03-02-2020 at 19:57

Dreams in Group Analysis

Søren Aagaard
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This article describes a significant topic in the theoretical field of group analysis. And the article link/connect to psychoanalysis. “The interpretation of dreams” (Freud)has played a major role in the childhood of psychoanalytic theory which since then has taken many directions. 

According to dreams Søren Aagaard shows some of the developmental steps from Freud, Jung to S.H. Foukes, Robi Friedmann amongst others and how to use dreams in a group analytic setting.


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Dreams in group analysis

Søren Aagaard

Clinical psychologist, group analyst, psychoanalyst

                                                                                  To whom does one relate one´s dreams?

                                                                                                                         Ferenczi 1912

Dreaming, dreams, dream-telling and dream-work is most valued in Group Analysis (GA). But also  dreams, due to their ”nature”, bring with them both theoretical and therapeutical most intriguing   chalenges and perspectives.

 Foulkes and Bion were the two great innovators of GA, both of them also on dreams and groups. This article deals only with the work of Foulkes, Bion's work deserves another article.


” The dream, ”the via regia to the unconscious” has changed its values in the move from the one person to the two-person situation” (Foulkes, 1964, p. 126), that is from the psychoanalytic setting to the group-analytic situation, ” dreams are influenced by the dreamer´s situation, and quite especially by such deep-going ones as the therapeutic transference (T) situation in psychoanalysis or group analysis respectively, and that these two situations show up for study quite different aspects of dreams, dreamers and dreaming”, (ibid, p. 127).

A fairly strong statement: the two situations show up for study quite different aspects of dreams, dreamers and dreaming!  A dream is not just a dream! Dreaming and dream-telling takes place in a context. Foulkes was obviously in search for ways to study dreams in (his) recently formulated and still developing theory of group analysis.

In 1957 he, together with Anthony, he had stated: ”Whereas other psychotherapeutic groups work only or mainly with the manifest content of group discussion, group analytic therapy uses this manifest content to arrive by a process of analysis and interpretation at a latent content, in a way similar to that which psychoanalysis uses the manifest content of a dream to discover the latent dream thoughts”, (1957, 1984, p. 37).    

In the corresponding passage from 1964 concerning dreams Foulkes explained, that an orthodox psychoanalytic approach to dreams in group analysis is quite impossible, because individual free association cannot take place. He went on to tell that in his ongoing psychoanalytic practice dreams might have the property that ”the manifest content has meaning in relation to the ongoing current transference situation. We very often use that aspect as a genuine communication for the purpose of analysis. Now this is exactly where positive use of dreams come into the group situation. We can express it thus: that the dream as told to the group is left to the group to analyse”, (1964, p. 165).

Not to the group-analyst, but to the group!

 Foulkes did not go further into what his thinking or meaning, or may be rather different options, of the term ”analysis” were? Out of the texts, and the context in which they are written, in my reading, it stands out pretty clear that ”analysis and analysis” in an individual and in a group setting were not exactly the same things. Both contents and processes were different.         

Foulkes wrote explicitly from the perspective of a psychoanalyst. The quotations are  from texts written 55-60 years ago, at a time where in psychoanalytic circles fierce discussions on the importance of the manifest dream in relation to the latent dream took place. Foulkes mentions these controversies among psychoanalysts, and warns stronly against the mistake, that a group analyst should fall into the trap of analysing resistances in dreams reported in a group  as if the dreams were told and worked with in an individual psychoanalytic relationship. - Foulkes´ use of the concept of resistance refers to the classic Freudian conception of dreams as defensive and disguising.  

So what does the group analyst do about a dream in the group? Foulkes again: ”The group analyst in my approach does not reject dreams, of course, but treats them as any other communication according to their dynamic significance. Above all in our view, every dream in the group is the property of the group”, (1964, p.127).

What does this statement exactly mean?  Foulkes described how narratives in the dream may, consciously and unconsciously, shed light on the dreamers particular relations in the group, on the group-as-a-whole, on events in the group, on reflections and occurrences in the group. He brings a long example which clearly illuminates that he, the conductor, is part of the group that analyses a dream. Also that he is more active if the group does not participate or contribute too much; (see also Pines 2002, p. 26-27).

