The Healing Power of Dreams - Tallulah Lyons and Wendy Pannier

Dreams: A Creative Portal to Healing

Wendy Pannier
Presentation at IASD Regional Conference
Minneapolis, MN — October 2006

If you had lived in ancient China about 4500 years ago and became ill, your doctor would have talked about the concepts of yin and yang, and the relationship between dreams and illness. Healers in that time believed “The utmost art of healing can be achieved when there is unity.”  They understood the mind/body/spirit connection!

If you had lived in Greece around 400 BCE and went to Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine, he would have used dream therapy and encouraged you to incubate a healing dream. Aristotle, who was born shortly after Hippocrates died, helped advance the theory that dreams reflected a person’s bodily health and suggested a doctor could diagnose patients’ illnesses by listening to their dreams.

There were dream temples throughout the ancient world, the Temple of Asklepius in Greece perhaps being the most famous.

It was at such a shrine that Galen of Pergamum a Greco-Roman physician who had a great impact on European medicine, received his training in the second century AD. He used dreams for both diagnosis and treatment. He even used dream-received guidance to perform operations.

Dreams are indeed a creative portal to healing! Understanding the connection between dreams and healing started in ancient times and for thousands of years received respect. It later went through a period of benign—and sometimes not so benign—neglect. Today it is resurfacing as a new force in integrative medicine.

In the mid-1900s, Vasily Kasatkin, a psychiatrist at the Leningrad Neurosurgical Institute, studied the content of 10,240 dreams from 1,200 subjects over a 40-year period. He discovered that illness is associated with an increase in dream recall, often with nightmarish images. He found that dreams often call attention very specifically to an illness before it could be medically diagnosed. And, he is quoted as saying that dreams are “sentries that watch over our health.
There are nerves coming to the brain from every part of the body—and they relay signals of impending illness that the subconscious translates into dreams.”

Physicians from Hippocrates to Kasatkin to MDs Bernie Siegel and Larry Dossey have found that dreams can often predict illness. The ancient Greeks called them “prodromal” dreams from the Greek words “pro” meaning before, and “dromos” meaning running. Thus, prodromal dreams can tell us what is going on in our bodies before the symptoms become obvious and readily diagnosable.

In the work Tallulah Lyons and I have done with cancer patients, we also have found that many people dream about their cancer before it is diagnosed. The problem, many times, is getting the medical profession to listen. A woman in one of my workshops had a dream she knew was telling her she had breast cancer. She worked for a major hospital in Philadelphia and the next day insisted on tests. When the mammogram showed nothing, they refused to do additional tests. She persisted, pushing the people she worked with until they finally gave in and did additional tests—which showed that she did indeed have breast cancer.  An IASD member had a dream there was something wrong with his “neck brain”. The nightmare was so intense that he pressed his doctors for tests. Initially they showed nothing, but he pressed for further tests, which revealed his thyroid cancer.

In fall of 1994 I had a stark dream that my gynecologist called and said, “Wendy, you need a D&C.” That’s not a procedure you generally walk in and request. The dream haunted me, despite routine check-ups. Fourteen months later my gynecologist did call me and, like in the dream, told me that I needed a D & C. This was the procedure that diagnosed my late state cancer.

There’s also a category of dreams I would like to call preventive prodromal dreams. These are the dreams that give us information that can help prevent problems from occurring. Dr. William Dement, founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and a heavy smoker, dreamed that he saw an X-ray of his lungs and knew he had inoperable lung cancer. The nightmare was so intense that he stopped smoking immediately. Decades later, he is alive with no sign of cancer.

I have heard many dreams where people received “preventive” advice, especially about nutrition and other lifestyle issues. One man who was really enjoying all the red meat allowed on the Atkins diet had a dream where he was shown he needed to “Eat Fish.” A number of people have shared “vegetable dreams” they believe were encouraging them to eat more vegetables. Others have shared dreams where junk food was shown in a negative context. One woman shared that she periodically had dreams where she was in a room where everything was distorted and out of proportion. Over time she came to realize that this dream was telling her that things were out of proportion—or balance—in her life and that if she didn’t correct this she would become ill.

Did these dreams prevent health problems from arising? It’s impossible to prove—or disprove. However, in my own experience I have found that dreams can be a valuable early warning system about health problems.

Let’s take a look at the science behind dreams and healing today. Kasatkin was on the right track when he talked about the communication between the brain and body creating dreams that help diagnose an illness. Today, the field of psychoneuroimmunology or PNI is providing the science behind that mind/body/spirit connection.

