Psychology: Dreams And Dreaming Essay, Research Paper
Psychology: Dreams and Dreaming
January 13, 1997
Dreams, a nightly gift and a part of the natural process of being alive,
are being rediscovered by our publisher. The meaning and value of your dreams
will vary according to what you and your society decide. Our society is
changing. We used to only value dreams in the context of psychotherapy. There
are also a few assumptions about dreams. One is that you are always the final
authority on what the dream means. Others can offer insight, suggestions and
techniques for exploration and expression, but no one knows what the final
meaning and value of the dreams will be for you, except you. Another assumption
is that dreams come in the service of wholeness and health. If you find an
interpretation that does not fit this, perhaps you need to change methods of
interpretation. Dream interpretations that lead you toward self-criticism,
depression or despair are simply wrong and if these conditions persist you may
wish to seek help from others. Finally, there is no such thing as a dream with
one meaning. If you feel stuck on one meaning or feel another person is pushing
one meaning, it is time to reconsider your methods and approach. (Lemley p. 17).
Clinical dream work is done within the context of psychotherapy and
clinical and sleep research have different approaches and goals than peer dream
work. (Koch-Sheras p.16).
A dream is a period of spontaneous brain activity usually lasting from
about 5-40 minutes that occurs during sleep several times a night usually about
90 minute intervals (Barret p.8).
There are also certain types of dreams. There are fantasy, daydream and
waking dreams. There are also lucid dreams, nightmares and night terrors.
There are also certain stages in the dream cycle. In the first stage, your body
temperature drops, your eyes close and your brain waves begin regular alpha
rhythms, indicating a relaxed state. Muscles lose their tension, breathing
becomes more even and your heart rate slows. Second, random images begin to
float through your mind mimicking the dream state. Jolting or involuntary
movements will take place at this time. Third, muscles lose all tightness,
breathing becomes slower, heart rate decreases and blood pressure falls. At
this point, it will take a loud noise or disturbance to wake you up. You are
now fully asleep. Finally, you are in a deep sleep. This is the most
physically rested period of sleep and longest in duration. (Time-Life Books p.
Whether awake or asleep, one of the brain’s most critical functions is
the construction of the model of the environment that we perceive as our
conscious experience (Barret p. 9). While we sleep, very little sensory input
is available, so the world model experience is constructed from what remains,
contextual information from our lives, that is, expectations derived from past
experience, and motivations. As a result, the content of our dream is largely
determined by what we fear, hopeful and expect. From this point of view,
dreaming can be viewed as the special case of dreaming constrained by sensory
input (Koch-Sheras p. 15). Dreaming experience is commonly viewed as
qualitatively distinct from waking experience. Dreams are often believed to be
characterized by lack of reflection and inability to act deliberately and with
intention. (Barret p. 20).
Although we not usually explicitly aware of the fact that we are
dreaming while we are dreaming, at times a remarkable exception occurs and we
become reflective enough to become conscious that we are dreaming. 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. (Time-Life Books p. 57).
As previously stated, lucid dreaming is dreaming while knowing that you
are dreaming. Lucidity usually begins in the midst of a dream, when the dreamer
realizes that the experience is not occurring in physical reality, but is a
dream. (Lemley p. 3). A minority of lucid dreams are the result of returning to
REM sleep directly from a awakening with unbroken reflective consciousness.
When lucidity is at a high level, you are aware that everything
experienced in the dream is occurring in your mind, that there is no real danger,
and that you are asleep in bed and will awaken shortly. With low level lucidity
you may be aware to a certain extent that you are dreaming, perhaps enough to
fly or alter what you are doing, but not enough to realize that the people are
dream representations, or that you can suffer no physical damage, or that you
are actually in bed. (Time-Life Books p. 58).
Lucid dreams usually happen during REM sleep. Research has been
demonstrated that most vivid dreaming occurs in REM sleep. It is characterized
by an active brain, with low amplitude, mixed frequency brain waves, suppression
of skeletal muscle tone, bursts of rapid eye movements, and occasional tiny
muscular twitches (Barret p. 20).
