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Vol. 3, No. 6, 2004
 

     
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WHY DO WE DREAM?

by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

PREAMBLE

There will come a day when every dream will be known by its category and every significant dream (those that yield ‘practical’ knowledge), will be perfectly understood. In this future, dream analysis, as an epistemologically grounded system of inquiry, will have acquired a status comparable to science and will be regarded as one of the principal sources of self-knowledge.

What is remarkable is that because we all dream, we are already in possession of this knowledge. But the laws that would make this knowledge explicit have not yet been uncovered, much like the motion of the planets was observed but held no practical knowledge prior to Kepler. The pseudo-science of dream analysis is stuck in a pre-Keplerian universe.

If dream analysis is to advance beyond the speculative sphere, it must take a bold step backwards and finally begin to establish and secure its axioms and first principles -- the indispensable building blocks of knowledge.

The fundamental question that must be asked is: what can we say for certain, if anything, about dreams?

 

TO DEVELOP A SCIENTIFIC FOUNDATION FOR DREAM ANALYSIS

Despite the significant work of Freud and Jung, dream analysis, as a psychoanalytical tool, has played only a minor role in the unravelling of the human psyche because it hasn’t been able to establish a scientific foundation for itself. For the most part, the leaders in the field have been operating under the assumption that there exists a (phantom) unifying principle that accounts for the various categories of dreams and their fixed significance: the presence of a snake always means this, being chased always means that. And while models and theories abound, their predictive value collapses in the face of individual experience.

So if we begin with the presupposition that every dream, like every snowflake, has its unique structure and meaning, we can turn our attention away from a grand unifying principle, and instead, begin to ask the primordial questions of dreams.

Our first task will be to demonstrate the biological basis (the necessity) of dreaming in order to show that dreams are as singularly purposeful to man's psychological life as, for example, essential proteins are to his physiological well being. From there, it must be further demonstrated that all dreams, other than those that anticipate urgent bodily functions, oblige the dreamer to subconsciously come to terms with truths or facts the conscious mind has wilfully distorted or misinterpreted. When this is accomplished, dream analysis will be able to confidently lay claim to having revealed its essential structures and operating principles that will not only account for the universal activity of dreaming but provide the tools to extract exact meanings from dreams.

THE ONE DREAM

Why do we dream, to what ultimate purpose? What is the meaning of dreaming, where the meaning or essence is the same for each and every dream, much like a house can mean a thousand things to a thousand dwellers, but prior to individual meaning, it is always first and foremost a shelter.

We are the only species that can wilfully delude ourselves. I can convince myself that my neighbour likes me when he really doesn`t; that my understanding of the philosophy of Hegel is adequate enough to effectively teach it when it isn`t; that I approve of my daughter`s choice of a husband when I don`t. In each case there are incontrovertible facts which should lead me to conclude that (1) my neighbour doesn`t like me (2) that my understanding of Hegel is inadequate (3) that I don`t approve of my daughter`s marriage; but in each case the facts have been undermined or corrupted by a self-serving interpretation whose first effect is to 'apparently' defuse what would otherwise be stress-inducing states. These lies we tell ourselves constitute our reflexive response to stress with the expectation that, in each and every instance, we will be both psychically and physically rewarded. Or, restating Freud’s pleasure principle, deceiving ourselves is more pleasurable than its opposite.

It is much easier to convince myself that my neighbour likes me than have to deal with the possibility that he doesn`t, and why: did I inadvertently insult him, embarrass his wife, what will I say if he confronts me? It`s again easier to convince myself that I have an adequate understanding of Hegel than have to again struggle with his recalcitrant material. If I`m honest with myself concerning my daughter`s marriage to a man I disapprove of, I risk losing her affection, her respect and the father-daughter contact which is very important to me. So there are all sorts of good and practical reasons for deluding myself. But.

We also know that it is always in an organism`s best survival interests to perceive reality for what it is (and not what it would like it to be), so as to be able to maximally respond to potentially life threatening situations. Therefore, we shouldn`t be surprised that over the course of animal and human evolution the selection process has favoured those species that have been best able to register and process reality. So on the one hand, we are a species that has been programmed to register and respond to the facts and reality of the external world, while at the same time we can choose to delude ourselves concerning these same facts. Which begs the question: how are these competing motivations reconciled?

