How sex rules our dreams

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How sex rules our dreams

In dreams; a beach-roamer, Germany, 1933. Photo by Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Gritty, emotional, smelly and dirty: new evidence supports Freud’s long-debunked theory that sex fuels our dreams

Patrick McNamara is director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine. His latest book is The Cognitive Neuropsychiatry of Parkinson’s Disease (2011).

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When I was a hormone-addled adolescent in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I would often look up at a poster of Sigmund Freud on my brother’s bedroom wall. The title on the portrait – something like ‘Freud: explorer of the unconscious and discoverer of the meaning of dreams’ – depicted a hero of intellectual freedom and creative thought. When you looked at it closely, the portrait seemed to writhe and come alive. In the drug-fuelled style of those decades of ongoing sexual revolution, the artist had depicted the nose as an erect penis, the cheeks as a female behind, and the eyes as female breasts. One side of the face was a voluptuous female whose legs wrapped around the body of a muscular male on the other side of the face and, of course, both heads were thrown back in dramatised ecstasy. I recall some of my brother’s stoned friends gazing at the portrait with bewildered looks on their faces, apparently unsure if the writhing torsos they saw were really there or not.

Right from the start, I saw Freud as a kind of secular saint because he was willing to take an unbiased look at himself through the raw material of his dreams. If he found in those dreams a mass of broiling sexual impulses, so be it. Those impulses had to be accepted, understood and explained within a larger picture of the human mind.

It was on the night of 23 July 1895 that Freud had his famous ‘dream of Irma’s injection’ – the first he analysed. In the dream, Freud met Irma, a young widow and ailing patient under his care, at a party – ‘A large hall – numerous guests.’ He took Irma to the side, reproaching her for not taking his advice. ‘If you still get pains, it’s really only your fault,’ he said. To which Irma replied: ‘If you only knew what pains I’ve got now in my throat and stomach and abdomen – it’s choking me.’ Freud was alarmed. Irma looked pale and puffy. When Freud looked down her throat, he found a big patch of white. And he knew the origin of the infection: not long before, his friend Otto had given her an injection of trimethylamine. ‘I saw before me the formula for this printed in heavy type ... Injections of this sort ought not to be given so thoughtlessly ... And probably the syringe had not been clean,’ Freud later wrote in his masterwork, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).

He thought his dream represented wish-fulfilment: by blaming Irma’s treatment failure on others, he could relieve himself of feeling guilty. But how was it a sexual wish? Freud noted that while the party was apparently a birthday celebration for his wife, his attention had focused on Irma, who reminded him of a young widow he desired to treat instead; his friends, including Otto, were portrayed as competitors. Freud’s commentary also revealed that the reference to trimethylamine came from his close friend, Wilhelm Fliess, who had labelled the substance a ‘product of sexual metabolism’ found in semen.

To Freud, ‘Irma’s injection’ represented clear support for his theory that dreams amounted to sexual wish-fulfilment. But critics piled on. There was the obvious fact that his theory seemed to be based on idiosyncratic associations, quite literally open to endless interpretation.

By the time I started my own dream research as a graduate student, Freud’s theories had been relegated to the dustbin of history – not even worthy of the name science, as the Harvard psychiatrist and dream researcher J Allan Hobson said. The derision started full-bore after 1953, when the University of Chicago physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman and his student Eugene Aserinsky discovered rapid eye movement sleep, or REM, as the backdrop for vivid dreams. In REM, which occurs every 90 minutes or so, the eyes dart back and forth under closed lids while muscles become paralysed and body temperature drops, all as the dream unfolds. To many, the clear physiological nature of the phenomenon seemed to upend Freud’s sexual theory, with its gritty, emotional, dirty, smelly and earthy cast. Instead, there emerged a new, cognitive approach to dream content. Those theories treated dreams as disembodied, ethereal and pristine products of an otherwise neutral information-processing machine we call the brain. Researchers such as Hobson saw dreams as nothing more than fanciful, ad hoc interpretations of random neural impulses rippling up from the brainstem, the engine of REM.

Yet I never understood why the discovery of REM sleep meant Freud had to be wrong. To me, REM was another crucial piece of the dream puzzle – and could coexist easily alongside Freud’s theories that dreams had a deep unconscious meaning and purpose, overall. That purpose had to be rooted in evolution, I thought – one way or another, dreams helped us to survive.

I vividly recall the day in the late 1970s when I realised that dreams and their unconscious sexual meaning were part of a larger whole. I was 18 and working in my first real job, as an orderly at a major detox centre in the skid-row section of Boston. I and another orderly were given the task of delousing, showering and cleaning up an old alcoholic who had been picked up off the streets for a drying-out period. The old man was sitting under the shower letting the warm water slowly wash away the grime and dirt that covered his ravaged body. We threw the guy some soap and wash towels, and tried unsuccessfully to avoid smelling the stench that wafted off his rail-thin frame, when all of a sudden this emaciated, brittle old man jumped up, stared straight at us revealing a full erection and then lifted a massive metal table over his head, threw it against the wall and began wailing in ever louder sing-song tones a string of sexual expletives that left me and my colleague terrified that the man was crumbling, psychically, before our eyes. A nurse quickly arrived and told us he was going into DTs, or delirium tremens, often the result of alcohol withdrawal. She finally calmed him down with a shot in the arm. When she told us that the guy was essentially acting out a dream or nightmare, and that DTs emerged out of REM sleep (which I later discovered was only partly true), I knew I wanted to learn more. REM sleep not only produced those things (dreams) I had long been interested in (due to Freud), but it was also capable, apparently, of turning a ravaged old man into a raging bull.

As years passed and my youthful fascination turned into professional research, the connections between REM sleep, dreams and sex hit me again and again: like the skid-row alcoholic, men experience very prominent erections that begin with the REM period. Women experience clitoral engorgement with REM. And recent studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveal that the brain’s reward centres and circuits are highly active during REM sleep.

Hoping for more insight, I spent my time as a graduate student in neuroscience at Boston University collecting dream reports from anyone who would share them with me. Over the years, themes began to emerge. For example, I became utterly convinced that men and women were dreaming drastically different types of dreams, with sex as a common theme. Men were always on some kind of adventure or engaging in some kind of violent war or dramatic struggle with other men, while women were typically talking animatedly with friends or other people they knew.

Ultimately I looked to, a collection of more than 20,000 dream reports collated by psychologists at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In one dream from the archives, for instance, a male college student explains that he was in a theatre restaurant with his date when she mentioned that a man on stage had previously insulted her and severely beaten her escort. ‘I climbed up on the stage and attacked him,’ the dreamer wrote. ‘He was about 25 and very formidable-looking but catching him by surprise I succeeded in knocking him down. The audience thought it was part of the performance and applauded.’

In their dreams, men engage in physical aggression against other men; women engage in verbal rejections and exclusions of other women

Now look at a dream from a female college student, drawn from the same group of subjects: ‘I dreamt that a friend of mine who graduated last year came back to the dorm for Stunt Night. Another friend took care of her and gave her my bed to sleep in. Meanwhile another girl whom I’m not too friendly with was engaged to a boy whom she was not very much in love with. He was very wealthy and her ring was so beautiful that she didn’t want to wear it around school. She was always putting her arms around me … a very affectionate girl. … Later I went downstairs and my friend who took care of the visitor and I proceeded to tell her about our affairs at school and our respective boyfriends.’

While both dreams included romantic targets, the male dreamer describes aggression against potential competitors while the female dreamer subtly denigrates her competitor, the girl who received a beautiful ring. After I became a professor at Boston University in the mid-1990s, I confirmed these observations in rigorous studies: men dream more often of other men than they do of women, while women dream equally often of men and women. In addition, men more often engage in physical aggression against other men in dreams, while women more often engage in non-physical forms of aggression, for instance verbal rejections and exclusions of others.

But did these reports support Freud’s claims that dreams were essentially all about sex? I thought so, and my reasoning went like this: men dream more about aggressive interactions with other men because in our evolutionary past that was the way to get access to fertile females. Similarly, women more often dream about engaging in verbal aggression because gossip against competitors was a reproductive strategy for females.

I spent two decades trying to prove this simple hypothesis correct.

In one line of inquiry, I found ample evidence in the literature that sex hormones surged with REM sleep and dreams. Prolactin, which enables mothers to produce milk and stimulates the testicles, rises rapidly as sleep sets in and peaks between 3am to 5am, when REM predominates. Release of prolactin can be blocked by sleep deprivation. Similarly, oxytocin, which is linked to bonding during sex, and testosterone, which is tied to the sex drive, both peak at about 4am, when REM rules. This all chimes with fMRI scans that show peak activation of the midbrain – especially the circuits involved in pleasure, drug addiction, and sex – occurs during REM sleep.

But proving a deep connection between dream sleep and sexual wish-fulfilment required more: I would have to correlate specific dreams with particular mating strategies in life. After searching for a reliable measure, I chose attachment orientation – a quality associated with sexual and emotional intimacy.

Current attachment theory suggests that people fall into a few broad categories: they might be happy in their relationship, making them securely attached to their partner. They might not be in a relationship, but desperately want one, or be in one, but unhappily, making them preoccupied and anxious. Or they might be dismissive about the importance of relationships, and thus, avoidant.

