Does Freud Attribute Too Much to the Power of Dreams?
One of the hallmarks of Freud’s approach is his reliance on two mysterious realms: dreaming and the unconscious. For Freud these were linked together; the former was a mode of access to the latter. Although (to the best of my knowledge) Freud doesn’t put it this way, the reason why he set the problem up like this was to avoid cognitive mediation. Cognitive mediation is mental or psychological interference with the substantive propositional content of the unconscious. Example: we reinterpret unconscious experience in light of our present goals, desires, intentions and objectives. While it can happen, one need not postulate a devious motive for this activity, which in most cases also occurs unconsciously. Regardless of how it happens, it interferes with the excavation, articulation and analysis of unconscious experience. A parallel might be seen in Freud’s early interest in hypnosis, which also disintermediates conscious reflection. (I highly doubt I would be a good subject for hypnosis because it is difficult for me to unplug the conscious interpretation module of my brain.) Another parallel is the concept of free association. If one just starts saying the first thing that pops into one’s mind, then it follows it’s less likely to have been cognitively mediated. It’s more spontaneous and thus has escaped the filter of conscious analysis, examination and introspection.
I’m not convinced that dreams have the power Freud attributes to them. Theorists like Francis Crick dismiss dreams as more like random discharges of static electricity that occur spontaneously during sleep. They get rid of background noise. They reorganize synaptic connections, facilitate neural pruning and consolidate and optimize memory – almost like defragmenting a hard drive or rebooting one’s internal RAM. Another recent theorist about dreams is G. William Domhoff. Following Calvin S. Hall, Domhoff has developed a taxonomy of dreams, organizing them by thematic content. This enables researchers to code them and perform quantitative studies based on relevant metrics such as age, gender, ethnicity, nature scope and extent of social interactions, etc. For all I know there may be studies out there correlating dream content categories with the number of one’s Facebook friends. While he does not overinterpret them, as Freud tends to do, Domhoff is Freud’s contemporaneous successor. Like Crick, Domhoff maintains dreams play an adaptive role in maintaining psychological health. However the problem with Domhoff’s research agenda is that dreams remain essentially untethered to any neurological purpose. While Crick might go too far in depriving dreams of all meaning, Domhoff doesn’t go far enough in attempting to discern their neurological substrates.
I’m terrible at remembering dreams. I’ve tried keeping a dream journal, or even a tape recorder (well, it doesn’t really use tape – let’s say the modern equivalent of a tape recorder) by my bedside. The problem is that when I wake up in the morning, it takes me a while to recuperate. I’m somewhat dizzy and need to achieve physiological homeostasis before I can even get up. So I sit on the side of the bed for a few minutes and attempt to regain equilibrium. I’m in no condition to engage in a cognitive process such as writing down or dictating a dream, or even a few key words as primes to help me remember it later. I’m not a morning person. Movies like Inception notwithstanding, I’ve also never engaged or participated in lucid dreaming, that is, knowing one is in a dream as the dream transpires. At least, to the best of my knowledge – I may have done so but seeing as how I can’t remember the content of my dreams, it follows I wouldn’t be able to remember if they’re lucid or not.
Here’s a dream I had the other night. I was in an office waiting for an appointment, but then I fell asleep. Right now the car I usually drive has a mechanical problem so while it gets sorted out I’ve been driving another car we have had for some time. While it’s mechanically sound, it’s not much to look at. My daughter has an affinity for naming cars and this one’s called Wanda. Wanda had metamorphosed into a half-track military vehicle like the kind you see in old movies about WWII. It had various other features also. I decided to sell it (in real life its resale value is zero) and asked for $4,000. A man came up to me and offered $3,000 so we settled on $3,500 cash. Then I found myself in a building populated by various odd beings. I couldn’t discern if they were threatening or benign, though they became more of the latter as the dream went on. Although I was an actor in the dream, I wasn’t aware of being one at the time. What does this mean? One could offer any number of different interpretations but none of them seem particularly compelling.
My sympathies like more with Crick than Domhoff. Regardless of their etiology or content, dreams are irrational or even supernatural. People who act on what their dreams tell them to do usually end up with an infelicitous result. Just look at poor Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, sacrificed by her father on the eve of the Trojan War in response to an oracle’s dream telling him this was an approved procedure to get Artemis to blow enough wind to get his ships to Troy. While that may have provided a temporary respite, only Odysseus returned alive. Freud ignored Iphigenia, whose sad tale presents a dramatic counterpart to Freud’s own theory about Oedipal drives. Freud’s own dreams must have been pretty boring, otherwise, he wouldn’t have been so prone to invest them with so much power. Even Oedipus, one of the central motifs of Freud’s theory, went crazy and blinded himself after realizing what he had done.