Study­ing your dreams: Bradley Cooper swears by it. Would try­ing it un­leash my cre­ativ­ity?

The Guardian Australia - - Science - Mi­randa Bryant

The wildly pop­u­lar new film A Star Is Born, a tragic mu­si­cal love story star­ring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, has re­vived in­ter­est in a some­what ob­scure field: dream anal­y­sis.

Cooper, who also di­rected the film, said in a re­cent New York Times in­ter­view that he used his sub­con­scious to make rit­u­als for his char­ac­ter. Cooper and Lady Gaga worked with act­ing coach El­iz­a­beth Kemp, Cooper’s men­tor, who taught him the tech­nique and to whom the film is ded­i­cated, be­fore her death last year.

While not ex­actly a main­stream prac­tice, dream study goes back at least 3,000 years and has a de­voted fol­low­ing to­day. I was cu­ri­ous; so, on a re­cent Novem­ber day, I de­cided to give it a go.

Hu­mans have an es­ti­mated three to five dreams a night, with Rapid Eye Move­ment (REM), or dream­ing sleep, most com­monly fall­ing to­wards the end of the night. “Dream work” has roots in the tech­niques of the famed the­ater ac­tor and di­rec­tor Kon­stantin Stanislavski and the the­o­ries of psy­chol­o­gist Carl Jung, Kim Gilling­ham, a teacher of the tech­nique, told me.

Dream work is not just for ac­tors, Gilling­ham said. Hav­ing coached film­mak­ers, di­rec­tors, nov­el­ists, dancers and sci­en­tists in how to use dreams to find greater au­then­tic­ity in their work, Gilling­ham says she has seen dreams’ trans­for­ma­tive po­ten­tial for peo­ple across the pro­fes­sional spec­trum.

“For one thing, if we have an un­re­solved trauma or some­thing from child­hood, or a pat­tern that’s in­hibit­ing us, or a pat­tern that’s draw­ing us again and again to ad­dic­tive be­hav­iour, self-loathing be­hav­iour, an old tape run­ning in your head, the dreams will serve up the re­al­ity of that for us to work with,” the 55-year-old, who has been in the field since dis­cov­er­ing it in her 20s, told me a few days be­fore the work­shop.

She also be­lieves that dreams present so­lu­tions. “Psy­cho­log­i­cally, phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally, I be­lieve whole­heart­edly in the com­pre­hen­sive heal­ing pack­age of what the dream brings for every­one – for the plumber, saint, all of us, have this ge­nius guid­ing ma­te­rial com­ing through in our dreams in the night.”

De­spite hav­ing never done any­thing like it be­fore, I was fairly re­laxed about go­ing to Gilling­ham’s class – de­spite be­ing asked to sign a waiver ac­cept­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for “the risks to my per­son and psy­che”. Al­though I’m usu­ally a pretty vivid dreamer, I found the pres­sure of record­ing my dreams made re­mem­ber­ing them more dif­fi­cult than nor­mal. But after lis­ten­ing to the trip­pi­est mu­sic my boyfriend’s record col­lec­tion had to of­fer and avoid­ing tech­nol­ogy be­fore bed, I man­aged to muster one at the last minute. I scrawled the dream down in as much de­tail as pos­si­ble, then hopped on the sub­way and headed to the class.

Go­ing from the noisy rush of the Man­hat­tan streets to the hushed, al­most rev­er­ent, an­tic­i­pa­tion of the softly lit dream stu­dio felt like en­ter­ing a se­cret so­ci­ety. Peo­ple, mainly ac­tors (in­clud­ing some pretty fa­mous ones that I’m not al­lowed to name), were tap­ing sketches – pri­vate images from their un­con­scious – on to the wall and qui­etly mak­ing notes in their dream jour­nals. At the front was an “al­tar” dec­o­rated with flow­ers and can­dles.

Ner­vously, I took out my notepad, con­tain­ing some re­cent dreams and a naive felt-tip pen at­tempt at draw­ing last night’s (it in­volved a chest of draw­ers, a lap­top and, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, the num­ber 53). I took a seat on the only va­cant yoga mat, near the front. Gilling­ham, who was lead­ing the five-hour dream work­shop, gave a short in­tro­duc­tion, then we each lit a can­dle. She rang a hor­ror movie-es­que bell that made me jump, mark­ing the start of our jour­ney into the un­con­scious.

The class was di­vided into two parts. The first was spent largely with our eyes closed, work­ing in­di­vid­u­ally un­der Gilling­ham’s in­struc­tion, men­tally re­vis­it­ing the scene of our dream and go­ing to a child­hood mem­ory. The se­cond was more like an act­ing class and re­volved around a prac­ti­cal group ex­er­cise.

The pur­pose of the ses­sion was to “prac­tice the weav­ing of in­ner work and cre­ative work”. Gilling­ham taught tech­niques such as “whis­per speak­ing” – qui­etly ut­ter­ing thoughts that might be too pri­vate or un­ac­cept­able to say out loud into cupped hands – and strength­en­ing the “con­tainer” (be­ing in­ter­nally strong enough for the un­con­scious to come through). She of­ten in­structed us to move the po­si­tion of the tongue and open our mouths to re­lax the jaw.

Al­though men­tally chal­leng­ing and emo­tion­ally ex­haust­ing – at one point it felt so in­tense that I was nau­seous and, like oth­ers in the room, I was a cou­ple of times moved to tears – I found the first half most im­me­di­ately en­light­en­ing. The group ex­er­cise, where we had to fol­low our im­pulses and spon­ta­neously move and make sounds around the room while be­ing mir­rored and ob­served, was in ret­ro­spect fas­ci­nat­ing but in the mo­ment it felt ag­oni-

singly dif­fi­cult to en­tirely let go of all in­hi­bi­tions. There was also an arts and crafts sec­tion where we made art with our non-dom­i­nant hand and ate snacks.

