The stuff dreams are made of: Massimo Giuliani interviews Massimo Schinco on Dreams and Systemic Psychotherapy.

First published in Italian on August 2nd, 2013 on

Translation into English by Massimo Schinco, edited and reviewed by Art Funkhouser.

It’s for years now that I know Massimo Schinco; he was a teacher of mine in the post-graduate school at the Milan Centre of Family Therapy, directed by Luigi Boscolo and Gianfranco Cecchin. Now I’m in the Faculty and he is the Co-director of the School and Clinical Centre.

Listening to his lessons on Gregory Bateson was a great pleasure back then,  as it is nowadays for his students; we identified him with the Anthropologist Author of “Mind and Nature” to such an extent that, in our group, we used to say that Massimo Schinco was for Gregory Bateson what Denis Mack Smith was for Giuseppe Garibaldi. With the years he also took some critical stands about Bateson and his own research pushed him even further. A few years ago he edited the posthumous publishing of “The Mother in the Dreams of her Child” by his late therapist Francesco Mina. Since then, he has never given up thinking about dreams. The present state of his research is witnessed to by the book “The Composer’s Dream” (Pari Publishing, 2011).

Does it sound strange that a systemic psychotherapist devotes his time to a subject like dreaming? Yes and no, when you consider that Massimo Schinco has been riding in a territory circumscribed by therapy, metaphor, the arts, music, and creativity ever since; when he does not do therapy he plays violin in the Sinfonica Amatoriale Italiana Orchestra, close to Cuneo, Italy,  where he lives.

In the following conversation he will explain something about his approach to dreams and dreaming. Enjoy the read!

Massimo Giuliani.

M.G.: Massimo, can you tell us something about the way you deal, as a systemic therapist, with dreaming? What’s that, the inner world  taking its revenge on relations?

M.S.: The beginning of my interest in dreams precedes the one in the systemic approach. It actually dates back to when I was less than twenty, a freshman at University. I had an interest in psychoanalysis in my junior years. Once in University I eagerly read the “Psychoanalysis Treatise” by Cesare Musatti, Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” and other books. But things took quite a different turn during my first therapy session led by Francesco Mina; he interpreted a dream of mine and this affected me strongly and persistently.

Francesco Mina’s dream work had a psychoanalytical mold, though quite heterodox. Just to spell it out, I’d say that, among the authors he was more or less close to, certainly there was Franco Fornari. This implies that certainly a dream had to be considered as an inner mind production, though having universal characteristics which could be brought back to the simplest and basic aspects of life, like conception, birth, death, reproduction, and nutrition as well as to those traits most peculiar to humans, like deceit, lie, envy – on the one hand – and desire of divinity and parenthood on the other.

One of the most interesting aspect of this way of approaching dreams was the work of intertwining the individual’s unrepeatable, peculiar vicissitudes, the “meaningless” details of every day ‘s life included, and the universal dream language; it was part of a world view that today we would call “holographic”. It valorized every aspect of human life, also those apparently utmost meaningless, featuring them as sacred or, at least, worth binge appreciated in a symbolical frame of transcendence.

M.G.: Then you gained an interest in systemics … Those years were important for the evolution of the “Milan Approach” to Systemic Family Therapy …

Yeah … Working on my final dissertation, in 1980, I began to study the Systemic Approach. At those times it had a strongly pragmatic mold, as well as being strategic and structural. I recall Boscolo and Cecchin, who themselves came from psychoanalysis, recommending us not to merge the two worlds and in the meantime not to forcedly reject our roots, considering also that in certain contexts we kept working with the original models.

Very soon the Milan Model actually and officially reinstated semantics in its own theory and technique as well. Anyway, perhaps being afraid to relapse into an interpretative perspective as well as into a lineal and causal epistemology, dreaming was kept in a marginal position in systemic practice.

All in all, it was as if we kept thinking: “we dream asleep and, because when we sleep we retire from human relations, it would be difficult to approach dream narratives with a relational bias.” Inadvertently we stuck to thinking in a very old-fashioned way about the nature of consciousness, about what a narrative is, and also about what the continuity between wakefulness and dream states of consciousness can be. The worst was that, despite all the confessed “radical constructivism,” we kept thinking in dualistic terms about the distinction and the relationship between “fantasy” and “reality”.

Now we have at hand theoretical models and experiential knowledge that is growing more and more, such that we can work with models of mind in which the distinction between “inner” and “relational” tends to lose meaning or, at least, it is reduced to a hypersimplification,  valid only in specific frames of a discourse.

M.G.: On the other hand dreams are still favorite psychoanalysis topics: without keeping them aside it should have been difficult, as you were saying before, “not to merge the two worlds”. Instead you treat them by also borrowing concepts from mathematics and physics, which are actually fields that approach systemic and complexity–inspired approaches. For instance, which way do quantum metaphors shed light on our comprehension of the dreaming world?

M.S.: Thanks for this question that paves the way to delving into ontological issues that are unavoidably implied in a deeper study of dreams and dreaming.

First of all, I have to say that I regret not having studied mathematics and physics better when it was the right time to do it. Would I have done so, I’d be more at ease in exploring territories where humanistic metaphors, so much attached to the use of verbal thought, enter with difficulty. Quantum physics, irregardless of its limits in its point of origin, in particular its application being limited to ultramicroscopic phenomena, kicked over our diachronic and narrative concept of the world. I’ll explain myself: it is definitely possible, proper, and correct to describe the world on the basis of the usual distinctions of time, space and the relation between subject and object (i.e., relating to “before” and “after”, “here” and “there”, an “observer” separated from the “observed”), but only on the condition that a paradox is recognized: that description is a product, something generated by a community of narrators who, in turn, are at least in part narrated, thanks to the description itself. Of course, for practical purposes, it can be useful to introduce some distinctions at a logical level so as to get temporarily out of the paradox, pretending that observer and observed are separated, so that what is observed really is as it is, independent of the observer.

M.G.: It’s ok, but if I tumble and fall down from the first floor and break my leg, well, this is not a description, it’s an objective fact! Except for it being a dream, of course, where I can even fall from the fifth floor without breaking anything, at least because usually I wake up before the impact …

M.S.: In order to reply to this objection we have to consider that the startling element pointed out by quantum physics is precisely the reformulation, in western culture, of the distinction between “description” and “fact”, which no longer are a couple of opposites.  To break one’s own leg is a fact and a description at the same time. It is not a mere description in a “subjective” sense since, in spite of many sugary, new age-like simplifications, the imagination of remaining sane and whole it is not enough to not break my leg. Nevertheless, the rules requiring the leg to break on impact with the ground are valid because there is a community of observers and narrators corroborating and perpetuating a world description in which these kinds of things happen.

Individuals too, with their fantasies, do not exist as separate individuals, but are rather distinct and, at the same time, part of this community, to which, of course, the natural world is not a stranger.

Every time we act in a certain way or in another, we do not limit ourselves to performing an action in the world, but with that action we imply the validation of that world (we actualize it, in quantum jargon), or we introduce, instead, an opening toward another kind of world by the actualizing an aspect that implies rules different than those of the referring world where the action has been performed.

M.G.: What are the consequences?

M.S.: Anyone browsing a book, introducing them to the questions brought up by quantum physics about the nature of reality, can find the description of some experiments, both actual and conceptual, very well known in general, that I cannot summarize here. What is important here is to point out that the observation process may lead to conclusions, however true, are apparently incompatible to the others. For example, according to the way I describe it – that actually means how I act to relate with it – a certain aspect of the world can behave like a wave or like a particle.  This means that it loses or acquires its materiality,  that is its weight, hardness, duration through time, and boundaries. When we are asleep, we too are in the conditions imagined in one of those well-known conceptual experiments, the one of Schroedinger’s cat, who is alive and dead at the same time, but becomes definitively alive or dead according with how it is observed.

