The Creative Power of Dreams: conference report

31 May

With abject apologies to Ira Barouch, from whom I solicited this guest post, at long last I’m posting his report on the New England Regional Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD)—which took place one long year (and a few days) ago. Two main reasons for my delay: The article happened to come to me just a few days after I had to move out of the apartment I had lived in for 26 years because my landlord needed to sell it (and I was still deep in trying to find a new place), so life was rather chaotic for quite a while. Also, a synchronistic typo occurred as I was doing a light edit of the piece. It occurred in the paragraph after the one on Kabbalah and dreams. Intending to type an em dash (Alt-0-1-5-1 on the number keypad when using Windows), I accidentally typed something I never have before or since: ק, a character I recognized as a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Because I’d heard of the Kabbalistic use of a numerology system called gematria, I emailed the friend who had told me about it for help in deciphering a potential gematria meaning of this little synchronicity. He was on his way out of the country, and at that point, I’m embarrassed to say, procrastination set in on both following up with him later and getting Ira’s post posted.

A small saving grace for me: Ira’s report has timeless relevance because of the subject matter. It also has timely relevance, because several of the people who presented at the New England conference will be presenting at IASD’s annual conference next week (June 3–8) in Berkeley, California: Linda Yael Schiller, Tzivia Gover, Curtiss Hoffman, and Deirdre Barrett. So Ira’s report can serve as a bit of a preview of the upcoming conference.

Sadly, at the annual conference we’ll be very much feeling the absence of Ernest Hartmann, the opening keynote speaker at the New England regional, who died later last summer. I was in a morning dream group along with Ernest at my very first IASD conference, in 1997, and I looked forward to friendly debates about psi dreaming with him at subsequent conferences. The Boston Globe‘s obituary of Ernest was a lovely profile of this warm and generous man. The conference next week includes at least two panel discussions of “Hartmann-influenced” dream studies.

Many thanks to Ira, who not coincidentally runs a dream group for creatives in New York City.

 

New England Regional Conference logo

The International Association for the Study of Dreams’ New England Regional Conference was held at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts, on the unusually chilly, drizzly Saturday of the Memorial Day 2013 weekend, but indoors the event radiated warmth and light. In addition to a sizable contingent of therapists of various stripes, those attending included scholars, artists, writers, spiritual seekers, and even a few shamans, forming an impressively diverse “big tent.”

Ernest Hartmann, 1934–2013

Ernest Hartmann, 1934–2013

Dr. Ernest Hartmann, the author of The Nature and Functions of Dreaming, delivered the keynote address. A past president of IASD and recently retired Tufts University professor of psychiatry, he presented his experimental research on emotional arousal as measured in the dream state. The highest level of arousal is often a response to trauma, and is focused, Dr. Hartmann explained, around a central image (CI) that contextualizes the strong emotions that have prompted the dream. Dr. Hartmann calls this class of significant dreams “big dreams,” or “tidal wave dreams,” in which we feel overwhelmed or swept away by powerful feelings of fear, helplessness, vulnerability, despair, disgust, guilt, or shame. But creative artists can find in them new ways of bringing together contents that were previously thought of as quite separate. Here Dr. Hartmann introduced his concept of “thymophor” (from the Greek thymos, or “emotion,” and phor, or “transforming”) to describe the creative process of transforming emotion into imagery. As he had in his 1992 book, Boundaries in the Mind, he proposed that the membranes between the two regions of the brain that control thought and feelings are more permeable in creative people. His research found that creative people are also likely to recall their dreams more readily and with increasingly vivid central imagery. And yes, Dr. Hartmann has found a gender difference here; women tend to have more permeable boundaries, and a significantly larger percentage of women than men have had enough interest to make themselves available to take part in his experimental dream studies. This finding was not very surprising, considering that the attendance for this event was upwards of 75 percent female.