Before the emergence of intelligence (or self-consciousness), the sensible world made its home in what is known as the subconscious (or unconscious). Any organism, in a manner consistent with its DNA, would register and process information coming from outside and respond in a predetermined fashion. However, with the emergence of self-consciousness, Man, for the first time in the evolution of life, could not only interpret information initially received through the senses; he could willfully distort it -- for his apparent self-interest. Seeing that it is always in the survival interest of the organism to register facts as they are, over and above the mind’s willingness to distort these same facts, natural selection must have favoured the kind of intelligent life we are that is capable of generating corrective dreams that can overrule the conscious mind’s propensity to distort reality. If at some critical juncture in our evolution there was a human prototype without the capacity (to dream), it didn’t survive.

Therefore, as an essential activity that provides for the survival of the host organism, the generic activity of dreaming serves as the involuntary, biological response to the conscious mind’s susceptibility to self-delusion. Dreaming, perforce, occurs in the subconscious (during sleep) because there, and only there, the senses, unmediated by intelligence, cannot distort the registering and processing of reality. It would be redundant for dreaming to occur in the conscious mind because the latter is the home to reason, in itself a potentially formidable correcting mechanism, which when exercised, obviates the need to dream. It is only when reason fails to perform its duty, to acknowledge reality for what it is, that the species response in each and every case is to dream. If, for example, in my waking life I am capable of bringing myself to admit that I disapprove of my daughter’s choice of marriage partner, my subconscious will not have to generate a corrective dream, but if I reject or distort that truth, a corrective dream will ensue. Which is to say if the conscious mind can be happy in self-delusion, wilfully distorting facts for the purpose of reducing stress, the subconscious can never be; and it always has the last word. At the same time, the subconscious cannot pre-empt the distorting process; it can only respond to it through the mechanism of dreaming.

What is the purpose of dreaming when its effects rarely impinge upon the consciousness of the person generating the dream? Not only do most of us not recall our dreams, when we do they are so mysterious we can’t make heads or tails of them. In other words, what, if anything, is being corrected by a dream that we can’t remember and doesn’t make any sense?

Dreaming isn’t a discriminatory or selective process. Without prejudice, as a correcting mechanism, it responds in kind to all the upper mind’s distortions of reality, most of which have very little impact on our lives. Like the staggering quantities of information with which we’re bombarded everyday, most of it insignificant, it makes sense that we should only want to be able to recall our most significant dreams, those that implicate our most serious and consequential distortions of reality that threaten to undermine our well-being or the well-being of those under our care. If, for example, I convince myself that my neighbour, whom I rarely see, likes me, when in fact he doesn’t, a corrective dream will force me to confront that fact, but because the neighbour has practically no impact on my life, it really doesn’t matter if I fail to recall the dream. As far as my subconscious is concerned, it is enough that the dream has been dreamt, the correction made. However, if I convince myself that my understanding of Hegel is adequate to teach it, when it is not, which puts my job at risk, the loss of which will impact disastrously on my family, I will not only generate a dream that will force me to come to terms with my self-serving delusions, but the intensity and the frequency of the dream will increase in proportion to my continued reluctance to give them up. When we wake up in the middle of a dream, it is because we have been stubbornly unwilling to come to terms with a particular distortion of reality that bears directly on our lives. And yet when we awake disturbed by a dream we distinctly remember, it is so strange and other-worldly and often symbolic, we are unable to make any advance on its meaning even as the mood and feeling of it holds us in its tight grip.

