Photo: Satu Engblom
Photo: Satu Engblom

Social Dreaming: Dreams in Search of a Dreamer

Franca Fubini

International conference ‘Dream, Myth and Group’
Rome, June 2002


A while ago I was called by a small firm to work on improving communication and cohesion between staff and managers at a time of crisis. Reality was that the existing staff was in the process of being selected because at least one third of them had to be dismissed. Time for this project was very limited and I decided to use it in SDMs and small discussion groups.

The first SDM was scheduled for staff only, without the four managers. The room was organized with the chairs in a snowflake shape; people arrived and were told that the task for the next 1 and 1/2 hours was to associate one’s dreams with those of the others, so as to create links and connections. After initial ironical comments of the kind “ first they give us the sack and then they send the psychoanalyst to sweeten the pill”, dreams came out, mostly full of anxiety because of missed or failed examinations, invalidated degrees, shut doors, missed trains etc. The associations to their work situation became quite clear. They were able to talk freely about the anxiety of the moment, the uncertainty of the future. In the next matrix they were to associate with one of the dreams and read through its images the unrealistic expectations of secure jobs they had towards this very young firm, caught up in the changes of market environment.

The following week a SDM was held with the participation of both staff and managers; this time the managers felt anxious, as they were new to the experience, and this was observed by the staff with some glee, but soon they were all on common ground; dreams were flowing and associations too; the theme of funerals became dominant, allowing everyone to talk differently about the situation they shared. Different options for collaboration emerged. When I left, the managers were discussing whether to call back two of the dismissed employees, as the roles they covered were actually needed in the firm.

In the following matrix, the last one, the feedback was that this work had acted like removing old trunks from a river so that water could flow again. In some of the dreams offered to the matrix there was the figure of an old man, loved/hated who was dying, or dead. It elicited different and strong feelings from most participants, but I could not quite locate the experience in the context of what I knew.

In the last meeting I had with the founding members, they talked of the presence of an older member, who held 32% of the shares, who was not working in the firm, but who strongly influenced company policy with his many political contacts. He was loved by one manager and strongly resented by the other three.

Weeks later I came for the final meeting to see what had happened and whether to take the work further. The shares of “Mister 32%” had been bought by the other associates, who had realized that change was primarily related (1) to their own internal reorganization: they had only taken action in terms of reducing the staff, rather than looking at their own needs for updating management; (2) to a more realistic evaluation of the changing market in such a way that they could adjust the internal environment to be more in tune with the external one.

This material illustrates how issues of change could be hidden and distorted by the innate desire to have security and adjust to a mode of precarious equilibrium. Pressure from the environment, both internal and external, was pointing to a collapse of the taken-for-granted establishment. Dreams revealed the issues with astonishing clarity: expectations and underlying feelings emerged, connecting the participants beyond the overt hierarchical structure of the firm and the established relationships within it.

Dreams reveal and connect us to the social context we live in. As dreams illuminate the inner life of an individual in psychoanalysis, so they do in a social context; furthermore, dreams take us to the space of knowing – not knowing where true creative thinking lives and a pragmatic approach to reality can be taken. I will explore in the next pages some aspects of SD related to the concepts of matrix, connectedness, and ‘dreams in search of a dreamer’.

‘Won from the void and formless infinite’: experiences of social dreaming” by GL appeared in an issue of Free Association in 1991; it piqued my interest quite strongly and few months later I joined a Social Dreaming workshop at the Institute of Group Analysis in London. At the time it was not easy for me to conceptualize the experience; intuitively, however, it was a turning point for my way of looking at groups, dreams and the context in which dreams and the lives of the dreamers take place. As I was already working with groups as a group analyst, social dreaming seemed to provide a missing link between the inward looking world of therapy and the outward looking sphere of the social.

Today I still find that to reflect and to write about social dreaming is a stimulating and very demanding task: intuitions and concepts don’t always find a satisfactory meeting point. The areas revealed by the experience of being in an SDM are vast. It is very exciting and thought-provoking to dialogue with other participants about it, as the experiences of open space, infinite, mobility and connectedness that belong to SD are fed by doing so, and as social meanings are discovered. The process of one dream/thought/association bouncing off of another and onto the next and to the following one, in the space of relatedness, is typical of a matrix; it becomes more of a challenge to enter the constraint/containment of definitions and finite concepts as you write on your own about it. It is challenging to sculpt the flow of a moving universe, where movement itself creates space. And after all we don’t often dream in words, nor in isolation.

