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The Mysteries of Dreams
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by G. William Domhoff

It’s a universal human experience. You rest your head against the pillow at night and slowly drift off to sleep. Soon you enter a weird and wonderful - and sometimes frightening - world. It’s a world in which you might find yourself walking around school in your pajamas or chasing the school bus after you missed it. You could be flying under your own power or talking with a long-deceased relative. You’ve entered the world of dreams.

People have always dreamed, and dreamers have always wondered what their mysterious nighttime visions meant. Some philosophers in ancient times believed that dreams were important messages from the gods or visions of things to come. As the centuries rolled by, many other philosophers, as well as average people, developed their own theories about the purpose of dreams and what dreams mean. And finally, dreams became a subject of scientific inquiry.

Freud and Jung Interpret Dreams. In his 1900 book, Freud described how he asked his patients to tell him everything they could remember from their dreams. Freud believed that dreams were “the royal road to the unconscious.” He concluded, on the basis of his talks with the patients, that dreams are caused by disturbing [беспокоящий] wishes, such as sexual desires or aggressive impulses that a person represses in waking life. These unacceptable thoughts, according to Freud, are often disguised as symbolic elements in dreams. For example, fire may symbolize feelings of hostility, while water may stand for sexuality. The symbolism in dreams, Freud maintained [отстаивать], needs to be decoded, or interpreted, in order to be understood. Freud believed that symbolism is necessary in dreams, because straightforward thoughts about unacceptable desires and feelings would arouse anxiety and awaken the dreamer. Thus, Freud proposed, dreams are the guardians of sleep.

Freud’s questioning of his patients led him to believe that dreams are usually brief and that dreaming itself is rare during sleep. Furthermore, he concluded, a dream usually incorporates some minor, unresolved event from earlier in the day—a piece of “unfinished business” of some kind. But at a deeper level, Freud theorized, dreaming is a unique state of consciousness that is prompted by such urges [побуждение] as hunger, thirst, and sexuality that arise during the night.

Doubts about Freud’s explanations for dreaming led the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung to develop his own theory between 1912 and 1920. Jung rejected Freud’s idea that dreams are related to wish fulfillment. He believed that dreams can express spiritual and moral concerns as often as they express sexual or emotional preoccupations [предрассудки]. Jung’s main conclusion was that dreams express aspects of the personality that are not fully developed in waking life. For example, people who neglect their spiritual needs may experience strong religious feelings in their dreams.

In order to understand what their dreams mean, Jung suggested, dreamers need to become familiar with the kinds of symbols used in myths, fairy tales, and religious rituals. For instance, as in tales involving the “big, bad wolf,” a dangerous animal may symbolize some person or event that poses a threat to the dreamer. And, as in Christian theology, wine may represent blood or salvation. Jung claimed that people in modern Western civilization often ignore such symbolic language, and so they need help in understanding what their dreams are trying to say to them.

Although most psychiatrists disagreed with some of the ideas of Freud or Jung, many accepted the central conclusion of their theories—that dreams have symbolic meanings.

Sleep Laboratories. Between 1953 and 1957, physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman of the University of Chicago and two students discovered that sleep is characterized by four different levels of brain activity. The scientists found that during the first hour or so of sleep, the activity of the brain steadily decreases. Then it begins to increase until it reaches a high level similar to that of the waking state. The researchers named this mentally active stage of sleep Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep because of the eye movements that are one of its most noticeable characteristics. Four or five distinct periods of REM sleep occur at intervals of about 90 minutes during a typical eight-hour sleep period. Each REM period is longer than the previous one, ranging in length from about 5 to 10 minutes to half-an-hour or more. Occurring between the REM periods are intervals of lower brain activity called non-REM (NREM) sleep. Each period of NREM sleep occurs at a higher stage of brain activity than the previous one.

Do Dreams Have any Meaning? Taking the idea that dreams have meaning, but rejecting the explanations of Freud and Jung, many scientists have developed their own theories of dreams. For example, several researchers have proposed that dreams have a problem-solving function, suggesting possible solutions to emotional problems. Other researchers, however, point out that few dreams seem to provide even a hint of a solution to such problems.

The inability of investigators to develop a widely accepted theory to explain the meaning of dreams led sleep-lab researchers J. Alan Hobson and Robert W. McCarley of Harvard Medical School in Boston to suggest in 1977 that dreams have no function or purpose. The theory proposes that the brain uses stored memories and established thought patterns to try to bring some order to the random signals, thus producing dreams. Many dream researchers, however, doubt this theory, because it incorrectly implies that dreaming is strictly a product of REM sleep.

Some sleep researchers claim that dreaming may be the accidental by-product of two evolutionary developments—complex brains and sleep. According to this view, the evolution of complex brains in humans gave rise to dreaming because, during sleep, there is no external world to help organize the vast amount of brain activity. Thus, dreams are the brain’s purposeless response to this mental activity. Despite this theory, most dream researchers maintain that there must be at least some meaning in dreams, because so many elements in dreams relate to waking thoughts and concerns.

In order to answer the question, “What do my dreams mean?” we may have to wait for further advances in the study of dream content and breakthroughs in the study of brain function. In the meantime, when you go to bed at the end of a long day and close your eyes, you might simply look forward to the fascinating show that your brain will be putting on for you.

About the author: G. William Domhoff is a research professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the author of several books, including Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach.


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