By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
ALTHOUGH I FIND DOMHOFF'S "CONTINUITY HYPOTHESIS" the most profound aspect of his research, like most psychological hypotheses it gives short shrift to the idea of dreaming as a function of imagination, a state akin to daydreaming or brainstorming that may be most important not for what it says about the way we live as for what it tells us about how we could. "Scientists, on the whole, tend to be uncomfortable with imagination," suggests Rosalind Cartwright, director of the Sleep Disorder Service and Research Center at RushPresbyterianSt. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. "They're skeptical that you can use it as the basis of real research." Cartwright has been wrestling with this issue since 1963, when, as a researcher at the University of Chicago, she studied the effects of psychotropic drugs and realized that what interested her was the resemblance of her subjects' hallucinations to waking dreams. "I began to wonder," she recalls, "if you dream during the day, do you need to dream at night? Are the drugs and dreams tapping into the same thing?" To find out, she decided to construct a dream lab, and although her original inquiry was inconclusive, nearly 40 years later she's still investigating dreams.
For Cartwright, the problem with most clinical dream research is that "it's reductionistic" -- focused on a single small corner of the nocturnal map. For this, she blames Hobson and McCarley, who, she suggests, "cost us 20 years of research" by framing everything as a function of neurobiology. Now 77, with clear green eyes and a face that crinkles into uncomplicated glee as she discusses her work, she seeks a more expansive way of thinking about dreaming, in which biology, psychology and imagination merge. She does agree with Domhoff that most dreams can be read at least somewhat literally, as "ongoing streams of emotional information processing," in which every experience carries a charge. "One of the functions of REM sleep," she says, "is to discharge negative emotion, so if you're upset about something, you might have a series of dreams that work it through." Yet even as they address a specific dilemma, Cartwright insists, our dreams may appear to be about something else entirely, perhaps an ancient memory dredged up from childhood. The link is emotional resonance, which means that the most seemingly discontinuous dreams "address associated previous experiences, creating an affective thread that runs throughout the night." This accounts for the prevalence of certain narratives, like the examination dream, in which one has to take a test for which one hasn't studied, or the so-called "sentinel dream," which is how Cartwright reads my childhood dying nightmare, as a warning to pay attention to something (abandonment? insecurity?) in my life. As we grow older, the images may change, but the issues remain, which is why these dreams retain their power, often across many years. "What these dreams have in common," Cartwright says, "is that they represent some form of early trauma that stays with us as an emotional signal, and then becomes the nexus of a memory network that is triggered by an event or experience in current life."
Since the early 1990s, Cartwright has spent much of her time looking into the connection between dreaming and depression. Her conclusions are nothing short of extraordinary: If a subject's dreams "run through the night from negative to more positive," Cartwright can predict with 80 percent accuracy a full recovery from depression, whereas if the dreams get worse as the night continues, the opposite percentages hold true. But more than the predictive element, what interests me is the way this indicates something deeper, some subterranean landscape in which our emotional lives go on without us, allowing us to resolve while sleeping issues that confound us when we're awake. "What is the function of dreaming?" Cartwright muses when I ask her about it. "It's like saying what is the function of waking?"
OR AS STEPHEN LABERGE, A STANFORD UNIVERSIty psychophysiology Ph.D. and director of research at Palo Alto's Lucidity Institute, asks in his e-mail newsletter LUCIDITY*FLASHES: "How do you know that you're not dreaming right now?" It's a good question, and a welcome change from considering dreams as psychological cartography. This, of course, is LaBerge's point -- to remind us that, when dealing with dreams, we're dealing with the inexplicable, and that our dream lives can reveal not just our feelings, but something about the nature of consciousness as well. "In the dream state," LaBerge says by phone from the Lucidity Institute, "the only essential difference from waking is the relative absence of sensory input, which makes dreaming a special case of perception withoutsensory input." This interpretation is supported by Cartwright, who calls dreaming "a transitional stage in which the brain stops processing external information, but remains active. It's a 24-hour ongoing process that only surfaces when the brain state is right." LaBerge, however, can't resist pursuing the idea into uncharted territory, arguing that "More interesting may be to see it as vice versa, that perception is a special case of dreaming, constrained by sensory input."
The possibility of a conscious dream experience is central to LaBerge's work on lucid dreaming. The idea itself -- that dreaming is not a passive but an active process that we can manipulate for a wide range of purposes -- is hardly a new one; reports of the phenomenon go back as far as Aristotle, and Tibetan Buddhists have used it as part of their spiritual practice for more than a thousand years. In the West, however, the idea has been treated seriously only since the 1970s, in no small measure due to LaBerge. The way it works is this: In the lab, subjects are asked to focus on something they want to explore in a dream. After falling asleep, they receive a series of light cues to activate their conscious thinking, after which they're free to take charge of the dream, much as a director dictates the action of a film. It's a difficult concept to grasp, especially if you're accustomed to believing that dreams happen to us, that we are more observers than controllers of these inner worlds. Yet lucidity, LaBerge insists, is a fairly unremarkable feature of dreaming, emerging each time we realize we're asleep, regardless of how, or whether, we put the information to use. My screaming nightmares (in which, at a certain point, I recognize the dreams for what they are and begin to yell intentionally, with the goal of waking my wife, who will in turn wake me) are examples of this process at its most rudimentary, and LaBerge says more sophisticated applications are available to those who want to learn. "It takes some work," he admits, "but that's only because nobody's taught us. We don't teach our children how to dream."