The anxious individual is passionate about getting into a relationship with a romantic target, and thus recalls more vivid, emotional dreams of intimacy

Now if dreaming somehow reflects our sexual wish-fulfilment, then dream recall, dream content and dream sharing should be relatively lower in those who are satisfied with their current attachment orientation (secure, dismissive, and avoidant) and relatively higher among those who want to change their status (the preoccupied/anxious group). To test this idea, my team at Boston University recruited hundreds of volunteers until we had enough in each attachment category. We asked them about their dreams, and coders who were blind to the purpose of the study painstakingly analysed them.

When we collated the results, we were startled by what we found. The anxious, preoccupied group was far more likely to recall dreams than the securely attached; they took less time to enter REM sleep and had many more dreams featuring aggression against competitors. But both the anxious and the securely attached recalled more dreams than avoidant participants. That is precisely the pattern one would predict if dream sleep were directly related to long-term sexual strategies. The anxious individual is passionately interested in getting into a relationship with a romantic target, and thus recalls more especially vivid and emotional dreams filled with content concerning intimacy. The avoidant individual, conversely, suppresses the subconscious call for sexual closeness as reflected in dreams.

Finally, in a crucial test of the idea that all we dream about is sex, we decided to compare aggression in REM dreams with non-REM (NREM) dreams – in other words, shallower sleep states. If it turned out that high levels of aggression occurred only during REM, then it would strengthen the case that ties sex to this physiological state and all that it implies – the hormone surges, the activation of the brain’s pleasure centres, and the stimulation of genitalia, to mention just three factors that stand out.

Initially, we had 15 subjects fitted with a 'nightcap' designed by sleep researcher Robert Stickgold and his team at Harvard Medical School. Our Harvard colleagues programmed the nightcap to beep at random, waking subjects up so that they could recall dreams, during REM, during NREM, and even during periods of daytime wakefulness. Coders then scored dream reports for various aspects of aggression. Results lent dramatic support to our ideas: social interactions between men and women, and between men and men, were more likely to be depicted in dreams than in wake reports. Aggressive social interactions initiated by the dreamer were three times more frequent in REM than in NREM dreams or in wake reports. And friendliness initiated by the dreamer was twice as prevalent during NREM as in REM sleep. Later analyses showed that when the dreamer was male, targets of aggression during REM dreams could reasonably be described as competitors for a mate.

More recently, with a grant from the US National Institutes of Health, we replicated the results in a well-equipped sleep lab, using electroencephalogram (EEG) technology to measure brain waves, adding rigour and precision to the finds. In that study, hundreds of carefully selected college-age volunteers came to our sleep lab for several nights. They were subjected to a schedule of carefully balanced awakenings so that every participant had had a chance to recall dreams from both REM and NREM sleep.

We confirmed the findings of the previous study, but learnt more as well. For instance, when dreams involved aggression, the dreamer was the aggressor in 58 per cent of REM dreams but only in 29 per cent of NREM dreams. When dreams involved friendly interactions, the dreamer was the befriender in 71 per cent of NREM dreams and in only 42 per cent of REM dreams. In both studies the REM–NREM differences were most marked for males, and the target of the aggressions were competitors relative to the dreamer.

Yet even if dreams are all about sex, how would that explain why we put ourselves at so much risk just to run the late-night reel? For REM sleep is profoundly dangerous: the major antigravity muscles of the body are inhibited or paralysed, and the thermoregulatory reflexes of the body are suspended, making it impossible to produce much internal heat. REM is also associated with intense autonomic nervous system (ANS) ‘storms’ or instabilities. The ANS is the system that regulates key physiological processes such as the heartbeat; instabilities during REM explain why there are so many heart attacks in the wee hours of the morning when sleep is rich in dreams.

In short, every 90 minutes during sleep, we enter this dangerous twilight zone called REM sleep. The reward centres of our brains are activated, and our sexual systems are turned on – yet our bodies are partially paralysed so we cannot move to take advantage of these activations. Instead, as key physiologic systems collapse, we are forced to watch these things we call dreams. Why would evolution impose this risky system on us? When we are paralysed, we are vulnerable to predation. When we are unable to generate internal heat, we are vulnerable to disease. When our ANS becomes erratic, we are vulnerable to heart attacks, and so forth. So whatever REM sleep and dreams are doing for us it must be quite important, given the dangers they usher in. But what could that extremely important function be?

It wasn’t until I came across Charles Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) that I began to understand why the paralysis and the heart attacks might be worth the risk. Darwin’s theory of natural selection concerns the evolution of new species by selection of traits that adapt to the environment across generations. But his theory of sexual selection concerns the emergence of traits and behaviours that enhance the ability to find a mate and reproduce.

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was, in fact, an answer to critics of his theory of evolution, who pointed out that not all traits helped individuals survive. Darwin explained the phenomenon by pointing to the peacock’s brightly coloured tail and the reindeer’s elaborate antlers, with their unwieldy and dangerous exfoliations. How could such risky accoutrements make these animals fit enough to outcompete predators in the struggle for existence? Their very adaptations, those glaringly identifiable tails and those massively unwieldy antlers, seemed to hinder them in escaping their predators – not to mention the energy requirements these traits impose.

REM paralysis is in an evolutionary protection, put in place to keep us from acting out our dreams and harming our partners

However, Darwin pointed out that many features of sexually reproducing species can boost reproduction rather than survival in the environment per se. The peacock’s tail advertised its fitness to peahens, and so they tended to mate with the male who had the most extravagant tail in the group. Any peacock whose genes could support such a costly tail must be fit indeed! Similarly, the reindeer’s antlers were used as weapons in the fight against other males of the same species for access to females. The more elaborate the antlers, the more forbidding the buck. The goal was to intimidate your competitors enough that they would give up the fight for access to a fertile female and you would then win the chance to mate with her. The pressures of sexual selection made it imperative that males develop weapons such as aggressiveness, antlers, body armour, muscles, and stingers to fight other males for access to females as well as elaborate adornments to attract females. Thus, the costly, apparently non-adaptive traits were explained.

If we accept the sexual selection theory of REM sleep and dreams, we might suppose that there are some underlying advantages reflected in adapting to the outside world. Take the REM-related lapse in the ability to generate body heat. The vast majority of animals, including humans, sleep either with relatives or with sexual partners. Co-sleeping and huddling together allows for preservation and generation of heat between partners, preventing metabolic waste – and also creating opportunities to reproduce.

A similar advantage can be found in REM paralysis. To get to the root of things there, researchers have studied REM Behaviour Disorder, in which the neurons that cause the paralysis have been destroyed, allowing dreamers to move about. Such patients, most of them male, dream that they or their wives are under attack from other men, and physically defend themselves while asleep with punches and kicks. REM paralysis, therefore, is in some sense an evolutionary protection, put in place to keep us from acting out our dreams and harming our partners.

Other researchers have asked what, if any, effect REM dreams have on our behaviour in waking life. Dylan Selterman, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland, has addressed these questions directly. With his team, he asked participants who were in committed relationships to keep track of all their dreams, as well as their daily activities, for two weeks. The researchers found that dreaming about some sort of interaction with a romantic target significantly predicted romantic interactions with others the next day. For example, if the dreamer dreamed of having sex with his or her partner, they reported more love and intimacy the next day – but only if the relationship was going well. Similarly, if the dreamer dreamed of conflict with a partner during the night, greater conflict was experienced in that relationship the next day.

On one level, these results appear to confirm the obvious – namely that dreams can influence our waking behaviours. However, what the theory of sexual selection adds to a commonsense interpretation is that dreams prefer to influence sexual behaviours as opposed to behaviours overall. That is what they were designed to do.

Of course, for absolute proof that dreams are a linchpin of reproductive fitness we must show enhanced fertility in those who dream more. The experiment would be massive, requiring we correlate variations in fertility rates across large numbers of dreamers from many different cultures to eliminate competing explanations. That study has begun, with help from, an app that aims to help users record and understand their dreams and contains more than 200,000 dreams from people all over the world. Several thousand dreams are added to the site every couple of weeks.

But we don’t need to finish that project to know that the mind is not merely some information-processing device producing unbiased perceptions of the world. Instead, it is infused with and driven by sexual desire – just like my hormone-addled teenage self. Freud was the first to see the psyche as an arena of male-female conflict and co-operation propelled by long-term sexual strategies. My work on dreams is now confirming this central insight. Dreams are products of, and contributors to, the ancient war and dance between the sexes. That eternal dance is written into the flesh and blood of the brain and re-enacted nightly in the turbulent realm of the dream. What stuff, then, are dreams made on? Not just sexual desires aimed at romantic targets, but aggressive acts aimed at competitors as well. We not only dance in our dreams: we also become raging bulls.

Read more essays on gender & sexuality, human evolution and sleep & dreams


  • Bob Grumman

    I wholly disagree with Freud about dreams. They have to do with the world, not one relatively trivial human drive. I don't think I'm alone in dreaming about hundreds of subjects with almost nothing to do with sex, except for those who insanely find everything to do with sex, like Freud. I have what I think a far better theory of dreams than his at my blog,, if anyone's interested.

    • DS

      I don't think Freud ever actually said that all dreams were about sex (and I would also question your view that this is a "relatively trivial human drive"). He did claim that all dreams were "wish fulfillment" - but that would also include the oft-reported examples of hungry people dreaming about food and drug addicts dreaming about drugs. Having said that, I don't think he was right about all dreams being wish fulfillment. And, as almost everyone knows, the big problem with Freud's ideas is that they are generally untestable anyway - which means they don't even merit the description of being a "theory" in the strict scientific sense of the word. But the same is true of what you call your "far better theory" - you admit it is untestable, so it's actually no improvement at all on Freud.

