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The transformation process in dreams

By Montague Ullman, M.D.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 1No. 4, Autumn 1996

Editor's note: This is based on a paper delivered at a Conference of Scientists with J. Krishnamurti and David Bohm at Brockwood Park in October, 1974. It is an adapted version of a paper original published in Revision, Vol. 2 No. 2, 1979.

I felt drawn to the theme of transformation as a consequence of three significant failures in my own life, which originally I thought were due to my own failings but were related to what I now think are the limitations of science.

We start out in this world as more or less undifferentiated globs of protoplasm and our task appears to be to evolve into a human being having a place in a complex technological society. If we shift to a metaphorical mode we are up to our collective necks in deep water when we consider the problems we face as a species. To save ourselves from going under we reach out for support with only our right hand to grasp at what we think are a succession of solid structures.

This is the master hand, the hand that enables us to master nature, to see the world as object and deal with the world objectively. This is the hand of science as science has come to be practiced. There is an awareness of the existence of a left hand and, on occasion, it flails about in the water. It is not seen equal in strength and power to the right hand; rather, it is seen in a somewhat negative light. It is labelled the "sinister" hand and is simply regarded as not being the right hand. Using only the right hand we do achieve a differentiated state, but one that never quite gets us out of the water, so we continue to struggle against the forces tending to pull us under. Using both hands together in complementary fashion, however, would not only get us to that state of differentiation, but would also enable us to tackle the really important question of coming together on dry land in order to get on with the business of exploring and enjoying the universe.

End of metaphor.

The use of both hands in getting us out of the water can still be called a science, I suppose, but it would be quite a bit different from the science we now know. It would move from its preoccupation with nature as object to be mastered to a concern with what it is that has been mastered; and conversely, what it is that has been omitted, i.e., the sensuous aspects of man and nature and the price paid for this one-sidedness in human terms.

There have been various ways of noting this duality apart from the right brain, left brain dichotomy implied in the metaphor - the way of science vs. the way of mysticism, the categorizing vs. the contextual mode of information processing. Others speak of objective knowledge vs. sensuous knowledge, or the active mode vs. the receptive mode. The terminology I find most congenial is borrowed from the formulations of Andras Angyal, a psychiatrist who should be better known than he is. Angyal characterized the two essential trends in the human organism as the striving for autonomy, i.e., the self-organizing, self-enhancing, self-determining tendencies, and the striving for homonomy, by which he meant the need to relate to and feel a part of a larger whole.

The methods of objective science appear to have evolved in connection with the former, whereas our capacity for love and our aesthetic expression seem more related to the latter. My point is that science has paid too little attention to man's homonomous needs and there are too few psychoanalysts around to pick up the pieces.

The three areas of failure I referred to earlier are ones where the scientific method should presumably work, but wherein my experience it falls somewhat short of the mark. In each instance my feeling is that the failure is traceable not to the flaws of the scientific method, but to the lack of an effective complementary approach.


Failure #1 is the general field of psychiatry. I am a psychiatrist by profession. A significant transformation occurred in my life when I began to realize that psychiatry was not a part-time affair, that its practice was more of an art than a science and, as such, it demanded a total commitment and that the level at which one pursued it could not be divorced from the life style of its practitioners.

I will not go into the evidence in support of this except to call your attention to several beginning trends in this direction, i.e., R.D. Laing's effort to provide a total environment at Kingsley Hall, Maxwell Jones in his evolution of the therapeutic community at Dingleton Hospital in Scotland and now, in the States among the young, a movement known as radical therapy.

Failure #2 has to do with the longest, unsuccessful courtship in history - the near century old effort on the part of a handful of serious scientists and scholars of all kinds, interested in psychic phenomena, to woo the interest and acceptance of the scientific establishment so that the romance could be legitimized and ultimately consummated.

While still in college I discovered that men like William Crookes, William James, Charles Richet, Oliver Lodge and Henri Bergson, to name just a few, took a serious interest in what was then called psychical research. At that same time, add the fact that in the course of experimenting over a period of two years with some fellow students I came upon what I felt were rather remarkable and genuine paranormal phenomena, and you have what, for a young person, were the makings of a terrible dilemma.

The result, of course, was that I felt impelled to build a special psychic closet in which to house this particular skeleton. Only in recent years, in response to a changing scientific ambience, have I gently opened the door. Some day it may be possible to transform the skeleton into a full-bodied creature, able to walk out of the closet by itself.

The final failure was linked to, perhaps, the most profound realization of my professional life. It was my realization that Freud's theory of dreams was wrong. Lest this sound both immodest and disrespectful, let me hasten to add that his was a magnificent theory, richly presented, and it was the first to call attention to the therapeutically useful features of dreams. Freud, in my opinion, in his determination to build a scientific psychology, approached dreams through the wrong mode. It was like trying to pick up a mixture of water and solids with a sieve. Much is lost in the process.

Unfortunately, the very magnificence of Freud's work cast a long, paralyzing shadow on the subject for well over 50 years, although Jung and others did sense a little of the nature of the essence that was escaping Freud's container. Without going into details of an alternate theory of dreaming, let me emphasize that I regard dreams as creative and aesthetic experiences that depict in the form of visual metaphors the present state of our connections and disconnections with the world about us.

