Meaningful You

Voices of contemporary psychoanalysis

Dreaming: Random or Meaningful?

The brain has functional access to the narrative of the dreaming process.

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. John Valenzuela, Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology, submits this post. John is currently recruiting Mexican-American participants for a dream group in the Los Angeles area, for a project that will fulfill the dissertation requirement of his Ph.D. program. Get in touch via the link above to learn more.

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There is a chapter of my life that I am excited to share and has so much value to me. Value which I find important to share regardless of the general, mainstream attitudes towards those nighttime visions called dreams. From beginning to end, from a spider in my dreams to a cancer diagnosis, I have had a profound experience and insight into the communications of dreams.

The dream, when thought about as our brain’s nighttime processor, has a peculiar way of associating ideas stored in our memory. The brain is a complex memory system with billions of neurons and trillions of connections between these neurons. So how does a dream operate?

Neuroscience believes it has a firm handle on this question, and dreams from this point of view appear to be random associations of neuronal activity. Psychoanalysts have a different idea, one that has been vetted and tested for over a century, and that is, dreams have meaning and parts of the brain have functional access to the narrative of the dreaming process. One way to explain this has been to say our dreaming brain is a communication with something outside of us. This is not the idea I would explore at this time.

Instead, let’s say the “random” associations and the narrative aspect of dreams are natural byproducts of the way our biological brain is structured. This means dreams give us a roadmap of our underlying memory system and how our ideas about ourselves, our world, and others are structured. By remembering the dream and building the roadmap, dream material enters our explicit memory system which furthers our ability to restructure and “cope” with our underlying attitudes towards, self, world, other, and in my case my body. Why not gain access to these areas of thought and feeling?

This personal story is about how my dreams and a central image in a series of dreams are a significant cornerstone of my personality. With increased understanding I learned how to process the dream material in order to advance through my studies, connect to others, and cope with my fears after being diagnosed with cancer.

I live in a place where summers are hot and dry, so the appearance of a black widow spider is a common occurrence. Thus, on the morning of June 15, 2007 when I woke up with the dream image of a mother black widow giving birth to her babies, I simply wrote down the dream and made quick interpretations about my fears of their physical presence in my life.

In October 2007, I began a Ph.D. Clinical Psychology program and to my surprise the black widow showed up in my dreams more frequently. I could have left the image alone, left it undisturbed sitting in my neocortex, and never advanced any associations to its meaning, but the vividness of the dreams and the recurrence of the image was compelling.

Throughout the first couple of years in the program, as my intellectual organization of the psychological world was evolving, I saw opportunities to connect the black widow to my studies. As black widow showed up more and more, I began to track my work on how certain aspects of the black widow made sense in my life. I associated her with a father-eater, a fire in the belly, a dead mother complex, a black Madonna, an hourglass, and a womb. This associated content to this image drew my thoughts towards subsequent personal associations. I knew these associations had a connection to my depressed single mother, to my graduate studies, and to my personal “issues,” in other words, to my developmental history.

Then, in the fall of 2009, two and a half years after the first dream, the totality of the black widow symbolism became shockingly clear. I found a lump on the left side of my neck. Over a period of three months and after the physical extraction of the lump, the doctors told me I had a malignant carcinoma or squamous cell cancer. Two more carcinomas were found in the back of my nasal pharynx. With this diagnosis, I had to interrupt my theoretical and biological study of psychological life, and begin an experiential journey.

The diagnosis of cancer left me with profound questions and fears about my prognosis. I distinctly remember saying, “It is a shock, but not a surprise.” I realized this sentiment resided in the fact that for two years the black widow image in my dreams had prepared me psychologically for the road for what only now came into my awareness. The next association of the image of the black widow had escaped me until this moment: The black widow’s venom was the message—cancer grew in my body. The fullness of the symbol’s meanings would alter my understanding of the meaning of dreams forever. I admit, it would have been highly unlikely that after the first dream of the black widow I could have made this connection. However, this is not the point.

During treatment, my dreams were like companions edging me closer to feeling secure that I would survive, reassuring me that I was being handed a gift. After treatments ended and as I recovered some physical strength, I began to reengage my coursework and thought about the path along which the black widow in my dreams lead me. It is difficult to feel and understand how a dream image might be a foundation in my psychological space and in communication with the biological systems of my body, but to me this is exactly what was happening.

A year later I wrote an article, published in a student journal, entitled "Splitting off a Poison to Render an Elixir." In this article, I explored the totality of the black widow as a symbol and all its various parts as a whole. If someone could look in my brain and see all the connections “black widow” had before and now after this period of my life, I am sure the sum total of her connections would extend through several layers of my cerebral cortex. If I had remained a critic of dream interpretation, I would have lost the ability to cope with the news of my diagnosis, with the accompanying treatment, and with the felt sense that dreams are meaningful.

Kristi Pikiewicz is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.

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