Author Topic: Dream Work for "Cognitive Health"  (Read 4243 times)

Matt Koeske

  • Management
  • *
  • Posts: 1173
  • Gender: Male
    • Useless Science
Dream Work for "Cognitive Health"
« on: May 09, 2007, 03:14:51 PM »

I have written about this issue here and there over the past year or so, but I thought I'd broach it again in a more collated form.  We who find dream work useful generally do it to build a relationship with the unconscious and better infuse our conscious lives with archetypal and numinous "meaning".  But is dream work merely a "useless science", an intellectual or creative dalliance (as many people think)?

I contend that dream work is "good for you", i.e., that it promotes "cognitive health" and is very much the equivalent of exercise for the body.  That is, the body tries to attain a state of health, of full-functionality and equilibrium both internally and with its outer environment.  We can disrupt this process in numerous ways with "unhealthy living" . . . and such unhealthy living tends to increase our risk of disease, affect our moods (negatively), reduce our energy, etc.  But we can also try to give our bodies the diet and exercise that help them function optimally.  Such diet and exercise is a willed boost of the body's natural health/equilibrium-directed process.

I believe the same paradigm is applicable to dream work.  I don't intend to use this post as a scholarly statement about dream/sleep science and research, but the data from this field has increasingly suggested that dreams are a self-regulatory process.  Jung called them compensatory (to ego-consciousness).  They may even be corrective.  During the REM dream state, our brains are more active than when we are awake.  They are still processing . . . but processing in a way that reestablishes our energy whereas waking consciousness seems to drain our energy.

My guess (based on my own experience and the research I've read) is that dreams are trying to formulate "better ways to think" by reshuffling associated narratives, images, symbols, and feeling valuations.  The ego is a flawed thinker.  It is limited primarily to working memory and must cope with far more information than it is able to process.  It makes its best guess at arranging and prioritizing information during waking life.  But these guesses are often based on living/identity strategies that are overly oriented to outer/cultural life (as opposed to biological, organismic life).  Additionally, the ego's technique of strategizing (and narrativizing) is heavily dependent on what it finds most (and most immediately) familiar or like itself.  In this sense, it tends to self-perpetuate already established strategies more vigorously that it discards or dismantles these strategies in favor of new/other strategies.  Information that is less familiar to the ego tends to pass through working memory (consciousness) with little or no recognition.  But many of these information streams that pass through or glance off of the ego's working memory could prove highly valuable to the ego's strategy of self . . . but may merely require longer-term processing (beyond the working memory the ego general operates with) before they can be usefully related to previously existing memory complexes or identity processes.

In a very literal sense, the brain is constantly rewiring itself, relating everything that it perceives to things it has already perceived (or to its ongoing process).  I suspect that dreams are rewirings that are not constrained (either temporally or energically) by working memory.  I imagine them as the brain's self-regulatory attempts to better organize its process, to figure out more efficient and valuated ways of relating newer information with older information.  In other words, in dreams the brain is trying to answer the question, "How can I best relate this information to my process?"

To some degree, this is (as it must be in order to serve an evolutionary, adaptive function) an automatic, regenerative process.  But it is only capable of a finite degree of success.  It may even have a bit of haphazardness to it, perhaps a firing off numerous invitations to meaningful (valuated) association in the hope one or two will "stick" (think also of the way the body struggles with diseases and healing . . . it isn't like "divine intervention").  That is, I don't suspect that there is a perfectly strategized master plan for reorganization.  It is more of a trial and error effort.  This may account for the fact that much of our dreaming seems meaningless or needlessly reiterative . . . whereas only certain images or complexes or events really stand out as affective, even numinous.

Ultimately, the dreaming process of rewiring has to "convince" the ego of a valuable association or restructuring if the restructuring is really going to effect the ego-strategy.  I don't mean to suggest that we are conscious of all of this "convincing", but I suspect we have the capacity to recognize that a connection has been made when that complex pops into consciousness.  Probably, most of the rewiring is "low-level" or consists of connections between information/memory complexes that are so elemental they have no real meaning to ego consciousness (which responds only to memory images that form higher-level complexes, more closely resembling the things and beings we interact with/respond to in waking life or the ideas that are abstract and "whole" enough that we can move them around like pieces on our conscious mental chess boards).

