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The Delights and Disturbances of Dreams

We all dream during sleep—some more frequently and vividly than others.

Key points

  • People dream during sleep, but the conscious memories of their content or presumed meanings vary widely.
  • Moods can affect one's dreams, and vice versa.
  • Dreams have been used to attempt to explain the past, understand the present, and predict the future. They are still used in psychotherapy.

“To sleep, perchance to dream” are the famous words Hamlet uttered during that exquisite Shakespearean play. Beautifully written and stated, they touch a nerve with all of us who have encountered the magical, wondrous, yet sometimes disturbing world of dreaming.

I happen to be a regular dreamer, but I am not referring to wakeful trances or common daydreams we all indulge in from time to time, nor to the lofty eloquence of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

More mundanely, I am referring to the fact I frequently dream when I sleep. My mood or concerns at the time I go to sleep can affect the nature of my dreams, and conversely, the dreams themselves can affect my mood or concerns upon awakening in the morning.

The unknown neurophysiological origins of dreams

The fact is, we humans all dream to some extent. This is especially so (but not exclusively) during the stage of sleep called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) when electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings and brain scans can track when we are dreaming. But science has not yet fully explained the neurophysiological origins of our dreams. No single "dream center" appears to exist in the brain; dreams can “light up” different parts of the brain, and even animals have REM sleep, so the causes and origins of dreaming are still puzzling.

But you wouldn’t know this given all that has been discussed, written, and composed about the subject.

References to dreams in history and art

References to dreams are as old as the human use of words to convey thoughts and feelings and to describe these nocturnal experiences. There are papyrus and stone-etched hieroglyphic records and references dating back to the third millennium BCE in scripts like Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Aramaic, and other ancient tongues, about our dream states and their meanings.

The contents of dreams are seen in the histories of all religions and cultures and have been studied (oneirology) in terms of their current meanings, explanations of past events, and predictions of the future.

Dreams have played major roles in literary and cultural fantasias, as for example, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream; in the Old Testament Biblical Story of Joseph; in Scrooge's ghostly encounters in Dickens's A Christmas Carol; in Verdi's Opera Aida, Radames dreams of his deep love for Aida; on Broadway, Tevya's dream manipulations of his wife in Fiddler on the Roof; and in countless songs, poems other genres.

The experience of dreaming

Sometimes we immediately forget our dreams upon awakening. At other times, they are akin to verbal gibberish, a jumbled confluence of people and activities that make little or no sense.

We can dream of real or imagined pleasurable, social or romantic personal experiences from our recent or long-ago past, even from our childhoods.

During periods of depressed moods or when under undue pressures and worries, our dreams can take on a dark, conflict-filled, or even frightening quality, making them what we refer to as "nightmares." Some patients with psychological and psychiatric disorders might have particularly vivid and disturbing dreams.

Our personal dreams tend to fascinate us, whether they are pleasant, mysterious, or distressing, but sharing our dreams with others is another story. When someone recounts the details of a recent personal dream, these leave a listener cold, but they are of particular interest to a spouse or lover, to the parent of a dreaming child, or to a psychotherapist.

We sometimes awaken in the morning recalling elaborate scenes or plotlines of our nighttime reveries, and we might even try to attach some "real-life" meaning to them. At other times, we only seem to be able to recollect snatches or bits of memory traces.

We've all had the experience of awakening with the certainty that we’d had a vivid dream, but its substance had escaped us, and the harder we tried to recall the details, the more they seemed to vanish. More often than not, dreams are fleetingly remembered if at all, and often evanescent or erased from our memories, especially when people are elderly.

Sometimes, however, a vivid part of a dream which was "lost" to us in the morning might suddenly "pop into" our consciousness during the day, even after we’d long forgotten about a particular nocturnal scenario.

To add to these varied dream outcomes, many people experience repetitive scenes and themes which can return over days, weeks, or even longer. Common themes vary but may include falling, being chased, floating in the air, fear before a major presentation, past lovers, and the like.

Some dreams are intensely vivid and riveting, and they can vary from positive and pleasurable to distressing and disturbing. Either way, they can linger in our minds, hearts, and souls, and can "haunt" us in positive or negative ways.

Dream interpretation

What is remarkable to me is that audiences and readers are invariably stimulated and moved when dreams play key roles in scenarios and plot lines.

Sigmund Freud, the avowed father of psychoanalysis, attributed in his book The Interpretation of Dreams symbolic meanings to inanimate objects to fit his theories of psychosexual development. For example, cylindrical shapes of objects could represent the phallic symbol of a penis or masculinity, while curved, soft, or capacious objects might symbolize the womb or femininity.

Another pioneer, Carl Jung, theorized that the dreams of his patients were particularly important in the exploration of cultural and spiritual meanings and themes.

But doctrinaire “dream interpretation” which assigns exact meanings and symbolism to dreams is no longer considered valid by most theoreticians and psychotherapists. But people’s dream experiences and their reactions to them can often provoke significant new thoughts and feelings which can be meaningful and helpful.

Rigid “dream-interpretation” is no longer concretized as “fact,” but the examination of dream content and a patient’s or client’s related cognitive and emotional reactions are still widely used in a variety of psychotherapeutic approaches. The mutual exploration of reactions to dreams is seen by some as a "window into the unconsciousness," revealing feelings and thoughts which are important and yet may heretofore be unknown or "hidden" from us.

Dreams are thus important to us from cultural, religious, artistic, historical, spiritual, and especially psychological perspectives. They enhance the richness of our personal lifetime experiences, and they are important parts of the stories of our lives.

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