A Freudian sleep?

A recent Hebrew University seminar on dreams left no one yawning.

sleeping woman 88 (photo credit: )
sleeping woman 88
(photo credit: )
What is the stuff from which dreams are made? They are cut by the brain during sleep to suit and express the imaginations, experiences, fears, aspirations and joys of each individual - except for the handful whose neurological problems leave their resting minds dormant. What do our dreams actually represent? Are dreams a reflection of the soul? A recent seminar encompassing the physiological, psychological and other aspects of the subject tried to supply some answers. Organized by the Jerusalem Friends of the Hebrew University at the capital's Inbal Hotel, it was attended by scores of retirees (who by now should have realized at least some of their dreams). Dream interpretation, which is very prominent in the Bible, has evolved through the theories of Sigmund Freud in his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams to the neurobiology research of today. Prof. Yoram Yovell, a physician and psychoanalyst who conducts research at the University of Haifa, began his lecture by asking: "Is there significance to dreams, or do they just happen and not mean anything? Since the beginning of history - in all cultures - people look for and find significance in their dreams. Those who didn't are neurologists, brain scientists and physicians during the past 150 years." Using psychoanalysis, Freud made it possible to study dreams which his patients retold. Freud, said Yovell, systematically included dream interpretation in his psychoanalytical technique, along with free association and hypnosis. Freud's work on the analysis of dreams is a vital tool used by specialists to understand their patients' subconscious. THE PSYCHOANALYTICAL approach to dreams, continued Yovell, "has developed a lot since Freud, but the way we look at dreams is not very different from the way he did. He regarded his book on dreams as his best work. It was a marketing failure, with only only one edition and 351 copies printed in six years; the rest were destroyed. But later, of course, it became a bestseller." Freud was aware of the physiological side of dreams, Yovell continued, but saw them as being significant and determined by the unconscious. "Every dream is achieving a wish," Freud said initially. But later, he retreated on this somewhat. Freud had principles for creating dreams. "He thought dreams are symbolic, like those of Joseph in Egypt. Another of his principles is 'condensation' - in which a symbol or person or action can represent several different thing in the soul of the dreamer. With 'displacement,' dreams express things you can't say openly. When awake, people censor themselves and don't speak freely, but in dreams they can think of anything. Freud also believed that dreams contain leftovers from things that happened to the dreamer during the previous day or two. But we edit them before we dream." In the 1950s, however, came the ability to record brain waves and the discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when the eyes move quickly from side to side, usually signaling dreams in progress. "There is a significant chance that a person will remember his dream if he is awakened during REM." With these technological advances, researchers hoped that they could begin to understand how dreams are formed and maybe even be able to see them. "But they didn't succeed," said Yovell. "After 15 years of intensive research, they were unable to understand the content of dreams." IN THE 1970s, it was discovered that REM sleep is natural in all mammals, and is dependent on a small number of neurons in the brain stem connected to the cerebral cortex. "The lower brain can't process symbolic images, so it was thought that dreams have no significance. Today, brain scientists believe that dreams are part of a vital mechanism for processing memories and their connection to emotions. People who cannot dream because of brain damage thus do not function normally." But in the 1990s, it was discovered that the connection between REM sleep and dreams is not absolute. There may be drams without REM, and maybe brain damage that harms the ability to dream without harming REM sleep. One researcher studied the connection between certain types of brain damage and the inability to dream. "There is a neurological disorder called Gerstmann Syndrome, involving the left parietal lobe," said Yovell, "in which people can read but not write or do simple arithmetic. They don't know which finger is which, or the difference between left and right. These people have difficulty dreaming." Today, concluded Yovell, "we know that dreams have significance. There is a connection between dreams and wishes, to the language of dreams, images in dreams, the connection between dreams and feelings and of dreams to the events of the day that has passed." Dr. John Baumgold, a clinical psychologist formerly from Brooklyn, New York who conducts research into dreams at The Hebrew University's Magid Institute and was a founding member of the Israel Group Psychotherapy Association, said he has been interested in the subject since he was an adolescent almost half a century ago. Baumgold, who before his aliya was chief psychiatrist at a reformatory in Oklahoma and afterwards worked at the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center, said his interest in dreams as a youth propelled him into clinical psychology. "We as a family always sat down to breakfast, and my father told us the dream he had the previous night. Once he told us he