This was in 1964. In his last book from 1975 Foulkes only brings the same example as in 1964 and does not go further into dreams. In Selected Papers from 1990 there are no specific entries to dreams; they only appear in connexion with the theme of resonance.

As I read  these central passages on dreams in group analysis it seems as if Foulkes gradually changed his mind-set about work with dreams in group analysis. He left (or possibly partly left) his original psychoanalytic stance concerning the value of manifest and latent contents of dreams, and thus also the opinion that dreams are by definition disguising and defensive. Implicitly Foulkes, in his group analytic practice, stepped down from the interpreting prerogative of the psychoanalyst; now he left it open to the group-as-a-whole ”to analyse” the dreams told in the group.

Dream and interpretation

What about the ”via regia”? Dreams are ”the royal road to the unconscious”, Foulkes wrote.  But are dreams in themselves enough? Is it not the interpretation of dreams that is the ”royal road” - work with and interpretations of dreams that may pave the way to a deeper and fuller understanding of a dream?

Freud did not invent dream interpretation, that is as old as mankind. Freud invented a specific theory and approach to the understanding of dreams, called psychoanalysis. Within that conceptual framework interpretations of dreams was essential: ”Die Traumdeutung aber ist die Via regia zur Kenntnis des Unbewusten in Seelenleben”, (Freud, 1900, 1976, p. 613),(”But dream interpretation is Via Regia to knowledge of the unconcious in psychic life”). In classical psychoanalysis, the necessary premise to ”the royal road” was the dream but it only became sufficient as by way of psychoanalytic interpretation (Deutung).

But, in Foulksian GA, dreams are analysed in the group processes! By participation of all members and the group analyst. Certainly, a radical change of context in comparison to the psychoanalytic situation, both in respect to working with and understanding of dreams. And ”the via regia”? I think Foulkes left it open. As an innovator he opened many areas for futher exploration and study. That is also the case with dreams. He wrote: ”Keep free to develop such concepts as are born out of the group situation and relevant to it”, (1964, p. 121) . His own indications and guidelines were fairly few, not too systematic and a most often optimistic on part of the group.

Dreaming and relation    

”To whom does one relate one´s dreams”, Ferenczi, the first intersubjectivist in psychoanalysis, asked in 1912, And he gave the answer: ”We analyst know that one feels impelled to relate one´s dreams to the very person to whom the content relates”, (p. 349). -  Ferenczi refers both to a context: ”we analysts”; and to a relationship: ”to the very person ..”.

Transferred to the context of the analytic group: ”we group-participants, including the conductor, know ..”: And to the relationship: ”we group-participants know that one feels impelled to relate a dream to the very group and its participants to whom the content relates ..”. -  But do group members feel that way? Or do they rather experience their dream as too personal and a private property? Foulkes saw the dream as ”particularly an individual creation, not meant for publication, for communication with others”, (1964, p. 126).  

A dream is a nocturnal experience, very often difficult to hold on to and remember in waking life. A dreamer may have all sorts of feelings and sentiments about her/his dream. The dreamer may have nobody to tell to (like a motherless child), or the dreamer may have a partner, a family-member, a friend, a psychotherapist, an analytic group, a social dreaming matrix, ect.

We know that it means a lot, both for the formation of dreaming-processes and for affects and narratives in the dreams in which context the individual, the dreamer, finds her/himself, and how the context, the situation and relation is experienced.

The dream not told in the analytic group belongs to the dreamer. The dream told in the analytic group is the property of the group! Again an either/or. I think it is closer to the truth that a dream told to somebody else does not any longer belong  to the dreamer only, I stress ”only”. It belongs to

the dyad, triad, the group, the society in which it is both generated and told. But ”belong”, of course, does not mean the same thing for dreamer and listener. All group analytic litterature I know of accepts and respects this fundamental point of departure. I think Foulkes´ expression ”property of the group” is questionable.  

Work with dreams in GA

Reading group analytic litterature on dreams the general experience of many group analysts seem to be that Foulkes´ recommendations are valuable guidelines but not very sufficient in clinical practice. Most writers have, in some way or other, come to the experience that a group conductor in various ways will have to learn the analytic group what can be done about dreams, how to deal with them to attain some of their richness and wisdom.

