Martin Luther King, Jr. once had a dream—and last night, so did I. At the end of a long day, we all get in bed, close our eyes, and go to sleep. Then the magic happens. It is as if when our eyes close, the curtains of the mind are opened, and a lively and magical performance begins on the stage of our unconscious, with dances, songs, and monologues. Bright, intense, and nonsensical, these images in our heads visit us every night, although we are quick to forget them, as they soon fade away, almost as though they never happened. Dreams feel real, yet they are unreal, illusory. Sometimes they capture things that have happened to us, but sometimes they show us things that have not yet happened, and sometimes yet they show us things that are happening. Dreams are the greatest mysteries of the night, which is why they have attracted so much attention, both from individual thinkers and collective civilizations, who have attributed to dreams some sort of importance. What are dreams, really? Why do we dream? Do other animals dream? These are all questions psychology has been asking and will continue to ask. As of right now, none of these questions has a confident answer, but is constrained to theory. We humans will not rest (no pun intended), though, until we get the answer; we will refuse to just “sleep on it”—literally, because we cannot. So in today’s post, we will be exploring the science behind dreaming, the history of dreaming, and the different interpretations of dreaming that have been proposed. Although no definitive answers will be yielded, we will still gain some valuable insights on the nature of dreaming.
What is dreaming?
It is not like we start dreaming as soon as we get into bed. Instead, sleep has to pass through several stages in order for dreaming to initiate. Researchers study brain waves with electroencephalograms (EEG’s)—a fancy word that refers to the skill of finding and interpreting electrical activity in the brain at a given moment. With these brain waves, psychologists have found that there are at least four stages that occur in the sleep process: First, in our everyday waking lives, our brain produces beta waves, which are released when we think, usually at 13 or more cycles per minute (cpm); second, when we close our eyes and start to relax, alpha waves start to kick in at 8-12 cpm; third, theta waves are produced at 4-7 cpm when we enter light sleep, or NREM, and begin to feel drowsy; fourth, we experience delta waves, which are 4 or fewer cpm, created during deep sleep, known as REM. It is in this last stage, when Delta waves are produced, that we experience most of our dreams. But what is a dream?
A dream is “a sequence of images, emotions, and thoughts passing through a sleeping person’s mind.” In addition, “Dreams are notable for their hallucinatory imagery, discontinuities, and incongruities, and for the dreamer’s delusional acceptance of the content and later difficulties remembering it.” One important thing which is to be gleaned from this definition is the fact that dreaming is not just confined to visual displays and imagery in pictures; rather, dreaming can involve many other senses. A question many people are curious about is whether blind people can see things in their dreams, or deaf people hear. What has been found is that people with blindness, because they have never seen anything, dream using senses other than sight, and the same thing applies to deaf people. In other words, people with congenital blindness, who were born blind, can hear or smell different things since they have been exposed to such stimulation, but not with their eyes. Another interesting thing about dreams is that, besides not just being about pictures, dreams can also communicate intentional states, i.e., motivations, fears, desires, etc. Dreams are set apart from waking life due to their being illogical. Whereas there is a logical cause-and-effect and sequence of narration that follows a common story in real life, there are random and disorganized events in dreams. As such, they are characterized as fantastical, belonging more to fantasy and fiction than reality, adopting unrealistic exaggerations and possibilities, more incredible than realistic. When we say there is a uniform narrativity to life, we mean there is a set plot, with a beginning, middle, and end; but with dreams, there is no such narrativity, for there is nothing that links events together in any reasonable way.