The sleep stages cycle throughout a night. The first REM period
normally happens after a period of delta sleep, approximately 90 minutes after
sleep onset, and lasts from about 5-20 minutes. REM periods occur roughly every
90 minutes throughout the night with later REM periods occurring at shorter
intervals and often being longer, sometimes up to an hour in length. Much more
REM sleep occurs in the second half of the night than in the first. (Lemley p.
Most of the muscles of the body are paralyzed in REM sleep to prevent us
from acting out our dreams. However, because the eyes are not paralyzed, if you
deliberately move your ?dream? eyes in a dream, your physical eyes move also.
(Time-Life Books p. 61 ).
Referring back to the stages in sleep-the first stage is a transitional
period between waking and sleeping known as hypnagogic state, the muscle relax
and the person often experiences a sensation of floating or drifting. The eyes
roll slowly and vivid images may flash through the mind-perhaps an eerie
unfamiliar landscape, a beautiful abstract pattern or a succession of face. As
those sensations and visions come and go, a sudden spasm of the body called
hypnagogic startle may momentarily waken the sleeper. Then as the subject slips
into the first stage of sleep, the EEG shows the spiky rapid alpha waves of a
relaxed but wakeful brain giving way to the slower more regular theta waves of
light slumber. Sleeps first stage is short, lasting anywhere from a few seconds
to 10 minutes. The theta waves soon decrease and are mixed on EEG tracing which
a combination of 2 different brain wave patterns-groups of sharp jumps called
spindles, which reflect rapid bursts of brain activity, and waves known as K-
complexes characterized by steep peaks and valleys. Although this stage is
considered to be a true sleep phase, a person awakening from it may report
having had brief bits of realistic thought or may even deny having been asleep
at all. (Time-Life Books p. 97).
Between 15 and 30 minutes after the onset of sleep, large, slow delta
waves begin supplementing the K complexes and spindles of stage 2. The change
makes the deepest of sleeps, called stage 3-4. Waking from stage 3-4 is
difficult. An individual typically feels quite groggy and disoriented and even
if an emergency demands alertness, must fight to overcome the compelling desire
to fall asleep again. Taking in one sleep, sleep walking and bedwetting tend to
happen during this stage because of the brain’s partial arousal from deep sleep
(Time-Life Books p. 97).
After 90 minutes or so of sleep, most of it spent in stage 3-4, the
spindles and K complexes of stage 2 briefly reassert themselves. The brain then
shakes off the rhythms of non REM sleep passes into REM sleep-a condition so
distinct physiologically from both wakefulness and the non REM stages that some
experts call it a third state of existence. Blood pressure and pulse rate rise,
and brain waves quicken to frequencies comparable to those of an awake, alert
brain. Despite this activity the body becomes remarkably still. The eyes begin
their movements, but otherwise, except for grimaces and small twitches of the
toes and fingers, the muscles are temporarily paralyzed. A person awakened from
REM sleep may be unable to move for a few seconds. Scientists believe that
nature has evolved this paralytic interlude, which seems to be controlled by
nerve centers in the primitive brainstem, to protect the sleeper from the harm
that might result if dreams were physically acted out. The 2 antithetical
conditions of the state-a vigorously active brain within an immobilized body-
prompted French neurobiologist Michel Jouvet to name it ?paradoxical sleep?.
(Time-Life Books p. 99).
There are other physical characteristics of dreams as well. In adults
and infants alike, the head and chin relax so completely that researchers can
use the slackening of the muscle under the chin as a reliable signal that REM
sleep is occurring (Lemley p. 19-20).
After training in neurology Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) began to practice
what later became a psychoanalysis. Initially, following his colleague Josef
Breuer ( 1942-1925), he used his hypnosis to treat cases of hysteria. He then
replaced hypnosis with the technique of free association and began to explore
his patient’s dreams for clues to their problems (Barret p. 14-15).
Freud believed that dreams were wish fulfillment-in our dreams we
represent our deepest desires, which in an adult are nearly always sexual.
