Electric Dreams

Interview with Dream and Nightmare Authority, 
Ernest Hartmann, M.D.

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1998 Nov). Interview with Dream and Nightmare Authority, Ernest Hartmann, M.D.  Electric Dreams 6(7). Retrieved September 1, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Date: Thu, 12 Nov 1998 18:09:37 EST
Interview by Richard Wilkerson

Ernest Hartmann, M. D., is a pioneer and world renowned authority on sleep and dreaming. He has published eight books and 250 papers. He is currently Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesly Hospital in Massachusetts. A practicing psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and sleep-medicine specialist in the Boston area, his research and clinical work span over 30 years. Among his books, The Biology of Dreaming, The Functions of Sleep, the Nightmare and Boundaries of the Mind are considered classics in the field and have been praised in the New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World and the Lost Angels Times Book Review among others. He has served as President of the Association for the Study of Dreams and was the first Editor-in-Chief of the professional journal Dreaming. Thanks to his father Heinz Hartmann, one of Freud's best know students, Dr. Hartmann actually met Sigmund Freud. However as Hartmann says, "Since he was eighty and I was two, it was not the a great meeting of minds." He resides in Newton, Massachusetts.

Dr Hartmann has been influential in the dreamwork community by providing a bridge between clinical and non-clinical practices. The Association for the Study of Dreams, one Hartmann's favorite organizations, provides a forum for scientist and clinicians to meet with pioneering researchers from grassroots and non-clinical settings. In his recent book, Dreams and Nightmares: The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams, Hartmann provides views and images that may turn out to be the unified field theory in dreams and dreaming.

In a recent online interview with Dr. Hartmann, we discussed many of the issues in his book that are relevant to all those interested in the deepest meaning of dreams and dreaming.

Richard Catlett Wilkerson [RCW]: Hi Ernest and thank you for joining in this electronic interview and sharing your time with us.

Ernest Hartmann, M.D. [EH]: Hi Richard. Glad to be here.

[RCW]: You have published hundreds of articles and written so many books on sleep and dreams over the years, including classics on biology and nightmares and advanced theories on personality. Why another book?

EH: Well, this is not just "another book". My articles have usually been on very specific subjects -- often reports on a study. My books have appeared when I thought I had an answer to something important. For instance my early book "The Functions of Sleep" proposed exactly what it says: a new theory on what sleep does for us". MY book "The Nightmare" was chiefly a detailed answer to "Who has Nightmares, and when-"

The book just published "Dreams and Nightmares... The New Theory" is my overall attempt to make sense of the nature and function of dreams. It's a book for everyone interested in dreams .... it's not written especially for psychologists or psychiatrists. In fact I think non-professional lovers of dreams will find it useful and will find themselves agreeing with most of it. My clinical work as well as research work leads me to disagree strongly with the "dreams-are-random-products" biologists, and also to disagree with much of Freud. However the view I come up with is compatible with what most people who love dreams believe anyway. In a few words: Dreams make connections in the nets of our minds more broadly than does waking thought. Not randomly, however, but guided by the emotion or emotional concern of the dreamer. Dreams "contextualize" emotion. They do this in the form of "explanatory metaphor". And the process is functional (useful) in several ways.

[RCW]: Everyone I have talked to who has read your book finds it very accessible. This is especially nice as you tackle some of the more difficult issues in neural theory, dream science and psychoanalytic thought. What made you decide to write about these topics this way?

[EH]: Well, I wrote about dreaming the way it makes sense to me. I'm very happy that people find it accessible. Though I write about things like "nets of the mind", I don't try to get into a mathematical treatment of nets -- in fact there's no math at all in the book. I do it in a very rough "common- sense" way, because I believe that's all we have at present ( or maybe I mean "that's all I can do"; I'm waiting for someone mathematically inclined to tell me just how it might be stated in math terms. Maybe in the future.)

[editors note: see Dreams and Meaning in Science for more on Neural Nets]

I do discuss psychoanalysis, or at least Freud's main views on dreams, but I think I do it in very simple understandable terms.

Overall I have a belief that anything important can be stated simply. I really want readers to understand just what I mean, and either agree with me or disagree. In fact disagreements are especially important. I hope readers who feel I'm just plain wrong on some issue will let me know!

[RCW]: You have shown in your book that cases of trauma and stress dreams further many of the notions of the New Theory by providing strong evidence on how key images contextualize emotion. What kind of reaction do you expect from those who (read your book and) feel that dreams are meaningless or primarily hiding latent thoughts?

EH: I don't know, but I'd really be curious. Take my Paradigm dream. Someone who has just been through a fire, or some other terrible event dreams "I was overwhelmed by a tidal wave". This person is picturing his/her emotional state. This cannot possible be called random. And I don't think there's a wish being fulfilled ( even after lengthy free associations in many persons.)

[RCW]: The New Theory you talk about has been developing for sometime among a large group of researchers. Yet people still seem to entertain the same old notions about dreams. Why do you feel the culture been so resistant to accepting a new view of dreams and dreaming?