Now, regarding what actually happens during dreaming: Once we reach deep sleep, once the brain starts putting out Delta waves, we switch between two stages, REM and NREM. REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” and there are about 4-5 of them that cycle through the night, 90 minutes at a time. While we are in REM, brain waves paradoxically resemble those that happen when we are awake. If we were to look at the brain when we were awake, then it would look just like how it is when we are in REM—despite the fact that REM is deep sleep, when the entire body is paralyzed and in total relaxation. This is a kind of “dream-state,” as psychologists like to refer to it, in which animals who undergo it are very stimulated. All mammals, not just humans, experience this dream-state. The only difference is how long each animal spends in the dream-state; depending on the average lifespan of the animal, they will dream more or less. We humans are in the middle. The reason REM is named so is because the eyes literally twitch rapidly while shut, which seems to contradict all logic, and the reason why psychologists are so puzzled about the phenomenon. Speaking of puzzling phenomena, some people experience “sleep paralysis” when they regain consciousness during sleep, only to find their bodies rigid, unable to move, as if stapled to their beds, their throats pinched. Why we wake up randomly, we do not know. Why we are paralyzed—this we do know: Psychologist Michel Jouvet found in an experiment that the pons, located in the lower region of the brain stem, actually inhibits all motor activity, meaning the muscles are completely stopped. He performed a study in which cats had their pons removed, and then he watched them at night to see what happened. Because he got rid of the part of the brain that stopped muscles from being used, the cats, he observed, actually moved around quickly and ferociously, in a predatory manner, because they were, Jouvet supposed, dreaming about catching mice. What this revealed is that, if the pons were not activated during sleep, there would be many more injuries at night. It has been reported by a number of people that they experience a sort of “falling reflex”; upon falling in their dream, they wake up, as if reacting to the fall and catching themselves. Imagine, then, what would happen to many of us in some of our more threatening dreams, if it were not for the pons in the brain stem.
What about NREM? NREM stands for “non-rapid eye movement”—I know, creative. As is to be expected, NREM is not called “deep sleep” for a reason; NREM is a lighter form of sleep that is not as engaging. To better illustrate the difference, take people who can sleep through their alarms, and those who cannot; the former are in deep sleep, the latter in light. For a time, it was thought that dreaming only occurred during REM; however, later studies disproved this, stating that dreams do occur during NREM, just that they are less memorable and exciting. Other things that have been found about dreaming regard the environment and dream content. The external environment of a sleeper has been discovered to affect their dreams. For example, a case had test subjects enter REM-sleep, then the tester would spray them with water. Upon waking, the subjects said they dreamt of some form or another of water, be it seeing a waterfall or swimming in a pool. What surrounds a dreamer or what they touch can create associations related to the outside stimulus, or effector. Such dreams are “self-state dreams,” since their content is centered around the state in which the self finds itself. Sometimes, self-state dreams can also lend insight into future actions. One thought-provoking fact is that 80% of reported dreams are negative (Domhoff, 1999). Accordingly, for every five dreams we have, only one of them does not involve bad things happening to us.
Another subject of inquiry—one which is unbelievably trippy—is lucid dreaming. When dreams are very high in lucidity, or clearness, we are aware of ourselves as dreaming. Let us put it this way: Lucid dreaming is knowing that we are dreaming. But are we just dreaming that we are dreaming? If you want a quick look at the philosophical problem of dreaming, then you can read here! Aside from the armchair philosophy of dreaming, there is a little more substance to lucid dreaming. For instance, lucid dreamers feel like they have no sense of touch, allowing them to pass through otherwise impassable obstacles, and they also apparently lack any other sense beside sight. Lucid dreams are also said to be more bright than regular dreams. When aware of dreaming, dreamers can ignore natural laws, doing things that defy logic and physics. All of this raises the question of why we even dream in the first place. If sleep is necessary for us to rest our bodies, then why not just sleep, why have hallucinatory visions at night? Unfortunately, we have no solid answers. There is only speculation. I will discuss these speculations in further detail at the end, but for now, here is a brief overview.
- Wish-fulfillment. According to this theory, dreams are symbolic representations of repressed, unconscious urges that are mostly erotic. The problem with this theory is that, surprisingly, dreams with sexual content are actually quite rare and uncommon (recall that 80% of dreams are negative).
