Why We Dream
Dreams are the stories the brain tells during sleep—they’re a collection of clips, images, feelings, and memories that involuntarily occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of slumber.
Humans typically have multiple dreams per night that grow longer as sleep draws to a close. It’s hypothesized that everyone dreams, but a small subsection of the population reports that they never remember experiencing dreams. Dreams typically involve elements from waking lives—like known people or familiar locations—but they often take on a fantastical feel.
While dreams are frequently interesting, and can allow people to act out certain scenarios that would never be possible in real life, they aren’t always positive—negative dreams, referred to as "nightmares," can create feelings of terror, anxiety, or utter despair, and can lead to psychological distress or sleep problems like insomnia. The big question, however, is why humans dream.
Though it’s been discussed and studied for millennia, it remains one of behavioral science's greatest unanswered questions. Researchers have offered many theories—including memory consolidation or emotional regulation—but a unified one remains, well, a pipe dream.
Nevertheless, people continue mining their nighttime reveries for clues to their inner lives, for creative insight, and even for premonitions.
What do dreams mean? Humans have puzzled over this question for centuries. The ancient Egyptians believed that dreams were communications from the gods, or prophecies of what was to come.
Dream interpretation as a field of psychological study took off in 1899, when Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, laying the foundation for many of his theories of the unconscious mind.
Today, many experts disagree with Freud’s conclusions—and some don’t think that dreams signify anything at all—but most people still wake up after a particularly vivid dream and wonder what it could have been trying to tell them.
Terrifying dreams that rouse someone from sleep—more commonly known as nightmares—more frequently plague children. But adults aren’t spared; at least half have occasional nightmares, with less than 10 percent reporting frequent or recurring episodes.
Nightmares are often confused with night terrors, but they’re not the same: Night terrors are a type of disorder that causes sleeping people to scream, bolt out of bed, or demonstrate symptoms similar to a panic attack.
Unlike nightmares, which can leave unpleasant memories or leftover feelings of anxiety, night terrors are usually not remembered the next day, even though its sufferers may appear to be awake during the experience.
Dreams and Death
Though seldom discussed in the scientific dream literature, dreams appear to have a special relationship to death and this relationship may reveal something about the power of dreams during liminal periods of a person’s life.
Two dream types are of special importance with regards to death: 1) “visitation” dreams and ) end of life dreams or dreams of the dying. With regard to,
I have several times in this blog called attention to “visitation dreams”. These are dreams that occur to the bereaved where the bereaved is “visited” by a deceased someone they knew or loved.
I have called attention to the fact that these visitation dreams are not experienced as mere dreams by the bereaved as many are utterly convinced that their deceased loved ones were really there with them in the room and that they touched, embraced and communicated in the night.
Equally importantly, these visitation dreams are therapeutically beneficial for the bereaved as they are comforted by the visitation. Back in 2014, Wright et al. surveyed 278 bereaved persons regarding their dreams and found that 58% of respondents reported dreams of their deceased loved ones, with varying levels of frequency. Prevalent dream themes included pleasant past memories or experiences,
the deceased free of illness, memories of the deceased's illness or time of death, the deceased in the afterlife appearing comfortable and at peace, and the deceased communicating a message (usually that they are OK).
The respondents also noted that these visitation dreams increased acceptance of the loved one's death. With regard to end of life dreams (#2 above), this same group of researchers conducted a fascinating study on dreams of hospice patients.
What do people dream about when they are dying? These authors collected (and content analyzed) dreams from 59 hospice patients in roughly the 20 or so days before they died.
Most (61%) of the patients were dying from cancer. The most common dreams featured friends or relatives of the dying patient who had died before them. These deceased persons conveyed a message to the dreamer that they were all going somewhere and that things would be OK.
The appearance of these relatives in dreams were experienced as real or highly realistic, rather than dreams per se and the visitations were rated by the patients as a highly comforting experience.
