Dream On . . .

By Dennis Drabelle
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My friend Rachel and I are pumped because we get to see Ang Lee's new movie free of charge. There's a hitch, though: Instead of passes, we have to bring medallions to the theater, and we can't just hand these over at the door. We must wear them on our noses, embedded in our flesh. A free flick is nothing to sniff at, so we fasten the medallions on. (They come with handy little points.) Miraculously, they don't cause pain, though mine keeps threatening to fall off. I can't say how good the movie was -- we never got that far.

As you may have guessed, the above was a dream. On awakening, I recalled having read a squib about Ang Lee and his ultra-sexy new film, "Lust, Caution," the day before, but that pretty much exhausted the real-world triggers for my scenario. Though the dream was trifling, I liked it for its silliness and simplicity. And as dreamers are wont to do, I wondered if it might have a meaning, if it revealed something unknown to my waking mind about what makes me tick. To see what could be made of it, I consulted the psychological literature and got in touch with experts in the field. In doing so, I discovered that I've had the wrong idea about dreams, which turn out to be not so much puzzles to be solved as mirrors to be gazed at.

Freud called dreaming "the royal road to the unconscious," and Freudian theory would say that my nose-medallion dream stemmed from some repressed wish, probably left over from childhood and tucked away in my unconscious, where my alert self didn't have to confront it. For all I know, having to wear the medallion could be a reprimand for wanting to ogle the naked bodies of Lee's actors. I might object that I'm too old for piercing and that built-in jewelry would clash with my self-image, but could the unconscious me harbor a longstanding perforation wish just the same?

I doubt it: People didn't even pierce their ears when I was a kid, and the very thought of having it done makes me cringe. When I told Rachel my dream, she cringed, too; I hadn't known this, but she's so allergic to metal that, after putting on earrings for her wedding, she had to take time out from the honeymoon to see a doctor about her itching ears. So I'm not sure how Freud can help us here.

In any case, it didn't take much delving into the psychological literature to learn that Freud's dream theories have been thoroughly discredited. Subsequent research has failed to support them, and as Peter D. Kramer puts it in "Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind" (Atlas, 2006), today it would be hard to find "defenders of the view that dreams are minutely and complexly constructed to hide and yet retain evidence of unacceptable beliefs and feelings."

Jungians would see my dream as compensating for aspects of my personality that are shortchanged in conscious life. But I don't get very far when I try to connect the wearing of a nose plate to some neglected side of me (the inner slacker-dude?). And it turns out that Jung on dreams doesn't hold much water now, either. G. William Domhoff, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, notes in "The Scientific Study of Dreams" (American Psychological Association, 2003) that Jung's compensation idea "seems to be contradicted by every relevant systematic study since the beginning of modern-day dream research in the late 19th century, when psychologists who wrote down their own dreams found considerable continuity between dream content and waking cognition."

So away with the repressed urges and surreal symbols. Today few psychologists believe that dreams talk to us in codes of any kind, and the action in dream research is empirical rather than broadly theoretical.

The change began in 1953, when a University of Chicago grad student discovered that, periodically during the night, sleepers' eyes dart back and forth beneath their eyelids (the phenomenon that became known as rapid eye movement, or REM) and that these episodes coincide with surges of brain activity. Sure enough, subjects who were awakened during REM reported a high incidence of dreaming. (It has since been learned that people dream during non-REM sleep, too, though less vividly.) The finding led to a theory known as activation synthesis, in which random signals emitted by the more primitive parts of the brain gain a certain amount of shape and coherence when processed by the higher brain.

But the notion that dreaming originates as mere static seems to fly in the face of many dreamers' experiences. For one thing, what about dreams that feature elements from our daily lives? Take the narrator of Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking," who declares, "I could tell/What form my dreaming was about to take/Magnified apples appear and disappear . . ." Reading these lines, don't we nod in recognition? Dream researchers call this phenomenon "incorporation": Our dreaming mind rehashes something we've recently done or had happen to us, asking, in effect, "How do you like them apples?"

But Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, regards incorporations as flukes. "My main reason for skepticism," he said, "is that I don't think dreaming has a function. It doesn't seem to give humans any evolutionary advantage. It's just an epiphenomenon, a byproduct of sleep." He notes that fetuses evidently dream in utero -- hence all that kicking -- but you can't think of them as working out something in their undeveloped psyches (try having an Oedipal complex in the womb!) or as coping with their pasts.

Also on Mahowald's side are findings that, unlike sleep deprivation, which can have serious physical and psychological effects, failure to dream for extended periods seems to cause no problems at all.

