Journal Entry – Wed Nov 11

I wonder if drinking is my substitute for eating or vice versa.

Yesterday I didn’t have any alcohol. When I woke up this morning and reflected on last night, I realized I ate way more in the evening than I would have if I’d been drinking. Dee got everyone blue-light filter glasses and I dreamed of flying lava lamps. 

I have a layout for my story about Jamie and all the characters – now I just need to answer all those questions. I’m having fun making up characters and thinking about the details of who they are.

When I was young I’d always analyze my dreams, using a dream dictionary – But I read somewhere that meaning are unique to the individual. For example, we can both dream about horses but it can mean two very different things.

Hmmm … I wonder what flower people, a porcelain mask, neon Casper, digging holes and flying lava lamps have to tell me about myself?

Lecture 14: Nightmares and the Dream Self

In the Chandogya Upanishad, the lord of creatures, Prajapati, explains the nature of the true-self (atman). Prajapati tells gods and demons that the true-self is free from suffering, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hungerless and thirstless. If you want to know what is real, seek the true-self and, in doing so, obtain all the world and all your desires. 

The great God Indra and the great demon Virochana gave Prajapati gifts because they wanted to become his disciples and learn more. Indra received several years of lessons on the nature of the true-self. One particular teaching is most interesting – The atman is the dream-self.

Indra loves this lesson and reflects on his way home to tell the other Gods about what he’s learned. The dream-self is not like the body because the dream-self isn’t afflicted with defects. But upon closer analysis, Indra realizes, the dream-self can suffer in dreamlike ways – experiencing unpleasantness and sadness. For Indra, this realization sucks. Forget going home. He cannot share this crappy news and turns on his heels to head back to Prajapati’s place.

Further teachings cause Indra to wonder about who he really is. Is any of who he truly is related to his experiences? Is he really just the person he appears to be? Is he just whatever lies behind the senses? Indra is forced to consider if he is really the person he sees in his dreams. For Indra, nothing is satisfying about being the dream-self.

Have you thought about what your relationship is to the person you are in your dreams? Or what your dream-self tell you about your true-self? Since you can also experience unpleasantness in your dreams (i.e. nightmares), what does this mean? What do your nightmares tell you about yourself? Is there any moral significance to nightmares? 

Evolution and Bad Dreams: One view on bad dreams’ evolutionary function is that they might help us process our emotions. Alternatively, as the philosopher Owen Flanagan puts it, the content of all dreams could just be a spandrel of sleep, serving no adaptive function whatsoever.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

Sigmund Freud, Austrian psychoanalysts, felt that dreams are wishful, but a dream’s content can be challenging to unpack. Before we get to that, you may know of Freud’s tripartite model of the human psyche where the “self” (a result of the ego’s struggle for balance) is made up of:

  • Superego – executes society’s moral demands
  • Id – our basic and mindless urges of the body
  • Ego – Looks to balance the conflict between id and superego

Before the three above became famous, Freud’s early work separated the psyche into:

  • Conscious – what we are aware of
  • Preconscious – what might come into consciousness at any time
  • Unconscious – blocked from consciousness (makes sense) through a process of repression
    1. The essence of repression lies not in putting an end to anything but in preventing certain mental states from becoming conscious
    2. Freud was the first to push that, even when ideas are unconscious, they can still affect overall health and behaviour. 
    3. The unconscious is latent and opaque – laying dormant beneath conscious awareness and consciousness cannot penetrate it.

For Freud there are two aspects to our dreams:

  • Manifest content – this is the info we are conscious of while dreaming.
  • Latent content – the symbolic side of the dream that captures the underlying wish the dream is meant to fulfill. This is the inspiration or trigger for the dream.

Sometimes the manifest and latent content are clearly related. When it is not, however, the manifest content is disguising embarrassing or uncomfortable latent content. The latent content is associated with repressed desires and the unconscious. Our wishes are transferred into the manifest content through a process Freud called dream-work. This process transmutes the latent content of our repressed and forbidden desires into the acceptable manifest form we’re conscious of while dreaming. This proper form makes our dreams less distressing, but more is going on. 

