Dreams have long fascinated the human race. This alternate reality, separate from the conscious world we see around us, has captured the interest of many people throughout history. In fact, mankind has been studying dreams since the invention of the written word. Perhaps the lure of dreams is that there seems to be some significance behind them. Most reject the idea that dreams are just random meaningless fragments of data. The vivid sensations that dreams create are just too powerful to ignore. The world of dreams is filled with peculiar phenomenon and unexpected events that beg our attention. Consider the following example of a dream:
I was in a fairly large square room; the room was darkI was sitting on the floor against the wallIn the center of the room was a well or tubular iron shaftI crept on my hands and knees slowly over to the well and looked into ita square piece of white papercame into viewI felt afraid and crawled back against the wallmy little Boston terrier dog appearedand jumped into the well without a sound being uttered. (Sanford 45-46)
This man’s dream is filled with too many powerful images and irregularities to ignore. He is forced to ask himself what this well means, why his dog jumped into it, and more importantly, why his mind created this situation. Finally, dreams are extremely relevant because everybody has them. People sometimes assume they are not dreaming, when in reality they just aren’t remembering them. Whether one remembers his dreams or not, they are always present. For these reasons, dreams have fascinated mankind for centuries.
The history of dream research goes back to the 12th dynasty (1991-1786 BC) when the Egyptians began to explore dreams. They developed a process called “dream incubation” where a person who wanted his dreams interpreted would go to sleep in a temple. From there a priest would observe and interpret his dreams. The Egyptians believed that dreams where in fact messages from gods. The Egyptians are believed to be the first civilization to write about dreams, and actually created several books on the subject. The Greeks were another civilization concerned with dreams. In fact, the Greeks were studying dreams as early as the 8th Century. References to dreams can be found in early Greek literatures such as Homer’s The Iliad, in which Agamemnon receives instructions from Zeus in a dream. The Greeks took an approach similar to the Egyptians in that they believed dreams were messages from God. However, this doctrine of thinking did not last long. A Greek philosopher in the 5th Century named Heraclitus was probably the first to suggest that dreams actually originated from within. He stated that each individual’s dreams were unique and were products of his own mind. Socrates and Plato followed where Heraclitus left off, corroborating his theory with their own research. Finally it was Aristotle who completely dispelled the notion that dreams were attempts at divine communication. His practical approach to dream research paved the way for future scholars such as Freud and Jung. Aristotle stated that dreams were most often fragments of the days events, and could sometimes provide insight into one’s personal problems. (Parker 10-15)
In 1899, more than two thousand years after Aristotle, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams and “modern dream psychology was born.” (Fontana 26) Freud looked down on other methods of dream interpretation because they were too rigid. Psychologists would create lists of dream symbols along with their meaning so that they could quickly look up the meaning of a dream. Freud believed that each person associated dream symbols with different things. For example, a ship going through a storm could represent a difficult time at work for one person, but it could represent a health problem for someone else. Freud developed his own method of dream interpretation, which he called free association. It involved following the patient’s train of thought, allowing them to associate various events in their dreams with actual events in their life. If at some point the process was met with resistance, or the patient had difficulty associating, this was a clue to the unconscious problem in the dream. Freud’s work with free association led him to explore various aspects of the unconscious mind. He came to believe that the mind operated on two different levels, which he called the primary process and the secondary process. The primary process contained all of the unconscious primitive instincts that one was born with, while the secondary process contained conscious thought. Freud stated that the primary process was constantly creating symbols and images of the data it received, while the secondary process applied logic and reason to the same information. Therefore, when one is dreaming, the symbols of the primary process can be seen. Freud developed another theory that he called the Oedipus complex. It states that all children, during a certain phase, develop a sexual fixation for the parent of the opposite sex. In fact, Freud believed that sexual urges and childhood experiences where the driving force behind much of the unconscious. Freud saw this sexual fixation show up in dreams consistently. After developing these theories and methods, Freud firmly believed that he had unlocked the door to the unconscious mind. (Fontana 26-29)
Carl Gustav Jung followed Freud’s work on dreams as his disciple, but would eventually develop his own perspective. For instance, Jung rejected the notion that sexual urges were the driving force behind the unconscious. The unconscious, he said, was not a mere “receptacle for rejected emotions and desires.”(Ackroyd 31) Jung believed the unconscious was a valuable tool for uncovering psychic problems, and the solutions to these problems. Jung also rejected Freud’s method of free association. Jung believed free association was too open to interpretation, encouraging people to stray from the actual meaning of the dream. Instead, he proposed a more focused approach that he called amplification. By taking each symbol of the dream into perspective, one could then consider the dream as a whole. Jung also gave names to many of the reoccurring themes he found in people’s dreams. For example, he found that a shadow figure, or repressed opposite side, would often appear in dreams. Other examples include the personas, which are the different personalities or masks that people wear, and the female anima figure. Jung came to believe these reoccurring dream images came from something he called the collective unconscious. (Ackroyd 31-47)
The collective unconscious is a genetically inherited level of the mind containing what Jung called the vast historical storehouse of the human race’, a mental reservoir of ideas, symbols, themes and archetypes that form the raw material of many of the world’s myths, legends and religious systems. (Fontana 23)
Jung’s theories on dream psychology provide valuable insight into the meaning of dreams, and are among the most widely accepted today.
While Freud and Jung devoted much of their time to interpretation of dreams, they never answered the question of why people dream. Many people do not consider dreams to be important and believe they have no purpose at all.
