Dreams: Explained

Editors:  Cristina Voinea , Albert Vamanu, 6.5.2020


Have you ever gone flying on one of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons together with your high school crush and arrived at your house, where your mother is making your favorite cake? Your math teacher is also there, telling you that you got an F on the test you’re supposed to take tomorrow. Probably not. However, you are certainly familiar with the random combination of events, people, and places that comprise dreams. 

Sleep is surely one of the most puzzling of all human behaviors: you repeatedly and routinely lapse into a state of apparent coma and have psychotic manifestations. While the body lies still, the mind is filled with bizarre hallucinations.

The question of why people dream has baffled philosophers and scientists for thousands of years, but only recently researchers have been able to take a closer look at exactly what happens in the body and brain during dreaming. There are many controversial ideas, different approaches, and lots of publications bringing arguments to the topic. Our purpose today is to shed some light on why we dream, what dreams are, how they are formed, and what do they tell about us. Are they a reflection of the mind within that nobody knows nor sees? Are dreams a mere extension of what we want or need? We will unveil this together.

Dream interpretation was a prominent feature of the intellectual and imaginative world of late antiquity, for martyrs and magicians, philosophers and theologians, polytheists and monotheists alike. Romans thought dreams were either a visit from a deceased person passing a clear message to them or a symbol that needs interpretation from the gods. The Greeks and the ancient Egyptians believed dreams were messages sent from the gods. An exception to this rule was Aristotle, who addressed this state of slumber in his „Parva Naturalia”, where he dismissed the idea that dreams were under divine control, and stated that they are originated in recent waking events.

But the one who made the most astonishing scientific contribution to the field of dream research was Freud, in his seminal book, “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1899), where he placed the dream undoubtedly in the brain of a person. This may seem obvious now, but at that time it was anything but. Simply put, he thought that dreams came from unconscious and unfulfilled wishes.

Freud says in his book that “there is only one useful task, only one function that can be ascribed to a dream, and that is the guardian of sleep from interruption.” Stating the above in 1925, Freud also preached that we are a multitude of emotions and a product of our libido, abiding by social norms and patterns. Therefore, from young life to adulthood, our experiences are strictly tied to our libido in terms of wishes, accomplishments, desires, sexuality, etc. Following social dogma as intended, we have a predilection for interiorizing our thoughts, feelings, sexual desires, and wishes that concludes in internal tension. Consciously or unconsciously, this surfaces into dreams that either alleviate or haunt us.  According to Freud, dreams are a mere extension of our quotidian desires prolonged or extended in a world where they can benefit from satisfaction. (Freud, 1925, p.127)

Given the information above, I have to say that Freud generalized the term and perspective on dreams, and considered analysis from outside. In the “Interpretation of Dreams”, Freud described his work on dream reasoning as a process of introducing genuine psych meaning based on deep symbolistic of human psychodynamic of emotional interiorization. This process was highly appreciated and used for centuries after, often making the themes of films, novels, etc.

Another very different contemporary perspective on dreams was that of Carl Jung’s. “Jung’s definition of dreams is dualist. Jung’s idea of what are dreams are deeper and more objective since the archetypes that caused dreams were collective, universal, and anatomical or biological, and therefore objective and empirical, (…) Jung looked at the cause of the dream, which is its interior objective psychic origin”, as Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, USA said.

Considering dreams being a deep realization of personal wishes, let’s give context by remembering a few times when you completed your desires in your dreams. How many times your parents suddenly came and took you home while you were playing with your friends, and at night you just continued playing with them in your dreams? How many times have you dreamt about having the latest phone or kissing the person you like in your conscious life? These dreams are an unconscious exteriorization through images, sounds, and sensations of your conscious thoughts suppressed because of various reasons.

But pleasant dreams are not the only images or visions we have in our sleep, there are also nightmares. Aren’t nightmares dreams as well? Yes, they are, but we do not like them, usually. Teeth falling out, dogs chasing us, crime, horror, dreaming of ourselves dying, a loved one dying, being fired, being dumped by a girlfriend, running slowing, etc.  All of these are directly linked to either a uncomfortable situation that you encountered during the day and didn’t pay attention to, or to an internal matter that awaits fixing. These bad dreams can  give you a hint about a truth that you are not ready to confront, let alone take it into your own hands and fix it.  (Freud, 1920)

For example, teeth falling out to represent our fear of aging, fear of being less productive, the inability to fully understand life and surroundings.  Dreaming of being naked in public most probably has something to say about emotional instability and the need to discover yourself more. It could also mean that you have something to hide and you fear being discovered, or could reveal an embarrassment or inferiority you feel towards a situation. Drowning or suffocating in your dreams suggests that you are under emotional or physical pressure or you’re feeling insecure. It also suggests you may be too involved in something and you might want to cool off a bit. (Freud, 1920)

Nightmares are a window into our “broken soul”, an x-ray of what we must work on to release that suppressed tension. As Jung says, “by understanding the unconscious we free ourselves from its domination”, and this is very true. The truth will set you free.  Address it, ask yourself questions.  What is the correlation between what you dream and what you experience consciously? Most of the time, what you see in your dreams is a multitude of aberrative images and sounds that cloud your ability to understand clearly. According to Jung, the unconscious “contains everything that is lacking in the conscious” and therefore has a “compensatory” function in the growth process of becoming whole and well. (Freud, 1920)

More than half a century later following Freud and Jung’s beliefs, we have finally begun to develop a scientific understanding of human dreams (their form, content, and source) through a combination of functional imaging during sleep and rigorous experiment testing. But before we shed some light on the meaning of dreams and their major roles in our lives, we have to dig deeper into the anatomy and physiology of sleep.

