Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Sigmund Dream App, the Ego Trip and the Elusive Soul

The phrase “There’s an app for that” might be seen as a cultural assertion that everything can be measured, rendered and expressed in code.  This is a little more muscular and perhaps insidious than my mother saying there is nothing new under the sun.  Today, the tech sun shines deep inside our souls.

The application, keeping with its binary root, seems best suited to delivering information or providing step-by-step instructions with a big dose of social.  It was only a matter of time before this business would push its way into our interior lives.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the 99-cent Sigmund dream app is available to help people program their dreams, using a list of 1,000 pre-selected key words.  A female voice reads the word or words, up to five, while you are in REM sleep.

John D. Sutter, writing at CNN.com, states that “if you take a look at the list of words offered by the Sigmund app, it’s pretty easy to imagine some dreams that would be totally creepy, if not downright terrifying.  A dream, for example, that includes ‘mountain,’ ‘meadow,’ and ‘rain’ might be soothing, but throw in ‘tiger’ and ‘anaconda’ and, depending on your sub-psyche, things could turn south.  I tried the app last night and didn’t sleep well at all because I was so worried that the ‘panda’ I selected would attack me instead of being cute.”

The sound you are hearing is Sigmund Freud turning over in his grave—again.  This movement is no cause for alarm.  Every time he hears someone say a snake is a penis and a cave represents a vagina, he takes another turn for the worst.  This has been going on for fifty years, about the time it has taken the practitioners of depth psychology to codify dream imagery into a neat book of symbols handed out like candy by a therapist to a willing patient who is somehow assured that the narrative of her inner life has already been written by wiser souls. And now there is an app for that. 

The CNN quote seems quite representative and is consistent with our belief in cultural nominalism: we want to name our poisons.  With an able assist from technology, we expect to be authors of our fictions and writers of our dreams. The interest in becoming masters of our fate and captains of our soul did not begin with nineteen century American Exceptionalism.  The ego has a long and glorious past.  So have dreams, held by our distant ancestors to represent messages from the gods and by some present-day neurologists to represent neural dumping.

Long before SEO and our key word consciousness, we have been naming and classifying things, including psychic complaints.  In Revisioning Psychology, James Hillman writes that in the eighteenth and nineteenth century it was high psychiatric vogue to isolate specific disorders by inventing new names. The list is familiar:  alcoholism, autism, catatonia, claustrophobia, exhibitionism, homosexuality, masochism, schizophrenia, and psychopathology.  A famous dispute between French and German doctors regarding hysteria lasted into the 20th century.  Germans insisted that hysteria could only apply to women because the word meant uterus and if French psychiatrists found hysteria in men, this told us more about Frenchmen than about hysteria.

I’m not certain what Hillman would say about the Sigmund app.  He would say that the psyche or soul is not under our control.  It is “autonomous.”  He is emphatic that we should not take our dream images literally. In the earlier quote, John Sutter is concerned about the panda turning ugly and perhaps tearing off his face.  This is understandable, but nonetheless reductionism.  If we find our dreams populated with weird mythological figures, better we accept them as fictions and perspectives.  It is no more surprising that mythological figures would invade our dreams than they do the big screen and popular culture.  After all, this is our cultural and psychic history, however much repressed.  Why do Thor, Hercules, Eros, Venus and the rest of the zodiac still resonate with us in the 21st century, if only as cinematic parodies of themselves or throwaway additions to a Happy Meal?

That the panda might go postal in my dream is of course a concern.  We all want to be rocked to sleep with the sound of a babbling brook.  But depth psychology reminds us that dreams are also about pathology, what we hide and what we fear.  Among those things we fear, as individuals and as a nation, is death.

And, if there’s an app for that, I haven’t seen it.    


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