Dreaming in the time of COVID-19: interview with Elisabetta Pasini and Cinzia Trimboli

We present an interview with Elisabetta Pasini, a training analyst at the Jung Institute for Analytical Psychology in Zurich and Personal Development Elective Analyst at IMD Business School in Lausanne, and Cinzia Trimboli, researcher expert in qualitative methodologies, psychologist and counsellor for the role and organizational development of PSO, coordinator of the Internships and Orientation service for the Master’s Degree course in Education and Development at the Bicocca University of Milan. Both are members of Ariele (Italian Association of Psychosocioanalysis)

MGM. What is Social Dreaming, and what can it be useful for?

EP. Social Dreaming is a way of working on dreams in which the focus is on the dream and not the dreamer. Compared to the individual perspective used by classical psychoanalysis, it is, apparently, a small shift in focus, which marks a big difference. As Gordon Lawrence, the founder of Social Dreaming, says, it means moving from an egocentric perspective to a socio-centric perspective, which is the one that has been used for centuries in many cultures and many different social contexts, from ancient Greece to Egypt, from American Indians to the Far East.

The idea behind Social Dreaming is, therefore, not new. Gordon Lawrence developed it in the late 1970s at the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations in London, with which he collaborated for many years, drawing inspiration from the book by a German writer, Charlotte Beradt, who had collected the dreams of the Jews during Nazism. Considering our social context as the source of dreams today means, in my opinion, opening the way to an entirely new perspective, recognizing the dream not only as a way to approach the individual unconscious (“the direct path to the unconscious”, according to Freud’s famous definition) but above all as a potential to understand the changes taking place in the context, to search for new common meanings to give to our experience, something we need very much. Sharing with others a dream, which is “donated” within the Social Dreaming Matrix, means giving space to our imaginative and narrative capacity, reconnecting us with an enormous heritage of myths, stories and collective narratives that characterize us as humans. I think that this shift is fundamental and that all the potential of Social Dreaming derives from it.

MGM. How does Social Dreaming differ from the mere collection of individual dream?

EP. In a Social Dreaming Matrix, dreams are not merely collected but shared with others within a particular setting. Giving a dream to the group means opening up to the possibility of creating associations and amplifications that others gradually propose, means weaving a web of possible meanings that do not interpret but unites, creates concatenations, relationships. There is a definition of Social Dreaming that Gordon Lawrence gave me years ago during an interview and that I have always loved in a particular way:

Social Dreaming has to do with rearranging the furniture in the world so that it takes on a different configuration, a different sequence, just like a good painter does with art.

So it is through sharing, recognizing and differentiating ourselves, reflecting ourselves in the other and at the same time measuring the distances that separate us from him, that we can experience what the “psychic space of the threshold” that is created between individual and collective means, and discover the importance of this border to activate what Ogden called “transformative thinking”.

MGM. Why do you use the word Matrix and not group when you talk about the sociality of dreams?

EP. The term Matrix should be taken in its literal meaning of womb, incubator. It is a generative space in which something new can happen precisely through that borderline work I was talking about earlier; a transitional space in which, as Winnicott said, I can recognize what is “not me”. It is therefore essential to grasp the difference between group and Matrix because a group is an organism characterized by a system of roles with a dynamic that tends to repeat and reproduce itself in a recognizable and interpretable way. At the same time, the Matrix is a potentially generative space in which new meanings are created; one can give meaning to change. We live today in a reality that we tend to define as “fluid”, in which change constantly happens before our eyes, lacking possibilities to elaborate and contextualize it. Today we have many contents but few containers, that is why I consider the Social Dreaming matrix so important, because the spaces for the elaboration of change that we have at our disposal today, despite the statement, are really few.

MGM. Social Dreaming assumes that the unconscious does not only elaborate things that happen, but in a certain sense, it is also a premonitory one? Moreover, how do you practice “dreaming”, referring to the fact that you train to dream, in short, you say that dreaming is a form of thought…

EP. Jung talks about the compensatory function of the dream, which means not only giving space to the removed but also helping to establish new balances between conscious and unconscious, and thus give rise to new thoughts. I believe that premonitions, in dreams, can be compared to the crossing of a threshold, a door that we can learn to open slowly, contrasting the too rigid barriers that our conscious Ego places; barriers that should not be broken, but raised little by little. A premonition, after all, is precisely this, something “thinkable” but not yet thoroughly thought, an “unsaturated” thought, as Bion says; it, therefore, represents an opening to the new, the possibility of looking at reality with new eyes. So, of course, dreaming is a form of thought and a way of building narratives that prepare us to face the future.