However, because these desires would be offensive to our sleeping conscious
minds, or censor or superego, disguises our true intentions. The obscurity of
dreams, Freud said ?is due to alterations in repressed material made by the
censorship.? However this theory does not explain why we might have a heavily
disguised dream one night and a straightforward dream of the same activity on
another night. There are many problems with Freud’s ideas but he must be given
credit for being one of the first modern thinkers to reexamine the symbolism of
dreams. However he must also be criticized for seeing nearly every dream symbol
in purely sexual terms. Freuds detractors also complain that his theories ,
based on evidence drawn from his psychologically disturbed patients, were not
universally applicable. Despite these criticisms, Freud created psychoanalysis
almost single-handedly, and built a solid base for dream analysts to expand
(Barret P. 14-15).
Besides establishing the normal nightly course of dreaming and some of
its pathological aberrations, researchers have categorized 2 distinct but
equally frightening disturbances: the nightmare and the much less common night
terror (Time-Life Books p. 102). Everyone occasionally has a nightmare-a dream
so frightening that he or she wakes up sweaty, short of breath, and with a
pounding heart. Such dreams usually occur during the second half of the night,
when REM periods are longer and dreams are more intense. Psychiatrists such as
Stanley Palombo of Washington, D.C. , believe that a nightmare (mare means
goblin in Old English) dramatizes problems or anxieties one has recently
encountered in waking life, in addition, it evokes related unconscious memories
and images, creating an emotionally powerful mix. The feeling of utter
helplessness that so often infuses a nightmare probably harks back to infancy,
some experts say, when a child is indeed powerless and at the mercy of a world
he or she cannot understand or control. ( Time-Life Books p. 102).
According to Professor Hartmann, ?the common thread among those who have
nightmares frequently is sensitivity.? For a Boston study, he solicited
volunteers who experienced nightmares at least once a week. A large number of
subjects were involved in creative work, such as art, music and theater, others
were graduate students, teachers and therapists. (Time-Life Books p. 106). Many
saw themselves as rebels or as ?different from other people,? and some overly
rejected society’s norms. ?They were all very open and vulnerable?, he said,
beneficial to their careers. But ?most had had stormy adolescence sometimes
followed by bouts with depression, alcohol and suicide attempts?. Hartmann
concluded that people who had frequent nightmares possessed a poor sense of
their own identities and find it hard to separate fantasy from reality. Some
have borderline or potentially psychotic tendencies, he believes. (Time-Life
Books p. 106).
Night terrors differ from nightmares in both content and timing, and
often occur in a deep slumber of stage 3-4. The sleeper may rouse with a blood
curdling scream and sit up in bed, terrified and confused, heart racing. (Time-
Life Books p. 106). He may also walk or talk in his sleep. While people
usually remember specific and sequential details of their nightmares, the victim
of a night terror is short, lasting only a minute or 2. Night terrors seem to
run in families, and researchers suspect they are triggered by a faulty arousal
mechanism: instead of following the normal shift early in the night from stage
3-4 sleep to a REM period, the sleeper partially rouses. Children are more
susceptible than adults to night terrors, perhaps simply because they spend more
time in stage 3-4 (Time-Life Books p.106).
Message dreams are dreams that convey some information you need about
your current social, emotional or physical life. These are teaching dreams in
which someone is usually there to tell you something important directly: a
teacher, a news announcer or clergyman giving you new information to apply to
your waking life. At times, a message dream will come in the form of a
disembodied voice; the dreamer may perceive this voice as a voice of the spirit
or soul of God or an angel (Koch-Sheras p. 78).
Recurring dreams repeat themselves with little variation in story or
theme. They can be positive, as with an archetypal visionary dream, but they
are more often nightmares, perhaps because nightmares depict a conflict that is
unresolved; also nightmares are more frequently remembered than other dreams.
(Lemley p. 81).
There are many reasons why people forget their dreams upon waking. In
our culture, and therefore in our families, dreams are generally thought of as
unimportant or silly. Whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, your dreams are
a vital and expressive part of yourself, so don’t discount them! Another reason
why people might forget dreams is that they are embarrassed by their content.
