Dreams can be valuable in therapy

Dreams can be valuable in therapy

By Leslie Ellis, Ph.D.
January 5, 2021


Clinical dreamwork and the science of dreaming are separate worlds that rarely cross-fertilize. However, those who work with dreams in clinical practice have much to gain from current dream research findings.

We now know much more about the nature and purpose of dreaming than we did even a decade ago, and this new information strengthens the case for using dreams in psychotherapy.

Although dreams continue to evade definitive understanding, there is evidence that they are implicated in both memory consolidation and emotional regulation, and these two processes may in fact be linked via dreams.
Dreams also shed light on our pervasive unconscious processes.

At the end of a lifetime of researching and working with dreams, Ernest Hartmann, M.D., concluded that dreams are like therapy because both “make connections in a safe place.” He came to view dreaming as at one end of a continuum with waking thought at the opposite end and daydreaming somewhere in the middle.

Dreams are a form of mental activity that is mediated by the neurochemical properties of the sleeping brain – which dampens down executive functioning and amps up emotional processing. Neuroimaging technology shows that in dreaming, the limbic system is even more active than when we are awake.

Researchers Josie E. Malinowski, Ph.D., and Caroline L. Horton, Ph.D., conducted a comprehensive review of both sleep and dream research into emotional processing and memory consolidation and developed a theory about how these processes work together.

Research clearly supports the fact that we have better recall for events with an emotional charge. We are inundated with far more information than we can assimilate; emotion appears to “tag” the most impactful events for future recall.

In dreaming, events from our lives are broken into parts and only the most salient elements are woven into the associative web of our memories. This, say the researchers, is what gives dreams their peculiar mix of past and current images and events.

This theory suggests we dream about what evokes emotion because this helps us retain salient information in a form that is accessible for future use. Research shows that we also dream about what we repress, so even when an emotional charge flies under the radar of consciousness, our dreams incorporate these events.

Looked at in this way, the strangeness of dreaming begins to make some sense, and its usefulness in therapy becomes clearer. In both dreaming and therapy we attend to what brings up emotional responses, especially those things we repress or find hard to assimilate, and then we weave theses into our web of associative memory while attenuating the emotional charge.

Dreams are like an astute therapy assistant who offers an uncensored look at our client’s most salient emotional concerns, pointing the way to what needs attention and weaving that into what is relevant from the past. They open up important conversations that might not otherwise happen.

In many ways, the science of dreaming supports the original theories and practices of the first great dream therapists, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. However, there has been a major revision in understanding the nature of the unconscious.

Far from being a seething caldron of repressed and forbidden drives, as Freud thought, implicit processes are now seen as both pervasive and adaptive.

According to John A. Bargh, Ph.D., and Ezequiel Morsella, Ph.D., “Contemporary social cognition research on priming and automaticity effects have shown the existence of sophisticated, flexible and adaptive unconscious behavior guidance systems.”

The idea of an adaptive unconscious was proposed by cognitive neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, Ph.D., who has suggested that as much as 99 percent of our cognition is unconscious and that, as a result, free will may be an illusion.

An expert in both neuroscience and psychoanalytic theory, Efrat Ginot, Ph.D., says that dreams can give us a glimpse into our adaptive unconscious processes.

She describes our emerging understanding of dreaming as “engaged not in simple consolidation of new/recent memory, but in processing associative memories and as such, they offer “great therapeutic opportunities. Very often more than the remembered content, the affect resurrected in dreams is significant for the possibility of change. As often experienced in treatment, the intense emotions that are revealed in dreams seem to provide one of the most direct accesses to what lies underneath.”

Ginot believes that the clinical relevance of dreaming is strengthened by this new information:

“Dreams can no longer be thought of as simply carrying repressed or dissociated memories or as a defense against unpleasant instincts. As part of always active brain/mind processes, they allow us, however strangely, to peek into unconscious processes as interpreted, recalled and retold by our conscious self.”

As such, dreams are an invaluable asset to the process of psychotherapy. Their relevance has not faded in light of current scientific research; in fact, quite the opposite.

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Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., has a private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is the author of A Clinician’s Guide to Dream Therapy. She offers online training in focusing, dreamwork and trauma treatment for therapists. Her web site is located at: www.drleslieellis.com.

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