Dreams and Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is a very exciting new field of medicine and therapy. For me it is best described as the ability of the brain to generate and strengthen new desired neural networks to replace ones that have been lost or that have never existed. This field is fascinating to me as a dreamworker because the concepts of neuroplasticity appear in our dreams, we just have to be on the lookout for them. Once we have identified a neuroplastic motif in a dream we can use our most powerful tool–the imagination–to support the creative work that the dreamer’s brain is engaging in. Here’s a good example from my practice; this dream was told to me recently by a 38 year-old-woman who has sustained significant neurological damage resulting from a brain tumor in the motor cortex and its subsequent surgical treatment:

“Last night I dreamt that I helped design a roller-coaster and went on it. We shot up really fast and then… the track ended! That’s the way the ride was designed. The plan was that we were going to land in a big box filled with trees and other things for a soft landing but when we were off the track and in the air I kept asking: “How are we going to land in the box?… how is this whole thing controlled?…how is the landing supposed to happen?” I woke up before we landed.” 

As we worked with this dream neither of us were sure exactly what the roller coaster referred to; but one thing was clear–the dreamer did not like the feeling of being suddenly launched into mid-air with no landing in sight (or in mind). She wanted to know how and where the landing was supposed to happen; she wanted to move the action forward. So I suggested she use her visual imagination to do just that, to move things forward towards the landing area, and then to imagine a safe and successful landing. She agreed to try that as her homework.

A few days later I received the following email from her: “I figured out my roller-coaster dream!! When I went for my nap today, I was thinking about the feeling of coming to the end of the track and being confused and not understanding what happens at the end of the track. That is the exact feeling I get in my brain when I try to run. I take a few strides and then my brain just shuts down. It’s so hard to describe but my brain just can’t tell my leg what it’s supposed to do next. I think because I need to make new neural pathways since I had the surgery, it’s like they are not connected and I don’t understand how to run. 

I started visualizing extending the track, no drop, just straight and long. I have been able to jog on the spot for about 25 seconds, so today I started jogging on the spot,  but then I told myself to GO!…and I did!! I moved very slowly but I was definitely going in the right direction! I feel like I have laid a piece of the roller coaster track down and hopefully it will get longer and longer! I’m so happy!!! :)”

In this case it appears that the dream set the stage for a visualization, and then the visualization in turn set the stage for a very focused and critically important neuroplastic event in her motor cortex. She is now literally laying down the neural circuitry for being able to run, circuitry which she had lost after the surgical treatment of her tumor five years before.

Interestingly, around this same time period she had two other dreams in which she was able to run. Was her dreaming brain trying to “re-mind” her what it is like to run? Was it showing her that the “body memory” of running still existed within her, only needing some connecting circuits to be laid down in critical motor areas of the brain? Was this also part of an inspirational night-time pep talk to underscore the value of the effortful work that would be required for her to fully reclaim her running?

I am amazed (as I so often am) by the precision and creative power of the motif that her dreammaker crafted. It posed the question: what do you do when you are going along a track and the track suddenly runs out, and you want it to continue in a good direction towards a desired end point? The answer (for this dreamer) is: you have to lay down some new track that takes you where you want to go. This is neuroplasticity at work!

There’s another valuable lesson in this story–it reminds us that we do not need to know what the central image of the dream refers to in order to start working with it on an imaginal level. The dreamer and I did not know at first that this image of the roller coaster ending in mid-air referred to her interrupted neural network for running. All we knew is that the dream was asking her to extend the action towards a landing, and this is what she visualized. The key orientation here came from asking: what does the dream want? It wants a continuation of something that ends abruptly. Once we are sure of that we can start visualizing, with confidence that we are helping things move in a good direction.

The last thing I would like to say about this remarkable dream is that it highlights the conjunction of two great imaginal realms–the visual and the kinesthetic (the realm of awareness of the body, its positions and movements). The dreamer began by visualizing extending the track, with no drop, just straight and long. This work appears to have directly connected into the kinesthetic realm, whereby she was able to imagine moving her legs as if she was running. This in turn helped her actually start to manifest these same running motions in her physical body. All this is contained within the genius of the original dream motif: a roller coaster leaving her in mid-air. This motif is both visual and kinesthetic; I suspect some of us would feel it more powerfully in our mind’s body than we would see it in our mind’s eye, and visa-versa for others. In either case the dream asked for some important work to be done in the area where these two realms meet and interface.

Christopher Sowton

  • deborah Reply

    Good blog…..both interesting and informative….helpful…thanks

  • Tallulah Lyons Reply

    This is such a helpful example of using the central image in re-wiring the brain.
    As this woman develops her running skills again, will there be brain scans from a
    neurologist that might show the new neuronal connections? If so, I hope you can get
    copies of her scans and submit an article to a research journal.
    Thanks so much for this example!

  • Dr Clare Johnson Reply

    Fascinating Christopher, I’m writing about neuroplasticity and rehearsal at the moment (with the focus on lucid dreams). Great to read about your valuable work.

  • Chirstopher Sowton Reply

    Hi Clare
    I’m excited to hear that someone is working in this area. Please let me know when your work is ready to read and share!

  • Kelly McLane Reply
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