Why do we dream?
The world of dreams has fascinated philosophers for thousands of years, but only recently it has been subjected to empirical research and scientific study. Scientists have been performing dream studies for decades and they still are not sure about the function of sleep or the reason why we dream. However, that has not stopped scientists from researching and speculating.
Unfortunately, there is not a definite and unique answer to the question "Why do we dream?" Considering the above-mentioned difficulty, the purpose of this work is to shed light on the unknown universe of dreams. It would expose four of the many theories of dream interpretation. It would give a criterion, permitting one to draw conclusions, at least in principle, as to the origin of dreams. Finally, it should form a logically well-built structure of possible solutions that have been proposed to the problem by specialists.
The work is divided into four major subheadings. Each of them corresponds to a theory of dreaming by a specific author. All the theories describe the origin of dreams and their possible purposes. The authors carried out abundant research on the subject to provide definite evidence to justify their conclusions. Some of these theories are identified with a particular name, others are not named. Freud's theory constitutes a basic body of knowledge which was taken as a reference by the authors of the following three theories. However, very few authors agree with the development of this first theory. As a result, they developed different alternatives.
Each of the above-mentioned parts may be regarded as constituting a self-contained unit. Owing to this structure, the discussion in each part becomes independent of the argumentation in the other parts and may be taken separately.
Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory of Dreams
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist born in 1856. He was the founder of psychoanalysis, a set of psychological and psychotherapeutic theories and techniques. The basic tenets of this school of thought are:
- A person's growth is determined by both forgotten events in early childhood and also inherited traits.
- Human life is largely influenced by irrational drives rooted in the unconscious.
- Irrational drives are hidden behind repression.
- Conflicts between the conscious and the unconscious are seen in the form of mental or emotional disturbances.
- Liberating the elements of the unconscious is achieved through bringing this material into the conscious mind.
Freud thought dreams had two interrelated functions:
WISH-FULFILLMENT: as dreams allow the release of physic tension, they serve as tools to express repressed wishes.
GUARDIAN OF SLEEP: they are also seen as a way of protecting sleep from being disturbed.
Antonio Zadra describes Freud's theory in one of his works in the following way:
The dream was seen as a compromise between unacceptable unconscious wishes, often sexual in nature and dating from early childhood, and the desire to remain asleep. These wishes, loaded with immoral content, had to be disguised to be acceptable to the dreamer.
Freud developed a model of the mind, describing its structure and function to better understand dreams. He divided it into three levels:
ID: the libidinal energy is stored in the ID. This energy runs on the "pleasure principle" that cares only about the immediate and total satisfaction of irrational drives without worrying about the possible consequences.
EGO: this part of the psyche that satisfies the needs of the ID in a secure and sociable suitable manner. It is also capable of delaying the ID's satisfaction according to the available possibilities in the real world. The EGO follows the "reality principle".
SUPER-EGO: this level is equivalent to moral consciousness because of its function of differentiating between right and wrong in certain situations. The super-ego encourages people to behave in a socially responsible and acceptable manner.
According to Sigmund Freud, each level of the mind enters into a recurring conflict with the other two. This inevitable inner conflict represents the basic quandary of all human beings.
Freud compared the psychic apparatus with an iceberg. The conscious mind represents the tip, under the surface governs the unconscious.
In his famous book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud distinguished two components of dreams: manifest and latent.
Manifest content comprises the images, sounds, and thoughts of a dream. This content is the only one to be remembered by the dreamer when he is awake.
Latent content contains the hidden psychological meaning of a dream which can only be unveiled through psychoanalytic analysis.
Freud developed the concept of "dream-work" to refer to the process in which repressed wishes are translated into manifest content. Dream-work involves the process of condensation, displacement, and secondary elaboration.
Condensation: the overlapping of more than two ideas, images, or thoughts into one.
Displacement: the change from one person or object to someone else.
Secondary elaboration: the combination of the events found in the manifest content string together in a logical order.
In his late works, Freud investigated the possibility of finding universal symbols in dream interpretation. However, he stated that symbols are personal and not universal. Therefore, a person cannot analyze the meaning of a dream without knowing the other person's real-life story.
