Scholars' Association News
Issue 39
July 2016


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DANY NOBUS - On dreams and dreaming
Edited by Leda Bouzali

What is the meaning of dreams? The “royal road to the unconscious”, random firings of neurons during the EM-phase or the reason we go to sleep?

Such questions, along with a comprehensive chronicle of sleep-therapy in the course of history, were discussed by Dany Nobus during his lecture at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens in the context of the Hypnos Project. Dany Nobus is Professor of Psychoanalytic Psychology and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for External Affairs at Brunel University London, where he also directs the MA Programme in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Society. In addition, he is the Chair of the Freud Museum London and the author of numerous books and papers on the history, theory and practice of psychoanalysis.

Throughout history and in every civilization dreams has been an inexhaustible source of fascination and inspiration for all of human kind. The precise causes, meanings and relevance of human oneiric life continue to provoke fierce debate between neuroscientists, philosophers and psychoanalysts. The highly peculiar and endlessly varied phantasmagoria of the dream, in which fantasy -as we know- mixes with reason to create enigmatic imagery, puzzling storylines and occasionally disturbing effects, not only raises the question as to what uncontrollable powers we as human beings seem to be in possession of but also as to what it means for us to be self-conscious. What is sleeping or awake? How can we be so sure that wakefulness itself is not another form of dreaming in which we also dream of being awake yet from which we never fully wake up?

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell famously stated “It is obviously possible that what we call waking life may be only an unusual and persistent nightmare. I don’t believe I am now dreaming but I can’t prove I’m not”.

One of the oldest surviving texts in which dreams have been recorded is an Egyptian papyrus which has been dated some 1200 years before Christian era. Archeologists believe that the pages of this remarkable document form part of a larger dream-book which was passed on from one person to another, possibly as an educational guide or as an instructor’s manual for the interpretation of prototypical dreams. Ancient Egyptians were interested in dreams because of their alleged prophetic value and employed them for the purposes of divination and fortunetelling. This paradigm of dreams containing concealed messages from the realm of the gods and the spirits, which may be interpreted as good or bad omens, pervaded almost every culture in the ancient world. And it continues to inform many popular contemporary conceptions of dreams and dreaming in various parts of the world.

The best known example of dreams as prophecies is undoubtedly the story in the Old Testament of how Joseph the son of Jacob interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams, the dream of seven lean cows eating seven fat cows and seven whether ears swallowing seven good ears. A dream which Jacob interpreted as a signal from God.

The premonitory significance of dreams is a staple for other cultural traditions too. Another example comes from the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism, which includes a series of books entitled The Atharva Veda, and dates back to the 13th century B.C.. En entire chapter is devoted to the interpretation of dreams as omens. The closer they occur to dawn, the more they are likely to become reality. From China comes a book, The memoires of the jade casket, which includes a wide range of ancient Chinese dream interpretations.

The most detailed surviving treatise on prophetic dream decoding is by a professional Greek dream reader called Artemidorus of Daldis, 2nd century of the Christian era, who left behind a comprehensive five-volume Oneirokritikon, literally the interpretation of dreams. which was also recognized by Freud as actually compensating for probably all the other lost writings from antiquity on this topic.

Like so many other diviners, Artimidorus primarily deciphered dream symbols on the basis of analogy and similarity. Yet he also acknowledged that from time to time a subtler approach is required, which takes account of the finer points of the dream’s content and -more importantly- which takes into account the life history and the individual characteristics of the dreamer.

Amusing or plausible interpretations there maybe, but one cannot help but express certain reservations about the knowledge base from which the Greek oneiromancy is working. What a particular dream means, whether it constitutes a good or a bad omen, to what extent it is likely to become true, seems to depend on the cultural, religious and moral background of the interpreter himself than on the intrinsic qualities of the dream. If some of the ancient decoding practices seem to make sense, they none the less seem to present themselves as fairly haphazard, quite arbitrary and rather fatuitous. It is quite paradoxical then that oneiromancy has had such a resounding success in such a wide range of cultural traditions. However, maybe it is the bizarre nature of the dream, in combination with our own ontological insecurities, our intrinsic suggestibility, and our wistful willing for self-control, that might explain why this practice of prophetic dream interpretation became so widespread and continues to garnish so much interest.

The criticisms of randomness, lack of scientific evidence, prejudice and interpretive suggestion have also been leveled to Freud, despite the fact that the founder of Psychoanalysis replaced the classic symbol interpretation of dreams with a slightly more sophisticated technique of analysis and also exchanged the idea of dreams containing important supernatural messages about the future for a perspective that situates their value and significance firmly into the past; that is to say within the individual life history of the dreamer. For Freud dreams have meaning, they need to be deciphered in order to reveal their meaning, but they only contain thoughts and representations stemming from the dreamers’ own bygone times. There is no prophetic dream interpretation in Freud.

Historically dreams and dreaming have not only been utilized for prognostic reasons but also for therapeutic purposes, traces of which can be found in ancient Egyptian depictions and in Babylonian texts and are now generally designated as dream incubation practices. Within the sacred space of a miracular temple, the dream seeker would be urged into a search of a dream by a professional dream healer. The longest tradition of dream incubation is believed to have emanated from the Greek god Asclepius, the god of Medicine and healing, whose cult eventually spread in all parts of ancient Greece and Rome. The Asclepieia were the equivalent 19th century sanatoria or modern day health resorts. Healing rituals involving dream incubation have been described in a wide variety of cultures in various parts of the world; from the tribal villages in sub-Saharan Africa to North American first people communities and amongst the Australian Aboriginals.

