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.