The Nightmares and Monsters of Psychohistory

Gestalt Theory of Nightmares -or- Children's Ontological Fears and Anxiety Disorders 

Anne Faraday, "The Dream Game", uses a "gestalt psychological" method to understand the nature of nightmares. Gestalt psychology sees perception as an active perceptual formative process that follows the principles of "figure and ground" and "self-organization". One of the holistic tenets of gestalt psychology is "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts". Our nightly dream formation follows the gestalt principles of perceptual growth and development laid down by evolution, the family and the culture we are born into. A gestalt ontological security problem develops for the child, in relation to organizing everyday perception, thought, feeling, reality, and dream formation, that rational problem is fear and anxiety. 

In "Children's Fears" Benjamin B. Wolman provides the reader with a list of children's fears. Many children's fears and ontological insecurities persist into adulthood. These fears, anxieties and traumas become psychologically fixated often morphing into diverse forms of anxiety disorders. These fears, anxieties and traumas then are often repetitively and compulsively played out in our nightmares. The psychodynamic findings of the International Institute for Dream Research (IIDR), suggests that the ongoing nightmare of history is one psychologically driven by the nightmare of children's "psychohistory". Below are four recurring fear and anxiety dreams that can be traced back to a variety of ontological forms of children's nightmares. 

Here are the dreams; 

Brittany, 29 

I have had recurrent dreams that an unknown entity lays over me while I sleep.  It is always very frightening.  Recently, I dreamed that it was an old women who lay over me, but she also touched me and sucked on my fingers (in a gross way).  When I have these dreams, it always feels as if the presence is really heavy.  It's really scary. 

Generalized Anxiety Attacks -or- The Archetypal Nightmare of Helplessness 

Many dreams received by the IIDR have a similar narrative, something "really heavy" is on me, it's "really scary". The nightmare from an artistic perspective resembles Fuseli's artwork "The Nightmare" which was painted over 230 years ago. The fact that nightmares appear to be still experienced in the same way, speaks to enduring archetypal ontological formation of nightmares. I believe that such dreams are symptomatic "forms" of "generalized anxiety attacks". Most likely, we can trace this nightmare back to childhood, when the child did not learn or was not given coping methods and skills to defend itself against such anxiety feelings and is now experiencing "learned helplessness", insecurity and dread.

Sara, 26 

This is a recurring dream. I am enjoying a wonderful day at the beach with perfect weather and all of a sudden, a tsunami hits.  I always see the water revert back in to the ocean and then the big wave.  When the water begins to pull back, I yell at everyone to head to high ground, but no one listens. They begin to run when they see the huge (as tall as the Empire State Bldg) make way towards us.  I always make it alive with all of my family except for one.  The person can change, last night it was my father.  Previous, I've lost a child, my changes and I don't necessarily have any issues with them.  I love my father and have not had any disagreements or he is not ill. 

Fear of Separation and Loss -or- Fear of Loss of Love and Survivor Guilt? 

In this natural disaster dream everyone survives, except one family member. As a child separation from parents is a common and frequent fear and anxiety. A small child cannot survive without the protection, help and care of a parent or care provider. Children as they grow older start to learn to protect and defend themselves from perceived dangers. The emotional problem is clear, we can never completely protect ourselves from separation and loss, nor should we want to. John Bowlby's clinical work with children and theoretical work on Attachment, Separation and Loss provides a psychological background for understanding the psychological formation of nightmares and grief reactions of separation and loss. Loosing a father, a husband and a child may be a an oneiric sign of the fear of the "loss of love" and/or perhaps "survivor guilt"? 

Harry, 42 

I have had recurring dream for a week. I go in to a club/hotel or weird building. I'm with my son who is 17. There is someone that picks a fight with me or someone I'm associated with. I fight and get chased out of building in some dreams where pursuit continues until confrontation outside or confrontation in a building starts. There is face to face fighting until intensity wakes me up in some or almost someone gets hurt. I wake up like I'm actually fighting. 

