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By LA Weekly
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There's something compelling about the ambiguous place this leaves us, the way that, even through the refining lens of science, dreams remain visible only in glimpses. We've come to inhabit a universe, after all, where science frames the most ineffable human experiences in terms of biological engineering, where behavior is regarded as neurochemical, and consciousness has been reduced to electrical impulses, a cosmic accident on a grand scale. One recent study even suggests that what we call the soul -- the part of us that longs for God -- may be a function of physiology, less a matter of faith than of a "spirit center" in the brain. Yet our dreams continue to resist definition, leaving dream research suspended between ideas and intuition, between what we know for certain and what we don't know -- and may never know -- about the mysteries of the mind.
ERNEST HARTMANN CARRIES HIMSELF LIKE A Freud in shirtsleeves, casual but intense at the same time. Tall, with a full head of blond hair going to white and the slightest hint of an Austrian accent, he actually once met the old doctor, though given that he was 2 years old at the time (his father was a student of Freud's) it was hardly a meeting of the minds. Now the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Boston's Newton-Wellesley Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, he has become something of a lightning rod in the dream community. At last summer's meeting of the Association for the Study of Dreams in Santa Cruz, a five-day festival of shamanism, mythic journeys, discussions of post-traumatic stress disorder, even dream-inspired performance art -- every possible perspective on the subject, in other words, no matter how ludicrous or profound -- one of the most controversial seminars was Hartmann's "Is There a Center, a 'Most Important Part' of the Dream?"
When Hartmann talks about the center of a dream, what he's referring to is a focal metaphor. "Everything in a dream is important," he declares by way of introduction, "but not everything is equal. In almost every dream, there is a powerful image that contextualizes the dreamer's emotional state." Such images can be surprisingly unsubtle, as if something inside us wants to make sure we don't miss the point. Women who doubt their competence as mothers often have dreams in which their children are hit by cars after being left to play alone, while people who have been assaulted dream of tidal waves. Then there are those childhood chasing dreams, which Hartmann sees as kids' reaction to their own vulnerability, their dependence on the adults around them, who can seem as threatening as wild beasts. The idea, he goes on, is not unlike the Jungian concept of archetype, symbolic imagery -- such as water, flying, shadows -- common to all of humanity, regardless of culture. "Dreaming," Hartmann says, "makes connections to our experience, but it does so with pictures, not with words. We are not dreaming about what happened, we are dreaming the emotion, or, more accurately, a picture of the emotion -- which is what else but a metaphor?"
As far back as Freud (who once called dreaming a "royal road to the unconscious"), it's been commonly accepted that one of the ways dreams operate is as elaborately encrypted messages we send ourselves. Even researchers like Harvard University's Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, whose Activation-Synthesis theory, developed in 1977, changed the course of dream research by positing dreaming as little more than a byproduct of random neurological impulses, acknowledge that the cerebral cortex can't help but look for symbols in "the relatively noisy signals sent up . . . from the brain stem," and when it comes to popular culture, there may be no more prevalent notion than that dreams can be cracked like code. Last fall, during a special edition of the Donny & Marieshow, syndicated dream columnist Cynthia Richmond used the most basic metaphors -- water as emotion, the childhood home as safety -- to explain the dreams of the co-hosts; meanwhile, Internet sites such as Swoon.comoffer elaborate, if generalized, glossaries of dream imagery ("If you dreamed of being dead yourself," one entry tells us, "it indicates an approaching release from worries and/or a recovery from illness. If you spoke with someone who is dead, you will soon hear very good news"), framing dream analysis as little more than a high-tech parlor game.
What's tricky about metaphors, though, is that they're not always obvious. A number of years ago, for instance, while trying to resolve some particularly thorny life decisions, I dreamed I was walking on a narrow pathway when suddenly it forked, leaving me uncertain of how to proceed. As I stood there, I heard a voice urge me to take the road less traveled, which is what I did. To be honest, such a dream embarrasses me; my mind should be more supple than that, I've always thought, or at least more perverse. But metaphors can come layered with hidden agendas, which means that a dream like this one may not be as clear-cut as it seems. Not long before going to Santa Cruz, in fact, I described the dream to Charles T. Zeltzer, an Encino-based Jungian analyst and director of training at the C.G. Jung Institute, as an almost stereotypical example of a dream with a message, only to have him relate it to a second dream I'd mentioned, in which I found myself unexpectedly reunited with an old girlfriend. Each dream, Zeltzer acknowledged, could be read according to its surfaces, but taken together they seemed to indicate a deep ambivalence on the part of the dreamer, a quality that has always marked the way I see the world.
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