I propose that since we are unwilling to come to terms with a particular truth during our waking hours, we might not come to terms with this same truth during sleep if the setting and content of the dream are exactly the same as the real life situation. Therefore, dreams often generate strange and unusual environments and symbols (often using objects and landscapes from our most recent experiences) in order to induce or cajole us into reenacting dramatic situations which oblige us to come to subconscious terms with vital truths, the mood or feeling of which corresponds to the truths we are avoiding in our waking state. If I refuse to come to terms with my inadequate knowledge of Hegel, I might find myself dreaming about trying to repair the motor of a stalled vehicle on a terrifyingly freezing winter night, while my family is huddled up in the car. In the dream, I will fail to repair the motor, the result of which jeopardizes my family. When I wake up, I will ideally recall not only the strange setting and circumstance of the dream, but the disturbing fact that my inadequate knowledge has endangered my family. If the dream has no effect on my conscious mind (perhaps I will have completely forgotten it), the following night I may dream the exact same dream, or another dream where, once again, experientially (dreams always seem real while we’re in the midst of them) I will have to reenact my inadequate knowledge of something which imperils my family. If the dream continues to have no impact, out of necessity, it will turn into a nightmare from which I’ll awaken, its contents terrifyingly fresh and urgent. At this point, I will probably, at a minimum, be motivated to question the dream, until it moves me to acknowledge my lack of understanding of Hegel. People who experience extended nightmares over months and even years, are stubbornly, perhaps pathologically, refusing to come to terms with life-critical truths.

THE NIGHTMARE -- MAN'S BEST FRIEND

The nightmare is the most noteworthy of dreams because its design (purpose) is such that, as a response to our most contrived and serious self-deceptions, it deliberately affects the conscious, awake mind. It is the tightrope the dreamer walks between subconscious and conscious states. As a last ditch effort to break down the refusal of the conscious mind to part with its illusions, the nightmare is intended to be remembered. To this end, it induces terror, helplessness and anxiety for its effects. The nightmare becomes an appropriate and arguably necessary response when the organism determines that its upper mind capacity for self-delusion is life-threatening, and/or carries significant negative consequences. When a nightmare fails to impact on the conscious mind, it will repeat until the host either acknowledges a particular truth or succumbs to the consequences of refusing to part with the contrived distortion of that truth. In other words the nightmare will either provoke me into admitting that my understanding of Hegel is inadequate to teach it or I’ll lose my job.

Seeing that the nightmare reveals a potentially pathological reluctance to engage with a particular set of facts as they are, we shouldn’t be surprised that children, in whom fantasy and unreality have been nurtured since birth, should experience more nightmares than adults (which they do beginning at the age of 5), as a measure of their unwillingness to relinquish their fantasy life. It follows that children raised in primitive cultures (or raised more realistically) should be less prone to nightmares than children raised on cartoons. Or an adult who is very realistic about himself should dream less (perhaps require less sleep) than someone who is unrealistic about himself.

* * * * * * *

If we can with some confidence now classify the activity of dreaming as a phenomenon generated by ourselves for ourselves, the purpose of which is to correct our wilful distortions of reality, dream analysis will have already opened up a realm which discloses its essential structures which in turn implicate its methods and operations. In this secured environment, both skilled practitioners and layman should be able to more easily extract meanings from individual dreams, knowing that the activity of dreaming is, in each and every case, the subconscious mind’s answer to the upper mind’s capacity for self delusion.

It should be borne in mind, however, that the precise meaning of a dream is not necessarily the final word or solution to the upper mind’s propensity to distort, because dreams can only respond correctively to the known facts of a situation and not the psychology motivating the facts. I may have to dream a dream that forces me to acknowledge a particular woman isn’t romantically interested in me because in my waking life, rather than acknowledge her rejection and have to negotiate a bruised ego, I instead favourably interpret (distort) her signals. At night, while asleep, I will involuntarily generate a dream that obliges me to confront the fact of rejection. What the dream cannot determine is the motivation behind the signals that have been issued. The woman may have indeed communicated that she clearly does not want to be romantically involved, but unknown to me, she has been forced to bow to extreme parental pressure. So in the absence of any knowledge of her underlying motivation, my dream can only correctively respond to the given facts as they have translated into rejection.

* * * * * * * *

Dreams represent an extremely rich, but untapped natural-knowledge resource. In light of increasing demographic pressures, the mixing of unlike populations, and the iniquitous distribution of the planet’s wealth, intrahuman relations are becoming more and more strained as we look to the future. Dreams and dream analysis, as a source of self-knowledge, might be used to relieve some of these trigger points; but this, pace David Solway, is to put the Descartes before the horse. If dream analysis is to have any epistemological credibility, its first priority must be to establish a sound scientific foundation for itself (not unlike what Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, tried to do for knowledge), and from there, submit what is now mere theory (with perhaps some predictive value) to the rigors of that science. The status and future of dream analysis as a significant investigative tool will hang in the balance until this outcome is secured.

 

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