In the process of dream-work, things become condensed in ways that blend multiple images and ideas into one thing. A dream whose manifest content is a dog might result from the condensation of someone’s current pet and a childhood pet, or the condensation of someone’s fear of animals and fear of loss. In the process of dream-work, things get displaced. Displacement is the process of transforming one thing into another.

Freud’s theory of dreams as wish fulfillment helps explain some of the content of bad dreams. For example, if a person had a dream about strangling a white dog, they would take that to be an unpleasant dream. Freud says its unpleasantness is related to an underlying wish that the person must consciously acknowledge. Additionally, for Freud, our bad dreams might well reveal a hidden dark side that we’re more or less unwilling to accept. Freud’s dream theories fell out of favour because it was speculative, but psychologist Daniel Wegner tried testing it.

When we want to stop thinking about something, we have a hard time stopping that thought. Wegner believes this is because two cognitive processes are working against each other.One process tries to suppress the thought, while another monitors for the suppressed thought. The monitoring process ends up triggering the very thoughts we’re trying to suppress. With this in mind, Wegner hypothesized that something similar might be happening while we’re sleeping. When we sleep, many mechanisms that help us suppress thoughts, such as attention, control, and working memory, become deactivated, especially during rapid eye movement (or REM) sleep.

Wegner thought that if these suppressing mechanisms are turned off, then our dreaming minds might end up flooded with the very thoughts we’ve been trying to suppress – just like Freud suggested. To test this, Wegner had subjects identify someone they knew and then spend five minutes writing down whatever thoughts came to mind before they went to sleep. For the writing activity, the three groups were instructed as follows:

  1. Don’t think about person identified. 
  2. Think about the person identified. 
  3. Think about whatever they want. 

In the morning, Wegner found that those who were given the first instruction ended up dreaming of that person far more than subjects in the other two groups. This is the dream rebound effect, which various studies have now verified. In dream rebound, we’re not actively trying to suppress thoughts in our dreams, but something similar is happening. When we consciously try to stop thoughts before sleeping, ironically, those thoughts reappear in our dreams. This is because the mechanisms associated with successful thought suppression are deactivated.

Following Wegner’s methods, the clinical psychologist Tana Kröner-Borowik and Kröner-Borowik’s colleagues have found that “suppressing unwanted thoughts can lead to an increased occurrence of the suppressed thought in dreams.” They found that bad dreams and nightmares might well be the result of thought suppression. This fits with some findings about insomnia.

People who suffer from insomnia worry about whether they will be able to sleep properly. Often, they try to suppress their unwanted worries about experiencing insomnia. However, when these people end up falling asleep and dreaming, they tend to dream about insomnia-related topics. This can also help explain recurrent bad dreams and nightmares.

According to researcher Victor Spoormaker, recurrent nightmares result from the activation of a specific nightmare script. Kröner-Borowik suggests that the unwanted thoughts we try to suppress might in part activate this script.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

So … Freud was right, in that repressed desires and unwanted thoughts do manifest themselves in dreams and contribute to bad dreams and nightmares. But the idea that all our dreams are wishful makes less sense. Freud also recognized that trauma related dreams don’t fit into his theory.

And we come full circle back to Prajapati and Indra – They agree that the dream-self is not the real self but we still don’t know what the relationship is between our dream-self and true-self. This doesn’t negate the fact that our dreams do still tell us something about who we are even if the content doesn’t make sense (like flying lava lamps or the myriad of dreams I’ve had – although, I don’t think prescription induced dreams count, but I don’t know. But at the same time, why shouldn’t they count?). When we forget our dreams, we are robbed of the self understanding they can afford.

(Source: The Great Courses – Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature)

Grrrrr! This course still frustrates me – I leave with more questions than answers – Maybe they have a course called The Dark Side of Human Nature – Understood!

Feature Photo Credit: Stefan Keller from Pixabay

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