Child-Parental Dream Transference -or- Parenting, Role Models and Psychohistory 

These recurring dreams are most likely precipitated and triggered by a masculine identification and emotional transference between father and son. Carl Jung actually believed that the child lives in the unconscious (read dreams) of the parent. Parents in terms of their "parenting" role need to understand the developmental aspects of their children's dreams and nightmares, especially surrounding the "psychohistorical" developmental aspects of fear, aggression, pain, pleasure, sexuality and empathy of their children. Benjamin B Wolman discusses children's "fear of aggression" and the "fear of aggressivity". From the child's fear of aggressivity perspective, Wolman discusses a dream of a six and-a half year old boy "who was afraid to go to sleep because he dreamed of ‘horrible, murderous monsters', who actually represented his intense hostility to his mother and the fear of this guilt-provoking feeling." 

From the child's "fear of aggression" perspective, Wolman observes; "Bullies rarely attack bullies, but a shy and timid child is an ideal target and scapegoat. Parents and teachers must not criticize or ridicule the timid youngster, for their criticism will deepen his feeling of inferiority and make him more timid." Parents often want to fight their children's battles, however the child must learn their own ways of successfully defending themselves from physical and psychological attacks. What the child needs, are "healthy role models". 

Zackery, 55 

Recurring Dream (from time to time): I'm driving on a road (usually alone) and the road is pitch black; my headlights are on but you can't see the road in front; I don't dare pull over to the shoulder because I don't know what's on the side of the road.  Sometimes my brakes are working sometimes they are not. Last night I knew it was in the wee hours of the morning and if I drove slow enough morning would break and I would be able to see.  I woke up before I could see the road. 

Fear of the Dark -or- Fear of Being Alone and Lost 

Wolman believes that the fear of the dark; "is rooted in childhood and never completely disappears, but it assumes various forms and is acted upon in different ways and different circumstances." For Wolman darkness has numerous meanings, including feelings of loneliness, feeling lost, and the unfamiliar, the unsafe, and things that are strange. Wolman believes that the primary cause of children's fears of darkness is loneliness

POSTSCRIPT: Trauma Rehearsal -or- Ending Groundhog Day in the Global Village 

Trauma and Emotional Closure-or-Psychohistorical Repetition Compulsion of Trauma 

One of the gestalt laws of perception is the law of psychological closure. Recurring nightmares  are a developmental sign of the dramatic failure to achieve ontological security and closure. From a literary perspective stories such as biographies, have poetic beginnings, middles and ends. In terms of nightmares, this dramatic sequence is short-circuited and the individual becomes psychologically fixated on reliving the memory problem over and over again, seemingly without end. These nightmares become one more "Groundhog Day in the Global Village" (read dream interpretation). 

In one poetic way or another, "everything that has a beginning, has an end." In "Trauma and Dreams" by Deirdre Barrett (ed), the trauma "imagery rehearsal" therapy model of dealing with such nightmares is discussed. From my own perspective, what trauma rehearsal offers, is "cognitive reframing" and learning a way out of our fears, anxieties, trauma and helplessness. 

Applied to the collective dream formation of all those living in the global village the hope is to help all children build ontologically healthy dreams and cope with their nightmares. "Field Notes of a Dream Researcher: 1001 Nights in the Global Village" is nothing more and nothing less than an enterprise of the medical humanities to provide psychological tools for the healthy "working through" and cognitive reframing of our collective dream formation patterns. We all need to face the psychological demons and monsters of the nightmares of psychohistory.       

Further Reading: 

  • Kathleen Nader,"Children's Traumatic Dreams", in; Deirdre Barrett (ed)"Trauma and Dreams"
  • Horst Richter, "Eltern, Kind und Neurose" (Parent, Child and Neurosis)
  • Alice Miller, "Prisoners of Childhood"
  • Alice Miller, "For Your Own Good, Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence"
  • Cathy Caruth, "Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History"
  • Patricia Garfield, "Children's Dreams"
  • Anne Sayer Wiseman, "Nightmare Help"
  • Jeff Belanger, Kristen Dalley, "The Nightmare Encyclopedia"


All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.