Posts Tagged ‘dreams’

My recent re-reading of Antonio Machado, which continues to be rewarding but slow work given my sluggish Spanish, has reminded me of how important working on dreams has been in my personal and professional life.

Among the most resonant of his poems about dreaming is the one that begins this way (Antonio Machado Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood – pages 90-91):

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que una fontana fluía
dentro de mi corazón.
Di, ¿por qué acequia escondida
agua, vienes hasta mi,
manantial de nueva vida
en donde nunca bebí?

And ends.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que era Dios lo que tenía
dentro de mi corazón.

Alan Trueblood’s translation reads:

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a fountain flowing
deep down in my heart.
Water, by what hidden channels
have you come, tell me, to me,
welling up with new life
I never tasted before?

. . . . Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.

Dreams were obviously important to him at that stage in his life. Why were dreams so important to me? I’ll try and explain this now by drawing on material from an earlier sequence of posts and adapting it slightly to present purposes.

Daniel Kahneman

Why Dreams?

I have come to believe, as Machado implies, that dreams sometimes connect us not just with the subliminal, but with the transcendent.

I am, in the first two parts of this treatment of dreams, going to keep as best I can within a framework of evidence that does not draw on the transcendent while plainly proving that we have modes of thought which cannot be reduced to Kahneman’s  System 1 (instinct) and System 2 (intellect). It also provides an area of experience that every single one of us can test out for ourselves if we are prepared to give it enough time. It’s far too tempting for me to add that if you are not prepared to test this out yourself over a period of months, at least resist the temptation to assume it’s valueless.

My main line of argument for now is that we can consult with our dreams. What does this mean in practice?

Dreams clearly come from a different part of our beings than our usual daytime conscious thoughts. Visual elements predominate. Even verbal ones are often tinged with the surreal. The best way to conceptualise dreams for our present purposes is to see them as originating from a level of consciousness that is usually below the threshold of our awareness – subliminal in other words. None of this is incompatible with the generally accepted view of dreams as being involved in a process of consolidating memories from short-term to long-term store. This function gives them a special role in alerting us to the meaning of what is called ‘day residue.’

I am writing this in full awareness of Matthew Walker’s recent book on sleep, which, while it explores the scientific support for the importance of dreams in consolidating memory, processing traumatic experiences and producing creative solutions to hitherto unsolved problems, is profoundly sceptical about the value of dream interpretation. As I will discuss at points later I am equally sceptical of the value of his prime target in this respect, Freudian theory.

Walker’s scepticism about examining one’s dreams is slightly qualified by what he adds, not quite as an afterthought (pages 202-03):

I want to be clear, as this all seems dismissive. I am in no way suggesting that reviewing your dreams yourself, or sharing them with someone else, is a waste of time. On the contrary, I think it is a very helpful thing to do, as dreams do have a function… Indeed, journaling your waking thoughts, feelings, and concerns has a proven mental health benefit, and the same appears true of your dreams.

So, undeterred, I’ll blast on!

Once you accept the idea that dreams come from below the threshold of normal consciousness, it becomes possible to see how useful they can be in problem-solving. This is because they come at a problem from a completely different angle from Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2, and it will also become apparent that they can bridge the gap between the material and spiritual aspects of consciousness, drawing therefore in my view more easily upon the transcendental. I have chosen to focus on dreams because not even the most reductionist scientist would deny we dream, even if he never remembers one, and because I have personally experienced the power dreams potentially have to unlock doors in the mind resistant to ordinary unassisted waking consciousness.

Also, dreams highlight a key problem, which permeates this whole area of human life: there is a world of difference between an experience and the interpretation of that experience. Nevertheless, it is not good science to dismiss the experience just because you don’t like the explanation that someone has pinned to it. Dreams undoubtedly exist. They are an unusual state of consciousness. What they mean and where they come from is open to interpretation. As such, therefore, they are potentially perfect illustrations of what I am hoping to convey.

At the most basic level you have the possibility that they can bring to our attention purely physical factors that were below this threshold of consciousness during the day. One such example is of the man who had a recurrent dream that a tiger had its claws in his back. After several frightening nights of this he asked his wife to check the skin there where he couldn’t see it. She found suspicious blemishes which a visit to the doctor and subsequent tests confirmed was a form of skin cancer. By paying attention to his dreams, he had been alerted in time and was cured.

