EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT
BUT WERE TOO AFRAID TO ASK
You've heard of the id,the ego and the Oedipus complex,but what does the
father of psychoanalysis have to offer you?
As a new English translation of Sigmund Freud's work is about to be
published,Gyles Brandreth interprets the jargon.
| Freud in 1931 with his chow dogs in Potzieinsdorf,near
Vienna.He was known as 'The Clock Man',because he lived his life to
such a tight timetable.
Freud is back. This isn't Matthew or Emma, Lucian or Clement.
This is the great original, Sigmund Freud, the founder of the dynasty, the
father of psychoanalysis, the man who encouraged us to unbutton our stiff
upper lips and get in touch with our unconscious. Next month, in 20 volumes,
running to several million words, Penguin Press publishes a new translation
of the Complete works of Sigmund Freud and a plethora of radio and
television programmes is set to celebrate - and excoriate - the man about
whom more books have been written than any other figure in the past 200
I have long been fascinated by Freud (actually, I have long been fascinated
by myself and thought that Freud might offer new insights into my favourite
subject) - but until this week the obvious (the Oedipus Complex, the id,
the ego and penis envy), I knew very little about the man and his teaching.
In the hope of learning more -and quickly: my mid-life crisis is gaining
momentum - I set off for Hampstead (where Freud lived during the last year
of his life) to meet one of his disciples, the leading Freudian psychologist
and psychotherapist, Brett Kahr, 41, the Winnicott Clinic Senior Research
Fellow in Psychotherapy.
On the top floor of a discreet house off Hampstead High Street, in Kahr's
cloistered consulting room, I sought answers to the essential questions about
Sigmund Freud, and practical advice on how the great man's teaching might
help me -and you - lead a fuller and happier life.
Who was Freud?
Born on May 6, 1856, in the small town of Freiberg in the outer reaches
of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he was the eldest of the seven children of
an impoverished Jewish wool merchant,Jakob Freud, and his ambitious wife,
Amalia. Freud was academically brilliant, trained at the University of Vienna,
and qualified in medicine at the age of 30 in 1886, the year he married Martha
Bernays, the daughter of a distinguished, educated Hamburg Jewish family,
one of whose forebears had been Reader to the German Emperor. Between 1887
and 1895, Sigmund and Martha produced three sons and three daughters, including
Anna Freud, the pioneer of child psychoanalysis. In 1938, the family fled
from the Nazis, leaving Vienna and settling in Hampstead, London, where Freud
died of cancer of the jaw on
September 23,1939,aged 83.
What was his first claim to fame?
Freud's first publication was on the location of the genitalia of the petromyzon
eel. As a research student at the Institute of Physiology at the University
of Vienna, he dissected several hundred eels until he found the exact position
of their reproductive organs. His next breakthrough was to develop
tissue-staining techniques that enabled physicians to look at pathological
cells under the microscope and see them more clearly. His third significant
contribution to biological science was the use of cocaine as an anaesthetic
during eye surgery.
Why did he turn to psychology?
In a word, anti-Semitism. His professor told him, "As a Jew, you will never
go far in academic medicine in Vienna." Mental health was not a fashionable
discipline and, in the late 19th century - when Freud started treating neurotics
and psychotics, the primary treatment for mental illness was neglect. If
the patient was depressed, had obsessional symptoms or was hearing voices,
he or she would be put away and left alone. Other treatments included genital
surgical mutilation. Thousands of women suffering from hysteria, hypertension
and emotionality would have been given either a hysterectomy or a clitorodectomy
-surgical removal or cauterisation of the clitoris. There was also a trend
particularly in Germany and France) to castrate male schizophrenics. Freud
was among the first physicians to treat the mentally ill in a humane,
Did he invent psychoanalysis?
Throughout history there are examples of people who used talking as a way
of relieving mental pain. Antiphon, the early Greek orator, set up a stall
in the agora and, for payment, would analyse people's
was the first to develop a formalised, systematised approach to treating
mental problems through talking. He developed the techniques of psychoanalysis
(and its derivative, psychoanalytic psychotherapy), which were designed to
assist those suffering from any degree of psychological anxiety, from the
slightly irked to the greatly traumatised.
Did he invent the psychiatrist's chair?
Yes. We owe the development of the private consulting room to Freud. Before
this,patients were seen in open wards. There was no privacy in 19th-century
psychiatry. Freud saw his patients individually,privately,and created what
he considered to be the most effective setting for listening to their narratives.
He took a couch that had belonged to his wife,covered it with a rug,and invited
his patients to lie down and rest their bodies as well as their minds.
Recognising that no self-respecting Victorian lady was going to look the
family doctor in the eye and say, "My father buggered me when I was five",
Freud positioned his patients so that they were looking away from him, towards
a blank uncluttered wall,while he sat behind
them,deliberately avoiding eye contact. Freud found that this arrangement
(used universally today) helped his patients to flights of what he called
"free association",and allowed them to give voice to what had previously
been unspeakable. Freud believed that
is most private and confidential is also most troubling.
How does psychotherapy work?
According to Freud,within us all lurks a seething cauldron of sexuality
and aggression. Beneath their well - scrubbed exteriors,Freud's patients
were wrestling with lurid sexual fantasies and alarming aggressive
desires. Frau Weisberg,for example,the respectable wife of a Viennese
physician,revealed to Freud her overwhelming lust for her brother-in-law.
Because of propriety she could do nothing about it,so she went mad.
Freud believed in the centrality of the unconscious mind. Life is painful
and what we cannot bear we take from our subconscious mind ,and by means
of repression or denial,re-file it in our unconscious mind. Talking therapy
lifts the veil of the unconscious,gives the patient the opportunity to revisit
the painful memories of childhood,cry,have a cathartic resolution of their
neurosis and,as a result,experience relief from anxiety.
Is it all about childhood?
Yes. Freud reckoned that many of the experiences of childhood are so painful
(your mother prefer's your younger brother, for example; your father dies;
your parents take no interest in you) that we cannot tolerate their memory
and use defence mechanisms, such as repression, to drive them into the
unconscious. Unless we are able to analyse the way in which these ghosts
of the nursery still cloud our minds, we will not be free as adults to make
realistic choices in our lives.
Freud said, "Happiness is the deferred fulfillment of a prehistoric wish.
That is why wealth brings so little happiness: money is not an infantile
wish." Throughout life we are driven by the desires and fears established
in early childhood. We may like to think we make autonomous choices in life
but, according to Freud, our erotic lives are governed by our secret, unconscious
pre-formed allegiances to our mother or father. If we have a successful
heterosexual identification with the parent of the same sex - ie, a boy chooses
his father as his primary object of identification - then, like father, we
will go in search of a woman who is just like mother.
As a schoolboy, Freud won prizes for translating Sophocles. Later, he used
the Greek dramatist's story of Oedipus - who inadvertently married his mother
and killed a stranger who turned out to be his father - as a metaphor for
a phenomenon he observed in his consulting room: boys desire their mothers
and perceive their fathers as a threat. Was Freud always sex-obsessed? Early
in Freud's career, his mentor, the Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot,
told him that when considering nervous problems, "C'est toujours la chose
genitale, toujours, toujours."
Freud said, "Anatomy is destiny." He was much preoccupied with the genitals,
and the role of the genitals in our minds and in guiding our lives. Freud
felt that every boy both fears his father and wants to become like him. Many
of his male patients expressed anxiety about their penis, as well as fears
of having it cut off. The fears were based in part on actual threats in
19th-century pedagogy (where boys caught masturbating were threatened with
having their penis amputated), but also, according to Freud, on a son's fear
that his penis might be bigger than his father's and that consequently his
father would cut it off. (It is for this reason, said Freud, that many men
have problems if they earn more money, or achieve greater success, than their
Freud's female patients told him of their childhood envy of their brothers
and fathers, men with an obvious appendage between their legs. Many also
told him that when they began to menstruate, they assumed they had been genitally
mutilated, that the blood between their legs was
the consequence of their mother cutting off their penis. Freud believed these
experiences created a yearning in women to have a penis so as to be as
penetrative as men - not only literally, but also in the sense that they
would have the right, the permission and the capacity to "penetrate" the
What are the key Freudian concepts?