Many of us consider sleep a waste of time, an inconvenience that interferes with the more important things of life. We go to bed at odd hoursor we push ourselves, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, before finally allowing the body to restAnd our dreams receive almost no attention at all. We feel that dreams are simple, natural phenomena having little or no significance, or they are just another interesting curiosity of life. (Yamamoto 7-8)
However, there is an increasing body of evidence that suggests dreams should not be ignored. For example, in one experiment, subjects were systematically prevented from dreaming by being woken up when they entered REM sleep. The result was that they showed signs of sleep deprivation, such as irritability, fatigue, and poor memory. Another interesting result was that each subsequent night, the subject entered a dream state more and more frequently. Their body recognized the lack of dreams, and was attempting to counteract it. This suggests that dreams are a valuable part of sleep that the body requires. Not only are dreams beneficial to ones health, they can also be windows into one’s personal problems. (Fontana 14-15)
Often, our dreaming mind will take a current situation and greatly dramatize it, to be sure we recognize what is really going on in our waking life. Sometimes, through our dreams, we see creative solutions to our problemsTaking a dilemma into the dream state can be like brainstorming with a problem-solving think tank. Often, we will wake-up with the perfect solution. (Richmond 13-14)
No one knows for sure why people dream, but some have hypothesized that it is a time of rest and recuperation for the brain. This would explain why people show signs of fatigue when they have been deprived of dreams. In extreme cases of sleep deprivation, subjects have even been known to enter an REM state while conscious. Regardless of the reasons behind dreaming, it is clear that dreaming is essential to mental and physical health. (Fontana 14-15)
There are several different types of dreams that have their own distinct characteristics. The first type of dream is called a house-cleaning dream. Essentially it is a dream that clears one’s mind and removes the unnecessary jumble of events from the day. For example, if someone watched football before going to bed, his mind would still be filled with details from the game as he was trying to sleep. During his house-cleaning dream, his mind would simply sift through the jumble of data. House cleaning dreams typically have no plot and are a series of individual actions from the day’s events. The second type of dream is a problem-solving dream. Inventors and writers will sometimes use these dreams to ponder creative solutions to problems they are having. The dream will rarely present a solution directly, but instead will display it symbolically. For example, chemist F.A. Kekule is believed to have postulated the molecular structure of a carbon ring from a dream about a snake with its tail in its mouth.
Problem-solving dreams are a means for the individual to confront problems of an emotional nature as a dress rehearsal in dream life before confronting the issue in the real world. Many of the major lessons we learn and decisions we must make in life are personal or social in nature, and these two areas often bring about problem-solving dreams. (Cooper 25)
The third and final type of dream is the psychological dream. This type of dream often reveals the current psychic state of the dreamer. The unconscious mind attempts to communicate with the conscious mind through this type of dream, sometimes showing a repressed or hidden aspect. Psychological dreams can provide great insight into the true nature of the dreamer. (Cooper 21-26)
While dreams contain very important information and insight into who we are, this information is lost if we cannot remember and record our dreams. Dreams are often difficult to remember, and in reality, people remember a small percentage of their dreams. Studies have shown that people are most likely to remember their dream if they wake up just after REM sleep. If they continue into another sleep cycle, the last dream is usually completely forgotten. Even when woken just after REM sleep a dream can often be hazy and difficult to remember. Fortunately, there are some methods to help record dreams. One good technique used by dream researchers is to keep a notebook, diary, or audio tape recorder next to their bed. Then, the moment they wake up, they can record the dream while it is still fresh in their mind. If one is truly determined to record one’s dreams, one can try setting an alarm clock periodically throughout the night, hoping to wake up at the end of an REM phase.
However well you remember your dream – or think you remember it – you should always either write it down or make a sketch of it. This is not only good practice – since you will establish a pattern that will be useful – but it also means that you will have a record to work with, which should help you to see any patterns that occur in your dreams. (Parker 28)
Just the simple act of keeping a dream diary next to one’s bed is a message to the unconscious that dreams are something to be remembered. Once the importance of dreams is recognized, it becomes easier to remember and record them. Having a record of dreams makes it easy to look for reoccurring themes. If a reoccurring dream is found, it is a clear indication that it is something deserving attention. Being able to record ones dreams is an important step towards getting the most out of them
The world of dreams is often filled with mystery and strange phenomenon that are difficult to explain, and there is no one way to interpret a dream. Each person should evaluate his or her dream on an individual basis. Some dreams make more sense with a Jungian interpretation, others with a Freudian approach, and some with neither. Compounding this problem is the difficulty of remembering dreams. Often one can only remember fragments of the dream. Despite difficulties in interpretation and recording, dreams should not be ignored. They are invaluable tools for looking into the unconscious mind, and modern research indicates that dreaming is in fact essential to maintaining one’s health. Dreams can reveal a great deal about how one thinks and behaves, if they are given the attention they deserve.
Ackroyd, Eric A Dictionary of Dream Symbols London: Blanford, 1993
Cooper, D. Jason The Power of Dreaming St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1996
Fontana, David The Secret Language of Dreams San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994
Parker, Julia Parkers’ Complete Book of Dreams New York: DK Publishing, 1995
Richmond, Cynthia Dream Power New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000
Sanford, John A. Dreams God’s Forgotten Language New York: J.B. Lippincott Co.,
Ullman, Montague The Variety of Dream Experience New York: Continuum Co., 1987
Yamamoto, Gary K. Creative Dream Analysis New York: Wings Books, 1988