One of my own experiences was less dramatic but none the less helpful for all that. I dreamt that I had been electrocuted by my turntable. When I checked the record player the following day I got a slight shock from the metal arm and, when I looked at the plug, I discovered that the earth wire was disconnected. During the previous day I had presumably had a shock from the arm but not noticed it consciously.

We have all heard of other examples where complex problems were solved by dreams (see link for more examples):

Kekulé discovered the tetravalent nature of carbon, the formation of chemical/ organic “Structure Theory”, but he did not make this breakthrough by experimentation alone. He had a dream!

Working with Dreams

There are reported to be cultures which, when the community has a problem, encourage everyone to seek dreams that yield a solution. Apparently this works.

There are books that explain ways in which we can all learn how to tap into this subliminal reservoir of creative thought to find a way through our problems. We can for example, before we sleep, deliberately ask for guidance in our dreams. As most of us, until we have practised it, fail to remember our dreams it is advisable to have a notepad and pencil handy by the bedside to record any dreams we are aware of when we wake during the night or as we wake in the morning. They need to be noted down right then because they fade so quickly that by the time you have got downstairs to make a cup of coffee you will have forgotten them.

Different books have different advice about how best to understand what you have dreamt. Personally, I never got much out of any material that claimed to give me standard interpretations of dream symbols. Our imagery is too personal for that to work most of the time.

I found two approaches useful, the second more than the first.

Calvin Hall recommended recording sequences of dreams and looking for the meaning in the sequence rather than in any one dream. That is probably good advice but not very practical, though I did manage to keep a detailed dream diary for about a year, recording the dreams on filing cards. In the end though I tended to just look at one of the more striking and significant dreams and ignored the rest.

This caused me to abandon Hall’s method. I took an immediate liking to Ann Faraday’s approach once I found her book The Dream Game in 1977. I still have my very battered copy of her book in the Penguin Edition.

There are two stages to her method. The first is uncontentious for the most part, once you accept the importance of dreams. Stage 1 focuses on how to record your dreams. Stage 2 is concerned with how to understand what they mean for us as the dreamer. We are a long way from System 1 and a fair distance from undiluted System 2 already.

Stage 1 – Catching the Dream

There are nine elements to capturing what you need to hold on to about a dream. This is a brutally simplified summary (pages 48-54):

  • Have the means to record your dreams within easy reach at night;
  • Date it in advance;
  • Prime yourself to dream by suggestion or prayer;
  • Don’t delay. Record every dream as soon as you wake;
  • Don’t dismiss a dream as too trivial to record;
  • Record it as fully as possible;
  • Enthusiasts should invite the next dream before going back to sleep!
  • Transcribe your dream the following day; and
  • Relate the dream to the events of the day before or that period of time (this does not mean that it is only an echo of them).

Stage 2 – Recording the Dream

Much of the rest of the book concerns how to decode the dream. Rather than simply regurgitating what she describes, which can best be experienced and understood by reading her book, I thought it would be more interesting and helpful to share the approach to dreams I came to rely on during a difficult period of transition in my own life. Much, but not all of it, came from her approach. At the core is the belief that dreams are not couched in some esoteric and deliberately mysterious language of symbols. We may think we don’t understand images very well, but this may simply be an easily remedied mistaken assumption (The Dream Game – page 62):

When the dreaming mind expresses itself in movie terms, cutting out all the “as ifs” and showing us literally crossing roads and bridges when we are facing major life decisions, or literally being devoured when we feel “eaten up” by something, it is using the most fundamental of all languages, shared by men and women of every age and race.

1. Transcribing the Dream

After I recorded a dream, when I was transcribing it to work on, I would write it in the present tense. ‘I am sitting in my living room. The radio is on. Even so I hear the sound of movement from the kitchen through the open door. I turn and look and to my horror I see a large and shambling figure walking out of the full length fridge-freezer and turning to come towards me.’ And so on.

