The Frontal Cortex

Jung and Dreams

There’s a fascinating article in the NY Times Magazine by Sara Corbett on the publication of Jung’s infamous Red Book, in which he attempted (often in vain) to map the infinite labyrinth of his unconscious:

Some people feel that nobody should read the book, and some feel that everybody should read it. The truth is, nobody really knows. Most of what has been said about the book — what it is, what it means — is the product of guesswork, because from the time it was begun in 1914 in a smallish town in Switzerland, it seems that only about two dozen people have managed to read or even have much of a look at it.

Of those who did see it, at least one person, an educated Englishwoman who was allowed to read some of the book in the 1920s, thought it held infinite wisdom — “There are people in my country who would read it from cover to cover without stopping to breathe scarcely,” she wrote — while another, a well-known literary type who glimpsed it shortly after, deemed it both fascinating and worrisome, concluding that it was the work of a psychotic.

So for the better part of the past century, despite the fact that it is thought to be the pivotal work of one of the era’s great thinkers, the book has existed mostly just as a rumor, cosseted behind the skeins of its own legend — revered and puzzled over only from a great distance.

I’ve never been through Jungian analysis – or any kind of psychoanalysis for that matter – but one of the defining features of Jung’s approach to psychotherapy (at least as I understand it) was his emphasis on dreams. Jung saw our night narratives as texts to be decoded, emanations of the soul that were dense with symbols and implicit meaning. It was only be grappling with our sleepy dreams that we could grapple with the unconscious, which was trying to tell us its secrets.

Modern neuroscience, of course, has little use for vague entities like the “soul” or the collective unconscious. But I think there has been a movement in recent years to reclaim the meaning of dreams. In the decades after Freud, psychologists largely concluded that dreams were accidents of the brain stem, and not Oedipal narratives or symbolic stories. Because our REM memories were nothing more than a Dadaist montage of meaningless hallucinations, there was no point in trying to understand them.

But that view has largely given way to a new perspective, in which our dreams are seen as an essential part of learning and memory. Consider this 2001 study led Matthew Wilson, a professor at MIT. Wilson began his experiment by training rats to run through mazes. While a rat was running through one of these labyrinths, Wilson measured clusters of neurons in the hippocampus with multiple electrodes surgically implanted in its brain. As he’d hypothesized, Wilson found that each maze produced its own pattern of neural firing. To figure out how dreams relate to experience, Wilson recorded input from these same electrodes while the rats were sleeping. The results were astonishing. Of the 45 rat dreams recorded by Wilson, 20 contained an exact replica of the maze they had run earlier that day. The REM sleep was recapitulating experience, allowing the animals to consolidate memory and learn new things. Wilson’s lab has since extended these results, demonstrating that “temporally structured replay” occurs in both the hippocampus and visual cortex.

These experiments suggest that our dreams are delicately tweaked versions of reality, stuffed full of counterfactuals and alternative scenarios. When we dream, we seem to be testing out our new knowledge, as we try to figure out what we need to remember and what we can afford to forget. So while dreams aren’t quite as pregnant with meaning as Jung believed, he was right to regard them as distillations of experience, a warped reflection of something deeper. The story of a dream is, in part, the story of our memory.

Comments

  1. #1 Mozglubov
    September 21, 2009

    While I agree that modern evidence does indicate the importance of dreaming for learning and memory, I still have little use for psychoanalysis of dreams. This primarily stems from the fact that the vast majority of dreams are not remembered (not to mention all the problems of interpretation that creeps into dream analysis).

  2. #2 William
    September 21, 2009

    I agree with Mozglubov that dream interpretation is squarely in the realm of pseudoscience. More on the topic, the importance of memory in dreaming, and dreaming in memory, is not novel – increased acetylcholine efficacy during sleep has been known to enhance long-term memory consolidation for some time now (in particular during REM sleep, when the aminergic system is disenabled.) REM sleep gets most of the attention but there is also evidence that during NREM sleep, inputs of novel experience are reiterated, especially in the hippocampus. (http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v3/n9/full/nrn915.html) Something similar occurring during REM sleep is, however, new to me.

  3. #3 OftenWrongTed
    September 21, 2009

    The Red Book by C. G. Jung, isbn: 0393065677, is available at Barnes and Noble for October 7th release. Amazon has the book posted but is not yet accepting orders.

  4. #4 David
    September 21, 2009

    To William: Acetylcholine, aminergic and other displays of classes taken or articles read notwithstanding, what leap of overconfidence permits you to conclude that dream interpretation is “squarely” in the real of pseudoscience? Twenty years from now when you have your midlife crisis, carefully, thoroughly, and objectively record your dreams for a few years and see if you can still think that dreams have no meaning. Even if dreams originate in noise somewhere in the brain, what permits you to conclude that the stories, pictures, conversations, and feelings that you lay over that noise has no meaning?