In the Freudian tripartite model of the mind, the id is the primitive,
animalistic, instinctual element, demanding immediate gratification ("I want
to ravage my sister") it wrestles with the superego, the part of the
psyche concerned with ethical and moral conduct ("My conscience tells me
it's wrong"); while the ego, representing the cognitive and perceptual
processes that inform behaviour, settles the matter ("I'm not sure it's such
a good idea, after all").
Freud pioneered the concept of transference, which involves the
displacement of feelings towards one person (usualLy a parent, sibling or
spouse) onto another (often the analyst). He also found, sadly, that people
are creatures of habit. Once a Don Juan always a Don Juan -unless analysis
can help you break the pattern. Freud coined the phrase "repetition
compulsion" to describe the phenomenon of patients who repeated their
behaviour and did so compulsively, even when it was not in their best interests.
Happily, Freud also believed in the plasticity of human behaviour
and maintained that even the most severe psychotic illness can he transformed
According to Freud, the Freudian slip (correctly termed parapraxis)
is the slip of the tongue, small accident or memory lapse that gives an
inadvertent insight into an individual's unconscious desires or conflicts.
"A woman anxious to have a child," he said, "always reads the word 'storks'
in place of the word 'stocks'."
Was Freud ever wrong about anything?
Not according to committed Freudians. His critics claim that he neglected
his own family, was obsessed with sex and childhood, and failed to understand
women. They add that Freudian analysis, as a form of treatment, takes too
long and offers uncertain results.
His admirers concede that he did not see much of his children, but only because
he was a workaholic, seeing up to eight patients a day, week in, week out,
over a period of 50 years. (Within the family he was known as "The Clock
Man", because he lived his life to such a tight time-table; but he did take
holidays - he went mushroom-picking in the Dolomites. And he did have a sense
of humour. When asked by a student about the significance of the large cigars
he like to smoke, Freud replied: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.")
His devotees reject the charge of sexism altogether; they claim he had
special understanding of women and promoted their cause, citing advocacy
of female membership the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society in 1910. They agree
that Freudian psychoanalysis takes time and be painful, but say there are
short-cuts to the unconscious, that having to pass through psychological
pain can be an essential part of resolving neurosis.
|Seven steps to Freudian
|Casting couch Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood In
'Sex and the Single Girl'
There are about 20,000 practising psychotherapists in Britain
today, the majority of them women. According to
the psychotherapist Brett Kahr, none is in a position to ignore Freud, and
at least half of these therapists will be more or less influenced by Freud's
Kahr regards Freud as the single greatest social influence of the 20th century.
"Compared with the way our grandparents lived," he says, "we, in the civilised
world, take our emotional life more seriously, take childhood more seriously
and are much more concerned with how each of us is feeling on the inside.
That represents progress.
"The capacity for tolerance, compassion and concern between human beings
is greater than it has ever been at any point in history, and I believe that
is as a direct result of the life and work of Sigmund Freud."
According to Kahr, Freud can help us all lead richer, more fulfilling lives,
regardless of our current state of mental health. Naturally, he recommends
Freudian psychoanalysis or psychotherapy (at rates in the UK ranging from
£35 to £250 for each 50-minute session), which provides "a private
space where you can say whatever you want, without inhibition, restriction
However, if your budget is limited, here is some free advice for you to cut
out and paste on the fridge door: seven simple strategies, inspired by Freud's
teaching, which, according to Kahr, will help you live your life in a more
Extensive research shows that
people who are able to express themselves are both physically and mentally
healthier than people who keep their thoughts and feelings bottled up.
Make friends Most British men would be hard-pressed
to name someone (other than their spouse or partner) whom they could telephone
with a problem at 2am. We all have acquaintances: we all need,friends, a
small number of people whose inner lives we know about and with whom we are
ready to share ours.
