Rene Magritte
Source: Rene Magritte

   When I was in graduate school, we had an assignment which involved interviewing a child on the origins of dreams. I found the daughter of a friend to interview. She was four years old and cheerfully answered my questions as if she had been thinking about these matters forever and had simply been waiting to be asked. When I asked her for her "theory"  about where dreams came from, she responded without skipping a beat, “From the moon”. It stood to reason according to the associative way her mind worked. I dream at night, the moon comes up at night. Ergo dreams must come from the moon. Obvious. 

    Alas not, but, scientists, psychologists and psychoanalysts still do not understand where dreams  do come from. I mean our brains, but what are they doing there? Sure there are theories and studies and models of the dreaming mind, but no definitive answers.

    Just last night I dreamed I was on a ferry which I boarded instead of a plane but for a while thought was a plane anyway which took me to a town where I met a girl named Fiona who was with an Irish professor, both of whom I had met separately before by coincidence, but I didn’t know if I was really supposed to know that they knew each other. Awkward.  Or the night before when I dreamed that I was climbing up an oil rig which started to move forward like a giant spider... I won’t bore you with the details of my dreams but suffice it to say, they are at once remarkably complex and elusive.  I sometimes write them down, but that can be like falling down the rabbit hole. No matter how much of an exponential cascade of images and associations I can catch a hold of, the inchoate larger narrative is receding as rapidly as I approach it. if I move even a muscle when I first awake, the dream will evaporate, its intricate mental construction as ephemeral and fragile as a mirage. Freud felt this elusiveness was due to a process called repression, in which the conflictual nature of certain wishes and impulses requires us to conceal and disguise them in dream imagery, as well as to forget our dreams altogether. Perhaps so.

    But even when I don’t remember anything about my dreams, I know I dreamed them anyway (scientifically proven). We dream multiple dreams a night during periods of REM sleep, 365 days a year, just like everyone else in the world:  millions and millions of people dreaming millions and millions of dreams, day after day, year after year, century after century. Dreaming is a very democratic process available to every member of the human species, producing a vast unwritten archive of remembered and unremembered dreams: every one of them as unique as individual snowflakes or crystals. Freud theorized that dreams were like rebus puzzles, decodable through interpretations of visual and verbal puns and condensed images, designed to smuggle in a dreamer’s most conflicted secrets which constitute evidence of an entire unconscious stratum within our minds.  More mystical thinkers including Carl Jung felt dreams linked us to the history of humanity by tapping into archetypal imagery such that we find in myths and legends, while neuroscientists like J. Allan Hobson posit that  dreaming relates to the brain’s basic biochemistry, and that  bizarre dream images are little more than random biproducts of neuronal activity.

    The bottom line remains we simply do not know.  Dreams remain a mystery to scientists and mystics alike,  but when recounted never fail to dazzle and perplex with their complexity and circuitous and surprising imagery and storylines.

    Little children think in their own way, and like the child I interviewed about the origin of dreams, are untroubled by logical contradictions and narrative inconsistencies, and their imaginative play bears more similarity to the quality of dream-life than anything else I can think of. As a child therapist, my work gives me privileged access to children’s minds, and I witness the ways they are governed by what Freud called the primary process and what Piaget called animism. These are the very principles that relate to the construction of dream images and narratives. Children’s earliest attempts to grasp their world are derived and generalized from their own vivid and perplexing sensory experiences.  It is not that children cannot distinguish fact from fiction or dreams from waking life, but they are hard wired to initially dwell in a playful mode closely linked to the process of dreaming.  When I work with young children in a therapy session, it often feels like I am entering a mysterious dream-world with them. The usual rules of logic and sequence do not apply, and what's more, they do not even matter. It is an honor to have a job that permits me to gain daily admission to this complex and zany world of children’s play and imagination, which in turn never ceases to remind me of the realm of dreams. Much of the time it is great fun in there, but the wild ride also gets scary and surreal.  

    A small child I once saw, though highly intelligent, had come very late to toilet training. His developmentally animistic and magical thinking had led to unsettling thoughts about his body. He believed that his penis could fall off, which is understandably why he was wary of the toilet. Who in their right mind would want a penis to drop in there and get flushed away forever? He was also mystified by the question of where babies come from. In one session, he played with a baby doll which he told me had a tummy ache, because there was something inside him which the doctor would have to take out. When I asked him what the doctor would be taking out of the boy baby’s tummy, he  unhesitatingly replied, "A squirrel".  Another child I worked with was intrigued by a tiny dungeon I have in my office that goes with my wooden castle.  A dainty little doll of  a child herself, she nonetheless delighted in imprisoning in turn a mother doll, a father doll and then a baby doll, who, like Hercules, was the only one who managed to powerfully break out. Yet another child pretended she was frog, replete with jumping and ribbiting, then suddenly had the frog drop dead and become rigid, only to be resurrected as a snarling amphibian zombie a moment later. 

    For little children the boundaries between body and mind, self and other, even waking thought and dreaming are not delineated. They live betwixt and between those domains and feel perfectly comfortable there. Higher order symbolic thinking is not online, and sometimes common symbols don’t suit little kids. I provided a toy ambulance for a child whose parent had been hospitalized that day. He chose to ignore it and instead built his own hospital out of  plain wooden blocks and decided that rather than use my little people, he would designate different sized blocks as characters, and put stickers on them to denote their faces. I think the ambulance and the  figurines were a little close for comfort,  but the dreamlike flexibility of play permitted him to work something out on his own terms.

    When I watch young children at play in my office, their spontaneous stories and creations remind me of waking dreams, with no end to the surprising content, scenarios and endless complexity. Like dreaming, play comes naturally and effortlessly and there is no end to it.  Children know what they want to play, without rehearsal or premeditation. I am continually struck by the originality, oddity and ultimately the mysteriousness of what children express in fantasy. Like with dreams, I often wonder, where does it all come from? No question, there is meaning and method to it, and I can speculate, often quite correctly, about what children are trying to say in their play. But at the end of the day it is the sheer wonder of children’s imaginative play with its similarity to dreams that leaves me awestruck. No theories or even scientific proof will ever change the fact that every human mind is predestined and hardwired to be a crazy crucible of creativity.  Scratch the surface and realize that's where we started and where we return every night as we sleep. That I know. And guess what, it’s a freebie.

About the Author

Susan Scheftel, Ph.D.

Susan Scheftel, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Institute for Training and Research

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