Wednesday, 28 May 2014

All Sex & Violence: Freud's interpretation of dreams & evolutionary theory

A compelling theory which argues that Freudian Wish Fulfilment Theory can coexist with biological research into the physiological state of REM sleep. McNamara presents research which suggests that dream content is mostly violent or sexual and likely to influence waking behaviour. His explanation for REM sleep and dreaming is that it contributes to the process of mating and reproduction, consistent with Darwin's theory of sexual selection.

Patrick McNamara is Director at the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine. He has spent two decades analysing dream content in the hope that he might prove correct his hypothesis that sex forms the subtext of all dreams, reinstating Freud's debunked theory. McNamara, in his very recent article published in Aeon Magazine, states that from the offset he perceived Freud as a 'secular saint' who was 'willing to take an unbiased look at himself through the raw material of his dreams'. Freud's famous 'Irma's Injection Dream', which occurred on 23rd July 1895 and recorded and analysed in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) was used as the basis for Freud's psychoanalytic technique of dream interpretation (see my previous article on 'Irma's Injection') and is regarded as the 'specimen dream' of psychoanalysis generally. McNamara argues that 'Irma's Injection' is clearly a sexual dream, a sexual wish fulfilment - the dream takes place at a party celebrating Freud's wife's birthday, but his attention is focused on Irma, whom he interpreted as representing a young widow he desired to treat. His friends, including Otto, were portrayed as male competitors. Further, the chemical formula for trimethylamine - the substance which Irma had been negligently injected with by Otto (causing a white patch in the back of her throat) appeared in bold type before Freud's eyes, alerting him to the cause of her discomfort in the dream. Freud's friend and colleague Wilhelm Fliess had referred to the substance as a 'product of sexual metabolism' found in semen. The connotation of 'injection' and the female throat - representative of the vagina - are also quite obvious in a sexual interpretation of the dream content. However, this interpretation has been heavily criticised by those who claim that psychoanalysis and Freudian dream interpretation is based on idiosyncratic associations which are open to endless alternative explanations.

By the time McNamara commenced his career into dream research, criticism of Freudian dream interpretation was full-blown - from 1953 onwards, after Nathaniel Kleitman (a physiologist at the University of Chicago) and his student, Eugene Aserinsky, discovered that dreaming occurred during REM sleep, Freud's theories of sexual wish fulfilment in dreaming were upended completely and discredited as mumbo-jumbo. A new cognitive-based approach to dream content emerged, replacing psychoanalytic theory, treating dreams as ethereal, disembodied products of a neutral information-processing and largely mechanistic brain. Researchers such as J Allan Hobson saw dreams as nothing more than fanciful ad hoc images caused by random neural impulses rippling from the brainstem, the engine of REM sleep. McNamara argues that the physical condition of REM sleep does not preclude Freudian theory - REM could coexist alongside Freud's theories that dreams have a deep unconscious meaning and purpose and some form of evolutionary function. In the late 1970s, whilst working in a Chicago detox centre, McNamara had a sudden and clear revelation: a elderly, ravaged alcoholic male whom he was washing suddenly leapt up with a full erection, lifted a metal table over his head and threw it at a wall, shouting expletives in a sing-song tone. McNamara was informed that the old man was suffering from delirium tremens as a result of alcohol withdrawal. The 'DTs' are characterised by an atypical transition state between REM and wakefulness and the enactment of dreams - which was what occurred with the old man to turn him from a frail invalid to a raging bull.

McNamara state that during REM sleep, males experience prominent erections, while in females the clitoris becomes engorged. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging have shown that the brain's reward circuits and centres are very active during REM. This lead McNamara to conclude that there must be some link between dreaming and sex.

During his academic career in neuroscience, McNamara gathered a large quantity of dream reports and noticed certain thematic patterns, becoming increasingly convinced that men and women dreamed drastically different types of dreams, with sex as a common theme. Often men were engaged in some form of violent or aggressive struggle or adventure, while women experienced dream scenarios were they would be communicating with friends. McNamara used the resource for obtaining dream records - the site is managed by psychologists at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and contains over 20,000 dream reports and was able to find support for his hypothesis that male dreamers are more likely to experience dreams where they are physcially aggressive, while females tend to dream of subtlety denigrating other female competitors rather than physical acts of violence. After he became a Professor at Boston University in the mid-1990s, McNamara confirmed his observations in rigorous studies, which showed that men dream of other men more than they dream of women; and women dream about men and women equally. While male dreamers engage in physical violence against other men, women use verbal insults, rejections and exclusions. 

