CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey


Dreams and the Unconscious Through the Lens of Neuro-Psychoanalysis: A Look at Unconscious Motivational Systems Within the Brain

by Debra Roelke, PhD and Harlene Goldschmidt, PhD.

The investigation of unconscious processes is a cornerstone of psychoanalytic study and treatment. Freud’s keen interest in dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious” has influenced analytic thinking for over 100 years.  The convergence of neurological research with the study of dreams and unconscious processes offers a unique perspective on human emotions, motivations and behaviors.

Mark Solms, a neurologist and psychoanalyst, describes how in dreams, the brain activity of the frontal lobes is dormant (i.e., inhibited or under activated). Normally, the frontal lobes are the “scene of action” with their goal-directed systems guiding cognition while we are awake. With this part of the brain quiet during dreaming, the scene of action shifts to the posterior forebrain, activating the parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. The perceptual systems are now dominant: visual senses, spatial orientation and other senses predominate in dreams.  We experience ourselves in dreams beyond the realm of verbal logic. 

Solms’ research into the area of dreams goes back several decades. He published Neuropsychology of Dreams in 1997. This is a case book of people who have suffered neurological injury. Part of Solms’ research correlates types of brain injures with particular disturbances in dream functioning. When you look at the parts of the brain that are activated in the dream state, these are basically the same areas of the brain that are activated in emotional states. “The dream occurs instead of motivated action” (Solms and Turnbull, 2002, p. 202).

Solms writes about the basic-emotion command systems such as the SEEKING system, “which runs from the transitional area between brainstem and forebrain to the limbic components of the frontal components of the frontal and temporal lobes. … The SEEKING system is a nonspecific motivational system engaged in looking for something to satisfy need” (ibid, p. 210). The other basic emotion-command systems include the Pleasure/Lust subsystem, as well as the Rage system (involving the amygdala in the limbic area), Fear, and Panic systems. All have neural pathways to the upper brainstem, which connect from there to all the major body systems.

When the SEEKING system is damaged, patients lose interest in objects in the world, and dreaming ceases. Interestingly, in the case of psychosis, damage to the SEEKING system decreases hallucinations and delusions.  Solms speculates from the growing body of neuroscientific research that dreams are motivated ideas in line with Freud’s wish fulfillment theory. In dreams, he says, we go a little crazy, “the insanity of the normal man.”

Looking at dreams and the unconscious through the lens of Solms’ work, we are in many ways using a one person drive model. Opening this discussion to a two-person, dynamically interactive model, we can consider more about the unconscious and neurological correlates through the writings of Allan Schore. While Schore does not address the realm of dreams as much, the focus in early nonverbal unconscious infant/mother affective regulation is perhaps a look into the stuff that dreams are made of. Two-person model of the dynamic unconscious through the lens of neuro-psychoanalysis.

Another way in which unconscious motivational systems come into play in therapy is through the transference-countertransference relationship. Alan Schore, among others, has written a great deal about the ways in which emotionally significant interactions with important others take place within a psychobiological matrix, 'right brain to right brain,' as it were. The lens of neuropsychoanalysis on understanding transference-countertransference relationships is two-fold: first, it looks at how transference is a manifestation of implicit memories from early attachment relationships that are reactivated in the current therapy setting. Second, it considers the way in which therapy interactions play out at the psychobiological level such that patient and therapist are interactively regulating one another and experiencing the relationship in a bodily way.

Transference as a manifestation of early implicit memories is accessing the unconscious attachment schemas that are stored in the neural networks of the social brain (Cozzolino). These memories are implicit because they are very often preverbal, from the earliest years of life, or else contain the richly affective, unconscious nonverbal information from later attachment interactions. Cozzolino notes that transference allows access to this otherwise hidden learning in a way that neither patient nor therapist could verbally articulate - at least not at first. As these implicit relational memories are activated and retrieved, the therapy works to transform them from re-experiencing to reflective articulating. In neurological terms, this process is increasing the top-down and right-left integration of neural networks.

Schore puts the neurobiology of the transference-countertransference relationship in a two- person context with his focus on interactive regulation. He takes as his starting point the research on parent-infant relating which has identified the rapid mutual cuing with which parent and infant signal each other about their internal states. This signaling includes a wide variety of nonverbal cues: body movements, posture/muscle tone, gesture, facial expression, voice inflection, prosodics (sequence, rhythm and pitch of vocalizations). At the same time as parent and infant are signaling each other, they are also effectively impacting on the other's internal state. Signaling excitement raises the other's arousal level, signaling calm or mild sadness lowers it in the partner. Head turning or gaze averting on the part of the infant breaks the interactive sequence and halts the arousal of the other more or less abruptly depending; the adult has a greater range of expressiveness to do the same thing. In this way, interactive partners are mutually regulating - and dysregulating - each other. The co-constructed pattern of these affect and arousal interactions, repeated again and again, become wired in as the neural and physiological basis of our earliest Internal Working Models. They have the power to influence the ongoing experience-dependent maturation of the social brain centers, particularly in the early-developing right hemisphere.

Transference-countertransference relating, then, is the re-evoking of these psychobiological patterns. Therapist and patient are responding to one another through the same kind of rapid mutual cuing observed with infants and parents (and indeed, any interacting dyad), activating each other's hardwired patterns of response and arousal. As the stuff of emotional experience, this visceral activation is integrated with the social brain's analysis of the ambient situation and a moment of transference or countertransference is produced. Therapist and patient are interactively regulating - and dysregulating - each other. This time, however, one of the parties is clued in to the process and trained to use her awareness of arousal patterns and bodily experiential cues. This countertransference-based tool helps us to understand the unconscious story of what is happening between intimate dyads, and influence the mutual regulation process in a better direction - one that will ultimately begin to influence the hardwiring of the patient, with the help of the verbal left brain, toward more flexible, conscious, integrated and successfully regulated responding.


Our understanding of unconscious processes helps in shaping a therapeutic approach that allows patients to gain more self-awareness and better emotional adjustment. Traditionally dreams, transference and counter-transference experiences have informed psychoanalyst therapists about hidden motivations within patients. Bringing unconscious processes to light is one of the challenges of psychoanalytic work. The advancement of neruopsychoanalysis supports our ability to articulate unconscious experiences in terms of body-based sensations with emotionally motivated experiences. Self awareness and affective regulation is achieved through the exploration of unconscious wishes, fears and the deeply entwined experiences of therapist and patient.


Cozolino, L. (2002). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Building and rebuilding the human brain. NY: Norton.

Schore, A.N. (2011). The right brain implicit self lies at the core of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21, 75-100.

Schore, A. N. (2003). Affect regulation and the repair of the self. NY: Norton.

Solms, M. (1997). The neuropsychology of dreams. NJ: Erlbaum.

Solms, M. and Turnbull, O. (2002). The brain and the inner world: An introduction to the neuroscience of subjective experience. NY: Other Press.