Electric Dreams

Dangerous Dreams:
 The Risks of Online Dream Sharing

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

(Electric Dreams)  (Article Index)  (Search for Topic)  (View Article Options)

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1996 July). Dangerous Dreams: The Risks of Online Dream Sharing. Electric Dreams 3(6). Retrieved from Electric Dreams July 27, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

I was confronted at the ASD XIII conference with the notion that dreams are too dangerous to be shared on the net. The general idea was that there is something about dreams which makes us so vulnerable, so helpless, that in the wrong hands serious psychological damage may occur.

I started to dismiss this as the speculation of those not familiar with online dream sharing. I receive a lot of e-mail from psychologists & others who don't like the _idea_ of dream sharing online - but haven't actually tried it themselves. Generally these concerns dissipate upon a trial experience. A example of this is the account by Jeremy Taylor which he made public in DreamNetwork Journal 15(1) as well as Electric Dreams 3(3). I'll also have more to say later about why this occurs and how dream sharing on the Net might draw on the experience of face-to-face group sharing experience, yet in the final analysis constitutes a fundamentally different environment and ecology.

But wait a minute. One of the self assigned tasks in my life is to bring our culture into a relationship with dreaming that moves in a different direction than, for example, telling our children upon awakening, "Oh forget it, it was just a dream". Simply dismissing the arguments about the potency of dreams would be counter-productive.

Now to be fair, the main arguments made were about the assumption of authority, the potential damage of telling other people what their dreams mean rather than letting them come to find this meaning with their own inner resources.

Dangerous material and dangerous uses of the material are not the same, but do come together, just as with the issue of gun control and substance abuse.

But be it danger of the dream material itself or the uses of the material, there are some implicit assumptions I would like to explore.

A question. Would an interpretation of a short story by O'Henry draw the same concern, and if not, why? If I were to tell O'Henry what I thought his story means, wouldn't he simply take it or leave it like all other literary criticisms? Even if O'Henry was personally offended by my interpretation, would the story itself be seen as dangerous? Probably not, and those who see the dream text as dangerous would most likely say that we are not assuming to be authorities over the life of O'Henry and tell him how to lead it according to the story he wrote. Part of the danger lies in the dream material itself, I'm told, but the other lies in the approach to the dream material.

But there are also similarities and similar risks of exposure in putting out any text, be it a dream story or a short story.

I take a risk when I put my creation out to be judged and critiqued and analyzed in the public sphere. If we were talking about a short story, the risk might have something to do with my self-image and self-esteem. Was this story as good as my last story, do people hate my writing style, maybe I really am a bad writer. Part of this has to do with the responsibility felt by the writer, the aspirations and hopes of what public acceptance might entail, and the risks associated with self-revelation, what I might be letting people know about myself, my identity. This identity and self-esteem that might be fragile and suffer humiliation, embarrassment, chastisement, abandonment, isolation and scapegoating if the public hated or criticized my work.

Given all of these risks, we still continue to write and put our writings out publicly to be interpreted, even though we know that our intentions will often be misunderstood. As a matter of fact, it is now part of the Post-modern aesthetic to release the text once it is written. That is to say, that we no longer demand that the meaning of the text be the one the author intended. Each reader may find his or her own relationship with the text and it will be as valid as any other. Whether the subjective interpretation is relevant to the culture at the time or not is another matter.

Its been my feeling for sometime that dream texts are somewhat similar. Certainly the technique of taking the dream "as if it were your own" moves in this direction. In this technique we approach a dream as if it were our story, not the dreamers, and then talk about the ways it is relevant to us, how the imagery moves us, how we give it meaning and how it returns to us its significance. The author of the dream is decentered. Each person in the participating group *has* the dream. This de-centralization of the ego is furthered in the work of James Hillman, a archetypalist who would like to see the dream as having *nothing* to do with the dreamer. That the dream gains it power from just that fact, that it is centered around archetypal rather than individual forces.

