Created | Updated Jan 12, 2012
Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me
- The Mamas and Papas
We all dream. Why we dream remains a mystery, although each and every one of us will dream when we sleep whether we are aware of it or not. Even those who claim to seldom or never dream have been shown under controlled conditions to dream as much as the rest of us, but for some reason just don't remember their dreams. So what are dreams? What do they mean and are they important? For centuries these questions have been the subject of much debate, with many different theories put forward. To date none have been 100% scientifically proven and this makes dreaming all the more intriguing and fascinating. Considering that perhaps as much as six years of the average seventy-year life is spent dreaming, it seems plausible that something of importance is going on while we dream.
History of Dreams
Dreams have almost certainly existed as long as civilisation, and throughout the ages have been considered in many cultural and spiritual belief systems. In primal societies, some cultures believed that mankind co-existed in two parallel worlds, considered equally important, one awake and one asleep indistinguishable one from the other. Egyptians believed that the Gods revealed themselves in dreams, and Roman leaders gave careful attention to their dreams, in the belief they were omens from the Gods. Many indigenous cultures felt that dreams revealed the hidden wishes of the soul that could be addressed and fulfilled in their dreams. Dream interpretations occur in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, with over 700 mentions of dreams or visions. Probably the most famous of these dreams was Jacob's dream of a ladder from Earth to Heaven.
The average sleep cycle works as follows. Shortly after falling asleep we go into a deep sleep; the body temperature drops and the muscles of the eyes are relaxed. This is referred to as non rapid eye movement (NonREM) sleep. After about ninety minutes we 'surface' into a lighter phase of sleep. During this stage of sleep our blood pressure rises and our heart rate and respiration speeds up. The eye movement becomes active, darting back and forth beneath the closed lids. This is known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the phase most closely linked with our dreams. Although dreams do not take place exclusively during REM, it is where the majority of our dreams occur, and tend to be the most vivid and memorable. We dream for perhaps as much as ten minutes, and then move back into deep sleep again. We continue to move up and down through our sleep phases, experiencing on average three to five such REM sessions, with each REM phase lasting longer than the previous. Typically, we will have dreamed between one to two hours, and may have experienced between four to seven dreams.
Sleep deprivation has been a much favoured tool of torture over the centuries. The prisoner falls asleep and is constantly woken, deprived of sleep by his captors. Although scientists are no closer to answering why, it is now believed the most harmful component of sleep deprivation is the deprivation of our dreams. Volunteers allow themselves to be woken every time their dreaming (REM) activity begins. These studies have shown that deprivation of REM sleep leads to increasingly shorter delays before REM sleep resumes. If we skip our REM sleep the body will work extremely hard to 'make up' for the REM time that has been lost, and this is known as REM rebound. Continuously denied their dreams the victims will eventually plunge immediately into REM sleep. It is almost as if our bodies have a need for our dreamtime. Without it victims suffer psychological effects, becoming increasingly frustrated and disturbed. This suggests that our dreams appear to be a necessary and essential function towards our psychological and physical well-being.
Sigmund Freud (1865-1939) was the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis, and the first person to analyse and explore dreams through his own unconscious mind. His pioneering work, 'The Interpretation of Dreams', gave birth to the study of dreams as we know it today. Freud said that most dreams are wish-fulfilments, and that an important part of these wishes are the result of repressed sexual desires. Freud held the belief that mankind has many primitive urges and impulses, but because of the rules imposed by civilised society, we learn from an early age to repress our urges. Such desires, if they were manifest in our conscious life, would be too shameful, offensive or frightening to admit. But these hidden urges have a need to be released. Because our internal defences are lowered during sleep, Freud believed the unconscious mind allows our repressed urges and impulses to manifest in a disguised form, and be safely acted out or expressed in the form of our dreams. Freud wrote, 'All dreams are in a sense dreams of convenience, they help to prolong sleep instead of waking up. Dreams are the guardians of sleep and not its disturbers.' Many of the theories that we have today stemmed from his ideas, but his studies centred on the sexual symbols and meanings, and others believing there were other important aspects of the dream to be explored challenged his findings.
Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a protégé of Freud's and a major contributor to the broader understanding of our dreams. He considered dreams to have much more depth, variety and meaning than Freud. Although both men believed in the existence of the unconscious, Jung would say that every dream has its roots in mythology. Because of personal rivalry and different opinions and attitudes to dreams the two men eventually parted company. One of Jung's greatest contributions to psychology was to develop the ideas of the Collective Unconscious and Archetypes. Jung believed that the deeper layer of unconscious, which he calls the Collective Unconscious, is an inborn and universal part of the unconscious identical in all people. He added another dimension for understanding the symbolism and nature of dreams by suggesting that the universal personality Archetype figures were present in everyone's dreams. Jung said, 'To me dreams are a part of nature, which harbours no intention to deceive, but express something as best it can.' He came to believe that dreams could be owned both personally and collectively, and presented us with revelations that help us to resolve emotional issues and problems we face in our waking life. He proposed that various Archetypes are represented within myths, fairy tales, and religions, as well as dreams. Classic Jungian Archetypes include the Hero, the Wise Old Man, Persona - the image we present to the world (our public mask); the Shadow (darker side of our personality), and Anima/Animus (aspects of the opposite sex present in our personal psychology). His insights into the human unconscious have been invaluable in even today's dream studies.
