How Dreams may Affect the Criminal Mind

I’m not sure that anyone has identified a criminal mind. There may be some differences in a criminal’s brain from a normal brain but I doubt that any crimes are committed because of a criminal mind or a brain difference. Dreams do not work differently for criminals or saints. The dreaming process is the same for all humans and always has been. The symbology of dreams is always personal to the individual, regardless of their day-time behavior.

A “normal” person’s dreams will provide information, either directly or through symbols, that can help the dreamer make changes in their life, changes in their physical behavior, changes in their mental and emotional behavior, and changes in their spiritual life. Such dream opportunities for change are a part of every dream whether you are a Sunday school teacher or a mass murderer. The difference in our dreams will simply reflect the differences in our psyches, differences in our personal life challenges.

An individual who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), whether from childhood experiences, war experiences, or other experiences, is likely to have more nightmares than the average dreamer. Small children are likely to have more nightmares than adults, on average. Our dreams will always reflect what is going on in our life, what is going on in our psyche, whether we are aware of it or not.

I did dreamwork with juvenile criminals in a pre-placement center. This was a locked prison where juvenile prisoners were kept while it was decided whether they would be tried as a juvenile or tried as an adult. The dreams of these young criminals were very interesting but not out of line with ordinary dreamers. Their dreams tended to be about the things they did during the day, with some variations. In fact one young man was a consistent psychic dreamer. He would dream about burgling a particular house and then would burgle that house. In one case, he dreamed about burgling a house and dreamed that he got caught. Given his experience with dreams coming true, I told him it wasn’t very bright of him to go ahead and burgle that house. He did get caught and was now being held in the pre-placement center.

Most of the dreams of those boys were about stealing and dealing with law enforcement or about their present incarceration. They often dreamed of escaping, not surprisingly. A colleague of mine worked with adult criminals at the notorious San Quentin prison in northern California. It took a while for him to gain the trust of the prisoners, but he eventually found a lot of success in working with these criminal’s dreams. Again, the dreams of criminals are not that much different than any “normal” person’s dreams except that the content is more in keeping with their personal life experiences.

I think it might be surprising for some people to find that criminals have a lot of nightmares as well. People tend to think of violent crimes like rape and murder as being acts by people who are expressing their power over their weaker victims. That is certainly the way it appears. But the reality is that violent crimes are committed by people who are afraid and who do not feel powerful at all. People who feel powerful do not need to express their power through violence or any other means. It is the powerless who use violence to try to feel power. It never works and yet they keep trying because their sense of powerlessness is so debilitating to them and probably also a source of real shame.

So criminals share the same kind of dream experiences as those with PTSD or young children. What is the purpose of these dreams, especially as they apply to violent criminals? It would seem that having nightmares was some kind of punishment. Of what benefit is it for a returning war veteran to have nightmares over and over again in which he or she relives hellish experiences in the war? Of what benefit is it for small children to be frightened in the night? They already have plenty of fears during the day.

What a lot of people don’t understand about dreams is that they always have a healing intent. Am I saying that frightening dreams have a healing intent? Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying. What all three of these groups share is a feeling of powerlessness. Children feel powerless becasue they are, to a large extent. Just being small is enough to make one feel powerless. Individuals with PTSD feel powerless because they have been subjected to some terrible trauma, possibly a repeating trauma. Criminals may feel powerless because of childhood trauma or because of the culture they were raised in. Perhaps they were raised in a subculture where they were surrounded by danger. This isn’t too much different than being in a war zone.

So how are these frightening dreams supposed to heal people who feel powerless? They do so by giving those people an opportunity to face their fears and overcome them. Frightening dreams give an individual a frightening symbolic setting where one can, in the dream state, stop running away from their fears but turn and face them. That is all that is required for a healing to take place.

I could give you dozens of examples of using scary dreams to face your fears but I’ll only mention a couple. Most of my examples come from children’s dreams because I have spoken to hundreds of children about dreams from preschool to high school. I have done a nightmare fantasy with children to help them understand that they have some power and some resources and are not helpless in the dream state.

My cousin discovered a dreamwork technique quite by accident when he was seven years old. It happened at that time that he was being terrorized in his dreams, almost nightly, by a ferocious tiger. Over time this began to wear on him and he became afraid to go to sleep. Finally, my cousin got tired of being chased by the tiger night after night. He made a decision that if the tiger showed up again, he was not going to run. If the tiger wanted to eat him, it could just eat him. Here is the power that the dreamer has. The dreamer simply makes a decision to do something different in the dream. My cousin had the dream again and just stood there. The tiger also just stood there and did not chase my cousin. He never had the dream again.

Another dream from a seven year old demonstrates that facing one’s nightmare figure actually changes the individual. I taught a class of adults in “Interpersonal Communications” and I told them how their children could deal with nightmares. I told them the child had to go back into the scary dream and face the scary character or monster. Once they faced the monster, they were to ask it for a gift. One woman’s seven-year-old came to her bed in the middle of night in tears. She dreamed of an alligator with a horn. If the alligator’s mouth was closed, it could stab her with its horn. If its mouth was open it could bite her with its teeth. It was a lose-lose situation for the little girl.

The mother, being very sleepy, did not go through the whole process with the little girl. She just told the little girl to ask the alligator for a gift. Even the seven-year-old may have thought her mom was nuts but she did what her mother told her to do. The next morning the little girl told her mom that she got three gifts from the alligator. One gift was scary masks that she could put on in her dreams to scare the adults in her dreams that tried to scare her. Here was an obvious power gift for the little girl. I can’t recall the third gift, but the second gift was “Hands, hands, hands.” The little girl pushed her open-palm hands forward three times.

I asked the mother if she noticed any difference about her daughter’s behavior. She said her daughter was helping out around the house more. One set of hands were helping hands. The little girl was also standing up to her older brother and beginning to fight back. These were fighting hands. I can’t recall if we came up with a third change in the girl’s behavior but it doesn’t matter. What is important here, and is actually a bit mind-blowing if you think about it, is that a little girl took a symbolic action in a dream in relation to a symbolic figure (the alligator) and that action changed her feelings about herself and changed her behavior.

Though it may seem strange and perhaps counterintuitive, what criminals need is to face the fearful symbols in their dreams in order to begin to get some sense of power. The criminal who really experiences personal power and no longer experiences fears, will no longer be a criminal. Dreamwork in prisons and in schools would be revolutionary. So would dreamwork with our returning Iraq veterans with all of the horrors they have experienced.

When we run from our fears, waking or sleeping, we feed our fears. The only antidote to fear is facing the fear.