Dreams and Therapy

I had this dream the other night …

Clients often recall recent dreams and dreams from childhood during therapy.  There is no current understanding of why we dream, only theories.  Update: There is now a much better understanding of why we dream, this article will be updated shortly in line with current sleep research (Feb 2019).

My original article is given below and was my offering on what I felt maybe happening. I was wrong in some respects but pretty near the mark in others.

My thoughts and ideas, my position, is based on other theories that may feed into how dreaming could be understood.  I will start by making various interesting points to consider in building on what I feel maybe the case.

For those of you who don’t have the time to read this right now, I will offer you something to try. The next time you wake from a dream ask yourself this ‘ what feeling did that dream leave me with?’, that’s your signpost.  A bit like the feeling a headline may leave you with, the headline may not be the reality but the feeling is.

Fetus and REM

Researchers know that babies in the womb start to have Rapid Eye Movement (REM) around week 23.  REM is correlated with dreaming.  Is REM from a baby in the womb the same correlation? The next question that comes to mind is, ‘what is happening at 23 weeks?’.  Well, one of the things that appear to happen is that the baby’s hearing has developed more. The baby’s developing brain is experiencing increased input.  I pondered on the issue of a fetus dreaming for quite a while since our dreams contain images, images that must come from stored memories and imagination. The baby’s brain, however, can not have images of any sense, it can only really work with a more limited input, the mother, its environment (darkness, fluid), sensations, and feelings.  Do they dream? What would a baby’s dream be like? A dream of feelings maybe?

Preparing for the environment

Research highlights correlations, so most things are only possibilities, this is an important point to keep in mind.   Researchers have found that there is a correlation between the mother’s experiences during pregnancy and the babies development both in the womb and outside the womb.  One striking example was given to researchers when pregnant women in world war two experienced the ‘Dutch hunger winter’.  The children of these mothers were traced and monitored during their life and found to have various issues that correlated with eating problems.  The researchers suggest that the baby adapts itself in the womb to the environmental experiences of the mother.

So we could say, that if a mother is anxious during pregnancy the baby will start to adapt to a possibly threatening environment prior to its birth (Mat’e 2011).  Is sound at 23 weeks a clue to the outside world? Is dreaming a kind of preparation?  I don’t have the answers, only ideas!

Attachment theories and biology

If I now turn to the explanations of Dr. Daniel Siegal on feeling states created in attachment then I can offer, you the reader, some ideas on feelings and dreams.  If a child experiences an attachment pattern that produces anxiety then neurologically the brains synaptic firing, in certain areas, will be adapted to fire a related anxious pattern.  For those who don’t know, this does not mean you are set this way, the brains plasticity (ability to change) is high, it can change and can change quite rapidly.  If it could not, then therapy would not work!

So let me take the anxious attachment pattern, as one example, and the anxiously firing brain.  We can not hold traumatic and anxious events in our mind constantly, we would fail to function, the brain does a good job of protecting us by archiving the problems from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind (placed into darkness), repression.  This does not give us a reason to dream but it does suggest, to me, a biological and psychological foundation for a dream.

We create our nightmare

Dr. Siegal suggests that attachment patterns fit in a certain environment, the environment it was created in, in the past.  Our attachment pattern is at home in that environment and unconsciously we may create that environment in our relationships and environments.  When we sleep, could it be the brain seeks to induce aspects of that environment to maintain the neurological wiring?

Creating the feeling out of memory

A memory includes all sensory input, the smell, the image, taste, feelings, and sounds.  If I use food as an example, you remember what you like, how it tasted, what it smelt like.  So there exists a huge sensory resource to construct a dream from.  I am unconscious when I dream,  my brain may pull out images for their associated feeling, this would make sense with the previous points I have made.  The underlying feelings that are suppressed or even present provided the foundation for the narrative, the dream.  The abstract nature of the dream appears because we can not consciously make decisions on its sense, we can not ‘edit’ into a logical story while asleep.  I would suggest that the brain does its best in constructing the feeling in ourselves and that is the foundation of the dream.

So what does my dream mean?

Using my thinking, it would seem to be about a feeling that is seeking expression.   It’s a signpost to a feeling that is linked to underlying anxiety.  Freud, for example, attributed a lot of human behaviour to the unconscious mind.  The dream symbols, places, people are all links to the feeling that is the foundation of the dream.  Think of the dream as a picture (someone once said ‘all art is anxiety based’), you look at a picture and you get a feeling about it.  That’s what a dream seems to be doing.  The question is not ‘what does my dream mean?’  The question is ‘ what is the dream feeling all about?’.   Could it be preparing you for something? Is it trying to help you manage a feeling?  Is it creating an environment that you associated with at a very early age? Maybe

Could it be preparing you for something? Is it trying to help you manage a feeling?  Is it creating an environment that you associated with at a very early age? Maybe its just maintaining neural networks associated with feelings?   There is no doubt in my mind that dreaming has a function, some may say ‘oh I never dream’, I would suggest another possibility ‘I never remember my dreams’.

Just another idea about dreams

I don’t have the answers but I do know sticking with feelings can give you the signposts for adaptive functioning.  In fact when I think about maladaptive emotion, an emotion we become stuck in, it’s very much like a repeating dream.  You experience a particular feeling that is out of context with the present moment, over and over again.

I work with emotions on a daily basis, emotion-focused therapy. Contact

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