Jung’s Dream Theory and Modern Neuroscience: From Fallacies to Facts
When it comes to the interpretation of dreams, Sigmund Freud is considered to be the unrivaled godfather of the domain. Freud himself once said that “Psychoanalysis is founded on the analysis of dreams…” (Freud, 1912, p. 265). According to Freud, dreams are fundamentally a means for fulfilling the wishes which we are not able to fulfill during our waking lives, and thus are repressed in our animalistic, instinctual and hypersexual unconscious. When we sleep, these repressed desires manifest in our dreams in a somewhat secret language. It is the job of a psychoanalyst to extract the latent content hidden behind this manifest content of the secret dream language.
Carl Jung, however, has a different say on the matter. In fact, his theory of dreams was one of the reasons why he broke up with Freud. According to Jung, dreams are not at all what Freud claims them to be. They do not deceive, lie, distort or disguise. They attempt to lead the individual towards wholeness through what Jung calls a dialogue between ego and the self. Ego is the reflective process encompassing our conscious being, while self is the organismic process encompassing the totality of our physical, biological, psychological, social and cultural being that includes the conscious as well as the unconscious. The self tries to tell ego what it does not know, but it ought to. This dialogue is concerned with recent memories, present difficulties and future solutions.
Jung argued in his Psychological Types (CW6) that most of the people look at the world through one of the eight kinds of attitudes throughout their lives. Consequently, they ignore much of the world that lies out of focus, shadowy and blurry. What dreams accomplish is they make our ego step into this realm of the shadow, extract as much knowledge of our ‘self’ from it as possible, and integrate this knowledge into the ego to achieve individual wholeness or Individuation, as Jung called it. A person who is on the path to individuation will look at life and its problems in a more composed manner. All of these claims of Jung may seem too unscientific at first glance but modern neuroscience states otherwise.
Dr. Allan Hobson, a Harvard Professor and psychiatrist, is probably one of the most respected dream researchers of 20th and 21st century. As a result of decades of his research on the neuropsychology of dreams, he concluded that what Jung proposed about the nature and function of dreams half a century ago profoundly resonates with his own research findings.
“My position echoes with Jung’s notion of dream as transparently meaningful and does away with a distinction between manifest and latent content (J. A. Hobson 1988: 12). I view dreams as privileged communications from one part of myself [call it ‘Self’ if you will] to another [the waking ‘conscious ego’] (Hobson 2005: 83)”.
Hobson reported seven major findings that refute Freud’s theory of dreams and support Jung’s. (Hobson 1988: 220f)
- The motivation of dream process is inherent to the brain.
- The source of dreams is neural.
- The images we see in our dreams prepare us for future. They do not symbolize reversion to the past.
- The information processing in dream explains new domains in life. It does not disguise undesirable ideas.
- The bizarreness of our dream is not a result of defense mechanisms. It is a primary phenomenon.
- The images we see have a clear meaning, with no latent content.
- The images we see do represent conflicts sometimes, but they are incidental rather than fundamental.
Point 1 and 2 support Jung’s belief that the organismic self which also encompasses our biology and neurology is the source of our dreams. Point 3 supports Jung’s belief that the dialogic process of self and ego is directed towards present difficulties and future solutions. Similarly, point 4, 5, 6 and 7 support Jung’s critique of Freud’s dream theory.
Research has also indicated that animals fail to remember new day-to-day tasks when deprived of REM sleep (where most of the dreams occur). Thus we can conclude that dreams process new and recent memories, as put forward by Jung, rather than old conflicts (Fox 1989: 179).
Probably, the most attention-grabbing finding of Hobson is that during REM sleep, there is a regular activation of brain circuits that have not been used often in walking life (1988: 291). He argues that this process serves to maintain the brain circuits that are not used too often and are on the risk of being completely abandoned and dying out. Everything starts to make sense when we see this discovery in the light of Jung’s belief that dreams take us into the out of focus, blurry and shadowy world that we do not pay attention to. When we extract unconscious knowledge form our self and incorporate it in out conscious ego, as Jung believed, we are actually fortifying our neural connections that are ignored by our conscious mind in walking life.
Undoubtedly, all of these stunning discoveries have proven that Jung’s theory of dreams is more than just a set of “fallacies from the crown-prince of psychoanalysis who strayed too far into the realm of superstition”. Yet there is still much more to discover.