In Your Dreams

The mystery of the sleeping brain.

The "Logical Illogic" of the Psycho-Logical (Pt 1): Dreams

How does their very illogic make dreams the "royal road to the unconscious"?

Here's a dream reported by a client that vividly reveals the exquisitely logical connections between our waking concerns and nocturnal "hallucinations." The latter—paradoxically rational—narratives are crafted by our unconscious to illuminate, though symbolically, what we're still struggling to resolve inside our heads.

In my client's dream, he—Kevin (age 46)—is flagged down by a policeman for speeding. Although he's quite agitated by the situation, the officer himself displays an almost preternatural calm. Offhandedly, the cop mentions that his wife regularly voices apprehension that his excessive cell phone use could result in his developing a brain tumor. But he himself would never bother considering such a possibility. For he firmly believes it's best to live worry-free. Meanwhile, looking at the cop more closely, Kevin notices that his face is terribly damaged, decayed, dying—even though the cop seems blithely unaware of his appalling countenance.

So, what was the actual life situation that made this dream (baffling to my client, by the way) so "psychologically logical"?

Well, for the past several months Kevin had been having episodes of severe heart palpitations and an accelerated heart rate, causing him great anxiety. Obsessing about what negative things these scary symptoms might forebode—and whether their sheer intensity might eventually kill him—he was in a state of continuing, pronounced distress. Even though he had no history of heart problems, to rule out any serious physical condition, he'd seen several practitioners (holistic as well as traditional), been exhaustively examined, and subject to as many diagnostic tests and procedures as his various practitioners could think of. Repeatedly, he was assured that his heart was fine. And though the alternative practitioners he consulted believed he was suffering from adrenal fatigue (which contributed to his physical complaints), he was told that his problems were essentially stress-related and psychological . . . and altogether curable.

In short, the message Kevin received from all the professionals he'd sought help from was that his situation wasn't anywhere as serious as, subjectively, he experienced it. That is, "not to worry." And I, too, felt confident that once we worked through unresolved traumas from his past (which a series of present-day circumstances had re-vivified), his irksome symptoms would disappear. So among other things, I suggested that whenever he was suddenly beset by heart abnormalities, he simply remind himself that they were a false alarm—a product (or by-product) of largely unconscious anxieties—rather than a forewarning of something catastrophic. And, overall, my various recommendations succeeded in calming him down considerably, as we proceeded to work on the likely psychological, and lifestyle, issues underlying his so-vexing physical problem. Still, inasmuch as his symptoms continued largely unabated, he couldn't entirely let go of his fears about how they might be significantly undermining his health.

Further, I explored with Kevin how his overblown fears and hypervigilance were making it almost impossible for him to relax (and insomnia was another one of his complaints). I also suggested how unconsciously he might be associating relaxation with increased vulnerability, so that if he should let his guard down something really awful could happen to him. And, of course, I instructed him to self-monitor (ahem, "police") his thoughts, so that if he found himself ruminating over worst case scenarios, he could employ the technique of "thought-stopping" and reassure himself that his symptoms weren't anywhere as serious as they appeared. While all this made sense to him, and he did receive some relief by actively contesting his irrational fears, at a deeper level he could hardly help but remain somewhat wary about his condition. Something at the very core of his psyche still felt compelled to worry.

So, if catastrophic thoughts of something terrible happening to him (something that none of the so-called "authorities" in his case could diagnose) continued to trouble his uneasy mind, how might these abiding concerns "logically" express themselves? Well, in his dream state. For that's the essential "work" of dreams: to remind us—dramatically and pictorially—of what, internally, doesn't yet feel resolved.

With all this in mind, let's return to Kevin's disturbing (and to him, "illogical") dream.

The dream begins with a policeman's pulling him over for speeding. His dangerous, or unsafe, driving can readily be seen as symbolizing his feelings about his coronary symptoms—in particular, his accelerated heart rate. The uniformed policeman (unmistakably emblematic of authority) can readily be linked to all the professionals he's seen, with no visible results to show for it. Besides representing the many different practitioners he's consulted, the officer would also appear to represent his not-entirely-successful efforts at "policing" his thoughts. After all, the cop is indirectly advising him to take things in stride and not worry, just as those in real-life authority have collectively instructed him.

Kevin's ambivalence about fully trusting the various "health police" who've intervened to assist him is pointedly suggested by the fact that the cop in his dream has something seriously wrong with him, as revealed by his corroded, disintegrating visage. So my client's subterranean doubts about whether it's really safe to be reassuring himself is "logically" supported by the officer's actual appearance, which sharply contradicts the personal philosophy he's so eager to impart to him. The cop's message about not letting anything upset him loses all authority because he himself is in mortal danger yet utterly oblivious to it. And—because dreams are frequently multi-dimensional, with people and circumstances frequently carrying more than a single meaning—the cop's compromised appearance can also be viewed as reflecting how my client unconsciously (and fearfully) views himself. So, under these circumstances, training himself not to worry might really set him up for an "unseemly" demise. (Death by oversight, if you will.)

Literally, of course—or rather, out of context—Kevin's dream would appear extraneous to everything he was going through, not logical at all. But figuratively it renders, as logically as any simple "fiction" could, the precise dimensions of his "two minds" about his condition. His unconscious nocturnal imaginings give creative voice to all the doubts and confusions he's endeavored to "edit out" in his waking hours. His dream is as compact, as laden with meaning, as the most eloquent lyric poem. The cop may have the authority to give him a ticket (as do all the practitioners charging him for their "authoritative" advice). Still, how much of this authority ought he to respect when the cop/authority of his dream can't even notice his own symptoms, so horrifically blatant to my client. Though, presumably, his cell phone has already done grave harm to him, he nonetheless glibly preaches the doctrine of "all is well."

Clearly, this is the issue my client felt compelled—however unconsciously—to work on (and why, from Jung to the present day, therapists can talk about our nighttime visions as "dream work"). He desperately wanted to believe the positive things all his "experts" (myself included) were telling him. Yet he remained symptomatic. Just as the happy-go-lucky officer's face really was injured, periodically his heart—despite all the reassurances he'd received—just couldn't seem to beat right. And even when he felt calm, beyond a certain point this relaxed state could itself trigger another anxiety attack. Professional opinion notwithstanding, who knows? Maybe it was dangerous to let his guard down.

Kevin's dream was revelatory. Unquestionably, it betrayed the unresolved doubts about his condition that, consciously at least, he thought he'd conquered. Given the particularly disturbing nature of his symptoms, however, it made complete sense—that is, was subjectively logical—that he couldn't help but be afflicted by some remnants of suspicion.

Finally, it may be that the innermost operations of the human psyche are most accurately deciphered through analyzing our nighttime fantasies. However irrational they may seem to our waking mind, they embody their own profound logic. And although such "trans-rational" logic may frequently be at odds with what—objectively, at least—would appear logical, psycho-logically their inherent reasoning is impeccable.

            © 2010 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

NOTE: The 2nd part of this 5-pt post will center on the curiously twisted logic of self-sabotage. Pt 3 will get into the various negative beliefs about self that fuel this behavior, while Pt 4 will focus on the "outer" (vs. "inner") child responsible for it. And, finally, Pt 5 will address the topic of self-sabotage as it reflects acts of passive-aggression toward the self.

--- I invite all readers to follow my psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter.