A group of Perth Catholics discovered remarkable things about their most intimate life – their nightly dreams – on Tuesday 6 August, as the Christopher Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture hosted a talk by local academic, Dr Philippa Martyr, on dreaming from a neurological, psychological and Christian spiritual perspective.
The study of dreams is called ‘oneirology’ and is as old as humanity, with references to its practise throughout the Bible, central to stories such as Daniel and his interpretation of the dreams of the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar.
Early psychological theories developed by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung tried to uncover hidden meanings in dreams and modern neurology is still trying to understand why people dream, and what brain mechanisms are involved.
Dr Martyr’s talk brought these themes together and compared them to the Christian tradition of dreaming, found in the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and in the lives of the saints.
Dr Martyr recently completed a psychology degree and said that she became interested in the topic when studying theories of perception and cognition.
“Human consciousness is something we don’t really understand, and dreaming is a part of that phenomenon.”
“It’s also part of sleep studies, which are huge now because we know more about the relationship between a good night’s sleep and good mental health,” she said.
Dreams are defined as involuntary experiences of consciousness that happen when you are unconscious – that is, when you are asleep – and while most people dream during sleep, many do not remember their dreams when they wake.
This is because most people have nightly sleep cycles which allow them to wake up naturally and not remember a dream.
But if a person wakes suddenly – if they are woken up, or if they have a nightmare – then they can remember their dreams much more easily.
Dr Martyr says that the major theory of why human beings dream is called the ‘memory consolidation hypothesis’
“This says that dreaming is about the brain consolidating the previous day’s sensory inputs. But there’s a lot of holes in this theory, and certainly it doesn’t explain why we have such widely ranging dreams, even in the one person.”
Dr Martyr used a grim example of how dreams could appear to be precognitive – with dreams being a traditional way to predict the future across many cultures.
Using self-reported data from a popular infidelity support blog, Dr Martyr analysed nearly 140 single and recurring dreams of people whose partner was cheating on them, but they did not know this yet.
Around three-quarters of the dreams grouped around a few key images – infidelity, tornadoes, animal attacks, being wounded, being trapped, being in a house that was falling apart.
All of these reflected a person who felt threatened by uncontrollable external forces – even before they discovered their partner’s infidelity.
However, these could be an expression of unconscious knowledge picked up from tiny signs and signals in waking life.
So what about spiritual or religious dreams?
Dr Martyr says that these are like private revelations – you are free to believe in them or not, they can’t bind you to something, and they’re comforting but not necessary for salvation.
Dreams that are probably authentic communications from God are easy to recognise: they are clear in their symbolism and messages, they are easily remembered, and their memory persists over time.
Dr Martyr recommends journaling or talking about dreams if they are recurring or very vivid. Putting a dream – a series of images – into language is a helpful way of uncovering meaning.
“And above all, pay attention to your waking life – and pursue God in your waking life – and you might find that your dreams can take care of themselves.”
The Dawson Society has been holding talks and events in Perth since 2013 and is named after English historian Christopher Dawson who saw the world of spiritual belief, “as the dynamic element in history and as a real world-transforming power.”
Drawing inspiration from this, the Society was founded to promote cultural and philosophic activities that recognise the spiritual, as well as the material, element in our nature and in society more broadly.
The next Dawson Society talk will be Professor Renée Köhler-Ryan on ‘Catholic Public Life in Hard Times: An Augustinian Response’, on Monday 9 September. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at http://dawsonsociety.com.au/