The Canary in the Mind: The Transformation of Dreams as an Endangered Species in the Post-Human Electronic Culture

Paul Lippmann

[Paper presented on June 15, 2002, at the Annual Meeting of the Rapaport-Klein Study Group]


There are many ways that one comes to an interest in dreams. My own childhood nightmares led to extended periods of blocking out dreams. This antagonism to dreams was only relieved decades later through immersion in listening to dreams of my patients and in teaching a seminar on dreams at the William Alanson White Institute. Patients told their dreams because they believed an analytic therapist would be or should be interested. We partake not only in the tradition of the analyst - Freudian or Jungian--who interprets dreams, but also in the more ancient tradition and archetype of spiritual and psychological healer who has always used dreams in healing. Over time, I began to read psychoanalytic and anthropological texts, allowing myself to think beyond the stranglehold of the domination of the idea of correct interpretation, and I found myself more able to relax and to allow dreams their play time in the clinical setting in what is closer to dream conversation than dream interpretation. And then, I could begin to relax with my own.

In addition, I come to the study of dreams through the rich clinical Interpersonal tradition in New York City. But, also, as a Post-doctoral Clinical Psychology Fellow, in the early 1960s, at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, the spirit of David Rapaport's Chapter Seven seminars still echoed. If you can imagine putting these seemingly divergent influences together, you have an approximation of two of the analytic roots of my thinking about dreams. In the Interpersonal approach, i.e., at the William Alanson White Institute, there never was a particular theory of dreams, never a singular clinical approach to dream interpretation, and certainly much divided opinion on the nature of the unconscious. This led to an atmosphere of relative freedom in thinking about dreams. To this diversity was joined the quality of the dream seminars of Erich Fromm and later Edward Tauber and Maury Green, in which playfulness, intuition, and an open-mindedness were seen as virtues. I learned to find my own way with dreams within a general clinical approach that was not doctrinaire, that was as attuned to the real world as to the inner world, that allowed the therapist considerable individual latitude, including the possibilities of direct engagement with the patient, that was closer to patients' experience than to theory, and that anticipated many of the recent changes in modern psychoanalysis. On the one hand.

On the other, there was Rapaport's Freud. For me, this included an appreciation for mental architecture, for layered, complexly interwoven psychological themes, in which drives, defenses, day residues, and infantile experience, join together in carefully constructed, yet remarkably fluid ways. It gave me a sense of the universe within each dream image--including the distinct possibility that it could all make sense, if one had the desire and the patience to apply Rapaportian learning to Freudian creation (our secular version of the relationship of Talmud to Torah, from which much of the spirit of psychoanalysis arose).

There is also an oppositional quality that stimulates an interpersonalist to move to Freud. I am sure if I came from a Freudian atmosphere, I would be Jungian, and vice versa. This oppositionalism is helpful in working with dreams, because one is so constructed as to look at the other side of things, and with dreams there is nothing but other sides.

1. Clinical Work

Let me begin with several observations.

(a) While dreams and psychoanalysis were wedded to each other in the early decades of psychoanalysis, they are no longer on such intimate terms. There are relatively few papers on dreams, and psychoanalytic conferences may include one or two presentations on dreams out of hundreds. Psychoanalysis has turned to relational concerns, to post-modern perspectives, to Lacan, to Bion and to attachment theory. Dreams have been taken up by the New Age healing community and by shaman imitators, by Jungian therapists, by the Association for the Study of Dreams, by neuro- and cognitive scientists, by those involved in the study of consciousness. That is, dreams and psychoanalysis have gone their separate ways.

(b) I believe dreams and psychoanalysis parted company for many reasons - economic, philosophic, systemic, personal, etc. One of these, I propose, is that psychoanalysis was not up to dreams and may have lost heart in pursuing the realm of the unconscious. (i) Dreams do not easily yield clarity; (ii) they are open to many possibilities in the realm of meaning; (iii) we are too meaning obsessed and have refrained from other ways of responding to dreams; (iv) we used dreams to prove our theories - exploitation of natural resources; (v) we became too concerned with “the correct interpretation” which inhibited creative, free, intuitive approaches; (vi) Narcissus looks into dreams and sees his own face; (vii) especially in Freudian and Jungian circles, dream interpretation became repetitive, single-minded, too dedicated to the instructions of the masters. Practitioners became constricted and closed up rather than relaxed in listening to dreams.

