Although significant in many ancient cultures, dreaming didn’t work its way into the mainstream conversation until the 1899 Freud publication, The Interpretation of Dreams. We have been fascinated with dreams ever since; however, that fascination hasn’t exactly translated into knowledge of the field. There is still so much about dreams that we do not know that has scientists divided and scratching their heads.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT DREAMS
While there are many things about dreams that remain a mystery to us, there have been breakthroughs in the field of oneirology, the scientific study of dreams. Scientists have been able to confirm that most dreams occur during the REM stage of sleep. REM is the stage of the sleep cycle that is characterized by rapid eye movements. During this stage, brain waves more closely resemble a waking state than other sleep stages. REM occurs about every 90 minutes throughout the night, with the stage lengthening in duration as the night progresses. While in this stage dreams can last anywhere from a few seconds to 20-30 minutes, with longer dreams occurring later into the night as the REM stage lengthens.
Scientists have also established that the average person dreams anywhere from 3-5 times per night. Some people argue that they don’t dream at all, but scientists believe that every person dreams each night, regardless of whether they remember or not. There is a logical reason why people believe they don’t dream at all. In order to remember dreams one must wake up during REM, interrupting the cycle. If not for the cycle interruption, we go on dreaming without a clue.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW ABOUT DREAMS
There is perhaps more unknown information about dreams than known information, with some of the largest questions, such as why we dream, remaining unanswered. Through the decades scientists have proposed numerous theories to answer what has been a historically complex question. Freud tried to first explain dreams as symbols of unconscious desires. This theory was later debunked and is not taken seriously by most researchers in the field today. In the 1970s, as a response to the Freudian dream theories, we witnessed the rise of the activation-synthesis theory. In more recent years, scientists have been researching alternative theories. Some modern ideas about dreaming see it as a means of memory consolidation and emotional regulation.
Freud saw dreams as a way of exploring unconscious desires. He is quoted as saying, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” He believed that dreams were a way of acting upon both ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ desires that resided in our subconscious. According to this theory, dreams were a result of a conflict between the id, which is the instinctive and primitive part of our personalities, and the superego, which is the moral compass of our personalities. While this theory at the turn of the century gained popularity, there were many scientists that vehemently disagreed with Freud and other psychoanalysts.
In the 1970s, the activation-synthesis theory arose as a result of the rejection of Freud’s theory. This theory states that there is no rhyme or reason to dreaming, that it occurs randomly. Dreams simply occur as a response to physiological activity in the brain, such as neurotransmitters replenishing themselves as we sleep. Scientists and psychologists that support this theory believe that there is just as much logic in attributing reason to dreams as there is logic within the narrative of dreams. The activation-synthesis theory is still in many textbooks, however it has trouble accounting for the fact that dreams are often not random. We often dream about things that have occurred recently in our daily lives; dreams even tend to be themed, such as people dreaming of sex, falling, being chased, looking for a loved one, etc.
Today’s modern explanation theories explore dreams’ function in memory consolidation acting as an excess data dump. Throughout the day we collect information and form memories. Dreams are a result of our brains organizing, consolidating, and transferring the information acquired as we sleep. This organization, consolidation, and transferring of information to either short-term or long-term memory while we sleep frees up space allowing us to continue to collect more information when we wake up. There is some research that has been conducted supporting this theory where researchers have seen pieces of memory appear in dreams as memories make the move from short-term to long-term storage.
Another theory that has been proposed is the use of dreams to process emotions. While dreaming, people often experience heightened emotions and deal with unorthodox situations that are emotionally taxing. Scientists who have studied what the brain looks like while dreaming have found that the areas of the brain that regulate emotions when we are awake are the same parts of the brain that are stimulated when we are asleep. Have you ever been in a bad mood and decided to “sleep it off?” This theory supports why you feel so much better when you wake up. Your brain processed your complex emotions while you slept.
Psychologists and other scientists continue to study dreams, their origin, their reasoning, and what we can decipher from them. While there are no concrete explanations for why we dream, the elusive nature will keep us wondering. Until then…sweet dreams.