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Dream Date? 

Analyzing the ceberal side of sleep

Published May 5, 2004 at 9:29 p.m.

A devout Catholic woman in her late thirties had a strong sensual drive, but no sexual experience with men. She dreamt of swimming in a natural pool deep in the forest. From the sky nuns float down into the water, shedding their habits. The women climb onto the rocks and sun themselves.

When the woman finished reporting the dream to her therapist, he remained quiet. A Jungian psychoanalyst, he was reminded of the Greek myth in which the hunter Actaeon spies on the virginal goddess Artemis as she bathes. When he accidentally rustles the leaves and tips the goddess off to his presence, she's so enraged that she transforms him into a stag and he's torn apart by his own hounds.

"That was enough for me," quipped the therapist, Pittsburgh psychoanalyst Stan Perelman, as he recalled the incident during a presentation at St. Michael's College last Saturday. He'd cast the dreamer as Artemis and himself as Actaeon, he explained, and didn't want to "rustle the leaves," that is, draw her attention to the fact that she was revealing her erotic impulses.

Perelman's comment elicited an appreciative chuckle from the audience -- 200 or so professionals, students and amateur dream devotees. They were giving up a summery weekend afternoon to sit inside sweltering McCarthy Arts Center, sipping bottled water and chewing on such juicy topics as repression, compensation and countertransference. Joining Perelman on the program were Dan Jacobs, a Freudian from Boston, and New York Interpersonal Psychoanalyst Mark Blechner.

Blechner's 2001 book, The Dream Frontier, sparked the idea for the conference, said Polly Young-Eisendrath, a Worcester psychologist and president of the Vermont Association for Psychoanalytic Studies. The 100-plus-member organization sponsored the event and made a concerted effort to invite the general public. VAPS will take a similar approach in October, when they'll host a conference on "The Psychology of 'The Sopranos.'" David Chase, principal writer of the popular HBO series, is a possible guest.

The topics of TV and dreams were both chosen for their pop appeal, part of a broader effort by psychoanalysts to improve their public image. "In our culture we tend to be viewed as outmoded," says Young-Eisendrath, who moderated Saturday's conference. She blames this shift on the Reagan administration's de-institutionalization of mental illness, the rise of biological psychiatry and the economic clout of the pharmaceutical industry, as well as a cultural bias that favors quick fixes over long-term solutions. "We want people to see the value of understanding the meaning of their suffering and of transforming that suffering into insight," she says.

One way to gain those insights, Saturday's speakers argued, is by analyzing dreams. Science tells us that we dream about once every 90 minutes during sleep. By the time we reach 70, we will have spent about seven years in dreamland. Experience tells us that very few of these dreams are remembered, let alone interpreted. But the things we "see" in our heads at night have always held a powerful fascination.

Dreams in the Bible either delivered divine dispatches or foretold the future. In ancient Greece, people who were ill entered a dream chamber where they might experience "oracles" requiring priestly interpretation, "visions" of the future, or "dreams" that could cure the patient simply by being dreamt. Medieval Europeans believed nightmares were caused by incubi or succubae sitting on a sleeper's chest. "In all these cases," Jacobs reminded the audience, "dreams were thought to come from outside."

Freud reversed the paradigm. He postulated that dreams originate within and reflect problematic wishes that must be disguised so as not to disturb sleep. He and his followers viewed dreams as the "royal road to the unconscious," and successful dream interpretation as "the pinnacle of analytic achievement," Jacobs said. Freud's fixation on oral, anal and genital functions has fallen out of fashion, but his emphasis on the unconscious still forms the basis for the psychodynamic approach practiced by about 25 percent of psychotherapists today.

While Freud tied dreams to memory, contemporary Jungians interpret them in terms of current experience, Perelman explained: What's going on at home? At work? How's the patient feeling about the analysis and the analyst? Characters from real life who appear in dreams represent both themselves and aspects of the dreamer's psyche. A nun, for example, might refer to an actual nun the dreamer has encountered, and to religious or chaste tendencies within the person.

And while Freudians see dreams as wish fulfillments, Jungians consider them "compensations." If the nun-dreamer's religious life is interfering with her sex life when she's awake, she might compensate with dreams of habit-shedding, sensuously cavorting sisters while she's asleep.

Jungians also "amplify" dream images by exploring possible associations to the broader culture. That's what Perelman was doing with the nun dream and the Greek myth. Analysts less versed in the classics look elsewhere. Blechner's patients, he said, often connect their dreams to "Seinfeld" episodes.