2. Noting the Possibly Related Event(s)

I would note at the bottom of the transcript the ‘day residue’ and any other previous or pending events that might have triggered or influenced the dream. I found that dreams are not just sensitive to what has happened the day before but also to what I am aware has recently happened or is going to happen, like a recent trip or a forthcoming job interview. Even the events of a week earlier can leave traces in a dream. It is all a question of whether their meaning is still alive in the mind in some way.

I would then spend a little time deciding whether simple implications of the ‘day residue’ probably exhausted the dream’s meaning, or whether there were other resonances. For example, the electric shock from the record player arm seemed to be the main point of the dream. It was a simple warning. I fixed the earth wire. There was nothing else to think about. However, even if my fridge had needed fixing, the figure stepping out of it was clearly not reducible to a loose wire somewhere, except possibly in my head.

3. Giving the Dream a Title

I followed the advice to do this even though it was inconsistently effective. Sometimes I was right about the key theme and caught it in the title I created. Sometimes, though, I was hopelessly off the mark. When it was close it helped: when it was wrong it could slow down the process of arriving at a true understanding of the dream.

Next time comes the really interesting part: decoding the dream.


Read Full Post »

I found myself staring outside my window earlier today, but not the same day that triggered my recent poem on the death of trees. I looked past the silver birch immediately outside, with most of its green or golden leaves in place, to the bare branches of the denuded sycamore, left with only a handful of its leaves on this cold but sunny November day. As I looked the words of the sonnet penned 400 years ago came floating into my mind:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Shakespeare, of course: sonnet 73.

That led me to Don Paterson’s reflections from his book on ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: a new commentary.’ A later line of the sonnet reads: ‘Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.’ Paterson observes (page 212) that ‘WS is referring to night, though Death’s brother has long been sleep, whom he’s also invoking indirectly.’ Inevitably, we go further yet. He adds, ‘Remember Macbeth’s Come seeling night,/Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.’ He reminds us that ‘seel’ is to ‘stitch the eyelids shut, as one would a hawk’s.’

The reference to Macbeth reminded me of the fascinating book that I had just finished reading: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

He couldn’t resist wheeling out Macbeth either (page 108):

Ironically, most of the “new,” twenty-first-century discoveries regarding sleep were delightfully summarized in 1611 in Macbeth, act two, scene two, where Shakespeare prophetically states that sleep is “the chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

He argues that our industrialised society is chronically sleep deprived. And he harvests acres of evidence to prove (page 107) that sleep, amongst other things, ‘enhances memory,’ ‘makes [us] more creative,’ ‘protects from cancer and dementia,’ lowers our ‘risk of heart attacks and stroke,’ and leads to our feeling ‘happier, less depressed, and less anxious.’ We need to wake up to the danger we are in by not sleeping enough.

Three examples

Because I’m still a clinical psychologist at heart, to prove the value of the book I want to focus on his discussion of three problems: Autism, ‘Schizophrenia’ and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I have called them problems rather than illnesses or disorders because I am deeply sceptical, as I have explained elsewhere, about the value of such labeling.

But I can set aside such quibbling for now and focus on his demonstration of how much sleep can do to mitigate such problems and how much the lack of it makes them worse.


His link between autism and sleep abnormality is dramatically strong (page 82):

Autistic individuals show a 30 to 50 percent deficit in the amount of REM sleep they obtain relative to children without autism.

A word of explanation might be necessary here.

During waking hours, in terms of information, we are in reception mode, he argues. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep performs a kind of reflective function (page 52) and stores and strengthens the ‘raw ingredients of new facts and skills’ whereas rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (dreaming sleep) integrates the information, ‘interconnecting the raw ingredients with each other, with all past experiences, and, in doing so, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works.’

He accepts that this correlation does not prove that the sleep problem in humans is the cause of autism or vice versa. However, research using animals suggests that when infant rats are deprived of REM sleep ‘aberrant patterns of neural connectivity, or synaptogenesis’ occur in the brain, and the rats affected ‘go on to become socially withdrawn and isolated.’

He adds that, since ‘alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep that we know of’ it can ‘inflict the same selective removal of REM sleep.’ ‘Vibrant electrical activity’ is the detectable sign of REM sleep. The infants (page 83) ‘of heavy-drinking mothers showed a 200 percent reduction in this measure of vibrant electrical activity relative to the infants born of non-alcohol-consuming mothers.’ However, even when pregnant mothers consumed only two glasses of wine (pages 83-84), it ‘significantly reduced the amount of time that the unborn babies spent in REM sleep, relative to the non-alcohol condition.’

