Dreams are successions of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. The content and purpose of dreams are not definitively understood, though they have been a topic of scientific speculation, as well as a subject of philosophical and religious interest, throughout recorded history. The scientific study of dreams is called oneirology. Scientists believe that, in addition to humans, reptiles, birds and other mammals also dream.
Dreams mainly occur in the rapid-eye movement (REM) stage of sleep—when brain activity is high and resembles that of being awake. REM sleep is revealed by continuous movements of the eyes during sleep. At times, dreams may occur during other stages of sleep. However, these dreams tend to be much less vivid or memorable.
Dreams can last for a few seconds, or as long as twenty minutes. People are more likely to remember the dream if they are awakened during the REM phase. The average person has three to five dreams per night, but some may have up to seven dreams in one night. The dreams tend to last longer as the night progresses. During a full eight-hour night sleep, two hours of it is spent dreaming.
In modern times, dreams have been seen as a connection to the unconscious. They range from normal and ordinary to overly surreal and bizarre. Dreams can have varying natures, such as frightening, exciting, magical, melancholic, adventurous, or sexual. The events in dreams are generally outside the control of the dreamer, with the exception of lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is self-aware. Dreams can at times make a creative thought occur to the person or give a sense of inspiration.
Opinions about the meaning of dreams have varied and shifted through time and culture. Dream interpretations date back to 5000-4000 BC. The earliest recorded dreams were acquired from materials dating back approximately 5,000 years, in Mesopotamia, where they were documented on clay tablets. In the Greek and Roman periods, the people believed that dreams were direct messages from the gods or from the dead, and that they predicted the future. Some cultures practiced dream incubation with the intention of cultivating dreams that are prophetic.
The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, who developed the discipline of psychoanalysis, wrote extensively about dream theories and interpretations. He explained dreams as manifestations of our deepest desires and anxieties, often relating to repressed childhood memories or obsessions. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud developed a psychological technique to interpret dreams and devised a series of guidelines to understand the symbols and motifs that appear in our dreams.
Psychological theories of dreams
Dreams for testing and selecting mental schemas
Coutts describes dreams as playing a central role in a two-phase sleep process that improves the mind's ability to meet human needs during wakefulness. During the accommodation phase, mental schemas self-modify by incorporating dream themes. During the emotional selection phase, dreams test prior schema accommodations. Those that appear adaptive are retained, while those that appear maladaptive are culled. The cycle maps to the sleep cycle, repeating several times during a typical night's sleep. Alfred Adler suggested that dreams are often emotional preparations for solving problems, intoxicating an individual away from common sense toward private logic. The residual dream feelings may either reinforce or inhibit contemplated action.
Evolutionary psychology theories of dreams
Numerous theories state that dreaming is a random by-product of REM sleep physiology and that it does not serve any natural purpose. Flanagan claims that "dreams are evolutionary epiphenomena" and they have no adaptive function. "Dreaming came along as a free ride on a system designed to think and to sleep. " Hobson, for different reasons, also considers dreams epiphenomena. He believes that the substance of dreams have no significant influence on waking actions, and most people go about their daily lives perfectly well without remembering their dreams.
Hobson proposed the activation-synthesis theory, which states that "there is a randomness of dream imagery and the randomness synthesizes dream-generated images to fit the patterns of internally generated stimulations". This theory is based on the physiology of REM sleep, and Hobson believes dreams are the outcome of the forebrain reacting to random activity beginning at the brainstem. The activation-synthesis theory hypothesizes that the peculiar nature of dreams is attributed to certain parts of the brain trying to piece together a story out of what is essentially bizarre information.
However, evolutionary psychologists believe dreams serve some adaptive function for survival. Deirdre Barrett describes dreaming as simply "thinking in different biochemical state" and believes people continue to work on all the same problems—personal and objective—in that state. Her research finds that anything—math, musical composition, business dilemmas—may get solved during dreaming. In a related theory, which Mark Blechner terms "Oneiric Darwinism," dreams are seen as creating new ideas through the generation of random thought mutations. Some of these may be rejected by the mind as useless, while others may be seen as valuable and retained.
Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo posits that dreams have evolved for "threat simulation" exclusively. According to the Threat Simulation Theory he proposes, during much of human evolution physical and interpersonal threats were serious, giving reproductive advantage to those who survived them. Therefore dreaming evolved to replicate these threats and continually practice dealing with them. In support of this theory, Revonsuo shows that contemporary dreams comprise much more threatening events than people meet in daily non-dream life, and the dreamer usually engages appropriately with them. It is suggested by this theory that dreams serve the purpose of allowing for the rehearsal of threatening scenarios in order to better prepare an individual for real-life threats.
Psychosomatic theory of dreams
Y.D. Tsai developed in 1995 a 3-hypothesis theory that is claimed to provide a mechanism for mind-body interaction and explain many dream-related phenomena, including hypnosis, meridians in Chinese medicine, the increase in heart rate and breathing rate during REM sleep, that babies have longer REM sleep, lucid dreams, etc.