Candace Pert is a biophysics and physiology researcher, whose discoveries in the 1980s confirmed an intricate biochemical communication network between the body and the mind.   Some of you may have seen her in the movie What the Bleep. Pert’s work demonstrates the complex interrelationships among the behavioral, neural, endocrine and immune processes. She has found that even tiny immune cells have receptors for neuropeptides, which she calls the “molecules of emotion.” Neuropeptides are molecular messengers that connect all systems of the body—including the immune system.

At the level of neuropeptides, the body and mind are neurologically connected. Every emotional state involves the release of neuropeptides and other biochemical messengers. Our emotions are thus connected to our physiology. It could be said that the mind/body communication is primarily emotion/body communication, because emotions play a major role in mind/body phenomenon. Pert emphasizes that for maximum functioning of the immune system, it is important to free blocked emotions and to find constructive expression for all emotions.

Dream work is a process for achieving that goal.

Candace Pert works with her own dreams. She believes—and I quote, “Dreams are direct messages from your bodymind, giving you valuable information about what’s going on physiologically as well as emotionally. Strong emotions that are not processed thoroughly are stored at the cellular level. At night some of the stored information is released and allowed to bubble up into consciousness as a dream. Capturing the dream and re-experiencing the emotions can be very healing, as you either integrate the information for growth or decide to take actions toward forgiveness and letting go.”

Exploring our dreaming brain gives us additional insight into the mind/body/spirit connection. Researchers have documented that certain parts of the brain go “offline” during dreaming while other parts of the brain go on “high speed access.” PET studies show that two areas of the brain  that are highly activated during REM sleep are the limbic and paralimbic systems.

These include the amygdala, hippocampus, parahippocampal cortex, anterior cingulate, and medial prefrontal cortex. The limbic system mediates emotional experience, emotional behavior and conversion of emotions into physiology. The right hypothalamus, which integrates the sensory-perceptual, emotional and cognitive functions of the mind with the biology of the body, is also active. Meanwhile, there is a loss of functional connection between the frontal cortex and posterior perceptual areas which contribute to a lack of reality testing—hence different types of brain communications.

The "Language" of the Dreaming Brain
click for larger view - Acrobat file

Now what does this brain stuff mean? Well, when the part of the brain controlling rational thought is inactive, the irrational may be seen as normal, as happens in dreams. When the part of the brain that deals with sequential thinking is inactive, you may get images from past, present and future mixed together. Likewise, when the limbic system and amygdala are active, it enhances emotional associations and social and emotional processing where imagery carries an emotional charge.

What does this have to do with dreams and healing?

A function of dreaming appears to be emotional processing. During dreaming these highly activated areas of the brain communicate in different ways than during waking consciousness, and allow for emotions to be processed differently. The limbic system speaks in the language of symbolic imagery. Working with dream imagery in the waking state can help change perceptions and resolve conflicts, which are critical keys for mind/body healing.

It is significant that the amygdala and hypothalamus, which are both highly active during dreaming, have 40 times the opiate and neuropeptide receptors as other parts of the brain.  Positively impact them — and they can have a positive impact on the immune system.

The amygdala assigns emotional significance to the data it receives—and it has a pretty loose grip on reality. Take, for instance, our reaction to scary movies—or dreams. The event may not really be threatening, but the amygdala perceives it as real and triggers chemical changes in the body as though it were real. This part of the brain doesn’t know a real event from a perceived event—yet perception can change biology.

Based on PNI, it is important to use interventions that maximize the right brain “limbic logic” in order to stimulate more profound, positive psychophysiologic change. Commonly accepted integrative medicine interventions that do this include guided imagery, hypnosis and biofeedback, as well as stories, body work, art and music, humor and movement therapies.

The one obvious but frequently overlooked modality is working with dream imagery.

Now let’s talk about how to apply that science.

In our work with cancer patients over the past decade, we have seen how powerful dream imagery can be. We believe our work with dream imagery has application for other types of illness too—and for anyone seeking a fuller sense of wellness in life. We use the recognized and proven modalities of visualization and active imagination techniques and take them to the next level by customizing them with the individual’s own dream imagery.

This work falls into two primary categories: Working with and transforming negative dream images, such as those from nightmares, and working with positive and healing dream images.

Our work is showing that transformed images from nightmares can be used effectively with visualization techniques aimed at pain reduction, treatment and recovery. Additionally, as documented by another speaker here, Patricia Garfield, in her book Healing Power of Dreams, as one goes through a healing process the dream imagery evolves and becomes more positive. The physiological impact of these positive healing images can be enhanced through the use of visualization and guided imagery techniques.