According to the common meaning of the word, dreaming implies that I’m acting in a way such that my body, from which I withdrew my attention, keeps being consistent with a world where weight, hardness, duration and so on are real, while my awareness has become consistent with a world where there are no weight, duration, separation and so on, or they are completely different. Depending on where my attention goes, I’m “dead” in relation to the physical environment of wakefulness and “alive” in the dreaming world, or, conversely, I’ll be “alive”, that is dead to dreams, but aware of the waking world. Things indeed are more complicated since it is possible to dream being aware of dreaming, as it happens with lucid dreams; with this the basic assumptions about the nature of mind and world generally active within us are put even more into question.

If I stick to a Newton-like view of the world and mind, I’ll say that the world of bodies, with its peculiarities, is real, and shared actions can be done in it; so, the one of dreaming awareness will be considered as unreal and totally private. In a post-quantum view of the world, instead, both worlds, the one of bodies and the other of dreams, are real and shared; they just obey different rules.

M.G.: Dreams. Too, are subject to rules?

M.S.: Dreams’ apparent chaos and meaninglessness derives from the fact that our mind is quite routine-bound and not always sincere, so that it tends to “build”  the overt content of the dream, thereby mixing up different worlds with their rules. I suppose that Freud was right in this, at least in part; confusion in dreams it is not just an epistemological problem. I mean, confusion does not result from guilt in every case and it does not always derive just from a harmless mind’s sluggishness.

But the most radical consequence of this stance, and the most interesting in my opinion, is another one. Unlike what was thought, mainly with a psychodynamic bias, dreams are not ultimately a private matter of a single dreamer. In fact they are so only to the extent the latter introduces confusion in the dream, alone or in collaboration with others. Dreams are primarily a collective reality, and therefore relational; the same is true concerning our consciousness. In my opinion the scholar who pointed this out better than anyone else is Montague Ullman, who, as an author, is practically unknown in Italy.

M.G.: Hold it! What do you mean when you say that dreams are a “collective reality”?

M.S.: They are so in more than one sense. First of all, there are more and more accepted views supporting the continuity between dreaming and waking states, hence the boundaries are not so neat. Dreaming does not occur in an individual’s private, locked, armored box. It is featured instead as one answer under many aspects – as well as a proposal -  in connection with what happens in waking life. So human beings do not drop out of their relational nature when they dream; they do not stop being part of families, groups, organizations. Furthermore, they do not stop sharing affections, cultures, myths, and imageries going far beyond individuals. Indeed, these latter show themselves even more clearly in dreams.

Eventually the issue can be more radically approached, depending on how one considers human consciousness. If it is envisioned in first place as a collective and more than individual reality, whose single subjects are part of, and from which they surface as distinct but not separate, there is no reason to reject the idea that the dream territory is shared, and people can meet there, and finally interact in a quite enhanced way of co-constructing  their experiences. Also, in western countries, there are studies and experiences on group dreaming and mutual dreaming but, generally speaking, this somehow comes to blows with the common basic assumptions of western mentality in the wealthy countries and, because of this, many people do not accept the idea out of hand.

M.G.: At this point it is easy to figure out that the way you work with dreams in psychotherapy  is quite different from a traditional interpretative approach. Do you also work with dreams in family therapy sessions?

M.S.: My way of working with dreams has changed with the years. In the beginning it was decidedly close to interpretation, though the underlying epistemology was not causal; I used to try make evident to the dreamer how much his/her life vicissitudes’ narrations were consistent with the fantasies revealed thanks to dreams, and how strange loops of mutual reinforcement and validation between actual life and fantasy derived out of this. I insisted on the fact that, even when one cannot change his fantasies, he or she can always take the responsibility of governing them; can take some distance, becoming less reactive, and more free in one’s own choices. One can also trigger and nurture charming loops of the same fantasies, validating and reinforcing vicissitudes and attitudes creatively and aimed toward adaptation. Otherwise, in relation to less adaptive and more destructive aspects of fantasy, one can at least acknowledge an evacuative function of dreams. For example, a patient of woman mine suffered from resistant colitis attacks. They disappeared when she was able to dream of her mother-in-law’s parlor covered by excrement an ankle deep.

Certainly, in this overall way of proceeding, I’ve been deeply affected by the work of Francesco Mina. But I didn’t get to include this way of working, which was strictly individual, in the family therapy setting …

M.G.: There you are: how did you resolve the problem?