Indeed dreams are the mental space where known and unknown coexist, and where the unknown is our experience of the infinite, formless and timeless, i.e. beyond and before the concepts of time and space, upon which much of our mental functioning rests, and is constrained. The experience of being in a matrix is that of extreme mobility, where dreams and associations move quite freely in the space of many directions.

As a therapist there is a major shift in point of observation: what Lawrence, and before him, Bion, described as the Oedipus(egocentric) and the Sphinx (sociocentric) vertexes, the reversible perspective of two complementary states of mind. In a matrix not only can the two vertex be seen, but also and particularly the movement created by shifting from one perspective to another. (1)

One participant of a Social Dreaming Matrix spoke of “hearing the music”; it was not directly related to the matrix, but it clicked, and it has become a metaphor for the exploration of the matrix. In the same way as one hears a piece of music, one experiences a SDM, by hearing the whole picture created by the dreams and their associations. It is possible to focus one’s hearing on a single line of music, and on individual players with their instruments, but within the context of the whole piece. The same applies for the dreams of a matrix. Indeed we hear the composition created by the dreams, not so much the single dreamer.

“To hear the musical sound of the word, more than the meaning of the word itself”, was a further association in the SDM to ‘hearing the music’; by doing so, one enters an area close to mantras and sounds, that in many cultures represent the origin of creation. Rhythmic patterns are seen throughout the universe from the very small to the very large. Quantum physics has offered the vision of energy patterns manifesting alternatively and rhythmically as waves and particles. Lawrence himself puts forward the hypothesis that “dream-work is a wave function and that when a dream emerges from the black hole of the psyche, it is a particle’. (1)


Matrix contains the root of the word mater, mother; it is literally a uterus; it is an original source out of which something can be created. (2) Matrix – a fundamental concept in group analysis – is also defined by Foulkes as the ‘hypothetical web of communication and relationship in a given group. It is the common shared ground which ultimately determines the meaning and significance of all events and upon which all communications and interpretations, verbal and non-verbal, rest.’ (3) Foulkes addresses the group and already hints at a concept of mobility, connection and open spaces beyond the idea of the group. A web is by definition flexible, adjusting to the content which the web contains; a web is made of threads and of empty spaces; it holds without the need for a fixed separation between what is inside from what is outside.

Matrix in SD is the open space where the shared dreams and their associations can take place, held by the flexibility of the web of connections that the matrix creates and that allows the shaping of the container each matrix needs. A SD matrix has two strong characteristics; one is that it allows to come very close to the experience of dreaming itself; the other is that it allows the discovery of what a matrix is about; in other words it is in a process of becoming; it captures the mobility of the process. There is no accent on expected phases of development to go through as there would be in a group context; each matrix has ‘one’s own task of discovery and creation’. Dreams and associations lead the way.

The process of becoming and revelation is in some ways close to the process of healthy life itself. I feel much appreciation for an approach that, without excluding other angles of vision, parallel discoveries and spectacles of interpretation – like for instance the tradition of group dynamics – has as its focus that particular aspect of life that touches on the unknown, the movement of change, the coexistence of the many, the non pathology.


In SD, Lawrence has brought together traditional (historical, anthropological, mythological etc.) knowledge about dreams and the discoveries of psychoanalysis, which at the beginning of the 20th century revealed a new way of thinking about the nature and use of dreams. By doing so, Lawrence has pioneered a space for further new thinking about dreams that reflects the development of the Western culture of our present times as well as the continuation of research on the material of dreamwork.

As Freud and psychoanalysis were the products of their time, creating a space for the study of the individual and of his/her psychic world, where dreams ‘are the royal way to the unconscious’, I reckon that in the same way SD is the product of a contemporary Western culture that is in the process of questioning an excessive focus on ‘the single lines of the music’, the fragmentation of knowledge and being, rather than their polyphonic whole. The separation between mind and body, nature and culture, observed and observer – just to mention a few – have been questioned and proven misleading, giving way to the movement towards integration and multidisciplinary views. The universe seems to be a complex web of interdependent and dynamic relationships. The results of the last decades in the field of communication and information theory (and practice) are possibly a stimulus and an end product of such change.

