Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nightmares: The Science and Solution of Those Frightening Visions during Sleep (Brain, Behavior, and Evolution) Nightmares: The Science and Solution of Those Frightening Visions during Sleep

51bqu-iizol_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_Searching for a new book to read, I stumbled upon a review by a M. E. Tappan on that I thought was very informative about this book.  Apparently in the book the writer talks about the possible conflict between the subconscious and the conscious causing what we know as the sleep paralysis and Nightmare effects. This is a theory that R and I worked on for a while but never perused as we were trying to learn more about the experience itself before we made more hypotheses about the disorder.

Here is what M. E. Tappan had to say abou tthe book:

The author of this book concludes that a nightmare is: a horrific or disturbing vision of a physiological processes, a meaningless occurrence (in any practical sense of emotional or self understanding), a gender magnet for the opposite sex (at least to our pre-modern ancestors), a schizoid event, a lethal threat to the weak heart, a non-metaphorical construct, a story-line for the ancient shaman, and a real downer.

The author theorizes that nightmares persist in human experience as a vestige of ancestral human pre-history when natural selection gave the advantage to those who gained social prominence, prestige and respect by compellingly reporting their night-time dream struggles and battles. The effect of reporting these nightmarish dreams in the culture of our "pre modern" ancestors, McNamara states, not only acted to elevate social status, but served to funnel these creative individuals (those with a frequent history of nightmares) into spiritual (shamanic) and healing "professions." According to the author, the prestige gained increased the likelihood of survival and "positive selection" within tribal communities. McNamara also theorizes that the stories of nightmares themselves, if believed, could have led to increased vigilance and thus improved chances of survival in a hostile world.

McNamara contends that the figure of a dreamed "supernatural monster" or demon who wants to possess or take over the dreamer's sense of self is central to the understanding of nightmares. Because the dreamer knows nothing about the inner psychic workings of his or her own created nightmare-demon (other than that it intends to do harm), and because McNamara believes that the knowing mind of the nightmare sufferer cannot generate an unknown construct, he reasons that the nightmarish image must come from some other place independent from the dreamer's will or traditional view of a single mind. That other place, he postulates, is from the human genome itself and represents the struggle between two opposing physiological forces to attain homeostasis or balance. The conflicted forces in the case of nightmares, McNamara reasons, are opposing sleep-state inhibitory and excitatory processes that control the movement in and out of REM sleep.

We are thus, according to McNamara, of more than one mind; a mind of maternal origin moving us out of REM sleep, and another of paternal origin moving us into REM sleep. He likens this dual-mind or multi-mind concept especially to dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder. And McNamara reports research that describes models of the "...self as comprised of at least two major and distinct subpersonalities or agents with distinct interests that compete for control over the individual's attentional resources and decision-making capacities." McNamara sees this theory of "self" as model for the nightmare: a visual representation of the forces of biology battling for the mind of the dreamer.

Though it could be argued that McNamara views the nightmare (especially those dealing with demonic possession) as a metaphor for biological competition within the human organism (the struggle of one physiological process over another for example), he does not view nightmares as metaphorical. "Unlike dreams," McNamara writes, "nightmares are not particularly metaphorical." Metaphors provide ways that abstract concepts can be understood by likening them to understood concrete terms. But McNamara states that the abstract is not being confronted in nightmares, "Instead," he writes, "the nightmare deals with primal emotional energies and unadorned and terrifying imagery."

According to McNamara, nightmares are not only terrifying, but dangerous. He cites his own research indicating that the biology of nightmares, or the dreams occurring during REM dreaming, have negative and even injurious effects on health. McNamara cites other studies too for example, showing a correlation between the time of cardiac arrest and the late morning hours coincident with the final REM period of sleep when nightmares are likely to occur. Of course, heart failure occurs often too during strenuous exercise and sex. And few scientists devote books as warning to their dangers.

Left unexplored in the book are more positive and historical views of nightmares representing a rich history of social and scientific inquiry. We may, for example, see ourselves as comprised of many different parts, or many different manifestations, without questioning whether we are insane or suffer from multiple personality disorder. We may entertain a more complete image of a "self" that does not pathologize behavioral changes (for better or worse) that occur with the influence of time, experience, history and the forces that impact our life.

Dreams (of the benign or frightening sort) have held a particularly important function in world cultures as an always emerging form of knowing. They have been seen as indicative of human reality... if not waking reality, than at least the unconscious reality that underpins our conscious awareness.

We are emotional creatures, even whimsical, willing and able to change as conditions warrant or dictate. Push us into a corner and we can become murderous. Sexism, racism, ageism and classism can make us killers of spirit. Mistaken beliefs can thwart our most authentic selves. Unless we recognize that we can do harm to ourselves and others through our own personal influence and actions, and that the proclivity to do harm does not simply reside in others but resides in us, we will be dumb and blind to the forces that terrorize us in our sleeping visions. If we externalize these frightening visions, we may also miss the symbolic representation of the ruthless spirit we need in ourselves to successfully expunge any life-long beliefs that keep us from mental health and wholeness.

There is danger in dismissing the rich tapestry of information available in our nigh-time dream journeys. The long-time dream analyst Jeremy Taylor says it best. Paying attention to threat, he states, whether that threat shows up in dreams or in waking life, is a survival issue. The nightmare tells us to wake up! Pay attention! Whatever is given symbolic shape in a dream is important to look at. There is always something elegant and meaningful in the nightmare. My own experience in shamanic cultures makes me certain that shamans understood this. Their compass is the psyche, not simply their own, but the psyche of the community of which they belong. They are masters of deriving meaning from the natural world, especially those aspects hidden from the unintuitive. Community members go to the shaman not to be dazzled by the shaman's dream, but to explore their own. And to ultimately face what is feared.

To take the path of dreams, we must take their images seriously, sojourn with them (at a distance if we must), suffer them and travel more deeply into their reality.

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