Although, like any self-regulatory biological process, dream rewiring occurs automatically, we are certainly capable of becoming aware of our dreams.  We are even aware of being characters in the dream, of having a kind of ego-consciousness (albeit one less substantial, fixed, and consistent than waking life consciousness).  We who have paid close attention to our dreams have found that such attention tends to catalyze the dreaming process, make our dreams more memorable, more meaningful, "bigger".  Even this general attention or fascination seems to promote the rewiring/restrategizing process to some degree.

With dream analysis or dream work, we can take this assistance of the dreaming process even further.  The analysis of a dream can help us understand the ways our minds work, help us understand our symbol systems and our valuative and associative processes.  But in order for dream analysis to benefit our cognitive health, it has to be dedicated to aiding the natural, biological function dreaming is designed for.  That is, as dreams (in my formulation above) are attempts to refine and revise (even at times, correct) our ego strategies, any attempt to "understand" them into conforming with our present ego strategy would be counter-productive.  To do dream work, we must allow our ego strategies to be revised by the dreaming process.  It may be helpful to beginning dream workers to continuously remind themselves that they should look at dreams primarily as revisions, perhaps even criticisms of current ego-positions.  To look for "meaning" or "myth" before we look for critique is delusional . . . and such delusional attempts tend to provoke dreams that seek to correct the error (which, if we stick to our delusions, we will have to ignore and deny with increasingly neurotic fervor).

This isn't to say that dreams are always overtly "compensatory".  Some dreams can seem to reinforce prevailing ego-strategies.  In my experience, such dreams tend to become more common as we do more and more effective dream work and our relationships to the unconscious become more fluid and familiar.  If one has constructed an ego strategy that is greatly devoted to (but decidedly supportive of, not dependent on) the unconscious, one is more likely to have dreams that better define the unified ego strategy rather than correct or oppose it.  But even in such dreams there is a kind of "compensation", because the prevailing ego strategy is still being revised . . . even if the ego agrees with the revision and finds the revision brings greater focus to a complex of memories.  Such "reinforcement dreams" have the feeling (numen) of epiphany to them . . . as seemingly disparate memory complexes are suddenly snapped into an efficient and recognizable pattern.

But in general, I think it is best to treat dreams that seem to reinforce prevailing ego-strategies with a great deal of skepticism and scrutiny.  I always find that it is best to leave reinforcement interpretations until all logical critical interpretations have been exhausted (and still not brought sense to the dream).

Anyone who has read some of my dream write-ups (or the write-ups of the other founders of Useless Science) will see how extensive they can become.  I suspect many people (who are unused to doing dream work) look upon such mammoth expositions with a good deal of suspicion.  It's an intimidating model . . . and will also probably turn off both those people who give little or no credence to dreams and those people who mystify them, raising them up on some kind of untouchable, sacred pedestal.  Either of these latter views strikes me as prejudicial . . . and perhaps even (willfully) ignorant of the current scientific thought on dreams (which I gave the intuitive's version of above).

To be able to write such extensive analyses of one's dreams, one has to have a pretty substantial amount of experience with dream work.  Dream work never begins with such vast dialogs between ego and dream process.  It is only through the dream work that one develops a familiarity with one's symbol system and the ways in which one's thought process (conscious and unconscious) functions.  As this familiarity is gained, one's dreams will respond increasingly to conscious work with them.  After all, this conscious work is an assistance of the biological dreaming process, a functional revisioning of ego-strategies.  To the degree that conscious work with dreams helps "complete the circuit" of associations and valuations proposed by the dream process, the dream worker can become a conscious co-author of his or her own mythology (and, in essence, "self-consciousness" is the intentioned coauthoring of one's own story or strategies).

