Dream Catcher

The neuroscience of our night life

The Appearance and Role of the Self in Dreams

The dream may assist the Self in adapting to the world

What are dreams all about? There have been many answers proposed for this question but one answer I think we can all agree upon is that dreams are virtually always about the dreamer. Dreams are amazingly ego-centric. The single most frequent character in dreams is the Self--the dreamer. The dream, furthermore, is almost always about this Self. The dreamer is virtually always the hero in the dream. The dreamer is virtually always the center of the action. The dreamer is virtually always the character in the dream that experiences some challenge and then undergoes some emotional struggle around the challenge. The dreamer, finally, passes through all these narcissistic, self-centered struggles and melodramas we call dreams only to awaken into the real world each morning.
The real world of course cares not a whit for the intense concerns that the dreamer grapples with in his dreams. The waking world does not revolve around the melodramatic trials and tribulations of the dreamer. While the dreamer may fret, worry and obsess in his dreams over the project that must go well if he is to retain his job, the rest of the world neither knows of this project nor cares about its outcome. Instead the real world barely knows that the individual dreamer exists. The achingly intense feelings and concerns that pervade the private world of the dreamer and that populate his nightly melodramas are less than nothing to the rest of the world and so the world sets a limit to the fiercely narcissistic altars we all build to ourselves, our idols, each night and that we dignify with the name of ‘dreams'.
But is the narcissism of the dream all that there is to the dream? While the world can certainly not revolve around the narrow and petty concerns of an individual dreamer who says that those concerns are merely prosaic and of no ultimate value? If a dreamer dreams about her concerns for her baby or the lover for his beloved or the manager for his projects upon which his livelihood and that of others depends ... why should these concerns be dismissed as merely petty?
Although some philosophers have consistently argued for the inherent and infinite dignity of every single person, science has not followed suit. Science seems incapable of admitting the obvious - that the Self is real, it exists and that its concerns are ultimate -at least for the Self. Indeed, there can hardly be said to be ‘ultimate concerns' or ‘ultimate values' without the things we call ‘Selves'. Only Selves (including animal selves) can suffer and can overcome suffering and thus only selves can dream.
And yet dream scientists have never really studied dreams with reference of the Self! Let me correct that statement a bit. Mainstream scientific psychology with few exceptions has never studied dreams with reference of the Self. Outside of the so-called scientific mainstream other psychologists with apparently fewer ideological constraints to muzzle their common sense than the ‘mainstream scientific psychologists' have long studied dreams and the self. Clinical psychologists, psychoanalysts, depth psychologists and humanistic psychologists have all studied dreams as revelatory of the Self.
Only recently have scientific psychologists begun to study dreams as linked to the Self. A good recent example of this breath of fresh air in dream studies is the paper by Horton, Moulin and Conway (2009; Consciousness and Cognition, 18, 710-717) entitled "The self and dreams during a period of transition". Although the paper appeared about a year ago I have still not seen any papers that build upon its techniques and findings. Horton et al reasoned that if the Self played an organizing role in autobiographical memory (memories are organized in terms of significance for the overall Self-concept or structure), it may do the same for dreams -especially if dreams helped to facilitate memory processing and construction of the Self more generally. Horton developed a simple technique to assess the role of Self-images in organizing dream actions. They used the 'Twenty Statements Test' in which people finish ‘I am....'. For example, ‘I am... always anxious', ‘I am... a mother', ‘I am ...honest'. The authors gave this test 3 times to students who were beginning university life. Once before the start of their new lives (‘pre-test') and then two times after students adjusted to university life (post-test). This is reasonable as we have to assume that the Self undergoes change when faced with these sorts of life adventures or challenges. The authors noticed that the ‘I am...' statements changed in predictable ways after start of university life. So if the ‘before university' ‘I am' statement was' I am worried about failure', the same I am clause changed to ‘I am confident I can do this.' The authors also collected at least 5 dreams per each of the 3 assessment periods from each participant. The question then became whether the pre-post changes reflected in the I am statements would appear in the dreams. Turns out they did. For instance the dream ‘‘I was having so much fun back at uni, that I forgot I had an exam the next day and was really stressed when I missed it" was scored as incorporating the ‘‘I ams": ‘‘I am worried about doing well in exams", ‘‘I am loving uni" and ‘‘I am on top of my work". These data represent simple but compelling evidence for the inclusion of self images that help to organize new autobiographical knowledge into dreams.

Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and the author of numerous books and articles on the science of dreams.

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