Dreams: history and concept

Dr Smita Deb Krori (Maity)
Associate Professor,LBS Homœopathic Medical College & Hospital, Bhopal 462026 (MP)

Dreams are succession of images, thoughts or emotions passing through the mind during sleep. The context and purpose of dreams are not fully understood, though they have been a topic of speculation and interest throughout recorded history. The scientific study of dreams is known as Oneirology.

Dreams are a sequence of scenes and feeling occurring in the mind during sleep [Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 4th edition]. According to Sigmund Freud, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconsciousness; they are also the guardians of sleep”. Dreams refer to the past, according to Freud; refer to future, according to Adler and refer the present, according to Jung.

History of dreams:
Dreams have a long history. They have been a subject of controversy and disagreement. Throughout history, people have sought meaning in dreams or divination through dreams. They have been described physiologically as a response to neural processes during sleep; psychologically as reflections of the sub-conscious; and spiritually as messages from the God or predictions of the future. Many Cultures had practiced dream-incubation, with the intention of cultivating dreams that were prophetic or contained messages from the divine.

Judaism has a traditional ceremony called “Hatavat Halon” – literally meaning ‘making the dreams a good one’. Though this rite disturbing dreams can be transformed to give a positive interpretation by a rabbi or a rabbinic court.

Physiological aspect of dreams:
There is no universally agreed biological definition of dreaming. In 1952 Eugene Aserinsky discovered REM [Rapid Eye Movement] sleep while working in the Surgery of his PhD adviser. Dr. Aserinsky noticed that the sleeper’s eyes fluttered beneath their closed eyelids; later using a polygraph machine to record their brain waves during these periods. In one session, he awakened a subject who was wailing & crying out during REM and confirmed his suspicion that dreaming was occurring. In 1953 Dr. Aserinsky and his advisor published the ground-breaking study in Science.

REM sleep occurs in episodes during sleep and occupies about 25% of the sleep-time of the young adults. Each episode normally recurs about 90 min. This type of sleep is not so restful; and it is usually associated with vivid dreaming.

Accumulated observation shows that dreams are strongly associated with REM sleep, during which an Electro-Encephalography (EEG) shows brain activity to be most like wakefulness. Participants-non-remembered dreams during non-REM sleep are normally more mundane in comparison. During a typical life-span, a human spends a total of about 6-years’ dreaming (which is about 02 hours each night). Most dreams lasts only 5 to 20 minutes. It is unknown, where in the brain dreams originate.

During REM sleep, the release of certain neuron-transmitters is completely suppressed. As a result, the motor neurons are not stimulated – a condition called REM atonia. This prevents dreams from resulting in dangerous movements of the body. Hobson’s research (1976) suggested that the signals interpreted as dreams originated in the brain-stem during REM sleep. However, research by Mark Solms suggests that dreams are generated in the forebrain; and that REM sleep and dreaming are not directly related. Solms had access to patients with various brain injuries. He began to question patients about their dreams and confirmed that patients with damage to the parietal lobe stopped dreaming. Solms viewed the idea of dreaming as a function of many complex brain structures as validating ‘Freudian Dream Theory’.

Dreams create 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 & retained. Blechner calls this the “Theory of Oneiric Darwinism”.

Dreams are the result of DMT (Di-Methyl-Tryptamine) in the brain. A biochemical mechanism for this was proposed by the medical researcher J. C. Callaway, who suggested in 1988, the DMT might be connected with the visual dream phenomena, where brain DMT levels are periodically elevated to induce visual dreaming and possibly other natural states of mind.

 The Psycho-somatic theory states that ‘Dreams are a product of dissociated imagination’ – which is dissociated from the conscious self and draws materials from sensory memory for stimulation, with sensory feedback resulting hallucination. By stimulating 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 pain and compression nerves. These nerves are grouped into many chains, called Meridians, in Chinese Medicine. While dreaming, body also employs the chain-reacting meridians to repair the body and help it grow & develop by sending out very intensive movement-compression signals when the level of growth enzymes increases.

Astrological aspect of dreams: –
Astrology knows 08 types of dreams – viz.

1.Richness dreams: Dreamers in these dreams will get some price and winnings. It can be different form. From people became magnate or win some lottery. In some cases it is about glory, not for riches.

2.Despair dreams: In these dreams dreamer has problem to achieve very similar goals. E.g. pack the luggage or find the car where he packed. In other situations dreamers needs money, but he does not know how to get it or dreamer try to catch the train or plane.

3.Travelling dreams: These dreams can be concrete. About the travel to some place or abstract. Dreams about flying in the wind or people are flying in the space bar. These dreams are about freedom need or about something to own.

