The investigation of unconscious processes is a cornerstone of psychoanalytic study and treatment. Freud’s keen interest in dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious” has influenced analytic thinking for over 100 years.  The convergence of neurological research with the study of dreams and unconscious processes offers a unique perspective on human emotions, motivations and behaviors.

Mark Solms, a neurologist and psychoanalyst, describes how in dreams, the brain activity of the frontal lobes is dormant (i.e., inhibited or under activated). Normally, the frontal lobes are the “scene of action” with their goal-directed systems guiding cognition while we are awake. With this part of the brain quiet during dreaming, the scene of action shifts to the posterior forebrain, activating the parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. The perceptual systems are now dominant: visual senses, spatial orientation and other senses predominate in dreams.  We experience ourselves in dreams beyond the realm of verbal logic. 

Solms’ research into the area of dreams goes back several decades. He published Neuropsychology of Dreams in 1997. This is a case book of people who have suffered neurological injury. Part of Solms’ research correlates types of brain injures with particular disturbances in dream functioning. When you look at the parts of the brain that are activated in the dream state, these are basically the same areas of the brain that are activated in emotional states. “The dream occurs instead of motivated action” (Solms and Turnbull, 2002, p. 202).

Solms writes about the basic-emotion command systems such as the SEEKING system, “which runs from the transitional area between brainstem and forebrain to the limbic components of the frontal components of the frontal and temporal lobes. … The SEEKING system is a nonspecific motivational system engaged in looking for something to satisfy need” (ibid, p. 210). The other basic emotion-command systems include the Pleasure/Lust subsystem, as well as the Rage system (involving the amygdala in the limbic area), Fear, and Panic systems. All have neural pathways to the upper brainstem, which connect from there to all the major body systems.

When the SEEKING system is damaged, patients lose interest in objects in the world, and dreaming ceases. Interestingly, in the case of psychosis, damage to the SEEKING system decreases hallucinations and delusions.  Solms speculates from the growing body of neuroscientific research that dreams are motivated ideas in line with Freud’s wish fulfillment theory. In dreams, he says, we go a little crazy, “the insanity of the normal man.”