Other Popular Theories
Over the years there have been many dream theories put forward to explain what happens when we sleep and why we dream. Practically all dream theorists in cognitive neuroscience suggest that dreaming is simply a random and harmless by-product as the brain sifts through the day's sensory input and experiences. Many neuroscientists remain convinced that our dreams are meaningless. To avoid 'overload' they are just a way of clearing the day's unwanted data from our 'cluttered' memory banks. Another possible function of our dreams is to allow the release of daily tensions and frustrations and the often complicated emotional situations of our lives. Nevertheless, there may be truth in many theories, and a possibility that they may all eventually play a part in understanding the significance of our dreams.
Nightmares are very distressing dreams, in which our deepest fears are 'seemingly' brought to life in fully convincing detail. Just about everyone experiences them at one time or another, and we may encounter any number of disturbing emotions causing us to wake up feeling anxious or afraid. Nightmares could be caused by a number of possibilities, such as certain drugs or medicines, stress, illness or even the scary movie we watched on TV just before bed-time. But they may also be a response to real life problems or situations. Some believe that nightmares are actually very helpful, and may be indirectly alerting us to situations we need to remedy. Just as other dreams, nightmares are an opportunity for self-exploration and understanding, and may help us to address our problems or personal difficulties.
Recurring dreams are dreams that repeat themselves in almost identical patterns or themes. They may use different characters or settings but the basic theme remains the same. In some cases recurring dreams may present themselves in the positive, but often they come to us in the form of nightmares. It has been suggested by some dream theorists that recurring dreams point to real life issues or buried traumatic events that are associated with lack of progress by the dreamer to recognise and solve. Therefore our subconscious keeps trying to alert us to something we still need to know, and will continue to send us the same 'dream message' until we take heed. Once we have addressed the issue or problem, the dream should disappear altogether.
The term 'Lucid Dreaming' relates to dreams in which we know at the time that we are dreaming. Most realise they are dreaming. Others, knowing it is only a dream, and they are actually safe asleep in bed, have with practice learned to master the skill of remaining in the dream. No longer just a spectator, they are able to contribute or influence, with varying degrees of success, the course and contents of the dream. This learned skill may present us with the opportunity to face our real life fears or worries and thereby halt our nightmares or recurring dreams.
So what do we dream about, and what does it mean? Even in our waking hours we all dream. Daydreams are constructive fantasies that take place while we are awake. They tend to arise when we seek, albeit somewhat briefly, to escape the pressures and demands of the real world. As if unaware of one's surroundings or actions, our minds begin to wander and we lose ourselves in our imagined fantasy. Popular daydreaming themes such as love, success and fame may be primarily positive and pleasurable, but others such as revenge, escape and disaster may hold a more negative aspect, and reflect fears of failure, guilt or worry. On average we spend between one to two hours each day daydreaming.
Across the centuries dreams have provided the inspiration for creative work to many well-known figures. Writers, poets, musicians, artists and scientists have attributed their dreams as a powerful source for ideas or creative endeavours. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was inspired by a dream, and dreams gave Robert Louis Stevenson the plot to The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Elias Howe visualized his solution for the invention of the sewing machine through an inspirational dream, and dreams were a turning point for Friedrich Kekulé who told of a 'waking dream' in which he discovered the chemical structure of benzene. Paul McCartney dreamed the melody of his most successful song, 'Yesterday' and Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert also referred to music inspired by their dreams. Shortly before he formulated his theory of relativity, the great scientist Albert Einstein was plagued with a series of dreams about the nature of time. Einstein said,
There are only two ways to live your life. One as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
William Blake said, 'What is now proved was once imagined,' and Kahil Gibran gave us these famous words, 'Trust in dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.'
So are dreams important? Throughout recorded history, across every culture around the world this question has been the subject of great debate. Some place great importance on our dreams and their meanings, and then there are those who consider our dreams as of no importance, dismissing them as immaterial or irrelevant. But is it possible that in denying our dreams we are denying ourselves? Dreams can be puzzling and mysterious, yet small or large have the potential to provide us with a valuable insight into our true inner selves. They may unfold to us as a jumbled array of pictures and thoughts to dreams that are so vivid and powerful; their memory stays with us, sometimes for many years. Dreams can baffle, inspire, astound, surprise, embarrass and amuse, and may be a source of truth, wisdom, creativity, joy or comfort. Every dream is flavoured with the unique experience of the dreamer, and like a home movie is connected with our 'own' view of our world. We can gain much from the connection with our dreams; above all they may be the key to revealing the hidden 'Life within a Life'.