M.S.: In 2007 I got to know the International Association for the Study of Dreams where I began to confront myself with many different ways of approaching dreams and dreaming. A real brainstorming with colleagues, clinicians, researchers, teachers, and artists, but also housekeepers, businessmen, employees, shamans and healers of all sorts. All busy in talking about dreams, everyone fond of her/his own stance, of course, but without pretending to prevail or be more important with respect to others. The result is that many ideas got clearer, or should I say better; I am clearer about which kinds of questions I have to pose to myself and others.

For example: which kind of relationship exists between musical thinking and dream thinking? And to creativity, both of which consist of expression and resilience or just a capacity for problem-solving in extreme situations, Now, when we understand that, though with differences of course, a dream and a Beethoven’s symphony are much alike; we immediately relinquish an interpretative attitude. How could you say to someone: “the first thirty eight bars of Beethoven’s IV Symphony mean just that and nothing else” or, perhaps “Torna a Surriento means this and it has been written for this purpose”. It doesn’t make sense! Nor does it make sense to say “Puccini in Turandot let the slave Liù die because a few years before there were outbursts in Puccini’s family and a servant tragically died”. Of course there are people writing stuff like this in very influential media since this is the kind of explanation the public likes the most; nevertheless they remain nonsensical.

It instead makes sense to make available to you what I know about the IV Symphony, or Torna a Surriento or Turandot; we can have a dialogue together and I listen to you, and listen to myself as well, making a communication where I don’t pretend that you are forced to feel and think what I feel and think. Well, if we work with dreams this way, we leave behind an old-fashioned interpretative approach and, in the meantime, we enter a setting which, from an operational point of view, takes advantage of the comparison between different narratives: that is, we can easily work with dreams in a group or in a family therapy session.

M.G.: That’s very interesting! My question stems from a curiosity: I’d like to understand how the conversation about dreams could be integrated into a contest that, by definition, commends the points of view of all the participants …

M.S.: Moreover, from an epistemological point of view it is perfectly compatible with a post-quantum view of reality since the narration of a dream (although yet very actualized with respect to the dreamer’s live experience) is decidedly open, it still has many aspects of virtuality which can be actualized in a nearly infinite array of differences, depending on the conversation that will take place.

But this is only the beginning. When a post-quantum view of reality is taken seriously, integrating the dreamworking with systemic psychotherapy comes to be just a preliminary and provisional goal. The real endeavor consists in changing our way of thinking and making psychotherapy, systemic and constructivist ones included, fit better with the new model of reality, with all the implications it has for time (which can no longer be considered only in its diacronic or narrative aspects), space (thereby enfranchising non-local phenomena from the range of rare and extraordinary occurrences), the continuity between facts and descriptions, the participative nature of subjects (who, also when they are individuals are not just individuals, and when they are collective are not impersonal), of their discontinuities in identity (so that every one of us is one and many at the same time), and so on. For example, like some do, to understand that the psychotherapeutic setting is dream-like is already a first major step in this direction.

M.G.: That reminds me of some conversations we had before you began this work of yours, when you said that the therapy room looks like a frame where the regulations and laws in force are different than those ruling life outside; a place where a way of thinking that anywhere else would be considered crazy is allowed. I have a feeling that we will come back to this. Thanks, Massimo!


Post Scriptum by Massimo Schinco.

A few days after this interview was made I received the sad news that Ernest Hartmann had passed away. Ernest led a memorable seminar in Milan, Italy, for the students of the Milan Center of Family Therapy in the spring of 2012. Some of the ideas he shared with us in that circumstance were a great help for boosting the process of integrating dreams into Milan Systemic Family Therapy. In particular, I’d like to recall here his emphasis on the “central image” of a dream as a metaphor of an emotion which, in turn, can also be recognized in the waking aspects of narratives, conversations and relationships. So, a valuable resource for clients in the process of de-reification of their disturbing experiences.

At the end of that day, in my copy of his book “Boundaries” he wrote as a dedication “in unbounded friendship”. In exchange, though small and unworthy but consistent with the unbounded continuity of our friendship, I desire to dedicate the contents of this interview to Ernest.