What Are Dreams and Do They Have Meaning?

Dreams are a fascinating part of our sleep cycle, and they occur when we are asleep. A common misconception is that dreams only occur when we are in the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of our sleep, but they can occur at pretty much any time during our sleep. The thing that stands out about REM dreams are that we tend to be able to recall them to a better degree than dreams that happen at other sleep stages.

What is a Dream?

Before we get into some of the deeper stuff, a dream is normally like an immersive motion picture, placing us in a position similar to how we engage with the world in our waking life. This isn’t always the case and some dreams can be unusual in how we observe them or where our point of reference is in that dream. By and large though, we experience dreams as we would experience things in our waking life; with imagery, sensations, and emotions all being present.

There are notable things missing from dreams, and common sensations that we have in the waking world are missing in dream states. Our sense of smell operates differently in a dream and whenever smells are present, they manifest as a recollection of a smell – ‘that smells like lemons’. Unknown smells don’t seem to exist in our dream state.

Likewise, touch is a very odd sensation in our dream world with many people not experiencing any sense of touch whatsoever. When we do manage to touch things in a dream, we are either greeted with a diluted version of touch or a recollection of what it feels like to touch that surface. Because in a dream-world we have no actual objects or smells, our mind does its best to fill those gaps.

That itself is partly why dreams are fascinating, because at a time when the body is resting, the mind is firing off synapses and working hard to piece together a dream, and puzzle solving by filling gaps along the way. It is counterintuitive that the brain would be working so hard when the goal of sleep is to rest – so it must mean something, right? Well, more on that below.

Dream Theories

We have used a bit of logic to ascertain that dreams must occur for a reason. The mind is working hard to produce them, but the rest of the body is at rest. The only real counterargument to this would be to state that we don’t sleep to rest – but there doesn’t seem to be any other plausible explanation for sleep.

Science being science though, could well in the future demonstrate that sleep has an entirely different core function than rest, but for the time being we will assume sleep happens so the body can rest. Which brings us onto the theories of why we dream.

The most common dream theory is that of Sigmund Freud.

Freud’s Theory of Dreams – Is it right?

Freud’s theory is that our dreams provide insight into the things we desire or emotional problems we are experiencing in our waking life. In Freud’s dream theory, dreams have a direct correlation with our waking life and dreams allow us to understand our waking life (specifically our desires) better.

He also thought the actual function of dreams in a sleep setting were to keep the sleeper asleep by gifting them a world where all of their desires came true. In Freud’s opinion, dreams were a trade off made by the brain for longer sleep durations.

Of Freud’s theories, from a basic perspective, this seems like a rather reasonable one, we often dismiss much Freudian theory because he was so wildly wrong with other theories. On the surface then, this theory makes some sense, but is it right?

Well quite likely not, and here is why.

  1. Freud stated that dreams served to keep sleepers asleep, but this doesn’t fit the observational data. Many dreams actually disrupt sleep or wake up the dreamer.
  2. The preservation of sleep by dreams also assumes that the body needs for an unknown reason, something to keep them asleep, as if sleep isn’t a natural state. Freud never explains why a dreamless sleep is undesirable as a bodily function.
  3. Freud’s desires quickly went from a reasonable position to a very unreasonable conclusion, in that he states that much of our dreams are based on repressed sexual desires.

This last point categorises a lot of what is wrong with Freudian theory, it builds on a fairly solid basic understanding and makes nice logical jumps, but then relies on plenty of interpretation. The problem with interpretation is that it is subjective, and Freud typically saw everything through the lens of sex, so his interpretations all tended to follow a single sexually repressed trajectory.

But Was Freud Completely Wrong?

boat sailing on a dreamy lake

The answer here is probably not, he probably got a few parts right but failed to consider the larger picture. Take sexual repression as an example; as humans we repress a lot of sexual desires, which could be for any number of reasons but likely it is self-preservation. When you consider that sexual desires could form an aspect of our dreams (among others) then Freud, probably has a valid point.

But sexual desire, or desire in general, are not all-encompassing elements of being human or the dreams we have. Sometimes our dreams are terrifying for example and draw on our deepest fears, something that is hard to link to sexual desire or desire in general without taking some very big interpretive leaps.

One thing is fairly certain, Freud probably hit on a truism which is why his theories still carry weight in academic circles, but in terms of us actually understanding our dreams or knowing why we dream, he falls extremely short. So, what other theories are there?

Ancient Dream Interpretations

Humans have been around a lot longer than a century, so it only stands to reason that dreams will have had some significance in bygone times. Thousands and thousands of years ago (four thousand to be exact), the Ancient Egyptians were writing down dreams on papyrus. This is especially noteworthy as Ancient Egyptians wrote extensively enough on dreams that lots of papyrus survives and has been discovered.

In comparison, medical knowledge from this time period on papyrus was scarce, meaning the Egyptians clearly saw great importance in our dreams. Not to say they didn’t think medicine was important, they were extremely ahead of their time with medicine, just they didn’t think to document it as much.

