Dreaming as a Parallel Universe

January 8, 2013

    There are various claims, both scientific and fictional, about “parallel universes”.  A parallel universe, of which there may be many, operates through different laws and has different natural phenomena than our usual universe, known as “reality”, with its day/night and seasonal rhythms, its sun, moon, stars, and galaxies.

Dreaming has often been referred to as an alternate or parallel universe.  In our dreams we can pass through time or space in ways that would be impossible in our actual daytime lives.  Events that would be considered miraculous in ordinary reality are common occurrences in our dreams.  Dead people can come back to life.  People from different time periods can appear together.  We ourselves can do things that we have never done and never would do in our actual lives.

For scientists, dreaming remains a mystery.  It seems to have something to do with memory, and emotional memory in particular, but the details remain uncertain.  Dreaming may play a role in problem solving, since many people, including some famous scientists, have reported having dreams that provided solutions to scientific questions they had been dealing with.  Dreaming may help in problem solving by putting a current situation in the context of comparable situations one has encountered in the past.  We don’t know how memories or emotional memories are filed in the brain, but the brain’s filing system for memories might facilitate comparisons across time and space.

A traumatic experience creates an indigestible memory.  The normal dreaming apparatus cannot deal with it, or can only partially deal with it by creating a frightening metaphor (e.g., a tidal wave or a monster) to represent the original trauma. The dreaming apparatus gets stuck, blocking the whole system’s normal operation, and presenting itself as a recurrent nightmare which repeats itself over and over again.

Suddenly our entire parallel universe has been reduced to a particular frightening event.  All time and all space collapse into this event.  We lose the ability to pass freely through time and space in our dreams.  We become unable to deal with emotional stress.  We have difficulty solving present problems.  We become essentially paralyzed, stuck in the past.  We develop full blown posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dream revision therapy attacks the problem directly, by focusing on the nightmare, looking for ways to make it more digestable by the dreaming mechanism.  In revising the nightmare, we don’t need to take it completely apart, but just tweak it a bit, replacing one element with a different one, smoothing a few rough edges here or there.  The goal is Occam’s Razor, the law of parsimony, economy, and succinctness.  In changing a nightmare, we want to get “the biggest bang for the buck”, the smallest change that will produce the largest result.

Why Occam’s Razor?  Because we are dealing with an entire parallel universe.  We are creating a new reality for the nightmare, and we want this reality to be believable and plausible, something that could have happened, even if it didn’t.

Freud’s famous theory of dreaming, now largely discredited, was that dreams fulfill secret (i.e., unconscious) forbidden wishes.  Our goal in dream revision is something akin to wish fulfillment.  We want the nightmare to become wish fulfilling.  We want it to be satisfying rather than terrifying.  Even though ordinary dreaming does not necessarily involve wish fulfillment, dream revision therapy does involve a wish, namely to be free of a recurrent nightmare, to have one’s life back.

The most difficult part of dream revision is convincing the dreamer, or PTSD sufferer, to give the technique a try.  It may seem too simple a solution for a very severe and complicated problem.  How could my nightmare of 25 years be changed and even completely eliminated just by changing its ending?  The method works because dreaming is a parallel universe that has been completely blocked by a trauma, a trauma that keeps repeating itself in the form of a nightmare.  Change the ending of the nightmare, and the nightmare goes away.  Absent the nightmare, the parallel universe comes back.  Along with the parallel universe come emotion regulation and problem solving.  Life returns to normal.  PTSD becomes a thing of the past.

People with longstanding PTSD may feel hopeless and helpless about their predicament.  In order to participate in dream revision therapy, they must be willing to make the effort to overcome their hopelessness and helplessness, if only in their dreams.