Mar 9 2011

Have You Ever Been Killed in A Dream?

In the murky netherworld of sleep, you may find yourself falling to an inexplicable demise, shot by a stranger, strangled, hit by a car, suffocated, knifed, blown to pieces, beheaded, disemboweled or otherwise disembodied; in other words, you may dream that you die. So what does it mean?

Despite the urban legend turned into Hollywood myth that if you die in your dream you will die in real life, death in dreams is a fairly common phenomena and it doesn’t always portend negative omens.  Practitioners of dream interpretation, ranging from Freud and Jung to more recent do-it-yourself gurus, indicate that waking from a dream in which you have died is the usual outcome; in fact, one hundred percent of those who have reported dying in their dreams  also woke up to find themselves among the living.

To understand what dying in your dream means, however, is a matter of dream interpretation, not of popular legend or cinematic mythology.  The answer to the question, however, may depend on who is doing the dream interpretation.

Early psychoanalytic thought beginning with Freud was revolutionary in its symbolic use of dream interpretation in understanding the psychology of the human person. For Freud, death in dreams was a direct route to understanding the sexual impetus that for him subsides in the unconscious, where it is repressed during waking hours.  So for Freud, dying in your own dream might be a sign that one is disgusted with oneself, or of shame for some act one has committed. He thought that usually death in dreams is derived from the natural desire that boys have to murder their fathers, and take their places beside their mothers, a desire strongly repressed in adult life.

Jung, on the other hand, had a more complex theory of dream interpretation that was not nearly so dependent upon Freud’s preoccupation with sexual desire.  Jung saw his own death in his dreams on one occasion to be representative of the shadow self, the ego, which had to be killed before he would ever truly reach a point of authentic self-awareness.

The art of dream interpretation, sprouting from early psychoanalysis, has lately taken a back stage to more prominent methods of therapy and self-discovery. There remains, however, some use of dream interpretation in psychoanalysis, but it is especially prominent among those who follow new age teaching, shamanic experiences, claims by psychics or practitioners of the occult, or among those who follow a drug-induced method for seeking meaningful experiences. Of these, a very popular dream interpretation of the death of oneself is the idea that it signifies an impending change. According to this popular view, the person who dreams of his own death is expressing an awareness of a new stage of development, or an impending, important change about to take place in his life.

Some who are faced with terminal illness have also reported having very pleasant and comforting dreams of their own death, which may be the psyche’s way of preparing the individual for the inevitability of that permanent change.

Mar 2 2011

The Flexible Mind

Have you ever noticed how easy it is for the mind to dwell on negative thoughts, or how hard it is for the mind to be grateful? Thoughts tend to enter the mind unbidden and to control one’s mood, and therefore one’s behavior. Anyone who has ever suffered from insomnia, or who struggles with depression, or who has to fight various addictions, knows the difficulty of controlling the influence of thoughts that enter the mind, and that in some cases seem to exert control over the whole person.

For a long time scientists, including cognitive behaviorists and others, have believed that the mind is controlled by external circumstances, or the environment.  The idea is that the way you were raised more or less totally shapes the way you think. What is happening around you controls what happens in the mind. Others assert that the mind creates various thoughts and emotions completely based on chemical processes that occur in certain sections of the brain.

More recent theories, however, suggest that the mind and the brain are far more flexible than anyone had imagined.  While both environment and genetic or chemical processes certainly are involved in the way the mind operates, or the way the brain functions, it may be that the brain is more than the passive object in the way the mind actually works. Rather than understanding the way we experience life through the mind as a direct result of what is happening in the brain, recent discoveries have shown that it is possible that the mind can influence the way the brain itself is hardwired.

In the late 1990s a scientist at Princeton named Elizabeth Gould found that the brain is more malleable than previously thought, and that new neurons and new connections could be created through learning new behaviors. In other words, rather than the mind influencing the way we act (for instance, negative thoughts creating foul moods and bad behaviors), actions could also influence the connections the brain makes, and therefore the way the mind thinks.

Another scientist named Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin built upon this discovery and found that changing the way one thinks can rewire the way the brain works. In other words, the traditional assumptions had it wrong: the brain does not, through genetics or chemical processes, have absolute control over the mind and therefore over the way we think and feel, but the mind can actually change the way the brain is wired, so that we can be less reactive to intrusive thoughts and more stable in the way we live and behave.

One of the primary methods Davidson used in his inquiry into the way the mind and brain function together was through mindfulness meditation. He discovered that the monks of the Dalai Lama generated far more gamma waves than other, average, healthy people. Those who practice meditation tend to use the mind to physically change the hardwiring in the brain in such a way that far more positive thoughts and emotions are generated than negative ones.  The implications are extraordinary. Not only is there a potential for naturally overcoming intrusive thoughts, which sometimes result in mental disorders, but also for healing Alzheimer disease and other afflictions that are rooted in brain functions.