      • Bob Grumman

        My theory accounts for much more that we know about dreams than Freud's theory did, partly because we know much more about dreams than he did. I suggest you read what I say about it before pronouncing it no better than Freud's. It's in the Pages section at my blog. And my theory is only untestable at present, because of the state of neurophysiological technology.

        • DS

          I did read it - that's how I know you said it was untestable.

          • bobgrumman

            Please quote where I said it was untestable. Some parts of it are currently untestable--or not yet tested. In any case, as I said, even if it is no more testable than Freud's theory, that does not make it necessarily no better than his. In other words, testability is not the one characteristic of a theory that determines its value.

          • DS

            In the section "Testing My Theory" you say - "To prove or disprove the existence of my knowlecule-flushing activator would require much more knowledge of the brain", "crude tests are perhaps possible... but would not likely be very persuasive one way or the other", "my theory... could probably eventually be modeled by a computer program", and "all my thinking on dreams is, in the final analysis, speculative". And you've just said it again - "currently untestable". The qualifiers "perhaps", "probably", "eventually", "currently" make no difference - your "theory" is untestable, and you both know it and say it.

          • bobgrumman

            Here's what I consider myself to be saying: my theory is at this time, yes, untestable. But it is not untestable in the sense that it depends on undefined immaterial entities. I do not say, for example, that dreams are caused by undetectable n-rays from the planet Jupiter. I posit the cause to be a material mechanism that eventually will be found or not found. In other words, its existence is testable.

            I note that you still do not bother to say why my theory could not be better than Freud's even if it were not much more testable than his.

          • bobgrumman

            Hey, DS, I forgot to thank you for reading my essay (sincerely). And I do appreciate the feedback. If there's ever a second edition of my essay, I'll be more careful when my theory's testability.

          • DS

            Sorry, I thought it was obvious. There is no way to chose between your theory and Freud's because they are both untestable. To say that one untestable theory is somehow "better" than another untestable theory is meaningless. Choosing between theories, judging one as better than another, requires them to be testable.

          • bobgrumman

            Ah, I finally get it. The theory that green rabbits who live in the center of the sun cause dreams is equal to both mine and Siggie's theories of dreams because all three theories are, by your definition, untestable. I'm old, but I can still learn!

    • rhcrest

      Yeah i for one am really tired of our country's obsession with sex. It's really gotten to be nauseating at this point. It's gotten to the point where every tv show, movie etc. -where even though the plot line is not about sex-, some gratuitous sex scene or discussion about sex is always thrown in just for "fun". I change the channel. Am SO very tired of it.

      • DS

        I'd like to subscribe to those channels...

    • ApathyNihilism

      Fair enough, but I would reconsider calling the sex drive "trivial"…it's a bit of a sine qua non of human existence.

  • CO

    Jung's writings on dreams are much more complex and his conception of the libido and archetypes more interesting and broad than Freud's one-sided idea of sex based dreams. I find it hard to believe the writer or anyone would omit Jung's ideas when trying to study this subject.

    • Glen McMillian

      Do you think the author is dismissive of Jung's work?

      I see no evidence of this in this essay.

      I expect if the author were publishing a book instead of an article to support his point about Freud and the sexual aspect of dreaming he would include a good bit of commentary on Jung.

      If he once got started on other theorists in such a short piece he would get hopelessly off track considering his original goal.

      • ChrisinCT

        I am by no means an expert in this subject but I have read that Freud and Jung disagreed on this point and had a falling out over it.

        You may be right about article length, etc, but Freud's ideas seemed to be the basis of the authors point, and it seems to me that if the author thought Jung's ideas about dream interpretation correct, would most likely have included some indication in the article.

  • AnthLC

    So I suppose for homosexual couples these REM dreams would have the same mechanism but just not on the opposite sex. It would be interesting to see how they play out. It would probably add support to the theory.

  • Derek Roche

    Just to protect against the possibility that your project is itself the product of wish fulfillment, don't you think it might be a good idea to run some control groups of pre-pubescent children and post-menopausal women? Men - well, yeah, men are pretty much a lost cause.

  • G

    Uh-oh: where the author says, 'I spent two decades trying to prove this simple hypothesis correct,' either he's speaking colloquially, or he has spent a career doing something other than science.

    In science, one thing you do NOT do is 'try to prove your hypothesis correct.' What you do is seek to _falsify_ or _disprove_ your preferred hypotheses, by setting up experimental conditions that are particularly rigorous, by way of seeking explanations _other than_ your preferred hypothesis. If the other explanations are falsified by data and your hypothesis withstands every such effort, you can say that it is 'supported by the data,' but _not_ that it has been 'proven.'

    'Proof' as such is limited to mathematics, where it means that a given statement is true under all possible mathematical conditions.

    In all other fields (as an outgrowth of the quantum theory, whereby all measurable facts of nature are now understood to have margins of error or uncertainty), the best we can say is that a hypothesis is 'supported by data,' with the understanding that more accurate data may subsequently emerge to reveal that it is not correct.

    Here's to hoping the author was only seeking to use language that is accessible to lay readers, though in my opinion even that would be doing us a disservice.

    But if you hear someone in science claim, in all due seriousness and in a context that is not colloquial, that they have spent decades trying to 'prove' a hypothesis, then what I would suggest is to view their findings with ample scepticism.

    • Hominid

      Of course this is not science.

      • DS

        Of course you are not a scientist.

        • Hominid

          Another omniscient poster - how fulfilling it must be to see reality so clearly rather than live in one's own make-believe world.

        • G

          Ad-hom, you lose.

    • Glen McMillian

      Your argument is true in the ivory tower sense but bullshit in the real world of science as it is actually practiced.

      A scientist looks for evidence to support his ideas as well as to tear them down. Many a scientist is spending his life trying to prove one idea or another is correct.

      Once he has amassed sufficient evidence to make a case for his brainstorm then the job of proving him wrong begins.

      Of course it is possible at any point in the process to come up with solid evidence that he is butting his head against a wall.

      But sometimes -maybe many years later- the supposed evidence that he is or was wrong is itself proven to be invalid.

      The authors work at first glance seems to be a good example of such a case.

      The study of the mind and neuroscience is a field that is by its very nature imprecise and it is in comparison to the purely physical sciences such as chemistry still a toddler.

      A whole lot of what is accepted as ''gospel'' or ''holy writ'' in the field today will probably be tossed out in the future.

      Nobody should be surprised if an old idea and working hypothesis/ theory is resurrected occasionally in such a field as this one.

      It may eventually ''prove''to be impossible to understand everything about the mind given the statistical nature of the way we must study it because it may prove to be impossible to gather enough data given real world constraints.

      By '' prove to be impossible '' in this sense I simply mean that researchers may hit some brick walls that stall progress for long periods of time.Answers might eventually be found but only by some researcher not yet born.

      • G

        Sure, you start out by collecting whatever data may exist to support your hypothesis, and then you start seeking falsification.

        But, _two decades_?

        Come on. You know better than that.

        It doesn't take two decades to collect supporting data for hypotheses in psychology.

        If the level of scepticism that's routinely applied to psi research was applied to mainstream social sciences research, there wouldn't be much of it left standing.

        • Glen McMillian

          It doesn't always take a couple of decades. True enough.

          But any idea a little out of the mainstream may take a lot longer to be verified.The techniques needed to test the idea may not even have been invented.The equipment needed to run tests may not have been invented.Money for research can be a big problem as well as other obligations on the part of the researcher.

          A couple of decades is not a great deal of time in terms of the ''big picture''.

          It is a long time in terms of our own minds though.

  • G

    Freud's insights were useful and necessary in order to bring the entire subject of human minds and behaviour in from the 'supermatural' realm to the scientific realm. Some of his hypotheses and theories are empirically supportable and are also useful in clinical psychology. They are clearly not the only word on the subject matter, and the findings from other branches of psychology also have areas of relevance and application. (e.g. Jungian and Adlerian psychodynamic theory, humanistic psychology, transpersonal psychology, behaviourism, cognitive science, and so on.)

    However there is a far simpler explanation for the neurology of dreams in general (as distinct from the specific content of particular dreams) including sleep paralysis and the signs of sexual arousal that correlate with REM sleep.

    We know from recent findings in cog sci, that one of the functions of dreams is to consolidate memory and learning, by transferring mental content from 'working (short-term) memory' to 'long-term memory.' This is likely to be a necessary and inevitable element of the functioning of the brain: the adaptive advantages of improved learning and long-term memory occur in organisms whose brains produce the 'emergent stage 1' sleep activity in which we observe REM.

    If we get down to the level of individual neurons, what we find is that REM sleep enables processes whereby surplus neurotransmitter molecules that have accumulated during the waking day, are cleaned out of the synapses, by analogy to city workers sweeping up litter after a parade. This process produces a shower of random impulses between nerves, that in turn contribute various elements to the subjective experience of dreaming, such as the odd discontinuities in dream narratives.

    A brain that is 'busy' with maintenance tasks should also be less responsive to the thermal regulation needs of the entire body, by analogy as to how a computer slows down while defragmenting its hard drive. Given the decrease in metabolic activity during sleep, we would expect body temperature to fall under those conditions. Sleeping with others would be an adaptation to conserve heat, and this adaptation would also have the beneficial effect of reinforcing sexual bonds that (all other factors equal) are likely to lead to producing offspring.

