Dream Catcher

The neuroscience of our night life

The Romance of Dreams

We use our dreams to rehearse romantic attachments

Ever since Freud there has been a popular notion that dreams often contain and conceal unexpressed sexual and romantic wishes. Although a century of controlled studies on dreams has failed to support the specifics of Freud’s contentions concerning repressed erotic wishes in dreams, Freud’s general idea that sexual and romantic libido is activated and ‘processed’ in dreams has started to gain significant empirical support. Recast in modern terminology and the more rigorous analytic framework of attachment theory it seems dreams can and do function to process attachment-related affect and representations.

Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s REM sleep biologists began to notice that the brain and neurochemical systems activated in REM sleep (where vivid dreams occur) overlap to a considerable extent with systems that support maternal-infant attachment and bonding in animals. Concomitantly it was noticed that when juvenile primates were separated at early ages from their mothers there followed profound disturbances in REM sleep processes. So reliable was this REM-sleep-related effect that the early separation paradigm became a model for biologic study of reactive depression and REM sleep disruption became a major diagnostic criterion for depression.

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The idea that some core aspects of REM sleep biology may also support attachment processes has thus repeatedly received indirect empirical support over the years but it has never been tested directly. On the other hand the idea that mental content associated with REM sleep (i.e. dreams) may support attachment related processes has received direct experimental assessment and has been supported in those direct assessments. 

For example it has been found that both dream recall and dream content varies significantly as a function of attachment status or attachment security/insecurity. People who self-report an insecure attachment orientation tend to recall dreams that reflect their attachment orientations either in a compensatory manner (where people with anxious orientation recall more dreams focused on romantic targets) or in an reactive manner (where people with an avoidant orientation tend to not recall dreams or report dreams without affective or romantic content). But these past studies, as intriguing as they were, were based on self-report of attachment status and on relatively crude content scoring of dreams. 

Recently Dylan Selterman and his associates, Adela Apetroaia and Everett Waters (from Departments of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, USA; Department of Psychology, University of Reading, Reading, UK; Department of Psychology, SUNY at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, USA; Selterman, Apetroaia and Waters (2012). Script-like attachment representations in dreams containing current romantic partners. Attachment & Human Development, Vol. 14, No. 5, September 2012, 501–515) examined partner-specific attachment representations in dreams that contained significant others. Instead of using self-report measures to assess attachment orientation Selterman and associates objectively identified attachment orientation using the ‘Secure Base Script Narrative Assessment’ technique.

The secure base script assessment takes participant responses to word cues as well as free narrative responses and then codes them for elements/scenes where the romantic target or secure base figure supports the participant’s exploration or comes to the aid of the participant or comforts the participant etc. You can use this task and (validated) coding procedure to gauge the extent to which an individual can affectively and mentally access the secure base script to organize their experience. 

Selterman and colleagues assessed their participants on this secure base script and then coded participant dreams for secure base script elements. They assessed sixty-one undergraduate students all of whom were in committed dating relationships of six months duration or longer. Selterman and colleague then collected 2 weeks worth of dreams from all these participants and then went through the gargantuan task of coding all those dreams that contained a romantic partner for secure base script elements.

Results revealed a significant association between relationship-specific attachment security and the degree to which dreams about romantic partners followed the secure base script. Results showed that secure base content was identified in a significantly large proportion of dreams that contained current romantic partners. In addition, daytime attachment security as measured by the objective secure base script narrative task was significantly associated with ‘‘scriptedness’’ or the degree to which dreams were judged to reflect the secure base script.

These results suggest that dreams do in fact process attachment related affective and mental content. Note that this is not just some vague fleeting mental impressions of love or sexual activity in dreams –no, this is a very specific set of elements that have been reliably demonstrated to reflect cognitive and affective attachment processes in daytime life. People apparently use dreams to rehearse attachment-related scenarios during sleep.

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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