Robert Stickgold's theory
Robert Stickgold is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and a dream researcher. He works at Harvard Medical School and also at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He has challenged Freudian beliefs on the interpretation of dreams. Stickgold disapproves of Freud's psychoanalytic theory of dreams and refuses the idea of dreams as "wish-fulfillment".
Stickgold dedicated many years of study to understand the relationship between sleeping and learning. His research has been conducted on sleep, cognition, dreaming, and conscious states. He is considered a leading supporter of the role of sleep in memory consolidation.
One of Stickgold's many experiments to prove his theory was conducted with people who had to play the puzzle game Tetris®. After they played the game, most of them dreamt about Tetris®'s squares falling. In their dreams, participants found a way to solve the puzzle. The following day they played again and they greatly improved their performance. Stickgold concluded that:
During all stages of sleep, the mind and brain are working to process new memories, consolidating them into long-term storage and integrating recently acquired information with past experience. In recent years, an accumulating body of research evidence has definitively demonstrated that post-learning sleep is beneficial for human memory performance across a variety of tasks, including verbal learning, procedural skill learning, emotional memory, and spatial navigation.
According to Stickgold when we are dreaming we consciously identify what is relevant about what happened to us during the day and how that relates to our past and our future. To prove his theory, he developed the concepts of:
DECLARATIVE MEMORIES: they are the ones people can declare they know.
IMPLICIT MEMORIES: these memories are in the mind but people cannot recall them consciously.
This dream researcher believes the access to implicit memories that dreams give are crucial for learning. According to him the most difficult problem for the brain to solve is how to bring together information from diverse sources and to see how all this information fits together. He emphasizes that by blocking declarative memories the brain is forced to work with weak associations. As a result, the brain looks for unexpected, novel, and potentially highly creative and useful connections such as feelings, moods, and attitudes that otherwise people wouldn't have direct access to. For him, the dreaming mind is looking for new ways to connect these associative networks, and it isn't a brain's concern if some of these explorations are useless or wrong. Finally, he confidently asserts that an action contemplated during sleep is unevenly matched with people's real feelings and beliefs.
Antti Revonsuo's Threat Simulation Theory
Antti Revonsuo is a cognitive neuroscientist, psychologist, and philosopher of mind. His work focuses on understanding consciousness as a biological phenomenon. He developed the Threat Simulation Theory, in which he declares that dreams serve as rehearsals of possibly threatening situations to aid survival in waking life.
He supports his theory with empirical research that shows the recurrence of threatening situations in dreaming. He considers that fear and anger are the most usual emotions people experience when they are sleeping.
On The Reinterpretation of Dreams, Revonsuo wrote six empirically testable propositions to prove his theory.
Dream experience is not random or disorganized; instead, it constitutes an organized and selective simulation of the perceptual world.
Normative dream content frequently contains various unpleasant and threatening elements, which supports the view that dreams are specialized in simulating threatening events.
Encountering real threats during waking has a powerful effect on subsequent dream content: real threats activate the threat simulation system in a qualitatively unique manner.
Dreaming about an action is an identical process for cortical motor areas as actually carrying out the same action. Consequently, the threat simulations are perceptually and behaviourally realistic and therefore efficient rehearsals of threat perception and threat-avoidance responses.
Simulation of perceptual and motor skills leads to enhanced performance in corresponding real situations. The purpose of the simulations is to rehearse skills, and such rehearsal results in faster and improved skills rather than a set of explicitly accessible memories.
The threat-simulation system was selected for during our evolutionary history. The environment in which ancestors lived included frequent dangerous events. Recurring, realistic threat simulations led to improved threat perception and avoidance skills and therefore increased successful reproduction.
In Testing the Threat Simulation Theory of the Function of Dreaming Antti Revonsou classifies threatening events according to their nature.
- Escapes and pursuits: someone is persecuted by other people, monsters, animals, or creatures in the supernatural world.
- Accidents and misfortunes: uncontrollable events and dangerous activities which cause physical injuries for people or damage to physical objects.
- Failures: a person fails when trying to achieve an important goal or carrying out an important task. The most common example is arriving late to a special event.
- Catastrophes: uncontrollable events in which a great number of losses or damages might result.
- Disease: people afflicted with physical illness.
- Aggression: aggression can be indirect such as verbal threats, blackmailing, bullying, forcing somebody to do something, imprisoning, stealing, trespassing on somebody's private territory, or direct such as assault, rape, stabbing, or shooting.
