It happens when our brains run wild while we’re sleeping, but why do we dream?
Philosophers have been discussing dreams for thousands of years but scientists/psychologists have only recently started researching into why we dream and what they mean.
According to dream analyst, Jane Teresa Anderson, dreams include images, thoughts and emotions that can be really vivid or very vague. They can be enjoyed or feared, clear or confusing. While many theories have been suggested on why we dream, Ms Anderson said no one theory has been decided on.
The earliest theory came from Sigmund Freud, who said that dreams were a representation of unconscious desires. Freud believed that people are driven by sexual instinct and aggression that are repressed from our conscious awareness and that these thoughts sneakily wiggle their way into our awareness through our dreams.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud stated that dreams are “…disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes”. He also describes two parts that make up a dream. Manifest content is the images, thoughts and content in our dreams, where as latent content is the hidden psychological meaning of the dream. This is where the popular exercise of dream interpretation came from.
Dreaming can give us an opportunity to peek into our subconscious mind and can help us deal with our psychological side when we are awake. Most of the scientific studies about interpretations of dreams come from Carl Jung, a psychologist and psychiatrist. He believed that dreams are filled with symbols that stem from the unconscious. Although he said that is important to remember each individual’s dream is a personal experience and often can’t be compared to another.
“It is plain foolishness to believe in ready-made systematic guides to dream interpretation. No dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it, and there is no definite or straightforward interpretation of any dream,” he said in his seminal text Man and His Symbols.
Ms Anderson agrees. “People often dream similar themes, such as running from someone or being naked in public, however, the details in their dreams will be different and unique to each dreamer. This is one of many reasons why dream dictionaries are unreliable,” she said.
Ms Anderson said one of the most common occurrences in dreams is the sensation of falling, which symbolises the process of waking to a conscious state. Some believe that if you are falling in a dream, it represents that you don’t feel in control of something in your life or are afraid to let go of something.
According to Jung, sexual dreams can be interpreted as unconscious desires or emotions. It can also symbolise a new relationship created with others or one’s self, although in many cases sex dreams are simply an outlet for sexual expression. Death is usually a frightening part of your dreams, although it doesn’t represent death at all. It usually means change or transitions that is happening in your life.
Some people can experience sleep paralysis, which can be quite frightening. “When you are dreaming, the nerves to your muscles (muscles that move your body) are inhibited from firing, to stop your body from responding to your dream. So if you dream of running, you will stay nice and safe tucked up in bed. If you wake up while your brain is still in dreaming mode (which can happen when your body and mind get a bit out of synch), you may experience sleep paralysis: you’re awake but can’t move your body,” says Ms Anderson. “If you remain calm, take some deep breaths, and begin by just trying to wriggle your fingers or toes, the paralysis wears off. in any case it will disappear within moments.”
In 1977, Harvard University psychiatrists J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley developed the activation-sythesis model of dreaming. This theory explains that circuits in the brain become activated during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which causes emotions, sensations and memories to activate. The brain takes this activity and tries to find meaning behind the signals, which then creates a dream. This suggests that dreams involve interpreting signals generated by the brain while we sleep. Hobson doesn’t believe that our dreams are meaningless, instead he suggests that dreaming is “…our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas.”
One of the most popular theories to explain why we sleep is it’s our chance to collect all the information we have learnt the previous day and Ms Anderson said dreaming is simply a by-product of processing this information. As we take in the huge amount of information and memories from our day, our sleeping mind creates images, impressions and narratives to manage all of the activity happening in our brains as we sleep. “Think of it as updating your hard drive,” said Ms Anderson. “Your recent experiences are compared to your past experiences and, if they seem to be similar, your mindset (beliefs you have about the world, patterns of behaviour) are consolidated.”
Dream researcher William Domhoff has discovered men and women dream of different things. Men tend to dream about aggression more than women, while women tend to have slightly longer dreams that include more characters. For women, these characters are split equally between men and women, while men dream about other men twice as often as they do about women.
It’s hard to believe but blind people also dream. While people who had lost their eyesight prior to age five don’t have visual dreams in adulthood, they do still dream. Dreams of the blind aren’t as visual, but they are just as vivid. Instead of visuals, blind dreamers typically include content from the other senses such as sound, touch, taste, hearing and smell.
It’s something that we all do, literally everybody dreams. Research suggests even animals can experience dreaming. In recent studies it has been proven that an individual usually has multiple dreams each night, with each dream lasting from five to 20 minutes.
“Everyone dreams, not everyone remembers,” said Ms Anderson. “One common reason for not remembering is having a bad nightmare and not wanting to remember any more dreams (this easily leads to blocked recall). Another is being reassured by well-meaning parents that dreams are just nonsense.”
To remember more of your dreams Anderson suggests believing that dreams are important in helping you understand yourself on a deeper level. If you want to improve on remembering your dreams it is advised by sleep experts to keep a pen and paper next to your bed and write down your dreams. The more you do this, the more vivid your dreams will become.
Doing this, along with other strategies, may lead you to lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is realising, while you’re dreaming, that you are dreaming, and staying in the dream while experiencing two parallel states of consciousness: the dream and waking life, which would sound familiar if you’ve seen the film Inception. During a lucid dream you can often control the events of your dream, with many people using this to overcome fears and anxieties.
There are many theories to the meaning of dreams and why we have them at all. Scientists and psychologists are still scratching their head at a collected reason for dreaming, maybe they can dream up the answer to the question that’s been bugging them so much. – Alana Scott
Top photo from Gisela Giardino’s Flickr photostream.