(c) In addition, the culture is not particularly interested in dreams. The domination of materialist pursuits mitigates against an interest in dreams. The American Dream is not much interested in the nighttime variety. If anything, sleep and dreams, shadow life, inner life, the realm of psyche are less and less of importance in our culture. In this respect psychoanalysis and the dominant culture go hand in hand, where once psychoanalysis was in deep contrast, contradiction, opposition, to many of the central aspects of the dominant culture. Today contemporary psychoanalysis - particularly of the relational variety - moves in concert with many aspects of the dominant culture. As a side aspect - there are manifest and latent aspects to our culture’s engagement with dreams. On the surface, in the dominant culture, there is little interest in dreams. Under the surface, in the New Age community, in aspects of immigrant culture, in various pockets throughout the culture, dreams continue to be of interest and importance. Similarly in psychoanalysis, in the official circles, dreams have disappeared. Yet in the quiet of our offices, now with less domination by Freud or Jung, with less of an all-embracing theory to read into dreams, clinicians are working with dreams in personal, meaningful and interesting ways. Also, younger therapists, for decades bathed in a culture of visual imagery (film, TV, videos, computer), and also influenced here and there by their experience of Eastern religion (Buddhism, Hinduism) and with body therapies (yoga, massage), take to dreams with an ease and naturalness that has been missing in older therapists. Also, they are open to sharing and learning from their own dreams, in this way--closer in spirit to the founders of psychoanalysis than to the classical, ego, self, interpersonal, relational and Jungian colleagues who rarely used their own dreams in teaching or clinical writing, and who are inclined to hide their own dreams because dreams have been thought to contain shameful impulses, strivings, interests. Using one’s own dreams in learning about work with dreams is the contribution originally of Freud, Jung and their early students, more recently of Montague Ullman, Gordon Lawrence (social dreaming) and others.

(d) In this regard, I’d like to mention how innocent, inexperienced, naïve, we are in the dream world. Psychological healers have a tradition in relation to dreams. Not only were dream incubation centers in ancient Egypt and Greece of significance, but also in many pre-industrial and indigenous cultures, shamanic dream healers used their own dreams in order to descend into the underworld to do battle with unseen forces (ghosts, internalized others, curses, etc.) that plagued their clients. Totem animals - often frightening, often appearing in dreams - were the guides that assisted the healer in the underworld. The use of one’s own dreams in this way (e.g., War of the Witches by Timothy Knab) is a far cry from our careful avoidance of our own dreams in modern psychological healing. It was difficult to feel confident in work with dreams, in part, because we had no system - other than Freud’s and Jung’s - for navigating among the images of the underworld. And Freud and Jung, despite their great ability, could hardly imbue their followers with confidence - since the ancient relation between the realms of God, Nature and community had long ceased to be coherent, stable and meaningful. We were all on our own.

(e) Over years, I developed ways of working with dreams that involved (i) following and remaining with the dream’s images, and (ii) the development of dream conversation (rather than interpretation) which includes (iii) an interest in the effect of the dream on dreamer and listener and (iv) respecting the patient’s habitual ways with dreams. (v) The forgetting of dreams is thought of as natural and is part of the ecology of mental functioning (“Apple Tree Dreams”). The appreciation of creative aspects of dreams and attention to the importance of the rehearsal for death and the engagement with generations past and future, are all thought of as important in working with dreams.

2. A Social psychology of dreams

Once we travel outside the clinical situation, we become involved with dreams in their more natural context. There is a long and ancient tradition of experience with dreams and with dream interpretation.

First, distinctions must be made between (i) dreams including their affects and effects, (ii) dream interpretation including post-dream discussion of dreams, associations, elaborations, amplifications, etc. (iii) and the uses to which dreams and their interpretation are put. These are not the same, but the confusion among these three different realms has been widespread. E.g., sometimes dreams are treated as though their interpretation is the same as the dream, or as though the interpretation is the only way of viewing a particular dream. This is true both in psychoanalytic writing and in some ancient texts, e.g., Torah.

(a) Dreams in ancient times before the destruction of natural night by our involvement with artificial light. Dreams were the only show in night town. The power and influence of the dream interpreter.