As this work progresses, one finds that dream symbols increasingly have pieces of conscious contribution to them.  For instance, after pursuing dream work with dedication for a number of years, my dreams began to increasingly reference images and characters in poems I had written.  They also referenced past dreams that I had worked on . . . even referencing my "conscious" associations and interpretations, the work itself.  With this progression, my dreams (and my symbol system) became increasingly personalized.  That is, for every archetypal or instinctual current flowing through a dream, there started to be a highly personal image used in the dream to represent it.  As this personalization of my symbol system increased, the dream language became increasingly comprehensible to me.  It became obvious that these dreams had always tried to "speak" to me with absolute transparency. 

Confusing images in dreams tend to be those that are so complex and multifaceted that our consciousness has a hard time finding a simplified, abstract language for them.  At first, nearly all of our dream images might seem this way to us, but dream work is like learning a new language.  In these instances of confusion, it is often best to look to our emotional reaction to the image.  All dream images are feeling, or valuation, complexes, little pieces of the consciousness that make up our ego-strategies and our psyches in general.  Feeling value is often a better clarifier of "meaning" than super-complex elemental associations are.

As one continues to work with dreams and find the work progressing, one will even come to find that dream symbols, themes, and associative complexes can become keystones in one's conscious understanding of oneself or in one's conscious creative ideas.  I constantly find myself returning to functioning, clarified dream symbols to refine and organize my conscious thinking.  It is deeply apparent to me that I (as a sense of self, a strategically defined ego) am a product of my dreams (and my dream work).  These dream images flow continuously in and out of consciousness (working memory), combining with and reshaping all the new information I receive.  It is entirely fair to say that I understand myself in terms of these dream process revisions.

I can only attest to my increased happiness and reduced stress in regard to this dream work (and the Work in general).  That is, my ego-strategies are immensely improved and more efficient compared to what they once were.  Although I would not want to hold myself up as a paragon of "cognitive health", I feel absolutely confident to say that I am a much healthier person (cognitively-speaking) today than I once was . . . and that this improvement has everything to do with the Work (of which dream work is a significant part).  And I suppose I should clarify that I am basing my assessment of improvement not on having a more "meaningful" or spiritual life, but simply in being a more functional, ethical, grounded human being.  My dreams have never pushed me to be more spiritual or mystical.

That is, I see the dream work, both phenomenologically and biologically, as a practical, health-seeking process.
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.

   [Bob Dylan,"Mississippi]


  • Registered Members
  • Posts: 516
  • Gender: Male
Re: Dream Work for "Cognitive Health"
« Reply #1 on: June 26, 2007, 12:46:44 PM »
To this I would add...

...when I look at a dream and try to pull out all the recurrent motifs whether for myself or across dreams, I tend to find a recurring web of motifs arranged in some super complex, yet somehow familiar labyrinth of meanings.  It is only when I come to some decisive thought, a new perspective or a choice I must make or decidedly not make, something specific, that I really recognize the value of what an awareness of my dreams really mean to me.

Perhaps, one of the most unhealthy aspects of my life now comes from being a parent who gets frustrated when his children don't make the "right" choices.  I often express myself to them in a way that ends up alienating myself from most everyone else in the family.  Basically I lecture to them about their mistake.  This is difficult to take mainly because I am pretty hard on myself and when I turn that inner critic onto my kids it is a devasting experience when compared with how their mother has always guided them. 

In a dream called Choosing Evil I came to realize that not making the choice (for my children) was the revelation.  All of those whisperings saying that I should quieten within and allow a feeling for what my children's perspectives are to come to the fore and simply not object, not act except to hold the line of existing rules and guidelines and to do this without indignation...I am now following that and finding that I can get along with my children better and the world WILL (just I have said) teach them the corrective lesson.  I need not stand in between my children and the world.  I can see how my dreams have been nudging me in the most indirect way, toward this approach. 

And, much to my delighted chagrin, last night I had two dreams in which I was passionately lecturing two of my kids just as I would like to have done in waking life but sternly resisted doing in order to allow my feeling function to learn and grow in our relationship.  I awoke from the first dream not only satisfied that I got to "vehemently express myself" to my daughter, but that I had, in fact, not lost any sleep over it!  (-)laugh2(-)