Jun 12 2012


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I got an e-mail from my advisor the other night. She’d received an e-mail from a ninth grade girl in New Jersey working on a school project about dreams. My advisor wanted to know if I would field her questions, so I agreed. She asked some good questions…

1. What are some theories about why people dream?

This is a big question. The nice thing about this is
that ultimately, nobody has figured it out (though
quite a few people think they have). One of the
major theories of dreaming comes from Sigmund Freud,
who wrote in THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS that “all
dreams are a form of wish fulfillment.” In other
words, dreams allow us to do things that we couldn’t
normally do (or get away with) during waking. One of
my favorite parts of Freud’s theory is the part
where he says that “any dream that doesn’t seem to
be wish fulfillment is the dreamer’s secret wish to
prove me wrong!”

Freud’s student, Carl Jung also wrote about dreams,
thinking that some dreams foreshadowed parts of a
person’s psychological development. Other dreams
might compensate for shortcomings in a person’s
waking life.

J. Alan Hobson takes a completely different
approach, saying that dreams are pretty much
nonsense. During sleep, a part of the brain is
activated, causing all sorts of images to come up.
In order to make sense of them, the brain
synthesizes the images into a coherent story. This
is what’s known as the “activation/synthesis” model.

Crick and Mitcheson (you might want to check my
spelling of that name) believe that dreams are a
form of “brain dump”, processing events from the day
to make room for more information during the next
day. They say that remembering your dreams is
probably a bad thing, as it means your brain hasn’t
cleared out all of its contents.

A lot of religious and spiritual traditions have
theories on dreaming too. In Islam, for instance, it
is believed that there are three types of dreams –
Dreams that come from God, Dreams that come from the
Devil, and Dreams that come from a person’s ego.
Some Sufi mystics in Islam also suggest that there
might be a relationship between sleep/dreams and the
afterlife. There’s a slightly similar belief in
Tibetan Buddhism, and among various tribal cultures
around the world. I’m doing research on visitation
dreams right now (dreams where people believe they
have been visited by a dead friend or relative), and
finding a lot of information about this across all
cultures, and throughout history.

2. Which one do you feel is the best explanation?

I don’t know that I subscribe to any of these
schools of thought directly or exclusively. I
suspect, ultimately, there may be a number of
different types of dreams. Certainly Hobson’s
approach might describe what’s happening in the
brain during sleep and dreams, but it doesn’t
necessarily mean it’s *causing* the dreams. I’m not
a big fan of Crick and Mitcheson. :) One thing I
will say, is that a lot of literature on the subject
call dreams “altered states of consciousness” or
“non-ordinary states of consciousness.” I think
this is inaccurate, as everybody dreams, a number of
different species seem to dream (dogs, cats, and
maybe birds) as well. We’ve been doing it forever,
and we do it every night. Sounds pretty ordinary to
me. :) Also, I think, sometimes by trying to
interpret dreams, we’re discounting their
importance, by saying that they must somehow apply
to waking life. This places waking consciousness at
a more “important” level than dreaming. I’m not sure
that this is the case. But that might just be me. :)

3. Do people stop dreaming after a certain age?

I haven’t heard of anything like this. I think
they’ve detected REM (rapid-eye-movements – often
associated with dreaming sleep) in babies in the
womb, and in people who are dying. A really good
book on dreaming and aging is Kelly and Patricia
Bulkeley’s book DREAMING BEYOND DEATH. You should
be able to find it on Amazon, or maybe even your
local Barnes & Noble.

4. Does everyone dream every single night, or are there nights when people don’t dream?

Difficult to say. I want to say that people dream
every night, but this may not be the case. I think
more often than not, people may not remember their
dreams from every night, and then think that they
don’t dream. I know I’ve had some nights where I’ve
been incredibly tired from staying up too late, and
felt like I’ve slept without dreaming. I think a
lot of the sleep research has shown, though, that it
looks like people pretty much dream every night. A
good book on sleep research is THE PROMISE OF SLEEP
by William Dement.

5. Is there any other information that you feel would benefit my research, or are there any additional references, books, or websites that you could recommend?

You might look at the website for the International
Association for the Study of Dreams at
http://asdreams.org . There’s a lot of good
information there, and you might find some other
people researching dreams that you can contact. A
good book that has a pretty comprehensive overview
of what’s going on (and is reasonably easy to read)
is OUR DREAMING MIND by Robert van de Castle. It
should also be pretty easy to track down as well.

6. When did people realize that they dreamed at night? Were any ancient people afraid of their dreams?

I don’t know that anybody has figured out
specifically when people began to notice their
dreams took place at night, but I would suspect it’s
pretty early on. In Greek and Roman myths, for
instance, the God of Sleep was one of the sons of
the God of Night. The God of dreams was also closely
related. This would also tie in with the death angle
that I mentioned before. Hypnos, the Greek God of
Sleep was the brother of Thanatos, the Greek God of
Death. These sorts of relationships also seem to
play out in a number of other myth cycles as well.
Also, some anthropologists, like E.B. Tylor and J.G.
Frazer believed that dreams were the source of early
religious beliefs, since people could see dead
ancestors appearing in dreams.

I don’t know if there’s a way to tell if ancient
people were afraid of them, but they definitely
seemed to recognize their power, based on what I
said above. Also, I’ve found in my own research,
that there are some tribal peoples who are afraid of
dreams where dead relatives or friends appear.
Oftentimes, they think they are being haunted.
However, if the person visiting them is a distant
enough ancestor (maybe a great-grandfather, for
instance), these dreams are looked at more
favorably. It’s an honor to be visited by one of
these ancestors.

7. Can people dream while taking a nap, or is there a certain amount of time you need to be asleep before you dream?

Normally, I’d say there’s a certain amount of sleep
required to start dreaming. However, I’ve had dreams
during naps, and I know other people tend to as
well. I think it really depends on how long the nap
is, and how tired the person is. If the person is
sufficiently tired, they may bypass some of the
earlier stages of sleep entirely, and go straight
into the deeper levels that facilitate dreaming.

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