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The Science Of Dreaming

Updated on April 3, 2018

Dreams are the most romanticized and mysterious aspects of sleep, the subconscious and the connection between the two. Dreams can be very vivid and well remembered or they can be wisps of partially remembered emotions, fleeting thoughts or vague images. There are also people that claim that they don't dream, although what they are really saying is that the have no conscious awareness of the dream.

Interest in dreams is not new. In fact the fascination of man with dreams dates back to the earliest civilizations that left a recorded history. Dreams have often been used to form prophecies or promote dire forecasts.

A Historical Perspective On Dreams

As early as 3100 BC the early Sumerians that lived in Mesopotamia attempted to record and interpret dreams. These dreams were often interpreted as a type of prophecy and heralded things to come. Dreams were the way that the soul left the body during sleep and moved about and interacted with the real world. This allowed the dreamer a greater understanding and even provided answers to questions.

The ancient Egyptians saw dreams as a way for the gods and goddesses to communicate with humans. The dreams were meant as direct messages from the deities to provide a specific message. These messages were seen as warnings, prophecies and revelations or to indicate a desire of the god or goddess. Typically these desires included an act of compliance or ritual to continue contact with the deity.

Dreams have often been linked to religion and spirituality. This is true for the ancient Christians and Hebrews as well as Greeks, Chinese, Indians and virtually all other civilizations. In many cases the soul of the dreamer was believed to leave the body with some type of spiritual guide. During the dream information was shared with the dreamer by the given spiritual or religious guide. This information could be good or bad, helpful or harmful and may also warn of dire events to come if the dreamer did not heed the message in the dream.

Many cultures and groups also believed that the dream world was a place to connect with ancestors and those that had died in the recent or distant past. In these cultures dreaming was seen as a ritualistic type event with preparation prior to going to sleep to encourage this communication.

Different groups also saw dreams as very negative. The Middle Ages was one time when dreams were seen as terrible visions that were sent by evil spirits to tempt the dreamer. Dreams that were pleasurable, sexual in nature or contained images of deceased friends and family were seen as particularly disturbing and corrupting.

Dream Interpretation

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Psychology And Dreams

The role of dreams in psychology is well documented. One of the first psychologists to emphasize the role of dreams in the unconscious mind was Sigmund Freud. He actually wrote an entire book in 1899 titled "The Interpretation of Dreams". This book became incredibly popular and the theories contained inside are still around today. Basically Freud's belief was that dreams were actually the playing out of repressed desires, which he called unconscious wish fulfillment. He also indicated that dreams can have a meaningless and superficial content that is the minds way of hiding the real desires. Despite Freud's heavy emphasis on sexual content in dreams studies shows that only about 8% of adult dreams, for either men or women, are actually sexual in nature. A slightly higher rate of about 10% is common with adolescents when in the REM state.

Carl Jung argued a slightly different perspective. He advocated that dreams were the subconscious providing information to the dreamer about hidden fears. In his view these were often religious fears or emotional problems that the dreamer was experiencing that may be hidden or repressed. The more times the dream reoccurred the more relevant the fear or problem was for the individual. Issues that occurred during the day that were problematic, which he called day residue, could also be used in the dream to create meaning and provide solutions that the conscious mind missed.

Symbols in dreams are discussed in many theories of the role of dreams, the subconscious and the waking mind. Symbols may be abstract or concrete and they can be unique to an individual or more universal in nature. Many therapists now believe that dreams and the use of symbols in dreams are a way for the brain to process information. This includes connecting emotions, memories and thoughts into an experience that is then stored as a memory or discarded by the brain as irrelevant.

The Brain And Dreams

Most dreams occur when the individual is in REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep. This is a relatively short part of the sleep cycle where the brain is active and processing information. During this time the individual will move their eyes and eyelids however major body movement does not occur. This is because the brain also inhibits the production of norepinephrine and serotonin which prevents motor neurons from being stimulated.

Most dreams, especially the ones you remember vividly, occur during REM sleep. Since you can have up to 6 REM sleep cycles per night you can certainly have more than one dream. It is estimated that dreams are between 5 to 10 minutes in duration with some people dreaming up to 20 minutes at a time. The longer dream period or REM sleep time will occur later in the night and into the early morning hours.

When sleepers in REM are tested with an EEG (electroencephalogram), the brain activity in the REM part of the sleep cycle is very similar to that of a waking brain. This has also been demonstrated through testing the sequencing of brain activity during sleeping and dreaming. Researchers now believe that dreams occur when signals from the brain stem, specifically the pons, trigger chemical changes in the midbrain and forebrain. This may explain why dreams include a variety of different sensations including the ability to see, hear, smell, taste and have dramatic emotional responses to the images in the dream.

Even more recently dreams have been linked to the ability of the brain to create meaningful memories known as semantic memories. This provides generalizations of concepts, memories and understanding that are not based on one specific experience. This may be an important part of humans being able to generalize from one situation to another as opposed to having to have an actual real world experience to learn. This may also be essential for classification of new information with existing knowledge and general memory consolidation.

At the same time the brain may also be processing information and deciding if it is important (semantic memories) of it is just junk. This theory is not new and actually dates all the way back to Freud's early work. Many researchers believe that during the REM cycle when no additional input is coming to the brain it actually has a chance to clear out all the bits and pieces of non-specific and specific information from that day's experiences. This is roughly equal to completing a defrag on your computer to get rid of all the corrupt files and data bits that are out of place.

There is also evidence that people can have dreams or non directed thoughts during other parts of the sleep cycle. NREM or non rapid eye movement sleep can also product remembered images and dream experiences. Often these are vivid immediately after being awakened or started out of NREM sleep but quickly seem to fade and become vague. Just how NREM dreams and REM dreams are different and what part of the brain is the source of the dream is still not clearly understood.

Dreams are a fascinating part of the human experience. If you can remember your dreams it is a great idea to jot them down and keep track of what your brain is working on at night. You never know, you may find the answers to life's problems are right there in your dreams!


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    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      6 years ago from Western Canada and Texas


      Thank you so much for your kind comments. It is amazing how dreams change as we age.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Mardi,

      I often remember my dreams, dream in color and detail and in recent years (now that I am older) often have many of my loved ones who are now deceased taking parts in my dreams. Rather nice getting to see them again if only in my sleeping state. Voting this up and interesting and will SHARE with my followers.

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      6 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thank you Highvoltagewriter. It is also a subject of interest for me.

      teacherjoe52 - great idea with the recorder. I have to say I am one of those people that rarely remembers a dream although I do sometimes remember a vivid emotion. My sister has very vivid dreams and can recall details, funny how people can be so different.

    • teacherjoe52 profile image


      6 years ago

      Very informative.

      I keep my mp4 by my bed.

      When I have vivid dreams I record them and then review them in the morning. Sometimes they warn me of dangerous situations and how to avoid them.

      Almost always if it is not a warning they come true within three days.

      God bless you.

    • Highvoltagewriter profile image

      William Benner 

      6 years ago from Savannah GA.

      Great hub on subject that I have also researched and studied throughout my life, Great information here!


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