A tour of dreams and nightmares

Ella Rhodes reports from the British Psychological Society’s Psychology4Students event, held at the Friend’s Meeting House in London.

Dreams present us with a strange mixture of the mundane and the bizarre, and give a potentially fascinating insight into how we process thoughts, experiences, emotions and memories. Dr Caroline Horton (Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln) took the student audience on a tour of the world of dreams and what they might be able to tell us about the human brain-mind.

There are many factors which affect how well one recalls dreams and interestingly there are typical themes which most people will have experienced; being chased, falling, wild animals and dogs. But we forget dreams more often than we remember them, and contrary to what most people believe our dreams happen throughout sleep, not just in REM. When our dreams are emotional we remember them better – whether that emotion is positive or negative. They tend to reflect our waking lives, and this fact is a great starting point for research into dreams and dreaming. Much of our dream content is actually pretty mundane but presented to us in a nonsensical or strange way. During the dream we expect this strangeness and accept it, Horton said.

During non-REM sleep the activity in the brain slows, and this is shown on EEG scans as a slow wave. During this stage of sleep the brain fires slowly and in synchrony. In REM, activity is faster and more frequent, particularly in areas related to emotion. Interestingly the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has been linked to one’s volition, remains much less active in both stages of sleep, emphasising our lack of control over our dream content.

The dreams we have in the different stages of sleep have very different characteristics. In non-REM sleep dreams tend to be short, thought-like and deal with our current concerns while REM dreams are longer, more vivid and bizarre. We also tend to dream of things which happened around a week ago during REM dreams. We have more non-REM sleep during the first part of the sleep cycle and more REM sleep towards the end; Horton said this can reveal much about the human brain or mind and what sleep and dreaming is achieving.

We have a lot of emotional dreams early in the night and dream of more things from the past late into the night; our dreams also tend to go from the mundane to the bizarre throughout the course of a night’s sleep. Dreams appear to have a role in memory: sleep seems to improve performance on tasks, and it may also help us to rehearse certain situations and problems and help us to deal with emotions. Many of us have the experience of feeling in a bad mood or angry and sleep helping us to feel better the next day. Horton suggested that dreams may serve a function of putting things in perspective, helping us to work through both events of the present and the past.

Dr Nicholas Blagden (Nottingham Trent University) opened his talk by showing the audience a picture of a ‘typical’ paedophile – we see these people as monsters, and somehow believe our stereotyped view of them translates into reality. But this is a dangerous mindset, potentially leading non-stereotypical sex offenders to get away with crimes for longer, and also perhaps making it harder for victims of such crimes to report them if the abuser does not appear like a monster.

The job of forensic psychologists and others is made more difficult, Blagden said, by society’s focus on stranger danger. While a person is much more likely to suffer sexual abuse at the hands of someone they know, many are far more fearful of stranger attacks, which are actually far more rare.

Blagden works with HMP Whatton, which has one of the largest sex offender prisons in Europe, and he said this offender group includes a vast cross-section of society. It’s important, Blagden added, to be aware of the many different offence types and motivations behind certain offences; often child abusers have problems forming adult relationships, both romantic and platonic, while rapists might feel a need for control. Each offender’s story, he said, is important in informing the ways in which they’re treated.

Despite what we might believe from the popular media the reoffending rate of sex offenders is surprisingly low – Blagden said around 70 per cent of sex offenders are a low to medium risk, and they have the lowest base rate of reoffending of any group; less than 1 per cent of low risk offenders reoffend within five years. That isn’t to say sex offences aren’t a huge problem: around one in 20 women is a rape victim, a number which is pretty constant across cultures. And sex offences not only affect victims, but also the family and friends of victims and offenders.  

Can offenders be treated? Blagden outlined some of the sex offender treatment programmes offered in UK prisons. Many of these are highly intensive: one, the Core Programme, includes 84 sessions and there are specialised programmes for offenders with a lower IQ and learning or intellectual disabilities. Blagden said treatment for sex offenders is backed up well by evidence: treated offenders reoffend less and do better within society.

It’s important to remember that deviant sexual interests, a term which encompasses any sexual act that would be illegal, are quite common. It can be found in non-criminals and around 5 per cent of individuals have an entrenched sexual interest in children. One study found preteen was the third most searched for term in men’s sexual internet searches. Although we can’t change this interest, Blagden said, there are ways to manage and cope with it. However, thanks to the stigma around this, many people have no idea where to turn if they experience such a desire. Blagden said in Germany it’s established that paedophiles need help, and adverts on prime time TV show where people can get support. Blagden himself is the trustee of the charity the Safer Living Foundation which aims to establish a clinic to help people with a sexual interest in children before they have victims. He concluded: ‘If we can help these people before they victimise anyone it has to be the way forward.’

The media’s portrayal of violent offenders, labelling them as ‘psychos’ or ‘schizos’, also disturbs Forensic Psychologist Dee Anand. He works as an expert witness in courts throughout the UK, and here he ran through the true definition of psychopathy as opposed to the popular view. While many know that a psychopath may be manipulative and cruel while appearing glib and charming, people don’t realise for a diagnosis one must have a rich criminal history as well as the many personality traits of a psychopath. Forensic psychologists, he emphasised, look not only at the surface problems a person may have but also their story more broadly.

Anand moved on to discussing personality disorders – a term he said he dislikes – and the issues that come with a diagnosis. He said these disorders present an exaggeration of certain personality traits and being given the label of having one is hard to shift. ‘Being given a label of having a personality disorder is a hard one to hear. You can’t treat it with medication, it suggests one’s whole personality is disordered.’

How does a forensic psychologist assess whether a person is likely to reoffend? The assessments used span a whole host of factors including cognitive distortions – a key aspect in treatment. Anand said these can determine what aspects of a person’s thinking can be worked on and whether they can be treated to make them less risky.

Anand believes that people are able to change and thinks society could better represent offenders as well as changing perspective from seeing offenders as owing society a debt. He said while this is true society itself owes them as well: ‘We should see people who commit crimes not only as having a responsibility to society to “pay” for the crimes they’ve committed, but also as society’s responsibility. These people live and operate in our society and if they live in that society we have a responsibility to them.’

Also appearing at the event was Fiona Fylan, reprising her talk from last year’s event, and ‘media psychologist’ Emma Kenny, who urged the audience to embrace their special talents as they forge their way in psychology.

-       See also our report on the Sheffield event.

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