|Illustration by Jason Holley|
I REMEMBER ONLY TWO DREAMS FROM MY CHILDHOOD, but in both of them I'm running for my life. The first is less a narrative than a fragment, an image, really, of my preschool-age self fleeing through the streets of some nameless city with an enormous spider hot on my trail. I can see its fangs and its awful hinged limbs, and as it closes on me the buildings loom tighter and the sky grows darker until, at the very last minute, I wake up. If you were to ask me, I could tell you just where I was when I had that dream — on the foldout couch in my grandparents' living room in Connecticut — and describe the strangely brittle mix of terror and relief I felt upon returning to the conscious world. Still, for all the specificity with which, more than three decades later, the memory lingers, the dream itself is fairly common, the kind of chasing dream my own 5-year-old son tends to have (although in his the chasing is done by skeletons, not giant arachnids), and to tell the truth, it's been years since I paid it any mind.
The second dream is different, and has always seemed to me to harbor a message about who I am. It's elaborately detailed, a big-budget extravaganza full of complex camera angles and special effects. I am on the streets of a city again, alone, when a man appears and threatens me. I want to run, but as often happens in dreams, I am inexplicably rooted. As the man draws nearer I try to scream, but my voice is silent; I move to strike him, but my arms feel like they're made of lead. Just as he reaches me, the perspective shifts to an aerial view of a two-lane road running through the Connecticut woods. It's the road to my grandparents' house, a road whose every dip and turn I've long since memorized, even though I'm only 4. After a moment, I see my parents' car and, through the roof, my father fiddling with the radio as he drives. My mother sits beside him, but even as I wonder why they are without me, my father finds a news station, and listens while the commentator reports my death. Before my parents can react, the perspective begins to telescope, pulling back from the car like a crane-held camera, the vista going wide enough to reveal the curve of the Earth. And in that moment I finally see myself, flying high above the car like a guardian angel — or a nightmare, depending on your point of view.
There are a couple of reasons why I remember this dream so distinctly. First is the oddity of having died, yet also survived in some ghostly fashion, a circumstance informed, I'm sure, by the cosmology of a 4-year-old, but powerful to me all the same. Among the common myths about dreaming, after all, is that if you die in a dream, you die in real life, and although my experience clearly contradicts that, it makes me wonder about the ability of dreams to take us to another dimension, where we see or do things impossible in the everyday. Second is the dream's vividness, its three-dimensionality, even down to the sensation of flying, the feeling of the wind on my face. It's what researchers call an “anomalous” dream. The most common such dreams generally have aspects of the paranormal: premonitions of the future, even visitations from the dead. Yet equally significant are those involving out-of-body experiences, such as this one, or states of lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer actively manipulates the dream. For much of my adult life, I have suffered from screaming nightmares, in which I find myself running from a danger so extreme that the only way to escape is, literally, to take control of the situation and shout myself awake. These nightmares are what initially attracted me to dream research, as if, were I finally able to understand them, I might make them go away. That hasn't happened, but after navigating my way through the current theories, from psychology to parapsychology, from Content Analysis to “world dreaming,” I can't help feeling that I've traced a psychic through line from my childhood to my grown-up self.
It's this idea, this edge of (possible) connection between dreaming and waking, I believe, that is at the heart of our fascination with dreams. Since earliest history, we have looked to dreams for something to believe in, from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who considered them a form of prophecy, to the Australian aborigines, whose very mythos revolves around the proto-reality of the dreamtime, a state from which we are born and to which we return after death, and which influences our most quotidian activities in the form of rituals and signs. Here in the modern world, shamanism has long since yielded to psychology, but if we now see dreams as representing our fears, our desires, we have yet to decode them in any definitive way. A hundred years ago, Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams signaled what seemed like a breakthrough in our understanding, but the last century has not been kind to Freud, nor to his idea that “Every dream, when the work of analysis is complete, turns out to be the fulfillment of a wish.” The same, to a lesser extent, is true of Freud's disciple Carl Jung, whose theory of the collective unconscious has also come under fire in recent years, considered too specific to its time and place (early-20th-century Europe) to stand as evolutionary history. Since the early 1950s, when REM sleep (the rapid-eye-movement state in which the vast majority of dreams occur) was first identified at the University of Chicago, we've known that dreaming and REM are intimately connected, but 50 years later we still can't say, with any certainty, why. Some researchers tell us that we dream to remember, while others insist â that dreaming is an emotional purgative, in which we relive unsettling experiences in order to forget them once and for all. Some see dreams as shadow landscapes where what we experience is as real as anything that happens during waking consciousness, while others consider them as little more than side effects of sleep, with no particular biological purpose of their own.
