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Blog 13: Dreaming and the unconscious

16th September 2020

Famously, Freud said, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to the unconscious activities of the mind“. He thought what he called “free” association is the best way (the “royal road”) to  interpret dreams because dream associations come from the unconscious. In other words, our conscious minds aren’t aware of the associations which our dreaming minds creates. We can only interpret dreams while we’re awake but, in this state, we interpret them with difficulty because the associations are sometimes unconscious and, therefore have to be brought into consciousness, also they are often remote- the sense of non-obvious. Hence we need free associations because these “first things that come to mind without thinking about it” are the best way to uncover our dream associations. If we think about them too much,  we have time to defend ourselves against the sometimes, fear-invoking, emotionally unwelcome or unpalatable associations on which dreams rely.

The dream examples on this website reveal many non-obvious and emotionally challenging associations. In “The Lottery Tickets” dream, the ring from the Lord of the Rings may be associated, in an non-obvious way, with the lottery tickets because it brought power but was also a burden. In “The Crossing” the dreamer makes an emotionally difficult association between tied wrists and a threatened strangulation. Freud thought such associations come from the unconscious but my proposal is that dream associations also go to the unconscious.

As I explain in Chapter 4 of my book, I think dreams originally evolved to prepare early humans for dangerous situations, such as avoiding predators. Dreams could do this because they identified non-obvious patterns in the dreamer’s past experience of predator behaviour. In particular, associations which helped to predict when predators would be present at places which early humans needed to visit, like the waterhole and dependable food sites. For example, lions usually visit a waterhole at night – this associational pattern is: lion-waterhole-night. But in the dry season when they get very thirsty lions sometimes visit during the day. So the  lion-waterhole-night pattern has to be extended to incorporate the dry-season- lion-waterhole-day association. These associations are non-obvious because they aren’t determined, like day follows night. They have to be identified from many instances of glimpsing, from a safe distance, a lion at a waterhole. They are also emotionally difficult because who wants to contemplate being eaten by a predator!

My proposal is that across evolutionary time these non-obvious, emotionally challenging associations were portrayed in dream images and used unconsciously on approach to a dangerous place, like a waterhole. Thus, we used past experience to help evaluate the significance of any warning signals of danger- like a flash of yellow in the undergrowth around the waterhole. This flash of yellow may be a glimpse of a lion’s fur but could just be a yellow butterfly.  If it’s night time this flash is more likely to be a lion than if it’s the day time. If it’s the dry season during the day it’s more likely to be a lion than if it’s the wet season during the day. Should the early human continue to approach the waterhole or retreat? The information in the unconscious dream image will help but can’t definitively provide an answer. But whatever the decision it needs to be  quick- there’s no time to think in dangerous situations. Unconscious decisions are efficient and fast!

We can think of the unconscious as a hot, red zone across the brain. Across evolutionary time, dream images “stored” in the unconscious may have made our decisions speedy.

The unconscious is hot and fast

As I mentioned earlier, Freud thought dream associations come from the unconscious. In his mind, the unconscious was a reservoir of repression. We repress our primitive, sexual and aggressive instincts to live a civilised society.  But we also repress thoughts, desires and memories which are threatening, painful, distressing or shameful to our conscious minds.  In particular many of these thoughts, desires and memories relate to childhood when we were  vulnerable, relatively powerless and dependent upon parents but also less civilised and more beset by our instinctive impulses.

I don’t disagree with this aspect of Freud but I think his account is seriously incomplete – in terms of understanding the role of the unconscious. I don’t think the unconscious is only a seething reservoir of repression. Across evolutionary time, when we lived in a much more dangerous world, we would have been very reliant on using the visual images held in the unconscious to make fast decisions and act quickly. Dream associations drove these actions through identifying patterns in the behaviour of predators, competitors but also mates- so we could meet them. We dreamed to avoid dangers, stay alive and reproduce. We dreamed to survive!

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