- Memory storage. Those who support this theory argue that because memory is improved during REM, it stands to reason that the purpose of dreams is to filter out the day’s experiences. If you have ever heard that it is unwise to study right before going to bed, then it comes from this. Just like your body, your brain needs time to recover, so if you jam it with knowledge right before bed, then you will overload it, and your learning will not be as effective; the brain works more efficiently if it takes in smaller chunks over a longer amount of time.
- Neural pathways. Random sensory information from outside stimulates the brain as it sleeps, strengthening their neural connections. Thus, this theory says dreaming’s purpose is to solidify our neural pathways.
- Biological model. Activation-synthesis is the theory that the brain stem creates random imagery that is interpreted by the limbic system, which colors it. Hence, seemingly meaningless visuals are turned into emotional, colorful images that resemble conscious life.
- Cognitive development. For some, dreams reflect our cognitive development. As evidence, they use the fact that children have relatively simple, crude dreams, whereas adults have more complex, egocentric dreams. The complexity of dreams depends on how much knowledge one has.
A History of Dream Interpretation
Since the earliest civilizations of man, dreaming has held an important place in our culture. If we explore the human mind over 4,000 years ago, then we will find the earliest records of dreaming to date. A document known as the “Chester Beatty papyrus” was excavated and is dated to be from around 2,000 B.C. On it are written 200 dreams that were reported and interpreted by the Egyptians. Based on Mesopotamian mythology, and adapted from Assyrian sources, this Egyptian dream codex reveals the universal nature of dreaming. The fact that these three great civilizations—Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria—all gave such immense attention to dreams, that they were related in study, shows how intimate dreams are to the collective conscious of a people. In all three societies, dreams were ways of contacting invisible realms through the guidance of either good or bad spirits. Then came Abrahamic monotheism. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all interpreted dreams as coming directly from God to them in their sleep. Understandably, these dreams were heavily filled with religious metaphors and symbolism.
A little later and the Greeks would become fascinated with dreams. The Greeks had their own religious groups—some might say cults—called “Mysteries,” and many a Mystery was focused on dreaming. In order to have better dreams, Greeks encouraged sleep to each other with oils and drugs, so that they would be more immersed. An important aspect of Greek life was the oracle: Each day, hundreds of travelers would go to oracles to have their fortunes told. Dream interpretation was done in the same manner. Specialized interpreters would have a place in the temple, where they were surrounded by natural smoke that they would read and decode, then pass onto the dreamer. During the Archaic period, though, a shift occurred. The Pre-Socratic philosophers began to steer away from religion and toward scientific, rational thought. Mystery and dream divination, or magic (oneiromancy), would be replaced with more empirical observations. Each of the following philosophers accurately predicted modern-day conclusions by themselves.
- Heraclitus (c. 535-475 B.C.) claimed dreams were nothing more than day residue, i.e., recollection of things that happened throughout the day.
- Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.) thought dreams were the result of the external environment acting on an individual’s consciousness.
- Plato (428-348 B.C.) proposed that dreams were a manifestation of wish-fulfillment based on repressed desires in the soul. He also thought dreams were the divinely inspired and could grant people creative impulses.
- Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) argued against prophetic interpretations, instead declaring dreams to be the result of sensory stimulation that could potentially affect our future actions based on their content.
Thus, the study of dreams officially became scientific in nature. Artemidorus, coming 400 years after Aristotle, born in the same country as Heraclitus, wrote the largest encyclopedia of dreams for his time, the Oneirocritica. In it, he distinguished between two types of dreams: Insomnium and somnium. Insomnium is a dream-state whose contents are about the present. These are dreams that deal with current problems and daily occurrences. Somnium is a dream-state whose contents are about the future—self-state dreams, in other words. These dreams are “deeper,””more profound,” than insomnium dreams because they give us insight. But Artemidorus came up with even more fascinating idea, one that has hitherto been neglected and still does not receive a lot of merit today: Dream interpretation reveals more about the interpreter than it does the dreamer. Apparently, according to Artemidorus, by gaining the background of a person, by interpreting their visions in light of this, we gain insight about ourselves because we mix in our own beliefs and symbolism that they would otherwise miss. Contemporaries of the Pre-Socratics in the East—the Chinese, Buddhists, and Hindus—were the heirs of the Egyptians forasmuch as dreams were glimpses of a higher realm, a truer reality, to them. In their dreams, they would experience the transcendence of their souls from the corporeal world.