There has been a vast amount of research done in recent decades on the mind/body connection. Research has documented that imagery and visualization can:

  • Increase the number of circulating white blood cells as well as levels of a hormone used by T helper cells. (Nicholas Hall, neuropsychologist, at George Washington Medical Center)

  • Affect the functioning of neutrophils, the first line of defense against infectious agents or “nonself” substances in very specific ways. (Dr. Frank Lawlis and others at the University of Texas)

  • Reduce aversion responses to chemotherapy. (Jeanne Lyles and team at Vanderbilt University)

  • Lower surgical stress and speed up postsurgical healing. (Carole Holden-Lund at Southeastern Louisiana University School of Nursing)


And of course Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, is known for his study of 86 women with metastatic breast cancer. The women were divided into two groups: one received state-of-the-art medical treatment only; the other received the same treatment plus weekly group counseling where they learned very basic self-hypnosis and guided imagery. The second group lived twice as long as the first—36.6 months vs. 18.9 months. Here, group work and imagery were shown to have profound, long-term physiological results.

How does visualization work? Here are three operating principles of imagery,
adapted from the work of imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek:

  1. Our bodies don’t discriminate between sensory images in the mind and what we call reality—thanks to the amygdala and “limbic logic”.

  2. In a relaxed, meditative state, we are capable of more rapid and intense healing, growth, learning and change—just think of all those neuropeptides you can direct!

  3. Imagery/visualization work helps participants feel better about themselves because they have a sense of mastery over what is happening to them. Patients who have an enhanced belief in their coping abilities tend to have better treatment outcomes.

However, current imagery/visualization practices are not without their problems. While techniques have evolved considerably since the 1970s, it is still an inexact science. Some of the problems include:

  • Not relating to the imagery

  • Lack of focus

  • Imagining how things are—the illness—rather than the desired outcome

  • Not involving all the senses

  • Not feeling the imagery in the body

  • Giving more credence to external than internal power

  • Resistance


Dreams provide us with images that are deeply meaningful to us—and they do so in a way that circumvents our resistances. Pairing dream imagery with visualization offers many advantages over prepackaged visualization tapes or waking guided imagery exercises alone which the person may not relate to. Here’s why:

  • Dreams show us emotions we are not in touch with in waking life.

  • Dreams show us how we participate in the stresses in our lives by our reactions to them.

  • Dreams show us where in our lives we are at dis-ease—and put us in touch with our personal conflicts.

  • Dreams show us possibilities for new responses.

Dreams do spotlight where we might be at dis-ease in our lives and what needs to be changed. Dreams help us cut through the facades and emotional blockages we create in waking life. The emotionally-laden, symbolic communications among parts of the brain that are highly activated during dreaming provide imagery that is exclusively personal to the needs of the dreamer. We hypothesize that dream imagery is more powerful than even the best generic guided imagery tapes or scripts.

Drs. O. Carl and Stephanie Mathews Simonton, pioneers in the use of imagery with cancer patients, worked with a highly intellectual patient who felt everything needed to come from the rational mind—one of the problems some people face when trying to work with standard visualizations.

The imagery exercises weren’t working. Then he had a dream of an “unorthodox doctor” who introduced himself as a healer. The patient was then able to use active imagination to reconnect and get information from this inner doctor. The young man needed his own imagery, presented to him in his dream state, to get over the hurdle of how to use imagery and active imagination while awake.

Through dreams you can cut through conscious resistance and, because of the parts of the brain that are inactive during dreaming, can cut through waking logic and let limbic logic play. You can then take the dream images and either recreate them, in the case of healing images, or transform them in the case of nightmare images. Using positive dream imagery with active imagination / visualization reinforces the desired perception on the amygdala, which in turn stimulates the body’s physiology appropriately for healing. One of the reasons dream images work so well is that they arise from within us and hold up a mirror to our emotionally charged perceptions—such as our fears, beliefs and hopes.

Remember: amygdala is all about perception. Change the perception . . . change the physiology.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said, “We create an illusion of the world that we call reality and then we marinate in that.” Working with dream imagery can point us in the direction of a more healthful and healing reality.

In our work we use a modified Montague Ullman/Jeremy Taylor group approach where the group plays with a dream and brainstorms what it might mean if it were their dream. We then look at the recent emotional context from which the dream arose. From there we may also use other dream work techniques. This work helps the dreamer begin to realize the message of the dream. When this initial level of dream work is done, we encourage the dreamer to find ways he or she can continue working with and honoring the dream. This may include journaling, meditative activities, or art work, among others.

Working with a dream image is often a process. To demonstrate this, I want to share work some of our group members have done with nightmares images. Nightmares have been greatly maligned and misunderstood. They are dreams that give us a “heads up” and show us the emotional, spiritual and sometimes physical areas of our life that are out of balance and in need of repair. Most people want to avoid nightmares because they seem “bad”. Yet scary dreams often only seem bad because they are telling us something we have been ignoring, repressing or denying. The best response to a nightmare is to discover and act on its message.

