We have all experienced a powerful dream or two in our lives. And the effects they have on our daily lives have been studied for years. There are commonly held dream themes, some of which are strange involving things that would never happen in waking life. They are responsible for some of the most powerful art out there. Some even say they are a doorway to other worlds.
But what are dreams, and what do they tell us about who we fundamentally are? The truth may surprise you.
What Are Dreams?
Dreams occur in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycle of sleep, where the brain is most active and most like the awakened brain. The length of our dreams varies, and the occurrence, remembrance and understandings of dreams depend greatly on the individual having them.
Dreams have several biological purposes: they help us process our emotions, reinforce our memory, clean up our mental space and assist in standard sleep functions. While they may seem to have no connection to our conscious state, these biological processes have significant weight in our daily lives. Without proper sleep functioning, we are at a higher risk of living with disease. That makes a healthy REM cycle even more important.
Another interesting aspect of dreams is that there are common iterations of the same dreams occurring across individual experiences. Prevailing themes include teeth falling out, public nudity, being late for an important appointment and being paralyzed. While dreams can be unique to the dreamer, it’s interesting that multiple people experience the same dream themes.
Dream Interpretation Through History
Although it may seem new, dream interpretation dates back to Sumerian culture 3,000 years ago, in what is now modern-day Iraq. There is evidence of priestly dream analysis in ancient Egypt as well. Doctors in ancient Greek cultures employed various dream-centric treatments for spiritual healing.
In 1900, Freud devoted a portion of his work to interpretations, seeing dreams as the “day’s residues,” or simple reflections of our daily lives. His contemporary and protégé, Carl Jung, conducted a study that examined 697 dreams over the course of 23 nights. He found that those who recalled archetypal symbols in dreams were more intuitive, while those who recalled dreams daily had more introverted personalities. This is the foundation of dream analysis as it relates to personality in today’s psychological science fields.
What Dreams Tell Us
While dreams and their recall have something to tell us about personality, recent research suggests dreams reveal something more general. They tell us how our brains function uniquely from other individuals. Psychologists today seem to think dreams tell us much about our neurobiology, which influences how we navigate waking life. Through examination of dream journals in conjunction with electroencephalographs (EEGs), neurobiologists determined the same basic brain functions occur during dreaming as they do during conscious states, without the purview of executive function that is present in waking life. Modern-day dream researcher, William Domhoff takes that one step further, positing that dreams are simply a reflection of conscious life. As we dive into a semi-conscious or unconscious state in sleep, our secondary visual cortex comes to life providing us with a vivid picture based on the day’s activities.
Studies conducted in the last several decades have examined the links between dreams and multiple personality disorder (MPD). Researchers involved found commonalities between the dreams of patients with MPD. One especially frequently arising theme is dreams about other selves or other personalities. These researchers suggest integration of those selves in waking life can assist those with MPD in understanding themselves better, helping to improve their lives.
More recently, scientists studying dreams found actualizing them into reality can promote creativity in persons who may not have an imaginative proclivity. They suggest dreams inspire artistic output and have a huge bearing on navigating conscious creative realms.
While scientists continue to study dreams, there’s no denying the impact they have on our daily lives.