(b) Dreams as the model for art, story telling, architecture, poetry, music, etc.

(c) Dreams in the development of religion (Judaism, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, pre-industrial, native religions) as well as in the secular religion - psychoanalysis. Dreams and life after death.

(d) Dreams as the model for film and virtual reality (Gamwell, 2000). The Lumiere Brothers in Paris in 1896. Hollywood as the great Dream Factory (Spielberg’s DreamWorks). The external screen and the internal screen. Technology has moved the locus from the inner screen - where images are created out of individual and cultural memory, daytime experience, history, wishes, need to solve problems, self-consolidation, healing of trauma, etc. - to the external screen where images are manufactured and sold to a hungry populace.

(e) Film was only the beginning. The entire universe of virtual experience begins with dreams and has now moved into the culture as a whole. Computer, video, e-commerce, TV, palm pilots, etc., are the toys of the global economy. The move is from the privacy of the dream world to the disappearance of privacy in the exchange from inner world imagination to the domination of imagination on the external screen.

(f) In this process, the natural world stood as one pole with dream imagination at the other. Concepts such as primary process and secondary process, pleasure principle and reality principle, have meaning in a world in which dream imagination and reality are in some balance with one another. As the natural world is reduced and replaced by our own designs (e.g., in the cities, nothing is larger than our own designs which dwarf trees, sky, clouds, hills, etc.), we live more and more in a dream, less and less in a real world. In the way we live, film, TV, videos, computers mediate our experience of the “real world.” And the dream (illusion, image) of life is more compelling than the real thing. Some felt we woke up on 9/11. Whatever is our view of this event, the mediation of the event through the media is crucial.

(g) Therefore, I am suggesting we open a discussion of the relation between the psychology of dreams and the psychology of waking life in the post-human era in which humans and machines are in intimate interaction. Is it possible that Freud’s chapter 7 considerations reveal some aspects of life in the post-human, in the electronic era? According to Hayles, (i) disembodiment and (ii) the instantaneous exchange of information describe both dream experience and contemporary electronic experience. In both, So now with this introduction to some of the ideas in The Canary in the Mind or The Transformation of Dreams as an Endangered Species in the Post-Human Electronic World, let us begin.

It is by now commonplace to consider that we are living through, in this turn of the Century, a huge and fairly rapid transformation in human culture from the modern and the post-modern era to what Hayles and Fukuyama call the post-human in which electronic technology, the growing interaction and integration of human and machine, the continuing destruction of the natural world and its replacement by our own designs, all along with the burgeoning growth of the world market and its geo-politics - are leading to rapid changes, along with confusion and dislocation in how we think and feel about ourselves and our world. It is possible that the degree of manifest anxiety about future terrorist activity in addition to being realistic, may also represent in part, a displacement from unacknowledged anxiety about the development of extremely rapid changes in the human condition including increasing difficulties in maintaining the quality of air, food and water - i.e., the ecological crisis.

What do dreams have to do with any of this? In my opinion, dreams are a bell weather, a canary in the mind, of the underlying condition of our species. My own choice is to study these changes through the lens of the dream. I propose the dream is the basic model for much of our fascination with virtual experience fashioned by a burgeoning electronic technology. Further, I propose that the psychology of dreams and their interpretation is increasingly relevant to the psychology of everyday life in a time characterized by an emerging human capacity to create a world of our very own designs.

Despite the rapidity of modern change, dreams remain a fascinating, extraordinary and continuously mysterious part of nature. The ancient mind, in its universal and nightly outpouring of images and stories, filled with feeling and ambiguity, continues to play an eternal peek-a-boo with memory and with daytime’s interests and concerns. I feel we are extremely fortunate, in our clinical work, to still be considered worthy receivers of our patient’s dreams.

Primarily because of the work of Freud, we are regarded as the heirs and descendents of the ancient dream interpreters from every known culture in human history. Our patients continue to expect that their dreams will provide clues for meaningful understanding and healing. This relationship with dreams is, by itself, of deep and lasting value. But outside the clinical setting, dreams have yet another contribution to make. Through the study of dreams, their interpretations and their uses, (1) in ancient times, (2) in other cultures, (3) at the origin of psychoanalysis, (4) in contemporary psychoanalysis, and (5) in our modern post-industrial electronic global culture, it is possible, through the prism of dreams, to assess the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the meaningfulness and status of inner life.

