Archives for the month of: August, 2013

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, September 2013]

As a counselor, I have been asked multiple times, “Do dreams really mean anything?”  My response is one of psychology’s most tattered, die-hard responses: It depends.

Societies around the world have long historical and cultural associations about dream content.  Some consider dreams to be visitations by spirits, messages from God, psychic predictions of the future, evidence of a past life and the like.  For people looking for confirmation of these types of theories about dreams and dreaming, I can only say that psychology offers no ready answers.  They must seek them in metaphysics, meditation or religion.  The psychological discipline today limits itself to what can be reliably observed and consistently replicated.  Dreams, yes.  Spiritual visitations?  Alas, no.

Sigmund Freud was one of the early thinkers who tried to make ideas about dreams “more scientific,” by fitting them into his theories about an “unconscious mind” and calling them “symbolic content.”  Ultimately, Freud’s symbols proved to be too rigid to be useful, and are considered by mainstream psychology today as antiquated; at least in their original form.

Personally, I think the only way we can speak about dreams is to ask a different question:  “Can dreams be useful?”  And there is evidence that whether dreams have a “real meaning” or are instead just random brain cells shooting off in the skull, people can and have harnessed their dreams for some meaningful purpose in their waking life.  Several song writers have admitted to being inspired by dream content, including Paul McCartney and Billy Joel.  Scientists too can thank their dreaming experiences for influencing their work.  Dmitry Mendeleyev awakened from a particular dream with the form for the periodic table of elements that chemists still use today, while Paul Horowitz had the same experience before finding the successful design for the laser telescope controls.  In the political arena, Mahatma Gandhi drew from a dream his passion for nonviolenet protest against the British in India.

My own life has been far less distinguished, with or without visitations to Dreamland.  But I too have managed to give my dreams purpose, and to therefore, make them “mean” something.  In 2004, for example, I had a dream about a college friend I hadn’t seen in at least a year.  The next day, I decided to give her a call, because the memory was still fresh.  She told me later that my call had come at a time she was making important decisions about her career, and because we had talked, she eventually successfully found a new job!  In a sense, my dream “meant” a new career path for her.

So my advice is to find creative ways to use your dreams.  Of course, 95% of dreams are forgotten, except for the ones that happen in the time right before we wake up.  To preserve them, keep pad and paper next to your bed.  Write some of them down, even if all you get are a few sentences of barely legible scribble.  Then think about them throughout your day.  Even the most hard-core science-minded type will admit that the sleeping brain is chemically different than the waking one.  No matter how weird the stories it generates, or how old the content, you might be surprised at how dreams can make you think in directions different than what you normally would.


[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, August 2013]

We’ve all heard the Hans Christian Andersen story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and most of us understand the lesson of the story has to do with being honest and plainspoken in a world where those around you are evasive and self-serving.  Most of us probably identify with the outspoken little boy character in theory, even if not always in day-to-day fact.  He’s the one who points out that the emperor has been taken by hucksters, that he isn’t wearing “invisible material;” he’s just naked in public.

As I’ve moved further into the professional world, though, I’ve come to have more sympathy for the emperor’s ministers and his people, even though they do not come across as at all admirable in the course of the tale.  After all, we are told the emperor is a vain, possibly meglomaniacal character.  Therefore, speaking baldly and plainly may well be grounds for very real retaliation from him.  At very least, the unfortunate diplomatic ministers could be dismissed from their positions, and the peasants might be deprived of their lives.  Now, go a step further, and assume that not only their own well-being, but that of their families also rests on their behavior toward the emperor.  How many of us would let our families suffer privation just to be honest and plainspoken?  In other words, what’s the real “right” thing to do here?  Honor a remote moral principle of “honesty,” or do what is best for close, real people in our lives?

At the crux of this kind of question rests an alternative theory of moral reasoning put forth by Carol Gilligan in her 1982 book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.  Although she was initially addressing differences in women’s moral reasoning from the man-centric psychological theories of the day, Gilligan herself eventually acknowledged later that while the “different voice” may often be characteristic of women, it can exist in both sexes.  The “different voice” is reasoning that is more relationship-based and less principle-based.  That is, instead of asking if the boy in the story was right to speak out to the emperor because the principle of honesty and authenticity says he must, one would instead ask who would be influenced for good or ill in speaking out?

From the different voice we might wonder: Who in the story is really being harmed if everyone decides to let the emperor walk around naked?  He stays in power.  His ministers keep their positions.  The peasants live.  The swindlers get their money.  Really, nobody loses here; they just have to live with a bit of absurdity in their lives.  We chuckle and roll our eyes at absurdity, but we don’t suffer for it.

By contrast, other than one person getting to be smug about living up to the remote moral principle of honesty, what is gained by pointing out the obvious?  Other than to embarrass a bunch of people?

Of course, I doubt that Gilligan’s theories about moral reasoning will ever make for as interesting a story as those based on idealistic moral principles.  Still, she brings home that we all live in a webwork of social relationships, and that any act, even a high-minded one, may result in the sacrifice of people we care about on the altar of our consciences.  Just ask any whistleblower.  From “a different voice,” we hear reasons to understand why real people act–or fail to act–as they do in life, even when they may chastise themselves and history in hindsight snarls at them for not living up to their principles.  In the end, Gilligan helps to contextualize our decisions, and make us face our very humble human foibles.  Sometimes, we all make moral compromise in the name of those for whom we hold most dearly.  Perhaps this theory is more about empathy and sympathy than integrity.  Which is more valuable?