Newhouse News Service
July 16, 2006
Some people view dreams as mystical messages from the great beyond. Others dismiss them as random residue from the daily grind. The mechanics of dreaming have been precisely mapped through modern science, but the reasons why we dream remain a mystery. While dreams raise questions for which there are no definitive answers, many therapists, analysts and psychologists believe we can learn about ourselves by paying attention to the stuff of dreams.
"Jung maintained that dreams are a natural process, and because nature doesn't waste any efforts, we must be dreaming because it has an important place in our health," says Martha Blake, a Jungian analyst in private practice in Portland.
Carl Jung, the Swiss physician and a founder of analytical psychology, thought of mental health as a continuum, with most personalities falling into a broad spectrum of the neurotic. "Dreams come to confirm the feelings, or to compensate for the feelings, that we have during the day," says Blake, summarizing the idea.
A man who senses his wife is withdrawing from him may dream, for example, that they are physically separated by a river or a wall, confirming his unspoken fears and feelings. Or a woman who must silently endure abuse at her job may have dreams about being aggressive or violent to compensate for the anger she must repress by day.
"I think the function of dreams, in general, is to balance our emotional lives," says Veronica Tonay, who teaches psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Tonay, who maintains a psychotherapy practice, offers dream workshops and has written several books on dreaming. In the recently revised edition of her book "The Creative Dreamer," she encourages readers to pay attention to dreams to enhance their creativity. Research cited in the book, she says, was based on 3,000 dreams collected from 2,000 people of different backgrounds and cultures.
Although each dream is unique, researchers recognize common themes and symbols.
For example, all over the world people dream about people they know far more often than they dream about strangers. People who work in creative fields dream about young children more often than average. People going through emotional crisis often incorporate images of crashing waters, rising floods and other natural disasters into their dreams.
"We are metaphorical creatures," Tonay says. "We are symbolic creatures."
Emotional issues that we struggle with by day are turned into dream "movies" by night. We write the scripts, cast the characters, create the settings and direct the action ourselves, yet we still can be surprised by what occurs in our dreams.
"If there is something about yourself that you have a blind spot about," Tonay says, "dreams can reveal it to you."
Psychotherapists often encourage clients to talk about their dreams because these nighttime images can carry useful information that the dreamer has not yet recognized in waking life.
The unconscious or subconscious will try to push an individual to develop into a "more whole" person, says Blake, a process Jung dubbed "individuation."
This desire to become more whole — call it holier, more aware, enlightened or simply a better person — is ancient but the idea is redefined and refined by new generations and cultures. A key to making sense of these metaphors from the subconscious, Tonay says, is to recognize the feelings behind them, because even the most universally recognized themes and symbols are subject to individual interpretation.
While psychologists are interested in the unconscious meanderings of dreams, some people seek to consciously control their sleep-time adventures. Lucid dreams, defined as those in which the dreamer becomes aware of the fact that he is dreaming, are spontaneously — if only rarely — experienced by most people at some point in their lives. But entire books have been written on the subject of developing techniques to encourage lucid dreams.
Dreamers can use lucid dreams for the sheer satisfaction of experiencing something they cannot in waking life, such as flying or talking to deceased relatives. Others seek to solve daytime dilemmas by intentionally dreaming of, say, a conversation with Albert Einstein. Any answers they receive would not be from Einstein, of course, but they may be the most intelligent answers the dreamers could come up with.
It all sounds rather cerebral. But dream researchers have found that most people who manage to lucid dream intentionally aim for great dream sex.
Dream researchers also know that some people experience "precognitive" dreams, or premonitions that later prove to be true.
"We don't know what they are," says Tonay, "but they are something."
Tonay is less interested in controlled dreaming or precognitive dreams than in looking at what our everyday, uncontrolled dreams have to say about us.
Useful tools in our emotional development include getting in the habit of writing down dreams immediately upon waking, thinking about how we felt while dreaming, considering what those images and feelings represent to us, and how they relate to what's going on in our waking lives.
"It is important for people to understand themselves deeply so that they can relate to others and not project as much of themselves onto others, which I think leads to a lot of misunderstanding," Tonay says.
"If nothing else," she adds, "it's a lot of fun."