While he acknowledges that for humans (page 85) ‘we do not yet fully understand what the long-term effects are of fetal or neonate REM sleep disruption, alcohol-triggered or otherwise,’ the abnormalities caused in adult animals is clear.

I also feel that the evidence adduced by Raine in his masterly book The Anatomy of Violence may be partly explicable in these terms, though Walker makes no reference to it. In this study of violent offenders, Raine finds that foetal alcohol exposure is very much a factor needing to be taken into account, and not just with violent offenders, the main focus of his book, as it has implications for cognitive functioning including memory as well as impulse control in general (pages 163-164):

Part of the reason for this is its effects upon the hippocampus. The hippocampus patrols the dangerous waters of emotion. It is critically important in associating a specific place with punishment – something that helps fear conditioning. Criminals have clear deficits in these areas. The hippocampus is also a key structure in the limbic circuit that regulates emotional behaviour . . .

This impairment then interacts with early experiences of attachment, and disruptions to attachment make the likelihood of later personality problems much higher. Sleep strongly impacts upon the functioning of the hippocampus as Walker explains (page 155):

The very latest work in this area has revealed that sleep deprivation even impacts the DNA and the learning-related genes in the brain cells of the hippocampus itself.

So, whatever the exact direction of causation, and regardless of what other factors may or may not be involved, REM sleep disruption and autism are undoubtedly linked.


Even though I worked in mental health over thirty years, until I read his book I never realised fully the important role of sleep in the problems I was looking at, even though I used to explain to lay audiences that psychosis, as it is termed, was a kind of waking dream, which, I used to say, meant that we all became psychotic at night, whether we remembered our dreams or not.

There is an additional twist to the role of NREM sleep here (page 89): ‘Of the many functions carried out by deep NREM sleep… it is that of synaptic pruning that features prominently during adolescence.’

He goes on to explain how important adequate sleep is for the adolescent brain, given that it is critically involved in determining what synapses (neuronal connections) are removed to mature the brain appropriately. Then he makes his key point early on in the book (page 92):

Individuals who developed schizophrenia had an abnormal pattern of brain maturation that was associated with synaptic pruning, especially in the frontal lobe regions where rational, logical thoughts are controlled – the inability to do so being a major symptom of schizophrenia. In a separate series of studies, we have also observed that in young individuals who are at a high risk of developing schizophrenia, and in teenagers and young adults with schizophrenia, there is a two- to three-fold reduction in deep NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. . . . Faulty pruning of brain connections in schizophrenia caused by sleep abnormalities is now one of the most exciting areas of investigation in psychiatric illness.

He does not deal with this here except in terms of correlation. This therefore does not exclude the possibility that there are other causative elements at work.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

I am well aware, for example, of the strong evidence for the role of trauma in the development of so-called schizophrenia. His treatment of trauma is quite separate from his discussion of schizophrenia, as he is content to term it, and he relates the persistence of nightmares in the aftermath of trauma to the failure of the brain to suppress noradrenaline, a failure that keeps the terror alive. Normally the brain suppresses noradrenaline in sleep so that dream experiences do not create strong feelings of fear and the mind is desensitised to the terror by the calming dreams – a very different process from the NREM one he is describing here.

None the less, the correlation is significant and potentially valuable therapeutically. I would hope that future research is less diagnostically naïve and includes other potentially relevant factors in the mix.

Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

His exposure of the way in which sleep deprivation is ignored as a fundamental factor in ADHD was music to my ears. He launches it by saying (page 314):

An added reason for making sleep a top priority in the education and lives of our children concerns the link between sleep deficiency and the epidemic of ADHD. … If you make a composite of the symptoms (unable to maintain focus and attention, deficient learning, behaviourally difficult, with mental health instability), and then strip away the label of ADHD, the symptoms are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep.

The drugs we prescribe to treat it further prevent sleep.

He is not claiming there is no such thing as ADHD, simply that many people to whom the diagnosis has been attached are simply sleep deprived. The treatment makes it worse not better. He quotes the figures (page 316):

Based on recent surveys and clinical evaluations, we estimate that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder, yet a small fraction know of their sleep condition and its ramifications.