I render some examples:

Rutan & Rice (2002) advice the group therapist to:

1.     value dreams,

2.     allow members to associate interactively, develop norms of association, and do not to move to interpretations,

3.     relate to adaptive task of dreams narrative and affections,

4.     relate to adaptive task of group in relation to the dream,

5.     dream-work may enable to re-work earlier losses (experiences, trauma),

6.     be attentive to material from dreams represented in group-dynamics, and vice versa: group-dynamics represented in dreams (group dream), (p. 39-41)

The wording ”allow” implies that the group therapist shows to the members of the group how it is possible to relate to and  participate in the narrative of a dream and the emotional tone and whole atmosphere of it. -  Rutan & Rice use the term ”adaptive” more or less synonymous with coping. If   the narrative of a dream f.ex. is about loss both its contents and emotions are seen as adaptive/coping with the loss.

In Karterud´s (1999) Norwegian textbook on group analysis (not translated to English) there is a chapter on dreams with many clinical illustrations. About technique Karterud wrote: ”In practice you (the group analyst) have no other alternative than to learn the group to work with dreams. The first step in this learning process contains some amount of education”, (p. 438, my translation). He also brought many examples of his endeavours: to go a bit forward and ”show” the group; to stay behind and support the group´s efforts: to pick up points from the group´s exchange and formulate a more comprehensive understanding, ect..

Behr&Hurst (2005) are on the same wavelength: group members ”have to be encouraged to relate their dreams freely and gain some understanding of what they convey to them. Group members are often unaware of the value of dream. They may have to be invited to recover and capture their dreams”, (p. 116).

Friedman (2002) distinguishes between dream and dream-telling. He has developed a specific method of the work with dream-telling in therapy groups. The technique has 4 steps, (p. 50-54):

1. re-telling the dream: when the dreamer has told the dream the group narrates the dream.          together, possibly elaborating on various aspects of its story-line and structure,

2. analysing the dreams content: the group takes a deciphering view, the manifest contents may convey possible meanings which can be explored  together with the dreamer,

3. deciphering ”latent” material: group participants try to detect and clarify hidden meanings and symbols (the unthought known),

4. interpreting the dreamers relations and patterns in the group´s dynamics: an interpretation aims at making unconscious (personal and social) links between the dreamer´s inner world and her/his relations to the group-as-a-whole, its members, its conductor, ect., and the external world in general more conscious.

There is the dimension of time between here-and-now and there-and-then in Friedman's method. First here-and-now, the actual and more or less specific, later possible hidden meanings, deeper layers – forth and back, back and foorth.

The general trends of the analysis of a dream in a Foulksian oriented group seem to stand on these two feet: to be on the here-and-now in the group and its actual dynamics, on manifest or pre-conscious transferential and projective phenomena, on resonances within the group and possible social unconscious implications the dream might have or refer to, and on psychic life of the group in general. And at the same time, if the dream opens for it, also including the individual history and  developmental background of the dreamer and the dreams told, of the memories and the inner worlds of anxieties and hopes.

Methods: paradoxes and competences

As it will appear Friedman´s techniques are examples of how to make groups or how to learn groups to work with dreams, so that the group-members for one thing realize that dreams are most valuable for their subjective and intersubjective understanding; and also that GA does not loose ”the analytic gold” but gains from it: the richness and depths of dreams as an essential part of psychic life.

As in psychoanalysis and other analytic approaches also in GA work with dreams demands specific psychotherapeutic competences. Seen from the perspective of technique it seems to me that the described methods imply at least two paradoxes:

Usually a group analysts does not teach, and usually a group analyst values member´s spontaneous reactions and responses. But in work with dreams the group analyst will, to some extent, both have to relinquish from here-and-now, that is will have to use her/his professional insight of  dreams and how to work with them in a semi-didactic manner, and more or less lead the group´s processes. - (In a general understanding of functions of the group analyst this could be perceived as one a the conductor´s tasks as the group´s first servant.)

Why is this so? Fundamentally because dreaming and dreams originate from a different register, from another order than waking life. It is a universal experience that the sense of dreaming, the feelings, the persons, the relations in a dream may be, and quite often are, of a (very) different kind than experiences in waking life. To recall and remember a dream can be difficult and more or less impossible because ”the language” of the dream, that is the ways in which the psychic life expresses itself, may be  very different to waking life. But not necessarily unknown: people may know more or less of their dream-life and its manifestations.

