Throughout recorded history humankind has tried to understand the meaning of dreams. The meanings and interpretations of dreams has widely varied over time and across cultures. The majority of earlier culture's associated and interpreted dreams as a form of guidance, prophecy, or divine inspiration. While some individuals may still believe some of the older interpretations, modern humankind's beliefs and theories on dreams are more vast, some of them include; that dreams are random brain activity, that dreams are too complicated to correctly interpret, or that dreams allow individuals to reflect on their waking selves. However, no theory has been proven up to this point so the exact science as of why dreams occur is still a mystery.
Although the exact meaning of dreams isn't proven, there have been groundbreaking advances to both a scientific and psychological understand of their occurrence and function. What is known is that dreams are a state of brain activity the mind experiences during sleep that includes; images, sounds, thoughts, and sensations. Scientist's and psychologist's theorize that dreams are manifested by the subconscious mind, and can range from being mundane, normal, bizarre, or terrifying. Most vivid or memorable dreams occur during the rapid eye movement or R.E.M. stage of sleep. The link between the REM stage of sleep and dreaming discovered in 1952 by Eugene Aserinsky through the use of an EEG machine which monitors brain activity. This discovery opened a new era in research, because it enabled researchers to study dreams as they happen. However, dreams can occur during other stages of sleep but tend to less memorable. It is believed that everyone has dreams but some individuals forget, which makes them believe that no dreams occurred whilst asleep.
There are many psychological theories is to why dreams occur and their meaning. Sigmund Freud's dream theory was one of the first and most in-depth, and it remains one of the most famous. He believed that what an individual dreams is related to wish fulfillment. He also believed that dreams used symbolism to show the true intent of a human being, Freud stated that “dreams are the road to the unconscious mind” (Freud). Sigmund Freud's theory is consistent with the psychoanalytic perspective which states that dreams are a representation of unconscious thoughts, desires, and motivations. Since these thoughts are not consciously expressed, this theory explains that they find their way into awareness through dreams.
Carl Jung who collaborated with Sigmund Freud until they parted ways due to differences in their beliefs, proposed his own dream theory, and while he believed the idea proposed by Freud that the human psyche consisted of the unconscious and conscious mind. Jung differed among many aspects of Freud's theory, one of the most fundamental aspects was he did not believe that all dreams were based on animalistic, sexual, or instinctual desires repressed by the conscious mind. Rather Carl Jung proposed that dreams were more spiritualistic and help to uncover fears, emotional issues, problems and so on. Jung highly believed that dreams use symbolism which represent concepts we are unable to grasp.
Another of the more known theories called the activation synthesis theory was proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarly in 1976. This theory is based on the belief that dreams are random electrical brain impulses that pull past imagery and experiences from the memory. The theory goes on to state that our waking minds try to make sense of the dream by creating a story out of it, which is the way individuals remember them as.
Prominent dream researcher G. William Domhoff formed the continuity hypothesis which states that dreams reflect the concerns, thoughts, and experiences of a dreamer’s waking life. There have been quite a few studies on this hypothesis over the years and many of the results have favored Domhoff's belief.
There is a wide array of dream related research that has been conducted and is currently being conducted. Some of the current research includes; the affects of emotions on dreaming, healing properties on dreaming, drugs affects on dreaming, learning during dreaming, and lucid dreams. In addition, new tools are providing valuable data to dream researchers. Some of these new tools are the “functional magnetic resonance imaging, and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, which have been used for some time to capture the waking brain at work–making decisions, feeling frightened or joyous, coping with uncertainty. And those efforts have shown clearly that psychology and physiology are intimately related: In someone suffering from an anxiety disorder, for example, the fear center of the brain–the amygdala–"lights up" as neurons fire in response to images that trigger anxiety; it flickers in a minuet with the center of memory, the hippocampus. Scanning people who are sleeping, too, suggests that the same sort of mind-brain dance continues 24 hours a day” (Marianne Szegedy-Maszak).
In a recent study of the relation of waking activities and dream content, the study concluded that individuals waking activities was directly related to a percentage of their dreams. "We confirmed that sport students report having sports dreams more often than do other students. Explaining the earlier results, the amount of time that participants spent in sport activities was directly related to their percentage of sport dreams. Thus, inter-individual differences in waking life are directly reflected in corresponding differences in dreaming. The regression analysis, however, showed that the group variable (sport student vs. psychology student) was still significant after we entered the amount of time that participants spent in sport activities into the analysis. Our interpretation of this result is that the amount of time spent in an activity cannot be the only variable affecting the incorporation rate of waking-life activities into dreams. The results of this study clearly show an effect of time spent in a particular waking-life activity on the rate of incorporating the waking-life activity into dreams. The findings also indicate that factors such as emotional involvement and associated worries might be of importance in explaining the relation between waking and dreaming" (Michael Schredl, PhD, Daniel Erlacher, PhD).
In another recent study conducted by Stanley Krippner and Jan Weinhold on gender differences and dream content they came to the conclusion that “(1) important gender differences in American dream reports exist but may vary somewhat from sample to sample; (2) these gender differences seem to reflect the dreamers' daily activities as well as residual stereotypes and attitudes, for example, tools and implements (males higher), streets and roadways (males higher), clothing (females higher), aggressive interactions (males higher), and friendly interactions (females higher). Males were higher in communication objects (such as telephones), and females were higher in architecture (such as houses and rooms). (3) Studies of this nature may be helpful in charting changes in a group's emotional concerns over time, and cultural differences in these concerns" (Stanley Krippner, Jan Weinhold)
In an article written by Brigitte Holzinger on lucid dreaming, the article discussed current research being done and stated that "It is of particular interest whether a ‘brain state’ for the lucid dream condition can be found. Measuring such a condition – with the EEG (electroencephalogram) – is still relatively crude. In addition, the EEG picture varies considerably during REM sleep. An early physiological recording of lucid dreams suggested that they begin in REM sleep (Ogilvie, Hunt, Sawicki and McGowan, 1978). Also, in studies done by LaBerge (1980c), LaBerge et al. (1981a) and LaBerge, Nagel, Taylor, Dement and Zarcone (1981b), lucid dreaming was only observed in REM sleep, which was confirmed by a number of other studies' (Brigitte Holzinger).
In conclusion, there is still much research that needs to be done in order to fully understand dreams meaning and function. However, there have been many groundbreaking achievements in this field over the last century, and new tools, and data are giving psychologists/scientists a deeper insight all the time. Furthermore, no one knows where this path of dream research will lead, but the future looks promising, and very optimistic that we will one day have a complete understanding of dreams meaning, and function, which may also unlock other mysteries regarding the human psyche.
Schredl, Michael, and Daniel Erlacher. "Relation Between Waking Sport Activities, Reading, and Dream Content in Sport Students and Psychology Students." Journal of Psychology 142.3 (2008): p.267-276.
Krippner, Stanley, and Jan Weinhold. "Gender Differences In a Content Analyisis Study Of 608 Dream Reports From Research Participants In The United States." Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal 30.4 (2002): p.399.
Szegedy-Maszak, Marianne. " What DREAMS Are Made Of." U.S. News & World Report 140.18 (15 May 2006): p54-64.
Holzinger, Brigitte. "Lucid dreaming – dreams of clarity." Contemporary Hypnosis 26.4 (2009): p.216-224.
Garfield, Patricia, Ph.D. "On Dreams and Dreaming." Interview by Rita Mullin. Discovery Health 2010:n. pag. Web. 5 Apr. 2010. http://health.discovery.com/centers/sleepdreams/experts/garfield.html
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