They believed that those who could dream lucidly and vividly, were oracles. They understood that everyone dreamed, but that certain people had the ability to dream and recall with extraordinary detail and those people were blessed by the gods. Oracles played a major role in ancient times and the practice even survives today in some form or another.

You may recall biblical teachings of dream interpretations being presented to the Pharaoh and these are testament to how widespread the knowledge of the Egyptian’s reverence for dreams was. In terms of scientific understanding, we encounter a common issue that in order to conclude the Egyptians were right we have to believe in a higher power, which is a different kettle of fish entirely.

For reference in this blogpost though, the Ancient Egyptians believed that dreams had meaning, but not just benign meaning, it was meaning that shaped their actions and decisions in their waking life making their theory having a wonderful circularity to it.

Religious Views

As a very quick aside, many of the world’s major religions subscribe to this Ancient Egyptian philosophy of dreams and most view dreams as in some way, divine guidance. The interesting thing about Christians is that they believe (mostly) in the divinity of dreams, because dreams are a divine theme in the old testament, but at the same time don’t believe in oracles or dream interpreters.

 It is an observation of one of the many quirks of Christianity. It likely comes as a result of trying to mesh ancient practices into a modern world view that shied away from mysticism, at the time when the bible was written.

The Science Stuff

Now, from ancient civilisations to today, here is what we currently know and understand about dreams from a scientific perspective. The first thing to mention is that until fairly recently, non-REM dreaming was poorly understood and as a result, there has been very little work done in this field to give us a better understanding of it.

When consulting a science textbook about dreaming, it will almost always exclusively deal with the REM stage dreams, which is a bit annoying when trying to understand something as a whole, but it is what it is, and science will undoubtedly catch up.

REM sleep dreaming is unusual because they are stages where the body is most close to its awake phase. Scientists have tried to map where in the brain dreams originate from in the same way that they can tell a certain part of the brain is responsible for hunger or thirst. In the case of dreams, they can’t tell yet where dreams come from and there is no specific part of the brain that is considered the ‘dream part’.

Instead, researchers have found dreams to light up different areas of the brain simultaneously which makes it very difficult to pin-point any single part where dreams originate. Dreams seem to use most of the brain, but the difference between a dream state and a waking state seems to be the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is still active and working during dreams, just to a much lesser degree to when we are awake.

The only real conclusions we can draw from science is that dreams are an extremely interesting point of research, but as yet scientists have very few answers. Regardless, the very few answers they have today are more than they did twenty years ago, so step by step we are learning new things about dreaming, most of which has thus far been very surprising.

Other Theories

dream hand reaching out across water at dusk

There have been a whole host of other theories that have been put forward about dreams, and maybe I will do a ‘5 alternative theories about dreams’ blog post. Many of these are just that, intellectual speculation with very little evidence and many of the theories that have been put forward to categorically disprove Freud have themselves been disproved by science. Freud’s theory remains prevalent because it sits in that sweet spot between mysticism and the science and is hard to disprove scientifically, because it makes very little in the way of scientific argument.

But that brings me onto Jung, who took Freud’s theories and developed them. Jung believed that dreams were mostly repressed situations that we weren’t dealing with in waking life. He married the Freudian desires with the observational fear we have in some dreams. His theory states that when we dream, it is our brains way of either dealing with something we have repressed or telling us we need to deal with it.

Recurring dreams or nightmares were especially important to Jung who cautioned anyone having them to ignore them at their own risk. These recurring themes or dreams are the brain’s way of telling us a message. This builds out on that truism that Freud hit upon and nicely encapsulates much of what we as humans experience from our dreams. Going further, it would also explain why some animals dream, although their desires and fears are probably very different to ours.

Conclusion – What Do Our Dreams Mean?

Rounding out the blogpost, I think we can safely say that our dreams have a very specific function and that in general that our dreams have a meaning in our waking life. Of course, to what degree we give importance to that meaning is down to us as individuals and I suspect we will all have very different views on that.

Personally, I quite like Jung’s approach to filling out Freud’s theory, and I think there is still much more to be surmised, theorised, and pontificated over to develop Jung’s theory further. I love that every scientific study is providing more knowledge about dreams: the human brain remains such a big mystery that even small studies can provide astonishing insights because it is uncharted territory.

I also quite like the idea of the Ancient Egyptian’s dreams, that they’re divine messages sent to guide us as we navigate the treacherous path of life. Surprisingly, this matches the scientific finding that as we get older, we dream less. Perhaps because as our life span becomes shorter, there is less divine work to do? Personally, I like the circularity (and the romance) of it all.

I do think science will have many of the answers in time and that they will undoubtedly be very surprising compared to our current understanding. Because they’re likely to keep surprising us, it means that really, anything that hasn’t been conclusively disproven is on the table, including Freud. So, there you are, dreams have a purpose, we just don’t know what and they likely have some kind of meaning, but how much, we’re unsure.

What do you think dreams are or mean? Maybe you think they mean nothing at all and are just random inconsequential synapses firing in the brain? Let me know in the comments below!

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