We dream for about two hours every night. By the age of 75 an average person will therefore have spent at least 50,000 hours dreaming: a total of six years. Some people entirely forget their dreams, others remember particularly vivid ones, plus fragments of many more.Other mammals dream too: dogs, for example, and cats, rats and moles. Since nature does not usually give time and energy to useless behaviour, there must be some purpose to all this mostly nocturnal activity.
In Private Myths, Dreams and Dreaming, Anthony Stevens sets out his answers to this particular conundrum, conscious that it is one that has preoccupied man as far back as time itself. As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, he is qualified to describe neurological as well as psychological theories of dreaming. A generous, involved writer who has read omnivorously, he describes the wide range of theories which have been used to explain dreams. He even has some good words to say about Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams while still insisting that it was mostly wrong.
But this is no spoiling exercise in dream analysis without any conclusion. There is one theorist who, for Stevens, has pretty well got it all right. That person is Carl Jung, something of an outsider in psychoanalytic circles, although less so than before. For while stocks have been falling sharply in the Freudian market, shares in Jung have continued to remain stable. His central belief in the inevitability of universal symbols in the deep unconscious is now well in tune with other recent developments in academic psychology. It is no longer controversial to believe in the existence of handed-down "deep structures" as aids which enable children to learn language and to recognise faces quickly. Sociobiologists have described other genetically transmitted human response strategies, seemingly designed for general survival in the environment. It is therefore equally logical to believe now that certain fundamental human imaginative responses may also be inherited.
For Stevens, such imaginative patterns were originally encoded in the brain. Their main function was to suggest and rehearse during dreams those reactions likely to be of most use for survival during the next day. The stuff of nightmares - running away from predators, fear of the dark, falling from high places or becoming trapped in enclosed ones - could also be warnings about situations to avoid in primeval life. As mankind moved on, these pictorial, pre-linguistic messages became transformed, within the more recently developed forebrain, into narratives - the dreams we have today. But far from representing an atavistic return to early life on the savannah, the author believes that our dreams now embody a wisdom we ignore at our peril. For him, they are messages from the psyche warning us when our life-style is becoming dangerously distorted, suggesting paths towards a more satisfying personal existence.
To understand how he gets to this position, it is necessary to know what Jungians believe about the unconscious. For Freud, it was the original swamp; a dark, dangerous place whose destructive powers have continually to be guarded against. But Jung saw the same unconscious as a source of energy and ancient wisdom: a personal gold-mine once its symbolic meanings have been fully understood. …