by Erik J. Martin
“Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow—
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
--A Dream Within a Dream, by Edgar Allen Poe
We all do it. It’s as common and natural as breathing oxygen. We simply close our eyes, fall asleep and succumb to what Shakespeare called “the children of an idle brain…begot of nothing but vain fantasy.”
Sometime after drifting off, the dreams come. And go. And come and go again. Yet, by the time we awaken, we’re lucky if we remember even the merest snatches of the last journey our unconscious mind just took us on.
Where do dreams come from? What do they mean? What’s their purpose? Scientists and psychologists are just beginning to unlock the mysteries of the human mind and shed light into the dark corners of sleep, separating dream facts from fictions. Whether you dreamed last night of your neighbor’s bodacious bod or a surreal netherworld straight out of a Salvador Dali painting, chances are that there was a reason behind it.
Dream analysts and researchers continue to dig for the clues, and more people than ever are turning to experts for answers to their subconscious Sandman signals.
Windows to the soul or waste vehicles for our unconscious mind to dispose of its insignificant trash? The debate on exactly what dreams are and why they happen continues. Meanwhile, there’s much that we’ve learned about our sleeping selves, and so much more that we have yet to learn.
Every night, we typically dream several dreams that last anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes, according to the Association for the Study of Dreams. Our most vivid dreams occur during a type of sleep called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep—a period when the brain is very active, the eyes dart back and forth quickly beneath the eyelids, and the body’s large muscles are relaxed. During REM sleep, we generally have a new dream every 90 minutes or so. Our most vivid dreams occur as our sleep progresses, especially in the hour before awakening.
Experts have discovered that during REM sleep, electrical activity flows from the brain stem into the thinking and motor regions of the brain, leading scientists to believe that the cortex works feverishly to process and understand the senseless nerve impulses it receives. By this logic, some researchers theorize that a dreamer may have an erotic dream in response to being sexually aroused, and not vice versa.
During the first ten years of life, a child’s dreams are more simple and typically unemotional—although nightmares can be more common. But by the time of adulthood, dreams become more complex and dramatic, and dreamers find themselves involved in their own dreams, unlike most children. Unpleasant emotions such as anger and fear are more commonly expressed in dreams than pleasant ones, and sexual arousal during dreams is frequent and normal.
Contrary to popular belief, most dreams are in color, although you might not be aware of it, and you are not in danger of dying during sleep if you dream that you have died. And, though laboratory studies have tried to prove whether dreams can predict the future, there is still no concrete scientific evidence to support this belief.
Perhaps what’s most amazing about dreams is that, though you may remember explicit details of one or more of your dreams after waking up, the reality is that nearly everything that happens during sleep is forgotten when you become conscious, according to the Association for the Study of Dreams.
The history of dream interpretation
Humans have been trying to decipher their dreams for thousands of years. The earliest known dream records, which date back about 5,000 years, are found in Mesopotamia. The clay tablets of seventh-century BC scholar-king Assurbanipal help tell the epic story of Gilgamesh, a ruler whose related dreams to his goddess-mother for interpretation.
The ancient Egyptians and Greeks believed that god visited dreamers in their dreams, and the Chinese contended that the soul left the body during sleep and produced dreams based on its expereinces. The holy Hebrew book the Talamud has more than 200 references to dreams, and the Sacred Books of Wisdom, written in India between 1500 and 1000 BC, depicted dreams to be good or bad omens depending on the dreamer’s actions during the dreams.
During the Middle Ages, dreams began to be analyzed in terms of their relationship to God. Many Christians preached that Satan was responsible for dreams, and many dreams were misinterpreted to signal whether or not you were chaste or sinful. Some women were even burned at the stake on the basis of their dreams.
Dream analysis changed dramatically at the dawn of the 20th century, when Sigmund Freud introduced his psychoanalytic dream theories. Freud believed that there are two types of dream content: latent (which contained unconscious fantasies or wishes), and manifest (superficial content that signified underlying or unconscious issues).
Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung had his own theory—that dream content can provide revelations that help us solve emotional problems, concerns, fears and conflicts. Jung postulated that recurring dreams demonstrate that emotional matters you consciously neglect can surface repeatedly in dreams via symbols and representational images.
Countless research studies on dreams and sleep have been undertaken in the last few decades. REM sleep studies conducted at the University of Chicago in the 1950s confirmed that dreams can have physiological causes and that dreams are dependent on the different stages of sleep.
