copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
In Fear: A Cultural History, Joanna Bourke summarizes emotionology, or the study of human emotions, which “aims to show how emotions were classified and recognized within particular cultures,” summarizing various psychological theories as to what constitutes an emotion and as to what circumstances are involved in the production of the passions. For Knight Dunlap, of Johns Hopkins University, she says, emotions are specific responses that people make to situations. One may fear or be angry with someone else who threatens him or her, depending upon whether the threatened person perceives the other person as having “greater power.” According to Bourke, the fact, Dunlap contends, that a person can respond emotionally in two or more ways shows that the emotions are responses to situations, not “psychological entities” with “unique affective processes.” Instead, Bourke, stating Dunlap’s case for him, emotions are to be regarded as “nothing more than teleological constructs.”
The definition of any particular emotion, such as fear, depends not only upon “the situation in which the emotion appears,” Dunlap argues, but also upon “the psychological and philosophical theory of the commentator.” A case in point is that of a boy given to tantrums:
In their history of anger, Carol and Peter Stearns. . . observed that ‘a tantrum in a society that has nor word for the phenomenon is a different experience for both parent and child than is a tantrum that is labeled, and labeled with a judgmental connotation.’ As the words changed, so too did the meaning of the emotion within a particular culture.Her chapter on “Nightmares” reviews, in summary fashion, how this phenomenon has been considered through history. First, nightmares were regarded as “communication with the ‘other world.’”
Later, they were understood as being effects of bodily states and processes. (Remember Ebenezer Scrooge’s explanation of the cause of his nightmarish visits by ghosts as resulting from a bit of undigested potato?)
Subsequently, evolutionary psychologists believed that the past is to blame for “all kinds of fear, including those inspired by. . . nightmares.” One of their number, G. Stanley Hall, thought that the history of the human race is “recapitulated” in every infant. Emotions have survival value; therefore, through evolution, they were retained”: “fear of eyes dated from the time when human ancestors competed for survival with other large-eyed animals,” Hall declares.
Psychoanalysis regarded nightmares as “latent content” that, in a relaxed state, during sleep, the ego allowed to go unrepressed, and it surfaced, as it were, from the unconscious mind, albeit in a disguised state. What the dreamer recalled upon awakening was the dream’s “manifest content.” The purpose of dreams was to express concealed wishes, and, once their manifest content was identified, with the help of a competent psychoanalyst, Freud claimed, “the disguised fulfillment of wishes would become obvious.” For Carl Jung, a one-time follower of Freud, dreams, including nightmares, “contain images and symbols shared by all humanity,” Bourke reminds her readers, arising from the “collective unconscious” that the members of the human species shared with one another, a product (somehow) of evolution and genetics.
William H. R. Rivers, an anthropologist and psychologist, working with victims of “shell shock,” or, as it is known today, post-traumatic stress syndrome, realized that his patients did not wish to relive the terrors they’d faced upon the battlefield and that, consequently, their “nightmares could not be reconciled,” as Bourke observes, “with Freud’s assertion that dreams were a form of wish-fulfillment.” Instead, she tells her readers, Rivers “maintained that the dream was ‘the attempted solution of a conflict’” that plagued the patient’s waking life.
Nathaniel Kleitman’s research suggests that dreams are more likely to be physiological processes than mental activities. A physiologist himself, Kleitman identified four stages of sleep, three of which are characterized by what he calls “non-rapid eye movement,” or NREM, and one of which features “rapid eye movement,” or REM. On the average, a person “experienced four or five REM periods during a sleep of six to eight hours,” during which periods they have dreams, including nightmares. However, more disturbing dreams that mere nightmares, called “terror dreams” or “an incubus attack” (now generally known as “night terrors”) occur “in Stages 3 and 4, before the REM period.” Kleitman’s research has had a profound impact upon the understanding of dreams, as Bourke points out:
. . . Fundamentally, dreams, nightmares and terror dreams were stripped of significant ‘meaning.’ For some neuroscientists dreams and nightmares were a way the brain rid itself of unimportant information. Dreams stopped the brain from becoming overloaded. We dream in order to forget. Others regarded dream images as the result of random bursts from nerve cells in the brainstem during REM sleep: they were simply the brain’s attempt to make sense of stray signals generated by the lower brain.The upshot of emotionology?
. . . the natural and social sciences were informed by extremely different, even contradictory theories about the nature of emotions such as fear. . . . Clearly the answer to the question: ‘What is fear?’ depends as much upon the psychological and philosophical theory of the commentator as it does on the situation in which the emotion emerges.For those who are not well informed about the alleged nature and significance of dreams, especially nightmares, Bourke’s review of the psychological and philosophical theories is both amusing and enlightening, although there is nothing new here for those who are already familiar with this material. Nevertheless, Bourke’s review is a remedy for those who, devoid of critical thinking abilities, fall prey to psychobabble by those whose own views are by no means certain foundations for psychological inquiry, analysis, or therapy. If dreams are nothing more than instances of what might be called the brain’s indigestion of neural signals (perhaps Scrooge was closer to the truth than Freud), one can toss out one’s dream dictionaries and any theories, such as those of Freud and Jung, upon which the use of such alleged reference works are based. To paraphrase William Shakespeare, the cause of our dreams is in our bodies, not in our minds.
On that note, we will pause, taking up Bourke’s survey of the subject of fear again in future posts.