dreamed about a man he hadn't seen for 20 years, and that day he met him on the street. I was fascinated." Baumgold got his hands on one of Freud's works "because I knew Freud was interested in sex. I bought a copy secretly, smuggled it under my sweater. I thought there were pictures and read it with a flashlight in bed under the covers. There were no pictures, but Freud talked of slips of the tongue and dreams. I could really understand what it meant." He recalled sitting in the principal's office of his yeshiva, "where I had a permanent place. The secretary asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said: 'I want to interpret dreams!' And I went into that field. I never took a course in dreams, but decided the best way to learn about a subject is to teach it. And that is what I do." Dreams come in every shape, form and kind, noted Baumgold. Some have no end, some have more details and others have only a few. "The only thing you can say for sure is that dreams occur during sleep. Dreams during sleep are often a surprise and unexpected. In daydreams, however, there are usually no surprises; they usually reflect what we wish for." Dreams can sometimes be prophetic, inspirational and even therapeutic: Baumgold related that the famous golfer, Arnold Palmer, reputedly had trouble with his golf stroke, had a dream, and then got it right. "In human history, dreams were always considered a different source of information, sometimes superior. They have inspired literature, art, music, sports and scientific achievements. The elusive structure of DNA came to researchers in a dream. So did the periodic table of elements. There is evidence that a few weeks before the assassination of [US president Abraham Lincoln], someone reported dreaming that he heard moaning, went in that direction and saw a casket and four soldiers around it. He was told: 'The president has been assassinated.' And a month before Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Saryevo - the murder becoming an excuse for the outbreak of World War I - a priest who was the archduke's mentor had a dream of the assassination. He even remembered the carriage and what the archduke was wearing. This is part of the historical record." Baumgaul recalled that he himself had a memorable dream a year ago in which his car motor had overheated and he had to get out of the vehicle. "It changed my existence," said Baumgold. "I changed the tempo of my life, became vegetarian and cut off my beard. It was a blessing." The biblical Joseph was a "superstar" at interpreting dreams. Alexander the Great didn't go anywhere without his dream interpreter in tow. And when the Holy Temple was standing in Jerusalem, there were many people who earned their living by being dream interpreters. In ancient Greece, when people were stuck in life and confused, they would go to one of the temples, stay there for several days, fast, inhale the smoke of certain herbs, eat certain foods and wait for a dream. They slept at the temple, and after describing the dream to an interpreter, the meaning was explained, Baumgold said. "For Freud, a function of dreams was to preserve sleep. One has feelings of conflict from childhood and antisocial feelings. People disguise their anti-social reactions, and dreams put them in a certain form so we can live with them," the lecturer continued. "My view is that the function of dreams is to maintain a correct balance in our lives. A dream puts us back into proper balance. It comes to reveal, not to hide." To those who have trouble remembering their dreams, he advised that they tell themselves before they go to sleep that they want to recall them. "We dream about four times a night. We can't remember them all. But when you wake up, before you do anything - even before you get out of bed - tell someone, or yourself, the dream several times or write it down. It takes only a few seconds or minutes. Feel free to write down the most unconventional, weirdest dreams without concern that somebody will see them." The opening scene of a dream, he maintains, "gives us the subject. If I am walking in a field with my wife, the dream is about my relationship with my wife. If I dream I am in prison, I feel constricted. The final part is where the dream wants to take us for the development of our personality. There is amplification on a cultural level. If a Jew dreams of Egypt, this has cultural meaning. Whether you like it or not, that is where our ancestors were slaves. Jews carry this with them." Sunrise represents a new day, a fresh beginning; sunset is the end of the day, the end of life, a transition into the world of night. There are dreams that are common around the world, Baumgold concluded. "For example - the invasion of a shadow, a robber, murderer or terrorist who threatens us. There is also a dream of falling - endless falling. We never hit bottom, and this is very anxiety producing. When we are too high - up in seventh heaven - and things are going well, we fear falling from the heights. Another typical dream is having your teeth fall out. Teeth are symbolic of aggression to maintain life, bite, tear and grind food. We need this aggression to maintain life; it is not directed against anybody." And finally, there is the dream of being nude in a public place, which was described by Freud himself. "Nobody seems to mind except the dreamer himself. This dream has to do with too much identification with a mask, a persona that we wear. If we identify totally with a certain mask, we appear nude in our dreams and can think about the psychological mask we have been wearing." Sweet dreams!