In the western world too, the practice of dream therapy or dream working is available as an alternative treatment option and was given a new lease of life by virtue of the growing popularity of New Age spiritualism during the 1970s. Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett has become the new intellectual figure of the dream therapy movement. For Barrett dreaming is tantamount “to thinking in a different biochemical state”. It can therefore be utilized constructively to solving the problems of life, especially those that may benefit from strong visualization and those whose resolution may require more creative inspired thinking.

There are numerous historical and contemporary examples of how people have taken their dreams as valuable sources of inspiration, not just for the creative imagination but also for the pursuit of intellectual endeavors. The most famous example of dream inspiration is that of the German chemist August Kekulé who claimed he had discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule through a vivid dream of an Ourovoros, a snake biting its own tail. Niels Bohr alleged that he first saw the structure of the atom in one of his dreams. And none other than Albert Einstein disclosed that he had arrived at the Theory of Relativity after waking up from a dream in which he was sliding down on a steep hill on very high speed and saw how the stars above changed their appearance as he was moving faster and faster.

When it comes to explaining dreams, contemporary Psychology tends to draw on neuroscientific research into how certain areas of the brain are being activated during sleep. Dreams are regarded as the involuntary outcome of a distinctly physical process which is but an extension of wakefulness. In a sense, this perspective follows in the tradition of Aristotle who really stands out amongst the ancient Greeks, owing to what you could call its naturalistic, its proto-physiological basis. He argued that the dream is a form of perception, a specific type of sensation, which differs from waking consciousness in so far as the dreamer only experiences appearances, phantasmata, produced by the imagination, and which have nothing to do with divine messages.

With the invention of the electroencephalogram and the more sophisticated technics of brain scanning (FMRI scanner), neuroscientists have developed better understanding of dream physiology and its relation to brain activity in different types of consciousness. Nowadays, it is commonly accepted that dreams are generated in a fairly random fashion when the sleeping person enters the so-called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep. The brain potential during REM sleep is broadly similar to the brain potential to someone who is awake. So REM sleep is a very paradoxical type of sleep because it is simultaneously the stage of sleep considered to be the deepest but also the stage when the brain is most active.

Within contemporary neuroscience, dreams are not disguised expressions of any kind of deeper force; they do not contain a hidden message at all; they are quite simply forms of brain activity. However, more recently, some researchers have argued that dreaming could be more like the work of creative imagination rather than the cranial production of a delusion and that dreaming may actually also be possible outside REM sleep, in the so-called hypnagogic state of consciousness. Some researchers have argued that this state would also generate certain types of dreams with strong emotional qualities. Most contemporary dream scientists, like J. Allan Hobson, would argue that questions pertaining to the meaning of dreams are totally misguided and should be replaced with alternative investigations into the mental characteristics of dreaming; into how the dream processes differ from waking mental states. Hobson and other scientists are not interested in decoding dreams as individual narratives, but they focus on the description and the explanation of the brain activation process.

This perspective contrasts sharply with the psychoanalytic point of view which was introduced by Sigmund Freud in one of his best known works The Interpretation of Dreams, originally published in 1900. Freud believed he had discovered the secret of the dream while staying as an assistant doctor at the Schloss Bellevue sanatorium near Vienna. Drawing on a vast amount of examples from his patients and from his own dream-life, Freud argued that all dreams are wish fulfillments and that dreams constitute the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ in so far as they contain clues about the dreamers’ life history and are particularly useful in accessing the repressed, discarded aspects of the mind.

For Freud, the dream is perhaps the most important mental phenomenon through which the unconscious manifests itself, yet not directly, because it has to reckon with the forces of repression and the dreamers’ desire to sleep. Freud argued that repressed unconscious thoughts are being realized in the dream after being distorted, transformed, censored, through what he calls the dream work, so that they become more acceptable. For the latent dream thoughts to be realized into the manifest dream content they need to pass, according to Freud, through four different filters: displacement, condensation, secondary elaboration, pictorial representability.

Freud worked in the platonic tradition of dream interpretation which emphasizes the individual character and the singularity of the dreamer. This proceeds from the assumption that it is actually the dreamers idiosyncratic desires, or what Plato called the appetitive part of the soul, that strive to manifest themselves from the dream. Although Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams is not totally averse to classic symbol interpretations of dream images yet at the same time he was adamant that what makes the difference when it comes to investigating the meaning of a dream is the mental space, it’s the life history of the dreamer. The psychoanalytic approach stands in sharp contrast to prevailing neuroscientific view of the dream, in which the content of the dream is not seen as requiring any form of interpretation at all, because the content is secondary to the formal characteristics of the dream.

But of course people in all cultures, throughout history, continue to interpret dreams, no doubt because dreams generally strike us as bizarre, congruous, mysterious and puzzling. Whether there is a hidden meaning that is revealed through interpretation depends on how the dream phenomenon itself is explained and what the hidden meaning represents in itself is still very much open to debate.

Nonetheless, in recent years, some researchers, such as Mark Solms and Evan Thompson (author of the book Waking, Dreaming Being), have tried to bridge the gap between neuroscience and psychoanalysis.

If there is a problem with our times I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that we don’t get enough sleep; the problem is situated at the point where there may not be enough opportunities anymore to actually dream properly. In light of the fact that dreams and dreaming may constitute a wonderful source of inspiration for creative activity and if they may actually contribute to our understanding of what we represent or who we represent as , I am tempted to exhort you all to think seriously about an alternative Kantian precept to Sapere Aude (Dear to know) : Dear to dream.


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