The scientific study of dreams would come crashing down in the Middle Ages, which saw a reversion back to religious symbolism. Only this time, the underpinnings were moral and theistic. The problem of interpretation came down to the whether the dreams were communicated by God or not, in which case it was either angels, and therefore holy, or demons, and therefore wicked. Thus, medieval dreamers had to discern between truth and untruth. A few hundred years more, and we get the great rebirth, the Renaissance. It is from the Renaissance that we get our contemporary connotations of dream interpretation, for it was during this time that divination once again became dominant. The Renaissance saw a surge of interest in practices like occultism, mysticism, numerology, astrology, prophecy, and hermeticism—in a word, magic. Nowadays, these associations still carry over, so when we hear people talking about interpreting dreams or discussing horoscopes, we tend to brush them off as useless, arcane magic.
Fast forward 400 years to the Modern Age in the 19th century. Still traumatized by the Renaissance, people in the 1800’s were hesitant to study dreams or consider their importance seeing as dreams were seen as “unscientific” and therefore unworthy of serious thought. The magical side of dreams was not wholly abandoned or dismissed, contrary to what some might think; literary geniuses celebrated dreams for their creativity. Famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his unfinished poem “Kubla Khan” after an inspiring dream, but he never finished it because he was interrupted by a mysterious “person from Porlock”; novelist Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde based on a dream he had, too, in which he saw his hidden, unconscious urges battling his outward, conscious behavior; and Edgar Allen Poe also said his dreams contributed to his works. Around this time, in the mid 1800’s, anthropology was becoming a much-studied topic, so anthropologists were traveling around the world studying primitive tribes. What they found predated Jung’s theory of archetypes, and they also found that these tribes usually made their decisions based on dreams they had—the resurgence of prophecy. Next comes the 20th century and the rise of psychoanalysis, dominated by two figures, Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung, to whom we shall presently turn.
Modern Day Dream Interpretation Models
Before discussing the psychoanalytic tradition, we will first return to the earlier models of dream interpretation (the cool name for which is oneirology) we discussed. The first model is the cognitive model, according to which dreams are a means of thinking about the day during the night. When we dream, our mind is thinking just as we normally would, but with multiple layers of metaphors emphasized unconsciously. In this way, everyday imagery is “translated,” so to speak, into metaphorical forms that stand in for ordinary things. These forms, furthermore, are colored by our emotions, so that they reflect our inner world of moods and feel significant to us. This theory also groups together the cognitive development one, so dream quality will differ based on one’s brain development. Some scientists contend that dreams are important for problem-solving. There is a scientific basis for the phrase “sleep on it,” after all. When we sleep, our unconscious and subconscious are most active, so thoughts we did not know we even had float around, and some by chance end up back in our conscious, while those in our conscious sometimes drift off into the subconscious. Either way, ideas move around. A friend of mine told me the story of how he lost his headphones, only to dream about how he lost them two months later, whereupon he found them in the exact location of which he dreamt. How did something so insignificant, something that happened two months in the past, chance to occupy his dreams? The best explanation, I told him, was that after a while, his brain, by its own whims, conjured up the memory of where he left it. Why it took so long, I do not know. Whether timing is important or not and how long an average memory takes to resurface are also questions worth asking. Over time, the brain will relax, and things that were troublesome and problematic will be relieved, I can only theorize. This leads to the next idea, namely that dreams reflect our current state and condition, environment, gender, age, and emotions, according to the cognitive model.
