Dreams and Healing 

    IASD E-Study Group


About Dreams and Healing



  Dreams and the Humanities E-Study Group

 The Healing Power of Dream Imagery

Understanding of the connection between dreams and healing started in ancient times and for thousands of years received respect.  It later went through a period of benign—and sometimes not so benign—neglect.  Today it is resurfacing as a new force in integrative medicine.


Historical significance of dreams and healing

The first recorded mention of dreams and healing was in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine more than four and a half millennia ago.  It talked about the concepts of yin and yang, discussed the relationship between dreams and illness and said, “The utmost art of healing can be achieved when there is unity.”  The author understood the mind/body/spirit connection!

Through the centuries other healers also sought the wisdom of dreams.  Hippocrates (ca 460-380 BCE), the Father of Modern Medicine, practiced dream therapy, encouraged dream incubation and taught about the therapeutic power of dreams.  Aristotle (ca 384-322 BCE) helped advance the theory that dreams reflected a person’s bodily health and suggested a doctor could diagnose patients’ illnesses by listening to their dreams.  There were various dream temples throughout the ancient world, the Temples of Asklepius in Greece perhaps being the most famous.  It was at such a shrine that Galen of Pergamum (ca 130-200 AD), a Greco-Roman physician who had a great impact on European medicine, received his training.  He used dreams for both diagnosis and treatment.  He even used dream-received guidance to perform operations.

 At this point the historical records about dreams and healing seem to go underground…at least until Freud and Jung.  While they focused on healing in the psychoanalytic sense, they also established mind/body connections.  Additionally, in the mid-1900s, Vasily Kasatkin, a psychiatrist at the Leningrad Neurosurgical Institute, studied the content of 10,240 dreams from 1,200 subjects over a 40-year period.  He discovered that illness is associated with an increase in dream recall, often with nightmarish images.  He found that dreams often call attention very specifically to an illness before it could be medically diagnosed.  And, he is quoted as saying that dreams are “sentries that watch over our health.  There are nerves coming to the brain from every part of the body—and they relay signals of impending illness that the subconscious translates into dreams.”  (Van de Castle, Our Dreaming Mind)

 Prodromal Dreams

Physicians from Hippocrates to Kasatkin to oncologist Bernie Siegel have found that dreams can often predict illness.  The ancient Greeks called them “prodromal” dreams from the Greek words “pro” meaning before, and “dromos” meaning running.  Thus, prodromal dreams can tell us what is going on in our bodies before the symptoms become obvious and readily diagnosable. 

 In the work Tallulah Lyons and I have done with cancer patients, we also have found that many people dream about their cancer before it is diagnosed.  These dreams are truly gifts if we listen to them.  One woman dreamed her aunt, who had died of breast cancer, appeared in a dream and told her that she had breast cancer.  Her next mammogram confirmed the dream.

 Many other people in our groups have had dreams that indicated their cancer before it was diagnosed.  Marc Barasch, who has presented at IASD conferences, shared his dream of the “neck brain.”  It was a startling wake-up call which motivated him to press his doctors until his thyroid cancer was diagnosed.  

 Prodromal dreams can be preventive in nature too, giving us clues about what we need to do with things like diet or exercise to remain healthy.  Dreams can be a valuable early warning system about health issues and deserve attention.


Science behind dreams and healing today

Kasatkin was on the right track when he talked about the communication between the brain and body creating dreams that help diagnose an illness.  Today, the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is providing the science behind that mind/body/spirit connection.  

Candace Pert, Ph.D., is a biophysics and physiology researcher whose discoveries in the 1980s confirmed an intricate biochemical communication network between the body and the mind.  Pert’s work demonstrates the complex interrelationships among the behavioral, neural, endocrine and immune processes.  She has found that even tiny immune cells have receptors for neuropeptides, which she calls the “molecules of emotion.”  Neuropeptides are molecular messengers that connect all systems of the body—including the immune system.  At the level of neuropeptides, the body and mind are neurologically connected.  Every emotional state involves the release of neuropeptides and other biochemical messengers.  Our emotions are thus connected to our physiology. 

