|Maria was a young woman - a university
student. She had always thought that her childhood was happy - that
nothing really bad had ever happened to her. But a dream revealed
that, as a child, she had been abandoned by her parents. A century
ago, Freud declared dreams to be the "royal road to the unconscious."
And, while his theories have come under attack in recent years, the
notion persists that dreams can uncover buried memories.
Surveys show that a sizable number of therapists
still consider dream interpretation to be an essential part of their
clinical work. Some search for symbols; other find in their clients
dreams "exact replicas" of traumatic events. For example,
psychologist, Renee Frederickson, writes that "dreams are often
the first signs of emerging memories." Few would question her.
But some psychologists today are researching the topic. And what
they are discovering suggests that this faith in dream interpretation
may be leading many people astray. Maria was actually one of 50
subjects in a recent, sophisticated study of dream interpretation
conducted by Giuliana Mazzoni and her colleagues, at the University
of Florence, in collaboration with Elizabeth Loftus, at the University
of Washington. This study, reported in Professional Psychology
Research and Practice (1999, Vol.30, #1) is part of their
ongoing exploration into the topic of dream interpretation.
They started by asking a large group of undergraduates
about the likelihood that events, such as getting lost or being
abandoned by their parents, had ever happened when they were children.
Maria and 49 others in the group firmly believed
that nothing so upsetting had ever happened to them. So they were
selected to participate in another study, which involved bringing
in one or more recent, or recurring, dreams. They had no idea that
there was any connection between this and the earlier study. Half
of them reported their dreams to a researcher who gave no suggestions
of a hidden meaning.
The other half related them to a trained
therapist, a well known Florence radio show psychologist. After
mentioning his extensive experience in dream interpretation, he
explained that dreams have meaning. He listened attentively to each
participants dream and asked them for their ideas of what
it might mean. Then he offered his own comments beginning with general
suggestions that such a dream, whatever the dream might have been,
indicated that the participant is unhappy with herself and that
the dream was most likely related to some past experience that might
not even be remembered. He proceeded with more specific suggestions,
relating the dream to certain experiences before the age of 3, such
as being abandoned by parents or being lost in a public place. Finally,
he asked if they remembered any such event and explained that childhood
memories are often buried in the unconscious and suggested how they
can appear in dreams.
Several weeks later, the students were again
asked about their childhood memories. The group which had not been
given the suggestive interpretations still firmly believed that
nothing traumatic had happened to them as children. But those whose
dreams had been "interpreted," now reported that they
could remember the specific traumatic events that had been suggested
to them. Even though these "memories" were merely figments
of the dream interpretation, the students believed them to be true.
If such an effect can be achieved in such
a short time - the experimental sessions were only 30 minutes long
- what about the persuasive influences that exist in psychotherapy
which spans months or even years, with suggestions repeated over
and over again?
Dream interpretations can be a potent influence
on patients for, as the researchers point out, people tend to enter
therapy with the notion that dreams reveal real past events. So
the problem is that, when therapists bolster this belief and suggest
possible meanings, personal pasts can easily become distorted.
From ancient times, dreams have seemed wondrous
and sometimes even prophetic. I have no doubt that this fascination
with the mysterious realm of sleep will endure. I would never deny
that dreams can puzzle us, intrigue us and enrich our lives. However,
this research suggests that dabbling in dream interpretation can
be a dangerous activity. No one should pretend to know what dreams
mean or that they reveal anything about the past. Until psychotherapists
discard their foolish Freudian notions about dream work, I'd be
inclined to keep my dreams to myself.