Another model we discussed briefly was the biological model. In light of biopsychology, dreams are nothing more than mere creations of neuronal firings processed by the thalamus into visual displays that make no sense. As such, interpreting dreams is useless considering they have no inherent meaning. Personally, I am not proponent of the biological method for two reasons: First, (I know this is a terrible reason) it is too bland and boring, and it is too reductive for my tastes; and second, if these neuronal firings are so random, then how can they create coherent (in the sense of “being familiar”) images that do make sense and that resemble complete narratives and sequences? This is not to say that the cognitive model is more correct than the biological model—not at all. As I have said, these are just theories, and neither has been verified indubitably.
Most famous, hands down, is the psychoanalytic theory, first propounded by Freud, and then expanded upon his student, Jung. Starting with Freud, he described dreams like this: “Dreams are the means of removing, by hallucinatory satisfaction, mental stimuli that disturb sleep.” In Freud’s eyes, dreams arise from the irrational, hidden side of ourselves—the unconscious. As a result, dreams need to be interpreted by a therapist. Dreams work through association, creating nonsense connections between ideas that are seemingly unrelated. Since dreams are irrational and incoherent, interpreters use a technique called “free association” that Freud loved to use. The analyst says a word, and the patient says whatever comes to mind. The logic goes that if the dream is formed by associations, then the intuitional associations said by the patient will point to their roots. Having done this, the analyst can then find associations of which the patient was initially unaware. One thing Freud did that remains of a subject of interest is his splitting of dream content into manifest and latent content. Manifest content is the storyline of the dream, the surface-level meaning. On the other hand, latent content is the deeper, symbolic, underlying meaning of the dream. Whereas the dreamer has access to the manifest content, only the analyst has access to the latent content, because latent content is unconscious and therefore hidden from view; it has to be uncovered through free association. What is this elusive latent content, and why does the mind go through the trouble of disguising it? Freud said that dreams protects us from waking up due to “mental stimuli”—but to what kind of mental stimuli was he referring? He believed that the latent meaning of dreams were repressed, unacceptable ideas.
The basic formula for a Freudian dream is “any kind of trivial occurrence + a traumatic childhood memory.” Subsequently, dreams take some kind of ugly truth and dress them up with ordinary occurrences. This is why Freud said that dreams protect us from disturbances. If these unacceptable ideas were to be shown to us in full light, then we would never be able to sleep; we would be too disgusted or traumatized. Dreams prevent us from waking up by playing out fantastical scenarios that reflect our wishes, goals, and fears. By hidden means, the dream releases our repressed memories. Freud posited a theoretical “censor” inside the mind, a kind of watchguard that makes sure nothing from the unconscious creeps into the conscious. Obviously, then, a feeling of aggression cannot be made manifest; instead, the unconscious is clever, so it disguises the feeling of aggression, such that it is able to sneak past the sentry and make it into the conscious in the form of a dream that makes no sense, but which nonetheless has a deeper meaning. This explains why dreams are confusing and unclear, yet meaningful. How the unconscious goes about disguising the repressed ideas is called the “dream-work.” Its four methods are condensation, displacement, symbolization, and secondary elaboration.
- Condensation is what happens when two or more ideas are merged together into a single thought.
- Displacement is what happens when an emotion is misdirected toward something other than its target.
- Symbolization is what happens when an object is made to stand in for another.
- Secondary elaboration is what happens when the subject tries to recall their dream, only to distort the facts.
By using all four tricks, unconscious impulses manage to invade the conscious mind. Freud went further and identified two types of dreams. Dreams of convenience are dreams related to one’s day. Closely linked to day residue, dreams of convenience focus on some kind of fear or wish that occurred during the day visually. The other type of dream is one of wish-fulfillment, for which Freud is most well-known. Basically, he said that dreams are a way of satisfying our desires with our imagination. Because we cannot satisfy these desires in reality, we are forced to do so in sleep, in ideality. These desires are either erotic or aggressive. To use an example, one night I was really thirsty, and I went to bed on my trampoline (for fun, of course!). I dreamt I got out of the trampoline, went all the way inside the house, got a drink of water, walked back to the trampoline, and fell asleep. When I woke up, I had no memory of getting up, and I realized that I could not possibly have gotten water, as it was far too cold, and it was a long walk. Thus, I came to the conclusion that I dreamed about getting water in order to satiate my thirst before going to bed. To summarize, here are Freud’s ideas about dreams:
- Repressed childhood memories are revealed through associations.