And more than that. Because our society undervalues sleep (ibid.):

Well over 70 percent of parents [believe] their child gets enough sleep, when in reality, less than 25 percent of children aged 11 to 18 actually obtain the necessary amount.

He points to early starting times in schools as one of the culprits and late bedtimes as another. This blind spot in our culture is damaging lives, he argues. We have to change.


I can’t resist a quick postscript on dreams. Oliver Burkeman, in a recent Guardian article, nails the difficulty I have with Walker’s reductionist approach, which he describes accurately: ‘recent work by researchers including Matthew Walker, author of the new book Why We Sleep, strongly suggests dreams are a kind of “overnight therapy”: in REM sleep, we get to reprocess emotionally trying experiences, but without the presence of the anxiety-inducing neurotransmitter noradrenaline. In experiments, people exposed to emotional images reacted much more calmly to seeing them again after a good night’s dreaming.

He rightly argues that Jung would not have agreed that this was all there was to it, and neither would I. He even provides a counteracting argument that retains the magic of dreams even while conceding they might be random:

So you wrote down a dream, then studied it, with or without a therapist, trying out different interpretations, and if one rang true – if it gave you goosebumps or triggered strong emotions – you pursued it further. What’s striking, you may have noticed, is that this approach would work even if Jung were wrong, and dreams were just random. If you treat them as potentially meaningful, retaining only those interpretations that really “click”, you’re going to end up with meaningful insights anyway. I’ve dabbled in this, and highly recommend it. To ask what your dreams might be trying to tell you is to ask deep and difficult questions you’d otherwise avoid – even if, in reality, they weren’t trying to tell you anything at all.

Walker’s disappointing take on dreams does not for me diminish one jot the fundamental importance of his book. Sleep really matters and he marshals convincing evidence to prove just how vital it is that we recognise this and act accordingly. It’s a compelling, accessible, credible and critically important read.

Read Full Post »

Much has been happening this year to give me cause to reflect, whether I wanted to or not, on the meaning of life.

‘Judging by your blog posts, you do this anyway,’ I can almost hear you comment.

Yes, that’s true but only up to point, it seems.

I accept that I have explored at possibly excruciating length the importance of reflection, and kept coming back relentlessly to the issues of the afterlife, and the nature of the mind/brain relationship. I have banged on endlessly about the impact of my sister’s death before I was born and how grappling with my parents’ grief shaped my childhood.

The same kind of preoccupations persist, of course.


Recently, when I was in Birmingham, I bought a book that I already owned. This is only the second time I’ve done so. It was the greeny-blue paperback edition of Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy: the Time-torn Man. I knew I owned one book about his life but it didn’t look like this one, so I bought it, partly motivated by the BBC’s recent screening of a new version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

It took me a while to find the one I’d got. I combed my re-arranged shelves (we’ve been de-cluttering again), and was almost on the point of putting my name on the flyleaf of my new acquisition, when I spotted a cream coloured hard-back.

‘Found it!’ my mind shrieked.

I managed to get my money back from Waterstones and, afterwards, decided to check whether I’d read the book. My de-cluttering and reorganisation process is based partly on examining books to see when I bought them and if I’ve even looked at them. I’m operating a 10 year rule. If I’ve had it 10 years and not read it, I should consider taking it to the Oxfam shop.

This book surprised me. I’d bought it in 2006, but there was no evidence I’d ever read it, though I thought I had.

Next test: ‘Read the opening pages.’

I did.

There was no way this was going to charity.

Memories came flooding back, even more than had been triggered by the film, which linked only with the other novels. The biography brought back the poems, because they were the focus of the prologue, including a particularly haunting one, written after the death of his wife, from whom he had become increasingly estranged over the years, though they continued to live in the same house:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Tomalin doesn’t quote the whole poem, only the first and last verses, but my mind (or was it my heart?) filled in much of the rest.

I am now almost at the end of her engaging account of his life. The debt I owe to Hardy, who helped me place my family’s grief and suffering in a wider context as I grew up through adolescence to something closer to maturity, is very great indeed. It’s good to be reminded of that, even though I had much further to go than he could take me.

