Biological Dream Theory

In his book Dreams and Nightmares, (Pelican 1954) J. A. Hadfield puts forward what he calls a Biological Theory of Dreams. He says the function of dreams is that by reproducing difficult or unsolved life situations or experiences, the dream aids towards a solving or resolution of the problems. He gives the example of a man climbing a cliff who slips fractionally. He then may dream of actually falling and waking terrified. Subsequently the dream recurs, but in each the dreamer tries out a different behaviour, such as clasping for a branch, until he manages to act appropriately to avert the disaster. Hadfield sums up by saying dreams stand in the place of experience. They make us relive areas of anxious or difficult experience. They thus help problem solving. But they not only look back at past behaviour, they act just like thinking in considering future plans and needs.

Adrian Morrison’s findings with animal dreams, (see movements during sleep) opens the possibility that practicing and developing skills and strategies may be the function dreams performed in early animals. They may enable us to economically learn from experience, and to play with experience in untidy or irrational ways. This ‘untidiness’ enables experience to be juxtapositioned in so many ways that it enables useful new behaviour to arise from the occasional creative juxtapositioning. See: Evans, Christopher.

Hadfield also emphasises a slightly different aspect of the compensatory process in dreams than Jung, although there is great similarity. He writes in Dreams and Nightmares, ‘If a branch of a tree is cut, new shoots spring out; if you injure your hand, all the forces of the blood are mobilised until that wound is healed and you are made whole. It is a law of nature. So it is psychologically: every individual has potentialities in his nature, all of which are not merely seeking their own individual ends, but each and all of which serve the functions of the personality as a whole. Our personality as a whole, like every organism, is working towards its own fulfilment.’

He connects this even more directly with the overall self-regulatory physical processes in saying ‘There is in the psyche an automatic movement toward readjustment, towards an equilibrium, toward a restoration of the balance of our personality. This automatic adaptation of the organism is one of the main functions of the dream as indeed it is of bodily functions and of the personality as a whole. This idea need not cause us much concern for this automatic self-regulating process is a well known phenomenon in Physics and Physiology. The function of compensation which Jung has emphasised appears to be one of the means by which this automatic adaptation takes place, for the expression of repressed tendencies has the effect of getting rid of conflict in the personality. For the time being, it is true, the release may make the conflict more acute as the repressed emotions emerge, and we have violent dreams from which we wake with a start. But by this means, the balance of our personality is restored.’

The difference between Jung and Hadfield is that Hadfield is saying the dream is not merely ‘compensating’ for something the conscious personality is doing but is being purposive in pushing toward healing or growth. As with the physical process of self-regulation, which overall supports growth and stability, this psychological process in dreams appears to have much the same function. See Life’s Little Secrets and LifeStream.

One might argue that any growth arising from the self-regulatory process might come spontaneously from the integration of experience. Caron Kent, in his book The Puzzled Body, argues that in fact the internal process of adjustment presses for growth. I believe that the unexpressed potential for growth is both physical and psychological, and if it is not fulfilled, manifests as an internal sense of dissatisfaction. The body and the mind therefore drive to find a fuller measure of satisfaction as well as they can. Because the area of dreams is so plastic and formative, this is exactly the area that these often subtle and deeply unconscious urges toward growth can manifest. See: compensation theory; self-regulation and fantasy.

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