4.Downfall dreams: Dreamer is falling down from the sky-scraper, bridge and airplane. Dream experience is about downfall sense. People awaken as soon as they fall down. Some people think that people, who do not wake up as they fall down, die. These dreams are about situation which dreamer is afraid of.

5.Pursuit dreams: People, animal or natural elements hunt the dreamer. E.g. flood or avalanche. It is a symbol of hidden scare.

6.Hanging in the sneer dreams: Dreamer is stranded in cellar, cave or prison and cannot go out. In some similar dreams, dreamer is in danger of explosion or crashing the building. These dreams are also symbol of hidden scare.

7.Nude dreams: These dreams present that people have some frustration or has feeling of unvalued.

8.Violence dreams: In some case dreamer kill somebody. These dreams are about restraint anger.

Psychological aspect of dreams: –

Repetitive Dreams
Repeated or recurring dreams are fairly common; and it can safely be said that they are important to whoever dreams them, carrying a message which will be very well worth recovering. If the recurring dream is one which one has had since he was very young, which occurs again & again, it very probably refers to an aspect of one’s personality which has been a problem to him for his whole lifetime; though not one which has necessarily caused him waking problems, when he has recognized the issue which the dream is confronting; and trying to force him to comfort, it will disappear.

However a recurring dream may also have a relevance to some current problem or preoccupation. For instance, a recurring dream in which a dog appears in a frightening context. It may be based on a subconscious fear of dogs. Predictive dreams are always treated with great caution; there are some published examples which are, to say the least, extremely persuasive, many of them can be rationally explained, some others which we cannot. It would obviously be silly to look for predictions in every dream we have. Many people, on the night before a long flight, dreams of an aircraft crashing. It is impossible to know for how many this has been a fatal prediction, but the number seems unlikely to be large.

Such dreams are treated with caution and good sense. If one dreams that the plane is crashing, there is no good reason to cancel one’s flight. The dream is a simple reflection of his tension and a (perhaps unconscious) fear of flying. Practicality should always be underlined when we think of dream interpretation. It is not a mode, un-tired theory; it has been used in many cultures throughout world history – though it is only in the present century that a general consensus has been reached about the way in which we should look at our dreams and discover how they can help us.

A nightmare is an unpleasant dream. Nightmares cause strong, unpleasant, emotional responses from the sleeper, typically fear or horror. The dream may contain situation(s) of danger, discomfort, psychological / physical stress or post-traumatic experiences. Sometimes there may not readily be an explanation.

If a person has experienced psychological trauma, the said experience may haunt them in their nightmares. Sleepers may be awaken in a state of distress; and be unable to get back to sleep for sometime. Eating before bed, which triggers an increase in the body’s metabolism & brain activity, is another potential stimulus for nightmares.

Occasionally nightmares are commonplace; but recurrent nightmares can interfere with sleep and may cause people to seek medical help. A recently proposed treatment consists of imaginary rehearsal. This approach appears to reduce the effect of nightmares and other symptoms in Acute Stress Disorder and  Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Historic use of the term ‘Nightmare’:
Nightmare was the original term for the state later known as Waking Dream; and more currently as Sleep Paralysis, associated with REM sleep. The original definition was codified by Dr. Johnson in his ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’. Such nightmares are widely considered to be the work of demons and more specifically incubiwho were thought to sit on the chest of the sleepers. In Old English the name of these beings were mare / mœre; hence comes the mare part in nightmare. The word might be etymologically [etymology ≡ study of word origins] cognate to Hellenic / Marton (in the odyssey) and Sanskrit Māra.

Folk belief in Newfoundland, South Carolina and Georgia describe the negative figure of the ‘Hag’ [≡ ugly woman] who leaves her physical body at night; and sit on the chest of her victim. The victim usually wakes with a feeling of terror; has difficulty in breathing because of a perceived heavy invisible weight on his / her chest; and is unable to move – i.e. the sleeper experiences Sleep Paralysis. This nightmare experience is described as being ‘hag-ridden’ in the Gullah lore. The “Old Hag” was a nightmare spirit in British and also, Anglophone North American folk lore.

Various form of magic and spiritual possession was also advanced as causes. In the 19TH Century Europe, the vagaries of diet were thought to be responsible. E.g.  Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Ebenzer Scrroge attributes the ghost he sees to “….. an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato ……”

Great attention is to be paid to regularity and choice of diet. Intemperance of every kind is hurtful, but nothing is more productive of this disease than drinking bad wine. Moderate exercise contributes in a superior degree to promote the digestion of food and prevent flatulence; those, however, who are necessarily confined to a sedentary occupation, should partially avoid applying themselves to study or bodily labour immediately after eating. Going to bed before the usual hour is a frequent cause of nightmare. Indulging in sleep too late in the morning, is an almost certain method to bring on the paroxysms; and the more frequently it returns; the greater the strength it acquires, the propensity to sleep at this time is almost irresistible.

