Compensating Dreams and Polarizing Politics

A response to Ross Douthat

Posted Jul 30, 2019

Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

Dreams might seem like the ultimate in solipsistic experience: a self-created world detached from the rest of reality, revolving entirely around your own personal wishes and fantasies. That’s a common critique of dreaming, and an effective way of discouraging people from paying attention to their dreams.

The problem with such a view is that dreams are not solipsistic. The worlds created by our dreaming imaginations are deeply and actively intertwined with the realities of the waking world, including our social and political realities. Psychologists going back to C.G. Jung have been making this argument for the social relevance of dreams, and so have contemporary anthropologists and cultural analysts like Jeannette Mageo, Robin Sheriff, and Sharon Sliwinski. My research using quantitative methods of content analysis add further support to this claim that dreams accurately reflect people’s concerns about politics, religion, and culture in waking life.

Some dreams go even further. More than simply reflecting your waking life views, these dreams actively question those views, or challenge them, or reveal dramatically alternative perspectives. This can be seen as a special instance of Jung’s notion of compensation in dreaming:  

“Dreams contribute to the self-regulation of the psyche by automatically bringing up everything that is repressed or neglected or unknown…. [They] are compensatory to the conscious situation of the moment… The more ones-sided his conscious attitude is, and the further it deviates from the optimum, the greater becomes the possibility that vivid dreams with a strongly contrasting but purposive content will appear...”

(“General Aspects of Dream Psychology,” in Dreams, trans. R.F.C. Hull, Princeton U. Press 1974, pp. 36, 38, 39)

I thought of Jung’s ideas about dreaming and compensation when reading a recent column in The New York Times by Ross Douthat. The column, titled “The Stories That Divide Us,” argues that the sharp political conflicts of present-day America are driven by radically divergent narratives about social reality. For this reason, Douthat puts his hope in efforts to improve our understanding of the narratives of others different from ourselves:

“All this suggests that breaking out of polarization, thinking for yourself instead of as a partisan, is ultimately more about imagination than information, and not something achieved by becoming better educated in the facts of issue X or Y or Z… Seeing our disagreements through the lens of narrative might get us closer to a crucial insight—which is that in a big, diverse and complicated society, multiple narratives can all be true at once.”

For many people who pursue the study of dreams, this insight comes fairly early in the process of learning about the “multiplicities of dreaming,” in Harry Hunt’s felicitous phrasing. Most serious researchers today, and many people who simply pay attention to their dreams and keep a journal over time, would agree with the idea that exploring your dreams is a powerful means of broadening your imagination and recognizing in a deeply experiential way that “multiple narratives can all be true at once.”

Seen in this light, the following thought experiment proposed by Douthat makes perfect sense, as a way of instigating a dream-like experience of political compensation:

“If I were trying to de-polarize someone, in the way that you de-program members of cults or revolutionary cells, I might hand them a copy of their favorite magazine or newspaper, and ask them to construct a version in which the exact same set of stories were edited and headlined and prioritized by an editor from the opposite political persuasion.”

This is the same basic process that happens naturally when you dream. Instead of a “cult member,” think of your waking self, and instead of an “opposition editor,” think of your dreaming imagination. When you go to sleep each night your dreams take the exact same set of “stories,” memories, and impressions from your waking life and recast them according to deeper priorities of the unconscious and the self-regulating tendency of the psyche toward balance and wholeness. Most of these stories relate to your individual concerns, but some of them relate in meaningful and thought-provoking ways to intense political concerns shared by others in your community.

Something you might keep in mind as the 2020 elections approach.