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On Learning to ‘Edit’ My Nightmares

Dr. Eric Kandel attends press conference announcing receipt of the Hilton Humanitarian Award by Fountain House Clubhouse, the originator of the Clubhouse model of Psychiatric Rehabilitation
Dr. Eric Kandel attends press conference announcing receipt of the Hilton Humanitarian Award by Fountain House Clubhouse, the originator of the Clubhouse model of Psychiatric Rehabilitation
Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

I dream in story lines. Sometimes, my dreams are reiterations of past things that I have written—though, even now, I wonder if I actually dreamed it first and wrote it later. In any case, what does that say about my memories and my dreams, if I am able to so easily hit the ‘edit’ and ‘revise’ buttons?

I have enjoyed the act of creative writing since I was 8 years old, when I read my first Nancy Drew mystery story. I have been told, however, at various points in the past, that I have strong beginnings and endings to my stories—and no substance in the middle! If this translated equitably into neuroscience lingo, one might expect that I would have a bad memory but, alas, no such luck. I remember too many unimportant things and not enough important ones. So, it would seem attentional difficulties are my true curse…

Most people claim to remember only snippets of their dreams. Some say their dreams have recognizable beginnings, middles, and endings. Can the latter really be true? Or would a psychoanalyst call those screenwriter/dreamers ‘wannabe Joseph Campbells,’ and explain that they have only contextualized their dreams after the fact, in order to try and understand their dreams via comparison to some ancient (re: intrinsic) story arc?

Forget psychoanalysis. Forget Campbell. Here's Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Dr. Eric Kandel: "Once I place [my] memories in the context of the spatial layout of our small apartment, the remaining details emerge in my mind with surprising clarity." He is recalling something which happened in his youth—Kandel has found that when he specifically focuses on imagining his childhood home, he is suddenly flooded with all sorts of details that he had not otherwise considered, were he to try instead to remember a particular night or a particular happening.

It's the same with Expressive Writing - EW - and traumatic event reconciliation - TER – which I studied extensively during my final year at Temple University. The concepts are the darlings of Dr. James W. Pennebaker, from the University of Texas at Austin. Essentially, EW strives to offer a method of ‘writing to heal.’ Any traumatic event (TE), the theory goes, must be considered from an honest place, face-to-face with the reality of a client's most personal context. Perhaps this is a more illustrative example: the Method of Loci would not be nearly as effective if you were watching “Jim Smith” walk the path, instead of walking it yourself.

Consider this: are you ever naked in your dreams? Are you certain that you did not later, upon waking, add the crowd of classmates to your dream? What does that say about memory? There are those among us who are always, even unconsciously, striving to make sense of things. However, there is no evidence that the PTSD sufferer, for example, is prone to analytic fits of self-examination prior to the event of onset; we can extrapolate that PTSD is all the more devastating because the social-learning circuit for "contextualization" failed to fully develop. That, of course, could be where EW comes in.

As we do with our own dreams, we must aid others in the contextualization of their TEs, using, predominantly, varied forms of EW. As memories unfold and are faced head-on, a truly remarkable process of healing can begin to take place.

Must Reads:
1. Kandel, Eric R. (2007), In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-32937-7.

2. Moyers, Bill and Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth (1988). Betty Sue Flowers (ed.). New York: Doubleday, hardcover: ISBN 0-385-24773-7.

3. Pennebaker, Dr. James W.—a catalog of his writings and the theory is available here:

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