Dreaming and the Self

April 21, 2014

identity1What is the “self”?  It is our sense of who (and what) we are, both our personality and our actual physical body.  Our sense of self develops gradually and continuously through life, from birth to death.  We can watch it develop in infants as they discover how to interact with the world around them.  We can engage with it in our teenage children as they move toward adulthood, attempting to differentiate theirselves from us.  We can experience it in ourselves as we mature through the eight stages described by Erik Erikson in his fine little book, IDENTITY AND THE LIFE CYCLE: trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, integrity.

Is there a place in the brain that is responsible for our sense of self?  In fact, there are two places, the anterior insular cortex (buried under the temporal lobe) and the anterior cingulate cortex (midline anterior portion of the frontal lobe).  The anterior insular cortex (AIC) includes a map of our embodied self, including such basic emotions as anger, fear, love, disgust, happiness, and sadness, and the particular internal body states that accompany these emotions.  The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) includes a map of our basic emotions plus more subtle social emotions (guilt, pride, gratitude, admiration, trust, envy), along with volitional information regarding potential actions to be taken in relation to these emotions (walk, run, reach, grasp, avoid, approach, embrace, attack, etc.).  The “polyvagal theory” proposed by Stephen Porges in his book, THE POLYVAGAL THEORY, provides a useful overview of brain and body mechanisms of the self.

There is growing evidence that dreaming plays a crucial role in the development and consolidation of our sense of self.  Both anterior insular and anterior cingulate cortical areas are activated during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming occurs.  Stress relief is greater following sleep with dreaming than during either wakefulness or sleep without dreaming.  The complexity of children’s dreams closely parallels the complexity of their waking selves.  Interference with normal dreaming, such as occurs in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), blocks progression through the identity stages described by Erik Erikson (see above).

PTSD is both a disorder of dreaming and a disorder of the self.  Childhood trauma is especially devastating in this regard, because the infantile self is fragile.  Sexual trauma in childhood is even more devastating than physical trauma, perhaps because of the special importance of sexuality in the development of the self.  Gender and sexuality play a major role in our concept of who we are.  Through reproductive functioning (including parenting) we participate in the stream of life, passing on our genes and culture to our offspring.  Work can also be a key factor in the development of self.  Freud stated that love and work provide the basis of a meaningful life.

The author’s primary goal in PTSD treatment is not to block dreaming, but to eliminate nightmares (which block normal dreaming), so that dream work (and self development) can proceed without interference.  Restoring dreaming helps traumatized people reclaim their sense of self.