It could be said that the mind/body communication is primarily emotion/body communication because emotions play a major role in mind/body phenomenon.  Pert emphasizes that for maximum functioning of the immune system, it is important to free blocked emotions and to find constructive expression for all emotions.  Dream work is a process for achieving that goal. 

Candace Pert works with her own dreams.  She believes, “Dreams are direct messages from your bodymind, giving you valuable information about what’s going on physiologically as well as emotionally.  Strong emotions that are not processed thoroughly are stored at the cellular level.  At night some of the stored information is released and allowed to bubble up into consciousness as a dream.  Capturing the dream and re-experiencing the emotions can be very healing, as you either integrate the information for growth or decide to take actions toward forgiveness and letting go.”  (Pert, Molecules of Emotion

Exploring our dreaming brain gives us additional insight into the mind/body/spirit connection. Researchers have documented that certain parts of the brain go “offline” during dreaming while other parts of the brain go on “high speed access.”  PET studies show that two areas of the brain that are highly activated during REM sleep are the limbic and paralimbic systems.  These include the amygdala, hippocampus, parahippocampal cortex, anterior cingulate, and medial prefrontal cortex.  The limbic system mediates emotional experience, emotional behavior and conversion of emotions into physiology.  (Hoss, Dream Language)  The right hypothalamus, which integrates sensory-perceptual, emotional and cognitive functions of the mind with the biology of the body, is also active (Weisberg, The Power of Mind-Body Medicine).  Meanwhile, there is a loss of functional connection between the frontal cortex and posterior perceptual areas which contribute to a lack of reality testing—hence different types of brain communications.  (Hoss, Dream Language

Below is a diagram of the dreaming brain showing the parts that are and are not active during dreaming and what that represents.  For instance, when the part of the brain controlling rational thought is inactive, the irrational may be seen as normal, as happens in dreams.  Likewise, when the limbic system and amygdala are active, it enhances emotional associations and social and emotional processing where imagery carries an emotional charge.



What does this have to do with dreams and healing?  A function of dreaming appears to be emotional processing (Seligman and Yelter in Hobsom’s Sleep and Dreaming, 2003).  During dreaming these highly activated areas of the brain communicate in different ways than during waking consciousness and allow for emotions to be processed differently, as you can see from the diagram above.  The limbic system speaks in the language of symbolic imagery.  Working with dream imagery in the waking state can help change perceptions and resolve conflicts, which are critical keys for mind/body healing.      


It is significant that the amygdala and hypothalamus, which are both highly active during dreaming, have 40x the opiate and neuropeptide receptors as other parts of the brain (Weisberg, The Power of Mind-Body Medicine).  Positively impact them and they can have a positive impact on the immune system. 


The amygdala assigns emotional significance to the data it receives—and it has a pretty loose grip on reality.  Take, for instance, our reaction to scary movies—or dreams.  The event may not really be threatening, but the amygdala perceives it as real and triggers chemical changes in the body as though it were real.  This part of the brain doesn’t know a real event from a perceived event—yet perception can change biology.


 Putting the science into action

Based on PNI, it is important to use interventions that maximize the right brain “limbic logic” in order to stimulate more profound, positive psychophysiologic change.  Commonly accepted integrative medicine interventions that do this include guided imagery, hypnosis and biofeedback, as well as stories, body work, art and music, humor and movement therapies.  The one obvious but frequently overlooked modality is working with dream imagery. 

In our work with cancer patients over the past decade, we have seen how powerful dream imagery can be.  We believe our work with dream imagery has application for other types of illness too—and for anyone seeking a fuller sense of wellness in life.  We use the recognized and proven modality of visualization/active imagination techniques and take them to the next level by customizing them with the individual’s own dream imagery.  This work falls into two primary categories: 

  1. Working with and transforming negative dream images (such as those from nightmares) 
  2. Working with positive and healing dream images 

 Our work is showing that transformed images from nightmares can be used effectively with visualization techniques aimed at pain reduction, treatment and recovery.  Additionally, as documented by Patricia Garfield, Ph.D., (Healing Power of Dreams) as one goes through a healing process the dream imagery evolves and becomes more positive.  The physiological impact of these positive healing images can be enhanced through the use of visualization and guided imagery techniques. 

