A pleasant olfactory sensation, a sharp flash, free-falling, the chase, rapid breathing, and subtle music, reeling in the big one: this is the stuff dreams are made of. It’s a phenomenon that has been studied and questioned for over a century and yet it is also a phenomenon that man has experienced and written about since biblical times. Clinicians continue to ask “why do we dream” and various schools of thought seek to define the neurological science of dreaming. Major universities have dream study labs where subjects undergo sleep studies, allowing psychotherapists to learn and understand the meaning of dreams. Merriam Webster defines dream as “a series of thoughts, visions, or feelings that happen during sleep.

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Research indicates that dreams are the result of significant activity in several specific areas of the brain namely certain areas of the motor cortex, the visual cortex and areas of the deeper brain that sense motor skills . Dr. Deidre Barrett of Harvard Medical School attributes the high activity and visual nature of dreams to the parts of the deeper brain that are involved. She concludes that the neural firing at the brain stem plays a significant role in dream activity. She believes that the part of the brain controlling logical reasoning is minimized which in turn makes us question our dreams (if we remember them) for validity and logic .

How do we dream? It is a simple question with a difficult answer. Some people dream on a regular basis, while others only occasionally. Initially clinicians believed that dreaming takes place during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep when the body is relaxed but the mind races and creates an experience, transporting the individual to a different place. However later clinicians such as Domhoff have found that dreams also occur during non-REM sleep periods . Knowing that dreams occur in both REM and NREM sleep cycles makes it difficult to understand the purpose of dreams.

According to Sigmund Freud, the first to study and discuss dreams, dreams are a wish fulfillment . Richmond states that Freud allegedly referred to dreams “as the royal road … to the unconscious” . Freud believed that dreams came about when individuals repressed things that made them anxious such as fears, desires, and wishes . Essentially dreams were a means of escape allowing the body to sleep. Another early pioneer of dream theory was Carl Jung. Jung differed from Freud as he believed dreams were like a “story or play” and that different types of dreams came from the different levels of the psyche, or personality, and was a source of wisdom and growth.

Jung categorized dreams in to Big dreams, little dreams, Prophetic dreams, Traumatic dreams, etc . Domhoff teaches that while Freud and Jung proposed that dreams were inherent in the unconscious, they differed in their reasoning: Freud’s scope was confined to the personal unconscious and Jung believed dreams encompassed the collective unconscious of all mankind. The work of these two men led the way for others such as Erik Erikson, William James, and Karen Horney, to name a few .

In 1918 William James wrote “The world of dreams is our real world whilst we are sleeping, because our attention then lapses from the sensible world. Conversely when we wake, the attention usually lapses from the dream-world and that becomes unreal. But if a dream haunts us and compels our attention during the day, it is very apt to remain figuring in our consciousness as a sort of sub-universe alongside of the waking world” . Karen Horney wrote in 1950 that “in dreams we are closer to the reality of ourselves; that they represent attempts to solve our conflicts, either in a neurotic or in a healthy way;” She was adamant that dreams brought us closer and in-touch with our “real self” . David Foulkes in his publication Dreaming: A Cognitive-psychological Analysis claims that dreams are self revelations and involuntary symbolic acts that draw on dissociated elements of memory and knowledge (Foulkes).

In his work, Dream Interpretation, Richmond states that “in spite of modern science, dreams still remain mysterious. Science can offer some explanation of how dreams are related to brain functioning, but only a psychological understanding of the unconscious can explain why a dream happens at a particular time of your life and what it all means psychologically” . Psychologists and Psychoanalysts studying dreams consider both the how we are thinking, and what we are thinking, when we are dreaming, where the how is more important and provides more information .

One of the most famous recorded dreams is that of Kekule, the chemist who found the Benzene ring . Kekule had spent years working on the 6 carbon structure as a linear molecule but nothing he tried made sense when attempting to draw the structure with the known quantity of carbons and hydrogens. During a dream Kekule saw the chain twisting around itself like a snake with its tail in its mouth. In essense, Kekule dreamt that Benzene was a ring compound . The vividness of his dream allowed him to problem solve and draw the structure we know today.

Dreams are invaluable as they are often a means to problem solve, however some clinicians believe that dreaming is unimportant which is why so few people can recall their dreams. We know we dreamt but have no idea what we dreamed. Sleep studies also indicate that individuals dream but don’t know they are dreaming. Dreams and dream interpretation is a field that will continue to baffle clinicians into the future. To dream or not to dream, that is the question.

  • Domhoff, G. William. The Quantitative Study of Dreams. n.d. paper. 21 March 2015. .
  • Foulkes, David. Dreaming: A Cognitive-Psychological Analysis. 1935. Book. 21 March 2015.
  • Lite, Jordan. How to Control Your Dreams. 29 July 2010. Article. 22 March 2015. .
  • Maurice R Green, Montague Allman, and Edward S. Tauber. Dreaming and Modern Dream Theory. 1968. Document. 21 March 2015.
  • Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. Dream Interpretation. 1997-2013. 21 March 2015. .