    The adaptive value of 'sleep paralysis' is obvious: if your brain is generating vivid subjective experiences, and your body is acting them out while you are not conscious, you are at high risk of accidental injury or death to self and others. Sleep paralysis is an adaptation to ensure that the physical body remains safe during dreams, compared to what could occur otherwise.

    Lastly, with the drop in thermal regulation we should expect to see a decrease in blood flow to the limbs, and an increase in the quantity of blood that remains in the trunk compared to during waking consciousness. This could account for the tendency toward genital arousal (which requires engorgement with blood) during sleep, which would be further reinforced by feedback between the genitals and the brain.

    All of these physiological and neurological changes would produce changes in stimuli to the brain, which in turn would lead to a preponderance of certain kinds of content in dreams. Genital arousal in sleep, as with random genital arousal during waking, should produce an increase in sexual thoughts and content.

    The fact that these relatively simple physical phenomena have much to do with the sensory, emotional, and cognitive content of dreams, in no way diminishes the profound personal value of dreams. If anything, understanding the physical phenomena can give us new freedom to think of our dreams in ways that are less constrained by cultural expectations and more attuned to the unique aspects of each of us as individuals.

    • Bob Grumman

      I don't accept the "recent findings in cog sci" mentioned, although I'm sure dreams help organize our memories. I believe dreams have two principal functions: (1) the detonation of the potential mistakes that accumulate during a person's daytime life while sleep paralysis prevents the process from causing harmful physical actions; and (2) allowing combinations of incongruous images and ideas to form,some of which may prove beneficial--again, in the security of sleep paralysis. See my essay, "Mistakes, Dreams and Creativity" at for details.

      • bobgrumman

        Later note: it occurs to me that it may be that among dream-mechanisms are some that make sex and violence more likely subject-matter--perhaps as a way of safe exposure to them--innoculation, if you will. Just vague first thoughts.

        • G

          What I've found to be true, largely anecdotally and with the caveat that 'the plural of "anecdote" is not "data",' is that dream content represents waking experience. When was the last time you dreamed that you were an octopus?;-)

          Thus I would hypothesise that the reason for sexual and violent content being common in dreams, is that they are common in waking life, usually vicariously through the media, but also through culture.

      • G

        I would argue that those are beneficial side-effects rather than primary functions.

        The first necessity historically, is to survive and reproduce. The physical adaptations associated with dreaming take care of those points.

        As humans obtained greater security re. survival and reproduction, other 'latent' abilities became increasingly useful, such as those related to creativity and problem-solving. This is where 'dream logic' becomes useful at producing ideas that become a new source of adaptations and benefits. Analogous processes occur as humans gained facility with additional states of consciousness, such as through the discovery of mind-altering plants in nearly every culture.

  • SmilingAhab

    One of the capital sins that can be committed in science is to dismiss anything out of hand. It's nice to see someone looking back.

    However, the theme of evolutionary efficiency saturates this article. Not everything is inherently useful or has a purpose - evolution does not design, and it doesn't care about efficient. Maybe these psychological artifacts are just side effects of sapience, and they serve no useful purpose, but they are not enough of a detriment on the survivability of the species to eradicate us.

    Nature is not survival of the fittest, so much as survival of whatever doesn't have enough detriments to be eradicated by present circumstances.

    • Hominid


      • DS

        Well at least he seems to have a point.

    • Mr F

      Very valid point.

  • etseq

    Wow - combining the worst of pseudoscience - Freudianism, Evolutionary Psychology, and schlock neuroscience - all in one non-falsifiable meta-theory of behavioral determinism topped off with a massive large scale data mining of dream interpretation that magically "confirms" the hypothesis.

    • Mr F

      How on earth in Evolutionary Psychology a pseudoscience? Are we to believe that all phenotypes are evolved barring human psychology? Are you suggesting that meta-physical is a more likely explanation? Absurd.

      • Alex

        No, you dolt, what he means is that evolutionary-psych speculation like the above article is schlock science because all it amounts to in this here (and in many but not all cases) is an untestable just-so story, and an implausible one at that. Not every aspect of human existence - cultural or biological - has a selection-enhancing effect. People might dream about sex and competition (although I doubt that most dreams are about these things) because they happen to think about them a lot when they're awake, not because having horny/angry dreams in anyway enhances an organisms's survival chances.

        • Mr F

          "Dolt"? This isn't a youtube comment section, try to remain civil. I agree with the meat of your comment, but if you go back and read the etseq's original comment, it does very much sound as if he/she is calling evolutionary psychology a pseudoscience, regardless of whether that was the intention.

          • Alex

            Ok, my apologies, calling you a 'dolt' was odious of me.

            You were however uncharitable to assume that etseq's comment implied that psychology did not evolve. By definition, any part of a physical organism takes part in its evolution. You don't have to deny this undeniable point to have serious issue with much of what passes for scientific study of how human behaviour evolved.

            Much of human biology can be successfully studied as an evolved phenomena. We can do this primarily because archeology allows us to compare modern with ancient humans, and form a picture of how the human anatomy changed over time.

            Evolutionary psychology is not like this for a number of reasons.

            a. We don't know what our distant ancestors were like, so the necessary comparisons that evolutionary psychology would require between us and them are impossible (for now).

            b. We don't know in proper detail what parts of human behaviour are 'hardwired', so to speak, or cultural, so before we go making up stories about how genes for certain behavioural traits evolved, we'd better be sure that those behaviours are genetic. And we aren't a lot of the time.

            Evolutionary psychology (at least, in its popular form and as exemplified by this article) works by selecting something that North Americans do, declaring it 'human nature', and then coming up with an untestable just-so story about why it conveyed an advantage to early hominids (ie. men are better than women at physics because they evolved to throw spears at mammoths while women would mind cave - this is an exaggeration, but it's not far off).

            None of this means that we should abandon evo-psyc as a project. Every science that deals with humans should ultimately be part of a general theory of how humans came to be humans. But there is a paucity of data and numerous methodological issues that makes this very difficult, and allows the imagination to become untethered and run wild.

            There is excellent work in evolutionary psychology being done by Bowels & Gintis, Michael Novak, and Michael Tomasello, to name a few.

          • Glen McMillian

            I suggest that if you want to understand something about evolutionary psychology you start with E O Wilson.

          • Mr F

            I'm not arguing with you on any of those points, but any science can be applied poorly. Yes, perhaps evolutionary psychology is misused more than others but that doesn't give us permission to banish the entire field to "pseudoscience", because it's not.

        • Glen McMillian

          I am not sure what he meant but if you ask a dozen teachers of English grammar what he said- the whole dozen would agree he called evolutionary psychology a pseudoscience.

          Lawyers of course would gladly argue otherwise if somebody paid them to do so.

  • Alex

    There has been some good criticisms of this article (which starts well but then totally loses the plot), but I'd like to add one more. It's A perfect violation of number 3 of Jonathan Mark's '10 Points for Evolutional Psychology' ("What 1000 male college students in Texas think about women cannot be extrapolated to the minds of the entire human species"). I have no problem with the idea that many of the dream-descriptions collected involve men fighting/women gossiping - but it seems more plausible to me that they're just dreaming about the the interactions and anxieties of modern American life, rather than living out some ancient survival-enhancing wetdream? Or whatever. Am I the only one who found the linch-pin explanation of how dreaming might enhance reproductive fitness (in the 4th, 3rd and 2nd last paragraphs) to be completely incomprehensible, in that I can't work out how it furthers his argument?

    • michaelroloff

      Recall that dream language is over-determined, thus the surface of the dream meaning (as analysed in a waking state) does not reveal all, or the contradictions. Dreams themselves, including dreams during REM sleep, have other functions - memory condensation and inscription, clearing out mentation "debris" of the prior waking stretch - that contribute to mental health and survival fitness, Dreams invariably end in an erection or the equivalent clitoral state, thus sexual wishes are invariably one aspect of the dream, People who are -or become - incapable of dreaming are seriously mentally ill. Whether dreaming, quantity or quality, itself contributes to fertility strikes me as an entirely uninteresting question.

      • DS

        "Recall"? By that you seem to mean, "Remember what Freud said... and we must never suggest anything different."

  • Chris

    Sleep and dreams have too much been neglected by neuroscience and related research fields. Perhaps it is just because, quite unsurprisingly, what affects the aware mind interests us more given that we are most cognizant of such interests while awake. However, McNamara is part of a crucial corrective project of this oversight.

    Previous commentators seem to fall into three groups: proponents of alternative interpretations (That is fine and a necessary part of the scientific process!), falsificationists (people espousing a philosophy of science at least one century out of date and repeatedly shown by scientists and philosophers of science not to reflect actual scientific practice... Such people, please read some Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, etc.!), and recalcitrant Freud-haters. Yes, Freudian theory has a whole lot wrong with it, but McNamara is not endorsing Freud wholesale. Rather, he is saying that at a broad level with great generality, Freud was more correct than wrong. (To be generous, McNamara is perhaps a little careless semantically with definitive, unqualified statements to the effect of "Freud was right" that imply wholesale endorsement).

