People have always had an interest in dreams. The Babylonians, 5,000 years before Christ, had a Goddess of Dreams, Mamu, and a book for interpreting dreams. The Egyptians, in 3,000 B. C., also had a God of Dreams, Serpis, and learned men, like Joseph in the Bible, were dream interpreters. They even had self-help techniques for inducing certain dreams. They may have thought, as we do now, that dreams satisfy some of our psychological needs and change our mood.
During the Dark and Middle Ages when alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold, etc., many ideas were proposed about good and evil forces, human thoughts, and dreams. Generalizations were made, such as "things must fall apart, decay and rot, before a revival of new healthy growth is possible," "opposites, like love and hate, try to escape one another, but also seek a balance," etc. The alchemists thought in terms of three worlds: the black, the white, and the red world. Black is darkness, evil, despair, ruins, the crude unconscious taking over our minds... White is the eerie, uncertain light of the moon, the twilight zone of lunacy, irrational thoughts, things changing, slippery, some hope... Red is the bright light of the sun, new life, things in order, ability to see clearly, rational, willful control, morals, growth, laughter... Each section of a dream and each object comes from one of these worlds, supposedly.
Now, about 1000 years later, many dream interpretation books, especially those by Jungian analysts, are still using these alchemy ideas to understand the symbolism in dreams. There is no science here; there is a lot of mystical, religious fantasy. Examples: The black world's symbols--death, wounds, violence, confusion, chaos, black cats, witches, sewers, sinister figures, "disgusting" pornography, physical and sexual abuse, etc. The white world's symbols--going crazy, shimmering surfaces, falling, snakes, night animals, street people, being drunk, healing the sick, taking drugs, lying down, being chased, eroticism, voyeurism, sex changes, pregnancy, etc. The red world's symbols--a bright light, new growth, keen-sighted animals, computers, schools, scientists, food, exercise, powerful people, male and female genitals or similarly shaped objects, romance, making love, etc. You can train yourself to think in these terms; there is no proof but perhaps the above objects and acts are associated with your underlying emotions of bleak sadness (black), scary confusion (white), and productive joy (red). At least, the archaic symbolic interpretations may cause you to think. But don't take them too seriously.
During the middle ages, Christian theologians were obsessed with sex and sin. They were deadly serious. Dreams were thought to be the travels of our souls outside our bodies during the night. Certain church authorities preached that the devil was responsible for dreams. In fact, your dreams might have been interpreted by churchmen to indicate if you were chaste or lustful. And if you were seen as lustful, and if you were a woman, and if there was any hint that you might have had sex with an evil character (the devil) in your dreams, you might have been burned alive (Van de Castle, 1971). Males' explanations of dreams have a fascinating history (but it tells us more about men than about dreams).
There have been many reports that dreams have led directly to great novels, musical compositions, scientific discoveries, and political-military decisions (surely dreams have also led to terrible blunders too, wonder why we don't hear about those?). Dreams have also often been regarded as messages from gods or the devil; no wonder they are considered important. However, as we will see later, current science suggests that dreams do not have much meaning.
Hopefully, you will not take your dreams as seriously as some alchemists, some generals (Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Genghis Kahn), some dictators (Hitler), or some religious folks and witch burners have. But while we hardly know more about the meaning of our dreams than the Babylonians 5,000 years ago, it is possible that dreams reflect our traumatic memories, our needs, and our unconscious "thoughts." So, dreams are thought to tell us something about ourselves we did not know. But the truth is: we don't know for sure why we dream almost two hours every night or what the dreams mean. We know dreams are strange; impossible things happen there. We can only speculate as to why (and we do here). We need to know more.
Freud did not believe in a god, but he still attached great significance to dreams. Freud said dreams were a peep hole (well, really he said a "royal road") into our unconscious which directs much of our lives... and our dreams. The unconscious was made up of forbidden childhood wishes (e.g. to do away with little brother), intense impulses (let's zap Dad away too), our strong needs for love (and sex, whatever that means to a 4-year-old). Freud thought dreams were venting our emotions or fulfilling our unconscious wishes, except we had to conceal the really awful stuff (like wanting to have Mommy all to ourselves), because such thoughts would wake us up. Thus, for insight Freud thought analysts needed to separate the surface or manifest dream content from the repressed forbidden feelings and urges, which were the real causes of our problems. That is what "dream analysis" involves, i.e. figuring out the symbols, the distortions, the displacement, and the reversal of feelings (all designed to hide the real purpose of dreams and calm us down so we can continue to dream about these awful, shameful emotions and needs). Step 3 describes self-analysis of dreams.
Science has discovered that mammals and birds have REM (rapid eye movements that occur with dreams) sleep but reptiles do not, so the dreaming every 90 minutes is a natural biological rhythm. While the eyes move vigorously (the movement can easily be seen through the closed eye lids), the rest of the body is usually quiet. Even a 6-month-old fetus has REM sleep. But for the first ten years of life, children's dreams (as distinguished from nightmares) are different from adults' dreams; their dreams are simple, usually unemotional, and children do not usually put themselves into their dreams (Begley, 1989). Adults are almost always involved in their own dreams. Since 1952 when REM was discovered, thousands of sleepers have been awakened by researchers and asked, "What were you dreaming?" Dreams last 10 to 40 minutes. Men and women have about the same emotions as they dream. The longer, more vivid and dramatic dreams are early in the morning, shortly before awaking. Actually, most of our dreams are common-place and dull. We remember and talk about the more interesting ones. More dreams involve being passive or playing than involve work or studying.