Are dream texts riskier and more dangerous than say, a short story we write? I think the answer lies in the direction of "For those who have ears, sound can be painful". But let me unpack this quote by looking a century long fantasy that our culture has purchased.

During the last days of the 19th Century, Freud was putting the final touches on his favorite book _The Interpretation of Dreams_. This book was written in the middle of a cultural horizon that was participating in the idea that with just a little more knowledge and reason, the whole universe could be rationally understood. Freud's ideas on the role of the irrational not only shocked his Victorian Peers, but eventually swayed them to acceptance. But it was a special kind of acceptance. This was pre-chaos theory days. The irrational was accepted, but only as the province of psychology. The Natural World was still safe and would eventually be fully understood by the rational mind.

And so dreams became aligned with the irrational and, this is my point, aligned with psychology. (There is also a hidden ethic in Christianity about the natural and the irrational being the same, but that's another topic).

What Hillman and other are saying is that psyche is larger than psychology - and so too are dreams. Yes, there are innumerable debts and long traditions and a whole host of clinical practices that involve dreams, but they are not only the province of psychology.

Since 1953 and the first REM experiments, the scientific community has know this. Even around Freud's time there were a host of natural scientists observing and studying dreams outside their clinical uses. Many famous writers have drawn upon dreams not for psychological insight, but for inspiration in writing. Artists have always know the value of dreams for inspiration. The Surrealist took dreams beyond the psychological and aesthetic into the political, showing how dreams can be used to move us past repressive habits into the marvelous. Lucid dreamers and extraordinary dreamers, group dreamers and dream flyers enjoy dreams for the sake of the experience itself.

None of this is meant as evidence that the dream is or isn't dangerous. It is a statement saying that the dream is not owned by psychology and psychologists, nor by clinicians or the board of behavioral sciences.

I haven't yet been able to understand the arguments that dreams in and of themselves are simply too psychologically toxic, too revealing, to apt to cause major psychological damage in and of themselves. The damage theory seems to come more from how we approach dreams, what people think and feel they are doing when they share them with a qualified or unqualified individual or group.

I will guess that those who are concerned about the danger of the dream are more concerned about people coming to share dreams and expecting some kind of psychotherapeutic effect or environment. The explanation of the danger here will vary according to the psychological perspective. From the perspective of the innocent dreamer, the problem is that they have *already* given over the function of the creation of meaning and value to a supposed authority. In a sense, we are all kind of in this position with dreams as we feel any need to interpret them at all. I don't feel the need to interpret my going to work in the morning (well, most mornings) but there is a call I have imposed upon myself with dreams.

Is this more dangerous than simply going along with the rest of my culture and society and saying, "Well, it was just dream" and forgetting it? I suppose it is - in that my path now includes the dream text and my explorations of it. Going through it, with it, are then more dangerous than if I had just left well enough alone.

But it hardly justifies the position that dreams and opinions about dream should not be shared. Even if we grant that dreams hold some potential for danger, just what is the actual frequency that we can expect, let's say a borderline, to go off the edge from discussion of the meaning of his or her dream? It seems to me that if the frequency of such incidence is equal to or less than, say, that of a discussion of other parts of one's life, that we are really making the environment way too restrictive and safe for any particular adult population.

There are a few life practices I am not yet willing to hand over to the *exclusive* use of the psychotherapeutic encounter. One is self exploration, another is the investigation of the meaning and value of life, and another is the significance of events in my life, including dreaming. What about the discussion of the meaning and value of your dreams? Do I have to choose a category to make relevant remarks about them? Do I have to say, "Now I'm being spiritual" "Now I'm being psychological", "Now I'm being artistic", "now I'm being humorous?". Granted, the dreamworker has been cross categorical and a problem for a long time. Every major religion began with the core folks being into dreams - and every major religion eventually banned dream interpretation. Why? The current thought on this is that dreams tend to question and play with things, and one of the things they play with & question are structures of repressive authority. I guess the Orthodoxy would say that since there can be no authority on dreams, no one should be allowed to make meaning of them. The Christian church has historically make exceptions for saints.