But even describing this, and mentioning the next book on my list, Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison (another one rediscovered unread) which deals with suicide, doesn’t quite convey where I find I’m up to now.

Recent Experiences

To do that I need to touch briefly on some events of the last few months.

First, there was the series of colds that left me with a cough I couldn’t shake off, and a deep sense of fatigue. This overlapped with a health MOT that flagged up a highly elevated blood pressure, which I thought might have been triggered by the series of  infections.

Antibiotics, which cleared the cough, and Amlodipine, which brought down my blood pressure, levelled things off for a while. Even so something had shifted in my consciousness.

Maybe it was the evident panic of the nurses at the sight of a systolic BP in excess of 200, and the manic sequence of blood tests that followed to check out the state of my major organs, that changed my sense of my own body. Whereas before my body was something that I identified with so closely that I barely noticed it if it did not hurt, tingle or display some similarly intense experience, now I was aware of it plodding along most of the time.

But, and this is an important ‘but’, I do not feel I am my body. I have a body obviously, and depend upon it to get me around and carry my consciousness.

Somehow, though, the hand I write with and the feet I walk with, no longer feel part of who I really am. They are instruments I use, and I catch myself watching them as I write or walk, but they are not me. I need them, and as my body gets tired faster than it used to, I get impatient with them and frustrated by them more often. Yeats’ expression of feeling ‘fastened to a dying animal’ is taking on new meanings for me.

More recently, and literally the day before I was due to travel to Scotland to run a workshop on unity, I found myself needing to go to the doctor’s again, unable to drive myself because I was suddenly seeing two of everything. My GP couldn’t explain why it had suddenly occurred, though he knew the name for it: diplopia.

He referred me to the hospital and they confirmed my diagnosis but had no real idea either what might have caused it. They gave me a prism patch to place on the left lens of my spectacles. It deflects the light and corrects my double vision. I’ll need to wear it till the damaged nerve is repaired, which could take months.

This diplopia, perhaps predictably, redoubled the problem.

Not only was I feeling different about my body now, but the world had changed its appearance and was reinforcing the sense, which I have had for as long as I can remember, that all I have is a simulation of reality. When your simulation breaks down further, and doesn’t even fulfil its evolutionary purpose too well, there’s no get out.

Not only am I not my body, it feels, but I don’t even know what the world is really like anymore, if I ever did.


This has led me to reaffirm even more strongly the importance of reflection, stepping back from my identifications with the contents of my consciousness, and consultation, comparing simulations as dispassionately as possible with others in order to get closer to the truth. Learning to act reflectively has come to seem even more crucial.

Following on from that reminder, I added in my journal:

This needs to be held in mind along with my metaphor of the bees of reflection gathering the pollen of wisdom and the honey of love from the flowers of experience, and with my dream metaphor of the hearth (see link for a full description) with its associations of earth, heart, art, ear and hear, plus the peat that burns within the structure of the grate to provide light and warmth.

It was only as I re-read those words this morning that I realised another level of interpretation of that dream.

This was the dream:

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

My interpretation of ‘peat,’ as written down several years after, was that ‘the essence of my being – peat – is to fuel’ the process of’ ‘giving warmth to the mansion of being.’

Peat was perhaps not simply, as I had originally thought, a pun on my name that related to the idea of sacrificing an innate spiritual deeper self for a higher purpose (light/warmth): it now seemed to be pointing towards something more complex.

This is partly because there are implications concerning the time scales involved. The Wikipedia article explains: ‘In natural peatlands, the “annual rate of biomass production is greater than the rate of decomposition”, but it takes “thousands of years for peatlands to develop the deposits of 1.5 to 2.3 m [4.9 to 7.5 ft], which is the average depth of the boreal [northern] peatlands”.’

If I translate that into personal terms, peat, although derived from the earth, becomes to some degree at least an attribute painstakingly acquired, something that takes long periods of time to create or evolve. It is not already available nor can it be created impatiently, in a rush. Yes, it is the fuel which gives the energy to bring light (wisdom?) and warmth (love?) into the world of being but it needs work to bring it into existence.