    Sex is indubitably a major component of dreams, for it is a major subcomponent of life. Inasmuch as dreams activate regions of the brain deep in the brain (i.e., evolutionarily old regions), such basic biological needs, sex as an evolutionary necessary activity will play all the more prominent of a place. Future research is necessary to fill in the picture, but that is of course the case for every scientific matter. McNamara makes a lot of a sexual dichotomy and the differences in REM dreams that correlate with it. However, sex is not a dichotomy, and neither is gender. How does gender, sexual identity, age, nutrition and/or health, political leanings, stress levels, education level, beliefs on roles of the sexes/genders, etc. reflect the content of dreams? Most university researchers use university students as their subjects. What controls are there for using subjects in their prime reproductive ages? What are REM dreams like before adolescence and after menopause, for example? The science is solid, but it is also relatively early in its stages. Thomas Kuhn may even qualify it in the pre-paradigmatic stage. That is all and well. Just don't dismiss McNamara or those like him just because his approach aligns with the general scope of the much aligned Freud!

  • FredO

    This "research" really is warmed-over cow turds, just like Freudianism itself. There's essentially no role for dream interpretation in treating anyone with a real mental problem. And psychoanalysis is dying because it doesn't work and is a series of just-so stories. The affluent neurotic just love Freud, but it's basically narcissism on their part.

    The absolute garbage that credulous people believe related to Freud and Darwin is stunning.

    • michaelroloff

      Discourse via name-calling, FredO, you'd be yet another Americretin!

    • April

      Maybe you should do your own research on the author before making claims about the quality and validity of his research. McNamara has run several EMPIRICALLY SUPPORTED studies on sleep and dreams and nowhere in this article is he giving a full endorsement to Freud and his ideas. He is merely saying that there may be some truth in *some* of the ideas Freud had and is exploring those ideas in a way that Freud never did/could. Additionally, his research on dreams is not solely based on interpretation of what dreams mean. There is a biological and neurological basis here he is trying to find and HAS found. He didn't read a few dreams and come up with some wishy washing general meaning of dreams, he used EEG and content analysis and other well-validated measures to go along with all of this. "Warmed-over cow turd" type research doesn't typically get funded and supported by well-established institutions and organizations, and these studies certainly would not have been able to happen in the first place if if there was no support.

  • Frank Knarf

    Jesus. I mean Freud. I mean, well, shit.

  • disqus_6HfnTuxPSq

    The only way to top Freud for pseudoscience is to run in evolutionary psychology, so this article hits the exacta.

    Freud at one time or another in his published writings made these three assertions, which I quote verbatim:

    ● Every dream is a wish which is represented as fulfilled.
    ● The wish that creates the dream always springs from the period of childhood.
    ● The powerful wishful impulses of childhood may without exception be described as sexual.

    Aside from the unlikelihood of these assertions, and how easy they
    are to disprove by simply making an inventory of your own dreams, notice
    Freud's penchant for universalizing his propositions--evidence of his
    disease of reductionism. EVERY dream is a wish-fulfillment; the wish
    ALWAYS springs from the period of childhood; the wishes are WITHOUT
    EXCEPTION sexual. Close readers of Freud know that this is not
    rhetorical heightening; this is precisely what is being asserted.

    Accusing Freud of hasty generalization so understates his mania that
    we need a new terminology. From only 18 cases, he pronounced the
    discovery of a new "source of the Nile" in studies of hysteria: the
    seduction theory of 1896, which proposed that ALL hysteria is produced
    by sexual trauma. In 1897, he decided he was wrong -- NONE of it is. In
    1898, he solved the "riddle of the Sphinx": from a SINGLE case, HIMSELF,
    based on a self-analysis, came the replacement theory of the Oedipus
    complex. Now ALL neurosis is produced by FANTASIES of sex. When he
    treats Dora in 1900, he is already forcing her into the Procrustean bed
    of the new Oedipal theory.

    "The Interpretation of Dreams," dubbed his "masterwork" by McNamara
    presumably because he is as easily gulled by Freud's theory as Freud
    himself was, likewise was generated by ONE case, the Dream of Irma's
    Injection. He decided, on a single day in 1895 (July 24), that it gave
    him the key to EVERY dream WITHOUT EXCEPTION in ALL cultures throughout
    ALL of history. Needless to say, he was equal to the task of jimmying
    all his subsequent dreams, and the dreams of his patients, into
    confirmations of his theory, just as McNamara has no difficulty in
    doing. Nothing is easier.

    But the real background is this: Irma was Emma Eckstein, a real
    patient of Freud's, who not only failed to get better under his care,
    but nearly died when he had his great friend Wilhelm Fliess come from
    Berlin to operate on her nose as a cure for excessive masturbation. (I'm
    not making this up.) Fliess left the gauze packing in her nose by
    mistake and she nearly bled to death before Freud's eyes. But in the
    actual situation, we find the inversion of the dream situation, which
    seems to point to Freud's relief that it was Fliess, not Freud, who
    endangered her. In real life, Freud excused Fliess and blamed Eckstein
    for bleeding "hysterically" out of sexual longing for Freud. You know,
    transference. (I'm not making this up.)

    I could go on. But I know that argument is unavailing. With Freud,
    and Freudians, seeing is believing, as this article amply demonstrates.

    • DS


      • disqus_6HfnTuxPSq


        ● I argued in my book, "The Interpretation of Dreams" (1900), that every dream is a wish which is represented as fulfilled, that the representation acts as a disguise if the wish is a repressed one, belonging to the unconscious, and that except in the case of children's dreams only an unconscious wish or one which reaches down into the unconscious has the force necessary for the formation of a dream. ("Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria," better known as the case history of Dora)

        ● The wish that creates the dream always springs from the period of childhood. ("Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria")

        ● The powerful wishful impulses of childhood may without exception be described as sexual. (Lecture 4 from "Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis")

        "Source of the Nile." ("The Etiology of Hysteria," a paper presented to to the Viennese Society for Psychiatry and Neurology April 1896 and later collected in a volume co-written with Josef Breuer)

        For his renunciation of the "seduction theory," and his account of discovering what he almost named the "Hamlet complex," the letters from Freud to Fliess are indispensable. But you have to read Jeffrey Masson's complete edition, because the earlier edition left out everything embarrassing to Freud. The Eckstein debacle is also exposed in the complete letters. Peter Gay, in spite of being a Freud idolator, gives a very good account of this episode in his biography of Freud.

        • DS

          Fair enough. I've read a bit of Freud, but figured that even he must have recognized that some dreams (wish fulfillment or not) were not about sex - e.g. when someone is starving and they dream about food.

          • disqus_6HfnTuxPSq

            To be fair to Freud -- which goes against my grain -- he said that dream content is "over-determined," which means that it has multiple inputs, only one of which may be sexual. So, for instance, another of his ironclad principles is that one input comes from the "day residue," an occurrence during the last 24 hours (never 48 hours). If you go to bed hungry, you may indeed dream about food. That's the manifest content.

            But the latent content has to meet his requirements about wish-fulfillment, sex, and childhood impulses. When Dora presented him with a dream about the house being on fire, Freud elicited the day residue, which was an argument her parents had been having about whether to lock a particular inside door at night. Her father said he didn't want his children to die over something so trivial. But Freud moved on to its Oedipal content: Dora is consumed by the fire of her desire for Herr K, her resistance notwithstanding. In the dream, her father-protector fails to save a jewel case. That's Dora's you-know-what, which is the object of Herr K's campaign. When Freud explained his interpretation to her, she said, "I knew you would say that."

            But Freud still hadn't unearthed the connection to a childhood impulse. That came with his analysis of the dream's "urethral eroticism." In his colorful interpretation, the warning to a child not to "play with fire" is a disguised warning not to wet the bed. (I'm not making this up. Freud was nothing if not industrious.)

            Freud sometimes complained late in life that his critics were wrong to say that he said that every dream is about sex, and this idea of over-determination is presumably his out. I think familiarity with his oeuvre would indicate that for him the sexual aspect was always the most salient.

          • michaelroloff

            Freud was an ingenious genius! Read his A CHILD IS BEING BEATEN and you will come to admire him for the sleuth he was. However, Freud did not wish to analyze Narcissism and narcissist injuries - and if you merely look at the series of his own dreams that uses in I.O.DREAMS, you will note that he must have been often seriously aggrieved. Analyzing narcissism was left to Heinz Kohut who thus actually salvaged the analytic enterprise by going where no one else had systematically ventured except Jung. And it is in that area that the indeterminacy of modern physics may play a role, for narcissist explosions can resemble nuclearlike events.

        • michaelroloff

          What is called the Oedipus complex is scarcely in dispute except that certain African tribes, so as to avoid its contentiousness instituted what is called "the avunculate", that is formalized a gentler way through that childhood passage that evidently can persist long after childhood.

          As to the abandonment of the seduction theory and deflecting events of that kind into the imaginary, the more or less actual state of affairs would seem to be a mixed bag of both. Yet the scandal in either case is that sex and childhood are mixed up, that the civilization refuses to acknowledge a child's wishes for sexual union and pleasure. The rub of the matter ctd. to be western society's inability to understand and accept sexuality. Thus its distortions which abound.

    • michaelroloff

      It does not do to distort Freud. He suggested that all dreams have a fulfillment element, and quickly realized that the matter became problematic in cases of dreams of punishment of the self - perhaps the idea of underlying mascochism (no masochism without sadism) is too facile a solution to this problematic.

      On the matter of sexuality, all dreams end in an erection or the equivalent clitoral arousal - which of course does not mean, and Freud never maintained, that the most interesting aspect of dreaming was that it also was sex driven and centered. Sexuality is sexuality not matter whether infantile or not, and since dreams involve a regression why not call it "infantile" ? as compared to "MATURE AMERICAN MALE SEXUALITY"????