    As for Jung, even if one sees his writing only as cultural commentary, what’s not to like? He was a brilliant man, a psychiatrist, he traveled all over, read a great deal, was in touch with the luminaries of his age, and he conducted in-depth interviews with a great many human beings. He had far more standing to comment on culture and the human condition than, say, a Camille Paglia, whose opinions also are not falsifiable and whose inputs are less deep.

  5. #5 royniles
    September 21, 2009

    Jung tended to believe in the tangibility of evil as a shadowy presence in our psyche, cryptic revelations of such to be found in our dreams. Freud on the other hand saw belief in evil as a force within the psyche as delusional – evil as effect, not cause – to be explained through dream interpretation rather than exorcised.

  6. #6 Catt
    September 21, 2009

    I agree with David. Who can say with absolute certainty that dreams are to be dismissed and marginalized as nothing of import. Those of us who have had profound and indelible life affirming experiences with dreams know otherwise.
    Science and spirituality should not be mutually exclusive but should be able to come to a mutual core belief where one complements the other…(though trying to imagine this coming to fruition really is a dream)

  7. #7 Daniel
    September 22, 2009

    I have always seen interpretation of dreams on par with the interpretation of a Miro painting. How is it different? Some activation pattern occurs in your brain and another faculty, a faculty of reason or logic, ties together a story which may (or may not) have an emotional weight to it. If the weight is heavy enough, the lesson modifies the way you frame new experiences. The scientific evidence clearly implicates dreaming as a mechanism which reactivate and reinforce waking experiences (possibly trying out new scenarios?). Where does spiritualism fit in? If experience of spiritualism is explained by activity in the brain, then is it still spiritualism?

    Something I have always struggled with Freud and Jung is that their philosophies, in regard to dream interpretation, seem to require an omniscient, often inaccessible portion of our psyche. If remembered dreams are not simply symbolic from the position of introspection, then the psychoanalysts (and spiritualists) seem to submit to the idea that our brains generate these dreams to navigate our waking, moral selves. Can this be tested? Is there an evolutionary purpose such a mechanism?

  8. #8 Catt
    September 22, 2009

    Spiritualism is not the same as spirituality.
    Spiritualism is a monotheistic belief system or religion, postulating a belief in God, but the distinguishing feature is belief that spirits of the dead can be contacted, either by individuals or “mediums”, who can provide information about the afterlife. I was speaking of spirituality.
    Spirituality is the search for God within oneself (which many religions see as heresy) Spirituality cannot be defined or explained by measurable activity in the brain. The conclusions that are reached are only explaining the activity in the brain. That is not the ‘soul’ or spirit. The soul is the animating force that creates the activity and it cannot be measured as it is beyond measurement or rather our current scientific tools are not sophisticated or advanced enough to grasp/define it, if it indeed can be defined correctly.
    Everything that cannot be rationally explained is not going to submit to being categorized and measured. It is arrogant of us to think that our science is even capable of explaining/categorizing everything . We are not Point A in the universe and certainly not the masters of it.
    As far as the current research saying dreaming reinforces waking life…that is only one part of many, many parts. We should not be fooled into thinking that that narrow definition is able to sum up the totality of the subconscious and its expresssions.

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  11. #11 Carla Young
    February 20, 2010

    Over the years there has been endless mumbo jumbo passed along about dreams. My best friends will tell you that I am one of the most rational people on the planet, yet I am often amazed at the wisdom of this part of my brain. If you are willing to look at these unconscious offerings as written in a symbolic language and to take the time to puzzle out their meanings you might be surprised as well. I’ve started an illustrated blog called The Daily Dreamer to help beginners learn to appreciate these obscure nightly adventures.

  12. #12 Satya Doyle Byock
    March 1, 2010

    I would argue that neuroscience has a great deal of use for concepts such as “soul” and the collective unconscious. In fact, in Dr. Daniel Siegal’s new book Mindsight, he comments that a patient whose frontal cortex was severally damaged in a car crash felt that she had “lost her soul.” What Jung studied is being found now in neuroscience, but his perspective adds a whole additional layer of understanding the bridges science with the world science rejects . . . the gods, perhaps? Culture, art. Indeed, Jonah, Jung may be just the scientist-artist you’ve been looking for.
    More here: http://firsthalfoflife.blogspot.com/2010/01/liber-novus.html & here: http://firsthalfoflife.blogspot.com/2010/01/introductions-to-red-book.html

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