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Dream Therapy Wakes Up to Scientific Approach

February 04, 1989|DAN BENNETT

SAN DIEGO — A North County woman woke up recently with this startling announcement:

"I dreamed I saw a man dressed in a chicken suit," she said. "He laid down on a sidewalk on a crowded downtown street and started having convulsions."

While this confession might once have set off a rash of interpretations within the confines of a crowded living room of friends, today it is more likely to be met with laughter and maybe even some good-natured taunting.

These are the late '80s, after all, and dreams don't create the same excitement they did during the more introspective '60s and '70s.

In San Diego, though, a handful of educators, scientists and students haven't completely given up on the idea of analyzing dreams as a way to solve real-life problems. Some lament the days of "touchy-feely" dream discussions; others cheer today's more scientific approaches.

"We've taken some of the mystery out of dreams," said Laverne Johnson, who teaches a dream-analysis class at San Diego State University. "People today don't find dreams to have the mystical, occultish feel they did during the '70s. Maybe dreaming about flying doesn't have anything to do with sex. Maybe a snake isn't always a phallic symbol in dreams."

Johnson has been teaching his class for 15 years, after several years running the Navy Department's sleep laboratory in San Diego. He remembers a time when psychotherapists would routinely introduce dream discussions into patient sessions.

"There was a lot of time spent discussing hidden meanings over dreams that spilled over into the book press and then into the general public," Johnson said. "But therapists today seem to be less concerned with dreams than they were 20 years ago."

Ron Lane, a member of the psychological services department at the University of California at San Diego, can vouch for that statement. Lane says his patients rarely bring their dreams up in sessions anymore unless prompted. If anybody would prompt, it would be Lane, who was involved extensively in dream and sleep research during the '70s.

"I think the decline in interest in dreams is a function of the general swings a culture goes through," Lane said. "Back in the '60s, the culture began to change and traditional means lost their credibility. It became the pop thing for people to look for alternative sources. People realized the seeds of creative ideas often showed themselves in dreams."

That "pop culture" attitude of the '70s was perfect for the onslaught of dream interpretation books during the decade. When that fad started to fade, dream and sleep researchers found reasons why. Nearly all use phrases such as "a more conservative atmosphere" and "the conventional structure of the yuppie movement" and "a new generation aimed at personal prosperity."

'Ransack Their Soul'

James McCamey has taught psychology classes at Mesa College for 30 years, with an emphasis on dreams for most of that time. He remembers an era when people in sensitivity groups would choose another member of the group and "ransack their soul" when it came to dreams.

"We called it peeling the onion," McCamey said. "But the students I have now are more conservative. I remember a time when they would take to the streets to express themselves. Now I'm not sure how to whip the class into a frenzy."

Enrollment in McCamey's dream classes hasn't slowed down, though, perhaps indicating that students still want to know what their dreams mean. Maybe, McCamey said, they're simply looking for a more condensed, private way to analyze them.

To keep things from becoming too uncomfortable for this new breed, McCamey seats his students in a circle and asks them to share their dreams in a group effort.

"I let them know, though, that, if things start getting too personal, they don't have to talk about it anymore," McCamey said. "It doesn't do any good to impose on someone's dream."

While the "fad" of dream interpretation has slowed down, for whatever reasons, the science of dream and sleep analysis is certainly wide awake. The Friends of Jung Society in San Diego is a respected group, whose members include academics and interested citizens. The Jungians follow the theories of Carl Jung, the noted Swiss psychiatrist.

Meanwhile, dream theorists such as Francis Crick could be enjoying the decline in heavy dream talk among the people. Crick is the Salk Institute scientist who earned a Nobel Prize as a physical chemist for his work in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) research, but who also developed an interest in the Rapid Eye Movement function of sleep.

In extremely simplistic terms, Crick believes dreams during that period are only a byproduct--that they are nothing more than "bizarre intrusions . . . brief incidents that often appear to rise for no apparent reason."

That quote is from a paper Crick published in 1986. He doesn't talk to the press these days; his secretary said it distracts him from his work. But those who follow dream research closely are well aware of Crick's theories.

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