[EH]: I think this view ( which I call "The Contemporary Theory" in the book; it's not just my theory) will catch on. It has already caught on, in one form or another, among the dreamloving, or dreamworking community.

[RCW]: You have a very alchemical approach to dreaming, dreamwork and therapy. (Metaphorically). The alchemists often talked about lead as naturally turning to gold, given enough time. By consciously entering into the transformation, the process is quickened. You have mentioned that dreams are already doing what they need to be doing, (making connections, contextualizing emotion) and through cooperation and attention to this we can have a very fulfilling experience and understanding of them. What's the highest value you feel dreams and dream studies will be able to achieve?

EH: I like the say you put that. I hadn't thought of "alchemical", but I can see it. However, I'm worried that some will misinterpret your question, since Alchemy has an aura of magic and weird-wonderful-wizards about it. I think of dreaming as simply allowing us to make connections a little better,... climb your dreamtree and see a little farther. Sometimes this leads to new insights, or discoveries, new art or new religions. Sometimes not. The highest values achievable will be whatever your highest value IS.

[RCW]: I'm guessing that a notion that dreamworkers will often draw on from the New Theory, is working with emotion and how it is contexualized in the central image. You mentioned several people working in this area already in both clinical and personal exploration groups, such as the Gestalt work, as well as Bosnak, Gendlin and Ullman's work, among others. Do you have your own special approach for locating and working with the central image?

[EH]: Not really. I'm perfectly willing to use Amplification, Free Association, whatever seems to work for a particular situation. I do feel, however, that when time is limited (as it usually is) it makes most sense to start with the central or most powerful image of the dream.

[RCW]: You mention a possible limit in the use of central images. That is Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome which you characterize as trauma where the person has so emotionally withdrawn that no new useful connections are being made in dreams or therapy. Do you foresee these PTSD sufferers ever being helped by dreamwork?

[EH]: Yes. But it's a complicated Q. They will usually need some other form of treatment first, or in addition.

[RCW]: This ability to make connections in a safe place is compared with psychotherapy. Do you see therapists picking up more of a cooperative approach with dreamwork? I'm thinking here again of therapies that might follow your suggestion in bringing out the central image and interweave these concerns with waking life.

[EH]: Yes. Yes . Yes. I see dreaming itself as very like psychotherapy ( see chapter 8). Both are "making connections in a safe place". This occurs, I believe even when dreams are not remembered. When they are remembered, the dreamer has a chance to make further connections, and if s/he's in therapy, perhaps even more. For therapists I think it is very useful to think, somewhat humbly, of helping the dreamer make further connections, rather than to insist on finding THE WISH underlying the dream, or an Archetype or whatever.

[RCW]: One of the pieces of research & theory you have been involved with that is followed widely in the dream movement has been the thick vs thin boundary personality type. My understanding of this is that these are either natural or early learned styles that produce, as you say, dream people and thought people. The thought people maintain thick boundaries between contexts, are very focused and can shut dreaming memory out altogether. Dream people have thin boundaries, are more sensitive, have a wider, softer focus and tend to recall dreams very easily, sometimes too easily in the case of nightmares. Where do you see this notions being applied most effectively?

[EH]: You put it very well. I believe the "trait" or "personality" continuum running from very thick to very thin boundaries, is perhaps the same continuum as the "state" continuum running from focused waking to dreaming. This needs to be explored in terms of functioning of the mind
and brain. Where it will lead, I'm not sure.

[RCW]: The Dream Movement seems to have contributions from many fields, but has never really had a unifying image. Do you see the notion of dreams contextualizing emotions as creating such an image?

[EH]: Could be. I'd like to think so, anyway. For those who think of dreams made up of bits and pieces -- thoughts, images, emotions etc, all mixed up or all playing equal roles -- then there's no unifying image. But if you believe, as I do, that the basic stuff or substance of the dream is IMAGERY, and the basic underlying force pushing or guiding the imagery is EMOTION, then I hope my view of the imagery contextualizing ( providing a picture- context for) the emotion makes unifying sense!

[RCW]: You mention that despite you differences with Freud, he has been a large influence on your dream views, both in your professional more personal connections with the psychoanalytic movement. Is the Interpretation of Dreams you favorite dream book?

[EH]: I did meet Freud (when he as 80 and I was 2) so I'm prejudiced. I don't know about "favorite" but it's a book that has had so much to do with shaping the 20th century, I believe everyone -- certainly everyone interested in dreams-- should read it.

[RCW]: I am told one of the worst interview questions to ask an author is what they plan to write next, but the temptation is too much. What does the dream movement have to look forward to with new Ernest Hartmann projects?

[EH]: Wish I knew! It depends on the reaction to the present book and present projects.

[RCW]: Ernest, again thank you very much for taking the time out from you work to talk about these new and exciting developments in dreams and dreaming. I'm hoping our many readers will be able to get a hold of you book and read more about your work and thought.

[EH]: Thank you, Richard. Pleasant dreams!

END Thu, 12 Nov 1998 18:09:37 EST

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