      • DS

        Where is the evidence for your statement that "all dreams end in an erection". Actually, how can you claim to know anything is true about "all dreams"?

        • michaelroloff

          I trained as an analyst but then decided not to practice. "All" of course, like the word "everything", is hyperbolivc! But all the analysts and patients I have talked to report the like. I imagine that there are instances when a body is too debilitated, although still able to dream, but cannot manage to "get it up." I myself was rather pleased on finding out that my erections that I reported with my dreams were a "universal" phenomenon. I have not checked into case histories that are distorted by serious masochism and death drives, whether the will to propagate is absent in those instances.

          • DS

            So are you retracting the statement you made about "all" dreams ending in an erection? What you actually meant was "some dreams end in an erection"? Makes quite a big difference, don't you think?

      • disqus_6HfnTuxPSq

        I don't wish to be combative, and ordinarily would not bother to answer the imputation that I have distorted Freud by quoting him verbatim. But this technique of salvaging Freud by misrepresenting him is endemic to his defenders. We who take him at his word are said to be misreading him; then we are "corrected" with a bowdlerized version that softens his fierce certainties.

        • michaelroloff

          i live quite happily e.g. with Freud's notion that each dream also culminates in a fulfillment. however, as we know, this fulfillment (or fulfillments) can be rather shocking to the super-ego which then tries to outdo what the unconscious wish has accomplished, or reacts powerfully to it,

          i point you one to a rather famous dream of mine - TRAPPING THE TRAPPER - that was dreamt to catch my first analyst in an unnecessary prevarication

          and to an entry to a wealth of analytic resources that are on line

          To try to hang Freud on the fact that he started with one case - well you know, we all have to start somewhere!

      • june calender

        What is mature about all the students in these studies? Would the dreams be different if the studies were done with middle aged or older people? I suspect so. I'm very tired of reading sweeping conclusions based only on studies done with students. Everyone dreams but not everyone is at their peak reproductive years. Can we talk about adults once in a while?

        • michaelroloff

          I am not sure that sexuality as such ever matures, the drive is stronger when you are young, yet i at age 78 once a week am as horny as I used to be continuously as a teenager. What matures is how you handle your sexuality and your relationship with a partner.

          • DS

            Once a week? Lucky Mrs. Michaelroloff.

  • diharet

    I completely agree with etseq.
    The pseudoscience called--pshychology combined with psychiatry has claimed so many lives and destroyed so many lives citing useless, barbarous reasons that i think by the middle of this century it becomes necessary for each and every authority to close down forever this pseudoscience. Freud, Carl Jung, P.D.Das( retd phychiatry head of Assam's Gauhati medical college), B.F.Skinner etc are all cheats and they have conducted meaningless experiments only to receive numerous grants which needs to be and has been flushed through the toilet. They are like astrologers, of ancienct and modern day india and the way they prescribe is all the--placebos.People should avoid them because brain science is a different matter not to be handled by phychologists/psychiatrics.

    • DS

      Or scientologists.

  • Al_de_Baran

    "I spent two decades trying to prove this simple hypothesis correct."

    How interesting. I thought that, in science ideally practiced, scientists tested their hypotheses to see whether they are correct, and not to prove them to be correct. Thanks, though, for confirming how science is more often than not actually practiced, as opposed to the ideal.

  • mattmark

    It's worth remembering a couple of things. One is that The Interpretation of Dreams was published in an era when what we might call the 'spirit of science' was closely
    allied with philosophical positivism, an alliance that made sense in the context of a Newtonian, deterministic universe where the chief competing explanations for phenomena (including human behaviour) were religious. In such a universe it's perfectly rational to suppose that if causal connections can't be found in the realm of consciousness, there must be an unconscious realm in which things fit together neatly enough to yield satisfyingly coherent explanations. After all, for a positivist there's no such thing as an uncaused event.

    Freud was an innovator and pioneer, but his works reflect the prevailing intellectual climate of his day. One can hardly blame him for his indebtedness to an unstated major premise to which the most progressive thinkers of his era also subscribed. But what are we to make of contemporary 'Freudians,' who live in a non-deterministic, probabilistic universe and who should surely know better by now? Is it possible they've never heard of Einstein, Heisenberg, Cantor, Godel, quantum indeterminacy, etc.? Where have they been for the past hundred years? And what is it they're doing, exactly, if it isn't science?

    This brings us to the second thing it's worth remembering, which is that humans make the world intelligible to themselves by constructing narratives. Leaving aside ontological questions about what constitutes 'reality,' in theory these narratives are supposed to correspond to an objective world of facts, at least to the extent that enables us to navigate our experience relatively reliably, safely and, above all, survivably (which makes pragmatism and utility the tests, not 'reality'... but never mind). In practice, narrative has its own demands, one of the most insistent of which is internal coherence. In pursuit of this coherence, successful narrative highlights 'relevant' facts while suppressing others; and since we're never in possession of all the facts, the aesthetic completeness at which narrative aims inevitably obscures the incompleteness of our understanding of those things narrative is ostensibly about.

    Nowhere is this more obvious than in the narratives we have constructed around mind. Socrates always maintained that the worst kind of ignorance was to mistakenly believe you knew something when, in fact, you didn't, and nothing in the way we have papered over the opacities in our understanding of mind and consciousness can contradict him. The project many inheritors of Freud's legacy seem to have committed themselves to more closely resembles a cross between theology and literary criticism than science. It's empirical, in the sense that evidence is sought; but the tortuous use to which this evidence is put has less in common with confirming hypotheses than with constructing narratives--often very ingenious ones--that have the character of liturgies, the role of which is to support doctrines which themselves resemble catechisms.

    It's all very learnedly done (theologians and literary theorists are similarly painstaking in their scholarship), but in the end the completeness to which the resulting narratives pretend take us far beyond what our current understanding of mind and human behaviour warrants. They succeed as interesting stories (about dreams, motivations, etc.) but fail as explanations.

    • michaelroloff

      "Einstein, Heisenberg, Cantor, Godel, quantum indeterminacy, etc.? " belong to the world of sub-atomic particles which, so far, has not been shown to play a role in the workings of the brain.

      • mattmark

        Your reply suggests a misunderstanding of the crucial significance for positivism of quantum indeterminacy. It plays a decisive role in making the universe to which brains belong non-deterministic, which is what counts for the argument since it undermines the rationale for the existence of 'unconscious' realms of cognition, no matter how brains work.

        (Brains, of course, engage in many processes of which we remain unaware; but this is not at all the same thing.)

        • michaelroloff

          Oh, I though you might reply that on the level of meaning, what with their reversals and over-determinations, dreams could be said to reveal the same or something similar to Heisenberg's cat! You sound a bit like Sartre whose French logic would not allow of an unconscious! Dreaming and analyzing dreams through "free associating' of course proves the existence of a huge realm, as Freud posited, 7/8th of the Iceberg is unknown until of course you enter psychoanalysis or rewalk Freud's route. I happen to have worked with first rate Quark specialist at one time (pre-Gibbs), and cannot say that my my various darlings - Charms, Leptons, Bosons et al - obviate the Newtonian world, limited as it is. Not that I am or can be certain on that matter as to the working of brains considering their amazing workings. I mean my dog dreams too, and I analyze his wish, he invariably chases the eternal rabbit or mule deer!

          • mattmark

            (?) I have no idea what you mean by 'French logic,' despite having taught logic. I can tell you that psych majors don't win engagements with Sartre very often, logical or otherwise.

            Indeterminacy doesn't 'obviate' the Newtonian world we inhabit, nor does it say anything about dreams one way or the other (dreams are 'givens' of experience). What it does do is undermine the notion that if causal dots can't be connected in the realm of consciousness it must be because they're connected in some less accessible realm.

          • michaelroloff

            Sartrean scholastic logic that he used to "prove" the impossibility of the existence of an unconscious. What is important to him that the conscious ego is God! Sartre even sought to introduce a few complexes of his own, forget their names now, and wrote a screenplay of Freud's life, which I think then got made many decades later. Freud was an unwelcome competitor it appears.

            Actually I thought maybe you'd suggest that the object of analysis, any aspect of a dream, changed as soon as you made it susceptible to analysis.

            Every dot I imagine can be said to be a monad, one can posit complete discontinuities between dots. But that is not what you are talking about. Well, what speaks out of an analysand in the analytic situation of course often most surprises him, since the object of the lesson is for the analysand to introject the analysts ear and be able to listen inside himself. Mishearings and misinterpretations are another matter.

          • mattmark

            How curious that someone with so little apparent regard for
            logical relevance would choose to mention logic at all. None of the side-excursions taken in your posts addresses the point being made, the import of which for the type of analysis you want to perform you clearly fail to grasp.

            What is at issue for a psychoanalyst in a non-deterministic
            world is the epistemological status of the causal relations he/she seeks to uncover. A determinist has no doubt that such relations exist; a non-determinist can't be so sure. The catharsis at which free association aims doesn't amount to proof that these relations obtain; all a therapeutic 'success' can show is that the analysand has succeeded in constructing a narrative he/she can live with. The only causal relations demonstrable by this process are those internal to the narrative, those which satisfy the narrator. This certainly doesn't amount to demonstrating an ontological connection; in a non-deterministic world, how could it?

