Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Why We Dream What We Dream

By Susan Smith
News You Can Use Editor

“To sleep, perchance to dream.” –William Shakespeare

In November of 1899, psychoanalyst pioneer Sigmund Freud published a book called The Interpretation of Dreams. Although people since the Egyptians had been interested in both the spiritual and medical aspects of dream content, Freud’s examination of the unconscious state introduced the first comprehensive analysis of dreams to the realm of modern science.

Psychoanalysts and psychologists since then have been indebted to Freud’s previous advancements in understanding the mental state during dreams. Today there are associations devoted solely to the comprehension and analysis of dreams, many headed by psychologists and other scientists dedicated to advancing our knowledge of the sleeping mind.

However, it is apparent that the margin of this knowledge still remains quite slim.
Today, the most detailed case study on dreams was reported by psychology professors at the University of California, who created The Quantitative Study of Dreams, an organization that analyzes the content of dreams. The study surrounded the detailed account of 3,116 individual dreams over the span of 20+ years by a woman named Barb Sanders.

Dream researchers today have psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to thank for his pioneering study of the human mind, and his book, The Interpretation of Dreams.
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This detailed collection of dreams was provided by Sanders herself during the years between the late 1960s and up until 1997. During this time, she would record the content, length and often her reaction to each dream. Essentially, Sanders’s report is merely an extensive dream journal.

However, this journal is increasingly vital to researchers today since the amount of medical research into the mind is so slim, and the only way to really study detailed thought of the human brain is through recorded experience. This lengthy record is especially critical when studying such an intangible subject as the human dream, since it provides dream researchers the ability to measure actual statistics, such as dream length and content based on variables like age and gender.

Extensive analysis of the Sanders study helped develop certain theories about the content of dreams, highlighting the idea that our dreams are usually formed by elements relating to significant interests, worries, fears, aspirations and ideas that we experience during our waking life. The psychologist G. William Domhoff, who recorded the results of the analysis, summarized that “Dreams are dramatizations, or enactments, if you will, of our thoughts.”

This may seem like an obvious proposal when you experience a dream about a former spouse - as Sanders often did - or a big test you have the next day. It is simple to see when the worries or concerns of the day have carried into the night, and with no conscious decision on your part, your mind is infested with the tribulations you have put off during waking hours.

However, chances are you have also experienced dreams that are so bizarre you cannot begin to imagine any relatable inferences to your daily thoughts. For example, HCC student Storm Wyrt remarked on an unusual vision she experienced recently: “I dreamed I was killing rats! I was in some sort of room and they were everywhere, and I just kept stabbing them.”

When asked if she had any inkling as to why she encountered such an odd scene, she seemed clueless, remarking that she has “absolutely no idea” why she would imagine such a thing. For all intents and purposes, there is no relevant reasoning linking these strange visions to your daily experience. However, there are other mental explanations that may cause such unusual circumstances.

One theory is that our dreams may be associated with a connection to memory, an idea Freud introduced over 100 years ago. He proposed that memories stored years ago frequently surface in the unconscious state, often because something that day reminded you of that memory, whether or not you were consciously aware of it.

Freud himself did not recognize this possibility until he experienced it himself, when he explained a bizarre dream of a church tower that he was unfamiliar with. For years he saw the same vision of the structure in his dreams, thinking it was only something he created in his mind, until one day while traveling, “I then suddenly recognized it, with absolute certainty, at a small station between Salzburg and Reichenhall. This was in the late nineties, and the first time I had travelled over this route was in 1886.” It then became shockingly apparent to him that dreams can invite detailed memories from over 50 years prior.

Although modern science still cannot precisely delineate why we dream what we dream, there are some general interpretations of common dreams accepted by most sleep researchers.

Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, a doctor, author, and recipient of the Distinguished Scientist Award given by the Sleep Research Society, shared some insight on interpreting certain important dreams. “Usually we only remember the last dream of the night. That is the longest, most complex story, not to mention the most exciting one,” she explained. However, she advised that if a dream sequence was particularly vivid, unusual, or frightening, “we should stop and think about why we are dreaming that dream at this time.” By reflecting on the action in that dream, it is possible to form a general interpretation of why you dreamed what you did.

Paul McCartney claimed that the idea behind his song, Yesterday, was from a dream he had one night.
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For instance, many people have had the excessively scary dream where their teeth fall out. Cartwright explained that this physical decay is linked to a subconscious fear that the dreamer is “falling apart, or getting less attractive.” This may be why middle-aged or pubescent teen sleepers may experience such a nightmare.

Cartwright also mentioned less obvious scenarios. For instance, if you have a dream where you find a new or uncommon room in an otherwise familiar house or area, it could be an indication that you subconsciously believe there are hidden aspects in your family or relationships.

While interpretations like these seem probable, there is no precise scientific knowledge confirming that dreams provide interpretive allusions at all. And since sleep and psychology experts can rely only on individual case studies - like Barb Sanders - it is difficult to seamlessly insinuate meaning behind any subconscious ideas.

It seems the human mind has decided to keep us in the dark when it comes to the bizarre, confusing, complex reasoning behind our dreams.

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