How dreams heal: some thoughts on the neuroscience of dreaming and its contribution to overcoming dissociated states of mind.

Presentation delivered by Jean Knox, on Saturday February 28th 2015,  to the International Attachment in London N19.

Written by Tirril Harris and Desmond King

Starting with certainly one of psychoanalysis' most famous dreams - the Wolf-Man's childhood dream about white wolves watching him from the tree outside his window – Jean set the scene for a 21st century approach. Freud's interpretation of this dream maintained that it was the result of having witnessed a "primal scene" — his parents having sex a tergo ("from behind" or "doggy style" like wolves) — at a very young age. Jean bypassed this, by setting the scene for the Attachment Theory perspective that dreams often embody experiences of anxiety, reflecting dissociated aspects of the psyche, often originating in unprocessed trauma, and that fear of predators may just simply be that. She moved on to talk about the vividness of imagery common to dreams and the intrusive flashbacks that characterise PTSD. Distinguishing two types of dissociation – primary which involves hyper-arousal and secondary which involves hypo-arousal, a shut-down of the limbic system - she suggested dreaming could be one process by which trauma could be healed and emotionally worked through. Talking us carefully through different parts of the brain involved in arousal and affect regulation, particularly the role of the default network, she made a powerful case for the role of imaginative processes, including fantasy and dreaming, in overcoming dissociation through a gradual integrative process of meaning which gives a sense of agency and identity to the self.

In the large group discussion that followed her talk many stimulating issues were raised:

we were reminded of Fairbairn's classic view that every person (and many objects) in dreams represent parts of the dreamer's own self. Jean had earlier mentioned a dream where the dreamer had been following a coach (on a bicycle?) where an evil presence was continually encouraging him to overtake and then preventing him doing so, and we had discussed the link between this figure and an abusive parent, but rethinking it in terms of an internal saboteur brought new insights.

One therapist brought examples of dreamers who succeeded in waking themselves up before unfolding disasters had actually occurred and commented that they seemed among the calmest and most reflective of her clients – could there be a connection. It was speculated that this capacity was evidence of control by the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex. This led naturally to the topic of lucid dreaming, in which one is aware that one is dreaming, and where the dreamer has greater chances to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream and can manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment. This activity has also been linked with the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex. Several participants had undertaken training in lucid dreaming and the discussion ranged over the therapeutic effect of such experiences in increasing the dreamer's sense of agency and empowerment in subsequent waking life.

We do not have room in this item to deal with the many other issues discussed and we are hoping some of you others who attended will contribute to this blog with details of these.

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