There has been a vast amount of research done in recent decades on the mind/body connection.  Research has documented that imagery and visualization can:

·         Increase the number of circulating white blood cells as well as levels of thyumsin-alpha-1, a hormone used by T helper cells. (Nicholas Hall, neuropsychologist, at George Washington Medical Center)

·         Affect the functioning of neutrophils (the first line of defense against infectious agents or “nonself” substances) in very specific ways.  (Dr. Frank Lawlis and others at the University of Texas)

·         Reduce aversion responses to chemotherapy.  (Jeanne Lyles and team at Vanderbilt University)

·         Lower surgical stress and speed up postsurgical healing.  (Carole Holden-Lund at Southeastern Louisiana University School of Nursing)


How does visualization work?  Here are three operating principles of imagery, adapted from the work of imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek:

1.       Our bodies don’t discriminate between sensory images in the mind and what we call reality (thanks to the amygdala and “limbic logic”).

2.       In a relaxed, meditative state, we are capable of more rapid and intense healing, growth, learning and change (think of all those neuropeptides you can direct!).

3.       Imagery/visualization work helps participants feel better about themselves because they have a sense of mastery over what is happening to them.  Patients who have an enhanced belief in their coping abilities tend to have better treatment outcomes.

 However, current imagery/visualization practices are not without their problems.  While techniques have evolved considerably since the 1970s, it is still an inexact science.  One of the biggest problems is that people often don’t relate to generic imagery—they need their own!

 How using dream imagery enhances current visualization techniques

Dreams provide us with images that are deeply meaningful to us—and they do so in a way that circumvents our resistances.  Pairing dream imagery with visualization offers many advantages over prepackaged visualization tapes or waking guided imagery exercises alone which the person may not relate to.  Here’s why:

·         Dreams show us emotions we are not in touch with in waking life.

·         Dreams show us how we participate in the stresses in our lives by our reactions to them.

·         Dreams show us where in our lives we are at dis-ease—and put us in touch with our personal conflicts.

·         Dreams show us possibilities for new responses.

 Dreams spotlight what can be improved in our lives.  Dreams help us cut through the facades and emotional blockages we create in waking life.  The emotionally-laden, symbolic communications among parts of the brain that are highly activated during dreaming provide imagery that is exclusively personal to the needs of the dreamer.  We hypothesize that dream imagery is more powerful than even the best generic guided imagery tapes or scripts. 

 Drs. Matthew O. and Stephanie Simonton, pioneers in the use of imagery with cancer patients, worked with a highly intellectual patient who felt everything needed to come from the rational mind—one of the problems some people face when trying to work with standard visualizations.  The imagery exercises weren’t working.  Then he had a dream of an “unorthodox doctor” who introduced himself as a healer.  The patient was then able to use active imagination to reconnect and get information from this inner doctor.  The young man needed his own imagery, presented to him in his dream state, to get over the hurdle of how to use imagery and active imagination while awake.  (Simonton and Matthews-Simonton, Getting Well Again)

 Through dreams you can cut through conscious resistance and, because of the parts of the brain that are inactive during dreaming, can cut through waking logic and let limbic logic play.  You can then take the dream images and either recreate them, in the case of healing images, or transform them in the case of nightmare images.  Using positive dream imagery with active imagination / visualization reinforces the desired perception on the amygdala, which in turn stimulates the body’s physiology appropriately for healing.  One of the reasons dream images work so well is that they arise from within us and hold up a mirror to our emotionally charged perceptions (fears, beliefs, hopes, etc.).  Remember:  amygdala is all about perception.  Change the perception…you may help change the physiology.


Case Studies—Transforming nightmare imagery

Nightmares have been greatly maligned and misunderstood. They are dreams that give us a “heads up” and show us the emotional, spiritual and sometimes physical areas of our life that are out of balance and in need of repair.  Most people want to avoid nightmares because they seem “bad”.  Yet scary dreams often only seem bad because they are telling us something we have been ignoring, repressing or denying.  The best response to a nightmare is to discover and act on its message.  Helping nightmare imagery evolve into more positive, healing imagery is a process.  This may take a lot of waking life work and a series of dreams over weeks or months, as shown in the examples below.

 ·         Scary snakes in one dream evolve into quiet sleeping snakes, and then fun play doh snakes in subsequent dreams.

