Lately I have been thinking about night music, dreams, what Freud and Jung got right, neuroplasticity and positive psychology. Huh? And this column is supposed to be six paragraphs? Yup. I promise.
Night MusicThis week of my life has been spent at the beach. It happens to be beautiful Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, but it could be any beach, anywhere. I am stunned all over again by how deeply soothing the sound of ocean surf is. At night, with a layer of cricket music thrumming on top of the drumbeat laid down by waves on sand, the process of drifting off to sleep is profoundly pleasurable. Is this just because I’m a country girl at heart and nature sounds – any nature sounds, from birdsong to river currents on rocks, to the whisper or howl of wind through forest or canyon – always make me happy? Or is it something much more universal?
Given the deep sense of well-being many of us experience in natural surroundings, I want to encourage us to begin to connect the dots between our mental health and thriving natural environments, delving into ecopsychology and pro-environmental behaviors. I fully expect that within the next few years, ecopsychology and positive psychology will become intertwined. Right now, I’m just suggesting that we at least have a few dates and get to know each other better. Meanwhile, tonight, my last night at Rehoboth, I look forward to the crickets, who seem to chirp rhythmically, “all is well, all is well,” and the waves, which repeat endlessly, “Now. Now. Now.”
Last night, I actually cried with happiness while reading about someone else’s healing dream. The language of dreams often speaks with a directness similar to the language of touch, ritual, symbol, art, or nature, expressing a new level of integration between our emotions and cognitions. In the dream described by psychiatrist Norman Doidge, M.D., in The Brain That Changes Itself., a 62-year old man who had been suffering from severe depression all his life believes that “there is a spring thaw.” After four years of psychotherapy, the man had begun to change the recurring dream which had haunted him all his life, a dream in which he was looking for something… perhaps a lost toy. The man’s mother had died when he was 26 months old, and he had lost the rest of his family as well when his father, unable to cope, had sent him to relatives 1000 miles away. Remote and unable to love, his recurring depressions had left him paralyzed at times. During therapy, he had gradually come to terms with, and grieved for the first time, the loss of his mother. Here is his new dream:
I go to visit an old house. I don’t know whose it is, yet it’s mine. I am searching for something—not toys now, but adult possessions. There is a spring thaw, the end of winter. I enter the house, and it is the house where I was born. I had thought the house was empty, but my ex-wife—whom I felt was like a good mother to me—appeared from the back room, which was flooding. She welcomed me and was pleased to see me, and I felt elation. (pp. 235-236)
To more fully understand the context of this dream, you would have to read the book, or at least that chapter. Doidge’s research, practice, and writing focuses on neuroplasticity. Every thought we think, every feeling we feel, and every action we take actually helps to shape and re-shape the physical structure of our brains, the birth and death of new synaptic connections and neural pathways. Thus the journey of a man back to the original joy of actually having had a mother for the first two years of his life, and through the primitive grief over her death, enabled him to change the most apparently fundamental aspect of his character: his remoteness. In this dream, the thaw came, and not just a thaw but a flood! The elation he felt in the dream was later enacted in real life, as the next year, at the age of 62, he fell in love for the first time in his life.
Both Freud and Jung understood deeply the relationship of what we now call neuroplasticity to the nocturnal language of dreams. According to Doidge, some dreams “show our brains in the process of plastic change, altering hitherto buried, emotionally meaningful memories” (p. 238). However, what exactly explains what enabled the remote, depressed, unloving man to go beyond resolving his old grief and actually experience a spring thaw, a flood, an emotional connection, even elation, in his dream? Jung claimed that “the collective unconscious is common to all; it is the foundation of what the ancients called the ‘sympathy of all things.’ ” (p. 138).
While this language may sound romantic to us now, I believe that the experience of positive affect, including the strong positive “flooding” of joy and love, is available to even those who may have felt that life has passed them by, as Doidge’s patient illustrates. Accessing this first through the unconscious, in a dream, enabled the enactment of love later on in real life. Finally, it is not surprising that the language of joy was expressed partly through nature images. A spring thaw is a powerful symbol of the resurgence of love. Perhaps, if we positive psychology practitioners encourage that old “sympathy of all things” – or biophilia – more actively in ourselves and in our clients, we may find results beyond our dreams.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself..99 New York: Penguin Books.
Jung, C. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Jaffe, A., Ed. Winston, R., and Winston, C., trans. New York: Random House, Inc.
Sunset at Rehoboth beach courtesy of Rob Pongsajapan