Some of us still agree with Freud (1899 [1900]) that dreams are the royal road to an understanding of unconscious mind. And, further, some of us still believe that the innermost person, the heart of psyche, inner life itself, is found in intimate connection with dream life. The way in which dreams are viewed, I believe, is an indication of the way in which the inner person, the psyche, is regarded. A culture that disregards dreams, in my opinion, is a culture that is ready to disavow inner life. This hypothesis has many implications that will occupy us for the remainder of the paper. What may be the advantages or disadvantages of a demotion of interior life for a particular culture, and what is proposed in place of interior life, are relevant questions, but for another time.

Dreams, in ancient times, were the main attraction of nightlife. Long before we lit up the night with neon, 250 TV channels and 24 hour shopping marts, before we conquered night, before we replaced nature itself with our own designs, for most all of human existence, the dream, without competition, was of singular importance. Those who wore the mantle of dream interpreter were in a most privileged and powerful position. Every culture looked into the private dream and, like Narcissus, saw reflected its own image. That is, it saw in dreams what was essential for its survival, i.e., its maintenance, continuity and coherence. The culture saw reflected in dreams ways of planting and hunting, ways of praying and governing, ways to interact with past and future generations, in short, ways to live. Before science dispelled the magic, dreams instructed, prophesized, warned, delighted and educated. The private dream, examined by the culture through dream interpreters, revealed the culture’s deepest nature. Thus, the relationship in ancient times and in pre-industrial and pre-scientific societies between dream, nature, gods and community was secure and coherent.

As we entered the machine age, minds enlightened by science turned from the mysteries accompanying dreams along with all the other impenetrables of spiritual existence, e.g., age-old preoccupations with the nature of life, death and the afterlife, and instead, found itself in increasing preoccupation with the material realm. In short, as Nietzsche had it, “God was dead.” At the opening of the 20th Century, in deep Jewish oppositionalism, or more correctly as compromise between science and ancient lore, Freud turned to dreams for basic inspiration. Psychoanalysis was born on the wings of dreams and dreams entered the 20th Century, in Western culture, on the couches of psychoanalysts, allowing us royal access to the vast unknown while holding the door open to the echoes and ghosts of ancient preoccupations. In short, dreams and psychoanalysis were made for each other. Our early pioneers were deeply committed to an exploration of dreams, and they talked and wrote about them incessantly. It was, after all, nature’s most direct chariot to the unconscious.

But too soon, psychoanalysis turned away from dreams to pursue other interests - e.g., transference and countertransference, attachment theory, Lacan, Bion, relationalism, gender studies, and so on. In itself, an important question is raised: why did psychoanalysis turn away from dreams? I attempt to approach this question in other writing (Lippmann, 2000). Suffice to say, there are many and complex reasons for this disengagement - economic, philosophical, systemic, personal, cultural, and practical.

 In passing, one reason stands out. Dreams are inherently ambiguous and open to many interpretations. They are, in their nature, a prime example of unwilled, creative, subjective experience that cannot be contained in any single particular theoretical structure. While blindingly brilliant, both Freud’s and Jung’s overarching theories unfortunately required dreams to be forced into theoretical straitjackets that included interpreting dreams according, respectively, to prescribed sexual and archetypal meanings. Work with dreams, as a result, became an exercise in domination and inevitably, lost a necessary liveliness. Akin to the domination and exploitation of natural resources in the industrial era, dreams were exploited to enhance the theoretical power of various analytic systems. In today’s psychoanalysis, most every dream is looked into to reveal not its sexual, not its archetypal, but instead, aspects of the therapist-patient interaction. In such activity, there are always discoveries to be made, but the dream, itself, is rudely mistreated, with interpretation sometimes directed against feelings of confusion and doubt in the therapist, i.e., against being and seeming unknowing. The emphasis on interpretation, on being right, on proving oneself, on nailing the dream, could not help but lead to growing disinterest in work with dreams.