Given that everybody produces zillions of dreams over a lifetime, Mahowald considers it unremarkable that occasionally one strikes a relevant note. Such dreams might be compared to waking coincidences (thinking of a relative who an hour later calls us on the phone, running into an old classmate on vacation in Pago Pago, etc.). Just as we make a big deal out of these interactions while ignoring the countless times when life rolls along in its aimless way, so we tend to remember the few dreams that touch on something in our waking lives while forgetting about the great many that don't.

But might it be that dreams help us take our psychic temperature -- that, for example, a nightmare is a kind of inner doctor's order to reduce the tension we're living with? Here again, Mahowald is dubious. "Experiments have shown that the incidence of nightmares is no greater after subjects watched a scary movie than after they watched a bland one," he said. "And starving or thirsty people rarely report dreaming of eating or sleeping. Nor do people suffering from sleep apnea dream of suffocating."

But other researchers, who concentrate on what sleepers report after being awakened in the laboratory, can point to a 1978 experiment in which subjects who wore red goggles for several days reported a high incidence of red-tinted objects in their dreams. And Tore Nielsen, a dream researcher at the University of Montreal, said in an e-mail that he believes dreams "regularly incorporate clips and fragments from recent and not-so-recent experience." In a 2004 study, Nielsen and several co-authors interpreted data suggesting that incorporation often lags a few days behind the underlying incidents. The authors hypothesize that this delay might indicate a process of "working through" problems, and that dreaming "facilitates adaptation to the stresses and emotional difficulties of interpersonal relationships."

The notion that dreams flow from random inner noise also seems to be undermined by the phenomenon of recurrent dreams. It's not easy to imagine our higher brain getting stuck like a needle on an old LP and repeatedly twisting amorphous signals into the same story line. (For me the record number of appearances is held by a scenario in which I've completely forgotten about a college course I signed up for, it's the day before the final exam, and, boy, am I in trouble!) Mahowald cheerfully acknowledged that this is "something I have no answer for," so recurrent dreaming looks like a fertile topic for research.

There are also the intriguing cases of a dream as the source of a scientific discovery or work of art. Two of the most famous date from the 19th century.

Friedrich August von Kekule, a professor of chemistry at the University of Ghent in Belgium, had been trying to determine the molecular structure of benzene. One day in 1865, he fell asleep in front of a fire and, as he'd done before, dreamed of atoms coming together in various combinations. This time new, snakelike shapes appeared and, according to Kekule, "One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes." On awakening, he suspected that the atoms of benzene and similar compounds didn't line up in rows as he'd thought, but in rings, a discovery that was to have profound implications for organic chemistry.

Something similar happened to Robert Louis Stevenson before he wrote "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Stevenson later explained that for some time he'd wanted to tell a story about a man with an alter ego but couldn't come up with the right plot. Then one night a powerful vignette appeared to him in a dream: "Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers."

Domhoff argues in his book that such cases are rare. "When all is said and done . . . only occasional anecdotal evidence supports the idea that dreaming itself provides any solutions to problems. This anecdotal evidence is not impressive when it is seen in the context of the small percentage of dreams that are recalled and the even smaller percentage of recalled dreams that might be construed as having a solution to a problem."

But the key phrase in that formulation may be "dreaming itself." The most interesting features of both examples are, first, how closely related the dreams were to the sleepers' waking preoccupations and, second, how much conscious effort it took for the dreams to bear fruit. In advance of his eureka! dream, Kekule had spent hours studying and thinking about benzene. Nor did the dream hand him the compound's structure on a platter; all he saw was an analogue, the tail-biting snake, which he had to interpret, adapt to a chemical context, and confirm experimentally.

Similarly, the sleeping Stevenson didn't conjure up a ready-made story; he had to expand and build that flickering scene into a novel. He dashed off a draft in three days, only to have his wife read it and tell him it was no good. He threw that one away, wrote another version, and spent the next six weeks polishing it. In each case, the dream yielded rich ore, but the conscious mind played blacksmith, rolling up its sleeves and hammering the raw stuff into something useful. Both Kekule and Stevenson were blessed not only with a fertile unconscious that could supply striking images but also with a disciplined waking mind that could revise and perfect them.

What this suggests is that we may be asking the wrong questions about our dreams. Forget the notion that they are sending us cryptic signals about a secret self that we aren't privy to; concentrate instead on what our alert self can make of them. A dream might be just plain loopy (my nose-medallion number, for example), in which case we can have a laugh and move on. But it might provide a new angle for looking at something we've been immersed in, professionally or personally. This probably doesn't happen often, but neither does winning the lottery (though the beauty of dreaming is that there's no admission charge). In this analysis, it makes no more sense to ask for the meaning of a dream than it does to ask for the meaning of a waking thought. The answer in each case is: Why, that's up to you. ¿

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World. Comments:drabelled@washpost.com.

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