Medical Investigation of ‘Nightmare’: – Studies of dreams have found that about three quarters of dream content or emotions are negative. A definition of nightmare is a dream which causes one to wake up in the middle of the sleep-cycle and experience a negative emotion, such as fear. This type of event occurs on average once per month. They are not common in children [25% experiencing a nightmare at least once per week]; most common in adolescence and less common in adults – dropping in frequency about ⅓RD from 25 to 55 years of age. Fearfulness in waking life is correlated with the incidence of nightmares.

Lucid Dreams
Lucid dreaming is defined as dreaming while knowing that one is dreaming. The term was coined by Frederick Van Eeden using the word ‘LUCID’ in the sense of mental clarity. Lucidity usually begins in the middle of dreams when the dreamer realizes that the experiences that are occurring are not that of the physical reality, but rather the creation of a dream.

While the basic definition of lucid dreaming is merely the ability to be aware that one is dreaming. The definition can be broken down into 02 types of lucid dreaming. These are ‘High-level Lucidity’ and ‘Low-level Lucidity’. A lucid dreamer, who is dreaming with a high-level of lucidity, knows that everything being experienced is the creation of mind. The dreamer is aware that he/she is actually in the bed, asleep and can suffer no physical damage as a result of the dream.

Dreaming at the low-level of lucidity, the dreamer is not fully aware that his/ her environment is a sole creation of the mind. This allows the dreamer to do activities – e.g. flying or participating in what is most interesting to him/her at that time. However the dreamer may still see physical threats and other dream characters as being completely real. While dreaming at this lower level, the dreamer is usually unaware that his/her physical body is actually asleep and in the bed.

Being able to control a dream and being lucid in a dream do not always go hand in hand. One can has great control over a dream without the full knowledge that he/she is dreaming. It is also possible for, to be completely aware that one is dreaming with very little control of the dream itself. However, a higher level lucid dreamer has the choice to be the participant of creator of the dream. Oneironant is the term sometimes used for those who dream lucidly.

Freud’s approach to dream
Freud asserted that a dream is the disguised fulfillment of an unconscious childhood wish that is not readily accessible to conscious awareness in waking life. In an attempt to characterize the psychology of dreaming, Sigmund Freud laid the foundation for ego psychology.  He suggested that unconscious childhood wishes can be transformed into disguised conscious manifestations only if censor exists in the mind. The censor, acting in the service of the ego, functions to preserve sleep. By disguising disturbing thoughts & feeling, the censor makes sure that the dreamer’s sleep is not disturbed.

The analysis of dreams elicits materials that have been repressed. These unconscious thoughts and wishes include nocturnal sensory stimuli [sensory impressions – e.g. pain, hunger, thirst, urinary urgency etc.], the day residue [thoughts & ideas that are connected with activities and pre-occupations of the dreamer’s current waking life] and repressed unacceptable impulses. Because motility is blocked by the sleep state, the dreamer enables partial but limited gratification of the repressed impulse that gives rise to the dream.

Freud distinguished between 02 layers of dream contents. The Manifest Content refers to what is recalled by the dreamer; and the Latent Content is involves the unconscious thoughts & wishes that threaten to awake the dreamer. Freud described the unconscious mental operations by which latent dream content is transformed into manifest dream, as the dream work. Repressed wishes and impulses must attach themselves to innocent or mental images to pass the secreting of the dream censor. This process involves selection of apparently meaningless or trivial images from the dreamer’s current experience; images that are dynamically associated with the latent image that they resemble in some respect.

‘Dream Symbolism’ of Sigmund Freud:
Freud derived dream symbols from the resistance of dream interpretation. He noticed that resistance regularly occurred with certain elements of dreams even in mentally healthy people. He claimed that formation of visual answers on stimulus (dream) is not coincidental. He figured out that some parts of manifest content typically correspond with certain latent content. Freud called these manifest elements symbols – to which he ascribed constant meaning. The dream symbols are in his opinion more or less sexual.

Number ‘Three’ has in dreams symbolic meaning of man’s sexual organ. All dream ideas which consist of three parts can mean the man’s sexual organ. Phallus is symbolically substituted with all things that are similar to it by their form, viz. long things just out (mountains, rocks, sticks, umbrellas, poles, trees); also the objects for which the penetration in the body and harming is characteristic (knife, daggers, lances, sabers, swords etc.) and firearms (guns, rifles, revolvers, canons). Phallus is also substituted with objects, from which water runs – pipes, watering pots, fountains etc.; objects that can be lengthened – hanging lights, extensible pens, aerials etc. Balloons, airplanes, helicopters, rockets etc. are symbols of erection. Less evident male sexual symbols are reptiles & fish – especially a symbol of snake. A hat & a coat; various machines and appliances have the same meaning.