Put in another way: dreaming is a complex psychic process that ” wechselweise nutzt die dualen Kognitionsmodi: den bildhaften, sinnlichen Primärprozesmodus und den spachlich verankerten Sekundärprocesmodus”, (Lichtenberg, Lachmann & Fosshage 1999, in Jimémez, 2012, p. 815), (alternatively make use of the double way of cognition: the figurative perceptive primary processes and the linguistic founded secondary processes). Dreams and dream-telling most often have both horizontal and vertical vectors. Horizontal: the actual life-situation/ here-and-now; vertical: personal history, deeper individual- and group-layers of (un)consciousness.

Generally, writings about work with dreams in GA are underpinned by a deep conviction of the therapeutic value of dream-work, fundamentally due to the wholeness and insight of both the individual psyche and shared mental experiences and relations that are possible in GA.  The appearance of multiple resonances and mirroring are pointed out. If a group has a sufficient free culture of exchange in regard to dream-telling and individual reactions to it, participants experiences and understandings of both self and others may be significant, deepening and enriching, sometimes also frightening and bewildering.

Present psychoanalytic theories of dreaming and dreams

As Foulkes did in his time, so GA in our time may be informed and take inspiration from the ways dreams and dreamtelling are understood and worked with in psychoanalysis, as well as within other analytic movements, dream-research, ect.

It is well known that psychoanalysis has not for many  years been a unified theory. There are many and different schools within psychoanalysis. What follows here on dreams and dream-theory is mainly founded within self-psychology and relational psychoanalysis. (I shall limit this part to a few central quotations.)  

The meta-psychologcal foundation of psychoanalytic thinking has shifted from drive to affect:

 ”The role of affect as an organizing principle in human motivation and behavior has been increasingly acknowledged .. the capacity to integrate intense and conflictual affective experiences into the personality is viewed .. as an essential component of mental health and … survival”, (Grenell, 2008, p. 223). Dreams and dreaming serve a compensatory and regulating function in the psyche´s balancing and equilibrium:  ” . dreaming . is one aspect of a self-regulatory system that attempts to restore psychological equilibrium by bringing the dreamer´s attention to contents of mind that have been warded off”, (ibid. p. 225).

The hypothesis that dreams serve compensatory and regulatory functions were already put forward by Jung (1934): ” . to dream contributes to the self-regulation of the psyche by automatically bringing all what is repressed, denied or not known to the fore” (p. 36). Jung considered that we during sleep and dreaming will have as many and as different motives as when awake, otherwise the compensatory functions of dreams would be limited.

In a sense Ferenzci´s (1912) thoughts of dreams were on the same line. He proposed the theory that dreams, often laden with anxieties and repetitions of trauma, rather than to be seen as wishes of avoidance of horror and psychic terror, might be understood as trials of finding new and better solutions and compensate for traumatic (real) life-events. If this, in the dream, turned out unsuccessful, as a nightmare, the dream in itself became a new trauma.

Fonagy (1999) has similarly about the modern perspective on dreams written, that ”they may be trials of solving conflicts.  Many actual theoreticians have underlined the adaptive functions of dreaming, besides the more traditional accepted libidinal and aggressive functions”, (p. 76).

Dreaming is ascribed adaptive, integrative, compensating and also complementary functions: ”We can see this illustrated in the manifest dream without resorting to ideas about disguise. This lead to the idea that the language of the manifest dream is different from the language of waking life, and that it needs translation rather than interpretation. Dreams can be understood as dealing with problems that are active at the time of dreaming, but are problems because of their connections with earlier unresolved problems”, (Greenberg & Pearlman, (1999, p. 762).

Ever since Eriksson´s (1954) seminal article on the value of the manifest dream (the metaphors often being ”shell” for the manifest, ”kernel” for the latent) a continuous discussion has taken place. Foulkes, few years after Erikson´s statements, seems to have endavoured to stand on both feet. Also Fonagy formulates himself including and balanced, though much actual writings have an either/or quality about them in this respect.

