Friday, December 30, 2016

Freud on dreams, perhaps he was right

In my undergraduate days in the 1960s Freudian thought was still more or less acceptable, if not necessarily in academic psychology departments. Since then, however, the criticism has been piling up – though I still hold out hope, as in this post, Neural Weather, an Informal Defense of Psychoanalytic Ideas. Josie Malinowski reports some recent work that supports Freud's idea "that we dream of things we are trying our best to ignore."

The late Daniel Wegner
noticed that when we are trying hard to ignore or suppress a thought, it often just keeps coming back.

He suggested that this is because we have two psychological processes at work at the same time when we try to suppress a thought: an operating process that actively suppresses it, and a monitoring process that keeps an eye out for the suppressed thought. Thought suppression is therefore complicated and can only be achieved when the two processes are working together harmoniously.
In 2004 he tested this idea in 2004:
In his experiment, participants were asked to identify a person they knew and then to spend five minutes writing a stream-of-consciousness (about whatever came to mind) before going to bed that night.

The first group of these participants were told specifically not to think about the person during their five minutes of writing, whereas a second group were told to specifically think about them. A third group could think about whatever they wanted. When they woke up in the morning, they all recorded any dreams they could remember having that night.

The results were clear: the participants who were instructed to suppress thoughts of a person dreamt of them much more than the participants who were instructed to focus their thoughts on the person and the participants who could think about whatever they wanted. Wegner called this the “dream rebound effect”.
Malinowski goes on to report other experiments as well. The article has a dozen or so useful links to the technical literature.

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