to other worlds, or mere babble conjured up by the semi-conscious brain. In 1900 Freud wrote his famous (or infamous) book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, where he argued that Dreams carried hidden desires which could be deciphered once one knew the language that Dreams were constructed in. In this short blog-post I want to discuss dreams and whether they do indeed express unconscious desires, wishes etc. Before beginning my analysis I will first outline two recent dreams I had. I will not be trying to interpret my dreams. Rather I will use them as illustrations my own direct experiences on the topic. I believe it is important for philosophers to go to their own direct experiences as much as possible, in order to ground our beliefs in our experienced reality as much as possible. Not that I think one person’s idiosyncratic experiences should somehow constrain science. Rather I think it is just important to use our own experiences as a template to see how much and to what degree our experiences coincide with what science is telling us. Furthermore when thinking about the mind I think it is important to avoid making the Typical Mind Fallacy of assuming that all minds are identical to our own. One way to avoid making this mistake is to directly describe one’s experiences and compare them with others to see to what degree ones experiences represent those of all people. Obviously it takes brain scans and behavioural tests to verify if people actually think differently, verbal reports are merely a starting point. So I will begin my blog-post by writing down two of my most recent dreams and I encourage people reading this blog-post to do the same themselves:

Dream 1: Occurred 2 nights ago:

One of the first things I remembered about my dream was that some girl had gone missing down a very deep cavern. People had searched but could not find her. Two friends of mine tried to find the missing girl but they had to return as one of them was afraid of some wolves who were in the cavern and when you got deep into the cavern it was flooded and you needed to be able to swim down there. I was worried because the girl (sometimes in the dream it switched between being a girl missing, and many people being missing) had gone deeper and further into the cavern than should have been possible. Eventually myself and a friend of mine went into the cavern to look for the girl, as we descended into it we eventually came across water and had to start swimming. The water was overwhelming. It was extremely difficult to swim in and I had the constant worry about being bitten by sharks. I wanted to turn back but my friend found this confusing and wanted to continue. Eventually someone (rescued/captured us), I don’t really what happened then…the next thing I remember was that my friend and I were back in a lab. Suddenly a machine in our lab contacted us, we had a model T Rex that was given to us by the person who saved us in the cavern last time. I through the T Rex model at the machine and the person talking through the machine destroyed the T Rex model. I shouted at my friend it is from a deeper layer than the creature who rescued us and is more powerful. We ran out of the lab and I felt that the theory of evolution had been disproven twice by something personal… the next thing I remember was I was back at big empty house that in the dream was my home. I went out to get some beers I met a friend of mine who had rescued the girl from the cavern she seemed in a terrible state. I went and picked up some beers and when I returned to my house it was vandalised”

Dream 2 which occurred last night:

“ I was looking for someone and a girl told me that they were in a room, but when I looked in the room I could see nobody. The girl laughed at me, and told me I could see them from another angle. So I walked around and looked in the back door. I could see people in the room though at a skewed angle. They laughed and told me that they weren’t really them but were representations from elsewhere…From here things get sketchy I remember turning from the room and meeting someone who had something wrong with his foot, somebody told me he was a copy of another person, that subjectively the person would think he was the real him but there would be another more real version of him somewhere. Then I saw a lot of replica’s of other people walking with their originals. I sat down to dinner. I looked at my foot it had something on it, I realised I was a replica. I talked with others about being a replica. A guy informed me that human replicas were not entirely controllable by aliens, but that lower order replicas of animals or plants were almost entirely controlled by aliens. We all went for a drive, I was sitting in the back of the car, when the driver started driving I fell out part of my leg was caught under the door of the car. I and other passengers shouted at the driver to stop but he only drove faster. This went on for ages. Eventually the car stopped…The next thing I knew I was walking towards a hotel and I recognised an acquaintance he asked me if I had got some product for him which I had promised. I informed him that I had not gotten it but would do so by tomorrow. We then bitched about the idiotic recklessness of the driver… the next thing I remember I was back at the dinner table here my memory of the dream breaks down. I vaguely remember that we and others at the table were changing form, things were getting frightening so we ran from the table. We ended up running over a bridge. But the bridge was surrounded by Ivy like a tissue of webs. The Ivy connected to my foot. We realised I had been captured by the vegetation. My friends went on. I lay ready to be transformed by the vegetation and I heard a beautiful song playing in the background singing the lyrics ‘Everything is Colours’.”

