The psychoanalytic theory of dreams was first presented by Freud in 1899 in a book which also introduced the medical community to his notion of the unconscious. The Interpretation of Dreams is a sizable book of clinical material, interpretation, and psychiatric insight, and it goes some way towards outlining Freud's nascent theory of mind. Dreams, for Freud, are the "royal road to the unconscious," they inform us of the repressed desires of our waking life and reveal our passions, complexes and hidden desires. They are an imaginary world built up from our everyday, quotidian life, and they capture, distort and reveal the aspects of our lives that have been too painful, too unsettling and too disruptive of our sense of self; dreams are like a camera obscura that inverts the unconscious experiences of the day in order that the mind can better integrate them into a consciousness.
If all of this sounds familiar it is because, as Wittgenstein pointed out at the beginning of the last century, Freud succeeded in developing a language that helped to clarify our daily experience. Psychoanalysis is after all a semantic formula, a conversation with precise terms, and "a powerful mythology." You may not believe Freud's schematic representation of the workings of the mind, and you may disagree with his theory of dreams, however, it is arguably the case that Freud contributed to, and altered, the very way we talk about our lives and dream experiences. Freud's language has become everyday language. The Freudian and psychoanalytic lexicon has become the language of choice for counsellors, agony aunts, advertisers, film directors, artists and just about everyone.
Now, if everyone has finally caught up with Freud, what can be said of contemporary dream research. Do they still cling to the Freudian paradigm of interpretation and unresolved conflict?
Dreams and Embodiment
One of the deepest problems with Freud's notion of the dream being a return of repressed thoughts from daytime life is the experience of paraplegic and disabled dreamers. Devastating as it may be to psychoanalytic theory the fact remains that people born with paraplegia walk in their dreams and those born blind have an awareness of space. Activities that have no place in their everyday reality, which have created no neural pathways in their brains, for which they have no physical experience of, time and again become the subject of their dreams. A recent study published in the journal Conscious Cognition reports how a study of congenitally paraplegic subjects dreamt of walking just as frequently as the control group of able bodied subjects. In contrast they never once during the research period dreamt of being in a wheelchair. For the congenitally blind the situation is slightly different as although they do not have visual dreams they are able to represent spatial relationships in dream experience. Again, a research article in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease records how two, congenitally blind subjects from a cohort of 10 had dreams that were similar to the control group in terms of their organisation and composition. The dreamers were able to represent spatial relationships in dream experience without the need for other sensory information. So, for the blind dreamer, a dream scene would possibly involve elements of phantom objects in a phantom space, and the objects could be used or avoided as the narrative dictates.
If you feel these accounts of dreaming do not discredit the psychoanalytic theory of dreams then the world of neuroscience and lucid dreaming surely will. Lucid dreaming has been the subject of rigorous scientific study since 1978 when Keith Hearne became the first researcher to identify an occurrence of lucid dreaming in a laboratory study. In a lucid dream the dreamer is able to consciously alter the event of the dream, so that a dreamer can control the dream and direct the events as they choose. Psychoanalytic theory must, and has had to, adapt to this new world of research; and will have to continue to be radically revised as neuroscientific findings add to the knowledge base. The current tensions between the two revolve around the distinction between explaining the mechanism of dreaming and explaining the meaning. In short, one discipline suggests how without necessarily knowing the reason why, and the other suggests why without necessarily knowing how. The recent discovery of a 40Hz spike of activity in the frontal lobe during lucid dreaming is just one of the observations set to shake up our understanding of dreams. A similar activity signature is observed during meditational states, and strengthens the link between dream states and spiritual practices. As the technique is one that anybody can master the future for lucid dreaming seems to lie in the field of personal development, the fostering of creativity, and the development of management strategies. Learning to recreate the 40hz phenomenon in waking life coupled with the ability to trial ideas in a lucid dream state is the current goal of dream researchers.
How to enter a lucid dream state.
The quickest way to start lucid dreaming is to develop a habit of questioning whether you are dreaming whilst in fully awake. This will provide you with a familiar method of reality checking when you are actually dreaming. Then, use the Wake and Back to Bed Method (WBTB). The WBTB involves interrupting your sleep during the fourth REM cycle that occurs in the sixth hour of sleep. Simply set your alarm clock to wake yourself up at this time and then get up out of bed. Then engage in an activity for one hour, preferably one which keeps your mind focused on the desire to have a lucid dream; an example of what you might do is read a dream book, meditate, or write a short description of the dream that you wish to have. Then return to bed and as you fall back to sleep keep alive in your mind either the scene you have described or one in which you wish the dream to occur. You should find that after several attempts you are able to enter a lucid dream state quite easily and be able to take control of your dreams.
Psychoanalysis has given us the language of the unconscious and neuroscience is showing us the biological activity of the brain during both waking life and sleep, however, neither discipline has yet convinced the other that they can truly describe the workings of the mind. Maybe in lucid dreaming we will find the answer, or maybe we will find only another version of our selves, whatever the truth may be I expect the answer will provoke more thought.