I wrote a feature on ‘Why Do We Dream’ for Welldoing…

Tread softly for you tread on my dreams – W.B. Yeats

We don’t know if babies dream because they don’t have language to tell us. No-one has ever spoken directly to the author of any dream only its recipient, unlike hallucinations which are usually reported in the first person. Our dreams are the slipperiest of phantoms which communicate in a nocturnal language often more bizarre than any waking and linear narrative.

Neuroscientists tell us about the biology of our brains, the ways in which neurons react during sleep. Research reports that we spend more of the night dreaming than we are aware of and the gift of a remembered dream, or terror of a nightmare, is but a fragment of the frantic nocturnal activity of our brain. 

Nobody, despite equally frantic research, has answered the most important question of all, why do we dream? Why do our dreams have the power to transport us to realms where we are uniquely without power to control the content or shape of the narrative? 

Since Sumerian civilisation people recorded their nocturnal languages and described how dreams transport us from literal to bizarre and sometimes numinous experiences. Dreams historically have been regarded as sacred documents, sometimes of revelatory nature. It is only since the Age of Reason that dreams have lost their status to inspire awe or fear and are regarded by many as irrelevant to our linear and rational lives. Within the first lines of Homer’s Iliad, we discover how important dreams were to the Ancients. Zeus, king of the gods was by default the sender, or controller of dreams.

Freud, with the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, is regarded by some psychologists as having made the most important contribution to dream psychology and philosophy. (His letters reveal that the book was completed in the eighteen-nineties, but he intentionally withheld publication because he wanted his research to become the most important book published in the first year of the twentieth century!) While revered by psychoanalysts, many other disciplines of the academe regard Freud’s omniscient interpretations – which usually relate to repressed sexuality – as reducing our nocturnal language into a reductionist and obsessional sexual psychology. Ranted against by such writers as Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Nabokov who kept accounts of their dreams and who along with many other writers like William James believed that our dreams are not to be explained but should rather be experienced in states of transcendental awareness, unconfined and unconditioned by the psychoanalytic interpretations of Freud, or Jung. 

Jorge Luis Borges admitted in old age that he found himself impatient with the mundane concerns of daytime, eager to get back to night with its more serious business of dreaming. The French novelist Proust agreed and his novel opens with the first of many dreams. A dream so explicit in its sexuality that any interpretation by Freud would be superfluous. 

I trained as a Jungian psychoanalyst and although I have discarded the innate authority of psychoanalysis to read the unconscious, I have not thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Working with dreams and active imagination are vital organs of my therapeutic dialogue. 

Although I am not intimidated when someone brings a dream, I agree with Freud that dreams can be the ‘Royal highway to the unconscious’, I have noticed that patient/client/person, whatever nomenclature you prefer, and many therapists feel inadequate when confronted with a dream. Mistakenly, they feel pressure to provide a clever interpretation rather than initiate a preliminary exploration.

I work with the emphasis that dreams are wonderful playthings although dreams can become tedious listening except to the dreamer and within the privileged space of the consulting room where the therapeutic couple have access to contextual clues and triggers. Oscar Wilde joked that the most frightening statement in the English language was ‘I had a very interesting dream last night.’ 

I like to think of the dream as a refuse sack. I have discovered this is not an original thought and many dream theorists share it. I imagine myself as an urban fox with a scent for carnage, or a remnant gastronomic delicacy. When I am deciphering a nightmare, privately, I visualise myself with a fox’s snout trapped into an incinerated can lid. 

While I may have been trained to listen to dreams with as many heads as the mythic Geryon, I always encourage my ‘patient’ to learn how to become their own expert interpreter. Some people seem to have a knack, or innate capacity for dreaming while others insist they can never remember their dreams. I have lost count of the times I’ve convinced a sceptic that with patience they can learn to recall their dreams. I explain that they need to create their own nocturnal rituals and to remember that dreams are trapeze escape artists. 

I encourage the novice dreamer to check out the night sky and become more familiar with the multiverse before they close the curtains. As important as any prayer, I instruct my dream initiate to ask the universe to gift them a remembered dream. In terms of dream protocol, it is important either to have a dream journal beside the bed or a shredding of paper and pen. I have started experimenting in my half-sleep state of recall by whispering into Voice Memos on my phone. It’s amazing how many times I forget to replay in the morning until something triggers me to tune in – sometimes days later  -to a thrilling dream, or disturbing nightmare released from my nocturnal language.

Is it any wonder that on Midsummer’s Day June 21st, 2024, I am curating a Dream Symposium at the Royal Institution, London with the internationally celebrated neuroscientist and psychoanalyst, Professor Mark Solms, our keynote speaker, who will try to throw light on the ‘hard question’ of neuroscience: Why do we dream? Find out more here www.twenty-firstjune.com 

To read the article on welldoing.org, go here.