What are Dreams? Why We Have Them and Their Importance
What are dreams?
When we sleep our conscious mind switches off. The thoughts and feelings that we are aware of fade away and our unconscious mind takes over. We have no control over dreams, they happen automatically and we generally cannot control what we dream about, what we might see or feel in our dreams or how vivid they may be, or of course, whether we remember them in the morning,
What are dreams about?
- The idea for Google came to inventor Larry Page in a dream
- Some experience premonition dreams, where they dream events that actually happen later when they are fully awake
- Dreams have a tendency to be more negative than positive
- Studies have shown some people only dream in black and white
Dreams are a series of images, sensations, emotions and general subjective feelings that we experience while we are asleep.
Dreams that we remember often include people we know well or people we are associated with. The locations in our dreams could be familiar or unfamiliar to us and the action within the dream itself, what we are doing, may be something we do every day or something we have never done before.
Many people find their dreams to be unusual, sometimes quite bizarre and containing ideas or occurrences that just wouldn't happen in real life.
Dreams and the Sleep Cycle
The sleep cycle is important when considering the question of what dreams are. We sleep in different phases depending on how long we have been asleep, how deeply we are asleep and the stages of our eye movements and brain waves.
Our sleep is made up of a cycle of phases we rotate through during the course of the night. We begin in a light sleep at stage 1, moving into stage 2 as we become more relaxed. As we go into a deep sleep we move into stages 3 and 4, before finally entering Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep where do we most of our dreaming.
What are Dreams - Brainwaves
Stage 1: We fall into a light sleep as we start to get comfortable and relaxed
Stage 2: Brain waves slow down and our eyes stop moving, this stage accounts for around 50% of our total sleep each night
Stage 3: Delta brain waves begin to occur which are very slow and we are falling into a deep sleep
Stage 4: Deep sleep, our brain waves are almost entirely delta waves, our eyes are stationary and our bodies are still
REM Sleep: This is Rapid Eye Movement sleep and happens when we are fully asleep. Our breathing becomes more regular, we have small but rapid eye movements and our limbs become temporarily paralysed. This is where most of our dreaming occurs and REM sleep accounts for about 20-25% of our total sleep per night.
Each cycle takes around 90-120 minutes to complete and repeats throughout the night. Each period of REM sleep increases in length as the hours pass.
During REM sleep our eyes move rapidly because the temporary paralysis we experience in the rest of our bodies does not extend to the eyes. Furthermore, both alpha and beta brain wave activity can be seen during REM sleep and the brain activity is most similar to when awake during this stage.
If you awaken during REM sleep you are much more likely to remember your dreams than during non-REM sleep phases (Franklin and Zyphur, 2005).
Why do we dream?
One of the main theories of sleep and dreams comes from the early work of Sigmund Freud regarding memory. In answering what are dreams for, he proposed they are a vehicle for our unconscious minds to act out our desires, wishes and fantasies that we are unable to do in real life. He connected such content to childhood experiences and memories. Freud believed that when we have memories of unpleasant or upsetting circumstances we ‘repress’ them in that we hide them away in our mind so we don’t think about them as they are hurtful.
Dreams are a method of the mind to deal with these repressed memories by working thorough them, according to Freud.
Freud also introduced the notion of ‘repressed longing’ which refers to the personal thoughts and fantasises we all have which we do not act upon or speak about within our daily social lives. For Freud, dreams allow these to be explored in the safety of our sleep.
What are Dreams? Research Explained
Why are dreams important?
Carl Jung was another prominent psychologist around the same time as Freud and originally studied under him before finding his own path.
While he agreed with the basics of Freud’s theories on what are dreams, he focused more on their purpose being more useful to our waking lives and providing opportunity to work through problems and reflect on issues affecting our day to day reality.
He believed dreams were our way of working things out and allow us to resolve problems and conflict. Moreover, he thought that recurring dreams were a sign there was an ongoing issue that had not been addressed and the dream was a way of alerting the conscious mind that attention needed to be paid to that area.
Psychoanalysis, such as the theories of Freud and Jung, focuses on the interpretation of dreams, what they mean to us in the real world and how they may reflect or be connected to our waking reality.
Neuroscience on the other hand, is not interested in meaning; it is interested in the structures and processes that cause us to dream, how these mechanisms work and what control we may or may not have over them.
“It’s almost like having an internal therapist, because you associate, through dreams, to previous similar feelings, and you work through the emotion related to it so that it is reduced by morning.”— Professor Rosalind Cartwright, Rush University, Chicago
The Neural Basis of Dreams
From a neuropsychological point of view, Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley suggested dreams were more physiologically based than psychologically based and they were the result of our many electrical brain impulses. Their answer to the question what are dreams, was the proposal of the Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis in 1976 where they saw dreams as random neural activity rather than our brains trying to do anything useful or meaningful.
This theory challenged the more traditional view points of Freud and Jung and dismissed the role of the unconscious mind within the dreaming process. They said the forebrain is simply reacting to the random activity experienced when we enter REM sleep, as certain circuits activate in the brain around the limbic system allowing our emotions, sensations and memories to all become active.
What are Dreams?
Dreams and their Interpretations:
Falling – may symbolize insecurities and anxiety, a feeling of loss of control or you have a sense of failure about something in your life.
Being Chased –may symbolize you are running away from a problem. What or who is chasing you in your dream may reveal what it is you are running away from.
Flying –may symbolize you are feeling in control and everything is running smoothly. If however your flying feels unstable, this may suggest there is something threatening that control.
Teeth falling out – may be associated with power and communication and symbolize a concern over an interference with your ability to communicate. Others feel the interpretation is related to anxieties or concerns over our appearance.
The reason dreams can be so bizarre, they said, is because this activity is entirely random and your brain is trying to make sense of it in an orderly fashion. In other words, trying to make a story out of random pieces of information.
However, critics argue if it truly were completely random activity, all the dreams we experience and have any memory of would be completely bizarre and random which we know is not the case. Many of our dreams do make sense and follow a story that is logical.
Why don’t we remember our dreams?
There are a number of different theories in understanding why we don’t always remember our dreams.
As Freud believed our dreams were repressed unpleasant memories, he claimed the idea was not to remember them and nor should we want to. Others believe that we learn and remember things through repetition and dreams are quick and unique states. Therefore, it would make sense we often do not remember them or can only remember small parts or a certain feeling associated with the dream you have had such as fear or pleasure.
Many people are fascinated by dreams and their meaning and many keep a dream journal where by when they wake they can note down anything they remember about their dreams whether that be people and locations, feelings and sensations, or images and sounds.
Maybe even one day it will be possible to record our dreams so we can relive them in the morning when we are awake.
While there are many different theories on dreams and why we dream, most do centre on the idea of our brain sorting through or working with the stimuli we have encountered during our waking hours.
This suggests dreaming could be very important for us to process our environment. Furthermore, working through problems, sorting through memories and dealing with issues could also be a very important function of our dreams allowing us to deal with the constant barrage of information and experiences we encounter every day.
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Franklin, M; Zyphur, M (2005). "The role of dreams in the evolution of the human mind". Evolutionary Psychology 3: 59–78
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (2006) "Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep"
Webb, Craig (1995) "Dreams: Practical Meaning & Applications". The DREAMS Foundation
Webmd.com (February 25, 2009) "The Health Benefits of Dreams"
© 2015 Fiona Guy