Freud’s theory of dreaming stated that the primary purpose of dreams was wish fulfilment. He noted that humans have a biological need to sleep but that worries and needs have a habit of waking people up from a deep sleep. Thus in order to keep us asleep the psyche constructed dreams which helped us fulfil our wishes/desires. Now there was obviously a problem with Freud’s theory from the outset if dreams were wish-fulfilments why do we have bad dreams and nightmares etc. Freud’s answer to this question involved arguing that the manifest appearance of dreams masked the real meaning of the dreams. On his theory our wishes and desires are often unconscious, and if we they entered consciousness they would be so disturbing we would wake up. So our desires are fulfilled in dreams in disguised forms.

Freud (like Skinner and most psychologists) wanted to ground his theory on evolutionary facts. He looked at man as an animal created by the forces of natural selection whose animal nature was repressed by societal norms. Those of us brought up according to cultural norms were indoctrinated with a form of ethics of the particular society we are born into. But our societal ethics does not always help us satisfy our unconscious animal urges for power, sex etc. According to Freud we satisfy instinctive urges that society judges unacceptable through Phantasy. By studying the things like Parapraxes (slips of the tongue) and dreams he claimed to have discovered that humans have unconscious urges.

Freud claimed by analysing the nature of dreams he discovered that they worked according to different laws of logic[1]. His analysis of dreams revealed that it worked according to the following logic (1) Exemption from Mutual Contradiction, (2) Timelessness, and (3) Replacement of External by Psychical Reality, (3) the absence of negation. From my own introspective examination of my dreams I will admit, that speaking only for my experiences, my dreams sometimes take the form that Freud claims is universal of dreams[2]. In my above dream we were looking for one person (a girl), and at the same time we were looking for a group of people. To me in the dream it didn’t seem at all strange to be looking for one person and a group in fact, it seemed that they were identical. So my dream involved identification of a group with an individual, it involved an acceptance of contradictions. I assumed that One = Many; if many equals 4 (or any number other than 1), then saying that 1 = 4 this will lead to wild contradictions in any mathematical system[3]. I have had many dreams where I talked to a person who represented an entire class of people, and have had no difficulty accepting contradictory states e.g. thinking a person was both dead and alive at the same time. So for the very little it is worth my introspective experiences has features that correspond to the logic Freud discusses. According to Freud when you understand the logic of the dream work you can unmask the latent content of a person’s dreams. The real meaning that lies under the manifest image that is the dream content we experience. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to analyse my dreams J

In a therapeutic situation Freud used the concept of free association, which was predicated on the concept of psychic determinism. So if a person has a particular image in their dreams Freud asks them to talk about what they associate with the image. The connections people make with the image will from Freud’s perspectives reveal the persons emotional connections with the image. Where the person’s free associations break down this reveals the persons possible unconscious feelings on the particular dream image. Freud began his studies by working on Hysteria (what we would call a psycho-somatic disorder). With his studies in Hysteria Freud believed that he discovered that people were unconsciously using physical disorders as a way of coping with unconscious disorders.

Freud was used his techniques on himself. His early interest in dreams was inspired by an event in his life. When his friend and fellow Doctor argued that Freud’s psychoanalytic treatments were not working on his patient Irma Freud had a dream which showed Otto in a foolish light, Freud interpreted this as unconscious resentment on Otto.

Freud’s theory of dreams had a dual existence in academic psychology with the rise of behaviourism it was largely treated with distain. But in the psychiatry and the humanities it was adopted by most people as a work of genius. However, while it enjoyed hegemony in psychiatry for for 75 years, from 1975 onwards the work of Hobson seemed to have refuted Freudian theories of Dreams[4].