MGM. You did a project, in my opinion excellent, where you collected people’s dreams during COVID-19 according to the Social Dreaming technique, in critical moments: from when there was the declaration of the pandemic, to the lockdown and the end of the lockdown. What did you see in the dreams analyzed according to the Matrix of social dreaming? Moreover, how were the people at the end of each “matrix” via digital?

EP. I think we followed an intuition, an unsaturated thought when we started collecting dreams during the lockdown period. The four Social Dreaming matrices we made between the middle of March and the beginning of May 2020, 15 days apart, came from a concatenation of events, from the common desire, grown up a bit at a time, to keep on exploring dreams, together with a small group of “dream hunters”, dream hunters, that grew up as it grew. From 11 initial participants that we were, we ended up with 35, with an average of 18 participants per session. Furthermore, really as you say, digital was a high possibility; it allowed us to imagine a different way of collecting dreams that in “normal” reality would not have been possible. The impossibility of physical contact made possible and in some way also “tangible” the importance of relationship, connection, exchange; and indeed all those who participated in the experience lived this dimension in a very profound way, and for this they thanked us.

CT. To answer your question about what we saw in the dreams, I must say that it was like embarking on an adventurous journey, a sort of parallel path in the order of the night, which was a counterpoint to what happened during the day.

So we came across a material that was surprising both for the richness and evocative scope of the images and for the choral and dynamic nature of the story. Individual dreams naturally seemed to develop a more collective and shared narrative. We did work of transposing the images evoked as if they were film sequences, and we analyzed the material using a semiotic approach and Jungian symbolism. This helped us to put an order in the oneiric chaos, to build “maps” of the psychic landscape, which we called Habitat, and which in each Matrix seemed to have a distinctive fil rouge, with symbols, signs, metaphors, emotional tones, able to give an overall coherence to the narrative.

I still remember with goosebumps the first dream matrix of March 17. We are in full health emergency in Italy and the world. A domestic imaginary “contaminated” by wild elements and negative omens emerges in a powerful way that puts the sense of individual and familiar security to the test: large birds with huge beaks, fallen teeth, dried figs on the table, etc. The sense of death and threat was very present. The capacity for action in the social sphere seems blocked, frozen: the landscape appears motionless and empty, like the fruit of a spell. We found ourselves deprived of some certainties that had been solid until that moment: tasting glasses are shattered, fast cars lose their pieces in their race. The gaze mostly seems to turn to the inside. Images of secret gardens appear, crystal clear waters to draw from, places that recall an underground world, where it is possible to be reborn, to find the energy to re-design oneself. However, they are not yet accessible.

Two weeks later, on April 1, the Matrix presents the clash between Nature and Culture. The symbols and signs of an ancient and archaic civilization are threatened by an impending nature that silently occupies our spaces. The landscape outside becomes surreal, we have seen men swimming in the metro, bookshelves wrapped in ivy, men stopping in pools of water or hiding in the forest. There are grand openings with paper cakes, conferences where there is no speaker to speak. There is a widespread feeling of inadequacy. A recurring dream is about struggling to find the right clothes to attend meetings; we are clumsy and awkward in our actions. We no longer know what we can and cannot do. We sought shelter in small comforting objects, like a necklace with a shell. However, we felt ourselves inside a dimension of stalemate, of imprisonment, from which it was difficult to find the way that, by discarding aside, would lead us to salvation.

The third Matrix, dated April 15, marks the end of the stalemate. We are close to the end of the lockdown, and the newspapers are already talking about reopening and restarting. In dreams, the contrast between a threatening and complex reality in front of us and the nostalgia for an ideal world to return to, far away and challenging to reach, emerges. In dreams, we set off again into a world that seems deformed, oppressive, claustrophobic. It is not clear where to go, nor can we count on known means. Unknown wayfarers show us the way through a forest, a subway line. We have left our luggage on the ground, and we have climbed on the most disparate and improbable means. The landscape we passed through is grotesque, with soldiers turning into clowns, older women struggling with giant light bulbs to turn on, giant buildings looming threateningly, crowded with people celebrating at the windows and unaware of the danger of falling. The deserted streets. The dungeons full of laid boards to avoid carefully. The journey undertaken appears to be laborious, expensive, uncertain, it would put us in front of unknown aspects. To support us and give us hope, a few coloured T-shirts, the song of the whales and the memory of the sea, image evoked many times and symbol of a utopian world towards which to strive.

This brings us to May 5, at the dawn of phase 2, our last Matrix. The dreams tell us of a new experience of sensoriality that has the taste of regained freedom. The colours become vivid; we immerse ourselves in warm and gelatinous waters; the sight becomes almost hallucinated. We caress soft zipped sheep coats, and we fly in the air flapping our arms. The journey also becomes a search for meaning, in dreams, we make an order between the books, we give explanations, we get back in motion, with expectations of rebirth. The scenes are populated by beautiful young women waiting.

Nevertheless, we are hesitant in front of bridges that are interrupted in the void. We wait for a director who never arrives, a sense of disquiet, threat, abuse on our most fragile part. We can only count on one eye. The other is sewn. Dreams seem to accompany us actively towards the critical question of these days: how much are we able to see what is in front of us? Moreover, how much is our ability to interact with reality linked, more than to what we know and can control, to what we still do not see, to the ability to rethink and reinvent the future to come?

Here in extreme synthesis, what we found in the dreams of the four online Social Dreaming matrices. It was an exciting journey, at times tiring, that managed to stimulate the dreaming ability of the participants. The feedback collected was of gratitude, for the possibility that the experience gave to develop a reflection that was both individual and collective at the same time. It led to a greater awareness of their own experiences during the lockdown and allowed them to find, to use their words, space where it was easier to tell each other, to lay themselves bare. It was also appreciated the work of searching for plots and connections of wires, construction of collective sense, considered useful especially in light of this historical moment that we are living and so full of uncertainties.

MGM. Is there also the possibility to say if and how who lived in certain areas, had different dreams during the lockdown? There was a lockdown from “cloistered” in Rome or Calabria and a “lockdown” not only “of isolation” but also of great pain in Bergamo, Brescia, Piacenza, Milan…

EP. This question of yours is fascinating, I do not have a precise answer, but I think it could be a track for the future. In our group, there were people from different backgrounds, in particular a participant who lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and indeed, her lockdown experience brought a different cyclicality and content. So yes, I think it would be exciting to investigate the different narratives related to COVID, and it could probably be a new phase of our work.

For many years Cinzia and I have been collaborating with OPUS, the social observatory of the Tavistock Institute in London, on an international survey on psychosocial trends using a listening methodology, the Listening Post, similar to Social Dreaming. The possibility of creating a national and international Observatory on dreams starting from our experience seems a very refreshing perspective.

CT. It would be interesting to get to grasp these differences, to do so we would need to collect dreams of people with different exposure to COVID, from medical and nursing staff to patients and caregivers, even the general population could be involved. This would certainly help to capture the different impact of COVID-19 on people’s lives and understand how it works on the psychic imagination. Moreover, consequently also to give useful indications to design initiatives in support of psychological well-being.

MGM. We are collectors of “awake” stories: we could combine the collection of life experience from “awake” to “dreams” and we could combine this in research on the quality of sleep? I am talking about the quality of sleep because many people have started to suffer from insomnia because of COVID-19.

CT. It would be great to be able to use Social Dreaming in quality of sleep research. One could think about activating Social Dreaming matrices with patients who have sleep disorders of different intensity to see if there is a relationship between sleep quality and “quality” of the dreaming dimension. Participation in Social Dreaming matrices could play a role to support and stimulate the ability to activate symbolic and associative thinking. It would be nice to verify if this solicitation of the dreaming capacity can produce an improvement in the quality of sleep and therefore ultimately also in the quality of life. One could also think of a possible observatory to give continuity to the research and collect relevant data over time.

Our experience has shown us the importance of creating a setting in which to share dreams in traumatic situations. Sometimes we too were faced with the difficulty of remembering dreams, especially in the second Matrix, where there was a strong sense of heaviness and claustrophobia for the situation experienced. In these cases, we can say that the Matrix has played a useful function of containment, where the very possibility of participating in the dreams of others has allowed us to create some activation in symbolic and associative thinking.

EP. This is also an interesting perspective, working on the narratives that dream open, and on their transformative power. Aboriginal Australians call it “the time of dreams”, a synchronic time, without history, which allowed to imagine the world. Moreover, I believe that even we, men and women today, should learn to find new names for our narratives. After all, to build the future, we must first imagine it…


Maria Giulia Marini

Epidemiologist and counselor in transactional analysis, thirty years of professional life in health care. I have a classic humanistic background, including the knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, which opened me to study languages and arts, becoming an Art Coach. I followed afterward scientific academic studies, in clinical pharmacology with an academic specialization in Epidemiology (University of Milan and Pavia). Past international experiences at the Harvard Medical School and in a pharma company at Mainz in Germany. Currently Director of Innovation in the Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD a center for educational and social and health care research. I'm serving as president of EUNAMES- European Narrative Medicine Society, on the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, a tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at La Sapienza, Roma, and teaching narrative medicine in other universities and institutions at a national and international level. In 2016 I was a referee for the World Health Organization- Europen for “Narrative Method of Research in Public Health.” Writer of the books; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence-Based care and Medical Humanities,” and "Languages of care in Narrative Medicine" edited with Springer, and since 2021 main editor for Springer of the new series "New Paradigms in Health Care."

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