For example, Tim (age 51) had dreams that included his deceased parents, grandparents, and old friends who were ‘‘telling me I will be okay.’’ ‘‘I haven’t seen some of these people for years,’’ he stated, and ‘‘I know we are going somewhere but don’t know where.’’
The authors stress the fact that their patients were not experiencing delirium or confusional states when they reported these dreams. Most interesting, as participants approached death, these realistic visitations and comforting dreams/visions of the deceased became more prevalent as death approached significantly predicting the onset of death.
A commonsense explanation of these visitation dreams suggests that mother nature uses the dream state to carry us through intensely painful and wrenching emotional experiences: the loss of a loved one and our own impending deaths.
From a Freudian perspective, these are classic wish-fulfillment dreams: we lose a loved one but then we have a visitation dream and our wish of being with that loved one once again is fulfilled and there is an emotional resolution.
Similarly, in the face of our own deaths, our lost loved ones step in once again and fulfill a wish that we not go through the terror of death alone etc. While this commonsense explanation makes sense to me, it's not completely satisfying.
If it were solely about wish fulfillment why the extreme realism? Mother Nature could accomplish the same goal without using scarce metabolic resources to create hallucinatory states.
If these are hallucinations they are unlike all other hallucinations known to medical science given that the patients involved are not cognitively impaired and virtually all senses are involved.
The level of realistic detail in the visitations is extraordinary. Sometimes dreamers can even smell the perfume the deceased always wore! Either medical science needs to increase its inventory of hallucinatory states or we need a better way to understand these visitation dreams.
10 Interesting Facts About Dreams
Adults and babies alike dream for around two hours per night—even those of us who claim not to. In fact, researchers have found that people usually have several dreams each night, each one typically lasting for between five to 20 minutes. During a typical lifetime, people spend an average of six yearsdreaming
You Forget Most of Your Dreams
As much as 95 percent of all dreams are quickly forgotten shortly after waking. According to one theory about why dreams so difficult to remember, the changes in the brain that occur during sleep do not support the information processing and storage needed for memory formation to take place.
Brain scans of sleeping individuals have shown that the frontal lobes—the area that plays a key role in memory formation—are inactive during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage in which dreaming occurs.
Not All Dreams Are in Color
While most people report dreaming in color, there is a small percentage of people who claim to only dream in black and white. In studies where dreamers have been awakened and asked to select colors from a chart that match those in their dreams, soft pastel colors are those most frequently chosen.
Men and Women Dream Differently
Researchers have found some differences between men and women when it comes to the content of their dreams. In several studies, men reported dreaming about weapons significantly more often than women did, while women dreamed about references to clothing more often than men.
Another study showed that men's dreams tend to have more aggressive content and physical activity, while women's dreams contain more rejection and exclusion, as well as more conversation than physical activity.
Women tend to have slightly longer dreams that feature more characters. When it comes to the characters that typically appear in dreams, men dream about other men twice as often as they do about women, while women tend to dream about both sexes equally.
Animals Probably Dream
Many think that when a sleeping dog wags its tail or moves its legs, it is dreaming. While it's hard to say for sure whether this is truly the case, researchers believe that it's likely that animals do indeed dream. Just like humans, animals go through sleep stages that include cycles of REM and non-REM sleep.
It's Possible to Control Your Dreams
A lucid dream is one in which you are aware that you are dreaming even though you're still asleep. Lucid dreaming is thought to be a combination state of both consciousness and REM sleep, during which you can often direct or control the dream content.
Approximately half of all people can remember experiencing at least one instance of lucid dreaming, and some individuals are able to have lucid dreams quite frequently.
Negative Emotions Are More Common
Over a period of more than 40 years, researcher Calvin S. Hall, PhD, collected over 50,000 dream accounts from college students. These reports were made available to the public during the 1990s by Hall's student William Domhoff.
The dream accounts revealed that many emotions are experienced during dreams, though the most common emotion experienced in dreams was anxiety, and negative emotions, in general, were much more common than positive ones.
Blind People May Dream Visually
In one study of people who have been blind since birth, researchers found that they still seemed to experience visual imagery in their dreams, and they also had eye movements that correlated to visual dream recall.
Although their eye movements were fewer during REM than the sighted participants of the study, the blind participants reported the same dream sensations, including visual content.
You Are Paralyzed During Your Dreams
REM sleep is characterized by paralysis of the voluntary muscles. The phenomenon is known as REM atonia and prevents you from acting out your dreams while you're asleep. Basically, because motor neurons are not stimulated, your body does not move.
In some cases, this paralysis can even carry over into the waking state for as long as 10 minutes, a condition known as sleep paralysis. While the experience can be frightening, experts advise that it is perfectly normal and should last only a few minutes before normal muscle control returns.
Many Dreams Are Universal.
While dreams are often heavily influenced by our personal experiences, researchers have found that certain dream themes are very common across different cultures.
For example, people from all over the world frequently dream about being chased, being attacked, or falling. Other common dream experiences include feeling frozen and unable to move, arriving late, flying, and being naked in public.
When I was 14 years old, I had a dream I’ll never forget. Though it wasn’t dramatic or worthy of cinematic adaptation, it has stuck with me all these years: I found myself wandering through the endless hallways of an ancient and eerie mansion. .
The cobwebs that adorned its opulent furniture made it obvious that no one had been there for many years. Even in its abandonment, however, the electricity was on, and numerous ornate crystal lamps and chandeliers lent a dim glow to its gloomy countenance.
. I was anxious — but not terrified. Like a character in a horror film, I felt strangely compelled to explore, even while dreading what I might encounter. In the garage, I found a crumbling horse-drawn carriage. In the dining room, a feast was laid out, but there were no diners..And throughout the house, I found more and more crystal lamps. There must have been thousands of them lighting my way. Then I woke up. .
Dreams have fascinated people since the beginning of recorded history. In ancient Egypt, people with vivid dreams were considered to be blessed with special insight, and many of their dreams have been found recorded on papyrus..In fact, the Egyptians believed that one of the best ways to receive divine revelation was through dreaming, and some people even slept on sanctified "dream beds” to gain wisdom from the gods. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars largely abandoned these supernatural ideas.. Prominent figures such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung instead concluded that dreams provided insights into the inner workings of the mind. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud detailed a complex system of dream analysis. .
At its core, his theory stated that while our conscious minds slumber, our unconscious minds produce images that can give us special insight into our deepest selves..
Regardless of whether dreams foretell the future, allow us to commune with the divine, or simply provide a better understanding of ourselves, the process of analyzing them has always been highly symbolic. .
To understand the meaning of dreams, we must interpret them as if they were written in a secret code. A quick search of an online dream dictionary will tell you that haunted houses symbolize “unfinished emotional business,” dimly lit lamps mean you’re “feeling overwhelmed by emotional issues,” a feast indicates “a lack of balance in your life,”
and garages symbolize a feeling of “lacking direction or guidance in achieving your goals.” So there it is: At 14, I was feeling emotional about lacking balance and direction in my life.
But what if there’s no secret code, and we’ve been spending our time reading into a bunch of random images, much like people find shapes and objects hidden in the clouds?
What if dreams don’t actually mean anything? That’s the conclusion drawn by some modern neuroscientists, who believe that dreams are just a side effect of more fundamental neurological processes.
Although people often think that the brain is shut down during sleep, researchers now know that sleep is a period of intense neurological activity. One of the main reasons we sleep may be to allow the brain to consolidate and organize our memories.Much like computers must periodically optimize their hard disks, our brains must continuously consolidate the memories we have stored. You can think of it as a kind of neurological housecleaning, sweeping away the unnecessary experiences from the previous day and storing the important ones more securely.
Research shows, for instance, that people’s recall of recently learned tasks improves after sleep, and that their memory suffers if sleep is interrupted. That’s why parents and teachers often urge children to get a good night’s sleep before taking a test.
