President's Column

Advances in cognitive neuroscience are illuminating specific brain sites for various cognitive functions, yet much that is remarkable about the human mind remains a mystery. How can we simultaneously know something and not know it? How can we fail to acknowledge something that has had a profound impact on us? How can we confidently believe in the reality of experiences that never happened to us?

I have witnessed some of these phenomena in research involving posthypnotic amnesia in our Stanford University laboratory, but more powerful instances are found in cases of repressed memories of early traumatic experiences. The still-hot debate in psychology about the validity of those reports should not detract from the twin phenomena that to me are remarkable feats of mind power. Some people who have been sexually abused or suffered other deeply traumatic early-life experiences are able to put them out of conscious awareness for years. It is similarly fascinating that others who have not had these experiences come to believe that they really did happen and are causing their current distress.

A personal puzzle

I'd like to add to this mix a personal story that illustrates the duality of a mind that reframed a hellish nightmare of a childhood experience as positively joyful. It is a tale of my mind that refused to make sense of a recurring dream, all the while providing me with analytic prowess in many other realms of my research career.

For more than 50 years, my "wrinkled-sheet dream" was a nightmare fragment that distressed me and resisted comprehension, until recently when its symbolic message exploded into my awareness. The dream: I see a room with an unmade bed covered with messy, wrinkled sheets. I feel happy until big hands start to remake the bed with shiny new sheets that glisten in bleached starchiness. First sad, frightened, then angry, I fight against those hands to keep the old sheets from being changed. I always lose the battle, and anticipate that negative outcome as soon as the dream scenario begins. It never made sense to me, nor to anyone else.

The meaning of the dream emerged in two dramatic steps, about five years apart. The first experience made me aware of the self-deception I had engaged in for so many decades; the second provided the emotional link to my childhood guilt and its repressive powers.

For six months, starting when I was five years old, I lived on the ward of New York's Willard Parker Hospital for children with every contagious disease. It was a great time and place, where I learned to read and write before going to school, learned primitive ingratiation skills to get favors from nurses and developed leadership skills from making up games that the other kids enjoyed.

One morning about 10 years ago, a radically different framing of that hospital experience emerged. While exercising outdoors, I was frightened by my shadow projected on a nearby hill from the rising sun behind me. I started running from it, but it stalked me. I began crying like a child, nose running, fear gripping my body. I escaped safely back to home, only to realize that this image was the omnipresent Shadow of Death that loomed over us in that horrific hospital where children played genetic roulette, dying from diseases that had no cure in 1938, before any wonder drugs existed. There was no treatment, no contact with the outside world, no entertainment. The nurses, in masks, were afraid to touch us, visiting was limited to a few hours once a week and only behind a glass wall. Day and night, children were coughing, wheezing and crying in the dark. As child after child died, the nurses created a shared conspiracy of denial and deception, which we kids willingly embraced in order to sustain any sense of survival optimism.

The nightmare uncovered

The second revelation that fully lifted the veil of mystery about those wrinkled sheets came a few years ago when I was acting as surrogate father for a student who was dying of AIDS. His condition bounced around from near death to wellness, but when he improved I was told to find alternative care because the hospital's wait list had needy patients. My distress at not finding alternatives turned to joy when I noticed that the patient in the next room must have died, so my Lonnie could keep his room. I knew the patient had died because the previously messy, wrinkled sheets on his bed were now replaced by neat, clean, starched sheets--ready for the next body. Eureka! There it was in neon lights: Wrinkled sheets equal Life; Clean sheets equal Death; the simultaneous equations awaiting solution all those years!

I realized that as a child--as ever more wrinkled sheets all around me in that ward of misery became clean--I believed the Shadow of Death was coming ever closer to claiming me. "God let me live. If someone has to die, please take one of them, not me, and I promise to be a good boy forever." Each set of clean sheets were starched with my childhood guilt--the same guilt that overwhelmed me 60 years later when I was happy to see someone else die so that I might benefit. And that deep emotional association forced into consciousness the now transparent meaning of my lifelong nightmare.

The wrinkled-sheet dream has vanished, never to reappear. But I marvel at my mind's duplicity in so powerfully concealing truths and so suddenly revealing them. Rather amazing and curiously mysterious. And isn't it wonderful that we psychologists can make a living trying to understand, enhance or modify the behavior of the human mind?