Why Do We Dream?

Dreaming is the part of sleep that fascinates researchers most. We can measure physical changes during sleep, and get some fragmentary information about what goes on in the human mind during sleep by waking test subjects in each stage of sleep to see what they recall about the experience, but as long as the basis of dreams remains subjective there will be competing theories to explain the phenomenon.

Throughout recorded history, men have attempted to explain and understand their dreams, treating them with utmost seriousness. There is no known culture that ignores the dreaming process, and it's usually invested with spiritual significance.

Cultural History of Dreams

Older cultures believed that dreams provided divine messages containing foreknowledge of oncoming events, sometimes advance warning of coming dangers or predictions of future successes. Dreams were heeded in the same fashion as physical omens, and were often viewed as direct commands from various deities. They were valued as sources of life-changing information and practical advice.

There's a great deal of unconscious poetry in these beliefs, and the interpretations placed on dreams are an art form in themselves, a very special type of storytelling.

Pre-Christian Cultures

In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero learns of a powerful stranger, soon to become his beloved companion and adviser, with the aid of dreams interpreted for him by his mother. A Chinese nobleman and strategist of the 11th century BC was referred to as the God of Dreams, and people believed that he made important announcements about life events in individual dreams.

Native Americans took a more active approach, considering dreams as a way to seek spiritual wisdom and revelations not available by ordinary means, assisted by certain protective animal spirits seen in dreams. They believed the shades of their forefathers visited them in dreams occurring in the very middle of the night.

Greek shrines like the one at Delphi belonging to the earth goddess Gaia featured oracular dream interpretation. The seeker of knowledge was required to sleep with one ear to the ground, and the temple's oracle would interpret the divinely vouchsafed dream.

Biblical Dreams

Perhaps the best-known "message" dream in the Christian tradition is this: the mother of Jesus, named Mary, was to marry Joseph but became pregnant first. That would usually be cause to stop the marriage, but Joseph dreamed an "angel of the LORD" appeared to him in a dream and told him the child was divine. So the two wed. Note: the word "angel" is the Greek word for "messenger."

The "future warning" dream is also common. In the Book of Genesis, an Egyptian pharaoh asks an imprisoned slave (another Joseph) to interpret his dream, because Joseph correctly interpreted dreams for two fellow prisoners. Pharoah follows the dream's advice and attributes it to a deity who spoke through Joseph.

Dream Omens Today

The custom of taking direction from dreams still continues in many cultures around the world.

The Swedish Midsummer Night celebration includes a special "dream porridge" prepared for young girls to eat, so they will see the faces of the men they'll eventually marry. Chinese immigrant culture brought the numerical betting game called fahfee to South Africa, which met the African tradition of finding omens to guide daily life and produced a system of correspondence between dream images and fahfee numbers.

Psychoanalytic Theories of Dreams

The early masters of psychoanalysis, a branch of medicine which arose in the 19th century, viewed dreams as essential keys to the underlying layers of the human mind, and thought their content furnished an effective means of revealing the mental disorders analysts studied. Some of these doctors evolved very different ideas about what dreams were and how to use them in curing patients.

Sigmund Freud

If you're familiar with only one theory of dreams, it probably belongs to Freud. Freud treated a small number of patients from a limited section of Viennese society, wealthy and progressive in thinking but constrained by Victorian social mores.

Consequently, Freud's theory stated dreams were the mind's way of dealing with repressed sexual desires, and codified a system of dream images that represented sexual concepts (for instance, a train passing through a tunnel would symbolize sexual intercourse).

Carl Jung

Jung, who was one of Freud's disciples, thought dreams as wish fulfillment was too narrow a view. His religious upbringing colored his thoughts on dreams. Jung believed correct interpretation of dreams required reference not just to the individual's unconscious mind, but also to the collective unconscious of the human race, which was the universal repository of accumulated cultural wisdom.

Jung established a system of dream symbols (archetypes, the original models of character or behavior) derived from the collective unconscious, for use in the interpretation of dreams.

Fritz Perls

Perls, who originated gestalt therapy (which focuses on paying attention to the here and now rather than mining the past), considered dreams the only spontaneous form of individual expression possible in modern life. He believed his patients were "unbalanced organisms" who expressed unrecognized parts of their personalities in dreams, and that they could achieve balance by finding awareness of what in themselves clamored for conscious recognition.

Current Dream Theory

Two main theories exist about the function of dreams. The physiological theory of why we dream posits that dreams help us in learning, particularly in the physical storage of memories. The psychological theory says dreaming helps the mind process and understand what happened during the day, which explains why people sometimes solve important problems while asleep, waking with an answer they sought in vain during the day.

The best-known American example of that kind of problem solving comes from the life of Elias Howe, who invented the sewing machine. His idea for the integration of the needle into the function of the machine was derived from a dream about spears containing holes in their points. Having visualized the mechanical solution in a dream, Howe was able to apply the idea to a successful design.

Those two theories are not incompatible, because using dreams to assimilate daytime experiences is part of creating the memories we need to learn. There's a third, more recent theory stating that the visual images present in dreams are elicited by random electrical activity taking place in the brain, and a dream represents the mind telling a story based on those images.

If you think about your own dreams in the context of each theory, you'll be able to evaluate their applicability to your own experience.

Common Themes in Dreaming

In discussing dreams, it's tempting to take that extra step and assume that dreams presenting a certain situation have a fixed function in every dreamer's mind. Every time you read a statement about what a dream "means," the writer has just taken that leap. The psychoanalytic theories of dreams are examples of such interpretation.

If you wish to do that for entertainment, and many people do find it enjoyable to surmise some hidden significance in a dream, then by all means gratify your whim. Just be aware there's no scientific basis for making those guesses.

That being said, some themes occur so often, in so many people's dreaming lives, that it's impossible not to speculate on the reasons why that's so. One potentially useful way to examine these themes is to consider your dreaming reaction to commonly reported situations. For example, many people dream about various types of movement (running with unusual slowness, driving a car and crashing, flying).

When someone is chasing you in a dream and you're having trouble running away, do you react with fear? Or do you merely feel annoyance? Some people frequently dream of being unprepared in school, or suddenly realizing they're wearing no clothes in public. When that happens to you, are you embarrassed, or do you decide the mistakes are of little consequence?

Dreams can give you helpful clues about yourself as a person and your approach to living, and suggest areas in which you may want to improve your ability to respond to challenges in real life. Think of dreams as opportunities for your sleeping self to communicate with your waking self, and use them to your advantage.