            You have to ask yourself what would constitute proof of such
            mapping, even in principle. A supposition that the 'patient' is 'cured?' What if the patient regresses; does this undermine the 'proof?' If we set off in search of a new validation, based on further free association, how could we subsequently have any more confidence in the new narrative than in the one that no longer satisfies? The premises to which such a quest must implicitly appeal--that human motivations and behaviours form closed sets of complementary pairs; that the nature of the relation uniting these pairs is one of causal efficacy; that the relations are in principle discoverable through some investigative process--do not have the character of disconfirmable, scientific hypotheses; they are corollaries of determinism.

            In practice, even the simplest of human behaviours is mediated by so many factors that drawing causal connections between motivation and action is only possible in the most provisional of senses. The challenge of discerning these connections would obviously be formidable even in a deterministic universe; but at least determinists could rely on the aid of the principle of sufficient reason. In a universe ruled by probability and chance, psychoanalysts along with everybody else are stripped of this advantage.

            Not that the following points have anything to do with the consequences of indeterminacy, but the rejection of the unconscious and the psychoanalytic project in general by Sartre, one of his century's better-known atheists despite a near death-bed flirtation with Judaism, makes no appeal to Scholasticism, never mind God. The metaphysical and ontological views on perception and substance held by Leibniz did not prevent him from being both a rationalist and a determinist. The 'dots' connected by causality have nothing whatever to do with monads; they are propositional facts that gain their significance from the positions we assign them in rational hierarchies.

          • michaelroloff

            " A determinist has no doubt that such relations exist; a non-determinist can't be so sure. " Analysts make suggestions with greater or lesser conviction. However, the intimacy of the analytic situations - despite the physical distance - during which both parties regress and split (self-observe, monitor) once the transference has been achieved - also allows of the transmission of a lot of information that is not immediately accessible to conscious elaboration. One purpose and achievement of an analysis is to live in states of uncertainty. However, there are instances where absolute certainty is yet unavoidable

          • mattmark

            Thank you for the discussion. I don't know if sex rules our dreams but logical relevance has abdicated your posts, and you've succeeded in persuading me that it plays only a peripheral role your idiosyncratic cognitive processes. No doubt your friends find you both entertaining and charmingly eccentric.

            Incidentally, none of us has any way of knowing what your dog dreams... that's basic epistemology. By all means, though, 'analyze' your suppositions; the resulting narrative constructions won't be much more speculative than if the 'patient' had been human.

          • michaelroloff

            Evidently we have differing notions of what constitutes logic, so let me talk about my dogs.
            Big is a 65 pound Ridgeback-Hound mix whom I got as a puppy, she trained easily, and is amazingly attentive and obedient except in one respect, When she spots a deer she starts to tremble, I say "No, Big, don't!" The trembling grows stronger and then she bolts off in pursuit. Usually she returns in a pitiful state of exhaustion and in lieu of deer hide in her mouth with a nose bristling with porcupine needles. She proffers her nose for me to extract the spines, a process nearly as painful for me as for her - porcupine spines have fishhooks at the end, and after extraction leave a drop of blood on her nose and pain in my gut. After Big wakes form her REM twitches and yaps during her dream hunts i put a deer's foot in front of her nose and she invariably nods. And shakes her head at other animal feet, especially those of porcupine. Her twin brother, Li'l, the runt of the litter, has erections during his REM session.

            One matter that McNamara does not raise are incidents of sleepwalking during REM sleep, that is instances where a motive over-rides the need to remain still, any bright ideas why that might be so, and of the psychic constitution that makes for these events?

          • mattmark

            Over the years our extended family has been fortunate enough to own some lovely golden retrievers (reddish coloured), and one fabulous German Shepherd/Samoyed cross. I love dogs and am notorious for stopping to pat other people's when my wife and I are out for a walk. One of my daughters manages an animal hospital.

            Can't offer any guidance on the sleepwalking issue, I'm afraid, or on any other facet of sleep or dreaming (sleep is still not well understood, though it's a fascinating phenomenon). As I said earlier, whether your dogs dream of 'hunting' or something else is pure speculation on your part, since they can't report on the matter. Such speculative 'conclusions' don't even count as inferences since there are no confirmable premises from which they could be inferred. For all we know, Big is escaping predators in her dreams rather than hunting something; or maybe she's just contemplating eating a dog biscuit. As for my own dreams, they don't conform in any obvious way to the 'sex and aggression' model that Mr. McNamara finds so prevalent and instructive, and as role models for wish-fulfilment they fail miserably. Alas, I have never woken from a dream with an erection.

            Your casual indifference to logic and the consequent
            incoherence of our exchange are harmless enough; but the epistemological pretensions of psychoanalysis are not. Too many individuals have suffered needlessly because of narratives imposed on their experience by 'analysts' fumbling in the dark under the guise of shedding light. One of the reasons dissenters are apt to apply the term 'pseudo-science' to purported expertise of the mind is that scientists are expected to distinguish between what's amenable to relevant hypothesis and what's background noise--in short, to be able to identity their subject matter--and those who specialize in detecting 'mental causation' obviously have considerable difficulty doing this and in framing disconfirmable hypotheses. Even astrophysicists seeking information about dark matter and dark energy have a less equivocal sense of what they're chasing and what would constitute reliable evidence of its existence and nature.

            Anyway, whatever your dogs are dreaming please give them a pat for me. (It's in their waking lives that we can be of some benefit to them. yes?)

          • michaelroloff

            On the one hand, you appear to take solace or insist on the indeterminacy that modern physics of sub-atomic events posits - after all, the residue of proton collisions are a matter of interpretation, of naming - yet insist on the hardest of hard science as "proof", whereas you actually ought to abandon any possibility of logical proof of any kind.

          • mattmark

            My dear M., it is of no consequence whatsoever to a logical relationship like Modus Ponens whether events are determined or undetermined.

            Thinking clearly is a bit like doing a maze; if you carelessly stray over the lines you aren't solving the puzzle, just committing the equivalent of a category mistake.

          • michaelroloff

            one day it matters the other it doesn't i think of youdear MM as a neutrino that has passed through me but left no trace!

          • mattmark

            An apt metaphor since there's little evidence that nuisance constraints like logical consistency and making relevant reply have left much trace on your thinking.

            All the same, you must wonder what's inside those neutrinos sometimes. ;-)

  • Peter Morris

    I simply found the statement all dreams are essentially about sex and then the distinction between different types of dream to be enough to completely undermine anything that was said.

  • David Kerlick

    Meaning heterosex. As a gay man, I have no such dreams.

  • Daniel Romani

    I do hope you've read Sex at Dawn before assuming that male competition for the scarce resource of female fertility is part of our evolutionary history, or written into the flesh and blood of the brain.... These things are simply not safe to assume.

    Also, just because there's a survival advantage to being paralyzed during REM dreaming, it doesn't follow that there's a survival advantage to REM or dreaming itself. How does something that happens internally, when others are also asleep, or at least highly unlikely to be watching for signs of eye movement, fit in to Darwin's theory of sexual selection?

    Moreover, what of the theory that dreaming is necessary because the brain needs a break from the effort it requires to build a personal narrative and stay sane (which is borne out by evidence showing that those deprived of REM sleep tend to hallucinate and lose grip on their sanity rather quickly)?

    • michaelroloff

      The " theory that dreaming is necessary" looks pretty much like established fact at this point. My dogs too enter REM sleep! The most intense hunts for the eternal rabbit appear to occur at those times!

  • saksin

    To pick apart the spurious arguments, neglect of alternative explanations for experimental results, and interpretive bias displayed in this article would require an article in itself, if not a book. Suffice it to say that the basic structure of Patrick McNamara's argument is erected on the straw man of the brain as a "neutral information-processing machine", and the mind as an "information-processing device producing unbiased perceptions of the world."

    Apparently the author has never heard of the limbic system (a huge cerebral apparatus for naturally and sexually selected emotional biasing spanning from hypothalamus to cingulate cortex and beyond!) on the brain side, and of so called "prospect theory" and its many related subjects and off-shoots on the mind side (in fact his own article provides copious illustrations of the kind of cognitive biases studied in that busy field). Even if we ignore all this, and take the author's claims at face value, they do not amount to a vindication of Freud's theory, which is that dream content embodies wish FULFILLMENT (or more precisely: a means to preserve sleep by representing as fulfilled wishes what would otherwise awaken the dreamer) - i.e. the complement of the situation we find ourselves in.

    Let me end by seconding Al_de_Baran's comment by saying that to spend "two decades trying to prove this simple hypothesis correct" is not a good way to do science! That time and effort would have been better spent trying to disprove the hypothesis, supplemented with a critical examination of the claims of Freud and the grounds on which he advanced them, along with searching for alternative interpretations of the data McNamara thinks supports his conjecture. That way we might today have been presented with something amounting to science instead of this confession of faith in the quaint ideas of an early 20th century pseudoscientist.