Do these kinds of ex­er­cises ac­tu­ally work? I put the ques­tion to Emily Cass McDon­nell, a New York-based ac­tor and long­time student of dream work who at­tended the ses­sion. Be­fore she started work­ing with Gilling­ham seven years ago she hadn’t spent much time dwelling on her dreams. But now McDon­nell is a firm con­vert. She reg­u­larly records and ex­plores her dreams, which she said had proved in­sight­ful.

“It deep­ened ev­ery­thing, both my life and my work,” she ex­plained. “There’s a sort of all-know­ing or just deeper-know­ing benev­o­lent in­ner re­source that you have and it has the language of your dreams. Com­ing into a re­la­tion­ship with that is for me just re­ally fun and end­less.”

McDon­nell said her dream work was cru­cial to her ap­proach to her role last year in An­nie Baker’s highly praised off-Broad­way play The An­tipodes, in which her char­ac­ter reg­u­larly peeled and ate a hard­boiled egg. Like she would if she had dreamed about an egg, she ex­plored its sym­bol­ism and its con­no­ta­tions to give the mo­ment on stage a sense of deeply rooted pur­pose that be­came like a “se­cret rit­ual”. While she “did not make any big deal out of it”, it be­came a spe­cial mo­ment that peo­ple com­mented on. “It had a rich­ness that had some­thing to it that other peo­ple picked up on when it was se­cret to me and it’s still se­cret.”

Al­though she is vis­i­bly pas­sion­ate about the power of dreams, it is also deeply per­sonal; dream work helped her deal with grief after the death of her part­ner. After work­shop­ping a re­cur­ring spi­der dream with Gilling­ham, the ini­tially fright­en­ing spi­der be­came a pos­i­tive sym­bol to her. “Re­ally it felt like hav­ing an elec­tric shock,” she said. “It was like com­ing back into life and that made a lot of sense for where I was with my grief.”

Dreams can also play a role in ther­apy, Louis Ha­good, a psy­cho­an­a­lyst and mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Study of Dreams, told me. Like many in the dream world, Ha­good, 74, has the bliss­ful coun­te­nance of some­body who knows an amaz­ing se­cret. See­ing a ther­a­pist who worked with dreams in­spired him to leave the busi­ness world midlife and pur­sue a ca­reer in psy­cho­anal­y­sis, he told me over cof­fee. He says he had a pre­cog­ni­tive dream warn­ing him of prostate cancer, which was di­ag­nosed and treated in 2001. “Dreams have not only been a heal­ing force for me, but also a spir­i­tual [force],” he said.

But there is a lot left to dis­cover. Dr Meir Kryger, a leader in sleep medicine, pro­fes­sor at Har­vard Med­i­cal School and au­thor of The Mys­tery of Sleep, says that al­though hu­mans have been dream­ing “since day one”, sleep sci­ence is still rel­a­tively mod­ern. “Rapid Eye Move­ment sleep, when most vivid dreams ap­pear to oc­cur, was only [dis­cov­ered] in 1953, and that’s in terms of sci­ence pretty mod­ern, so the field is not as new or old as peo­ple think it is.”

Kryger is es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in re­search on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween dream­ing and learn­ing and the process of how dreams are coded. “In some in­stances [dreams] can come back over and over and over again, in some cases for 50 years, and we see that in post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der,” he said. “That’s some­thing that we don’t re­ally un­der­stand in suf­fi­cient de­tail and con­se­quently we can’t re­ally treat it prop­erly.”

If dreams are so im­por­tant to dayto-day life, then why don’t peo­ple pay more at­ten­tion to them? Dr Rubin Naiman, a psy­chol­o­gist and sleep and dream spe­cial­ist at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona’s Cen­ter for In­te­gra­tive Medicine, be­lieves western so­ci­ety sim­ply does not value sleep as highly as be­ing awake. He calls the prob­lem “wake­cen­trism”.

Naiman has worked with nu­mer­ous artists and mu­si­cians – in­clud­ing a “world-renowned rock’n’roll group” he can­not name. As well as cre­ativ­ity, dream­ing is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of good men­tal health, he said. It serves as an an­tide­pres­sant and an anti-in­flam­ma­tory and is good for mem­ory. “We have a night­time ther­a­pist in our head if we dream well.”

But he warned of the dan­gers of us­ing tech­nol­ogy to try to ma­nip­u­late dreams by “dream hack­ing” – a re­cent in­ter­est in mon­i­tor­ing brain waves in or­der to in­ter­rupt sleep to im­pose lu­cid dream­ing. He called “the no­tion that we can in­vade the dream world and do with it what we want” a prime ex­am­ple of “wake­cen­trism”.

“Watch your dreams tonight,” Gilling­ham re­minded us at the end of her class. She said our un­con­scious­nesses would want to re­spond to the work we’d done in the work­shop. I couldn’t help but feel a lit­tle scep­ti­cal. Step­ping back into the may­hem of the city, I felt drained and raw.

But the fol­low­ing morn­ing I awoke to find my emo­tions set­tled. And, true to prom­ise, I had re­ceived a def­i­nite – if not im­me­di­ately de­ci­pher­able – overnight re­ply: the chest of draw­ers was back, this time con­tain­ing a rab­bit.

Per­chance to dream? ‘All of us have this ge­nius guid­ing ma­te­rial com­ing through in ourdreams in the night.’ Pho­to­graph: LSOphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dream anal­y­sis adopter: Bradley Cooper.Pho­to­graph: Vera Anderson/WireI­mage

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