What happens when we dream? Well, as I like to imagine it, at night there is always one brain cell left on and it functions like a nightwatchman in the mind. Occasionally, left alone like that with nothing better to do, he has a party; sometimes the party comes out well, and sometimes, as is too often the case, the fun turns nasty and unleashes some unexpected aggression, or terror.
A more scientific, if still symbolic, approach is to understand that the dream in the brain sets neurological activity in motion that functions akin to a system of railway carriages. So, what Freud would call a Tagesrest, a little scrap of the previous day's experience becomes animated, triggers a sensation or thought that starts to travel down a pathway in the brain. It will intersect other thoughts at junctions in the network where images may recall other images by a process of association or similarity. This collision will electrify another little carriage of thought that travels down the line until it too meets another thought or image that takes the dream in a different direction.
What experts think nowadays is that the dream is attempting to tidy up or deal with leftover emotional events that have occurred through the process of symbolisation. Symbolisation is mental digestion. Just as the food we eat is different to the contents of our stomachs, so the experiences we have are different when they become the contents of our brains. The hard edges are broken down, they get put into an internal filing system and stored away.
Now when we have experienced something for which we have no obvious explanation, or no immediate frame of reference we need to find a form of symbolisation in order to stop it from cluttering up useful processing space – it’s a form of mental indigestion. What we do in our minds to initiate symbolisation is essentially play with the concept a bit and create a phantasy. This is best exemplified by seeing children at play. Children are masters at phantasy formation – they need to be, all experience is new to them. And they are particularly good at playing with concepts of fear and aggression, becoming monsters or projecting monsters, being animals who stalk their prey or aliens or volcanos or any other form of natural and unnatural disaster. Children at play are dreaming out loud, and through these fantasies they lay down essential forms of symbolisation which will help them deal with all kinds of experience as they grow and develop. Feelings we have would be unmanageable without a picture, or image, or even a small narrative to make sense of them. When that happens, when an image matches and corresponds to the sensation, the power of the feeling is cancelled out, assuaged in some way. Mentally, we are at peace. Unfortunately experience always exceeds our preparation for it. Or sometimes we just need to go back to those earlier symbolisations to check they still work,(when we experience a feeling we haven’t had for a while and need recourse to an image to attach to it) to see if they need updating, and the dream process is a condensed, intensified, but arguably more random version of early child’s play. That’s why dreams are often considered ‘regressive’; they throw us back to earlier times, to earlier feelings, and often those of vulnerability and helplessnes.
But it’s also easy to see that dreams and phantasies are fundamentally creative. Or that what we understand as creativity stems from our ability to formulate images, pictures and descriptions out of the turmoil of our inner, emotional life.