Dreams are a product of "dissociated imagination," which is dissociated from the conscious self and draws material from sensory memory for simulation, with feedback resulting in hallucination. By simulating the sensory signals to drive the autonomous nerves, dreams can affect mind-body interaction. In the brain and spine, the autonomous "repair nerves," which can expand the blood vessels, connect with compression and pain nerves. Repair nerves are grouped into many chains called meridians in Chinese medicine. When some repair nerves are prodded by compression or pain to send out their repair signals, a chain reaction spreads out to set other repair nerves in the same meridian into action. While dreaming, the body also employs the meridians to repair the body and help it grow and develop by simulating very intensive movement-compression signals to expand the blood vessels when the level of growth enzymes increase.
Other hypotheses on dreaming
There are many other hypotheses about the function of dreams, including:
Dreams allow the repressed parts of the mind to be satisfied through fantasy while keeping the conscious mind from thoughts that would suddenly cause one to awaken from shock.
Freud suggested that bad dreams let the brain learn to gain control over emotions resulting from distressing experiences.
Jung suggested that dreams may compensate for one-sided attitudes held in waking consciousness.
Ferenczi proposed that the dream, when told, may communicate something that is not being said outright.
Dreams regulate mood.
Hartmann says dreams may function like psychotherapy, by "making connections in a safe place" and allowing the dreamer to integrate thoughts that may be dissociated during waking life.
More recent research by psychologist Joe Griffin, following a twelve-year review of data from all major sleep laboratories, led to the formulation of the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming, which suggests that dreaming metaphorically completes patterns of emotional expectation in the autonomic nervous system and lowers stress levels in mammals.
From the 1940s to 1985, Calvin S. Hall collected more than 50,000 dream reports at Western Reserve University. In 1966 Hall and Van De Castle published The Content Analysis of Dreams in which they outlined a coding system to study 1,000 dream reports from college students. It was found that people all over the world dream of mostly the same things. Hall's complete dream reports became publicly available in the mid-1990s by Hall's protégé William Domhoff, allowing further different analysis. Personal experiences from the last day or week are frequently incorporated into dreams.
The visual nature of dreams is generally highly phantasmagoric; that is, different locations and objects continuously blend into each other. The visuals (including locations, characters/people, objects/artifacts) are generally reflective of a person's memories and experiences, but often take on highly exaggerated and bizarre forms.
The most common emotion experienced in dreams is anxiety. Other emotions include abandonment, anger, fear, joy, happiness, etc. Negative emotions are much more common than positive ones.
The Hall data analysis shows that sexual dreams occur no more than 10% of the time and are more prevalent in young to mid-teens. Another study showed that 8% of men's and women's dreams have sexual content. In some cases, sexual dreams may result in orgasms or nocturnal emissions. These are colloquially known as wet dreams.
While the content of most dreams is dreamt only once, many people experience recurring dreams, that is, the same dream narrative or dreamscape is experienced over different occasions of sleep.
Color vs. black and white
A small minority of people say that they dream only in black and white. A 2008 study by a researcher at the University of Dundee found that people who were only exposed to black and white television and film in childhood reported dreaming in black and white about 25% of the time.
Main article: Dream interpretation
Dream interpretation can be a result of subjective ideas and experiences. A recent study conducted by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that most people believe that "their dreams reveal meaningful hidden truths". The study was conducted in the United States, South Korea and India. 74% Indians, 65% South Koreans and 56% Americans believe in Freud’s dream theories.
According to these series of studies, we are irrational about dreams the same way we are irrational in our every day decisions. In their search for meaning, humans can turn to dreams in order to find answers and explanations. The studies find that dreams reflect the human trait of optimistic thinking since the results depict that humans tend to focus more on dreams where good things take place.
Relationship with medical conditions
There is evidence that certain medical conditions (normally only neurological conditions) can impact dreams. For instance, some people with synesthesia have never reported entirely black-and-white dreaming, and often have a difficult time imagining the idea of dreaming in only black and white.
Therapy for recurring nightmares (often associated with posttraumatic stress disorder) can include imagining alternative scenarios that could begin at each step of the dream.
Other associated phenomena
Incorporation of reality
During the night, many external stimuli may bombard the senses, but the brain often interprets the stimulus and makes it a part of a dream to ensure continued sleep. Dream incorporation is a phenomenon whereby an actual sensation, such as environmental sounds, is incorporated into dreams, such as hearing a phone ringing in a dream while it is ringing in reality or dreaming of urination while wetting the bed. The mind can, however, awaken an individual if they are in danger or if trained to respond to certain sounds, such as a baby crying.
The term "dream incorporation" is also used in research examining the degree to which preceding daytime events become elements of dreams. Recent studies suggest that events in the day immediately preceding, and those about a week before, have the most influence.
Apparent precognition of real events
Main article: Precognition
According to surveys, it is common for people to feel their dreams are predicting subsequent life events. Psychologists have explained these experiences in terms of memory biases, namely a selective memory for accurate predictions and distorted memory so that dreams are retrospectively fitted onto life experiences. The multi-faceted nature of dreams makes it easy to find connections between dream content and real events.
