Dreaming as Playtime

I had a funny thought while dreaming.  I don’t recall the details but I was having fun talking with someone I really liked. I don’t know what provoked me to say “if I didn’t dream, I’d be too bored to sleep”, but it woke me up. I jotted down some notes, went back to sleep and the conversation continued.

Sometimes I go back to sleep to continue a dream or to mess around with its story. I like to sleep and dream. Freud suggested that dreams function to preserve sleep and that works for me.

My experience of dreaming is not typical, nor is it fundamentally different from other people’s. It’s a matter of more or less.

As an experimentalist, I was once part of a group that empirically demonstrated that one’s current problems, dilemmas and opportunities are basic units of dream content and connect dream experience to waking life. I think we clarified that the dilemmas and opportunities represented during dreaming are similar to those a person has while awake but less constrained by the realities of the waking world.  This freedom invites dreams to be fleshed out by a person’s imaginative capacities and interests. Freud called this a primary process governed by a pleasure principle freed from reality testing. But clearly dreams are more than this.

Freud also recognized that dreams involve somewhat less deliberate thinking than waking thought and this provides dreams with an impulsive and emotional quality. Deliberation is not so essential when safe in bed. Pleasure and self interest are prominent in dreams with ethical and moral concerns diminished since there is less consequence to what we do when asleep. The diminished role of ethical considerations may follow from dreams being a less deliberate act. What I do in my dreams doesn’t get me in the same sort of trouble that waking action would, and I may be less prone to think about alternatives and consequences.

More and more as I get older, my dreams provide an opportunity to play.

Every dream is personal, shaped by the dreamer’s characteristics relevant to the circumstances the dream offers up. I am not someone else when dreaming but I go places and do things not otherwise possible. When asleep I am very skilled at flying. It took some practice but I’m good at it now. As a child, I’d sometimes crash, but now I soar.

When I say I am not someone else when dreaming, it occurs to me that I have sometimes dreamt I was one of my dogs. But no one who knows me would find that out of character.

Back to my sleepy wonderings.  Here’s the gist of what I wrote down:

1. Sleep is a necessary restorative. I can’t do without it.
2. Some dreams wake me up because they are too arousing, tedious, frustrating, or frightening. (Fortunately for me, these are rare, but those feelings are also rare in my current waking life.  Knock on wood.)
3. If I didn’t have something interesting to dream, after “x” amount of sleep, my waking concerns would grab my attention and I’d awake and be up to my usual mischief. So I get another forty winks, whether I need it or not.

So what I am wondering, and this question woke me up, does playful dreaming help preserve sleep by providing something interesting to stay asleep and think about? Of course, sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. (That, in turn, is a reflection of waking life’s worries and opportunities).  Not to make too much of this, but most dreaming occurs in the later periods of sleep.

As far as I know, dreams as a manner of keeping sleep interesting, as a way of playing, is under-explored in the literature. I am not arguing that the function of dreaming is to have a place to play but rather that dreams present an opportunity to play. Dreamplay might be adaptive but is a worthy thing-in-itself apart from any adaptive advantage it offers; a spandrel as Gould and Lewontin might say.

I have been thinking about play, especially creative play, as a fundamental feature of life, always an option when we’re free of desperation and need, and maybe even then.  Ernest Hartmann describes dreaming as making connections in a safe place. When those connections are fun, there’s reason to remain asleep.

Some references: Schwartz & Godwyn,Action and Representation in Ordinary and Lucid Dreams, 1988. Greenberg, Katz, Schwartz & Pearlman,  A Research Based Reconsideration of the Psychoanalytic Theory of Dreaming, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1992,  and Hartmann, E. The Nature and Function of Dreaming, Oxford 2011.  Gould and Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proc. Roy. Soc. London B, 1979.

Cyndi Lauper made the key point that I am coming to believe is true across the animal kingdom when she sings Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I know I do. Come on out and play.

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

Dreaming as Playtime was originally published @ Freedom, Liberation and Reaction: Lessons in Psychology and has been syndicated with permission.


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  1. Wynn Schwartz Ph.D Wynn Schwartz Ph.D April 17, 2014

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