Dr. Stephen LaBerge, a psychologist at the Stanford University Sleep Research Center and founder of the Lucidity Institute in Palo Alto, California, has shown that humans are able to remain awake during sleep (a phenomenon called “lucidity”).
While little is still known about dreams today, most dream experts agree that our dreams mirror our unique underlying thoughts and emotions. While there are common themes, symbols and archetypal dreams that are shared by many dreamers, these images and symbols can have different meanings for different people. Scientists continue to argue whether or not dreams have meaning, but there is no denying that every dream is unique, personal and meaningful to the person dreaming it.
The value of dream analysis
Today dream analysis is deemed worthy by nearly all psychologist and scholars. It is a powerful tool for self-discovery and is also used in therapy to uncover past events and trauma. And even if you don’t have a nagging dream, dream analysis can be a fun way to know more about our personalities and our inner being. All we need to do is pay attention to the messages that are being transmitted.
“As our own constructions, dreams tell us how we see the world—what we wish for, fear, and in general, expect,” says Dr. LaBerge. “Dream analysis is still much more an art than science. The aspects of dreaming that are scientific include knowledge about the brain state involved in dreaming, what determines dream content, and techniques and technology for controlling lucid dreams.”
Bonnie Russell, a dream analyst from Del Mar, California, who has been studying dreams for many years, says that we each dream a task through a story. “Your job is to figure out three things—what’s the story, what’s the problem, and what has to be resolved to get to the solution. My theory is that if you suppress feelings and memories, they have to come out somehow—where better than dreams? I believe that every dream has a message. The trick is in figuring that message out.”
Lauren Lawrence, a dream expert for Dreamlife.com and a former practicing psychoanalyst from New York city, concurs. Dreaming "is like sucking blood from the unconscious,” she says. “Dreaming is kind of like downloading a file from the computer that is your brain. Dream interpretation is kind of like being able to open the file. We spend roughly 20 years of our life sleeping and have about 350,000 dreams in our lifetime. And every single dream you have is important because it tells you something deep about yourself. ”
Lawrence has been able to help hundreds of subjects decipher even the most cryptic and bizarre types of dreams. For example, one teenage subject suffered from a haunting, reoccurring dream of being in her bedroom while a fierce, room-shaking thunderstorm raged outside, visible via two windows that shattered from the storm’s force. Outside, the water levels rose and threatened to flood the house, and the panicking girl didn’t know how to escape from the house. Lawrence interpreted the dream to represent the adolescent girl’s unhappiness with her life setting.
“The windows represented the eyes of her parents watching her, and the storm and the flood water signified a nullification of her space,” explains Lawrence. “And breaking glass symbolizes something coming up from the unconscious.”
Once the girl realized how depressed and discontented she was about her parent’s unhealthy encroachment into her life, she learned to cope with the anxiety and change her life. “And the dream never came back,” adds Lawrence.
“Your dreams reflect your deepest emotional responses to your waking-state experiences,” says Tidiani Tall, founder/CEO of eSpirituality Inc. and an expert dream interpreter. “Therefore a correct analysis of dream is only possible if they are viewed in the context of your particular life. This includes your past, your most profound attitudes, hatreds, prejudices, fears and pains. The adult personality is largely the result of the emotionally charged experiences of your life. Through your dreams, your unconscious will tell you what you need. It is up to you to use those keys in your conscious state. “
There are two to three thousand universal dream symbols that are basically the same for all of us, insists Tall. “They can be colors, places, actions or objects. Common dream symbols are falling, flying, sexual intercourse, and being chased.”
According to Lawrence’s book “Dream Keys: Unlocking the Power of Your Unconscious Mind,” there are also nine major types of dreams: anxiety; traumatic anxiety; self-affirmation; wish-fulfillment; problem-solving; initiation; prophetic; examination (the one where you have to take the final exam and you didn’t study); and, of course, oedipal (those erotically unforgettable dreams).
Wonder why you’re usually unable to recall what you dreamed last night? Lawrence has a sound theory. “When you are awake, you’re speaking the language of the conscious,” says Lawrence. “When you’re sleeping, you’re fluent in the language of the unconscious, so waking up means you’re no longer in that country. You’re like a foreigner trying to peace the language together, so it becomes difficult to remember the dream.”
Lawrence’s advice? “As soon as you wake up, lie very still, keep your eyes closed, and focus on what you just dreamed and what it meant. Then, immediately jot it down on paper. Keep a dream journal and refer to it for more clues and insights about yourself.”