Helping nightmare imagery evolve into more positive, healing imagery is a process. This may take a lot of waking life work and a series of dreams over weeks or months—but the outcome results can be dramatic.

  • A snarling and attacking dog in one dream evolves into an active but unaggressive dog in a subsequent dream, then a friendly puppy in a later dream, and finally a magnificent white dog companion.

  • Scary snakes in one dream evolve into quiet sleeping snakes, and then fun play doh snakes in subsequent dreams.

  • Smashed pottery in one dream evolves into unfinished unfired pottery, and then into expensive new pottery loaded with sumptuous food in later dreams.

  • A fire ravaged home in one dream evolves into a small neat hut in a subsequent dream, and then into an elegant mansion by the sea in a later dream.

  • A barren desert in one dream evolves into a lush blooming oasis in a later dream.

  • A deformed baby in one dream evolves into a crippled child . . . then a sad ragged child, and finally into a beautiful, glowing, precocious child through a series of dreams.


As you can see, each of these dreams has a central, highly emotionally charged image. This reinforces the work of Ernest Hartmann. He states that the dream, and in particular the central image, pictures the emotion of the dreamer and that the intensity of this central image is a measure of the strength of the emotion. As Candace Pert’s research demonstrated, emotions impact the immune system. Therefore, transforming nightmarish images into positive, healing images can change the messages sent to the immune system.

In each series, the dreamer did extensive dream work between each dream—journaling, sharing with the group, using various dream work techniques and focusing on the key images in meditative imagery exercises. There was a progressive change in emotion and attitude in each series, with the final image carrying numinous or healing energy ¾ a sense of being in a totally new relationship with the issue at hand. The dreamer can then use these evolved images in waking meditative activities. I’d like to share a few brief examples here that illustrate how positive dream imagery can be paired with waking imagery and other meditative work.

One woman began to have panic attacks as her surgery approached. Then, a week before surgery, she had a dream in which a beautiful white horse galloped up to her and communicated that she should climb on its back. It took enormous energy to do this in the dream, but when she did, she and the horse became as one as they galloped smoothly through a narrow opening between two huge rocks. On the other side, they were in a brightly lit meadow.

She awoke from the dream with a feeling of calm and supported assurance. In the days before surgery when she felt the beginnings of panic, she re-entered her white horse dream and, using all her senses, re-lived her transformation from a state of panic into a state of support and calm. This is dream imagery she can continue to call on and recreate when she needs it.

Another example is a woman who had a dream that left her with feelings of strength and confidence. She wanted a way to recreate that feeling in her waking life so, while she knitted herself a sweater, she reimagined the positive emotions from her dream, savoring them with all her senses and knitting those positive feelings into the sweater, which she now wears to treatments and doctor visits where she continues to use the imagery.

I had a dream of amazingly colored tropical birds which, when I re-entered the dream, told me my light and energy came from within and they would teach me how. They surrounded me with their wings and I felt as though I started to glow. It was a profound healing experience. I used the imagery throughout my cancer treatment and still use it to this day.

There are many ways that powerful and positive dream imagery can be carried into waking life. Many people add them to other meditation or movement activities.

  • One man envisions his fierce dream warrior image through yoga poses;

  • A woman gets in touch with the enlivening energy of a courageous cat throughout her body as she dances;

  • Another becomes a soaring, healing dream bird when she does tai chi;

  • During treatment one woman imagines that the glowing fish from her healing dream takes chemo from tumor to tumor;

  • A man imagines that the chemo travels on a stream of healing light that he saw in his dream;

  • A woman imagines that a supportive dream guide holds her hand during the treatment.

These are images that are highly personal—and highly meaningful to the individuals.

In our work the last three years, the last two of which have been under grants from the Lloyd Symington Foundation and the H.M. Bitner Charitable Trust, we have surveyed our ongoing group members on quality of life issues and have found that:

  • 80% said that they now use positive imagery from dreams in meditative activities.

  • 100% said that their dream work brings about decreased feelings of anxiety and stress.

  • 100% reported an increased sense of connection with others, an increased sense of connection to inner resources, an increased understanding of healing at multiple levels and an increased quality of life—particularly emotional, social and spiritual.

  • 100% reported increased feelings of control over life and health issues, increased feelings of hope, and an increased understanding of how to live fully now, despite cancer.


Dreams are universal—we all dream every night whether we remember them or not. They are a free resource to everyone to use as a creative portal to healing and wellness.


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