Many more unpleasant emotions, especially fear and anger, are expressed in dreams than pleasant emotions, although sexual arousal is frequent during dreams (Scarr and Vander Zanden, 1984).... Nightmares occur more often in sensitive and creative people (Chollar, 1989); they are different from dreams or non-REM experiences (non-REM "experiences" are short, simple, and seem to us more like thoughts than dreaming). Bettelheim found that he and other prisoners of German concentration camps had dreamed of food and escape while being brutalized, but it was only after escaping that the survivors started having nightmares about the atrocities. Decades later they were still occasionally having nightmares that they can not escape the horrors. Dreams and nightmares are fascinating to most of us. We are only discussing dreams here, not nightmares or non-REM experiences....
As Hobson points out, you are still faced with the same problem Freud struggled with: why does the brain make this kind of sense--this particular image--out of ...some ... nerve activity? Hobson believes our drives, emotions, early memories, daytime experiences, and associations influence our dreams (just like Freud). Researchers have noted that even though a dream contains lots of visual images, the occipital lobe (where we see) is not as active as the frontal lobe (where higher thinking, emotions and personality are located). Also, if you wear red glasses all day for several days, your dreams start to be in red, suggesting that day-time experience becomes part of your dreams. On the other hand, a person who loses his/her sight may take 25 years before dreaming they are blind. Since most of us do not use smell and taste very much, perhaps that is why our dreams contain very few such images but lots of visual images. There is a lot we don't know.
Theories about the functions of dreams are contradictory. Recent studies have found that dreaming and learning are connected: people think better after a good night's sleep; they remember complex skills (Choller, 1989) and bedtime stories (Begley, 1989) better. However, another theory is that dreams have to do with forgetting or, more specifically, with dumping useless information from our brain during sleep, like "purging" the big computers (Milnechuk, 1983). The exact connection between dream images and erasing or enhancing our memory is unclear. Once out of REM sleep, it is hard to remember the dream we just had. So hard that even extremely vivid and traumatic or unusual dreams are quickly forgotten. If you were really in a horrible auto accident or really had a torrid sexual affair, you wouldn't forget it within 15 minutes, would you? So dreams and forgetting (or repressing) are connected somehow. Maybe, as Freud said, the connection is because dreams are laden with nasty sexual and aggressive drives which our conscious mind wants to forget. However, new born infants spend 50% of their sleeping time in REM sleep (and they are learning and forgetting a lot) but I doubt if 3-week-olds are overwhelmed with taboo sexuality and hostility. Moreover, like babies, my Irish Setter spends hours in REM sleep and, yet, seems totally unashamed of her sexual impulses!
These puzzles and theories are interesting but they don't tell us much about the meaning of dreams. Clearly, dreams are not totally random chaotic neural activity but they may not be windows to the soul either. Robert Cartwright and Lamberg (1992) have a very different notion, namely, that our dreams reflect our major conscious emotional concerns. In effect, our dreams underscore our current problems, rather than hide or erase them. Also, according to Cartwright and Lamberg, the dream content, while symbolic, can, with a little thought, be easily associated with the things that are consciously worrying us tonight. The mind supposedly searches our past to find a person, situation, or symbol that fits the feelings that are pressuring us during our sleep. It is as though bad dreams are telling us: HEY, PAY ATTENTION TO THIS PROBLEM!
Langs (1994) has another idea; he believes that dreams are giving us solutions for important but repressed problems. He says the conscious mind, busy with coping, often passes on difficult emotional problems to the unconscious mind for solving. Dreams are a way for the unconscious mind to give us its wisdom about handling emotional situations. Thus, the conscious mind needs to discover what problem the unconscious mind is working on and then decipher the unconscious's solution. Langs has a book and a workbook for understanding dreams. Other dream experts (Delaney, 1995; Garfield, 1994) are constantly publishing a new book for understanding or controlling dreams and problem-solving.
As some ancient tribes, Indian medicine men, yogi dream interpreters, and psychoanalysts believed, perhaps we should listen to dreams for insight and our emotional health. Humans have certainly wanted dreams to have meaning. But physiological psychologists are finding more and more evidence that dreams may merely be our cortex trying hard to make sense out of meaningless signals straying up from the midbrain during sleep. This possibility should make us cautious. Think of it this way: perhaps dreams are not highly significant camouflaged messages from our unconscious, but, in any case, dreams do reflect our concerns of the day and our memories. Also, our conscious speculation about why our cortex had the particular associations (resulting in a vivid, complex, fascinating dream) to the random signals may aid our self-understanding. Dream analysis could be for understanding our cortex trying to make sense of nonsense, instead of for understanding unconscious motives. For instance, wondering about the significance of what we see in a cloud or an ink blot may yield some helpful self-awareness, without our believing that the cloud was formed by a higher power specifically to send us a message. Consider this method a challenge, not necessarily a "royal road to the unconscious."