I had a dream I’m sure many readers have also had: my teeth crumbled and fell out of my head. In my dream, I was chewing gum and it led to two of my teeth falling out. I googled it in the morning for several reasons. Firstly, my girlfriend told me to; she thought it was interesting. Secondly, I don’t tend to remember my dreams, so having a vivid memory of this one is interesting. Thirdly, I’ve had dreams of my teeth falling out before. Fourthly, I’ve heard other people say they’ve had dreams with the same theme. Lastly, I wanted to come across a site which said ‘dream analysis is bunk’.
Interpreting the dream seemed asinine. It is about a fear of rejection, ageing or not being attractive. But I am not consciously aware of any of those fears (or even concerns). However, with medical and psychiatric expertise on her side, my girlfriend said I don’t have to be consciously aware of a fear for my dream to accurately represent said fear. This lead to a much deeper question: how do you collect this data?
The hypothesis is that certain dreams represent certain fears, thoughts or anxieties. But you don’t have to have any conscious awareness of these fears. How can a dream analyser accurately collect this data? (Dream: teeth fell out. Fears: height.) Given that the subject has to confess both their dream and the fear, the idea of being able to study the fears the subject isn’t aware of seems interesting.
The art of what they don’t say
People with personality disorders will often attempt to explain their psychology. They will often cite abuse in their childhood. Their stories are histrionic (i.e. attention seeking). They may talk about ill-treatment from their brother, sister, mother, uncle… However, there will be a clear void. In this example, they’re not talking about their father. When directly questioned (“How did your father treat you?”) they will dodge the question (“That’s got nothing to do with it”).
This void is important. They either consciously acknowledge this as one of their real weaknesses and consciously refuse to speak of it or, when carefully questioned, it emerges they have repressed memories.
A case study of this is of a woman who found her daughter chopped up and put into bin liners. The murderer was caught and sentenced and many years later the murderer was released. At around the same time, the mother had a type of nervous breakdown and found it physically hard to breath. After a lot of medical intervention, and therapist offer their input and encouraged the mother to talk about the released murderer. For a long time she refused to accept he had anything to do with it, but when carefully questioned the mother vented her anger and fear. The medical symptoms soon alleviated.
Careful questioning is the method by which one can study dreams. When someone has a dream, a psychologist or therapist or psychiatrist (I’m not sure which profession is best suited to this) can carefully (and without leading the subject) question them about their concerns. As the above (and short) examples of the traumatised mother and people with histrionic personality disorder suggest, careful questioning can get to the bottom of concerns people have without being aware of it.
The most efficient way I can think to do this study is to study a group of people over a long period. Each subject must keep a dream diary. They must be people who frequently remember their dreams (I would be an awful subject). The psychologist can have weekly interviews with each subject, carefully questioning each subject to highlight any fears or anxieties. This data can then be correlated against the dream diary. If many subjects with similar dream themes also note similar fears, that is evidence for the dream meaning something. The reason for weekly interviews is that fears are very ephemeral, and may not exist in a month. It is impossible to retrieve fears the subject no longer has, so anything their dream diary may relate to would otherwise be lost.
The bad news is dream analysis may be a legitimate discipline. I, aged 24 and being as wonderfully handsome as I am, fear ageing and rejection.
Technically unrelated, but it did comes out of the same discussion, is the nature of people with mania. Mania is often defined by delusions of grandeur. In the UK, it is frequently the case that people with mania have a delusion that they are ancient Egyptian. There is good reason to believe that is culturally specific; there is something about the way that ancient Egypt is presented in British culture which means it often forms a part of delusions of grandeur. Similarly, some people with mania claim to be experts in hieroglyphics. There is nothing about scanning their brain that should reveal this truth, and there is nothing inherent about the disease of the brain that should so specifically related mania with Egypt. But interviewing enough people with mania reveals that is what they believe. Qualitative data is very useful in psychology.
Even more unrelated, but something I found very interesting, is the secondary delusion associated with delusions of grandeur: persecutory delusions. This delusion is almost rational. A person with delusions of grandeur has to account for why they are in hospital being interviewed by a psychiatrist and not King of the World. So they believe people are out to get them. Imagine if everyone told you you only have one leg, and that everyone else does as well. You would be (should be) convinced that all people have two legs, the only reasonable justification is that everyone is lying to you; you are being persecuted.