“I would have spent my life / tormented and alone / if dreams didn’t come to me / showing me the way.” Agostinho da Silva opens the door to the theme at hand: what’s the meaning of dreams, and what do certain subjects, such as psychoanalysis, have to say about them. Or, if you prefer, how can everything that goes on in our sleep world help in our sober, and vigilant, reality.
For the previous issue of Vogue Portugal, I signed an article titled: “You can run but you can’t hide”. The text tackled the meaning of mirrors and of what we see when standing in front of one, not out of vanity, but out of confrontation. At its core, the bottom of the question was trying to understand what we see when we really – emphasis on “really” – look at ourselves in the mirror, beyond the physical image it reflects. The choice of title resulted in the following premise: no matter how much we desire to escape ourselves, our demons, our dark side – or, loosely translated, our shit (pardon my French) -, life will forever be in charge, always, of putting us face to face with those, let’s say, unresolved issues, very much in a it’s my way or the highway style. And that may come to be in the most various of ways. For example, through dreams. In the words of Mario Quintana (1906-1994), the Brazilian poet, “to dream is to wake up inside.” And, with that one little phrase, the writer said plenty. Because whether you like it or not, to dream really is to wake up facing inwards. In the tale The Dream Of A Ridiculous Man, published in 1877 by Fiódor Dostoiévski (1821-1881), the narrator, who’s also the leading character, has a revelation through a lucid dream. At a certain point, he ends up confessing: “Dreams, as we all know, are very queer things: some parts are presented with appalling vividness, with details worked up with the elaborate finish of jewelry, while others one gallops through, as it were, without noticing them at all, as, for instance, through space and time. Dreams seem to be spurred on not by reason but by desire, not by the head but by the heart, and yet what complicated tricks my reason has played sometimes in dreams, what utterly incomprehensible things happen to it!”
Indeed, dreams are not generated by reason, but by the subconscious. We can’t choose the dreams we dream in our sleep, they choose us and, for the most part, it’s because they want to tell us something – something that, if we had anything to say about it, we would do anything not to hear. In dreams, we can’t run, and we certainly cannot hide: “Dreams are impartial and spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, out of our will’s control. They’re of the purest nature; they show us the natural, raw truth and are, thus, as fit as anything to show us an attitude that is compliant with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed away from its foundations or has found an impasse”, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) explained, the Swiss psychiatrist that founded analytical psychology, about the universe of dreams – which is, in fact, one of the main pillars of psychanalysis. While Freud (1856-1939), the “father of psychanalysis”, thought that dreams expressed forbidden desires that should be concealed (he differentiated the manifest content of a dream – what was on the surface, from the latent content – from the occult one), Jung saw dreams as the expression of things that develop openly – dreams don’t cheat, they don’t lie, distort nor disguise. Invariably, they’re looking to express something the ego doesn’t know nor recognize. “To Freud and the Freudian psychanalysis, dreams are the real road (the regent street) to the subconscious, an instrument that allows the comprehension of human complexity. On the contrary, his theory of dreams (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899) lead to a global conception of mental life, which is why it occupies such a central place in the psychoanalytical structure. Under the sleeping state when dreams occur, all defense mechanisms that operate when we’re awake are sort of turned off or have been greatly abolished, allowing for the subconscious desires of the dreamer, especially for the ones that are inadmissible, to have some form of expression, even if in disguise (general rule, the manifested content). Just like the method of free association and other psychoanalytical techniques, dreams are, then, particularly regarded by Freud as a privileged way of accessing the psychic and unconscious device – the focus point of psychoanalysis that aims to, amongst other things, to turn the unconscious into conscious. And, once regarded as manifestations of the subconscious, or better yet, as a realization of repressed desires, they could help us connect with our thoughts, emotions, necessities and deepest wishes. To do that, they were analyzed through the free association method and analysis of symbols, which would uncover and give meaning to the latent content. After the release of this innovative workpiece, not only did Freud himself continued to investigate, going over his thought process and writing about dreams, so did many other psychoanalysts, psychologists, neurologists and neurophysiologists.”, the psychoanalyst Isabel Botelho states.
But what are dreams, after all? Them, which have always intrigued and infatuated humanity, have been regarded in multiple ways: as having prophetic power, or telepathic, as a mere reflection of daily life, as a key to the resolution of problems, or even as either divine or diabolical messengers. We are all aware of what dreams are, but when the question requires a more scientific explanation, the answer will continue to be something like “It’s not clear”. At least not completely: “Dreams – neither a state of watch nor of sleep -, are a production of the dreamer that can reflect their personality, style, language, internal conflict, culture or their current status. It has a communicative value, of integrity, of [their] experience. And given that the percentage of time we spend dreaming diminishes with age, it is thought that possibly dreams play some sort of role in the development of physiological maturity of the human organism. We dream both with and without rapid eye movement, known as REMs, in general, with less intensity of blunt body movements. The act of dreaming is common to most people, though some remember them more than others. Remembering dreams also appears to be directly linked to the proximity of the awakening moment along with the occurrence of rapid eye movements”, the psychoanalyst explains. Dreams can happen at any time of night, but they’re different, they have different “levels”. A night’s sleep is divided into four stages: the first one, when sleep is light and one can easily be awakened; the second one, when the body relaxes and sleep is deeper than in the previous stage; the third one, when sleep is the deepest; and the REM stage, already aforementioned, characterized by rapid eye movement and elevation of blood pressure and heartbeat rate. For a long time, scientists believe dreams only occurred during REM stage, but recent studies indicate that, although they do occur more frequently then, people also recall dreaming during sleep stages 1 and 2. During these, dreams tend to be shorter, less emotionally charged and visual, as they usually mostly refer to memories and preoccupations of daily life, they’re more about thoughts than images and action. Dreams filled with action though, those that usually seem like they could have been taken from a movie, are more associated with the REM stage. Some people manage to manipulate dreams – which science calls “lucid dreams”, meaning when someone is conscious that they are dreaming.
About a year ago, after a particularly rocky stage in my life, those that leave your life particularly complicated, that leave us feeling lost and the level of despair leads to whatever it takes to put an end to the pain – or, at least, to try and understand it – I decided to take the psychoanalysis route. After countless shrinks, a sea of alternative therapies, escapes to India and such, in tireless attempts to “find myself” (the biggest cliché in the history of mankind), I considered, at last, psychoanalysis. And why psychoanalysis? Because as mentioned before, one of its primary objectives is to bring to consciousness everything that lies in our subconscious and prevents us from moving on, metaphorically speaking, with our lives. So, since I had already tried everything conscious-wise, I thought it was time to explore my subconscious – no matter the cost. During the first appointments, my therapist would usually ask me about my dreams – not the ones I had for my life, but the ones that visited me at night. For the most part, I couldn’t remember what I had dreamt about, so I decided to let go of the “cigarette before bed” (that helped me sleep) that I smoked every night and that simultaneously, stopped me not from dreaming – because you always do -, but from remembering what I had dreamt about. The psychoanalyst therapist sneaks into your life and, when you least expect it, starts showing face, with no bs or pats on the back. Shortly after I started dreaming abnormally – or, put differently, I started to be able to remember that process. And these weren’t just any dreams: for weeks on end, I started dreaming, out of the blue, uninterruptedly, with a question that would end up becoming the basis for many of the issues I still battle with today. All of a sudden – or better yet, since the beginning of the consultations – my subconscious began to manifest remind me of a past situation – long gone – that was still wielding such power in my subconscious that it was preventing me from evolving as a complete and happy human being.
“It’s very common that at the beginning of therapy (whether it is psychoanalysis or psychoanalytical psychotherapy) for patients to see augmented their ability to produce and recall dreams, or dream with their analyst. Freud had already observed – and that was confirmed by others – that the first dreams patients report on tend to be expressed with more clarity their main interpersonal difficulties than the majority of dreams from that moment on, in the therapeutical process”, Isabel Botelho confirms. And she continues: “We cannot forget that the psychotherapeutic situation puts two people in a situation of communication and interpersonal relationship that is very intense and particular – where one is there mostly to talk, and the other to listen -, and that there are unconscious transitions from both sides (movements of transfer and counter-transfer that occur between patient and therapist) which, essentially, can also manifest and communicate through dreams. Because they are, oftentimes, difficult to understand, symbology helps. About symbols, Jung wrote: “A symbol is the best possible formulation of psychic content that is relatively unknown”. He also affirmed that a dream is a “spontaneous self-portrait, symbolical of the real situation of the subconscious.” A symbol doesn’t just address the superficial meaning of the dream, but it also has resonance and meaning above and beyond the particular sphere. A snake, for example, can mean death, healing, or transformation. Nowadays, neurologists defend that images that crowd the mind during dreams are, frequently, the product of perception and old memories that come to the surface and fit together.
Therefore, is psychanalysis telling us that we should be attentive to everything we ever dreamt about and generate interpretations of any dream that comes to our head, no matter how nonsense it may seem? Not quite. The unknown territory, when it comes to the field of dreams is (still) colossal: “All dreams have the dignity of their dreamer, but ‘No, not all of them are subject to interpretation.’ What I mean is that, beyond theory and technique, there are differences in the interpretative posture of the analyst that might vary depending on the relationship with the patient, the level of anxiety they have with that dream, the stage they are in the psychoanalytic therapy/ treatment, or their evolution. Some psychoanalysts mention, for example, how they were landmarks in the therapeutical path that signal change or integral parts of the psychic life of the patient. Dreams can clarify the relational context of the past and transfer, of defensive processes, emotional experience. If Freud, and the classical Freudians, emphasized the interpretation of the latent content of the dream, more recently, psychoanalysis and its practicians aim to turn more to the communicative value of the dream, both on the dreamer’s side and on the psychotherapist’s, and towards the emotional quality that dream expresses. Though when it comes to symbolic analysis, and as Freud himself once said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”, as the psychoanalyst concludes. It’s possible to, then, pay attention to dreams and the messages they transmit, and therefore evolve. Or we can simply ignore them, or smoke “funny cigarettes” before bed as not to remember them. However, and quoting once again Sigmund Freud: “It’s pointless to dream that you’re drinking; when thirst comes, you must wake up to drink”.
Translated from the original article of Vogue Portugal's Creativity issue, published in March 2021.