According to Antti Revonsuo children usually have nightmares about wild animals such as primitive men did, but adults have more modern bad dreams like crashing their cars or losing their wallets. This shows that our brain is capable of adjusting itself. Finally, Revonsou concludes his research by stating that "Without nightmares and bad dreams, there is a good chance that humanity wouldn't be here."
Stephen LaBerge's Lucid Dreaming Theory
Stephen LaBerge is a psychophysiologist and a leader in the scientific study of lucid dreaming. A lucid dream occurs when the dreamer knows that is dreaming. Lucidity usually comes in the middle of a dream when the person realizes the experience he is undergoing is not occurring in the real world. The dreamer either notices an impossible or very unlikely event or becomes lucid without noticing any particular situation.
According to LaBerge to experience a lucid dream people should apply induction techniques that help focus intention and prepare a critical mind:
This technique requires writing down the essential content the dreamer recalls about his dream in a dream journal. People must pay special attention to the dream signs that might appear. The main reason for considering dream recall a very important technique is that remembering dreams can help you become familiar with their features and patterns.
Imagine that your surroundings are a dream
Imagine that what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling is all a dream. Create the feeling that you are dreaming.
Visualize yourself enjoying a dream activity
Decide on something you would like to do in your next lucid dream and visualize yourself enjoying your chosen activity.
When asked about the usefulness of lucid dreams LaBerge answered that "During such "lucid" dreams it is possible to freely remember the circumstances of waking life, to think clearly, and to act deliberately upon reflection or in accordance with plans decided upon before sleep, all while experiencing a dream world that seems vividly real".
Based on his many researches, he enumerates at least three reasons why people should learn to have lucid dreams:
Adventure and fantasy
Lucid dreaming has the potential for adventure and fantasy fulfillment. For many people, their first lucid dream was an amazing experience they will never forget. They experience total freedom of action without worrying about the consequences.
One effective therapy for nightmares is lucid dreaming. While the dreamer is having a nightmare he is aware that that experience is not real and therefore it cannot cause him any harm. The only way to overcome a nightmare in a lucid dream is to transform the threat (monster, wild beast, etc) into an innocent creature. This empowering experience encourages people to confront fear and in that way become stronger.
People use lucid dreaming to prepare for success in the real world. As the activity of the brain during a dreamed activity is the same as during a real event, neuronal patterns can be established during sleep in preparation for performance in the waking life.
Creativity and problem solving
While people are dreaming, thought takes different forms from the ones people normally exercise in waking life. This unusual way of thinking manifests enhanced creativity or defective thinking.
It is possible that healing dream imagery may improve physical health and lessen pain. Therapists use lucid dreams to help patients overcome phobias, work with grief, reduce anxieties and also achieve self-confidence. However, there are many more healing applications of lucid dreaming such as more rapid recovery from injury or disease and an increased sense of freedom for people who are disabled or limited in certain circumstances.
Apart from developing techniques LaBerge also created a series of devices to help users enter a lucid state. All the devices consist of a mask worn over the eyes with LEDs positioned over the eyelids. The LEDs flash whenever the mask detects that the wearer has entered REM sleep. The stimulus is incorporated into the wearer's dreams and can be recognized as a sign that they are dreaming.
The goal of this investigation was to show how different researchers intended to answer the question of why people dream. No theory proves better than the others, although it must be admitted that as time passes by, Freud's theory becomes increasingly obsolete. However, what is important about all of them is not their differences but their similes. All researchers show an aspect of dreams that can be usefully applied to improve everyday life.
Freud suggested dreams allow us to express unconscious repressed wishes and they also protect our sleep from any distortion. Stickgold believes that as dreams help to process new memories, post-learning sleep is beneficial for learning. Revonsuo holds the belief that nightmares are efficient rehearsals of possibly dangerous events which aid survival in waking life. LaBerge thinks that as the neuronal patterns activated during sleep are the same as in actual life, lucid dreaming prepares people for performance in the real world.
Therefore, integrating some aspects of these different approaches to dream interpretation into one could be incredibly effective. Although we may never know the truth about dreams, they are incredibly useful to study human beings as a whole. Often healing, often mysterious, always fascinating, dreams can both shape us and show us who we are.
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