Simply put, in my opinion, psychoanalysis was not up to the dream’s openness, puzzling variety, creativity, and zaniness. That is, psychoanalysis shied away from a genuine encounter with dreams, instead shaping dreams to fit its version of the unconscious. While psychoanalysis was being challenged from many quarters, we became too insecure to work with the inherent ambiguity of dreams. Despite holding on to Freud and Jung for support and guidance, for a while, psychoanalysts as full participants in Western culture and as modern dream healers were too alienated and disoriented in relation to nature, god, community and the unconscious to dive into dreams with the verve, respect, appreciation and playfulness required for good dream conversation. And so, we turned away from dreams, pretending they were ordinary mental events not worthy of our attention.

And dreams for their part, also turned elsewhere, joining other lovers and finding a home with New Age healers and shaman imitators, within neuroscience, with those interested in the problems of consciousness, with science fiction writers, with Jungian followers, in growing numbers of dream discussion groups, and within rapidly expanding groups of internet dream sharers.

Thus, psychoanalysis, at first, in opposition to the materialism of the dominant culture, but now in concert with the dominant culture, has turned away from a central engagement with dreams. This parallel between psychoanalysis and the dominant culture, from the point of view of dreams, is in my opinion a central observation and merits further discussion. I should add that, while dreams have been disappearing from our official life in papers, books and conferences, yet in the quiet privacy of many therapists’ offices, dreams are still being discussed although now freer from theoretical dominance. Also, younger therapists, following upon their life-long immersion in the imagery of film, video, TV and computer, and together with the influence of New Age thinking and a smattering of Hindu, Yogic and Buddhist conceptions, take to dreams and dream discussion like fishes to water.

Within psychoanalysis, thus, there are two different reactions to dreams. In the official version, dreams once considered central, are now relegated to second-class status, replaced in importance by relational and other concerns. Meanwhile, in the increasingly dominant American and Western industrial culture, dreams may have once been thought to contain some importance in pre-scientific days, are of little value in the contemporary marketplace. That is, the American dream has little use for the universal nighttime variety. Night dreams do not affect the bottom line, and in our materialist vision, dreams pale by comparison with the dollar. (Should the system find a way to market dreams, they will gain in official value.)

Yet, under the surface, dreams continue to influence. In the New Age healing community, among those influenced by Jung and by Asian, Muslim and Native American religions and cosmologies, in many immigrant populations, in some interested in trauma, in the Association for the Study of Dreams, and in the ordinary lives of regular people, dreams continue to serve as inspiration and connection. So, just as in psychoanalysis, dreams are of little interest on the official plane, but remain of importance in the unofficial world.

In addition to the observation of a devaluing of dreams in contemporary life and in psychoanalysis, there is yet another side to the exploration of the fate of dreams. While disappearing from serious consideration in official life, dreams, in my opinion, have been undergoing a metamorphosis through modern technology and have reappeared in transformed ways. This transformation can be seen along two fronts. (1) Dreams serve as the model and the inspiration for aspects of the information revolution and for the burgeoning world of virtual reality displayed on the external screen. And (2) dreams have been morphed into the very products of the external screen (e.g., film, TV, video).

(1) Dreams as model for virtual reality. Dreams are the original virtual reality. As we all know, dreamers regularly find themselves deeply situated and embedded in their dreams, believing the experience real, feeling and reacting as though the events of the dream are actually taking place. In this respect, the mind is equipped for life-long repeated experience of believing, within dreams, in the reality of one’s sleep imagination, believing in the reality of one’s own REM hallucinations--virtual sex, virtual murder, virtual danger, virtual love, virtual people, virtual life. Now commercial technology brings us manufactured simulation and the possibilities of virtual living all well-practiced in dream life - in this sense are dreams the model.

It is not entirely new for dreams to serve as model for some of life’s most significant activities. It is thought that dreams served as the original model for theater, for fiction, for dance, for other expressive art forms, and for basic aspects of religious and spiritual belief and practice. Most every religion finds its beginnings in dream experience. In the sophisticated complexities of Hindu cosmology and tradition - all life is a dream, and one wakens from a dream into the illusory nature of waking life. For Muslims, the Koran is believed to have been dictated by Allah to his messenger and prophet, Mohammed, entirely in a dream. In the foundational myth of Buddhism, Maya, the Buddha’s mother, dreams of being impregnated by the tusk of a white elephant leading to the birth of Buddha. In S. Young’s brilliant text: “Dreaming in the Lotus” (1999), the power of dreams in the development of religion in Asian cultures is fully documented. In the Torah and in Talmud, particularly in the volume of Talmud called “Berekhoth” or “Blessings,” the significance of dreams in Jewish history and religion is clear. From Joseph to Freud, there is a direct lineage. In the origins of Christianity, dreams play a significant part.