There are two basic types of sleep:  rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep (which has three different stages). Each is linked to specific brain waves and neuronal activity.  You cycle through these stages of non-REM and REM sleep several times during a typical night, with increasingly longer, deeper REM periods occurring toward morning. We spend about 2 hours each night dreaming but may not remember most of these dreams.

REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep.  Your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids. Your breathing becomes faster and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase to near waking levels. Most of your dreaming occurs during REM sleep, although some can also occur in non-REM sleep. Your muscles become temporarily paralyzed, which prevents you from acting out your dreams. Most interestingly, the frequency brain wave activity in this stage is very similar to that seen in wakefulness (1).

Functional-MRI studies established that during REM sleep, brain structures like the amygdala (the core structure of emotion processing), and emotion-related region of the cortex and the hippocampus (key-memory structure) are all “awake”. The thalamus, the relay for information from the senses to the cerebral cortex (the covering of the brain that interprets and processes information from short- to long-term memory).  During most stages of sleep, the thalamus becomes quiet, letting you tune out the external world. But during REM sleep, the thalamus is active, sending the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.

Moreover, REM sleep is the only time in 24 hours of a day when noradrenaline (the brain equivalent of the body’s key-stress hormone, adrenaline) is completely absent from the brain.

These findings support the first function of dreams, that of an “overnight therapy”. Even though it is said that time heals all wounds, it may be rather the time spent dreaming. If you try to think of a memory from your childhood, a particularly distressing one, like when you were attacked by a pack of dogs, you will notice how even though you remember the episode in detail, it is no longer accompanied by the same degree of emotion that was present at that time.

With this in mind, Matthew Walker postulated a theory that said REM sleep helps remembering the details of our experiences (therefore moving information from short-term memory to long-term memory) and helps forget the emotional baggage attached to the episode. A question he asked was “was the act of dreaming enough or dreaming of those specific emotional events was necessary to keep our minds safe from reactive anxiety and depression?”. This question was answered by Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, who experimented on people who were showing signs of depression as a consequence of difficult emotional events. She collected their nightly dream reports from the beginning and then performed follow-up evaluations up to one year later. She demonstrated that only those who explicitly dreamed about their traumatic experiences around the time of the event were the ones who went on to gain resolution from their anguish (2).

This serves as an explanation for our seldom nightmares about things that happened to us: it’s our brain, merely trying to help us better cope with trauma.

Another experiment led by Walker demonstrated that sleep deprivation made participants unable to distinguish one emotion from another with accuracy. When showed multiple pictures with facial expressions after being sleep deprived, they believed even gentle or somewhat-friendly looking faces were menacing. That is why, after a three-hour night sleep, we’re irritable and more prone to misinterpreting others’ intentions (3).

Aside from being the guardian of our sanity and emotional well-being, REM sleep and dreaming have another benefit: intelligent information processing that promotes creativity and problem-solving. One example of this is Mendeleev’s dream on 17 February 1869, which led him to formulate the periodic table of elements. Another dream-inspired discovery (also Nobel Prize-winning), this time in the field of neuroscience, is that of Otto Loewi, who dreamed of an experiment that led him to learn that nerve cells communicate through synapses. 

Matthew Walker and Robert Stickgold designed an anagram test, in which the letters of the real words are scrambled. After being described the task, the participants went to sleep and were waken up from different stages of sleep and were shown the scrambled words one at a time on a screen. When waken up from REM sleep, the solutions just „popped out” effortlessly, even though participants didn’t know from which sleep stage they wakened up from (4).

Last but not least, the content of one’s dreams determines how successful problem solving is. Harvard professor Robert Stickgold designed a clever experiment in which individuals explored a computerized virtual reality maze. The half of participants who took a ninety-minute nap before completing the task showed superior memory performance. The dreams of these super-navigators were not an exact replay of the maze experiment while awake, but it contained fragments of it shown differently.

How Matthew Walker beautifully put it, „like an insightful interviewer, dreaming takes the approach of interrogating our recent autobiographical experience and skillfully positioning it within the context of past experiences and accomplishments, building a rich tapestry of meaning. The brain asks itself: how can I understand and connect that which I have recently learned with what I already know, and in doing so, discover insightful new links and revelations?” REM sleep and dreaming take what we have learned in one experience setting and seek to apply it to others stored in memory (5).

Based on the historical information provided in this article we can say that dreams are an extension of our daily life desires, anxieties, and unsolved puzzles. They are a plan where satisfaction can be achieved, a liberation of the suppressed soul and spirit happens running from the pressure society and dogma imprints upon us. Therefore, attention and deep understanding must be provided for a healthy understanding of self that will contribute to a healthy persona, character, and behavior. 

While much remains uncertain about dreaming, new empirical research is providing greater clarity.  From a modern scientific approach, we can perceive dreaming as a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge, processes emotions, helps solve our daily problems, and gain practice confronting potential dangers. Moreover, it is your secret tool for problem-solving and boosting creativity, so take wise advantage of it!


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1. Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. [Online] https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/patient-caregiver-education/understanding-sleep.

2. Early REM sleep: A compensatory change in depression? Cartwright, Rosalind and Lloyd, Stephen. 1994, Psychiatry Research.

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