  • Vara Sue Tamminga

    I have to raise the same objection which caused Jung to split from his teacher Freud. There is so much more to dreaming in history and in individual experiences which your theory doesn't account for. Questions. Were your findings influenced by focusing too much on college students as your sample? Even if sexual dreams predominate in the general population, sacred literature in all cultures are full of stories, myths, and dreams which are not necessarily sexual but instead create a spiritual relationship and message access between God and his prophets. Indeed, many times throughout history and in my own experience, dreams prove to be precognitive of important issues and decisions about which the dreamer needs guidance...and show that the dreamer gets that guidance in his or her dreams. These sort of dreams may be the exception to the rule, or predominate in the dreams of older people who, unlike college students, may be working on other issues besides finding a mate. These less sexual messages may occur more often in the dreams of children. I have noticed that my own dreams change radically, depending on my circumstances. When I travelled throughout Europe in my twenties, daily visiting museums, cathedrals and monuments, my dreams were very busy trying to process all those powerful images and were full of responses to the art and culture I was discovering. I have a terminal illness now and am a grandmother. Immediately after my diagnosis, my dreams changed and became very intense and surprising. They are very dramatic but seldom sexual. Throughout my life, I have had several mystical experiences both inside dreams and in the waking state. I am deeply grateful to Freud for pioneering our exploration of the subconscious world and sexuality. Sex may be the primarily issue for most people, especially when they are trying to find a partner, but it is not the only issue which dreams explore. Most of my dreams are not mystical experiences, but the ones that are are unforgettable. Some rare dreams have a mystery and power and revelation which guide individuals and nations for a lifetime. Indeed those dreams recorded in sacred texts guide some civilizations for centuries. I am a professor of poetry. Numerous poets, composers, and artist describe dreams that profoundly influence them. Some describe their poetry or music as a kind of dreaming. Schubert had an amazing dream of a circle of men walking round and round the tomb od a young girl who had died. They were listening to the most marvelous music. After watching them and listening to the music for some time, they finally opened the circle and let him join them. One of my favorite "dreams" is Jung's own near death experience which he records in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. What an amazing voyage he took. He says that after that experience, his work became much more creative and valuable. Dreams explore, I think, the mysterious inner world which is full of all sorts of things. Sexual issues are there of course and they may predominate at times, but we can access all sorts of worlds through dreams, depending on where we want to go.

  • April

    It seems a lot of people are zoning in on the focus on Freud here and missing a lot of the other points the author is trying to make. First of all, McNamara is not making a full endorsement for Freud, nor is he saying that dreams are absolutely sexually based. He discusses implications for aggressive content in dreams, and reason to believe dreams can show something about attachment theory. As for dreams being about sex, WHY wouldn't this be the case on some level when, while in REM, the body is extremely sexually aroused and much of the brain (particularly the part responsible for judgement and impulse control) is shut down? This isn't some abstract crazy idea Freud found, this is a biological fact that is well known about REM sleep. Take a step back and also consider that while most of Freud's ideas are completely (and rightfully so) discounted now, he did lay a basis for this field. And McNamara isn't making these claims lightly or from a few dreams, this is based on legitimate research he's done- yes he's looked at the content of dreams, but he's looked at a large amount of them using a team and validated scales, and he supported all of this with mechanisms like EEGs and fMRI. The fact that McNamara's interest in dreams stemmed from Freud is not equivalent to his research being an attempt at a replication of Freud.

  • Ed Modestino

    How could dreams not involve sex if we are involuntarily sexually aroused during REM? Furthermore, much of Freud's theories have been the foundation of modern psychology and been proven to have at least a grain of truth. Discounting the Oedipal complex and free associating of psychoanalysis does not mean that everything Freud ever said or theorized is hogwash! If you think that than you are missing the point here. Nothing in this article is pseudoscience. Theories mentioned here have been tested and can be further tested. In fact, recent neuroimaging studies have provided objective evidence for some of Freud's theories. I could expound on all of this with detailed examples to back up my statements, but this is neither my article nor my blog. Hate Freud if you wish and even discount him in this case. Feel free to merely acknowledge that we are involuntarily sexually aroused during REM and thus if our dream content follows our body's experience, our dreams will have the sexual content!

  • michaelroloff

    By the way, here the link to a wealth of psychoanalytic material on line

  • geoff Ingram

    Has any one ever done a study of shift workers and their dreaming ?

    • michaelroloff

      there have been a lot of studies of shift workers, back in the 50s, but i have no idea whether studies were made to, say, test whether their schedule affected their dreaming, but look at the link immediately below to soldsresearch and follow the links to dream stuff there.

  • readerviewer

    "Was Freud right all along?"


    • michaelroloff

      Most of Freud's major theories and discoveries - how dreams work, transference, the Oedipus complex have stood the test of time. Not to forget the tremendous edifice built on his work by thousands of analysts since. It appears that that old devil sex continues to be the most contentious part of it - which it ought not to be from the Darwinian p.o.v. that we exist to perpetuate the species, thus children, too, are sexual beings from early on, Pointing out the role of sex appears to constitute a major insult to the self-image of the civilization,

  • Magda

    Science is about asking questions using the empirical method in order to test a hypothesis. What McNamara describes in this article is precisely the way he went about collecting empirical data to answer the questions he posed to himself. Questions that arose from his experience, his personal interests, and the insights of others, yes, Freud included. One may agree or disagree with McNamara's interpretation of the data, but there is no denying that he has presented his readers with empirical evidence to support it. Ideas should be questioned or accepted based on their inherent merits, not on the basis of their proponents.

    • mattmark

      "Ideas should be questioned or accepted based on their inherent merits, not on the basis of their proponents."

      Obviously. But it doesn't follow that one should have to recapitulate indefinitely the reasons why certain ideas have become discredited, and it would be tedious to do so. Pinning labels like 'astrology,' 'phrenology,' 'scientology,' 'positivist,' 'creationist,' 'fascist' and 'Freudian' on complexes of ideas is perfectly acceptable intellectual shorthand when the labels fit.

      "One may agree or disagree with McNamara's interpretation of the data, but there is no denying that he has presented his readers with empirical evidence to support it."

      The 'interpretation' is crucial. Creationists and evolutionists cite essentially the same data but give them different spins, as do Republicans and Democrats, managers and unionists, Christians and Muslims, teachers and students, parents and children, men and women. The notion that evidentiary appeal to a set of empirical data is all that's required to make a view 'scientific' is hopelessly naive. The issue here is not whether Mr. McNamara has conducted an empirical survey but whether the theoretical framework in which he situates the results is epistemologically defensible.

      • michaelroloff

        Not that I am convinced by all of McNamara's conclusions or suggestions but be so kind as to name one instance where " a theoretical framework in which results are situated" are epistemologically defensible. Por favor! x m.r

        • mattmark

          Take your pick; almost any adequately confirmed scientific theory easily satisfies this requirement. Individual and collective non-conscious (or otherwise noumenal) realms of cognition do not; nor do gods, souls, astrological charts or the plots of novels, though such imaginative theoretical constructs often appeal to empirical evidence and play important roles in the speculative narratives whereby people structure their experience.

          • michaelroloff

            sounds very newtownian to me ,only and apple or pear on the noggin seem to count!

          • mattmark

            On the contrary, Relativity and Quantum Indeterminacy 'count,' and Sherlock Holmes' pipe, the number '5' and unicorns are all intentional objects of consciousness with specifiable properties. God and the unconscious have specifiable properties too, while enjoying the same ontological status as unicorns. ;-)

  • michaelroloff

    One matter that McNamara does not raise are incidents of sleepwalking during REM sleep, that is instances where a motive over-rides the need to remain still, any bright ideas why that might be so, and of the psychic constitution that makes for these events?

  • squirrelzilla

    This article makes valid and interesting points about the neurological basis of dreams and sexual desire. It has been proven using PET neuroimaging data by Allen Braun and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health that the reward and motivation centers (limbic and paralimbic regions) of the brain are highly activated during REM sleep, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls attention and decision making, is less active. These findings actually agree with Freud's theory that dreams are related to wish fulfillment and emotional disinhibition. Dreams are highly complex and there might not really be a concrete right or wrong answer as to what their higher mental function is. McNamara's statements are well supported with scientific evidence and therefore should be given consideration.
    Just because the views presented are controversial, they should not necessarily be dismissed as incorrect!

  • dsch

    Yes, Freud was right all along about dreams, but that is no endorsement of this article. The writer seems to have learnt remarkably little from reading Freud (which, I suppose, is something of an improvement on those below the line who attack what they've never read). Over and over again in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud explicitly warns that you cannot take what happens in a dream at surface value, that you have to analyse it in the context of the dreamer's life and culture---but here, every example of a dream is a simple, cherry-picked illustration that stays entirely on the surface.

    On the one hand, it's understandable why the writer makes the mistake of simply using the manifest content of dreams (and of equating sex in psychoanalysis to the reproductive function); it's simply a result of the naive positivism that produced the attacks on Freud by otherwise intelligent people (as well as not so intelligent people, here passim). But what is incomprehensible to me is why, in a good half century of being fascinated by Freud on dreams, the writer never managed to either read Freud carefully, or talk to someone who has, or read something about psychoanalysis. Try this for (just) a primer:

  • ApathyNihilism

    The article still does not make clear why such dreams would be necessary. Why not simply fantasize about such matters while awake? Why not simply act out one's desires and aggression when awake?

    Is the author suggesting that dreaming is a practice/testing field for our desires, fears, aggressions?

    Also, the correlation of dreams with activities the following day (intimacy, sex, conflict, etc) does not prove causation.

  • ApathyNihilism

    Dreams are far more interesting than the waking world.

  • L0

    Stopped reading the moment it became evo-psych. Pathetic.

  • Misti

    Psychological crisis and conflicts along with its physiological transmission, broadly have substantial effect conceptualizing the ever desired phenomenon behind the dreams, despite depicting with a handful thought of science, signifying this issue with a more intense emotion

  • Nina Menkes

    You should read a bit about Jung's ideas on dreams. This is an incredibly limited and self serving theory. More than anything, its a boring way to live and imagine the unconscious.