Dream researcher and professor of depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California Stephen Aizenstat and Mark Blagrove, professor of psychology at Swansea University in Wales sit down with Jonathan Bastian and talk about their research into dreams. Dreams are not only a place for fears and anxiety but they can be an extraordinary place for creativity and innovation. They are stories with landscapes and characters and feelings and action. Recording and sharing our dreams can be a natural way of storytelling.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
We are currently all dealing with a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear — is that kind of percolating below the surface?
Stephen Aizenstat: What's going on in our minds is not only fear but we instinctively pick up the idea that death is around and very prevalent. Every day we're told how many people have died, how many people are in the hospital. The severity of the situation affects us personally and when our eyes are closed, something else comes awake and we’re registering the concern or the fear in the dream time.
Mark Blagrove: One thing that I’m hearing about are the natural threats which are occurring from the outside. We've been asking health service workers to share their dreams; one of them recently was dreaming of seeing the leaves on the trees have changed and become unnatural and she was trying to warn people inside a house and they were ignoring her. The important aspect of her dream was that something had gone wrong with the outside natural world and that was what she was trying to warn people about.
One thing that really surprised me is that we’re actually having more time to sleep and to dream. Is that something you’ve observed?
Aizenstat: I have and at the same time people are more agitated when they go to sleep. And when they’re agitated more often than not, something nightmarish will occur during the night. My advice for this is right before going to sleep and closing your eyes, evoke something supportive, either a figure from another dream, somebody in your past, a mentor or even landscape. That helps to nurture sleep and mitigate the kind of anxiety that sets in so quickly.
Blagrove: It also helps to talk about nightmares. By socializing what's happened you can have a greater control over your nightmares in the sense that the world will become less uncontrollable and the dreams might become less terrible.
Another thing we’ve found is people are having quite positive dreams, because although a lot of people are furloughed or even dying and a lot of health service staff who are in very difficult circumstances, there are also people who are relatively unaffected and if anything, it's a bit more holiday-like for them. One nurse told me the world is now divided between those who are being hit by COVID and the work to deal with it and those who are at home drinking wine. For these people it really helps to hear about the negative dreams from other people so that we can all gain some understanding and empathy about what’s happening to each other.
Talk more about that feeling of empathy from people who were able to share; is the takeaway then that during heightened fear and anxiety we should be more open about discussing our dreams?
Blogrove: Yes. There are studies being done in which couples were asked to either discuss dreams with each other or discuss waking life events with each other and the gains in intimacy from discussing the dreams show a social bonding that occurs as a result.
In addition to that, the dream, although it's produced during the night may have neural or other effects and could also affect other people during the day. Maybe one of its functions is to be a way of natural storytelling with people you engage with during the day. During the pandemic and the lockdown, there is a greater opportunity to engage in that natural storytelling with each other.
Dr. Aizenstat, tell us a little about the Dream Tending program that you've created? Give us some insight into the process?
Aizenstat: When dreams come we should experience them as a story rather than seeing them as something threatening or needing to be interpreted. If we do that we lose the narrative and the poetry that's in the dream from the beginning. Even the ones that are most frightening tell elaborate stories.
In the actuality of the dream, when our eyes are closed and that comes awake, there's something else going on. It is filled with landscape and characters and feelings and action. It's a whole movement that's going on through us. And it does have a story like quality to it, that has a beginning, a middle and an end. For people to be able to bring that from the inside out — and share that with another person — allows for what's going on inside in that extraordinary place of the dream to be not only expressed. But then [they] have the opportunity to develop a different kind of relationship with the figures in the landscapes and the images, which is what I'd like to go back to in relation to the nightmare dream.
To the extent that we keep a nightmare inside or to the extent that we try to wrestle with it, what happens is we get gripped even more fully and we feel almost possessed versus getting it expressed on the outside. Then I have the opportunity to develop a different kind of relationship to it and how great it is to be able to share that different relationship with another person.
I too run a number of dream groups where people come together and share their dreams. So the idea is not to interpret them but to really listen deeply. And then the insights come directly from inside of the dream rather than us trying to make something of the dream. We listen to the intelligence that's already part of the dream from the beginning. Who is the storyteller and what story is being shared? Offering an artistic expression, whether it's poetic or in drawings or even in a movement is really extraordinary and helpful.