The most popular approach to psychoanalysis these days is relational, or transpersonal, psychology. This school, which has arisen in the last five years or so, places the desires for attachment and security on a par with sexual and aggressive drives. Relational analysts, according to Blechner, believe a person's psyche can only be understood in relation to someone else's.

In a transpersonal analysis, the skinny-dipping nuns dream might prompt a conversation about the inhibiting "habits" the patient must shed in order to speak more openly with her analyst. What prevents this process from becoming a closed loop is the presumption that the way a patient acts in her shrink's office reflects her patterns of behavior in the outside world.

For all the interest they continue to provoke, "Dreams in analysis no longer have the cachet they once had," Jacobs observed. Both he and Blechner cited a 1983 paper by Francis Crick in which the DNA researcher and Nobel laureate described dreams as random waste products, the garbage of the mind. "But anthropologists have shown that you can learn a lot about people by studying their garbage," Blechner pointed out.

Even professionals who believe dreams communicate meaningful information about the subconscious often shy away from dream analysis as "too difficult," Jacobs suggested. Fewer and fewer training programs include courses in dreams. And the expectations can be daunting. In classic Freudian practice, the first dream presented in therapy was said to reveal both the patient's entire problem and its solution -- if only it was properly understood.

Cost doesn't help, either. Rigorous dream analysis takes time, and few managed-care providers or insurance policies cover more than one or two hours of psychotherapy a week. One purpose of Saturday's conference was to persuade practitioners that dream analysis isn't just worth doing, but is doable.

There was a time when Jungians and Freudians wouldn't speak to each other. The conference proved that adherents of various psychoanalytic approaches aren't "fighting with each other anymore," Young-Eisen-drath says. In fact, although the speakers represented three different schools, they all seemed to have more in common than not. Two sported stereotypical psychiatric glasses and beards, and as they waited for the event to begin, they all assumed an identical pose: legs crossed, hand thoughtfully stroking chin.

All three speakers also seemed intent on seeing themselves in their clients' dreams. Perelman told about a patient who reported a dream in which a man is preparing to taste a glass of wine and women are watching him, poised to jump out the window if he doesn't like it. Perelman's analysis: The wine represents the patient, the man represents himself and jumping out the window expresses the patient's strong desire that Perelman deem the things she tells him "good" or interesting.

Blechner cautioned against "hijacking" a patient's dream by being too quick to impose an interpretation. Jacobs responded by describing a case in which he might have done just that. A patient was going through a particularly difficult period in her life, and had talked repeatedly about her anxiety. She dreamt she was trying to step from boulder to boulder in a place where falling would be fatal. She crossed safely.

Rather than inviting a detailed dream analysis, Jacobs said, he told her it meant she would survive her hardship. Was he being a good therapist, he wondered, or had he hijacked the interpretation because he was sick of covering ground they'd been over so many times before?

Blechner warned, too, that analysts often ignore a dream's concrete meaning and go straight to a metaphoric interpretation. They may do this, he suggested, because they're proud of their own creativity. But a dream's specifics are often its most telling elements, he argued. Jacobs agreed. Dreams are "as unique as fingerprints," he said. "No one else can dream that dream in that way and with those particular details."

Dealing with metaphors also can be a way to avoid confronting disturbing topics, Blechner suggested. With his own patients, he makes a point of asking, in a calm, non-accusatory way, if the dream's literal content matches reality -- did the person ever sustain a head injury, commit robbery, engage in incest? Even if the initial response is to say no, Blechner said, it's not unusual, some time later, for the question to trigger a revelation.

Revelations can also trigger questions, and the conference schedule offered several opportunities for audience input. Some folks needed handholding ("Do you recommend writing dreams down?"). Some wanted to share their insights ("I'm intrigued by your use of the word 'hijack.' It takes me back to the French notions of borrowing and lending."). Others exhibited a nurturing instinct ("I want to thank you for allowing us to have some space.").

As the afternoon wore on, participants gradually slipped away, perhaps seeking beds in which to dream their own dreams. By 5 o'clock, empty seats far out-numbered full ones. Blechner, Jacobs and Perelman were slumped lethargically in their chairs, arms loose at their sides, legs sprawled.

One last questioner wandered up to the microphone. He wondered if any of the panel members had seen the 2001 film about dreaming, Waking Life, and if so, what they'd thought of it. Perelman had, but he couldn't remember it very well. Moderator Young-Eisendrath, however, had watched it three times and stood up to describe it. The discussion of dreams dissolved into chit-chat about a movie, and the conference didn't so much end as drift off.

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Ruth Horowitz


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