Later, as Christianity became an official religion, the spiritual meaningfulness of dreams was questioned. In African Ashanti and other nature religions, dreams are prominent. In American Indian, aboriginal, and pre-industrial civilizations around the globe, dreams and their interpretations play a prominent role in origination myths and in spiritual practice. Our very own secular religion, psychoanalysis, also begins in dreams, and the specimen dream helps establish Freud as a great dream knower, although as we have learned, the Irma dream revealed much more than Freud realized - it confessed aspects of the guilty, bloody, misogynous origins of psychoanalysis. It has also been suggested (E. Hartmann, 1995) that dreams serve as the basic and original model for psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in the sense that in both drams and therapy, far-ranging connections are made in the mind within safe boundaries. Others (e.g., Lewin, 1954) suggest that there is a direct parallel between sleep and dreams, on the one hand, and analytic couch and free association, on the other.

In most cultures, the relationship between sleep and death, and between dreams and life after death, is an important one. Both in form and content, dreams have been thought of as crucial nightly rehearsal for the experience of death in which the body asleep is separated from the mind in dreams - like soul freed in death from its material shell. Also, in dreams one finds direct evidence of life after death in the virtual reality of the appearance of dead persons. For many, dream connections with the dead are among life’s most memorable and informative experiences.

In addition to serving as model for significant forms of living, dreams, in content, often prepare for, anticipate, show the way to the future. We flew in dreams long before the invention of airplanes. We swam with fish in dreams long before technology developed submarines. This broadly prophetic function of dreams - its capacity to anticipate what is ahead--far exceeds the narrowly predictive function often debated and usually debunked.

Thus, there is a long tradition preparing us for the idea that dreams are a model for the electronic revolution, and further that the psychology of dreams is directly relevant to an understanding of this era. Perhaps the vast expansion of dreams from the internal screen into the electronic universe displayed on the external screen is only the most recent example of the human ability to expand its own capacities. Our visual capacity was expanded through telescopes and microscopes so that we can “see” upward into the heavens and inward into our own cellular makeup. We have expanded our ears through sonar, our voices through microphones, our legs through automobiles, our muscles through powerful earth movers, our memory through print and now computers, and now our dreams are expanded into life on the screen. And this is nowhere more apparent than in the burgeoning of the world of film, TV and video.

(2) Dreams reappear transformed into film, TV and video. At the same time that Freud was creating The Interpretation of Dreams, the Lumiere Brothers, August and Louis, in Paris, advanced the technology of film considerably, and at the same time, they began to create short films that imitated, portrayed, and depicted dreams. Shown in a darkened room in order to parallel sleep and charging admission, the Lumieres consciously and deliberately were expanding the private dream into a shared and social experience. It is no accident that we have traveled from the Lumieres to Spielberg’s DreamWorks and to Hollywood as the “dream factory.” Film was born in direct imitation of dreams and modeled itself closely on the ways of dreams. Early in psychoanalysis, there was considerable interest in the relation between dreams and film, but interest has waned, just as film and TV have moved to a position of enormous influence and power in the culture.

Whereas dreams once informed, educated, explored, entertained, delighted, frightened, solved problems, looked into the future, reworked the past, provided access to forbidden experience, excited, played, provided release, expressed emotion - now film and TV perform these functions. During the day or anytime at all, people can partake of dream-like experience. They can lose themselves in a somewhat disembodied state, for a while, for a price, from the cares of waking life, and be transformed by the world of images. One crucial difference between the two, of course, is that dreams are constructed and experienced by one’s own creative and imaginative capacity, from within. Film and TV, on the other hand, is externally and commercially constructed and taken in by a consumer.

Thus while dreams seem to lose their ancient significance in modern life, they reappear, stretched, transformed, enlarged, commercialized, on TVs in everyone’s home, or on huge screens, in a mega-cineplex, hyped by millions of dollars in ads, supported by fame hungry fans, entertainment magazines, award ceremonies, a pantheon of stars and starlets, a billion dollar industry, an eternal circus, a feast of images and stories to delight, to distract, to control.