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 & Marie show, 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.com offer 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.
As for Hartmann, on the second day of the ASD conference, at a workshop on “Dreams and Explanatory Metaphor,” he is challenged by several other researchers who question the value of focusing on this one aspect of dreaming at the exclusion of everything else. “Even if you find a metaphor,” asks Mark Blagrove, a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Wales, “how do you know it's true? Sometimes, metaphors can be deceptive. It happens when we're awake, so why not during sleep?” Blagrove's point is mitigated slightly by psychologist and former ASD president Johanna King: “Dreams lie all the time,” she says. “That's one of the wonderful things about them. But they never lie about the emotional situation of the dreamer.” Still, King believes, what gets lost in the discussion of metaphor is the idea of the dream as a real experience, not merely a reflection of the dreamer's waking life. As an example, she cites a patient who, after enduring “a disruptive and damaged relationship with his father,” had a dream that recast the bond as positive — a circumstance King calls “developmentally corrective” and, as such, valuable in and of itself. “I agree that dreams contextualize emotion,” she admits, “but I'm not always so sure that most dreaming is metaphorical. Sometimes, the dream is just about the dream. If you overplay metaphor, you do a little damage to the dream, and the ability to use the dream.” Even my childhood dream of dying, which, Hartmann assures me in a subsequent phone call, is in many ways a classic metaphor of the child's anxiety about a world over which he or she has no control, shifts in the second part from the archetypal to the personal, becoming an expression less of anything universal than of my own individual fears.
AMONG THOSE WHO DOUBT THE EFFICACY OF METAPHOR, none is as adamant on the subject as G. William Domhoff, professor of psychology and sociology at UC Santa Cruz and a leading proponent of the Content Analysis method of dream research. Brash, bald and bullet-headed — he looks like Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard — Domhoff is a self-appointed bullshit detector in a field where, he believes, most people can't help themselves from getting carried away. “The problem with clinical theories of dreaming,” he says, “is that they're anecdotal. They're also retrospective, in that the clinician knows the patient, and understands something of his or her emotional state.” Such intimacy, Domhoff says, compromises one's ability to look at the dreams objectively. “The only way to avoid that,” he explains, “is to do blind analysis — in which you know nothing about the dreamer, just the dream.”
Of course, even today, when technology can measure almost everything, there is no more precise way to record a dream than the traditional dream report, a firsthand account, written by the dreamer, re-creating the experience of the dream. If you're looking for a simple, er, metaphor to illustrate the process, it's like looking at a map and trying to visualize within its two dimensions all the loamy richness of the world. Still, despite this rather significant limitation, Domhoff believes that most dreams contain motifs that, like the lines of a road or a river, can be represented and read. The key is to have a “coding system,” much as a map would have a legend, which is where Content Analysis comes in. Originally developed at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University by psychologist Calvin S. Hall (with whom Domhoff studied in the late 1950s and early 1960s), Content Analysis relies on what's known as the Hall/Van de Castle system, which classifies dreams according to a dozen clearly defined categories, including setting, social interaction, the presence of other characters, emotion, themes of success or failure, and engagement with the past. The important idea here isn't whether these elements mean anything in themselves, but the way they function as an environment through which the dreamer moves, like the protagonist of a story or play. “Our approach to dreams is very different â from the usual ones,” Domhoff declares on his DreamBank Web site (www.dreambank.net). “It does not draw on case histories, free associations, amplifications, symbolic interpretations, or any other material from outside the dream reports themselves. This is not the fluffy dream-interpretation stuff you see in supermarket tabloids and on daytime talk shows. We do not interpret dreams, we analyze them.”
What Content Analysis requires is a depth of inquiry. “For our system,” Domhoff says, “we need 100 to 125 dreams at least. We can't say anything with less than that.” On the DreamBank site, he has cataloged more than 6,000 dreams from 23 different series, recorded in dream diaries and laboratory studies (including the original reports on which Hall and Robert Van de Castle based their system) and often extending over decades of an individual's life. In that sense, Domhoff's work has more than a little to do with cultural anthropology; among the trends he's uncovered is a wide range of “cross-cultural similarities in dreaming” — dreams of birth, of death, of anxiety, of flying — which come up regardless of whether the dreamer is from an industrialized or a preliterate society. Rather than a validation of Jungian theory (which, along with Freud's ideas on dreaming, he disdains as “clinically insupportable”), he sees this as proof of our “shared humanity.” More to the point is Domhoff's thesis that, considered over time, dreams can operate much like therapy, which is why, just as a therapist would never hazard an opinion based on one 50-minute session (or even 10), he is relatively uninterested in single dreams, seeing them as useless for decoding emotional states. When I mention my childhood nightmares, for instance, he refuses even to conjecture about their meaning, growing testy when I press the point. About all he'll tell me is that these dreams, like every dream, are expressions of an emotion, a preoccupation, and, as such, are “continuous with waking life.”
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 without sensory 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.”
What LaBerge is talking about is not the instinct to dream but the mechanics of dreaming, the notion that it is a skill that can be sharpened. As for why we'd want to, the obvious answer is for the adventure of it, to enjoy our dreams as what LaBerge calls “personal virtual reality, allowing us to do things that might not be possible otherwise.” Sex plays a big part in these “adventure/exploration” scenarios, as do physically impossible feats like flying, or any fantasy at all. But to see lucidity only in terms of wish fulfillment is to underestimate the power of such dreams to engage us at the core. One common use of lucid dreaming is as a “rehearsal for living,” in which a shy person can work on his social skills, or a worker can dream her way through asking for a raise. Another involves “creative problem solving,” as in the case of an artist who, while sleeping, visited a dream gallery and, in the paintings he saw there, found the solution to a stalled work of his own. Listening to LaBerge run through these examples, I'm reminded of a passage from Ernest Hartmann's book Dreams and Nightmares, in which he â marks the connection between dreaming and discovery. “Great things can happen in dreams — great discoveries in science and art,” he writes. “Elias Howe invented the sewing machine based on a dream. Robert Louis Stevenson reported that his novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to him directly from a dream. Mozart claimed that many of the themes for his music came to him in dreams, and Tartini wrote a well-known violin sonata that he says he transcribed simply from a dream in which he heard the devil playing it for him on a violin.” The same might be said of René Descartes, who found his signature ideas in dreams, then used the experience to underscore a “position of universal doubt,” arguing that, if dreaming could trick him into believing he was active “when in fact I am lying undressed in bed,” there was no way ever to be certain of the point where dreams and waking begin and end.
If Descartes' “dream argument” has anything to tell us, it may be just how little definitive information we've gathered about dreaming in the last 350 years. I, however, prefer to see it as a precursor to LaBerge's query about whether we're dreaming now. It is, after all, only a small leap from the Cartesian landscape of doubt to one where, as LaBerge suggests, dreams are less illusions of consciousness than discrete experiences, as authentic as anything in waking life. “Although the events we appear to perceive in dreams are illusory,” he writes in a 1990 research paper, “our feelings in response to dream content are real. Indeed, most of the events we experience in dreams are real; when we experience feelings, say, anxiety or ecstasy, in dreams, we really do feel anxious or ecstatic at the time.” Of course, when it comes to dreams, almost every answer opens up another question, and LaBerge's findings are no exception. At the deepest level, he notes, dreaming may be “a spiritualizing experience, in which you understand that life has more to it than you ever knew. Dreams look real, but they're in your mind, so you realize that the physical world is also a construction, which shows that the mind can affect reality in more ways than you can imagine.” This is, he acknowledges, treacherous territory for a scientist, but, then, the one irrefutable truth about science is that its terms are always changing. “Twenty years ago,” LaBerge says, “lucid dreams were considered anomalous, but now because of research, they fit into current science. In my view, the only things that are truly anomalous are PSI effects — telepathic dreams or dreams that predict the future — because they don't fit in with current notions of space and time.”
THE KEY WORD HERE IS “CURRENT,” FOR BY USING it, LaBerge is saying that at some point he expects those notions to change. Such a sentiment is echoed by Stephen Aizenstat, founding president of Santa Barbara's Pacifica Graduate Institute and a clinician who has worked with dreams since the mid-1970s, although he frames it in far simpler terms: “The psyche is multidimensional,” he says, as if this were the most obvious idea in the world. It was, in fact, a multidimensional experience that started Aizenstat on his own road to dream research: a series of dreams about his long-dead great-grandfather, culminating with one in which the old man led him to a wooden chest, then opened it to reveal a book. Once Aizenstat shared the dreams with members of his family, he discovered that his great-aunt not only knew the chest in question, but actually had it in her house. Sure enough, when he opened it, the book from his dream was waiting inside. “It was a book of my great-grandfather's life and writings,” Aizenstat remembers. “He was a Kabbalist. So I read the book, and got in touch with that part of my lineage. And, as it happens, a lot of his ideas were similar to mine.”
You can take a story like this any way you want to, as testimony or allegory, memoir or myth. More than anything, however, Aizenstat considers it inspiration, a textbook example of what he calls “ancestor dreaming,” which is, in turn, a significant part of “world dreaming,” a theory he has been refining for more than 20 years. Drawing on everything from Freud and Jung to the work of Joseph Campbell and his own clinical experience, world dreaming seeks to take into account dreaming at every level, from the directly representational — “A lot of dreams,” Aizenstat admits, “are fairly straightforward, arising from our experiences in the last 48 hours and our need to deal with them” — through the archetypal and beyond, into a realm he characterizes as “eco-psychological,” in which dreams do not merely explain us, but enlarge us, putting us in touch with something like a global soul. For Aizenstat, this has less to do with metaphor (although, as he says, “It is the genius of the psyche to speak in image”) than mythology, in which the most essential notion is that “Dreams are alive.” When we sleep, he believes, we enter not only the limited interior space of our imaginations, but a collective dreamscape where our reveries mingle with those of other entities. “Everything we see in dreams,” he declares, “is a living, breathing creature of the dreamtime, and it tells its stories from the inside out.”
Ideas like these, as one might expect, have their detractors, especially among researchers who think that dreaming is a byproduct of cognitive thinking, and requires an active (read: human) intelligence to occur. “Dreaming is a cognitive achievement,” insists William Domhoff, “and develops gradually in human beings. It takes the ability to imagine visually to have a dream.” What this means is that children younger than 2 or 3 may not dream in any way we recognize because they lack the necessary cognitive development, part of which involves language skills. According to Rosalind Cartwright, “We know there's a lot of REM in utero, although it probably has an entirely different function. But we also think some early screaming at night may have to do with a single frightening image.” Still, if dreaming is so deeply connected to cognition and language, how do we make sense of, say, the REM sleep of animals? For Aizenstat, the issue isn't that animals (or anything else, for that matter) dream as we do, but that in dreaming as themselves, they become participants in an animated landscape where “dreams are not just part of our personal complexes, nor even a collective human psyche, but also of all creatures and all phenomena of the world.” It is his deeply held belief that “everything dreams” — which means animals, buildings, flowers, oceans, the very ground we stand on, anything that has a physical presence in the world.
In that sense, Aizenstat's theory may be most appropriately interpreted as a contemporary extrapolation on the aboriginal dreamtime, albeit mediated by modern psychology. Indeed, lest we lose sight of what's most important, Aizenstat stresses that there's little point in even thinking about all this if we aren't able to use it to make sense of our dreams. When I solicit his thoughts on my childhood death dream, he asks about my grandparents and my feelings toward Connecticut, and it seems to confirm something after I tell him that, for me as a child, both represented a zone of comfort, equally nurturing and serene. What I've experienced, Aizenstat suggests, may be less a nightmare than a dream of reconciliation, a kind of psychic journey from a place of fear and anxiety to one that's more receptive to my needs. As for the death part, this is just a matter of transition; the whole dream, in fact, can be read as an expression of what Aizenstat calls the “angelic imperative,” a new sense of self-awareness, as embodied by the moment that I see myself. The most important element, he says, is the way the dream has lingered. “The dream is an announcement of your own autonomy,” Aizenstat tells me. “And it is as alive now as it ever was.”
