Discussion of Ernest Hartmann's (1996) 'Outline for a theory on the nature and functions of dreaming'

Mark Blagrove, PhD, University of Wales Swansea, U.K.

Discussion prepared for Dreaming-on-line, and presented at the 13th International Conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams, Berkeley, July 1996.

My first reaction to this paper was that it dealt well with a frequent feeling that I have after my own dreams, of wondering how have I produced this, how have I related one area of my life to another one. Ernest's use of the idea of the dream connecting specific with generic material can then lead on to work on generic scripts. I also liked the use of extreme cases, because this is a similar method to what is used in research on REM sleep and memory, in which REM sleep may have a function in extreme cases, such as for the young, or for emotional memories, but may be 'optional', redundant or epiphenomenal otherwise. This leads to the idea that sometimes dreams may be epiphenomenal and have no function. In addition, the work on thin boundaries is important because many investigators, myself included, have failed to find individual difference correlates of dream recall, whereas Hartmann has succeeded with his boundaries questionnaire.

My point of disagreement with the paper is that whereas Hartmann is correct to state that dreams portray metaphorically our concerns, this is not the same as contextualising, which he seems to use as a synonym for portraying. If water sprayed onto the sleeping subject is portrayed in the subject's dream in some indirect or metaphorical way, then that is precisely a decontextualisation, akin to Freud's notion of displacement. We must admit the possibility that a dream can make a wrong connection, putting a stimulus in the wrong context. To use an analogy, to find mitigating circumstances for a defendant in a trial means putting the crime in a certain context, but there is a choice of contexts and we know that some are useful, some unfair, some generous, some pessimistic (three strikes and out, for example, puts the crime only in the context of previous crimes) and some just untrue. Just as we make erroneous comparisons, interpretations and contextualisations when awake, we could surely make them also when dreaming, as if some images can be thrown together without regard for overall meaning or truth.

Hartmann uses the notion of dreams using explanatory concrete metaphor, but what if such an explanation in a dream is wrong, or unhelpful, bearing no relation to physical or psychic reality? Take the cases reported by Hartmann of the women who dreamt of murder after having had abortions. Such dreams may reflect for some women what they think is an objective truth about abortion, for others it may reflect a subjective truth that they feel, despite believing that this is not how they should view abortion, but surely some can dream this without believing that it is true of the objective world, for everyone, or just for them, subjectively. Can we not think things that we know not to be true? Why, when we make so many biases and mistakes of thinking when we are awake, should dreams be always honest and truthful?

Gilovich (1981) found that expert football commentators, and undergraduate political scientists, are influenced by associations to irrelevant factors in a problem, for example, in assessing a College football player, by the connection that the player came from the same home town as another, famous player, or, in assessing a hypothetical political crisis, by superficial irrelevant resemblances to actual historical events. Gilovich concludes that "specific comparisons to past situations can be misguided and overused and thus interfere with rather than aid sound decision making.... [T]hose who do not forget the past can be led to misapply it." Some connections can thus be misguided and unhelpful. Furthermore, Blagrove (1996) details evidence that because the forming of connections in analogical reasoning is so dependent on conscious and effortful thinking, dreaming may sometimes produce maladaptive irrelevant connections.

I consider that it is precisely because, as Hartmann points out, dreaming is a thin boundary state, with various connections and metaphors produced, that sometimes waking stimuli, either emotions or events, can be given contexts in the dream that are misleading. We now need to assess empirically the ratio of useful to nonŠuseful contexts present in dreams, and then compare this to the ratio present in different types of waking thinking. Such findings will inform us of how useful what Hartmann calls the ~broadening of memory through cross-connections' in dreaming can then be for therapy and self-knowledge.

Blagrove, M. (1996). Problems with the cognitive psychological modeling of dreaming. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 17, 99-134.

Gilovich, T. (1981). Seeing the past in the present: The effect of associations to familiar events on judgements and decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 40, 797-808.

Hartmann, E. (1996). Outline for a theory on the nature and functions of dreaming. Dreaming, 6, 147Š170. Also presented at the 13th International Conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams, Berkeley, July 1996.