Keep a diary Put your feelings into words. The Texan
psychologist James Pennebaker undertook an experiment with university students,
in which half of the control group were required to keep a diary. Over a
year, those who kept their diary regularly reported fewer illnesses and ailments,
better mental health and higher grades in examinations.
Listen People will be interested in you if you are
to your friends and remember what they tell you. When you meet someone for
only the second time and they remember your name, you always notice. Cultivate
your hearing and your memory.
Cultivate Intimacy Most people who seek psychotherapy
have difficulties in two arenas of their
love lives: their capacity to
to their partners (trusting them and feeling comfortable with them);
and their ability to enjoy their physical sexuality as fully as they might.
Make time and create opportunities to talk with and listen to your partner
Be more playful Explore your fantasies. Many people
at work (including the most successful) feel trapped in the wrong endeavour.
Explore all your fantasies and develop the underdeveloped parts of yourself.
Take your secret side-line desires seriously, but not impulsively, If you
are a merchant banker who yearns to sing Otello, don't immediately give in
your notice, but do consider joining an amateur operatic society.
Be less British Get in touch with your feelings. Develop
your emotional literacy: allow yourself to take your feelings seriously or
you will find that they turn into symptoms (migraines, had backs, etc). Overcome
your embarrassment about your own emotions. Do not equate self-awareness
with self-indulgence. It is good to rummage around inside your psyche. Remember:
it's your Freud-given right.
Rewards and Punishments The Values of Psychotherapy
by Jeremy Holmes and Richard Lindley, Oxford, pp 256, £17.50 Donald
JEREMY Holmes (a consultant psychiatrist) and Richard Lindley
(a philosophy don) were wise to use the word "values" rather than "value"
in the title of their book. Whereas they have provided us with a competent
account and discussion of the ideals, beliefs, customs and soon (that is,
the values) of the psychotherapeutic world, they have been less successful
in their clear desire to convince the unaligned reader (this one, at least)
that psychotherapy has a unique value-that it can improve the wellbeing of
its customers in a manner that no other form of support or counselling can.
There are several mainstream and numerous fringe varieties of psychotherapy,
ranging from classical psychoanalysis (whose practitioners regard themselves
as the aristocrats of the trade) to behaviour therapy. This uses a system
of rewards and/or "punishments" to encourage patients suffering the consequences
of "maladaptive behaviour", such as agoraphobia or compulsive hand washing,
to alter their disabling or unacceptable response to some feature of the
world in which they live. Few would wish to deny that the customers of therapists
often appear to benefit, sometimes dramatically, from the treatment they
receive. The question is whether any improvements in morale and self-esteem
which may accrue during a course of analytical sessions owe anything at all
to the theoretical ideas about the workings of the mind which analysts have
Do good results stem from a successful archaeological dig into the patient's
subconscious, and an uncovering and disarming of "repressed" memories of
childhood traumas? Or do they just flow from the purchased presence of a
dependable ally, who is always there to lend a sympathetic ear when the rest
of the world appears hostile or simply doesn't seem to care? And are behavioural
therapists, in any essential respect, different in kind or understanding
from parents or kings or managing directors or prison governors, who have
attempted to manipulate their charges by rewarding "good" behaviour or punishing
the "bad"? In short, are psychotherapists pseuds? Do they falsely claim a
wisdom and knowledge which the rest of us don't possess, or are they truly
latter-day Abrahams who have read the tablets of eternal truths?
I can't answer these questions, and neither can the authors of The Values
of Psychotherapy, because the theories which are the foundations of
psychotherapeutic practice are incapable of scientific
proof. Neither can they be falsified.