Female genitalia are symbolically represented with hollow objects that can contain things – shafts, pits & caves, vessels & bottles, bones, suitcases, tins, pockets, closets, stoves, ships etc. The same holds for house with entrances, passages & door, churches, chapel, castles, mansions, fortresses and even landscape itself. The material such as wood & paper, as well as objects made of them – a table, a book, ….. symbolize the same. Typical female symbols among animals are snails & mussels and their shells. Apples, peaches and fruits, in generals, symbolize breast. All kind of playing & playing instruments, sliding, slipping and breaking branches are symbols of masturbation. The teeth falling out and extraction of them are symbols of Castration as a punishment for masturbation – Castration’s Complex.

Various rhythmical activities such as dance, riding, raising and threatening with weapon symbolize sexual intercourse itself. Typical activities that symbolize sexual intercourse are also climbing & going down the ladders / stairs and running inside a house. The Queen & King or Empress & Emperor and similar relations symbolize parents. The fall into water and rising out of it symbolizes birth.

Many dreams which seemed puzzling before, become more clear when considering Freud’s symbols and the censorship of dream. Although dream symbols allow for direct interpretation of dream, we must never do that without previous knowledge of patient’s psychological background. As Freud held, dream can be understood, only in the light of the dreamer’s associations to it. After telling the dream, the therapist has to ask the patient to engage in free associations stimulated by certain elements of the dream. When following the spontaneous flow of thoughts & feeling, the patient is asked to describe it as fully as possible. The patient, however, has to consider an agreement that he/she will tell every idea without trying to censor or control it in any way. We tell the patient, “a rule that must not be broken: when telling (dreams) he/she must not leave out any idea even if he/she gets one of four objects: that idea irrelevant, too senseless, that is not connected with the issue or is too embarrassing” [Freud, 1977]. Only such a rule will ensure efficient relationship between the dream teller and dream interpreter.

Jung’s approach to dream
Carl Gustav Jung was a scientist who assigned more importance to dreams and dream-work as perhaps no other of his colleagues. His father studied Theology [≡ the study or a system of theistic (esp. Christian) religion]; later he began to have doubts, as whether the knowledge he was passing on to others was true or not. Therefore, father influenced the young Carl G. Jung; and soon he started to deal with metaphysical questions. In his writing, Jung showed the close parallels between ancient myths & dreams. Jung explained the relationship between the unconscious & conscious in his original way and proposed the new well-known idea of collective unconscious. “A person can achieve a state of individuation or wholeness of self” [Vered, 1977].

Dramatic Structure of Dreams: – The majority of dreams are composed of four parts, pretty much like that of drama. Firstly, we need to figure out the scene and the time of dream, as well as, dramatis personæ. In first phase, which can be regarded as the exposition, the initial situation (setting) is represented – already pointing at central conflict expressed in dream. The second phase is the plot and contains something new (essential change), which leads the dream in the third phase – the culmination. In this phase the most critical things happen, which bring the dream to a closure – the fourth phase or denouement.

Jung attributed extraordinary significance to the end of the dream. According to Jung, the end of the dream is very important, because we cannot consciously influence on the out-come (i.e. change the end); and so dreams reflect the real situation. “Nature is often obscure or impenetrable, but she is not, like man, deceitful. We must, therefore, take that the dream is just what it pretends to be, neither more nor less. If it shows something in a negative light, there is no reason for assuming that it is meant positively”.

According to the end of dream, he discriminated between favourable and unfavourable dreams. If we were to reverse the well-known proverb, then for dreams we may say that a good end makes a good beginning. Favourable dreams have quieting effect and direct us to the most constructive ways of solving problems. On the contrary, unfavourable dreams containing a warning of, perhaps life’s important, negative changes. Hence dreams can be said to have a prospective functions: they warn us about bright or dark future. Favourable or unfavourable end of dream, however, must not be taken as a final and absolute meaning of dream. This can be done only after several interconnected dreams.

References: –

  • 1. Sadock, B. J. & Sadock, V. A. – Synopsis of Psychiatry.
  • 2. Sinha, Jadunath – A Manual of Psychology [Part I & II].
  • 3. http://dreamsnightmares.com
  • 4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nightmare
  • 5. http://library.thinkquest.org
  • 6. http://www.easy-dream-interpretation.com
  • 7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/dream

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