From dreams, transformed through technology, into the enormous TV and film industry, we are in the midst of a remarkable metamorphosis from the product of the private imagining mind locked in night’s sleep, to one of the driving forces of the global market. And yet it seems only a short step from Joseph, Pharaoh and the important political and economic use of the interpretation of the dream of fat and thin cattle, to the contemporary way in which TV and film, as the modern embodiment of ancient dream life, “wags the dog” of public policy. For example, the Gulf War seen on TV, produced for the consumption of a wary audience, was probably quite different from the Gulf War itself.

Even though dreams serve as model for the electronic revolution and even though dreams resurface as TV and film in the modern world, dreams as dreams have lost their importance in the industrialized societies. One could think of dreams as “the canary in the mind” of modern life. You are no doubt familiar with the phrase “canary in the mine.” In coal mines in Europe and in America during the 19th and early 20th Centuries, canaries were used as harbingers of dangerous air quality and potential explosion. Proper mine shaft ventilation was too costly for mine owners. Therefore, canaries (these were the failed singers) with more delicate breathing systems than found in humans, were carried in cages into mines by miners trying to protect themselves. When canaries keeled over, miners knew it was time to get out.

In modern culture, dreams are keeling over. That is, the culture’s regard for dreams is declining and dreams find themselves valued only in some elements of the under-culture or as transformed into commodified commercial forms. I have suggested that no less than the culture’s regard for inner life is at stake. As inner life is ignored, marginalized, digitalized, or commodified, are we witnessing one aspect of the dark side of the victory of world capitalism?

If the bottom line is the measure of all things, where is there a place for the mystery of dreams? If there is no place for dreams, can there be a place for the enormous variety and diversity of human psychological experience? In short, is the atmosphere for inner life poisoned in modern living? Dreams are “the canary in the mind” to the extent that their diminishment reflects aspects in contemporary culture that are not friendly to inner life and that reduce dreams to the fragile status of an endangered species.

It is not coincidence that I use some of the terms and metaphors familiar to those involved with environmental and ecological concerns. The continuing human destruction of the natural world as part of our increasing demand for natural resources has changed our relation to what was once considered “the real world.” As we dominate, control and destroy nature, we replace it with an electronic, a manufactured, a digitalized, a constructed, a virtual environment.

Nothing is beyond our reach or our capacities. There is less of an “out there ” out there. There is more of “us” out there, i.e., our designs replace nature’s designs. Biotechnology enables us to alter our own genes, to create ourselves. In this cultural atmosphere, the dream of nighttime is dwarfed by our capacity to live in a dream world uninterrupted by what we once thought of as reality. That is, the balance to dreaming was a real world, separate from the ways of dreaming, a reality principle different from a pleasure principle.

Now, we wake into a world of our own creation, often modeled after or otherwise similar to the ways of dreaming. Modern technology has carried us back to the ancient Hindu understanding that life is an illusion. What are the psychological implications of this change? There are many more questions raised than answered by these considerations.

For the present, I encourage my colleagues to engage in the life of dreams, to allow them time in our increasingly busy lives, to allow them in all their mystery and ambiguity to lead the way in our therapeutic work, to follow the images, the stories, and the associations and amplifications with playfulness and confidence that the unknown can still teach us what we need to learn. That is, I urge an attitude both rebellious and oppositional to the mainstream both in our culture and in psychoanalysis. I urge that we reconnect with the world of dreams, both for its own sake, and because the dream, in my opinion, stands at the threshold of a new era. There is no reason for us to leave dreams to the New Agers, to the followers of Jung, and to neuroscience. The door opened by Freud is only now, one hundred years later, showing a culture in dreamland. His ideas about the ways of dreams have great relevance to the changes now in our midst. It is time to return to our origins.


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Gamwell L., editor (2000). Dreams 1900-2000. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hartmann E. (1995). Making connections in a safe place: Is dreaming psychotherapy? Dreaming, 5: 213-228.

Knab T. (1995). A War of Witches. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Lewin B. (1954). Sleep, narcissistic neurosis and the analytic situation. Psychoanal. Quart., 23: 487-510.

Lippmann P. (2000). Nocturnes: On Listening to dreams. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Young S. (1999). Dreaming in the Lotus. Boston, MA: Wisdom.

Paul Lippmann, Ph.D.
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