The stuff of dreams

May 19, 1995

Sigmund Freud's ideas may be somewhat discredited, but still we dream. What are dreams for really? And what is the future of oneirology, the study of dreams?

Anthony Stevens, a well-known analyst, psychiatrist and writer on psychology, in his new book Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming reviewed in this week's Psychology and Psychiatry special books issue, pages 26-33, calls for a synthesis between the researches of analysts and psychologists who study the dreams of patients and the studies of brain chemistry being undertaken by neuroscientists. If oneirology is to progress and escape the shadow of Freud, it must, says Stevens, attempt to integrate what is known of dreams from both the psychological and neurological points of view: "Dreams are psychobiological events, and they owe their origins as much to our evolutionary history as a species as to our personal history as individuals".

In this week's interview with Partha Dasgupta (pages 18 and 19), a similar theme pops up: "I am arguing, I suppose, that in some deep sense people are similar, that they are programmed for self-preservation, family." His work is based on bringing households, families, women's work back into the economic equations.

None of this would astonish the biologists. There is a broad and secure consensus in the biological community about the importance of our evolutionary history in programming our present nature. The arguments between biologists now revolve around detail and degree, around "how" and "how far" not "whether" human nature has been shaped by natural selection, as can be seen from the debate set out on pages 16 and 17.

The really vituperative rows - rows now spilling into the newspapers, sharpened by the publicity surrounding the publication of Richard Dawkins's latest book, River Out of Eden, by the award of the Templeton prize for Progress in Religion to the mathematical physicist Paul Davies, and by the ludicrous pronouncements of the Bishop of Edinburgh apparently excusing promiscuity because God gave us genes for it - concern the impact of Darwinian ideas on the intellectual traditions of disciplines beyond biology.

Today, the The THES launches a summer series of articles exploring first the debate in biology and then the impact of the Darwinian paradigm on other disciplines, such as psychology, economics, anthropology. The academic community is rightly proceeding cautiously, more cautiously than the media. Much mischief has been done in earlier generations by those who sought to draw social policy programmes from cold science. This time it will be vital that the biologists remain engaged in the debate since the arguments are subtle and easily misunderstood.

The study of dreams provides a good example of how discussion is moving. There is not yet enough scientific evidence to produce a consensus on the purpose of dreaming, if there be a purpose, but theories abound. Freud believed, of course, that dreams were the fulfilment of forbidden wishes. Anthony Stevens espouses Jung's idea that dreams reveal the primordial survivor in us, what Jung called "the two-million-year-old Self". Francis Crick and a colleague suggested a decade ago that dreaming sleep is a way of purging unnecessary memories. (Not so, says Stevens the analyst: people who consciously try to remember their dreams do not suffer mental impairment, as Crick's idea would imply, they seem rather to benefit.) J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist at Harvard medical school, believes that dreams have no specific function, they are just byproducts of neurochemical processes, epiphenomena of brain activities. Others, like Donald Symons, an anthropologist at the University of California, suggest there may be evolutionary reasons for the way we dream. Some species sleep with their eyes open, but homo sapiens sleeps with eyes closed, ears open and sense of smell alert a useful habit for survival among Stone Age sleepers in dark caves perhaps? Could this account for the fact our dreams are visually vivid but often lacking in sound and smell? As ripples of the debate flow outwards all is not acrimony. On the contrary, even in areas where evolutionary ideas are not debated explicitly, old problems are being looked at in new ways as the kind of questions raised alters. Thus do ideas struggle for survival, evolve and spread or die.

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