Generally Freud´s classical, and at his time innovative, distinction between manifest and latent has no longer the same indisputable importance. It is founded within drive theory and based on the thesis of psychic repression and disguise. Leading theories in present day psychoanalytic thinking are founded on affects, attachment, relating/relation and self-development. Within these approaches the fundamental understanding is that dreams are not defensive, they do not necessarily hide, they may open up and inform, tell or show insights and glimpses of the inner psychic life, at times in codes not so different from waking life´s discourse, at other times in very different and enigmatic codes.

The history of dream-interpretation in psychoanalysis is a long and troublesome story of tradition,

 ortodoxy, conservatism, ect., but also of different opinions, discussions and renewals. The modern psychoanalytic theories, though as mentioned not completely new, and their clinical practices bring  with them both challenges and opportunities to the individual practitioner, psychoanalyst and/or group analyst.

One of the major changes over the years concerns what the unconscious ”is” or includes. In our time both more and something different than at the time of Freud´s conceptualizations. ”The unconscious” is not only the subjectively repressed from there-and-then; it  is also the relational unconscious in the here-and-now; it consist of what is social unconscious in a number of meanings of ”social”; and it may involve the collective unconscious in various ways.    

Group-dynamics and work with dreams

We are such stuff as dreams are made on – we human beings share that. There is a subject, an ego, a self that, sleeping, creates nocturnal images and stories with all kinds of emotions. At the same time, in GA, there is a fundamental approach to psychic life, formulated by Foulkes: ”We are concerned first of all with psychodynamics. These are rarely, if ever, confined within the boundaries of the individual, but regularly include a number of interconnected persons. They are transpersonal manifestations”, (1964, p. 180, see also Friedman 2015)). We are individuals with inner lives – dreams one of them. And we are subjects in relationships and contexts – day and night. This is, these days, more or less common sense,  in line with modern developmental psychologies.

So, to return to the question: to whom does the dreams belong? It seems obvious that the answer is not and either-or, but a both-and.

Reflections of Friedman (2002), in a chapter on dream-telling and containment in group therapy, for  one thing underline the need for security and trust ” .. a  dreamer´s  request for containment constitutes an early basic and latent relationship, which may be re-established in therapy .. ” (p.55). But further Friedman (ibid, p. 50-54) operates with 3 approaches or levels to dream-telling and work with dreams in groups, approaches which seem in full accordance modern psychoanalysis:

            1.  informative – looks for connections between the personal and interpersonal, particularly     

                 in the context of the group,

2.     formative – has the dream coherency, a story-line; is it fragmented of chaotic. Does it need help to be (better) formed,

3.     transformative – possible alternative or complementary perspectives on the dream-content  and the dreamer´s experiences of her/his dream and dream-telling.

Friedman´s formulations converge an old wisdom of dream and existence, put in frames of time: the dream-telling is now, the dreaming was last night or the night before but dream/dreaming also evokes both the past (Memoria) and the future (Imaginatio). This constitutes a given basis for dream-work in general.

My reflections on methods: proposal of combined group-analytic and psychoanalytic techniques of working with dreams:

1.     Listen to the dream and the way(s) it is told – listen with your mind evenly suspended,

2.     Don´t interrupt the narrative, associations, rapports of daily events, ect,

3.     Follow the atmosphere(s) of the dream – feel them (reverie),

4.     Remember the dream as concrete as possible; if not: ask specifically,

5.     Keep in mind: in the dreamer´s experience most often there are differences and steps between dreaming and dream-telling,

6.     Keep in mind that the meaning of the dream may be very different for the dreamer, for you,  for members of the group and the group-as-a-whole,

7.     Make an effort to multi-task: keep all possible steps, versions, meanings in mind,

8.     Let the dream ”circle” in your mind, between the two of you in a dyad and in the group – stay with the dream-images,

9.     What/whom does/might the dream relate to – here-and-now/there-and-then,

10.  Gradually: let the tentative understandings take some form in your mind, in the dyad, in the group,

11.  Be as aware as possible of aspects and material not understood, or not fully understood – accept it for the moment,

12.  Reflect on the dreamer's, your own and group member´s eventual understanding of the dream and its outline: how obvious, how obscure; how close, how far to the dreamers conscious/unconscious experinces. How much does the understanding ”cover” ? Part of the dream/the whole dream?

13.  Don´t aim for ”grand” interpretations,

14.  Stay within a dialogic manner of communication.


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