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by David Foulkes
Harvard University Press, 1999
Review by Dan L. Rose, Psy.D. on Apr 7th 2003

Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness

In a sense, one can see in the politics of contemporary dream research a microcosm of the tensions found in the science of psychology as a whole. The concern with being a “real science” like biology or chemistry is ever present. The near shame at its history is also there, especially embarrassment by those ideas too readily embraced by the public and suffuse with the very subjectivities “hard science” has reportedly left behind. There seems an almost obsessive need to purge speculation and prune theory to its most austere and linear ends. At a glance, one might suspect that such a thing could not hope to survive outside the walls of a well-controlled laboratory. Those tensions inform, direct and ultimately define David Foulkes’ text, Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness.

The text begins with an explanation for its existence. It seems Foulkes’ earlier works were too technical for the layperson and relegated to the academic ghetto by his peers. Foulkes claims that, as a result, the importance of his findings were overlooked.  More popular (and erroneous by Foulkes’ data) theories hold sway in both the public and academic arenas, the former still stupid over the likes of Freud and Jung and the latter by Hobson and his neurological reductionism. Foulkes’ new book is geared to make his results more bite sized for the public and a call to recognition to his apparently lost empiricistic brethren.

The first chapter is a summation of his theory concerning what dreams tell us about development and why it is imperative we study them in children. Foulkes posits that dreams are not the bizarre, surreal images (Dali be damned) that folk wisdom would allow. In fact, Foulkes says he has the data to prove that, novel and creative they might be, dreams are actually just as mundane as the thoughts we think during the day. Furthermore, he asserts that infants and very young children do not dream and, he extrapolates, they do not possess consciousness, at least as it is experienced by adults.

Two chapters follow to initiate the reader into the nature of scientific dream study. Foulkes poses questions expected from a skeptical consumer and answers them deftly. His justification for studying children away from home and in the imposing environment of a sleep laboratory is particularly convincing.

The main body of the text is a description of the two studies Foulkes and his crew undertook over several decades. The first is a longitudinal study in which children ages 3 to 15 were followed throughout the course of their development, with dreams collected on REM awakenings and non-REM awakenings. The second is a cross sectional study, redesigned to validate findings in the earlier study, focusing on children ages 5 to 8. Both also used several cognitive tests to determine general intelligence and visual-spatial ability. With great skill and an ironclad empiricism, Foulkes takes the reader through each age group in the study, building a case for his study and rebutting his critics. Along the way he takes a slap or two at the more subjective and less empirical public’s view of dreams.

Foulkes uses the last part of his book to summarize his findings, seal his arguments and, briefly shedding his empirical armor, allow a bit of speculation about the nature of consciousness itself. Key findings on the developmental progression of dreaming are presented, with dreaming moving from single images of animals, a jump to more kinetic images and social interaction, and finally active self presentation, increased frequency and narrative complexity. Using findings from the cognitive tests given, Foulkes reasons that this developmental shift reflects cognitive growth and development. Furthermore, he asserts that it is the dawning of consciousness, of the ability for self-reflection and control, that underpins this development. He speculates that the same cognitive skills used in waking life, namely the creating of cogent, useful narratives, is present in the dream world. However, the unique confines of sleep (no external stimulation and loss of voluntary control) cause difficulty in creating the standard daytime cognitions. Instead, dreams are novel creations of an active, meaning-making mind trapped in sleep.

Foulkes summarizes by targeting the two foes to his ideas, both the neurological reductionism of current dream theory (dreams are in essence brain froth or random firings of subcortical origin and therefore meaningless) and more popular “inflation” of dreaming (Jung and his ilk making too much meaning of what is really the mundane workings of the mind). He rallies with his notion that dreams have meaning, but only the everyday sort of meaning one affords waking thoughts. They are the royal road to studying the mind as conscious agent, not as a reduced automaton or possessor of unconscious Godhead. 

In the struggle to seriously study dreams, be they those of children or adults, this text is a remarkable asset. Foulkes reveals himself to be a cogent, disciplined researcher equipped with obvious experience and seasoned reasoning. His ideas, not so revolutionary as he might argue, are nonetheless startling enough to invoke a reconceptualization of consciousness, the real aim of the text.

Any significant weaknesses are really more reflective of the aforementioned politics surrounding psychology itself and made more prescient by the subjective nature of dreaming. There seems too quick a dismissal of more traditional psychological theories, such as Freud or Jung. One wishes he might have taken the time to properly address and refute them. Instead, he aims his lance at the windmill of brain science. It would be asking too much to hope Foulkes might bridge the two, integrate them. If he could meld meaning and process in the very center of the storm surrounding dream theory, he would find the royal road to a more empirically valid and relevant psychology.


© 2003 Dan L. Rose 

Dan L. Rose, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychologist involved in direct clinical work and training at Columbus State University and in private practice. His interests include psychoanalysis, neuroscience, religion and literature.