Dream research in the first half of the 20th century was mostly about proving Freud right. In the second half of the 20th century it was mostly about proving Freud wrong. Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, we may finally be reaching a more balanced understanding of what psychoanalysis can and cannot teach us about dreaming.
This was my strong impression after a recent symposium on “The Science of Dreams” at UCLA, hosted by Vwani Roychowdhury, Maja Gutman, and Douglas Hollan. The symposium opened with a lecture by George Bermudez, a practicing psychoanalyst and member of the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. Bermudez led the audience through a brilliant review of psychoanalytic dream theory from Freud onward, leading to a surprising and innovative final point that I find especially promising for the future of the field.
Bermudez started, as one does, with Freud’s 1900 opus The Interpretation of Dreams and its notions of wish-fulfillment, the four mechanisms of the dream-work, and the “topographical” model of the psyche (conscious, preconscious, unconscious). Bermudez made sure to mention the next big development in Freud’s thinking about dreams, in his 1920 work Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when he introduced a new “structural” model of the mind (ego, superego, id). Freud felt the need to create this new model in part to explain post-traumatic nightmares, which did not seem capable of being interpreted as instinctual wish-fulfillments. In the new model, Freud distinguished between dreams from the id seeking pleasure, and dreams from unconscious portions of the ego seeking mastery and waking-life adaptation. Both types of dreams are still wish-fulfillments, but with the latter type Freud granted the ego more strength and agency than he had suggested in his earlier writings.
This new line of thought about the adaptive abilities of the ego became especially important in the American branch of psychoanalysis. Bermudez highlighted a fascinating but often-neglected 1954 article by Erik Erikson in which he re-interprets the “Dream of Irma’s Injection,” one of Freud’s own dreams that he used as his first example in Chapter 2 of The Interpretation of Dreams. In “The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis,” Erikson expands on Freud’s model by calling attention to the psycho-social dynamics of dreams (in Freud’s case, the anti-Semitism that negatively impacted his early medical career). Rather than dwelling on childhood conflicts from the past, Erikson regarded dreams as more forward-looking, giving the ego an opportunity to defend against anxiety, manage unruly instincts, and adapt to social reality.
Bermudez cast some subtle shade on Melanie Klein, for reasons I could not follow, and he acknowledged that one of the great post-Freudians, Harry Stack Sullivan, had virtually nothing new to say about dreams. But he did discuss Heinz Kohut’s idea of “self-state” dreams, which reflect the current condition of the self, its strengths and vulnerabilities, as it confronts a personal crisis or trauma. And he mentioned the gnomic ideas of Wilfred Bion regarding an “alpha function” of the mind that transforms experiences and sense impressions from the day into psychic material that can be dreamed at night. Both Kohut and Bion have developed elaborately detailed extensions of psychoanalytic theory, making it hard to evaluate their ideas about dreams outside of that context. But to their credit, they are seeking ways of conceptualizing the endlessly surprising multiplicity of meanings that emerge from dreams. Rather than trying to force all new data into the strictures of orthodox psychoanalytic theory (which even Freud himself didn’t do), Kohut and Bion have boldly opened new vistas in the therapeutic use of dream interpretation.
The most dramatic part of the lecture came at the end, when Bermudez described his work using the “social dreaming matrix” model of Gordon Lawrence. Lawrence’s approach is to lift the dream out of a purely individual context and connect it with other people’s dreams; everyone then explores the group dream imagery as a synergistic reflection of the social world in which we all live. The goal is to tease out meanings of collective significance, expanding the adaptive functionality of dreams to include social concerns, conflicts, and crises. This is both a radical departure from a conventional psychoanalytic approach to dreams and a natural extension of the practical knowledge that psychoanalysts have gained while using Freud’s ideas over the past one hundred years.
As Bermudez enthusiastically described his own practical work with social dreaming, it became clear that psychoanalysis is finding a way to stay true to its roots in Freud’s original insights while also recognizing the potential for completely new insights to emerge in response to present-day challenges and needs. We don’t need to prove Freud was right or wrong. We just need to keep listening to the dreams.
Note: this post originally appeared in Psychology Today, May 2, 2019.