- Said memories are either painful or unrefined, which is why they are repressed.
- Dreams are illogical, resembling an infantile imagination.
- Dreams have sexual and/or aggressive themes.
- Dreams are disguised wish-fulfillment.
The reason we no longer believe in the psychodynamic model of dreams is because, simply put, there is no evidence at all that supports it. Carl Jung was Freud’s student, although he would later distance himself from his teacher’s ideas in order to develop his own in more detail. To begin, he classified dreams into three categories. The lowest level of dreams are day residuals and just focus on things that happened throughout the day. Above these are self-related dreams, dreams that are about us, our mental states—stuff like that. The highest dreams, however, are archetypal dreams, which are the deepest ones possible, for they connect us with each other through the collective unconscious. I feel the quickest way to present Jung’s views are by enumerating them and then contrasting them to Freud’s:
- Dreams are essentially creative.
- Dreams are a part of the collective unconscious. Each of us, no matter who we are, shares the same symbols and universal characters, or archetypes.
- Dreams reveal the personal unconscious, too. We learn about the hidden parts of who we are through dreams.
- Dreams give insights into the future.
- Dreams are positive and constructive, providing insights to the self.
And as contrasted to Freud:
- Dreams are meaningful in- and of-themselves, not by interpretation.
- Dreams represent present, not past, problems.
- Dreams are best interpreted based on patterns and recurrences rather than individual interpretations. Rather than look at each dream by themselves, it is better to look at them together.
- A holistic analysis of dreams is more efficient than free association.
- Symbolism is not repressed, but archetypal.
If we want a quick summary of the psychoanalytic model, then we can say that Freud’s focus was sexual, and Jung’s archetypal. But while they differed in many respects, they also had these traits in common with the modern world:
- Dreams give clues to life.
- Dreams bring the unconscious to the surface.
- Dreams are based on day residue.
- Sensory stimulation affects our dreams.
- Universal archetypes are a part of our collective unconscious.
- Dreams are a.) repressed or b.) creative.
In conclusion, while there is a rich history of studying dreams, there are also countless unanswered questions regarding dreaming. Will we ever know them? Who knows. Until then, we can only dream of what they might be. Since the Egyptians, who believed in otherworldly journeys, to the modern psychoanalysts, who believed in hidden symbols, there have been many views of what dreams are, and many revisions, too. What we can see from the history of oneirology is that how dreams are interpreted depends upon the culture in which one finds oneself. Where one lives, how one lives, what language one speaks—these can all affect how we interpret dreams. Does this mean that there is no objective meaning of dreams, that the purpose of dreams differs between peoples? The question remains of whether dreams are even meaningful in the first place, or whether they are, in fact, just biological accidents created by the brain. These questions create a living nightmare for psychologists. One thing that is for certain is that dreams are very personal, intimate things that happen to all of us, that are unique, and that are private to us alone. I have my dreams, and you yours. (Get ready for the cliché ending…). But then again, what if this is all a dream?
 Myers, Psychology, 8th ed., p. 285
 Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 499c*
*From Adler’s Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 54
For further reading:
The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior Vol. 1 by Robert M. Goldenson (1970)
Psychology: Mind, Brain, & Culture 2nd ed. by Drew Westen (1999)
In Defense of Human Consciousness by Joseph F. Rychlak (1997)
Introduction to Psychodynamics by Mardi J. Horowitz (1988)
Schools of Psychoanalytic Thought by Ruth L. Munroe (1956)
The Secret Language of the Mind by David Cohen (1996)
Psychology 8th ed. by David G. Meyers (2007)