Although not all researchers agree, many think that dreams may be an unintended consequence of these and other underlying neurological processes. Harvard psychiatrists J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley
for instance, proposed that, as various brain circuits become active during the night, this triggers sensations, emotions, and memories, all of which are essentially random.
Given that we’re meaning-making creatures, however, our brains assemble all of this underlying activity into a story. But this story doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s simply an attempt to make sense of the neural activity that has taken place.
This is why dreams seem so illogical and strange.
It may have something to do with what researchers call the “Barnum Effect,” named for circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum. Psychology professor Bertram Forer first demonstrated this effect in 1948, when he administered a fake personality test to 39 students.
They didn’t know it, but all of them received exactly the same results, including statements like, “You have a great need for other people to like and admire you,” and “You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.” Afterward, the students were asked to rate how accurate they felt these results were on a five-point scale.
The average rating was an astounding, indicating that even though everyone received the same fake feedback, they felt that the test did an almost perfect job of summarizing their minds’ inner workings.
“Barnum statements” are easily accepted as true because of their wide applicability. Even though they sound specific, they can apply to almost anyone, much like the interpretation of my haunted house dream.
Doesn’t “feeling emotional about lacking balance and direction” apply to virtually everyone, to some degree? We could reasonably ask the same question about almost any interpretation given by a dream dictionary.
And if all interpretations apply equally well to almost everyone, then they’re not truly accurate of anyone.But not all scientists agree that there’s no inherent purpose or meaning to dreams.
Tore Nielsen and Ross Levin have proposed a theory midway between Freud’s almost magical symbol-based system of dream analysis and the view that dreams are simply random..
Their perspective, the Neurocognitive Model of Dreaming, is complicated, and impossible to completely explain here. Although this theory still states that dreams are closely tied to neurological memory consolidation processes, that doesn’t mean they’re random.
Instead, Nielsen and Levin believe, the stories our brains weave from seemingly random dream images are guided, at least in part, by our emotional states. For instance, as the amount of negative experiences in our waking life rises,
the probability of having bad dreams also rises. This may be why people who have experienced trauma are more susceptible to nightmares than others.
According to this theory, an important function of dreams is what the researchers term “fear extinction" — that is, dreams help us to process our stressful experiences in a healthy way, putting them “to rest,” so we’re not overwhelmed with negative feelings during our waking lives.
When the process is working properly, dreams use the stresses and waking concerns in our lives as source material, taking them apart and reassembling them into odd but generally harmless stories, a procedure which ultimately allows us to move past them.
Though the Neurocognitive Theory of Dreaming would suggest that the particular symbols in my haunted house dream don't have any objective or universal meanings that I could find in a dream dictionary, the overall emotional quality of the dream probably does have meaning.
Like many 14-year-olds, I was full of youthful angst as I encountered the stresses of growing up — feelings which showed up in my dream.
So while dreams may not tell the future, allow us to commune with the supernatural, or give us special insight into the depths of our unconscious, they do tell us something about our emotions.
Because most of us occasionally get out of touch with how we’re feeling, this is a useful insight. In other words, if you’re experiencing a stream of bad dreams, it might be worth checking in with yourself about how you’ve been feeling, and perhaps consider whether there’s some action you could take to help improve your mood.
When people think about analyzing their dreams, they usually think of psychics with crystal balls, dream dictionaries, or lying on a couch while a Freud-like psychologist tells them precisely what their dreams connote (and it sounds a lot like cigars and sex).
But dream analysis is none of these things. And it’s actually a valuable way to better understand yourself. Below, clinical psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber explains why we dream, why analysis is important and how to start interpreting your dreams.
“Dreaming is non-essential when it comes to survival as a body but is essential with regard to our development and evolution as metaphysical beings,” according to Sumber, who studied global dream mythology at Harvard University and Jungian dream interpretation at the Jung Institute in Zurich.