Connectedness is one of the hypotheses that Lawrence has explored and which he offers as a way of reading the web of relationships revealed by the sharing of dreams and their associations in an SDM. The hypothesis is that people in a given context are connected to each other through the context they share, be it work, cultural, political, geographical or ultimately human.

In our culture, experiences of oneness and non-separation belong to the realm of mysticism and to the language of religion, as well as to the world of poetry and art; in psychological terms oneness refers to the early experience of mother and baby fusion; oneness/non-differentiation occurs also in psychotic functioning. In an SDM one discovers that there is another possible way of accessing these experiences.

Scary as it might be: I recall a matrix where, in dealing with the unexpressed question of floating in the infinite, the fear was that the matrix might be a crazy space to find oneself in and that free associations were dangerous activities. This might well be so, as they disrupt a model of thinking based on rationality and logic so, not just pulling the carpet out from under one’s feet, but removing the very floor on which people often feel safer to stand.

An SDM is usually convened by one to four convenors; the matrix convenes dreams and their associations; dreams which have been dreamt by dreamers and may reveal the dreamer and his/her particular position in the world, but which by and large reveal the ordinary coexistence of the many in the boundaryless space of the unconscious. In the world of dreams and free associations, there isn’t so much the experience of right and wrong; one shifts quite easily beyond a dualistic way of thinking – and of relating – in order to access the space of multidimensions, multimeanings, multiverse. What in other contexts would appear as manifestations of pathology, in a matrix can be seen and accepted as part of the many appearances of reality. Connectedness supports, in fact, the coexistence of numberless points of view, as many as there are associations.

“Dreams in Search of a Dreamer”

Being in a matrix evokes images of a net created by minds tuned in to capturing echoes and signals of the presence of a continuum of dreams and thoughts, involved in the creation and working through of the environment we live in. Where do new thoughts arise from? In my experience, first from a need, which is like an absence, even if sometimes unrecognized; then thoughts are born from an empty (in the sense of open to the unknown) space created either by an inner tuning of body, emotions and mind states (intrapsychic relating), or by tuning in with others in the space across individual boundaries (interpsychic relating). Something that seems to come close to Bion’s hypothesis that there are ‘thoughts in search of a thinker’ , where the thinker has to make him/herself available to receive, and where thoughts are not necessarily the precious property of one individual, but make use of the individual to manifest themselves and (maybe) to carry evolution through.

Traditional exploration of dreams (before Freud) belongs to humanity as a whole and dates back thousands of years; it is rich in ways of working with dreams, that in some cases, like with thoughts, have both the function of furthering evolution and that of revealing what is known, yet remaining hidden as yet unthinkable thought. Lawrence has put forward the hypothesis that there are “dreams in search of a dreamer”. Human history abounds in dreams that have offered solutions to a searching mind; dreams that have predicted future events; dreams that have revealed the cause of an illness and carry the cure for that illness; dreams that have shaped the creation of a work of art; dreams of a special kind born from clarity and transcendence that have facilitated the cultural and spiritual evolution of humanity.

There are also dreams that have spoken the unthinkable; I would like to refer particularly to the working through of terrors, which may be part of the hisory of humanity in general, and which also seem to relate very strongly to recent world events (for example before and after September 11). Across different nations (the USA, Great Britain, Italy), SDMs, around that time have reported dreams where the running themes dealt with apocalyptic fears and ongoing terrors, fragmentation and psychotic functioning, as though at least a portion of human beings have been in the process of working through in their dreams what in daily life and alone is too scary to contemplate or at least often more safe to deny.


1) W.G. Lawrence and H. Biran The complementarity of social dreaming and therapeutic dreaming

2) Dizionario etimologico della lingua italiana, Zanichelli

3) S.H.Foulkes Therapeutic Group analysis; Maresfield, Londra,1984
W.G.Lawrence Social Dreaming @ work Karnac Books, Londra, 1998
W.G.Lawrence Tongued with fire Karnac Books, Londra, 2000

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