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Nightmares and Dreams

da | Feb 12, 1991 | Articoli pregressi

The present work appeared in issue 10 of the “Bollettino dell’ Istituto Italiano di Micropsicoanalisi”, first semester, 1991

The attentive reader who follows the scientific edition appearing in the present review will surely have noticed the repeated attempt of the redefinition in micropsychoanalytic terms of the concept of ‘Dream’ developed by various authors  of the International Society of Micropsychoanalysis (Fanti, Peluffo, Bolmida, Zangrilli) and will have understood that the oneiric process is considered in a substantially different way in respect to the traditional psychoanalytical literature.
If we pay particular attention to the technique of the analysis of dreams which is usually used in micropsychoanalysis it is clear that what one tries  to obtain is the loosening and the rupture of the existing ties between oneiric elements in order that mental representations and affects caged by the network of the oneiric subject, emerge. 1
A notable difference between different subjects exists in performing such an analytic study and sometimes we find ourselves in front of subjects who show a great resistance to adapting to the micropsychoanalyst’s indications.
This evidence can allow us to precociously  deduce a diagnostic and prognostic indication which integrates the opinion that we had already made of the case.
Such a resistance, in fact, is an important indication of the intensity of the taboo (attraction-repulsion) which the subject manifests towards the constitutive Void and consequentially of the rigidity of his character armour. Here are the associations of a young patient: “The dream is a thing which keeps things together; moving away from the dream, this wandering without being attached to anything, I have always tried to avoid it. Empty areas, which I try with all of myself not to see, would remain”. Such resistance can assume various forms: There are people who manifest it with an oneiric hypermnesia, radiantly bringing a dream per session, obviously in love with their last nocturnal creation: the unconscious goal is that of never delving into the study of any one dream to preserve it substantially integral.
Such defences are sometimes so strong that they make us believe that they are not totally acquired, but embedded in the same psychic mechanism and finalised in impeding the effective disorganisation of the dream.
Obviously, we may ask why and the answer can only be that the dream maintains our form.
Since the dream is the place of privileged manifestation of the Image and the meeting ground between the phylogenetic information and the ontogenetic vehicle, it is probably through the oneiric process that the energetic coordination of the human being (in other terms, his form) is incessantly renewed, in the same way in which it manifested itself during the succession of infinite attempts which have repeated themselves during the course of generations.
And it is during dreams that, more easily in respect to the other two cardinal activities (sexuality and aggressivity), the exigency of maintaining the homeostatic equilibrium can be more efficaciously satisfied. In other terms, perhaps a little more unsettling, the Image is the set of representations and affects experimented through the course of the generations that have preceded us; it gives us some requests for satisfaction which, in the oneiric dramatisation that has a purely defensive function, can assume any form but in its essence is an allure, a request of returning to the place from which we came: the Void. It is the souls of the dead who call us, Virgil would say. Fortunately for us, the Return can assume the less definitive aspect of the Continuity:  the Image requires us to conform to models of energetic organisation, which during the course of the phylogenesis, have demonstrated themselves to be more suitable for maintaining the psychosomatic equilibrium.
It so happens that certain psychic, somatic and behavioural answers with the passing of centuries, can result no longer necessary or even be counterproductive for the ontogenetic vehicle.
Nevertheless, the Image perseveres in its request for continuity and it is the Dream that, recruiting from its experiential archive of representations and affects, takes charge of satisfying the requests, above all when the relative attempts of satisfaction through the person’s life do not have success because they are obstructed by the situation. These preliminary remarks are necessary to introduce a hypothesis of interpretation of the nightmare phenomenon and its etiological differentiation from the anxiety dream. A view at the table elaborated by Kramer 2 allows us to draw some interesting observations.
Above all the phase of manifestation: whilst the nightmare verifies itself in the NREM phase (states II and IV) the anxiety dream manifests itself in the REM phase when the paradox occurs for which, while the motoneurons and the pyramidal and extrapyramidal tracts are in an excitement state, the spinal motoneurons are inhibited and therefore the peripheral  discharges are blocked. Regarding the reaction of the subject, usually in the case of nightmares the awakening is immediate and spontaneous with the sensation of fear, sweating, tachycardia and tachypnea.
In the nightmare, the amnesia of the representational-affective content of the oneiric process is often present, while in the anxiety dream it is usually absent. To such data we can add the following considerations: we have observed that the manifestation period of the nightmare is associated to the NREM phase (slow wave sleep period) in which an intense anabolic activity occurs, in other terms synthesis  of macromolecules such as the RNA and proteins. It is increased after physical fatigue. On the contrary, the REM sleep is increased after psychic fatigue: new experiences, new data to memorise, necessity of adjusting to new situational stimuli. From this point of view the NREM sleep would seem to have a conservative function (continuity) and the REM one an innovative function (discontinuity). Let’s also consider the concept of the oneiric continuum according to which the human being is characterised by an incessant cellular oneiric activity regardless of the psychic state in which he finds himself (wake, sleep or dream). The human being is incessantly subjected to the demands by the Image finalised to the safeguarding of the psychosomatic balance that are re-actualised by the dream, followed by attempts of dreaming-off which use the aggressivity and the sexuality in the wake state to realise themselves. 3
The REM phases are also characterised by an intense activity of the cerebral cortex and could correspond to the assembling and reorganising activity of the raw representational-affective material resulting from the drive activity reflected in the Id during the NREM phases. This point of view should be considered partial:  it should be said that in the background of the incessant activity specific to the oneiric continuum, during the sleep phases there are periods characterised by an inhibition of the motility, known as NREM periods from a neurological point of view, which periodically lead to phases characterised by an intense cortical activity denominated REM.
The random reactivation of representations and  affects would create requests of satisfaction for the individual with an increasing tensional accumulation. The tensional increase would  tend to the enactment of the behavioural schemes which have revealed to be more appropriate during the course of the phylogenetic evolution for the maintenance of the psychosomatic balance. In the wake state the human being uses the motor skill to achieve such desires with sexual or aggressive modality. It is in the sleep phase that the REM phase self-engages with the muscular atony which characterises it: in this way the dreaming-out 4 would be avoided and the response to the desire would be given in an hallucinatory way. With the activation of the cortical functions the dream plot is woven  and the oneiric vicissitude  is fed to the Image that can, in this way, satisfy its exigences of continuity. A patient: “At night no one used to check-up on me or look after me; who knows where I used to end up… who knows what terrible things happen. I could go into my parents’ room and suffocate them. I do it every night. During the night no one stops me… I can go in my brothers’ room and suffocate them!”. I believe that during the course of the evolution, the necessity for the nervous structures to rest, has lead to the advantageous situation for which, through the regular chronobiological alternation of the various sleep states, the different cellular compartments can lower their level of activity without compromising the global homeostatic function of the entire organism. So, during the deepest stage of the slow-wave sleep (NREM) the transmission of reticular signals to the cortex is greatly decreased or even absent while the REM sleep is defined paradoxical also because some cortical areas are well activated notwithstanding the subject is sleeping (this kind of sleep is the result of a curious mix of the activation of some cerebral regions with concomitant subcortical inhibition).
Nevertheless, the activity of the Image is incessant, as are its requests which nurture the desires of the individual. And, if the requests of the Image are incessant, different is the situation that such requests will find in the individual depending on whether he is in the wake state, the NREM sleep or the REM sleep. In the wake state a subject with an activated cortex and subcortical centres equally activated (in other words an organism ready for activity guided by the cortex); in the REM sleep state a subject with numerous cortical regions activated but with muscular atony (subcortical inhibition: in other words, an organism predisposed to an hallucinatory activity); in the NREM sleep state a subject in peripheral rest with a cortical activity which receives few impulses from the activating reticular system from which it has released itself and has become autonomous (in other words, a defenceless subject to whom the motor action and the hallucinatory elaboration are denied: regarding this point see the interesting considerations by N. Peluffo regarding the subjects in which both the movement and the regular sleep-dream activity are impeded).5
I believe that this simple consideration is sufficient to explain the reason for the systematic insurgence of nightmares during the slow wave sleep stage: the nightmare is in relation to a brusque contact  with the constitutive Void, contact which is amplified and dramatised by the minor possibility of superior integration in respect to the dispersiveness-disintegration of the NREM stage, with the acting-out of a defence mechanism of the “all or nothing” kind, massive activation of the iconic screen and its successive anthropomorphisation during the awakening phase. If I can use a picturesque comparison: in an oceanic situation of contact with the universal Void the Image rises with all its force and demands satisfaction, the human being who is disconnected and atonic during the NREM phase is not able to recruit the images to build a hallucinatory representation which calms the exigences of the Image, which in turn, floods or engulfs the sleeper. In the impossibility of accessing the REM phase the awakening caused by the nightmare is an attempt of escaping the will of the Image to abreact, firstly with the imposing neurovegetative manifestations and secondly with the action, the tensional surcharge.
I would like to underline that Lopez in 1980 had already interpreted the nightmare as an empty dream 6 ; I can only add a little specification: the nightmare is the principal manifestation of the Void taboo (attraction-repulsion)


1 – Peluffo N. • Relazione tra sogno e creatività • Bollettino dell’Istituto Italiano di Micropsicoanalisi n° 9, 1991.
2 – Kramer M. • Dream Disturbances • Psychiatr.Ann. 9,50-68,1979.
3 – Peluffo N. • Relazione tra sogno e creatività • Bollettino dell’Istituto Italiano di Micropsicoanalisi n° 9, 1991.
4 – Fanti S. • La Micropsicoanalisi • Borla Editore, 1983.
5 – Peluffo N. • Relazione tra sogno e creatività • Bollettino dell’Istituto Italiano di Micropsicoanalisi n° 9, 1991.
6– Lopez D. • Dalla relazione analitica come sogno alla relazione tra persone • Gli Argonauti, 4, 1980.