Dreams: The Telling Tells More Than The Contents

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How we describe our dreams can be more important than what they contain. Host Rachel Martin talks with Stephen Grosz, a practicing psychoanalyst and the author of The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. Grosz uses dreams to better understand his patients' motivations and feelings.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So like many people, Billy Crystal can't sleep. And if you're not sleeping you're not dreaming, which could also be problematic.

Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz says dreams are crucial.

DR. STEPHEN GROSZ: They seem to be a part of what it is to be human, and something which has been a part of human life for as long as we know.

MARTIN: In his book, "The Examined Life," Grosz writes about how dreams often reveal things about his patients that they hide even from themselves.

GROSZ: I think what's important about them is they're like a complete production from that patient. They're the scriptwriter, the director, the producer, they are the actors. They do the music, they do everything about it. It's something that comes from them. And even the way they tell the dream will reveal something about them.

MARTIN: So, how do you use dreams and dreaming when you're treating your patients?

GROSZ: They can be used in many different ways. I mean, the thing which I was just pointing to there is we pay more attention, for example, now to the way a dream might be told. In my book, I tell a story about a patient who's actually quite boring and realizes that there's something where he's alienating people. Something's wrong. In his sessions with me he would take the kind of smallest wisp of a dream but spit it out for 30, 40, 50 minutes. I mean, he'd fill the hour. He knew intuitively that an analyst wouldn't interrupt him.

MARTIN: Was he making up the dream as he told it or was he...

GROSZ: No, it wasn't. No, it wouldn't be that he was making it up. He might just take a detail of it. But then he'd say, oh, the room was like this, but, you know, that kind of room, and then he'd go off at a certain tangle. And just when I'd be about to speak, he'd say but maybe there was another part to the dream, I'm not really sure. And that was really interesting because what it meant was he was taking me into a place which wasn't in the present. Sometimes it would be the dream, sometimes it'd be a memory from the past. But this was a man who really couldn't let the present matter. And this was part of the problem he was having outside of the consulting room and part of his suffering.

MARTIN: I wonder if you have a favorite dream. And I know that that is a general word, but, I mean, that can be a dream that elicits a certain sensation for you or something that is just familiar, that when it comes back to you is comforting in some way.

GROSZ: That's a good question. I've never thought of that. I sort of - I don't think I do have a favorite dream. I sort of look forward to remembering dreams. It's sometimes a pleasure in a dream waking up remembering someone you love who's died.

MARTIN: Is there someone in your life that that is the case for? Is there someone you remember in dreams?

GROSZ: Oh, my mom died many years ago and it's sort of a pleasure when I dream about her. Certainly my grandparents, who were wonderful people. Sometimes it's not just the seeing even, but there's the experience in the dream where you'll smell or the feel or you'll even see things, like the, you know, particular detail of the skin or the eyes of someone you've loved.

MARTIN: There is kind of a trend, I guess we can call it, of keeping a dream diary, to wake up and if you remember a dream to write it down. Is that useful?

GROSZ: I think everyone's different. I think people are unique. But it can be a wonderful thing to do. So many people - I think they're disposition towards their internal life or their dreaming life is just not important. You know, so many of us, I think, wake up first thing in the morning and we immediately think, oh, I've got to do this today, I've got to, yes, there's this. And we're just so filled with rushing onto the next thing that we don't pause and give much time to our internal world, our feelings, our thoughts, or nighttime thoughts. So, writing a dream diary can be, I would think, a useful thing. You can start a process of valuing our own feelings and thoughts and memories that can arise in a dream.

MARTIN: Stephen Grosz is a practicing psychoanalyst. He is also author of "The Examined Life: How We Find and Lose Ourselves." He joined us from the BBC in London. Thank you so much for talking with us.

GROSZ: Well, thank you so much, Rachel. It's been a pleasure.

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MARTIN: Coming up later in the hour, why all the unanswered questions surrounding sleep research eventually forced NPR science correspondent Joe Palca to throw up his hands.

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MARTIN: And you are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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