What Do Dreams Mean

DreamingNot everyone remembers their dreams, but those who do have no difficulty understanding why people have always been fascinated by dreams and dreaming. Our dreams may shock, disgust or delight they, or us may be so vivid that the emotions they provoke can affect our mood for the entire day. So although some scientists may have no time for the layman’s fascination with dream interpretation, we cannot dismiss our dreams entirely.

Dreams in Cultures

There can be few cultures that have not attached significance to the meaning of dreams. In the Bible, stories of dreams and their interpretation abound. One of the most famous examples, in the book of Genesis, is the Pharaoh’s dream of the seven lean kine (cattle) devouring the seven fat kine, which Joseph interpreted as seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who died in 322 BC, had a theory about why we dream.

He rejected the idea then in vogue that dreams were sent by the gods, and suggested instead that dreams resulted from images which people had seen or thought about earlier being retained in the mind. Some cultures make little distinction between dream events and reality.

For example, a Paraguayan Indian dreamt that a missionary shot him, and then tried to kill the missionary. In other cultures, people are, or were, expected to carry out their dreams. Among some natives of Kamchatka, in Russia, a man bad only to dream of sexual intercourse with a woman for her to be obliged to allow him this favor. There is an example from the 18th century of an Iroquois Indian who dreamt that ten friends dived into a hole in the ice on a lake, and emerged through another. Told of the dream, the friends obliged – but only nine came up through the second hole.

In some countries, dreams play an important role in marking life events. For example, in Jamaica it is said some women do not believe they are pregnant until they have dreamt of a ripe fruit bursting to show its seeds.

Sigmund Freud Dreams

The grandfather of all dream interpretation in recent times must be the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who died in 1939. Sigmund Freud believed dreams were the expression of unacceptable and therefore repressed sexual desires. Sigmund decided, for example, that dreams that involved walking up stairs, playing piano or any rhythmic activity were really about sexual intercourse.

Carl Jung, another psychoanalyst, disagreed. He hypothesized that dreams gave people information from a sort of store of ancestral experience -the collective unconscious.

Dreams REM Sleep

More recently, speculations about why we dream have gained from scientific investigation into sleep. We now know that most dreaming takes place during REM sleep. Human adults spend about 1.5 hours a night in REM sleep and thus approximately the same amount of time dreaming. This may come as a surprise to those who believe that they rarely, if ever, dream. People are much more likely to recall their dreams if they wake up during or shortly after REM sleep. So those who tend not to remember their dreams, and would like to do so, might have more success if they set their alarm clocks for an hour or two earlier than usual.

String on FingerRemembering Dreams

Our memory for dreams quickly fades, unlike our memory for the events of real life. Dream enthusiasts recommend writing them down immediately on awakening if you want to remember them. Apart from the written record, this activity also transfers the content of the dream to your conscious mind, making recall easier.

It is a popular myth that dreams take place in seconds even though they may feel as though they have taken many minutes. The origin of this idea may lie with the French doctor Alfred Maury, who lived, in the last century. He had a lengthy dream that he was brought before a revolutionary court, questioned, sentenced to death, led to the scaffold and beheaded. When he woke in a panic, he found that part of his bed had fallen on his neck – and decided that the whole dream must have happened very quickly, stimulated by the physical pressure on his neck. But recent studies, in which people were woken after they started dreaming and asked how long they had been dreaming, have shown that our own assessments of the length of our dreams are fairly accurate.

Colin Shapiro, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, adds that newborn babies have about eight hours of REM sleep a day.

“This strikes me as one of the most impressive facts that we have about dreaming. Perhaps dreaming is something to do with brain growth and forming new connections between brain cells. If so, then dreaming is a pretty useful thing for babies to be doing.”

Dreaming may indeed be something to do with consolidating new information: one recent study found the amount of dreaming done by people made to carry out new and difficult tasks increased greatly. Others have suggested exactly the opposite: that dreams make it possible for us to “wipe the slate clean” and eliminate unwanted information from the brain.

There is some evidence that our dreams can help us stay in touch with our health. Professor Shapiro says in the British Medical Journal that dreams may reflect the presence of disease, and may even cause or precipitate disease. One study found that people with severe heart disease (the extent of which had not been clarified at that stage) had significantly more dreams dealing with separation and death. In another study, elderly people who dreamt of “lost resources” were more likely to show loss of brain tissue on a brain scan, though they had no overt signs of brain deterioration.

Why do some people remember their dreams more often and more clearly than others do? People’s personalities may also influence recall of dreams. Professor Shapiro says:

“Some people who are very in touch with their emotions recall their dreams very well. Others, with “alexithymic” personalities (people for whom the emotional side of their lives is not very significant) do not recall their dreams.”

Professor Shapiro is currently researching whether the dream recall of “alexithymic” people is improved if they are woken up during REM sleep.

Professor Allan Hobson, of Harvard Medical School, says it’s easy to answer the question of why people dream. “It’s because the brain is activated during sleep,” he says. “The real question we should be asking is: ‘why is the brain activated during sleep?”‘

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