In dreams, you might commit acts you would never do in your waking life, and it
is natural to put those acts into the back of your mind rather than confront the
issues the dream scenarios might have raised. (Koch-Sheras p. 113). Studies
show that people who are good at recalling their dreams are generally better
able to confront their own fears and anxieties; poor dream recallers are those
who tend to retreat from confrontation. Learning to remember your dreams and
discuss their meanings may help you to become a more assertive person (Koch-
Sheras p. 113).
If you yourself are a poor recaller, you may wonder who images manage to
stow away in a person’s mind each morning. The fact is, people who enjoy
sharing dreams are more likely to remember them. Any attention you pay to your
dream life can help to increase your recall: keeping a dream journal, making a
drawing based on a dream, acting on advice or insight gained from a dream
(Lemley p. 113).
In ancient times, dreams were often-but not always-believed to be
prophetic, and people of all cultures shared what they had dreamed in hopes of
catching a glimpse of the future or receiving a message of advice or warning
(Lemley p. 26). The Egyptians, for instance, relied on an elaborately
constructed list of interpretations, a kind of early dream dictionary. Even the
ancient Greek philosopher Socrates considered dreams to be prophetic emanating
from the Gods. For this reason, dreams figured prominently in ancient cultures’
religious rituals intended to evoke the dream spirits of Gods who would send
these vivid messages ( Koch-Sheras p. 26).
In many ancient cultures, dream life and waking life were simply 2
different dimensions of a single existence, a viewpoint that shows itself in
many modern cultures and that is shared by many contemporary dream theorists as
well (Koch-Sheras p. 32).
It has taken centuries of interest to move beyond dream lore to a
scientific understanding of dreams. Yet many myths are still taken as fact in
interpreting our own and others’ dream behavior. Here are some myths and facts
about our dreams. Myth: Some people dream only a few times a year-or not at all.
Fact: Everybody dreams! While some people may only remember a few dreams a year,
they actually dream several times every night. (Lemley p. 6). Myth: Babies
don’t dream. Fact: Babies do show evidence of dreaming, although what they
dream about is anybody’s guess. Even a newborn infant will have REM sleep. As
people continue to age, studies show, the percentage of time spent dreaming
drops off to as low as 13% in some people (Lemley p. 7). Myth: Animals do not
dream. Fact: As dog owners suspect, animals do dream. Dogs sometimes move their
legs, wag their tails and even bark and growl while sleeping (Koch-Sheras p. 7).
In all mammals studied there is evidence of REM sleep. (Koch-Sheras p. 7).
Myth: Blind people do not dream. Fact: Blind people do dream. All dreamers
becoming blind after the age of 7 see in dreams even after an interval of 20-30
years (Lemley p. 8). Those who become blind after age 5, however, almost never
see in their dreams (Lemley p. 8.). A person who cannot hear often has a
specially vivid visual content in dreams, and a person blind from birth
distinctly remembers sounds and tactile experiences in dreams (Koch-Sheras p. 8).
Even if our dreams are entirely random, they still have value. The
connections we make as we examine our dream for images that have some symbolic
meaning are valid, as points of curiosity, as jumping off points for further
self-exploration, and perhaps as insights into the inner workings of our own
unique personality (Koch-Sheras p. 72).
Whatever your motivation-amusement, curiosity, self-growth, spiritually
or something else-as dreamers we can pick and choose, using our dreams to guide
and shape our own theory (Lemley p. 73). We have nothing to lose in developing
our own theory or body of recurring symbols with which to interpret our dreams.
(Koch-Sheras p. 73).
Jubera 8 Work Cited
Barret, David V. Dreams. New York: Dorling Kindersley Inc. 1995
Koch-Sheras, Phyllis, and Amy Lemley. The Dream Sourcebook. Chicago,
Contemporary Books, 1995
Time-Life Books. Dreams and Dreaming. Virginia, Time-Life Books, 1990