You can't do a double-blind trial on the efficacy of a three-year course
of analysis. This is the weakness of the book. After introductory chapters
which attempt to demonstrate that psychotherapy is a "good thing",the bulk
of the text is devoted to arguing for the recognition of psychotherapy as
a profession in its own right, and for the provision of psychotherapy to
all "on the rates". The authors also examine how this new profession should
be regulated. But supposing psychotherapy isn't such a novel "good thing"
in the first place? Holmes and Lindley have the temerity to suggest that
if we were all psychoanalysed in as routine a fashion as we are all subjected
to schooling or inoculation, then the problems of the world would dissolve,
because we would all become good citizens. I have the gravest mistrust
of missionaries who claim to hold the key to salvation. [New Scientist
20 Jan 1990]
Freud would have been furious - hard-nosed pragmatists
are invading the fabulous dream industry he founded
Who dreams what
Children's first dream reports, between the age of three and
five, appear as very simple, bland accounts such as "I saw a doggie", slowly
building in complexity and frequency until they become fully fledged, adult-like
dreams by adolescence.
Men dream twice as often of men as they do of women. Women
dream equally of both sexes-except in more gender-segregated societies like
Japan, where they dream more of women. Women are more often victims, or
"rejected", while men have more aggressive encounters, mostly with other
Hunter-gatherer societies dream more often of animals than do
American college students; urban Japanese hardly dream of animals at all.
Swiss and Dutch dreams are less aggressive than American dreams.
Mexican-American dreams are higher on emotions, and good and
bad fortune, than Anglo-American dreams.
In one Australian aboriginal society, the Yir Yoront, dreams
are often about aggression and friendliness, mirroring the people's tendency
to engage unusually intensely with one another.
Also in Yir dreams, sexual encounters with women in taboo kinship
categories are more likely to have unsatisfying outcomes.
Devout Hindus, who live in highly gender-segregated societies,
have fewer members of the opposite sex in their dreams than their more secular
Child-molesters dream of molesting children, cross-dressers
dream of cross-dressing.
Source: Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach
by William Domhoff (Plenum Press, 1996]. Also see Domhoff and Adam Schneider's
Web page http://zzyx.ucsc.edu/~dreams/
THIRTY YEARS AGO, CALVIN HALL AND ROBERT Van de Castle, pioneering
dream researchers in the US, had a brave thought. They would use science
to test Sigmund Freud's famous idea that women suffer from "penis envy" and
men from "castration anxiety". Their method was simple: dissect people's
dreams to test whether symbols denoting penis envy (such as items with a
phallic shape) cropped up more often in the dreams of women, and castration
anxiety symbols (such as an inability to fire a gun) in the dreams of men.
Things looked good for Freud at first: men's dreams did contain more symbols
of castration anxiety than women's dreams, while women's dream were higher
on penis envy content than men's. Unfortunately when Hall and Van de Castle
increased the sample tested, the neat correlation fell apart. Men turned
out to have more penis envy and women more castration anxiety.
Now, as then, there is not a single shred of empirical evidence supporting
Freud's theory that suppressed desires-sexual or otherwise-rise up in our
dreams disguised as symbols which therapists can usefully decode. Nor is
there any scientific evidence to support the ideas of Carl Jung, Freud's
renegade disciple, who believed symbols in dreams aren't disguised but have
more direct meanings, some of them universal (a circle, said Jung, stands
Indeed these days nobody thinks such dream theories are even worth testing,
according to William Domhoff, a psychologist at the University of California
at Santa Cruz. "Researchers say, this isn't going anywhere," he says, while
the therapists who use dream psychoanalysis can't see the point in testing
theories which, as they see it, work just fine as long as patients (and
therapists) believe in them.
And despite the lack of evidence, there are plenty of true believers out
there in therapyland. In a 1995 survey of Florida psychologists in
private practice, 83 per cent of respondents said they used clients' dreams
in their work, usually plumping for Freudian or Gestalt interpretations.
In the latter, every item in a dream, down to the last fish or fountain,
represents a facet of the dreamer. Scientifically speaking, it's a "tangle"
and a "tragedy", says psychologist David Foulkes, formerly of Emory University
in Atlanta, Georgia.
But here's the rub: while researchers like Foulkes scoff at dream symbols
and the kind of dream books you see in New Age bookshops, they stop short
of saying dreams are utterly meaningless. Far from it. Dreams do mirror the
people we are and the concerns we have, they say-but much less cryptically
than psychoanalysis would have us think. Freudian and Jungian dream analysis
may be a dead issue for scientifically minded psychologists, but a new way
of analysing dreams, more pragmatic than mystical or ideological, and with
a greater claim to scientific respectability, is emerging out of the muddle.