Implicate to Explicate

For some time I had been toying with the idea that what we experienced as a dream had an antecedent history in an event that was beyond time and space ordering, and came upon us in something approaching an instantaneous happening at critical moments in the transformation of one form of consciousness to another. The onset of the dreaming mode is one such critical modal point.

The black dot at the left in the figure above represents this event. It may be regarded as a kind of black hole of the psyche containing an enormously condensed information mass. Since this falls completely outside the realm of our ordinary information processing capacities, it is experienced as ineffable. We are forced to let it expand, as it were, or unfold and then deal with it in bits and pieces,

ordered as best we can in time and space. These are the visual images that make up the dream as depicted by the various shapes in the figure. The information is still highly condensed, less so than formerly, and is spread out before us.

A second transformation occurs when we reach the waking state. Here we try to transform this private experience into a public mode. This requires a further unfolding of the information contained in the images and the translation of this information into a public medium of exchange, namely language. Here is where we get into trouble because the information goes beyond what can be conveyed in a discursive mode. Much of the information is more readily felt than described. Moreover, the engagement with the information at a feeling level is an experiment in growth. That black hole contains within it our personal expanding universe and we do both ourselves and the universe an injustice when we try to reduce it to a play of instincts.

Comments by the distinguished physicist David Bohm have provided me with a language fitting to this process. I am referring to his concept of the successive transformations that go on between an implicate or hidden order and an explicate or known order of reality. What is implicate at one stage becomes explicate in the next stage through a process of unfolding, and what is explicate at this stage becomes implicate for the next stage.

If we use dreams simply as illustrative of a broader range of phenomena, unattended to or inadequately attended to by the present focus of scientific inquiry, the four general features of these phenomena emerge:

1.   They are more readily appreciated than interpreted. Psychiatrists should have courses in dream appreciation rather than dream interpretation.

2.   They share with all aesthetic experiences the quality of transcending space and time.

3.   Their specific domain is the connective tissue between people, the underlying matrix of human existence, the sense of contact or contactlessness between people.

4.   They are all in one way or another the creative embodiment of unpremeditated responses to novelty. Dreams provide us with perhaps our most familiar experience with this in the way our dreams rearrange appropriate, socially derived images to express subjective events.

What is the agency that provides this unending source of unerringly apt visual metaphors? I don't think we honestly know the answer to this question, but I do know how easy it is to gloss over our ignorance by attributing the whole works to some reified, internal demon, variously known as Primary Process, our Unconscious, or simply, our Id.

Perhaps a prior question would be, what is the nature of the process involved in the selection and organization of the visual images with which we build the content of our dream consciousness?

If we look at the process simply, it is one without an allegiance to any particular metapsychological theory. We seem to be involved in a rather intriguing process. We seem able to bring together a selected array of bits and pieces of our past history and then to rearrange these data in a way that bears no relationship to their original time-space frame of reference, but which enables them rather precisely, dramatically and effectively to express the particular interplay of feelings mobilized by a current unresolved life situation.

We cannot understand the level and range of creativity displayed in this manner as having its source in the individual alone. It has to be understood as a function of the individual and society. The dream comes about because, in the interest of reaching out toward this sense of unity, each of us has tuned our psyche to an exquisitely sensitive pitch with a capacity to link past and present discord in our lives and to register every possible feeling from passion to prejudice. The world endlessly nourishes and replenishes our creative juices, although for some of us they gain expression only at night, and for all of us they are far more discerningly honest at night.

Dreams and social reality

Social reality makes a significant contribution to our dreams. It provides us with the very special kinds of building blocks it takes to capture and express one or another aspect of our subjective life. When you stop to think about it, it takes a rather high level of creative and organizational ability to tap our own internal computer for the appropriate bits with which to solve the puzzle and then to rearrange them in a way that makes sense as a kind of emotional template, highlighting a problematic aspect of our immediate experience.

Having gone this far, we are almost forced to admit that the powers displayed by our dreaming selves far exceed the scope of our waking faculties. The comparison is, of course, unfair, since each is supreme in its own domain. One is not better than the other; each is a powerful way of grasping different aspects of our existence.

Our problem is that we have paid more attention to the one than to the other. This view of our dream suggests that we are capable of looking quite deeply into the face of reality and of seeing mirrored in that face the most subtle and poignant features of our constant struggle to transcend our own personal, limited, self-contained, autonomous self so as to better be able to connect with and be part of a larger unity.

Someone once remarked, our eyes may be regarded as the means nature created in order to see itself. Analogously, our dreams may be viewed as instruments that can enable a given social order to see itself, along with its distortions, as reflected unconsciously in one of its own creations. We have in our hands a tool for both personal and social transformation.

The information available to us in our dreams, if identified and worked with, provides the self with enormously powerful tools with which to effect both personal change and social change. Any system, including a given personality system, becomes more than it conceives itself to be when these connecting channels to a larger reality are exposed through working with dreams.