ON DREAMS: In praise of dreams forgotten

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By Tuesday, Feb 7 Viewpoints

I just read in the Jan. 29 Sunday NY Times Magazine section a brief article titled “How to remember your dreams.” An esteemed Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School strongly recommended, in this article, a series of methods to assure better dream recall. To summarize: (1) Drink 3 glasses of water that will force middle of the night awakenings (for peeing) that frequently accompany dream recall, (2) Repeat three times as you drift off to sleep: “I’m going to remember my dreams.” (3) On waking, don’t open your eyes, don’t move, don’t say a word, stay half-asleep. (4) For two weeks, every night and morning, tell yourself to remember your dreams. The good doctor ends in the assured prediction that if one follows his instructions, 80 percent of people who say they never remember dreams, will now do so.

First, I should mention that as a psychologist and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist who has devoted much of my life’s work to dreams, I fully recognize the enormous benefit and enrichment of having access to, of thinking about, and of working with dreams. There is no question in my mind that a relationship with dreams is often of great significance to many. While of diminishing importance in our modern technological culture, the appearance of dream groups around the country is one example of an effort, by some, to recapture the potential for sharing with others one’s most private nighttime adventures — an activity common in many ancient and pre-industrial cultures.

However, the publication of assertions and recommendations by a high-ranking representative of American science, medicine and psychiatry — to increase memory for dreams — is a good example of probably well-intentioned but misguided official support for yet another attempt to achieve more and more control over one’s own human nature.

To begin, there is absolutely no evidence that an increase in memory for dreams will lead to a more positive life experience. Quite possibly, the forgetting of dreams (on average, we may remember only about 5 to 10 percent of all dreams), may well serve some evolutionary purpose. For example, perhaps we have more than enough to deal with in ordinary conscious living without being plagued by memory of more of our imaginative nighttime wanderings. Perhaps dreams are akin to turning over the soil of mind, and unremembered dreams are doing their important part in this process without our daytime awareness. Can we trust natural processes, outside our control, without needing to gain control of them? The idea that conscious life (awareness) requires the balance of an unconscious life (unawareness) as a part of a necessary ecology of mind was understood by many philosophers and poets and, of course, by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Perhaps the unconscious part of mind need not be mined, except to alleviate suffering. To light up the world, we dig deep for nature’s oil, but end up polluting our atmosphere. To dig deep for dreams may end up polluting our mind’s atmosphere.

Our powerful need to control nature, while perhaps inevitable, is not always a good thing as we are learning painfully in regard to evidence of environmental damage and climate change. The “lucid dream” movement, in which it is believed that conscious control of one’s dreams, i.e., entering one’s dreams to affect them, is another example of our need to control the unconscious. There is such beauty in nature that much of it can be left as is, for all our benefit. There is much to discover in relation to dreams and remembered dreams provide a great harvest for those interested. Unremembered dreams (the 90 to 95 percent of all dreams) are probably doing their part in our survival. Mining them will not, I believe, increase our chances of survival. Trusting them, outside our need to control, may be the way to go. Perhaps, we can recommend trusting the ancient mind, trusting ancient traditions, trusting our ancient world, trusting not knowing and not having control over everything.

We may not need to have access to everything. There is a hint of greediness in our reluctance to accept what isn’t. The experience of dreaming without memory, without having it in our hands may have a purpose or none at all, for all we know. Even for a supposedly “good” purpose like learning, like personal enrichment, like psychotherapy, forcing more dreams into memory may produce some negative results. This can be researched. While not remembering most dreams may feel like a failure or an unwanted emptiness, there may be good reason for such experiences — especially such ancient ones.

In conclusion, I do object to such disregard and disrespect for the universal forgetting of most dreams and for such well-intentioned but ultimately misguided and burdensome effort to force an increase in our memory for dreams.

Again, some research might be helpful. On the positive side, if you believe it is positive, there is the doctor’s assertion that following his instructions there could be an 80 percent increase in memory for dreams. On the negative side is the possibility that one could fall and break a hip when traveling sleepily to pee in the middle of the night. Maybe there are reasons for not remembering all our dreams.

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