Dreaming is the communication between our conscious mind and our unconscious mind, helping people create wholeness, he says. “Dreams are the bridge that allows movement back and forth between what we think we know and what we really know.”
Dreams let us play out painful or puzzling emotions or experiences in a safe place. “Dreams also allow us to process information or events that may be painful or confusing in an environment that is at once emotionally real but physically unreal.”
“Dream analysis is a key component in the process of becoming whole as a person,” Sumber explains. Dreams reveal a person’s “deepest desires and deepest wounds.” So analyzing your dreams helps you gain a deeper understanding of yourself.
One of the biggest myths about dream analysis is that there’s a set of stringent rules people need to follow. But every person is unique, so there are no formulas or prescriptions.
Dreams “can only be understood in the larger context of the individual’s unfolding and self-discovery,” Sumber says. However, there are several guidelines that can help you see your dreams more thoughtfully and dig deeper into their meaning.n Record your dreams. This is the first and most important step in analyzing your dreams, Sumber said.
“Taking notes, even a few sentences that encapsulate the dream, literally draws the content of the unconscious out into the realm of the concrete.”Think you don’t dream or can’t remember your dreams?
He suggests simply keeping a journal by your bed, and writing “No dream to record” every morning. “Within two weeks of this process, the person will begin to remember their dreams.” (In fact, “you might open the floodgates!”) Identify how you were feeling in the dream.
For example, Sumber suggests asking yourself: “Was I scared, angry, remorseful, etc.? Do I still feel those feelings the morning after? How comfortable am I feeling these feelings?”
C.G. Jung referred to dreams as “feeling-toned complex of ideas.” In other words, according to Sumber, “We are always being called by our unconscious self to feel into our ideas, thoughts and actions so as to gain a deeper sense of who we are and where we are going in our lives.”Identify recurring thoughts in your dreams and daily life.
Sumber gives these examples of recurring thoughts: “They are going to kill me.” “I don’t understand.” Or “I’m not going to make it.” Next, ask yourself if you’ve had these thoughts throughout the day. If so, in what situations have you had these thoughts? Consider all the elements of a dream. You can show up in your dreams in various ways.
Many times, “we can find ourselves, our personalities, in many elements of a dream, even if there is a clear distinction between us and another character in the dream.” You can ask yourselves these questions, Sumber said: “What is it like to be the villain in the dream? What is it like to be the aggressor, or be passive?
” Put down the dream dictionaries. You’ve probably come across dream dictionaries that feature specific meanings for objects. As Sumber notes, while there may be some universal meaning for these symbols, the key is to figure out what the dream means to you.
“While there may be a trace of collective meaning for certain universal symbols that do have some bearing on our internal analysis and growth, I am far more interested in where the dreamer goes with the symbol and what the dreamer connects to as a result of the dream.”
So, even though there may be some universal elements, symbols have different meanings for different people.
“I believe we are all unique and carry very personal histories that impact the symbols, objects, tastes and smells that we associate with a particular dream story or event.” Remember you’re the expert. “There are no experts other than yourself when it comes to your own psyche so don’t stop trusting your own inner guide to your unconscious,”
Sumber says. He adds that, “therapists need to place aside all of their information, tools and associations for universal symbols and dream interpretation with each new client and treat each person as a unique, new world to be discovered.
”You can learn a lot from even the most mundane dreams. You may be thinking that your dreams just aren’t fascinating, flashy or profound enough to explore. But even dreaming about having oatmeal for breakfast can yield thoughtful results, Sumber believes. As examples, he lists the following questions you can ask:;'
“Am I alone with my oatmeal? Am I inside or on a veranda with a gentle breeze? Are the oats organic? Overcooked? Is there a horse nearby? How do I feel about the oats? What do oats typically symbolize for me? Are there any memories that I can tie to eating oatmeal?
When was the first time I remember eating oatmeal for breakfast? How did my mother make oatmeal and do I make it the same way as an adult?”
M I Ro
photos by pixabay.com
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