Dreams are essentially stories we play out in our head overnight; they can follow a linear narrative or be abstract. Scientists estimate that we have roughly 3-6 dreams in one night and around 95% of these dreams are forgotten the following morning.
Dreaming occurs during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycle of sleep. During REM sleep, your eyes move quickly in different directions. Usually, REM sleep happens 90 minutes after you fall asleep. You tend to have intense dreams during this time as your brain is more active.
“Dreaming is a thinking process. In fact, it is a continuation of your thoughts from the day. That chatter in your head that goes on all day long continues as you drift off to sleep, and, once you enter REM sleep, when dreaming takes place, those thoughts continue in symbols and metaphors instead of in words.”
Dreams have fascinated people since the beginning of recorded history. In ancient Egypt, people with vivid dreams were considered to be blessed with special insight, and many of their dreams have been found recorded on papyrus. In fact, the Egyptians believed that one of the best ways to receive divine revelation was through dreaming, and some people even slept on sanctified “dream beds” to gain wisdom from the gods.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars largely abandoned these supernatural ideas. Prominent figures such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung instead concluded that dreams provided insights into the inner workings of the mind. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud detailed a complex system of dream analysis. At its core, his theory stated that while our conscious minds slumber, our unconscious minds produce images that can give us special insight into our deepest selves.
“During REM, the brain is working differently to when we are awake; certain parts of the brain have become dormant, such as the prefrontal cortex which controls rational thought, while other parts become highly active, such as the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions. Through the dreaming process, you are continuing your thoughts about your day: your mistakes, your achievements, your hopes for tomorrow. Your dream thoughts are actually more focused and significantly more profound because your dreams provide you metaphoric commentary on yourself.”
Do dreams really mean anything?
While we often enjoy recalling our dreams the following day, it’s important to decipher if there’s any significance in dream meanings. There are many different theories when it comes to dream interpretation and whether they mean something, and most of those theories offer different views.
One neurobiological theory of dreaming is the Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis. This was proposed by Harvard University psychiatrists, John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley. The theory states that dreams don’t actually mean anything. Instead they’re merely electrical brain impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from our memories. The theory suggests that humans construct dream stories after they wake up. This is a natural attempt to make sense of it all.
However, renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud thought otherwise. He believed that dreams revealed unconsciously repressed conflicts or wishes. According to Freud, dreams are imagery of a wish or impulse from childhood that has since been repressed. This is why Freud studied dreams to understand the unconscious mind. Therefore, according to Freud, your dreams reveal your repressed wishes to you.
Another theory is the Threat Simulation Theory, which describes dreams as a defence mechanism our brains put in place to prepare us for scary events. This allows us to face our fears in a safe simulation. This theory adds that “children who live in an environment in which their physical and psychological wellbeing is constantly threatened should have a highly activated dream production and threat simulation system”. If this theory is to be believed, it could be assumed that we dream more often when in a state of fear or anxiety.
Although it’s impossible to pinpoint one theory, Loewenberg states: “In my experience, people are beginning to be more open to the fact that dreams are more than random misfirings of the brain, and that they are telling us something about ourselves.” These may not be obvious links, for example, to lose your bag in a dream doesn’t mean you’re going to lose your bag tomorrow. It would more likely mean that the dreamer feels that something important to them is missing.
How do I interpret dream meanings?
Dream interpretation allows you to understand if your dreams are revealing something to you. There’s certain things you can do to decipher your dream meanings. Loewenberg says: “In a nutshell, you want to do a comparative analysis between the imagery and actions in the dream to the events of your previous day.”
Therefore, you should pay attention to the content of your dreams in waking life. “If you start keeping a day journal in tandem with a dream journal, you will absolutely start noticing connections between your dream imagery and your daily struggles and achievements. For example, you may notice that when your mother-in-law came over for dinner, you dreamed of being attacked by a bear that night. When you landed an account at work you’d been trying for, you may dream you won the lottery that night. Or when something you were super excited about didn’t work out, you may find that you dream of a plane crash or of falling that night.”
If you’ve had a specific dream and you’d like to decipher its meaning, check out our infographic on the most common dreams and what they mean.
The benefits of dreaming
While we may not know a lot when it comes to dream meanings, more can be said about the benefits of dreaming. For example, the REM stage in which we dream also allows you to commit things you learn to memory, meaning dreaming will help with cognitive processes. As well as this, dreams offer emotional benefits, such as introspection.
Loewenberg adds: “Our dreams are full of information, advice, guidance and even warnings we need to know about ourselves and about our lives. Dreaming is a very deep and profound thinking process in which we focus solely on the self. Through dreaming, we examine our current issues, behaviours and goals. We come up with ideas, we sort things out, we look at ourselves in a deeper light, we gain a clearer picture of ourselves and situation so that we can make better decisions. Those of us that are dream researchers and who use dream work in our mental health practices have found that dream interpretations are the deepest form of therapy available.”
On top of the cognitive and emotional benefits of dreaming, dreams can also aid creativity and many ideas for famous songs, paintings and films came from dreams. For example, Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory was inspired by a dream, as was Christoper Nolan’s Inception.
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