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Professional News
Amazon People's Dreams Hold Lessons for Psychotherapy
Psychiatric News
Volume 46 Number 5 page 9-9

In 2008 and 2009, two psychoanalysts visited a population group in the Amazon rainforest who place great emphasis on dreams and dream interpretation.

The visiting analysts were Beth Kalish, Ph.D., from Los Angeles, and Charles Fisher, M.D., from San Francisco. Fisher is also an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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Beth Kalish, Ph.D., and Charles Fisher, M.D.: "A dream may "predict" the future because it represents the unconscious intentions of the dreamer, as well as the anticipated response of others." 

Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel

The people they visited are called the Achuar people. They live in the southeast corner of Ecuador, near the border with Peru. They have had little contact with the outside world. They build their lives around dream interpretation. Members of each Achuar community awaken daily, hours before sunrise, to share their dreams. The dreams are interpreted by elders of the clan. Dream interpretations are then used as a basis for making group or individual decisions for the day.

During each of Kalish and Fisher's visits, an Ecuadorian man familiar with the Achuar served as guide and translator. In addition, they were guided by members of the Achuar community. And during both visits, they went to villages that could be reached only by canoe to gather data about the Achuar people's dreams and dream interpretations. This included witnessing the interpretation of dreams by the Achuar, interviewing them about these interpretations, and talking informally with them about the dreams. They also supplemented these observations with previously published anthropological studies of the Achuar.

Although they have not yet published their findings, they did report some of them at the American Psychoanalytic Association meeting in New York City in January.

There are two categories of Achuar dreams, they found—€”those that occur after consumption of plants that cause hallucinations and those that occur without the ingestion of such plants. Dreams following the ingestion of hallucinogenic plants are thought to be more reliable for interpretative purposes than dreams without the ingestion of the plants, although considerable weight is given to the latter as well.

Some of the frequent themes that appeared in the Achuars' dreams, they found, were anxiety, problem solving, group rivalry, punishment, wish fulfillment, sexuality, aggression, and envy. But not shame. This surprised Kalish and Fisher, since many other cultures have shame-related dreams. Perhaps the Achuar do have shame-related dreams but are reluctant to share them with outsiders, they speculated. They did not find any shaming processes in their observation of, or reading about, everyday life.

One of the Achuars' major beliefs, they discovered, is that the soul resides in the head, and during sleep it leaves the head and travels around and makes observations. The information that the soul gathers on these journeys is then incorporated into dreams. They thus believe that the source of dreams is a deeper reality outside the psyche of the dream, whereas analysts tend to view dreams as the product of the unconscious mental life of the dreamer.

Another of the Achuars' major convictions, they learned, is that dreams can sometimes foretell the future. A young woman, for example, related how her father had had an ominous dream, but nonetheless went into the jungle the next day and was killed.

Could there be anything to this conviction? Perhaps, Kalish and Fisher said. But in instances in which dreams seem to predict the future, they stressed, it might be due to the dreamer unconsciously absorbing information from the environment and incorporating that information into his or her dream, rather than actual precognition. An example of where this might have happened, they said, concerned an Achuar man who dreamed that he was going to be attacked by spears. The next day, he wasn't attacked by real spears, but he was attacked by them figuratively in that he learned that some damaging rumors about him were circulating in his village. He thus might have been unconsciously aware of such rumors before dreaming and incorporated the unconscious awareness into his dream.

And in other instances, Kalish and Fisher proposed, the Achuars' dreams might predict the future in that they represent an unconscious plan of the dream and the anticipated response of others to this plan. In other words, the dreamer engages in an action in his or her dream that the dreamer would really like to engage in—€”sort of a test drive—€”and imagines via the dream how people might respond to it. And if the dreamer then actually carries out such an action in real life, he or she might conclude that the dream predicted the future.

Such dream mechanisms undoubtedly occur in all of us, not just in the Achuar people, Kalish and Fisher stated, and if that is the case, then their Achuar dream findings have implications for psychotherapy.

For example, as they later told Psychiatric News, psychotherapists should "take dreams very seriously as important communications from patients. They should look for ways in which dreams reflect the desires, plans, and fears of the patient. They should appreciate dream thinking and logic as a form of thought that can be as sophisticated as anything we think when we're awake. And finally, they should be attentive to their own dreams, as these dreams may provide insights into what is transpiring in their work with patients." 9_1.inline-graphic-1.gif

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Beth Kalish, Ph.D., and Charles Fisher, M.D.: "A dream may "predict" the future because it represents the unconscious intentions of the dreamer, as well as the anticipated response of others." 

Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel

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