These are thicker on the ground than solid facts, many originating
in academic arenas. For example:
If you die in your dreams, you really die. This is
probably a contortion of a different myth: that only people with terminal
illnesses or suicidal thoughts dream of dying. Death dreams are, naturally
enough, more common among such people, but healthy people have them too.
Dreams happen in shades of grey rather than in colour.
Again, the roots of this myth may be scholarly. Old psychological theories
held that only psychotics dream in colour. Few people would have rushed to
challenge this by owning up to having technicolour dreams.
One who holds great hopes for this movement is Domhoff. For years, he has
been compiling a grand overview of what different kinds of people dream-men
versus women, children versus adults, hunter-gatherers versus urban yuppies,
and so on. To do this, Domhoff has pulled together scores of old dream studies.
Most of these use a special coding system to categorise the contents of dreams,
developed by Hall and Van de Castle in the 1960s when they were at the University
of Miami in Florida. Using the code, for instance, a torrid sexual encounter
in a dream reads steamily as:
D S2> lFKA
1FKA 54R (R = reciprocates) D
DS5 = 1FKA
where the first line stands for "dreamer (D) makes sexual overture
(S2) to an adult female known to him (1FKA)".
It's easy to be flippant, but the system has already proved to be a powerful
way of picking up differences between the average contents of male and female
dreams (see "Who dreams what"). In future, Domhoff hopes scientists will
use such dream norms to make sense of the contents of individual dreams.
Only with good "baseline" information about what people in different cultures
and social groups dream, he says, can we hope to pick up on quirks in the
psychology of individual dreamers.
That goes for dream theorists, too. Comparing the dream reports of Freud
with those of Jung, Domhoff notes that Freud's dreams contain more aggression
between himself and women, more friendly interactions with men and more general
successes over failures than usually occur in dreams. They clearly mirror
Freud's personality as a striving man who loved the company of men and developed
theories that many construed as hostile towards women. Those of Jung, on
the other hand, contain fewer people, more animals and more friendly encounters
with women. These scores, says Domhoff, are in line with Jung's solitary,
nature-loving personality, and his obvious love of female company.
So dreams do have some meaning. But can understanding them help us in any
way? Yes, says Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School.
At the very least, dreams can be used to pinpoint concerns that we're reluctant
to admit to or bother with in the hurly-burly of our lives. "Dreaming isn't
a 'wiser' or 'better' mode," says Barrett, "but it can sometimes bring home
a message more forcefully."
OVER the centuries, thousands of famous people have claimed
that they gained inspiration for their work from dreams. Here are just a
The visionary poet and artist William Blake said that
he dreamt up an inexpensive technique for copper engraving which he used
to illustrate his poems.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge said he composed the poem
Kubla Kahn in
a dream, but was bothered by a visitor while busy transcribing it.By the
time he got back to work he'd forgotten the rest.
Russian chemist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev said he "saw"
the periodic table of the elements in a dream, and wrote it down when he
awoke. Only one correction was later needed
Hermann Hilprecht, the 19th-century expert on eastern civilisations,
decoded writing on two Babylonian stone tablets after a "priest" appeared
in a dream, instructing him to fit the two together.
The famous pianist Vladimir Horowitz said that he often solved
tricky keyboard fingerings in his dreams.
The 19th-century chemist Friedrich
Kekulé hit on the chemical structure of benzene after dreaming
of snakes holding on to their tails.Psychoanalysts have speculated that the
snakes symbolised frustrated sexual desires.
Biological theorist Margie Profet dreamt of "black triangles"
in the lining of the womb prior to developing a theory that menstruation
evolved to wash out bacteria. The triangles, to her, represented pathogens.
And sometimes, they can even help solve little problems. A few
years ago, Barrett asked college students to ponder a problem as they were
drifting off to sleep. About half had a dream that independent assessors
felt addressed the problem, and most of these dreams offered a solution.