In short, I am not burning something that is already there fully formed from birth, as it were, ‘the Soul that rises with’ me, as Wordsworth put it, but something that I have had to devote time to creating. It is almost certainly related to my soul and to spirit, but it is also involves something which I have a responsibility to develop, create, bring into being.

Perhaps I had only partly understood my dream all this time, glibly oversimplifying it. Why doesn’t what surprise me?

What had seemed like separate aspects of experience suddenly have come to seem connected.

Reflection requires patience. Long periods of practice are required to even begin to get the hang of it. Using it entails slowing down. Periods of silence, as quiet as the deep ground that holds the formation of peat, are essential prerequisites to reflection and the ultimate creation of its fruits.

I am still in the process of digesting these insights and refining them. I can’t yet articulate them clearly or exactly.

What it means for this blog is that I will only publish when I feel I really have something to say, not at the dictates of a calendar deadline. I am still not even sure exactly which direction my writing will now take.

There will be more silence and fewer words. Be patient with me. It may prove worth it.

Read Full Post »

The Freezer

Read Full Post »

In a Dream

In a Dream

Read Full Post »

In a Dream

In a Dream

Read Full Post »

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

(From Geoffrey Nash Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald)

. . . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.

(From the Preface to Such Stuff as Dreams)

My recent post on how fiction can enhance the empathy of those working with people experiencing psychotic phenomena suggested it would be worth republishing this piece from 2o12.

Keith Oatley‘s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value. I won’t rehearse the arguments he quotes from Plato onwards to suggest that fiction should be banned. Most of us have heard them all too often already. More interesting by far are his reasons for feeling this is unfair and the reasons for attacking fiction are basically unfounded. So, what justifies my relief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who

regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art.

He also recognises that not all kinds of fiction are beneficial either (page 177):

The literature on possible effects of violence and of sexuality in the media is huge, and this is not the place to review it. Recent articles are by Paul Boxer et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of media violence, and Deborah Fisher et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of televised sexuality. Although there are questions as to how conclusive these bodies of research are, there is cause for concern that some forms of fiction may have harmful effects.

So, clearly enemies of fiction can select either pointless or damaging examples. However, the fiction that corrupts and destroys is not the kind he is considering. Real fiction, in his terms, is an art and is not to be dismissed as merely a pastime, a waste of time or worse an inducement to destructiveness. He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 174):

. . . . art – I’ll offer a criterion –does not recruit people to believe or act or feel in a particular way.

He unpacks this idea further in many places, for example (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral. How does it work that way?

Fiction, Empathy and Relationships

His case is richly expressed so what follows is a selection of the key points in it that most resonated with my own preoccupations.

One of fiction’s most important benefits is the fostering of empathy. He defines empathy as follows (page 113):

In modern times, and on the basis of recent research on brain imaging, empathy has been described as involving: (a) having an emotion, that (b) is in some way similar to that of another person, that (c) is elicited by observation or imagination of the other’s emotion, and that involves (d) knowing that the other is the source of one’s own emotion.

He asks a general question ((page 95):

If we engage in the simulations of fiction, do the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world?

In this book he sees  fiction as (page 99)

. . . . . a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world. This is what Shakespeare and others called a dream.

And finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar (see video below for an interview with him), he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects) – page 159:

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

But empathy is not all there is to it. His discussion of these other aspects is equally rich but there is not space here to unpack them (page 169).

A second theme in potentially beneficial effects of fiction is in understandings of relationships.

(His third theme I’m not sure is very different from his second as it concerns the dynamics of interactions in groups and is for me an aspect of relationships in general.) There is one more (page 170):

The fourth theme of fiction that can potentially prompt self-improvement is in understandings of the self.

Other Complicating Factors

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

The Brontes

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

You could decode that to be saying that tormented lives are seedbeds for major fiction and perhaps the writers would be worse people if they did not write. That would be a hard hypothesis to test in practice and the funding might be hard to come by as well.

Still, on balance, I feel Oatley makes a very good case for the value of great fiction. Let’s hope no one gets killed in the boundary disputes where one person’s masterpiece is morphing into someone else’s potboiler.

Related Articles:

The Compass of Compassion

Practising Compassion 1/2 & 2/2

Perfecting the Life or Perfecting the Art (1/2) & (2/2)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »