Dreams and Nightmares

Escrito por Ernest Hartman
The Origin and Meaning of Dreams (An excerpt from the book) Ernest Hartmann, M.D.

The Connecting Process is Not Random; It is Guided by the Emotions and Emotional Concerns of the Dreamer. I believe the dreaming process is not random. Some would agree that dreaming makes connections broadly but would say that dreaming makes connections all over the place, that is basically a random process. I do not think so, based on a great deal of research beginning with my own work on dreams and nightmares of people who have experienced an acute trauma and are now recovering from it. The advantage to studying dreams in such a situation is that we know what is on the person’s mind. We know what is really grabbing his or her attention - what the meaningful concerns must be. I have been able to collect long dream series from a number of people who experienced a trauma such as barely escaping from a fire, being raped, or having someone killed next to them. These series clearly show that dreams make connections between the traumatic event and other material, such as old memories, including memories of past trauma. The connections appear to be guided principally by the emotions or emotional concerns of the dreamer. After a severe trauma, the dominant emotions are obvious. A woman who was brutally raped had the following series of nightmares over the next few weeks: I was walking down the street with a female friend and the woman’s 4-year-old daughter. A gang of male adolescents in black leather started attacking the child. My friend ran away. I tried to free the child, but I realized my clothing was being torn off. I awoke very frightened. I was trying to walk to the bathroom when some curtains began to choke me. I was choking and gasping for air. I had the feeling I was screaming, but actually I didn’t make a sound. I was making a movie with Rex Harrison. Then I heard a train coming right at us, louder and louder; it was just about upon us when I woke up. The dream is all in color. I’m on a beach. A whirlwind comes and envelops me. I’m wearing a skirt with streamers. The whirlwind spins me around. The streamers become snakes which choke me and I wake up frightened. Although this woman’s nightmares incorporate some details of the actual rape experience (the rapist, about 18 years old, entered her window through curtains and threatened to strangle her with the curtains), she is dreaming mainly about an emotion - terror (a child is attacked; she is choked; a train rushes at her; a whirlwind envelops her; snakes choke her). Several people in my series who escaped from fires dreamed first about fires but then reported dreams of tidal waves or of being chase by gangs of criminals. Alan Siegel, a clinical psychologist in California, has reported similar findings in victims of the Berkeley, California, fire of 1991. Why dream about tidal waves or gangs of criminals when you have just escaped from a fire? Obviously the dream images do not come from the actual sensory input experienced in the fire but are guided by the dominant emotions of terror, fear, or vulnerability. After trauma, I find there is often a progression in which dreams such as the above first appear to picture or provide a context for terror, fear, or vulnerability. Somewhat later they may deal with guilt or shame - for instance, survivor guilt. In my dreams, most of the time I am getting hurt in some way by my brother or I get hurt in an accident while my brother is safe (in actual fact, the dreamer’s brother died in a fire from which the dreamer escaped). This young man dreams of guilt, not directly of fires. Contextualization of Emotion I hope it is clear, at least in these very pure instances immediately after trauma, that dreams are by no means crazy. Though unexpected dream images may occur, they appear to be picturing, or as I would say, “contextualizing” (finding a picture context for) the dominant emotion of the dreamer. My co-workers and I have found a large number of very clear “contextualizing images,” especially in dreams after acute trauma but also after a death or time of grief. For instance, here are some of the more dramatic examples we have found in our collection of dreams: Fear, Terror: A huge tidal wave is coming at me. A house is burning and no one can get out. A gang of evil men, Nazis maybe, are chasing me. I can’t get away. Helplessness, Vulnerability: I dreamt about children, dolls-dolls and babies all drowning. He skinned me and threw me in a heap with my sisters; I could feel the pain; I could feel everything. There was a small, hurt animal lying in the road. Guilt: A shell heads for us (just the way it really did) and blows up, but I can’t tell whether it’s me or my buddy Jack who is blown up. I let my children play by themselves and they get run over by a car. These examples indicate what I mean by “dreams contextualize emotion.” When there is a clear-cut powerful emotion present such as fear, vulnerability, or guilt, dreams find a context, a way to picture it. The situation is especially clear soon after trauma, but I contend that the same thing occurs in all dreams. I examine in the following pages, dreams in stressful situations (but without actual trauma) that lead, though less dramatically, to the same conclusion. Dreaming contextualizes the dominant emotion or emotional concern of the dreamer. We can see the same pattern in a situation such as pregnancy, which is not always stressful but certainly involves clear emotional concerns. Pregnant women, especially women in their first pregnancy, have dreams about their bodies or other things changing shape and size, dreams that contextualize their concerns that their shapes are changing and their worries as to whether will they will still be attractive. Later in pregnancy they picture small animals of all kinds, and then usually bigger animals as the pregnancy progresses. Toward the very end of pregnancy women often wonder, “Will I be able to be a mother?” They begin to have dreams and nightmares which picture this concern. For example, one woman reports: I have some babies out in the garden. It’s kind of like they are plants and I suddenly realize I have forgotten to water them. This same pattern can be seen in any number of other situations when the emotional concern is obvious. For instance, as a very simple example, which we examine in detail later, three different patients on beginning psychoanalysis or long-term psychotherapy had similar dreams that went approximately as follows: I am walking along a mountain path with steep drop-offs on each side. It is a bit dangerous. There is a large, shadowy figure accompanying me - I am not quite sure whether this figure is good or evil. These patients are obviously contextualizing the fear and concerns involved in beginning a long treatment with an unknown therapist or “guide.” Physical illnesses are also sources of emotional concern. Dreams often portray these concerns very vividly, sometimes even before the waking patient is aware of the illness. A man awaiting vascular surgery on his leg, and afraid of losing the leg, has dream images of defective tools or other defective objects in 11 of 14 recorded preoperative dreams (see Chapter 3). I suggest that this is the basic pattern for all our dreams but that we can see it most clearly after trauma or in one of the specific somewhat stressful situations in which we know just what is on the dreamer’s mind. Here, in the examples we have considered, the meaning is quite clear; no detailed “interpretation” is needed. I suggest that more typical “ordinary dreams” may sometimes seem confused because there is no one totally dominant emotional concern that clearly guides the formation of the dream; we are complex beings with a number of ongoing concerns, some of which we may not even be aware of. It is this factor that makes ordinary dreams difficult to understand and makes them appear to require detailed interpretation. When one does take the trouble, with or without a therapist, to obtain detailed associations, amplifications, etc., to arrive at the meaning of the dream, this process of interpretation often turns out to be a process of gradually arriving at an emotional concern of which we may not have been entirely aware. What I am saying is quite consistent with what most of us who love dreams and work with them have always known: We dream about what’s important to us. I am trying to specify how we do this –i.e., providing a picture context for the emotion– and I am trying to place it in a framework involving the nets of our minds.

He is the Author of the following books: ADOLESCENTS IN A MENTAL HOSPITAL with Betty A. Glasser, Milton Greenblatt, Maida H. Solomon, and Daniel Levinson THE BIOLOGY OF DREAMING BOUNDARIES IN THE MIND THE FUNCTIONS OF SLEEP THE NIGHTMARE THE SLEEP BOOK SLEEP AND DREAMING, Editor THE SLEEPING PILL DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES The Origin and Meaning of Dreams January 2001 - Perseus Publishing

About the author


Ernest Hartman

Ernest Hartmann, M.D., is a world-renowned authority on sleep and dreaming. He is currently Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachussetts.