“Nitrazepam made dreams everydayish” – searching for “dreams” in the BJPsych

Following on from  my recent posts about dreams and psychiatry (and the changes in how psychiatrists engage in questions of the meaning of symptoms reported to them) I have just searched the British Journal of Psychiatry site using the word “dreams”. As the BJPsych is the journal of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the third most cited psychiatry journal in the world, it is fair to regard it as reflecting contemporary psychiatry.

 

Using the “Best match” search criteria,  the top 10 results  for “dreams” are all from other decades – with the most recent being from 1974 – a paper which dealt with the impact on dreaming of then-commonly-used sleeping tablets. Haven’t read the full paper yet, but here is the abstract (and I haven’t come across the word “everydayish” before!) :

It was predicted that amylobarbitone and nitrazepam would make dreams less active, and withdrawal would make them especially intense. Dream reports were collected from subjects before, during and after chronic administration of either of the two drugs or placebo. Dreams were rated as conceptual or perceptual, and as visually active or passive. They were also rated for hostility, anxiety, sexuality, psychotic thinking, bizarreness and degree of reality. A variety of other measures of content were made, such as the number of characters, activities, social interactions and emotions in each dream report. An experienced, `blind’ judge tried to assign reports according to whether they came from baseline, drug or withdrawal conditions. Subjective estimates of dreaming were also collected.

Contrary to prediction, dreams were virtually indistinguishable under the three conditions. Two effects were that nitrazepam made dreams everydayish and its withdrawal made them bizarre, and withdrawal of amylobarbitone produced exceptionally vivid dreaming and nightmares at home but not in the laboratory. Consideration of the results suggests that these hypnotics affect the quality of thought processes in sleep, and that in clinical use their withdrawal would be expected to produce unpleasant, anxiety-filled dreams and nightmares.

 

The number 1 result is from 1962. Again I hope to read the actual paper but here is the abstract, again rather “of its time”:

Spoken personal names which were randomly presented during the rapid eye movement periods of dreaming were incorporated into the dream events, as manifested by the ability of the experimental subjects and an independent judge subsequently to match correctly the names presented with the associated dreams more often than would be expected by guessing correctly by chance alone. Incorporation of emotional and neutral names into the dream events occurred equally often. The manner in which the names appeared to have been incorporated into the dream events fell into four categories of decreasing frequency: (a) Assonance, (b) Direct, (c) Association, and (d) Representation. Perceptual responses to the stimulus names, as manifested by subsequent dream recall, occurred without any accompanied observable differential electroen-cephalographic or galvanic skin responses compared with those occasions on which no such perceptual responses were evident. The frequency of recall of colour in dreams was higher than has been previously reported.

The results are discussed in relation to the function of dreams and perception during dreaming.

Using the “Newest first” search criteria does throw up more recent results, but in most of the top 10, the word “dreams” is not referring to a subject of clinical or research interest. The number one result is an article in which a psychiatrist discusses ten books that influenced him. The next result uses “dream” in the sense of “hope” or “aspiration”:

 

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), under the leadership of Thomas Insel, powerfully steered national and international researchers, policy makers and research commissioners to buy into a hopeful dream that one day the basic sciences will afford opportunities to prevent and treat mental illness at its root cause

Of the rest of the “Most recent” top ten, we have three poems, one film review, another “Ten Books” feature, one paper whose mention of dreams is in passing as an adverse drug effect, and just two papers which, from my brief reading, dreams seem to feature as a topic of clinical interest. Both are papers in child psychiatry and both deal with dreams in the context of psychotic phenomena:

 

It has been suggested that there may be shared patterns of neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological pathways occurring in nightmares and the positive symptoms of psychosis, for example, the finding that cortical dopamine levels are raised during nightmares41 and the functional significance of sleep spindles in psychosis42 that are consistently reduced in schizophrenia.43 Some studies have also reported a continuity between dreams and psychotic experiences; with overlapping content44 and indistinct barriers between these experiences.45 This is related to the increased interest in dreams46 or REM sleep47 as a neurobiological model for schizophrenia or psychotic phenomena.

Here to, we see that interest in dreams is confined to their possible utility as a model for psychosis – an interesting topic, but one from which issues of “meaning” are excluded.One of this paper’s references is worth reviewing – and I find it  interesting that a projective test (the TAT) was used in this study:

Many previous observers have reported some qualitative similarities between the normal mental state of dreaming and the abnormal mental state of psychosis. Recent psychological, tomographic, electrophysiological, and neurochemical data appear to confirm the functional similarities between these 2 states. In this study, the hypothesis of the dreaming brain as a neurobiological model for psychosis was tested by focusing on cognitive bizarreness, a distinctive property of the dreaming mental state defined by discontinuities and incongruities in the dream plot, thoughts, and feelings. Cognitive bizarreness was measured in written reports of dreams and in verbal reports of waking fantasies in 30 schizophrenics and 30 normal controls. Seven pictures of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) were administered as a stimulus to elicit waking fantasies, and all participating subjects were asked to record their dreams upon awakening. A total of 420 waking fantasies plus 244 dream reports were collected to quantify the bizarreness features in the dream and waking state of both subject groups.

Two-way analysis of covariance for repeated measures showed that cognitive bizarreness was significantly lower in the TAT stories of normal subjects than in those of schizophrenics and in the dream reports of both groups.

The differences between the 2 groups indicated that, under experimental conditions, the waking cognition of schizophrenic subjects shares a common degree of formal cognitive bizarreness with the dream reports of both normal controls and schizophrenics. Though very preliminary, these results support the hypothesis that the dreaming brain could be a useful experimental model for psychosis.

 

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Vampirism as Mental Illness: Myth, Madness and the Loss of Meaning in Psychiatry

This  is certainly the academic paper I have been involved with which has garnered the most media attention. Brendan Kelly and myself intended to write a nuanced paper on how psychiatry conceptualised vampirism, when it occurred as a clinical presentation, and how this changed over time. This reflected wider changes in psychiatry (and probably, though this wasn’t part of the paper, society itself) in that the meaning ascribed to symptoms was increasingly devalued in favour of a “checklisting” approach. Something similar has happened to dreams, in the psychiatric context.

Did we succeed in this? Here is the abstract :

 

Vampirism, as a clinical presentation, was formerly much discussed in psychiatric literature. In recent years this has not been the case. This article begins by exploring the history of vampiric phenomena and the various medical theories of vampirism. It discusses the change in emphasis in psychiatry from a psychotherapeutically-influenced exploration of the meaning of a particular symptom to a more ostensibly evidence-based, checklist approach. This reflects a wider shift in psychiatric culture. Articles from the psychiatric literature dealing with vampirism are reviewed in depth. The article argues that the clinical interpretation of vampirism may be useful as an indicator of shifting attitudes within psychiatric discourse.

And here is how The Sunday Times covered the article:

2016-07-27

Perhaps not that surprisingly, this provoked a backlash from the online vampyre community, none of which seemed based on actually reading our article but on the Sunday Times and Irish Central’s even more misleading take. (most of the links to the vampyre forums where we were attacked seem to have broken.

Brendan has talked further about the paper in various forums such as here , and has discussed this media and online reaction.

I know How Journalism Works. I know that the headline is chosen by a subeditor, not the author of the article. I know that “Doctors write nuanced article on changes in how psychiatrists see vampires over time” is not a headline.

In a way, this coverage illustrates that for the media as well as in day to day a life, a psychiatrist is character with a somewhat predetermined role and that, if a psychiatrist is writing about vampirism, it must be through the prism of mental illness and of treatment. Even in cases where the psychiatrist is trying to do the direct opposite. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote (quoted in the blog post linked immediately above):

Contrast the quite different way in which a certain type of social role may embody beliefs so that the ideas, theories and doctrines expressed in and presupposed by the role may at least on some occasions be quite other than the ideas, theories and doctrines believed by the individual who inhabits the role.

 

 

Asking about dreams

A while back I blogged a brief note about sleep and dreams, essentially discussing my own interest in sleep and noting that at the current historical moment, for the first time “sophisticated” people don’t take dreams in any way seriously. As I wrote then:

The contemporary medical/scientific conception of dreams is that they are either meaningless or at most reflect the emotional state of the dreamer. This is one of the most dramatic breaks with most of human history, during which dreams were seen as messages from the Divine, or or prophetic. Freudian dream interpretation – with its idea that dreams are the Royal Road to the Unconscious – was perhaps, despite Freud’s atheism, the apotheosis  of the significance of dreams in culture.

A vivid, detailed, and somewhat disconcerting dream last night (no, I won’t bore you with the details – unless supremely well executed, the i-had-this-dream story sits with I-was-so-drunk or I-was-so-high or I-was-backpacking-being-such-a-traveler-not-a-tourist storiy in a pantheon of the ultimate stories inflicted by bores) made me think of this again.

It is not strictly true that contemporary psychiatrist don’t ask about dreams – quite often it is a manifestation of PTSD. In that context, however, in my experience it is very much a “checklisty” phenomenon. There are some interesting papers on dreams in PTSD, especially the paradox that dreaming is often posulated to help process traumatic and other events, yet nightmares are a feature of PTSD. Papers on drug dreaming also appear in the recent literature, as does this this paper on dreams in people with a diagnosis of personality disorder.

I want to avoid being too dogmatic about my sense that this contemporary literature is very much functional in its approach to dreaming – not ascribing any particular meaning to it. The literature is no doubt richer than the above links alone would suggest. This is an area in which a thorough literature search would have to be especially well designed – think of how many synonyms and variations of “dreams”, “dreaming”, “nightmare” in so many languages one would have to do to do it properly, and is therefore beyond the scope of a blog written in fugitive time of the early morning. However, I do feel confident enough to comment that the content of dreams are rarely explored in contemporary psychological or psychiatric practice. The increasing influence of CBT both within mental health practice and in the wider culture leaves little room for issues of the meaning of dreams.