Dangerous Dreaming
Tana Dineen
Published in The National Psychologist
November/December, 1999, p.24

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 client’s 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 participant’s 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.

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