What is social dreaming?
It’s a Sunday evening in Australia and 65 (mostly) strangers from Europe, South Africa, the US and Asia are gazing out of their little square computer screens for a meeting on Zoom. After a brief introduction, participants turn off their video cameras. There is a sea of black squares. “The matrix is now open,” says a woman’s voice. “And what will be the first dream?”
In the dystopian science-fiction film The Matrix, humans unwittingly exist in a simulated reality. In this matrix, humans are well aware they may be in the dark about the desires and impulses that move cultures and the systems in which they operate – but, through creating a network of associations about one another’s dreams, they can start to see a bigger picture.
One social dreaming expert likens this network to mycelium, the delicate filaments that underpin fungi and transmit nutrients and information across vast forests. Another adds that “we’re talking about deep, subterranean, murky, in-the-mud sort of stuff.”
What will be revealed tonight?
Over the course of this hour-long matrix, the Roosevelts appear twice (New Deal or new normal?); a dreamer is annoyed to discover she is married to pop singer Ed Sheeran (intimacy can be problematic during a lockdown); another dreamer is in the ocean trapped in a plastic bag full of water (a bit like a goldfish for sale, a bit like all of us during this pandemic, blinking out from our self-contained little worlds).
One of these goldfish is Mannie Sher, an executive coach and change consultant with the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. The London institute has been at the cutting edge of research into group dynamics since World War II when it helped the British Army improve relations between officers and soldiers in the lower ranks. Central to its thinking is that a group, as well as an individual, has a life of its own.
“Social dreaming is like a megaphone from another world and we ought to listen to it,” says Sher. “It’s not miraculous, it’s not mysterious. The unconscious is an unexplored continent and there are links and connections that float around, looking for dreamers.”
Sher, who trained as a social scientist and psychotherapist, has used social dreaming as “a diagnostic tool” for years, including in boardrooms and at conferences to loosen minds – after all, the focus is on the dreams and not the dreamers.
“If the matrix is run skilfully, you’ll find that it’s not just the dreaming that gets freed up … the organisation too somehow gets freed up to think new thoughts. And that’s what we’re after.”
Now he and colleagues in social dreaming around the world, including in the Social Dreaming International Network, are watching for patterns in dream matrices as this pandemic makes “social trauma” a “global trait”.
At first blush, the dreams and the associations from matrices run by the Tavistock Institute read as a jumble of signs and symbols: tigers and Tiger Kings; an exploding Brooklyn Bridge and every fifth person evacuated from Manhattan Island; a lieutenant on the Western Front with “Trump-like red hair that looks fake”, and, in June, a house that looks beautiful on the outside but has no “bone structure” within – just a rear room wall-papered all over with the face of George Floyd, the man whose death at the hands of police has sparked riots across the United States.
Over time, the dreams begin to kaleidoscope into a chronicle of the milieu in which they were dreamt. “Dreams can mean many, many things,” says Sher, and in social dreaming, a group’s free associations about the dreams are as important as the dreams themselves. “What we’re looking for is the drift. What direction is it going? What’s emerging out of the associations – rather than saying ‘your dream means this or that’.
“People don’t come to social dreaming because they’re having bad dreams or difficult lives,” he says. “They’re invited to join what you might call a social experiment – namely, what are our dreams able to tell us about the society we’re in?”