In one experiment, subjects were asked to write down their dreams in a diary. This prevented the selective memory effect, and the dreams no longer seemed accurate about the future. Another experiment gave subjects a fake diary of a student with apparently precognitive dreams. This diary described events from the person's life, as well as some predictive dreams and some non-predictive dreams. When subjects were asked to recall the dreams they had read, they remembered more of the successful predictions than unsuccessful ones.
Main article: Lucid dreaming
Lucid dreaming is the conscious perception of one's state while dreaming. In this state the dreamer may often (but not always) have some degree of control over their own actions within the dream or even the characters and the environment of the dream. Dream control has been reported to improve with practiced deliberate lucid dreaming, but the ability to control aspects of the dream is not necessary for a dream to qualify as "lucid" — a lucid dream is any dream during which the dreamer knows they are dreaming. The occurrence of lucid dreaming has been scientifically verified.
Oneironaut is a term sometimes used for those who lucidly dream.
Dreams of absent-minded transgression
Dreams of absent-minded transgression (DAMT) are dreams wherein the dreamer absentmindedly performs an action that he or she has been trying to stop (one classic example is of a quitting smoker having dreams of lighting a cigarette). Subjects who have had DAMT have reported waking with intense feelings of guilt. One study found a positive association between having these dreams and successfully stopping the behavior.
The recall of dreams is extremely unreliable, though it is a skill that can be trained. Dreams can usually be recalled if a person is awakened while dreaming. Women tend to have more frequent dream recall than men. Dreams that are difficult to recall may be characterized by relatively little affect, and factors such as salience, arousal, and interference play a role in dream recall. Often, a dream may be recalled upon viewing or hearing a random trigger or stimulus. The salience hypothesis proposes that dream content that is salient, that is, novel, intense, or unusual, is more easily remembered. There is considerable evidence that vivid, intense, or unusual dream content is more frequently recalled. A dream journal can be used to assist dream recall, for personal interest or psychotherapy purposes.
For some people, sensations from the previous night's dreams are sometimes spontaneously experienced in falling asleep. However they are usually too slight and fleeting to allow dream recall. At least 95% of all dreams are not remembered. Certain brain chemicals necessary for converting short-term memories into long-term ones are suppressed during REM sleep. Unless a dream is particularly vivid and if one wakes during or immediately after it, the content of the dream is not remembered.
In line with the salience hypothesis, there is considerable evidence that people who have more vivid, intense or unusual dreams show better recall. There is evidence that continuity of consciousness is related to recall. Specifically, people who have vivid and unusual experiences during the day tend to have more memorable dream content and hence better dream recall. People who score high on measures of personality traits associated with creativity, imagination, and fantasy, such as openness to experience, daydreaming, fantasy proneness, absorption, and hypnotic susceptibility, tend to show more frequent dream recall. There is also evidence for continuity between the bizarre aspects of dreaming and waking experience. That is, people who report more bizarre experiences during the day, such as people high in schizotypy (psychosis proneness) have more frequent dream recall and also report more frequent nightmares.
Main article: Déjà vu
One theory of déjà vu attributes the feeling of having previously seen or experienced something to having dreamt about a similar situation or place, and forgetting about it until one seems to be mysteriously reminded of the situation or the place while awake.
Sleepwalking was once thought of as "acting out a dream", but that theory has fallen out of favor.
A daydream is a visionary fantasy, especially one of happy, pleasant thoughts, hopes or ambitions, imagined as coming to pass, and experienced while awake. There are many different types of daydreams, and there is no consistent definition amongst psychologists. The general public also uses the term for a broad variety of experiences. Research by Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett has found that people who experience vivid dream-like mental images reserve the word for these, whereas many other people refer to milder imagery, realistic future planning, review of past memories or just "spacing out"—i.e. one's mind going relatively blank—when they talk about "daydreaming."
While daydreaming has long been derided as a lazy, non-productive pastime, it is now commonly acknowledged that daydreaming can be constructive in some contexts. There are numerous examples of people in creative or artistic careers, such as composers, novelists and filmmakers, developing new ideas through daydreaming. Similarly, research scientists, mathematicians and physicists have developed new ideas by daydreaming about their subject areas.
A hallucination, in the broadest sense of the word, is a perception in the absence of a stimulus. In a stricter sense, hallucinations are perceptions in a conscious and awake state, in the absence of external stimuli, and have qualities of real perception, in that they are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space. The latter definition distinguishes hallucinations from the related phenomena of dreaming, which does not involve wakefulness.
A nightmare is an unpleasant dream that can cause a strong negative emotional response from the mind, typically fear and/or horror, but also despair, anxiety and great sadness. The dream may contain situations of danger, discomfort, psychological or physical terror. Sufferers usually awaken in a state of distress and may be unable to return to sleep for a prolonged period of time.
A night terror, also known as a sleep terror or pavor nocturnus, is a parasomnia disorder that predominantly affects children, causing feelings of terror or dread. Night terrors should not be confused with nightmares, which are bad dreams that cause the feeling of horror or fear.