What is the first thing that comes to your mind when someone says dreams? BIZARRE. Why are dreams so weird? Some parts of it appear to make sense, perhaps you’re blanking out on an exam or you’ve arrived late to an important meeting. Other dreams are just plain crazy; a giant fish calling out your name as you transfigure into a lion. To our current knowledge, dreams are a result of our brains processing our memories for the day. This is why we often see things from the day show up in our dreams. Scientists first identified this association when they observed the emotional and memory-related structures of the brain activate at the time of dreaming. This is all well and good, but what is truly controversial is what these dreams might mean.
Dreams have been a long subject of wonder. There are various theories, particularly ancient, that describe the meaning behind dreams. Egyptians believed that dreams were messages that are sent from the supernatural world as premonitions about the future. Greeks believed that dreams carry messages from the gods and that they required the help of priests to decipher them. There is still no evidence regarding the aforementioned theories but there are various psychological studies on dream analysis.
“The more realistically a person deals with life problems, the less they dream.”
In a very old study on the interpretations of dreams, Adler (1936) talks about how dreams compel individuals to attain a life goal by presenting a life situation metaphorically which would increase their emotional power towards that goal. This explains why at times dreams can have such a powerful impact on your daily activities. According to the study, when a dreamer fails to recognize the metaphor behind a common powerful dream such as falling, flying, paralysis, and examinations, those dreams tend to recur. So Adler concluded that the more realistically a person deals with life problems, the less they dream. The absence of dreams can also mean a lack of imagination.
According to Revonsuo (2000), dreaming is a random by-product of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, but the form and contents of the dream are far from random and actually organized selectively based on the memories we make when we’re awake. The study analyzed dreams from 500 males and 500 females aged between 18-25. Researchers found that more than 700 dreamers had emotions expressed in their dreams. Interestingly, 80% of these emotions were negative leaving only 20% as positive feelings. The negative emotions mostly included ‘sadness’, ‘anger’, and ‘confusion’. The findings summarized that negative emotions, misfortunes, and aggression are popular elements in dreams; this supports the idea that dreams are specialized in simulating threatening events. Additionally, research on 123 university students about recurring dreams revealed that 60% reported recurring dreams surrounding threatening agents or natural forces like fires or storms. According to the researchers, these dreams were mostly considered nightmares. Oh, the horrors of living recurring nightmares!
If you give it some thought, you usually don’t dream about reading, writing, typing, or calculating. Yes, think about it. Even if you have, it’s probably very rare. Research by Revonsuo (2000) describes this phenomenon. One explanation for it is that it includes very little, if any, emotional charge for us. As mentioned earlier, there is a strong correlation between the emotional parts of the brain and dreaming. Any emotional activity such as talking to friends, sexual activities, and job stress is represented in dreams with different levels of emotional intensity. Another reason for the absence of reading and writing in dreams is that they are not naturally hardwired into our brains from birth; in other words, we aren’t born with those cognitive functions. That is interesting information to analyze your dreams with!
Daydreaming; something all of us finds ourselves indulging in. Believe it or not, daydreams and night dreams are very closely related: both mostly have their sources in the current concerns of the dreamer. The only difference is the control aspect (even though it is possible to control your night dreams, termed as lucid dreaming). So daydreams are usually highly positive as opposed to night dreams. Research by Revonsuo (2000) on college students’ daydreams indicated that the focus on worrisome or anxiety dreams was only 3%, and on violence was less than 1%. So basically, daydreams usually consist of nice goals we want to achieve in the future while night dreams tend to stimulate the dangers and terrors experienced in the past. From this point of view, daydreaming seems better than night dreams.
That was a lot of information about something that you may not explicitly think about in your everyday life, but something you surely analyze at least when you wake up. There is still so much more we don’t know about dreams. Something that was briefly touched upon here was lucid dreaming, the ability to control night dreams. Sleepwalking and talking are other hugely studied aspects of dreaming. The difference in people’s abilities to dream is another interesting topic; some minds travel every night while others dream once in a blue moon. Anyhow, the next time you dream about something consider the neurological and psychological aspects of it. Let us know any of your cool dream life experiences in the comments below!
Adler, Alfred. “On the interpretation of dreams.” Int. J. Indiv. Psychol. (1936).
Revonsuo, Antti. “The reinterpretation of dreams: An evolutionary hypothesis of the function of dreaming.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23.6 (2000): 877-901.