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Dreams: What are They and What do They Mean

Updated on March 12, 2014

Playground of Dreams

Why Do We Dream? Does Anyone Know?

Scientists have disagreed for many years about the function and the meaning of dreams. One thing that is known for a fact is that the average person will spend around 6 years of their life in a dream state. Dreams can last anywhere from a few seconds to as long as 20 minutes. People are more likely to remember their dreams if they are awakened during the REM phase. The average person has three to five dreams per night, but some may have up to seven dreams in one night. The dreams tend to last longer as the night progresses. And, whether you remember them or not you are having them constantly.

Dreams are successions of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur subconsciously in the mind during certain stages of sleep. The scientific study of dreams is called oneirology. Dreams can be extraordinarily vivid or vague; filled with pleasurable emotions or frightening terror; focused and clear or fuzzy and confusing. We've all wondered why we have them. We've woken up and thought why did I dream that? And, let's not forget the nights when we've woken in terror due to a nightmare. Or when someone you love has woken up in terror.

Why do we dream? Does it serve a purpose? For centuries, scholars, priests, scientists have all tried to unwrap the mysteries of dreams. Some came to their own conclusions. But, the truth is no one really knows for sure why we dream. While many theories have been proposed, no single general agreement has been made.

As far back as 3100 B.C, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia left evidence of dreams. The Mesopotamians believed that the soul, or some part of it, moves out from the body of the sleeping person and actually visits the places and persons the dreamer sees in their sleep.

In ancient Egypt, as far back as 2000 BC, the Egyptians wrote down their dreams on papyrus. Papyrus is a thin paper-like material made from the core of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, once abundant along with the Nile Delta of Egypt. Ancient Egyptians used this plant as a writing material. Ancient Egyptians believed that dreams were like oracles, bringing messages from the gods. Today we still strive to figure out exactly why we dream, of course we've ruled the above out, but we still aren't quite sure.

Albert Einstein

The Longest Running Dream Theory

Sigmund Freud, who developed the discipline of psychoanalysis wrote extensively about dream theories and their interpretations. He explained dreams as manifestations of our deepest desires and anxieties, often relating to repressed childhood memories or obsessions. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud's introduces his theory of the unconscious with respect to dream interpretation and also first discusses what would later become the theory of the Oedipus complex. Freud revised the book at least eight times and, in the third edition, added an extensive section which treated dream symbolism very literally, following the influence of Wilhelm Stekel. Freud developed a psychological method to interpret dreams and devised a series of instructions and standards to understand the symbols that surface in our dreams.

We all have great dream and horrible dreams. Dreams that span every human emotion. And Freud's psychoanalytic theory argues that we understand ourselves better when we understand our base desires. As Freud was concentrating upon the biologic drives of the individual (a fact that alienated him from several colleagues of his like Breuer, Jung and Adler), he stated that when we observe a hollow object in our dreams, like a box or a cave, this is a symbol of a womb, while an elongated object is a symbol for penis. Due to these statements, Freud attracted a lot of criticism from those who believed him a "sexist" or "misanthrope", as he was alleged to have overemphasised the role of instinct, as though he believed people were "wild beasts".


Carl Jung

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology. He disagreed with Freud's view's on dream analysis, he believed that Freud's idea of dreams being unfulfilled desires was too simplistic. Jung saw the human psyche as "by nature religious"and made this religiousness the focus of his explorations.Jung is one of the best known contemporary contributors to dream analysis and symbolization.

Though he was a practicing clinician and considered himself to be a scientist, much of his life's work was spent exploring areas of study such as Eastern and Western philosophy, alchemy, astrology, and sociology, as well as literature and the arts. Jung's interest in philosophy and the occult led many to view him as a mystic, although in his heart he was a man of science. But, all of that experience led him to see things in a different light than others before him and it changed his views on psychology. Those worldly influences that changed his views on popular psychology beliefs are still popular today and explain why he is still well known in the world of psychology.

His dream interpretation was different than any other from his time period. He believed that dreams were very complex in nature just as people are. In his findings, he thought the best way to analyze the dream was to analyze the person. For instance, if you have a dream about someone chasing you with a chainsaw, then part of you is capable of murder. He would want to understand why and what events led you to dream about a murder. He also thought the same of other things in a dream such as shadows. He believed that everything in dreams represents an unconscious attitude that is largely hidden to the conscious mind.


I Can't Recall My Dreams

The typical person on average only remember 5% of the dreams. Some remember more, some less. There are a few scientific reasons that are thought to account for this. One of the main theories is that during REM sleep (the part of your sleep when you are actually dreaming) your frontal lobe is not functioning. This lobe is one of four in your brain. It is thought that your personality resides in your frontal lobe. The frontal lobe contains most of the dopamine-sensitive neurons in the cerebral cortex. The dopamine system is associated with reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. So, if your frontal lobe in not functioning during REM sleep your ability to form your short-term memories is halted.

Our long-term memories are not effected by the frontal lobe. One theory proposes that long-term memories are thought to be forming while we sleep. Some think that this is one of the reasons that we sleep. The idea is that our brains are sorting through what was and wasn't important from the day. Then, while we sleep, the important events will be turned into long-term memories and filed in our brains as such.

Another thing that may have you suppressing your memory of dreams is a Vitamin B6 deficiency. This is a very common deficiency because this is a water soluble vitamin, which means it is not stored in the body. It is absorbed, usually from foods we eat or sometimes through supplements. Vitamin B6 is instrumental in the production of Serotonin. Serotonin then produces Melatonin which helps you to relax and fall asleep. But, if you have high enough Serotonin levels you can have more lucid dreaming. So, Vitamin B6 provides that balance in your brain that allows you and your dreams to interact with each other. As stated before, your body does not store this vitamin and has to rely on diet to absorb it. Foods rich in Vitamin B6 include sunflower seeds, Tuna, Chicken, turkey. lean pork, lean beef and bananas. Things that drain your Vitamin B6 reserves are Alcoholism, Smoking, Anxiety, Coffee, Birth Control Pills, and Pregnancy.

If you would like to remember more of your dreams, one thing to try is keeping a dream journal. When you first wake up, grab it and think about the dream that you just had. Write it down right away if you can remember it. If you don't remember at first, try closing your eyes and drifting off for a few more minutes. If you get into this habit you may start remembering more of your dreams. Keep it up, this method leads to more lucid dreams.

What We've Learned About Dreams

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