The Dream Frontier (Book Review)

Author:  Blechner, Mark
Publisher: Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 2001
Reviewed By: Polly Young-Eisendrath, Winter 2003, pp. 41-43

In this engaging and practical book, Mark Blechner sets himself a goal that reflects my own interests in dream analysis over the past two decades: bringing clinical dream interpretation back into dialogue with laboratory dream science. After all, as he points out, it was Freud’s original objective in The Interpretation of Dreams to integrate mind and brain through unpacking the layers of our dreams. Blechner (p.5) further elucidates his objectives by naming four topics that he aims to cover, separately and in unison: the theory of dream formation, the meaning of dreams, the clinical use of dreams, and the implications of dream phenomena for understanding the brain.

Entering into the subjective dialogue of reading his book, an active process for me as I write my own notes and queries on the margins of the book’s pages, I wonder how Blechner and I will get along on this topic that I care so much about. As a Jungian psychoanalyst, I regard dreams as integral to all psychotherapeutic treatment. I also regard them as highly synthetic and creative commentaries on the emotional meaning of our lives, and on the meaning of the transferential field when they are brought into treatment. Will Blechner, who is a supervising and teaching analyst at the William Alanson White Institute and at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, be a friend or a foe as we travel through his book together? By page nine, I know that I am in friendly company when he writes, “Dynamic repression is not the main source of the difficulty we have in understanding dreams; rather the problem is that the dream is not concerned with communicability . . . The bulk of our thinking is unconscious, and part of what keeps it unconscious, besides dynamic repression, is that it has meaning without communicability” (italics in the original).

At this early point in the book, I know that Blechner is not basing his arguments on a theory of manifest/latent dream content, in which the manifest is a specific disguise, but rather on the assumption that dreams express themselves in forms that are not normally meant for communication and have to be translated, just as we would translate unknown languages or appreciate poetic or artistic metaphors. Moreover, Blechner continues, “Before we can interpret someone else’s dreams, we must become adept at understanding our own. All of us are, on some level, afraid of our dreams [because] our dreams are relentlessly precise about the most intimate issues in our lives”(p. 9). He dubs this fear “oneirophobia” and, although I don’t especially like neologisms, I fully understand why he wants to give this fear a name. We face it every day in our clinical work and every morning when we are recalling our own dreams.

In this review, I want to cover the topics that are likely to reduce our oneirophobia, and perhaps make us more courageous in asking for and working with dreams in all clinical settings. What is the meaning of dreams? Is it discovered or created? As Blechner points out, Freud’s claim that the manifest dream disguises latent dream thoughts has been questioned by analysts and dream researchers alike. The basic Freudian method of dream interpretation, using the dreamer’s free associations, combined with symbol translation, to undo the dream’s disguise and reveal the original thought (usually a wish-fulfillment), is not supported by laboratory dream science, or recommended by Blechner.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, during which we usually dream, occurs about every 90 minutes throughout a night’s sleep. We can also dream during nonREM sleep, although less regularly and less vividly. The fact that dreams occur so frequently, along with other findings, has prompted dream researchers to postulate that dreams do not start with a fully formed verbal thought. Instead, the basic stimulus for the dream may be an image produced during REM sleep by periodic firing of the pons, a brain stem structure. The image is then synthesized by higher brain functioning into an ongoing narrative that elaborates a story based on that image. The primary dream stimulus may be even more obscure – perhaps a visual feature which the higher perceptual functions then transform into a recognizable person or object. The underlying dream is unlikely to be a verbal thought.

The question of whether meaning is created or decoded is one on which Freud and Jung differed in their early theories of dream interpretation. Whereas Freud believed that free associations would lead to unmasking latent dream thought, Jung claimed that free associations “always lead to a complex, but we can never be certain whether it is precisely this one that constitutes the meaning of the dream…. We can…always get to our complexes somehow, for they are the attraction that draws everything to itself” (Blechner p. 20). Jung believed that Freud’s approach led to a reduction rather than to the meaning of the dream. As Blechner says, “In a way, Jung’s view was prophetic for psychoanalysis. In 1967, the members of the Kris Study Group on dreams at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute came to the conclusion that dreams have no special significance in clinical psychoanalysis” (p. 21). All of the psychodynamics that are derived from Freudian dream analysis can be accessed from any approach to a patient’s free associations. This is a logical outgrowth of the method of free association, Jung would have claimed, rather than a conclusion about dreams.

Blechner’s ultimate recommendations for dream interpretation are remarkably Jungian: when interpreting dream images, especially those that are more vivid and bizarre, “they should not be reduced to phrases that sound more linguistically coherent but are further from the original dream percept. Perhaps they should not be interpreted at all… Instead of translating them, we can make their meaning clearer by describing the overall context of the dream, perhaps as a question” (p. 27). Thus, Blechner recommends staying close to the actual dream image and accepting it as a sort of metaphor to be explored within the context of the overall dream.

Going even one step further, Blechner suggests that we use the manifest narrative of the whole dream as a guide to its meaning that supercedes specific associations. He begins with the manifest dream narrative and says, “if you analyze a dream piece by piece, and you arrive at an interpretation of the dream that fits into the totality of the manifest dream narrative, you are on the right track. If the associations contradict the manifest dream narrative or seem irrelevant to it, then they have not led you closer to the meaning of the dream… Associations, as Jung and others have pointed out, can clarify the dream, but they can also lead us astray from the dream” (italics in original, p. 57).

Finally, and this was a surprise for me, Blechner also recommends at least entertaining the possibility that the dream narrative is communicating something that is literally true. He mentions research done by Stanley Palombo that showed that his own patients could connect an aspect of the dream with an actual experience 92% of the time, if they were questioned directly, but gave this information only 38% of the time if they were not asked directly about it. Blechner says that patients tend not to tell their analysts such literal connections without being asked because they believe that analysts are not interested in them. Based on Blechner’s recommendation, I began asking my patients whether dream images and narratives had ever literally happened to them and have found the results extremely fruitful, more so than I would have predicted.

Ultimately, Blechner believes that dreams are a kind of inner representation that is often not immediately understood by the dreamer. When we tell a dream “we are converting it from a primary nonspeech experience into a verbal text… Good dream analysis then becomes the process of providing the subject of which the dreamtext is the predicate” (p. 96). The dreamer can be helped by the associations of the analyst or therapist as much as by his or her own associations. For all of these reasons, Blechner would like to call dream analysis “dream clarification” or “contextualization,” saying “Here is what the dreamer is concerned with and this is the question posed by the dream.” When these things are known, the dreamtext is often understandable (p. 97). Blechner believes that all approaches to dream clarification have their place, and he lists the main points of many different methods to show how they work within his perspective. Blechner’s conclusion about the process of dream analysis makes clear that he would claim that the meaning of the reported dream is constructed or created, not found. “The dream has within it a huge amount of information about the dreamer… The kinds of information that you can extract are all valid, but the dream will tell you different things depending on how you approach it. And so you, as the dream analyst, can choose the kind of information you will get out of the dream” (p. 106).

If the purpose of dreaming is not wish-fulfillment or compensation, then what is it? Taking into account sleep and dream research which has established that all human beings spend a lot of time dreaming (once I heard that it was about seven years of an “average life time”), and that most of our dreams are not remembered, much less told, Blechner develops a theory of “oneiric Darwinism.” The reason we dream, he states, is to “create new ideas, through partial random generation, which can then be retained if judged useful… Dreams introduce random variations into psychic life and internal narratives. They produce ‘thought mutations.’ Our minds can then select among these mutations and variations to produce new kinds of thought, imagination, self-awareness, and other psychic functions” (p. 77).

With such a constructivist approach to dream analysis, how would Blechner evaluate any particular dream interpretation? He says “Three primary factors in evaluating a dream interpretation are: (1) Does the interpretation make sense? Do all the dream details fit into the interpretation? Is it internally consistent? (2) Is there harmony between the deductions derived from the associations and the manifest content? and, (3) Is there consensual agreement between you and the patient?” When these factors are established he adds, “consider going further. I always want to know: What has this dream told us that we did not know before? What does it tell us that we could not have known any other way?” (p. 144). According to the theory of oneiric Darwinism, dreams are creative and synthetic, but I wonder how this accounts for the repetitive nature of our psychological complexes that are frequently represented in our dreams. Certainly some dreams are repetitive and driven.

Throughout the book, Blechner gives detailed relevant examples of how his ideas are applied in clinical work. Then, in the final part of the section on clinical work with dreams, he offers accounts of special topics such as wordplay, dream symbols, Kleinian positions in dreams, dreams and counter-transference, dreams as supervision and dreams in supervision, and a reallocation of madness. At times, I felt there were too many examples illustrating the same points. In general, though, the examples are useful and make his ideas more applicable.

The final section of the book is devoted to some fascinating speculations about how psychoanalysts and neuroscientists might cooperate in doing dream research. First, Blechner takes on the question of how we distinguish dreaming and waking life from each other in our memory; indeed, we can’t always make such a distinction. He also reviews some research that shows that people tend to remember others’ dreams better than their own, although they can recognize their own dreams when they are told. This may account for something that I have noticed, and found to be true for others as well: that I recall my patients’ dreams better than they do, and better than I recall my own dreams. Blechner says the same thing.

Discussing repression and dissociation in relation to dreaming, Blechner shows why clinicians and neuroscientists should be talking to each other. He discusses the possible connections between REM sleep and dissociation, as well as the psychotherapy that has been developed for post-traumatic stress disorder called “eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing” (EMDR). Perhaps most persuasive (for me, at least) is Blechner’s argument that clinicians should systematically research some ordinary dream occurrences which may have important neurological meaning. One example is when something or someone is identified as being the same, but different, as in “it was my mother, but it didn’t look like her.” He wonders if these are representations of “internal objects” somehow relate to the unusual pathological syndromes in which people cannot identify the face of someone familiar. The term for this is “prosopagnosia.” This kind of disjunctive cognition is but one example of perceptions that are common in dreaming, but rare in waking life, which might open important research avenues between the psychoanalysis and the neuroscience of dreaming.

Overall, Blechner illuminates many new perspectives on clinical analysis of dreams and on dreams themselves. He more than meets his objectives, and has written a book that should be required in any seminar or class in which dream interpretation and dream psychology are taught. His approach is precise and comprehensive, and he cleverly investigates the conundrum that we are in the dreams that we dream.

Reviewer Note

Polly Young-Eisendrath, is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont Medical College, Burlington, and is a Jungian psychoanalyst and psychologist practicing in central Vermont.

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