Juan Antonio Varela: "Every interpretation always leads to a complex".
Psychologist Juan Antonio Varela Raby talks to us about the dream world in therapy.
We spend a good part of our lives sleeping, and of all these hours that we spend in apparent disconnection from reality, a significant percentage of that time is dedicated to dreaming, an important percentage of that time is dedicated to dreaming.. That is, to be conscious, but in a different way to that which characterizes the waking state.
But dreams need not be seen as a simple curiosity that affects one's subjectivity and little more. They can also be seen as an area with potential for psychological intervention. In this interview, psychologist Juan Antonio Varela psychologist Juan Antonio Varela.
Interview with Juan Antonio Varela: working with dreams in psychotherapy
Juan Antonio Varela Raby is a psychologist with a practice in Providencia, Chile, where he treats adult and adolescent patients. In this interview he talks to us about the dream world and its implications in therapy.
What is the relationship between dreams and mental health?
The relationship that exists, from my perspective as a clinical psychologist, is that for mental health the dream world offers a great possibility of being existentially complete.
Accepting the reality of the dream world and integrating it into daily life allows to become aware of and connect with the deepest needs coming from the unconscious, helps to amplify and understand the meaning of unfinished situations or issues in life, allows to know and accept the rejected aspects of the personality, helps to solve conflicts creatively, making better decisions for daily life and to discover symbols and archetypal images that can guide the self-discovery and individuation process...
Considering that lucid dreams exist, does the dream world have potential as a "training ground"?
I think that the potential of dreams can be much more than a training ground. I am of the idea that school teaching should include as educational resources the use of dreams to learn to consider them from an early age, especially when it is in childhood, where the symbolic occurs with great spontaneity.
I believe that it would enhance research and develop in the student an integral growth that creatively involves the contents of other subjects. The act of dreaming can have multiple implications in the classroom, with no good or bad answers, but pure phenomenology.
It would be an excellent tool for self-esteem and respect for the individuality of others. The oneiric contents of each child could be used in their literature, art, mathematics, philosophy, science, physical education, theater, etc. classes.
For example: writing a dream would allow access to training in a more direct and experiential way for the student, learning skills that they have and have not discovered or skills that they do not have and wish to develop. Learning to improve their writing skills, expanding the use of concepts and vocabulary to narrate the dream, would generate material that can be used later for drawing, as well as being able to be analyzed and represented in a theater scene.
Beyond the experience of a lucid dream, the richness of the dream world provides relevant material to integrate the unconscious content in people's consciousness.
How can psychotherapy work with dreams?
There are several ways to work with dreams in psychotherapy; personally I adhere to the techniques developed by the psychiatrists Carl Gustav Jung and Frederick Fritz Perls.
From analytical psychology, Jung was a great analyst of dreams, and is credited with having analyzed more than 80,000 in his life, systematizing in a serious and profound way each one of them. The analysis of dreams was his working method, being the royal road to the unconscious.
The interpretation of dreams offers both the patient and the therapist a new point of view for psychotherapy; the most important thing is that the co-interpretation, that is to say, that it is constructed and elaborated between the patient and therapist.
The final meaning and significance of the dream interpretation must make sense primarily to the patient and not to the analyst; the therapist must be humble with his or her theoretical associations. Jung said that there is no method, but there must be a need for maximum openness.
Jungian psychology has systematized the following practical steps for working a dream in psychotherapy. First of all, reconstruction of the context: what the dreamer is experiencing in his existence (main concerns); the dream is written down describing everything that was dreamt.
Then a chain of associations is described in words, amplifying the symbols chosen from the dream writing.
Finally, the dream series is followed up: every interpretation always leads to a complex, so it is necessary to circumvent the dream, looking for a meaning without losing sight of the dream.
Fritz Perls, for his part, proposes a way of working with dreams based on several more experiential techniques, assuming that dreams are part of the existence of human beings; life also develops and occurs in the dream world. Perls takes from psychodrama some techniques to personify the contents and symbols that arise in dreams, where the patient is asked to narrate in first person and present tense his dream.
In this way a series of experiences and meanings are triggered to the patient in his psychotherapy, which would help to resolve their conflicts that are pending, achieving closures of these gestalt in the psychic organism.
Do the problems of anxiety and stress have a clear embodiment in the things in which the person dreams?
They can have a clear embodiment; in that case we would be in front of a reductive function of the dream, where obvious facts of the dreamer are shown with respect to his symptoms. Anxiety and stress can also arise in prospective dreams, which is what would show the life we are leading and where we are going to get to.
It is also good to remember that there are traumatic or reactive dreams, in which nightmares show the dreamer difficult situations over and over again.
Is it essential to know how the human brain works in order to understand dreams?
From a psychotherapeutic perspective, where what is relevant is to analyze the content of the dream in its context, it is not essential to look for reasons in the neurophysiological functioning, since it is an activity with an exploratory and self-discovery purpose.
To date, science has not been able to explain or affirm whether the unconscious and consciousness exist in any specific area of the brain; it has been possible to describe the areas that are activated with the REM phase or paradoxical sleep (brainstem, thalamic nucleus, limbic and hippocampal area), where the deepest sleep is reached and with a relaxed Muscle tone, presenting rapid eye movements, observing a decrease in activity in the frontal, parietal and occipital areas of the brain.
It is in this state of deep sleep that we can access the unconscious content and dream.
What are the topics about dream research that you think will see the most progress in the coming years?
I personally find that it would be very interesting to see more research where the phenomenological and neurobiological have a more convergent dialogue regarding dreams in infants.
Dreams are less researched in children, there is not much general consensus about their psychological course and the function they have at a neurobiological level. I think that cognitive and emotional experiences should be studied more at this stage in order to generate a greater connection and significance with the symbolic from an early age.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)