One student, pondering how to fit a chest of drawers into his new apartment,
dreamed of it sitting by the window in his living room. "The chest actually
fitted there real well," he reported. Another student was wondering which
graduate school to attend: he dreamt of flying in a plane looking down on
a map of the US. The university sites near his home glowed red for "unsafe
to land", and others green, for "safe". He decided to move away from home.
Not all problems could be solved, though, says Barrett. Students who
tried to solve maths problems in their sleep,
for instance, failed.
Others believe that our dream work can be more profound. Dreams do important
emotional work for us, says Rosalind Cartwright, a psychologist at
Rush-Presbyterian-St Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. That's why more of
them are unsettling than pleasant in tone. A nice dream, quips Cartwright,
is simply time off for good behaviour. During the day, we often don't have
time to deal with the things that upset us: the fallout from a messy divorce,
a rebuke from a cranky boss. We may not even register that we're upset, and
then we go to sleep. And that's when we deal with these emotional loose ends.
Nice idea, but where's the evidence? Well, don't expect large-scale, controlled
studies, they're difficult and costly, and dream researchers work on a
shoestring. But what they can do is wake up subjects during each of the night's
REM sleep periods and ask them to report the contents of their dreams. These
reports can then be analysed by researchers who know neither the subjects
nor the hypothesis that is being tested. Cartwright has done this with people
struggling through divorce and other stresses. When people are coping well,
their dreams may well be about the failed marriage itself, but the last dream
of the night will provide some resolution, perhaps that in spite of the good
times, the marriage had simply run its course. The mood of such dreamers
will be better in the morning.
Poor copers are another cup of tea, says Cartwright: they simply reiterate
their "problem" again and again in each dream, come to no resolution and
feel no better in the morning.
Poor copers also spend less time in REM sleep, suggesting they dream less.
Add this, says Cartwright, to preliminary evidence that a year later, the
people who dreamt about their failed relationship are coping better than
those whose dreams "ignored" the issue, and you have some suggestion that
dreaming is emotionally important. But only a suggestion, because there's
an unresolved-and perhaps unresolvable-cause-and-effect dilemma here. Does
"faulty dreaming" impede people's abilities to resolve problems? Or is it
merely a reflection of a poor coper's waking state of mind?
Whatever the answer, we can definitely find a use for dreams, says Stephen
LaBerge, visiting scholar at Stanford University. What fires his imagination
is not so much "faulty dreaming" as "expert dreaming". LaBerge believes we
can all learn to control our dreams by becoming "lucid", or aware of them,
even as we sleep. And he believes our lives would be the richer for it.
There are no carefully controlled studies to test LaBerge's
claims, but he has a wealth of anecdotes about people who practised doing
everything from perfecting their tennis strokes to achieving easy, effortless
orgasms in their sleep, only to find that the night-time drills improved
their daytime performances as well. Lucid dreaming, claims LaBerge, can also
help people "master" nightmares by confronting the fearsome dragon or interloper
instead of cravenly running away.
LaBerge advocates various drills for exercising dream control, such as meditating
before sleep on your intention to have a lucid dream and what you would like
to do in it. He and his coworkers have even designed a contraption designed
to improve the odds of dreaming lucidly when it is strapped onto the head.
Sensors over the eyes monitor eye movements; when these become frequent enough,
lights start flashing and dreamers are reminded that they're supposed to
Some dream researchers are intrigued by LaBerge's work. Everyone who experiences
lucid dreaming, says Barrett, "feels it is a profound state of consciousness".
But others aren't impressed. "It's a typically American idea. We're not willing
to let nature happen, we've got to control it," says Foulkes. "Why do it?
Are you just a control freak?" In the end, says Foulkes, only one thing is
really clear: "Dreaming is the most impractical thing in the world you could
propose studying." Who could disagree? And yet, as the scores of fanciful
dream books filed under "metaphysics" or "self improvement" in bookshops
amply illustrate, there will always be someone prepared to wax authoritative
about our night-time fantasy life.
Rosie Nestel [New Scientist supplement 26 Apr 1997]