It is this merging of the theoretical and the practical that, for me, gives world dreaming its weight. At the Association for the Study of Dreams conference in Santa Cruz, in a speech titled “Tending the Dream Is Tending the World,” Aizenstat recalls a patient, a lawyer of Mexican descent, who, in a dream, had seen a church crumbling, “as if there is a kind of assault that is happening to the structure.” Aizenstat tried several approaches to analysis, but the dream recurred — until the man revealed that the church reminded him of a village in Mexico. At that point, Aizenstat began to consider the dream in terms of “the world psyche,” in which “The interpretation of the dream may be indeed the act of doing something on behalf of the dream rather than only understanding a psychological meaning of the dream.” Eventually, the man learned that his grandmother had lived in a village much like the one he was seeing, and he decided to go in search of the dream. “He took time off,” Aizenstat says, “and he went to that village, and he asked around, and do you know what he discovered? His grandmother had died, and there was an assault on that place going on. There were developers right outside the village, and what do you think was being condemned? Yes, the church was being condemned. And he said, 'No. These dreams are demanding something of me, and I am asked to be here and do something on behalf of this village, on behalf of these people, and on behalf of this church. This is ancestor dreaming now; this is place dreaming now.' And he spent the next six months applying everything he knew, legally and in other ways, and brought to it all the resources he had, and he talked to all kinds of people about getting architectural resources, and he made that his life's work for the next six months, and he is still doing it to this day . . . Dreams from the world. Yes! As if walls could talk — and indeed they do!”
I COME AWAY FROM MY CONVERSATION WITH Aizenstat feeling like I've awakened from a vivid sleep. The sensation is eerily similar — a kind of dislocation, what you might call a suspension of disbelief. Animals dreaming? Okay, I've seen it. Trees or oceans? I can get behind that, too. Walls, buildings, bricks and mortar, the inanimate substance of the manmade world? It's hard to swallow back a certain skepticism at such a notion, but how else do you explain the lawyer's dream? Perhaps the only honest answer is to admit that we can't, which leaves the field unfathomably open, limitless but for the interpretive lengths to which we are willing to go. As for me, I've always believed in what the physicist David Bohm calls an “implicate order” to the universe — an underpinning logic, a level of connection beneath the surface of the world. I can't say whether dreams provide us access to this subscape or if they're just a lavish form of mental fireworks, yet I find it comforting that the most astute researchers inhabit the same uncharted territory as the rest of us, relying on hunches and conjecture, looking for what amount to signs. Even Hobson and McCarley, the Activation-Synthesis gurus, have had to reassess their theory in the last year or so, as recent brain-mapping experiments have provided the first clinical evidence for dreaming as a psychological regulation system, a development that Rosalind Cartwright hopes will impel a whole new generation of researchers to re-immerse themselves in dreams. Beyond that, though, the subject remains elusive, leading us in circles before finally returning us to ourselves.
Dreams operate in much the same fashion, allowing our wildest ideas to come off as plausible, or at least worth giving a deeper look. In 1996, one theorist sought to study the influence of weather on dreaming, mapping thousands of dreams by geographic area (the results were inconclusive); the same year, David Alan Black, a communications professor at Seton Hall University, launched the Dream Narrative Experiment (https://orpheus.shu.edu/
dream), a Web site listing 237 “dream sets,” each of which features one phony and three real dreams, and asks visitors to differentiate between them, if they can. The focus in both cases is on sociology more than dream research — “I've been curious,” Black writes, “to know the answer to a simple question: Can people tell the difference between a real dream, and a 'dream' that someone has made up?” Yet even Black's “simple question” is far more complicated than it appears. Over a dozen attempts, I identified the fake dream only once, and if that's well below the average (of more than 4,000 people who have participated in the experiment, about a third correctly spotted the invented dreams, which, Black notes, is “higher than the random distribution of 25 percent”), there's still a wide enough margin of error to make us wonder if we can ever truly pinpoint what makes a dream a dream.
As Ernest Hartmann admits in Dreams and Nightmares, “Despite many years of working clinically with my patients' dreams and helping patients understand themselves, and despite years of research examining the biology of sleep and dreaming, I still know little about the basic nature of dreams — the 'what' — or the possible functions of dreaming — the 'why.'” And for all of my own immersion into dream research, I feel pretty much the same. I still don't know, for instance, what my childhood nightmare is about. It could be an expression of fear, or a sign to pay attention, to (literally or otherwise) see myself. Or perhaps it's some kind of hidden message, spanning decades, and not really a nightmare at all. But regardless of meaning, it continues to move me, which tells me that when it comes to dreams, and, for that matter, dreamwork, it is the questions, and not the answers, that resound.
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