·         A snarling and attacking dog in one dream evolves into an active but unaggressive dog in a subsequent dream, then a friendly puppy in a later dream, and finally a magnificent white dog companion.

·         Smashed pottery in one dream evolves into unfinished unfired pottery, and then into expensive new pottery loaded with sumptuous food in later dreams.

·         A fire ravaged home in one dream evolves into a small neat hut in a subsequent dream, and then into an elegant mansion by the sea in a later dream.

·         A barren desert in one dream evolves into a lush blooming oasis in a later dream.

·         A deformed baby in one dream evolves into a crippled child, then a sad ragged child, and finally into a beautiful, glowing, precocious child through a series of dreams.

 As you can see, each of these dreams has a central, highly emotionally charged image.  This reinforces the work of Ernest Hartmann (Dreams and Nightmares).  He states that the dream, and in particular the central image (CI), pictures the emotion of the dreamer and that the intensity of this central image is a measure of the strength of the emotion.  As Pert demonstrated, emotions impact the immune system.  Therefore, transforming nightmarish images into positive, healing images can change the messages sent to the immune system.

 In each series, the dreamer did extensive dream work between each dream (journaling, sharing with the group, using various dream work techniques and focusing on the key images in meditative imagery exercises).  There was a progressive change in emotion and attitude in each series, with the final image carrying numinous or healing energy ¾ a sense of being in a totally new relationship with the issue at hand.  The dreamer can then use these evolved images in waking meditative activities.


Working with positive dream imagery

We’d like to share a few brief examples here, of how dream imagery can be paired with waking imagery.

 One woman began to have panic attacks as her surgery approached.  Then, a week before surgery, she had a dream in which a beautiful white horse galloped up to her and communicated that she should climb on its back. It took enormous energy to do this in the dream, but when she did, she and the horse became as one being as they galloped smoothly through a narrow opening between two huge rocks. On the other side, they were in a brightly lit meadow.

 She awoke from the dream with a feeling of calm and supported assurance.  In the days before surgery when she felt the beginnings of panic, she re-entered her white horse dream and, using all her senses, re-lived her transformation from a state of panic into a state of support and calm.  This is dream imagery she can continue to call on and recreate when she needs it..

 Another example is a woman who had a dream that left her with feelings of strength and confidence.  She wanted a way to recreate that feeling in her waking life so, while she knitted herself a sweater, she went over and over the imagery and emotions from her dream, savoring it with all her senses and knitting those positive feelings into the sweater, which she now wears to treatments and doctor visits where she continues to use the imagery.

 I had a dream of amazingly colored tropical birds which, when I re-entered the dream, told me my light and energy came from within and they would teach me how.  They surrounded me with their wings and I felt as though I started to glow.  It was a profound healing experience.  I used the imagery throughout my cancer treatment and still use it to this day.

 There are many ways that powerful and positive dream imagery can be carried into waking life.  Many people add them to other meditation or movement activities.  One man envisions his fierce dream warrior image through yoga poses; a woman gets in touch with the enlivening energy of a courageous cat throughout her body as she dances; another becomes a soaring, healing dream bird when she does tai chi.  During treatment one woman imagines that a glowing fish from her healing dream takes chemo from tumor to tumor; a man imagines that the chemo travels on a stream of healing light that he saw in his dream; a woman imagines that a supportive dream guide holds her hand during the treatment.  These are images that are highly individual—and highly meaningful to the individuals.

 Some insights about tapping the healing power of dream energy are:

·         Dream images arise from within us and provide a powerful way to interact with the mind/body/spirit communication.

·         Our perception is our reality—the amygdala part of our brain sees to this

·         Change the perception and you can change the reality

·         You can take dream imagery into countless waking activities

·         The key to effectively using dream imagery is to move into a relaxed meditative state of consciousness and engage all the senses—that’s a way to get the amygdala really listening and acting on the healing imagery

 This is just the tip of the potentials of the healing power of dreams.  We look forward to dialoguing about all the many aspects of dreams and healing in this E-Study Group!

 Wendy Pannier and Tallulah Lyons


asd-PsiDreams  is part of a series of E-study groups sponsored by ASD.

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