But I'm moving a little off the track. Let me shift from the exploration of how dangerous dreams and dream interpretation may be in general to the venue specific ecologies of Cyberspace dream sharing.

The Ecology of Cyberspace.

I feel it is pretty clear to those both online and offline that if we were to hold a dream group face-to-face and only allow people to write notes on a bulletin board, it would be a very different group than one where voice and body movements were allowed. Now imagine that everyone in the group had a mask on and the message board was in a room that only one person at a time could enter, at any time during a two week period.

As John Herbert has noted in an unpublished study on the difference between online and offline groups, one of the main differences is the reflective quality of the Online groups and the emotionally pitched quality of the face-to-face groups. This emotional pitch picks up a bit in real time chat, but never quite reaches the face-to-face pressure.

This is not a judgement of one being superior over the other, just a note that it is much more likely for emotional instability to play a factor in face-to-face encounters. (However, Herbert did note that online groups were rated higher in self rating scores of insight gained). The point here is that in cyberspace there is a time factor, a infusion of reflective imagination over reactions. There is time to consider other people's reactions as well.

Another built in factor is the new mix of social and individual space, we are anonymous and alone in a public space.

Fred Olsen, during the ASD XIII DreamWork in Cyberspace Panel told the story of a man who during dreamwork session in a chat room reported that he touched something and began to cry. It was a area of his emotional life he had tried to contact in groups before but felt inhibited. By being both alone in his room, and also being online with a group, he was able to access a realm previous unavailable to him.

The other side of this social anonymity is the continual peer review. Yes, we can say mean things and "get away" with it because no one knows who we are, but that doesn't mean that 5 people won't immediately step in and point out how cruel or inappropriate the remark was. For good or bad, there is always a kind of self-monitoring that occurs online, part of the piece in progress idea.

With Dream interpretation on public channels, this means that someone may interpret your dream in a way that is extremely undermining of everything you value. But it also means that a lot of other people will be there to say that is just exactly what is happening, and model approaches you may have never guessed at or would have never experienced.

Along with this is the ethic of freedom of speech. Yes, we have to allow Neo-Nazi's and other fanatics their say, but this is the price of freedom and most of us still think it is worth it. In a culture where we practice telling our children that "it was just a dream" I prefer to have lots of wild interpretations flying around than repression. This means that to participate in our society, the adult has to been able to handle free speech. To begin saying that there are adult citizens who can't, is a serious theoretical and political statement.

So, is dream sharing more like rock climbing, psychotherapy or literary criticism? Are there approaches to the dream and context of dream sharing that are not safe for most people and need to be mediated beyond the natural mechanisms of the Net? My judgement, that it *is* safe, is still un-proven but gaining experiential evidence. I talked to other dreamworkers at the ASD XIII conference who have been exploring dreamworking online, including John Herbert, Jeremey Taylor, Jayne Gackenbach and Electric Dreams community dreamworkers and have yet to find *one* single case of an unhappy camper. Again, there are many who find the process useless, and don't like the _idea_ of dreamsharing - but not one bad experience has been reported in now what is about the 3rd public year and several pre-public years of online dream sharing. If other adult activities that are deemed dangerous can boast these statistics, I think they would be hardly be called dangerous.

Still, I want to stay open to the potential dangers and encourage those who do feel dream sharing is dangerous online to help us see this, and ways we might avoid harming one another with our often frank and honest assessments of one another's dream stories. As a matter of fact, I we now have a wide variety of venues in which to discuss this. The first is the Electric Dreams E-zine itself. While we hold some editorial discression and power, we are generally open to publishing just about anything that is related to dreams. Electric Dreams also has a Bulletin Board that can be used for this issue and we encourage "Watch Dog Lurkers" on any or all of our dream groups. And now ASD, the Association for the Study of Dreams, is also reviewing this issue and has a public bulletin board to post relevant topics in this area. I would also like to suggest the original alt.dreams as a forum for discussion as well.

Let's say that dream are potentially wonderful, and save the dangerous warnings for a culture that hides away and represses dream discussions.

Richard Wilkerson,