McNamara believed his research supported Freud's theory that all dreams are about wish fulfilment - i.e. sex. This explained why males dream of violence: in our evolutionary past, this was the way to access fertile females. Females engage in verbal aggression because discrediting competition by spreading adverse or negative gossip was a reproductive strategy. 

In one particular literature review, McNamara found ample evidence that sex hormones surge during REM sleep and dreaming. Prolactin (which enables lactation in females and stimulation of the testes in males) rises rapidly as sleep commences as peaks at 3 am - 5 am, the period during which REM predominates. Release of prolactin can be blocked by sleep deprivation. Similarly, oxytocin (linked to bonding during sex) and testosterone, both of which are linked to the sex drive, peak at 4 am. This correlates with the fMRI studies which show peak activation of the midbrain - especially the pleasure-seeking areas of the brain linked with sex and addictive behaviours such as drug use - occurs during REM sleep. 

However, establishing an incontrovertible link between REM sleep, dreaming and sexual wish fulfilment (under Freud's model) required more evidence. McNamara would need to correlate specific dreams with particular mating strategies in life. He found that the most reliable measure was 'attachment orientation'  - a quality associated with sexual and emotional intimacy. 

Current attachment theory holds that people fall into a few broad categories: (a) in a happy relationship (securely attached to their partner); (b) not in a relationship, but desperately wanting to be (preoccupied and anxious): (c) in an unhappy relationship (preoccupied or anxious); or (d) dismissive about relationships (avoidant). If dreaming represents wish fulfilment, then dream content, dream recall and dream sharing should be lower in those who are satisfied with their current attachment orientation i.e. securely attached, dismissive and avoidant; and higher in those who wish to change their status i.e. anxious/preoccupied. His Boston University study involved hundreds of voluntary subjects from all categories of attachment orientation. The coders who analysed the dreams recorded from the subjects were blind as to the purpose of the study. McNamara was surprised by the results of his study. He found those that were anxious/preoccupied were more likely to recall dreams than those who were securely attached. They took less time to reach REM periods during sleep and their dream content involved higher levels of aggressive and competitive behaviours than the other groups. Both the anxious/preoccupied and the securely attached recalled more dreams than the dismissive/avoidant groups. For McNamara this was the typical pattern predicted based on the theory that dreaming is directly related to long-term sexual and relationship strategies. The anxious/preoccupied subject is passionately interested in forging a relationship with a romantic or sexual target and therefore recalls vivid dreams with emotional content relating to intimacy, whereas the dismissive/avoidant subject suppresses the subconscious desire for sexual intimacy, which is reflected in the dream content. 

McNamara also decided to compare aggression in REM dreams with non-REM (NREM) dreams, which occur in even more shallow sleep states. If it transpired that high levels of aggression only occurred during REM dreams it would strengthen the case that links sex to this physiological state i,e. the hormone surges, activation of the brain's pleasure centres and the stimulation of the genitalia etc. Fifteen subjects were fitted with a 'nightcap' designed by sleep researcher Robert Stickgold at the Harvard Medical School. The nightcap was programmed to beep at random, waking subjects so that they could recall their dreams, during REM, NREM and daytime wakefulness. Coders then scored dream content according to aspects of aggression. Social interactions between men and women and men and men were more likely to be depicted in dreams than wake reports. Aggressive social interactions initiated by the dreamer were more frequent in REM dreams than NREM dreams or wake reports. Friendly interaction initiated by the dreamer was more likely to occur in NREM dreams than REM sleep. Subsequent analysis revealed that where the dreamer was male, targets of aggression could be reasonably interpreted as competition for a sexual or romantic mate. 

