Social dreaming (SD) is a method whose goal is to transform dream thinking by means of free association, thematic amplification, and systemic thinking, in order to find links, make connections, and free/generate new thoughts.

Social Dreaming was the innovative brainchild of Gordon Lawrence, who developed it in the 1980s, when he and Eric Miller were heading up the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London. Drawing on historical and anthropological knowledge, Lawrence hypothesized that dream may be viewed as manifestations of a given social environment and that dreams may shed light on shared social contexts (just as Freud hypothesized that dreams, in the course of psychoanalysis, can bring to light the unconscious life of the individual narrating them).

Social Dreaming is not an outright new invention – centuries of the communal sharing of dreams testify to that – but rather a discovery that, together with his research on group dynamics, led Lawrence to the awareness that dreams explored in the context of the many – which is different to the psychoanalytic dyad – can reveal previously unknown meanings and facilitate thinking around social, cultural, and institutional issues.

SD met the need for sessions that not only facilitated immersion in the unconscious processes at work in the life of a group, but also allowed participants to draw on the creative force inherent in these processes, based on the assumption that unconscious and conscious can operate in tandem. It was therefore an experimental response to the need for an instrument for harnessing the potential of a group to access its own infinite and unknown collective wisdom and using it to accomplish change.

SD focuses on the dream and not on the dreamer, that is to say, on participants’ cultural knowledge of their environment rather than on their individual personalities. It adopts the perspective of the Sphinx – focused on problems of knowledge and scientific method – rather than the perspective of Oedipus pertaining to the therapeutic dyad.
Lawrence proposed that the social dreaming process would be more effectively supported by a container that was not a “group” – a term charged with psychodynamic implications, which are present in, but not as salient to, the functioning of a matrix.

daniela monaci affiorare

Thus, SD takes place in a “matrix”, a container that captures the echoes of thoughts situated in the space of the many-in-the-mind, where each of us connects with our social, cultural, and natural environment.

In the matrix, dream thinking is subjected free association, thematic amplification, and systemic thinking techniques, with a view to forging bonds, identifying connections and releasing or generating new ideas.

The matrix is also the “place” where conscious waking life reflects the unconscious/infinite world of the dream work that occurs during sleep. It is a place where “something can grow.”

The matrix offers a new container for the discovery of new dream contents. The matrix is simultaneously both a form and a process. It takes the form of a collective gathering of people, who explore dreams, and their contents and possible meanings. As a process, the matrix is the system or network of thoughts, emotions, and connections that are present in every relationship, but not always recognized or taken into account.

Key concepts

Free association

was discovered by Freud when he invited his patients to say everything that was going through their mind without censoring it, as a means of accessing unconscious thought.
In the process of abandoning ourselves to the free associations evoked by narrating dreams, we discover paths that go beyond rational and linear thinking. While avoiding judging what comes into their minds, participants can identify what they associate with dream images, and other images that connect with these first associations, and so on, in the attempt to jointly discover the meanings of their dreams.

Thematic amplification

expands on a thought, an image, a phrase.
Dreamers draw on their imagination to explore a dream, to situate it in the cultural context in which it was produced, to understand its symbolism; avoiding the assumption that there are right or wrong answers, one idea will lead to another idea, one dream to another dream, in the process of transforming thinking, which is the primary task of a matrix.
Amplification respects the integrity of the dream.

Systemic thinking

identifies patterns that connect dreams to one another, drawing together similar dream elements to build up shared themes. Systemic thinking does not seek the best and most successful option as analytical thinking would, but takes all options into consideration, and then allows a possible synthesis to emerge, which reflects all of the dream, yet is not merely the sum of these elements. This synthesis then becomes key to the discovery of an unexpected reality and possibly of a new vantage point for observation.

The setting

In the SD matrix, participants’ chairs are arranged in a snowflake or beehive formation: from an initial geometric pattern of four, five, or six chairs, a larger pattern is made out of multiples of the first pattern. As if the first cell/fractal in the hive were the “building block” that is replicated time and again until the entire construction is in place.

This spatial organization reflects in a certain sense the development of dream thinking. Very often the first dream shared is the fractal around which the matrix builds, or the dream thinking unfolds.

The scientific method and working hypotheses

The work of the matrix leads to the formulation of working hypotheses and approximations of reality, as perceived by the participants. Working hypotheses may be consistent with factual evidence or they may be in contradiction with it, in which case alternative hypotheses must be identified.

This is an application of the scientific method, which is based on learning by experience.

The scientific method is put into practice each time we come up against the limits of our current understanding of the reality in which we live and recognize the need to formulate new hypotheses.

This is particularly salient in work environments, where planning appropriateness and market knowledge must be subjected to periodic review. Changes may demand faster responses than a company, or organization, can provide. At such times, it is important to access what the system’s unconscious/infinite has already captured and harness its creative potential in order to formulate new hypotheses that are more responsive to contextual, real-world demands.

Organizational applications

Social dreaming is a fast-developing methodology that is applied across an increasing number of diverse fields. In Italy, SD programs have been implemented in organizational consultancy and professional development settings: in public sector institutions, hospitals, universities, schools and kindergartens, intercultural seminars, social research, business enterprises and non-profit associations, organizations working with immigrants and refugees, arts settings, and more.

social dreaming 2

Social Dreaming is a tool of cultural inquiry. Courses in social dreaming are taught at the psychology faculties of three Italian universities (Rome, L’Aquila, Turin.) SD is used in professional development programmes and Group Relations Conferences.

Social dreaming:

  • Provides a thorough analysis of the organizational climate; it clearly reveals the thoughts and concerns of the system to which participants in the matrix belong
  • Fosters the transformation of group/organizational culture
  • Facilitates dynamic, non-hierarchical interaction between participants: “meaningful” connections and conversations are generated
  • Encourages a culture of non-dependence, within which individuals learn to exercise their authority, fulfil their roles, and work with others as a group
  • Fosters awareness and exercise of authority, both vertical and horizontal
  • Promotes the ability to tolerate a lack of knowledge, so that new thoughts can be released
  • Offers a key to accessing creative potential
  • Promotes the development of complex systemic thinking
  • When used continuously, leads to change, which by its nature sometimes comes about in an unexpected and surprising way

See the Social Dreaming section of the Bibliography.

Background material

The Practice of Social Dreaming: Guiding Principles


Dreams in search of dreamers: Hypotheses about the history and theory of Social Dreaming (article in italian)


The Associative Unconscious


Social Dreaming as Sustained Thinking