Solms and Turnbull correctly noted that the work of Hobson seemed to have refuted Freud:

“… They were able to claim that since generation of REM is an automatic, pre-programmed process its unconscious mental correlate is as “motivationally neutral as the brainstem mechanism that generates your heartbeat. This much seemed certain…Some 25 years after it was first proposed, it is still completely dominates the field of REM sleep research. By 1975, then some of the great mysteries surrounding sleep and dreaming appeared to have been resolved. ..Hobson and McCarley 1977 seemed to have destroyed Freud’s theory of dreams with their activation synthesis model” ibid pp. 187-189)

On Hobson and McCarley’s model dreams were activated by the mechanisms in the Pons of the brain stem. And since the Pons was in no way connected to higher brain processes Hobson and McCarley were quick to point out that it had nothing to do with complex thoughts or desires. So they noted that brains were not caused by the type of complex desires that Freud postulated. The synthesis aspect of the model notes that the forebrain that is activated by the Pons tries to make sense of the random images, thoughts etc that the Pons has activated. But the whole process is random and ultimately on this model dreams do not have the properties that Freud attributed to them. In their ‘The Brain and the Inner World’ Solms and Turnbull noted that at a 1976 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association a very pro-psychoanalytic crowd massively agreed that Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ had been refuted by recent neuroscience. Now scientific disputes are not solved by a vote; but it is instructive that in 1976, the vast majority of psychoanalytic orientated psychiatrists believed by Hobson had refuted Freud.

Solms though argued that recent evidence shows that Hobson’s theories are not as sound as originally believed. Firstly Solms noted that Hobson (and the vast majority of dream researchers) assumed that dreams only occurred during REM activity (which is caused by the Pons), but actually up to 20 percent of dreams occur in non REM states. Solms noted as follows:

“In a 1997 study, 6 patients who had sustained damage to the REM-generating regions of the Pons were asked whether or not they were still dreaming, and their answers were a clear “yes”. In contrast, more than 40 others patients with damage to specific parts of the forebrain, nowhere near the critical REM-generating structures, did experience a cessation of dreaming following their brain damage-but in those patients the REM state was preserved” (ibid p. 193)

The obvious conclusion to draw as Solms did was that contra Hobson dreams are causally dependent on REM states. Solms research indicates that from a neurological perspective dreams can be caused by a variety of different states they can even be generated by the forebrain. Solms notes that Dreaming can be triggered by arousal from any place within the brain, including emotion, memory etc.

As I said above Freud argued that dreams were wish fulfilments which helped us sleep. But there was little way of helping testing his claims circa 1900. However recent research on brain damaged people who report that they no longer sleep indicates that they sleep worse than typical patients (see Solms 1995). This is to some degree a confirmation of Freud’s views, though needless to say much more research needs to be done on the topic.

As things stand from my limited knowledge on the subject the debate between people like Hobson and Solms is still wide open on the issue of the nature of dreams (though the evidence is swinging towards Solms sympathetic reading of Freud). That said I think to some degree the debate is much ado about nothing. I think that if Solms is tilting at wind mills by looking for the intrinsic meaning of dreams. Solms despite his competence as a neuroscientist believes that there exists real intentionality of the unconscious mind. He had presented no evidence to support this view.

I think that rather than think Freudian dream interpretation stands or falls on the debate between Hobson and Solms we should adopt a more pragmatic approach. Dreams are typically ambiguous, in some sense they are like Rorschach symbols. We can treat an analysands reactions to them as indicating what they are worried about, interested in. We can do this by letting them talk, and interpreting their talk. This is what talking therapy was originally about after all.

[1] For a more explicit working out of the supposed laws of the unconscious see Matte Blanco ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ where he works out mathematically the logic of the Freudian Unconscious.

[2] Obviously my own experiences should not be taken as having any real validity other than as data as to how things seem to one subject.

[3] Obviously as Matte Blanco noted we map many onto 1 in infinite sets but going into this would involve too much of a detour. The short story is for Blanco the unconscious is structured very similar to the infinite discovered by Cantor.

[4] Here I am following the work of ‘The Brain and The Inner World’ by Solms and Turnbull (2002)

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