With finding from the US National Institutes of Health, McNamara was able to replicate the findings of this study in a fully-equipped sleep lab, using electroenchephalogram (EEG) technology to measure brainwaves, which added rigour and precision to the empirical results. Hundreds of college-age subjects were carefully selected and slept in the sleep lab for several nights.They were subjected to a series of specially balanced awakenings so that all subjects were given the opportunity to recall both REM and NREM dreams. This latter study confirmed the findings of the earlier one, but also revealed new compelling evidence. For example, in dreams involving aggression, the dreamer was the aggressor in 58% of REM dreams, but only 29% of NREM dreams. Where the dream involved friendly social interaction, the dreamer initiated the friendly behaviour in 71% of NREM dreams, but only 42% of REM dreams. In both studies the REM-NREM different was most marked in males and the target of aggression was were competitors relative to the dreamer. 

McNamara questions why humans are exposed to such risks present in REM sleep states if all dreams relate to sex. The REM sleep period is 'dangerous' in biological terms, because the major anti-gravity muscles of the body are paralysed or inhibited and the thermoregularity reflexes are suspended making it impossible to produce internal heat. REM sleep is also associated with intense automatic nervous system (ANS) storms or instabilities. The ANS regulates key physiological processes such as heartbeat - which is why heart attacks commonly occur in the early hours of the morning in the dream-rick REM sleep periods. To summarise, every 90 minutes during sleep we enter a dangerous period of 'twilight' during which our reward centres are activated and we are sexually stimulated, but partially paralysed so that we cannot take advantage of these activations. As key physiological functions of the body collapse, we are forced to 'watch' things which we know as 'dreams'. McNamara asks why evolution would expose us to such risky biological changes which leave us vulnerable to predation and unable to regulate our temperature which could lead to disease. An erratic ANS system presents further danger. If REM sleep has an evolutionary function it must be an essential one.

MxNamara found his answers in Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin's theory of natural selection concerns the evolution of new species by selection of traits that adapt to the environment across generations. However, his theory of sexual selection concerns the emergence of traits and behaviours that enhance the chance of finding a mate and reproducing. Darwin's theory of sexual selection addresses criticisms of his theory of evolution which argue that not all traits help a species to survive. Darwin's explanation was that the spectacular tail or the reindeer's elaborate antlers do indeed expose the species to predators, hinder the animal's movement and have high energy consumption, but many traits of sexually reproducing animals boost reproduction rather than survival in the environment. The peacock's tail acts as a marker of fitness and fertility, attracting peahens and the reindeer's antlers are a weapon to be used in aggressive combat with male competitors during mating season. The objective was to intimidate competitors so much they would give up the fight for the fertile females. The pressures of sexual selection made it an imperative that male species develop weapons and adornments, thus giving a reason why animals develop non-adaptive, costly traits.

McNamara applied Darwin's theory of sexual selection to REM sleep and dreaming. He drew on research into REM Behaviour Disorder, a condition by which the neurons which cause paralysis are destroyed , allowing dreamers to physically move during REM sleep and dreaming. Male dreamers with REM Behavioiur Disorder tend to dream that their partners are under threat or being attacked by other males and physically enact the dream, by defending themselves with actual violence whilst asleep. REM paralysis is therefore a form of evolutionary protection which prevents us from acting out our dreams.

There has been debate into the effect of REM sleep and dreaming on waking life behaviours. Dylan Selterman of the University of Maryland has addressed which topic directly, conducting  a study into couples. He asked the subjects, all of whom were in committed relationships, to record their dreams and daily activities for two weeks. Selterman found that dreaming about some form of romantic interaction with a target significantly predicted interactions and behaviours with others the following day, in waking life. If the dreamer dreamed of sexual intercourse with their partner, they tended to report more romantic or sexual intimacy the next day - but only if the relationship was going well. If the dreamer dreamed of conflict with a partner, greater conflict was experienced the next day.

McNamara states that these results appear to confirm the obvious - that dreams influence waking behaviours, but when you apply the theory of sexual selection to this common-sense interpretation, we are able to draw the conclusion that dreams prefer to influence sexual behaviours. This is McNamara's overall explanation for the purpose of dreaming.   

The material for this article was sourced from Patrick McNamara, 'How Sex Rules Our Dreams' Aeon Magazine (2014) and written by Tallulah La Ghash based on his research.

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