Linda Yael Schiller

Linda Yael Schiller

Following Dr. Hartmann’s enlivening presentation, the audience split up into two different workshops. I attended Linda Yael Schiller’s workshop on “Creativity, Kabbalah, and Dreams,” in which we were told of ancient Jewish customs, codified in the Kabbalah, attempting to understand dreams as containing divinely inspired information that we may wisely invite with a “listening heart,” in the words of King Solomon. Often that would include three steps: a pilgrimage (to a holy place, perhaps a temple in Jerusalem), a sacrifice (often a goat or a calf), and some form of purification (often a baptism in water). Ms. Schiller described this process as a “negotiation” with the Divine: that one must shed his or her worldly identity (defenses) and make herself vulnerable in order to receive divinely inspired guidance. In modern times this process might include some rituals to create a “sacred space” before going to bed: lighting a candle, saying a prayer, meditating, or writing or simply thinking of a question that we may be struggling with. These practices, which have been shown to be conducive to dream “incubation” for many centuries, have recently had a revival, and it’s not just for Jews.

Tzivia Gover

Tzivia Gover

I then made my way to the morning’s final workshop. I chose “Dreaming on the Page: The Intersection Between Dreams and Writing,” led by Tzivia Gover, a certified dream therapist and creative writing instructor. She began by eliciting a one-sentence distillation of a recent dream from each person in the group, collected them on index cards, and then read them in random order, forming a highly chaotic but also quite compelling narrative. This was a striking and audacious demonstration of the way our dreams, emanating from the more archaic right side of our brains—which generates emotion and intuitionק—create brilliantly original characters, scenery, and situations, but then abruptly leave us in suspense as to how these thrilling stories end. Professor Gover suggests that this is where the writer needs to enlist the powers of the more modern left side of the brain, using logic, rationality, and the intellect to amplify the dream output and form a fully entertaining work of literature. I’m quite certain that this exhilarating workshop encouraged many of us in the audience to seek out inspiration in our dreams, as it did for me; I soon wrote a poem inspired by a funny line I spoke at the end of a dream I had the following night. If I can do it, so can you!

Curtiss Hoffman

Curtiss Hoffman

After lunch we were all treated to some live music: six voices performing excerpts from The Gilgamesh Cantata by Curtis Hoffman, professor of anthropology at Bridgewater State University. Based on the “Incantations” text from C. G. Jung’s Red Book, this entire work was inspired by a series of dreams Professor Hoffman had over two years. Between choral excerpts, Professor Hoffman discussed the details of his creative process: a truly impressive display of dream incubation providing inspiration for the themes, harmony, structure, and performance of a classical piece of music.

Lesley Zaret

Lesley Zaret

For the final workshop of the day, I attended “Stories from the Night,” a dream group session led by Lesley Zaret and Beth Scanzani, two highly experienced dream group leaders. They suggested ways to improve dream recall, in order to develop a deeper relationship to your dreams and gain access to “your own personal life coach,” one who knows you from the inside out and has your best interest in mind and heart. Using the “projective” method of group dreamwork, the group then explored a recent dream from each of two different members. After narrating the dream with as much detail as possible, and before adding any other associations or interpretations, the dreamer allows other group members to “hijack” the dream and project their own personal meanings onto any and all aspects of it. This offers the dreamer the chance to entertain a variety of fresh perspectives and potential meanings that may become more salient as the dreamer eventually adds his or her own reactions to the dream. By the end of the session, the dreamer is asked to think of a title for the dream, which can aid in identifying themes or patterns that emerge over a series of dreams. This lively group added a refreshing personal element to the busy day.

Deirdre Barrett

Deirdre Barrett

The closing keynote address by Dr. Deirdre Barrett, a past president of IASD and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, was entitled “Dreams and Creative Problem Solving.” Professor Barrett’s seminal 2001 book, The Committee of Sleep, is a must-read for anyone interested in the functional value of dreams. It features the stories of artists, writers, scientists, athletes, and others in virtually all walks of life throughout history who found solutions to professional and creative problems and dilemmas in their dreams. Slides were shown of many famous works of art, particularly of the surrealists, that were directly inspired by dreams. As Professor Barrett puts it, in sleep we are thinking “in a different biochemical state,” with the censoring prefrontal cortex much less active. She described experimental studies with puzzles and brainteasers that have shown a distinct improvement in problem solving among students who follow a seven-step dream incubation regimen focusing on visualization. The potential benefit of this type of dream research, still in its infancy, is highly encouraging.

Professor Barrett’s presentation closed out this exciting and inspiring IASD conference. It was a day packed with engaging people, provocative concepts, and many exotic sights and sounds. I guess you might say it was kind of like a dream!

 

Ira Barouch

Ira Barouch

Ira Barouch, MA, LP

Ira.creativetherapy@gmail.com

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